I bit off more than I can chew

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The hideous animated thing my kids love to put out every Halloween. I keep it in a bin until October 31. It gets packed up again on November 1.

Once again, it’s Halloween. This is my favorite time of year.

And once again, I’ve become burned out.

This time, it isn’t about Emmett and the research. It’s because I over-volunteered myself on several projects. And you know what? I saw this train wreck coming wayyy in advance. I could have stopped it.

But I’