Unpacking My Dreams – Part I

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Rejection NoteIs all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

– Edgar Allan Poe

 

I haven’t been sleeping so good lately. Of course, insomnia is hardly anything new for me after going to bed for so many years in various stages of inebriation, since alcohol deprives the brain of normal sleep cycles. And when it would wear off and leave my system, I would invariably wake up at around three a.m., covered in sweat and unable to fall back asleep. Since I’ve given up the sauce, however, I’ve begun to enjoy a restorative, peaceful night’s sleep on a regular basis, in spite of the fact that it now takes me a while to doze off.  The only problem is, I dream too much now, as though my brain is trying to make up for time that was lost when it couldn’t dream because it was being constantly awakened. Because that’s what alcohol does – it robs us of our dreams, both figuratively and literally.

The problem now is, I have been waking up from a couple of recurring bad dreams that have come around four or five in the morning the past few nights in a row, including this one. My heart is still racing, and I’m pretty sure I was talking in my sleep. The dream is still vivid and clear in my mind, to the point that I am still working on convincing myself that it was just a dream and I’m really awake now. I’m so groggy, it would be hard to tell the difference if I wasn’t sitting upright and typing away at this moment. In fact, that is why I am typing – to make sure it didn’t really happen.

Last night, I dreamed a horrific dream that someone stole my idea for my book, and got theirs published right before I wrapped up a deal for selling mine with my agent. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Only if you’re not a writer…

This dream I had just now was much, much worse. I dreamed that I was sitting at a bar with some friends I hadn’t seen in years. Someone bought a round of martinis, and I absent-mindedly picked up the one that was set down in front of me and quaffed it in a few large sips before I remembered that I don’t do that anymore. What were you thinking?? I yelled at myself just before I woke up, feeling inconsolably full of remorse, as though all was lost.

These bad dreams are actually good for me. One serves as a much needed kick in the ass that drives me out of bed to get to work, doing what I need to be doing. The other serves as an intense reminder of how miserably degrading it would feel to backslide after coming so far in my sobriety. Because the truth is, there has not been a single white-knuckle moment or occasion in nearly four months since I quit that I’ve been even remotely tempted to just say screw it and have a taste. The thought couldn’t be further from my mind – except in my dreams, apparently.

But as I’ve woken up these past few mornings and thanked God that I was only dreaming, a terrible reality sinks in as I reach over and look at the other half of my bed that is cold and empty, and has been that way for over two months. My decision to get permanently sober came as too little, too late. Alcohol had left a permanent stain on my relationship with a woman who will own my heart forever. It is impossible to silence my mind once I begin thinking of her, particularly when I first wake up, at any hour.

And then other thoughts begin to careen around in my head. To sum them up in a word, I am bereft. I am bereft of love, bereft of companionship, and bereft of employment, although I keep expecting to hear back any day now about a couple of jobs for which I’ve interviewed. I own very little, and have less than no money to my name. I am not panicking, though – at least, not yet.

As pathetic as it may sound, there is only one possession I really have left that could even be considered valuable, but it is precious to me and I feel like a rich man compared to most. I still have my dreams.  In fact, I came across them the other day in a couple of boxes that I have not opened since I packed up and moved from California to New Hampshire back in 1999. Before that, they had hardly been touched since 1992, when I first got married and my daily writing habit all but came to a stop.

New dreams are important, of course. One should never stop dreaming and inventing the future. But sometimes this is impossible to do when old dreams have lain dormant and neglected that are just too important to forget about. Such is the case with mine, and now I have the evidence in front of me that my ambition to become a writer wasn’t just a silly dream, after all.

One of these overstuffed boxes contains what was originally a ream and a half of blank typing paper. The yellowed pages inside are now filled with several ribbons worth of ink from an electric Brother typewriter that I owned back in the day, before I bought my first Macintosh computer.   I marvel as I hold their combined weight in my hands, and recall the hours spent working on this novel that I set out to write at the young age of twenty-two, pecking away at all hours of the night. Despite their heft, however, these pages comprise less than half of that story. I begin to read, and it is very good – and also, very, very bad. I was, after all, only a kid, but that kid apparently believed pretty strongly in himself to put so much work into this. The writing may very well need to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch, but it is still a damn good story, even today. In fact, especially today.

Digging through the other box, I find a long forgotten love poem that I once wrote for nobody in particular, but always hoped to find the right woman to give it to someday.  (I did finally find her, but as I mentioned before, she is no longer here.)  There is also a manuscript for a short story, and a rejection note that was sent back with it from The Atlantic Monthly, back in 1985.  There were many others, but very foolishly, I was embarrassed by them and threw them all out, since I was unable to see them as the badges of honor that they really were. I probably didn’t mean to save this one, but I’m very glad I have it. It is proof positive that I was once worthy of calling myself a writer. I tried, and I really put myself out there back in those days. I would give anything to get back that young man’s confidence.

Looking through these packages that he left for me, and knowing what I know today, I just might yet…

Banishing The Elephant

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elephant-room

 

The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we’re afraid.

– Richard Bach

 

It has been one year and nine months, almost to the day, since I last wrote in this blog. For anyone who is still reading out there, it must beg the question – what has kept me from writing for this long? And why am I bothering to write in it again, today of all days? After all, why not just delete the whole damn thing and start over from scratch?

It’s not that I haven’t thought many times about doing just that, and it surely isn’t that I haven’t sat down to try writing something – anything – that would seem like an honest segue from my last post. Although I never intended to write on a personal level about yours truly, there has actually been a lot to say about the events of the past nearly two years – including a new job, a new love, and yet another stint of unemployment in this ever-shrinking economy. More importantly, there have been stories to tell about other Major Dudes out there who have successfully navigated around the shoals of midlife and have a lot to teach the rest of us by their examples. I just haven’t been able to write about them, because by doing so, I would have had to pretend that I was successfully steering my own ship. And that would have been a lie.

The unvarnished truth is that there has been this giant, stinking elephant in the room this whole time, and he never fails to pull up a chair beside me and read over my shoulder whenever I sit down to write – about anything. Depending on the subject matter, I have sometimes managed to ignore him and write anyway – but just not in this blog. Not a single word, much less a sentence or a paragraph. And the ugly bastard has grown fatter and smellier with each passing day that I have allowed him to take up residence, without charging him a single penny for rent.

I can’t describe for you his complexion or skin tone, since he lurks in the dark and I have done my best to avoid looking at him – but I’ll state for the record that he is definitely not one of those pink elephants that you may have heard about. It’s best to say this up front, since the question is sure to come up sooner or later. Oh, if only he were a figment of my imagination or a mere hallucination, I could just wish him away, or simply stop imbibing whatever potion that was making him appear in the first place, in order to make him quietly disappear without a trace so that no one else would find out he was ever there. Unfortunately, though, he is all too real, and the measure I must take to eradicate his presence can be neither simple nor discreet.

Today, in the form of this post, I am serving him with eviction papers and kicking his fat ass out, effective immediately. It’s humiliating as hell to air this notice in public, but I’ll gladly endure this mortification if it means that I can finally get on with writing – and living again. There is actually an entire laundry list of possibilities that will open up with his departure.

To begin this procedure, I first have to admit an ugly truth. It was me who invited in the beast in the first place. First, I set out a neon welcome sign when I proclaimed in my last blog post that I had attained “total sobriety.” Even if I had stayed completely “dry” and never so much as taken a sip from another alcoholic beverage to this day, I now know I didn’t have the faintest understanding of what the term meant when I wrote that. A true state of sobriety involves so much more than mere abstinence from drinking, and it cannot be measured by just its duration, or the ease or difficulty with which one manages to abstain.

The welcome sign brought the elephant to my doorstep, but to his credit, he never attempted to bust in. Instead, he paced slowly back and forth for several more weeks, waiting for it to open.

His patience was finally rewarded when I made a brilliant decision one day. I decided that, since I had successfully gone so many weeks without drinking or even being tempted to drink, I had been set free from the overwhelming yearning for stupefaction and numbness that overcame me during The Winter That Wasn’t. It couldn’t possibly hurt to treat myself to a nice vintage of cabernet to go with the porterhouse steak I was throwing on the grill that night. After all, I had come to a clear realization of why I had been drinking to excess, off and on over the years. It was all about anesthetizing my pain (epiphany of epiphanies), and at that moment, on that day, I told myself that I wasn’t feeling any. In fact, I felt truly happy and content, which was a real milestone for me after struggling with profound loneliness in solitude for so many years since my first divorce. It seemed only right to celebrate the fact that I was finally okay with living alone, for the first time since I was a bachelor in my twenties. More than okay. In fact, I was happily indulging myself with episodes of Three And A Half Men and frozen pizzas while hanging out in my skivvies, and skipping morning shaves on the weekends. A fridge full of beer was all that was missing from my new happy go lucky, Oscar Madison lifestyle. Of course, I knew better than to go out and stock up with a case of Silver Bullets, but what could a little wine hurt, just for one night? And besides that, it wasn’t like anyone would ever need to know. I was a free agent, beholden to nobody. That’s what being a solitary man is all about, right?

Perhaps the two glasses I drank that night wouldn’t have hurt anything, as long as I could have remained in that moment in time and managed to live a painless, trauma-free existence for the remainder of my days here on this Earth. And indeed, for many months that followed, things did continue to look up. Hope sprang eternal. But of course, it was a delusional fallacy to believe that the hard times were all behind me, and only blue skies and happier days lay ahead, simply because I had recently endured such a prolonged living hell.

Anyway, I felt so great the following morning after that steak dinner, without the slightest trace of a hangover, I sprang out of bed early the next morning and headed straight for the gym. A few nights later, I decided to try it again. And again, on the following weekend after that. In time, I was drinking every week, but I stuck judiciously to a rule of drinking only on weekends, since I took a new job and was working twelve to fourteen hour days. For a few months, I felt completely okay with drinking just a beer or two, or a couple of glasses of wine, and leaving it at that. I felt absolutely no remorse or shame. In fact, it was just the opposite – I was proud at what I had accomplished with my newfound discipline. At my favorite bistros, the bartenders called me “Mr. One And Done,” since I would nurse a martini or whiskey on the rocks for over an hour before asking for the check.

For the first time in ages, I was once again drinking like a gentleman – a man who could handle his liquor – as I had been able to do in my younger years. I had always admired men who could do that, and in spite of what I’d said in a previous blog post, I was happy to be able to once again call myself a “normal” or “social” drinker. I was well aware that it impressed women, too. Ever since I began dating after my first divorce, I learned early on that it seemed to make most gals uncomfortable if I ordered a non-alcoholic beverage while they ordered a glass of wine on a first date. On the other hand, it usually impressed them when they saw that I could slowly sip on a glass or two of wine, or even gin or whiskey, and then be done for the remainder of the night without the slightest slur in my speech or swagger in my step.

I remember one woman I dated a few years ago, for whom this was a crucial litmus test that I unwittingly passed with flying colors. After just a couple of dates, she exclaimed out loud how relieved she was that I was immune to the dreaded disease she’d seen in her ex-husband, who could never manage to control his drinking once he got started, and had nearly managed to ruin her life before destroying his own. In spite of the horrific ordeal that he put her through over two decades of marriage, though, she made it clear that she preferred to date a man who could hold his liquor than one who chose to not drink at all. I didn’t get that then, but I do now. In her mind, you either have the disease or you don’t. It’s something you’re just born with, and if you are, you are helplessly under its control. (Hmm… now where did she get that notion?) Unlike him, she repeatedly assured me, I most definitely did not have a problem with alcohol. In time, I came to see that she had her own issues with drinking, but was unwilling to address them since she was also comparing herself to her ex, and fixated on his picture of what an alcoholic looks like.

I don’t need to spell out the rest of the story of my relapse, but I’m sure it’s not too different from the stories of millions of other self-proclaimed “moderate drinkers” who support the burgeoning wine and liquor industry with their hard earned money on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Habitual, steady drinking can easily lead to heavier drinking for anyone, in the good times as well as the bad. Everyone knows this – we are taught in high school phys-ed class about how the brain develops a tolerance to alcohol. The regular drinker forgets this information, however, or manages to ignore it as it sneaks up on him over time. And when hard times come, as they do for everyone, his happy elixir of choice quickly becomes a readily available medication with which to ward off stress, anxiety, and sadness.

The marketing campaign for the liquor and wine industry is diabolical and insidious. How many times do we see stories likes this (http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/wine-how-much-is-good-for-you) broadcast in the news like regular public service announcements that drinking a single glass a day can do wonders for the heart and circulatory system? Over and over, we hear stories about how the French live longer and better, presumably because of their daily wine intake, until it is practically inferred that complete abstinence poses a health risk that may shorten our lives. These same medical journalists fail to point out the numerous other differences between the lifestyles of the French and Americans, and almost never write about the addictive nature of alcohol, even in small doses, or the psychological danger of making its consumption a daily habit.

As I listen to the stories of so many others who have faced their own addictions to alcohol, I have found myself envying those whose problems were so out of control and over the top, it was impossible to deny it even to themselves. After all, getting busted with a DUI, followed by the suspension of one’s driver’s license, is a pretty clear and irrefutable indicator that one has a problem. So is coming home to an empty house and finding a note from one’s mate, explaining that one drink or bottle too many had finally sent her or him packing. Partly by the grace of God, and partly because I have historically done most of my imbibing at home, I have never lost or had anything taken away from me as a direct result of my drinking. Not until recently, that is. And very few people have ever taken the trouble to voice their personal concern to my face that I may have a problem with alcohol. So I was able to keep lying to myself, and by my silent omission of the truth, also to those who were closest to me.

I just wasn’t one of those hardcore drinkers that ever binged on hard liquor for days on end or reached for an eye opener before getting out of bed in the morning. I never missed a day of work, and always met my responsibilities. The only thing that was irrefutably obvious about my habit was the large pile of wine bottles that I set out for recycling each week, and the large chunk that it took out of my budget each month. Even those were relatively easy to sweep under the rug and keep out of sight. The real dirty secret that I kept to myself and worked hardest to hide was the fact that, more often than not for the past twenty-some years, I have rolled out of bed feeling like shit warmed over.

Today marks exactly two months since my last first day without a drink, on Independence Day of all days. It may not seem like a very long time, but in a way it already feels like a past life when I think back on my habit of drinking wine nearly every day, and going to bed only after the bottle was emptied.

So what makes this time different from the last time I quit – and another time a few years before that, which lasted more than nine months? Well, for starters, this is the first time that I have really considered my breakup with alcohol to be complete and my abstinence to be a permanent condition. In the past, I have always held onto the unspoken confidence in the back of my mind that I would someday be able to handle drinking at least just a beer or two, or just one glass of wine when called for to toast a special occasion, or with a special meal. After this last turn, I am completely disabused of the notion that can ever happen, because I have educated myself on the brain science that essentially makes moderation impossible for anyone who has ever crossed over the line into chronic, habitual drinking as I have. I have also done quite a bit of research and learned why drinking is just not a healthy choice under any circumstance, and how its impairment of the brain can last long after the hangover wears off. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-even-moderate-drinking-may-negatively-affect-your-brain.html]

[http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/16/what-alcohol-really-does-to-your-brain/]

I now understand that drinking again would throw a switch in my mind, which I presently keep firmly fixed in the OFF position. While it remains there, my thoughts of having a drink are few and fleeting at worst, and cravings are almost non-existent. I have finally learned, however, how easily this switch can be thrown back to ON with just one drink, and why it is not to be tampered with under any circumstances. So every day, I apply a fresh layer of duct tape over it so that it can’t be accidentally bumped or mindlessly flipped, and I remind myself that it is always there and will never go away. Alcohol is my kryptonite, and it will rob me of my superpowers until I am finally rendered weak and helpless – physically as well as mentally.

For the first time, I have also admitted to myself that I need help, and that I don’t have the strength or wisdom to achieve or maintain lifelong sobriety all on my own. This is not the same as saying that I am “powerless over alcohol,” however, as Step One of AA’s Twelve Step Program so strongly decrees. I categorically reject this doctrine, because as a Christian, I know that I do in fact have enormous power, because I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me (Phillipians 4:13). I also don’t believe that it will do any good to simply turn to God “as we understand him” (Step 3), since this is too vague and terribly inadequate. There is only one Creator God for the entire human race. He has a name, and He has revealed Himself to us both through His word (The Holy Bible) and His son, who I’ve mentioned above. Any lesser god will prove powerless and useless at best for anyone seeking lasting recovery.

I have discovered that there are other sources of help available for treatment and recovery outside of AA, and it has been an enormous relief to learn that their doctrines have little to no basis in medical science. I don’t accept the idea that I will have to grapple with a desire to drink for the rest of my life, as most twelve-steppers believe to be their fate. I intend to enjoy life to its fullest, rather than resign myself to spending the rest of my days feeling deprived of the pleasure of alcohol. The truth is, there is a long list of things that I will now get to enjoy in its place that were unavailable to me before.  At the top of that list is my health – mental and physical.

Finally, I have learned that the road to “total sobriety” is much longer and will require more mindfulness and work than I ever before would have estimated. It’s a hard truth to admit, but my brain has been damaged by the affects of alcohol, and it is going to take time and work to learn how to really think again and use it to its fullest potential. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/10-things-you-can-every-day-benefit-your-brain.html]

Most important of all, I am learning how to handle my emotions, and really face my fears without the help of alcohol for the first time as an adult.  Looking back, it would be easy to say that I was fearless in my youth, but I have learned that fearlessness is not the same as courage. In my younger years, I lacked the firsthand knowledge of how many things could go terribly wrong on the journey we call this life. I knew nothing back then of tragedy, or heartbreak, and I was able to love – honestly, selflessly, and without fear of rejection, or worse – betrayal.

Now that the elephant is gone, I intend to learn to love like that again…

A Calming Wind After The Storms

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Control-sensitive people can be very hard on themselves, especially when the quality of their lives erodes to such an extent that a flat tire or an unpaid bill can cause anguish, panic, or despair.  As the strategies of control continue to fail and frustrate you, as you become more and more depleted by worry or depression, one inescapable truth begins to emerge: control is an illusion.  Life cannot be controlled. – Self Coaching, by Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.

This is a hard truth that I learned all too well this past winter.  Life cannot be controlled, not with any amount of determination, good intentions, or perseverance.  You can set out on the water and hoist your sails, but there is no way to make the wind blow, or change its direction.  The best you can do is chart your course well away from the rocks and shoals for a margin of safety, and constantly tend to your sails and rudder, adjusting them with knowledge and skill to make the best of whatever wind is blowing.  Most importantly of all, check the calendar and be sure to sit out the hurricane season to wait for that time of year that offers the most favorable conditions for both the wind and the tides.  Or at least, stay close to a safe harbor at all times until the season arrives when it is safe to venture out over bluer waters.  You have to know the seasons…

In my determination to control my life, I ignored these basic rules of nautical science.  I jibed when I should have tacked, and a vicious headwind tore my sails to shreds and left me a marooned castaway.  In early January, after our best attempts to save it, a final fracas occurred that erased any lingering doubt that my second marriage was simply not meant to be.  I was now a man with no job, no money, no family, and no home to call my own.  I wasn’t even sure where home was for me anymore.  I only knew one thing for certain – I couldn’t stay at my friend’s home indefinitely.  There was only one thing to do now, since my rescue off this island was going to take a miracle.  I prayed, of course, straight from my heart, to the One who controls the wind and tides.

Ironically, my friend’s property is named Tuff Decision Farm.  I had certainly arrived there with more than a few tough decisions to make, but now I thought I was left with just one.  Since I felt like there was nothing holding me in New England anymore, I was now bent on leaving at all costs and moving back West to live with my folks.  The only question was whether it made sense to rent a truck to move the few possessions I had left in storage, or just leave them there for a few months and make a dash for safe harbor with whatever clothes I could jam into my car.

Exactly one day later, just as I got off the phone with Penske, my phone rang.  It was my ex-wife – the first one, calling from Florida.  The first words out of her mouth left me stunned and speechless.  It was the last thing in the world that I expected to hear, and it took several seconds to sink in.

“I want to come home,” she said.  Then, after a pause with no reaction from me, she added, “We all do – the girls miss Connecticut, and we just want to get out of here and move back as soon as possible.  There’s nothing here for us.  I need your help, though.”

Suddenly, I didn’t have any more decisions to make.  Only a choice.  Thank God, I chose to stay put and be a father again, and to crawl out of that pit of despair into which I had fallen.  I was getting my kids back.  This meant, of course, that I still had to not only get my strength back, but become stronger than ever.  In the meantime, my parents needed me back in Colorado, since my father was having surgery on his back.   I booked a flight to go help them for a week, and then I booked another one for Gainesville the week following.

When I returned, I would still have one more Tuff Decision to make – a tough choice…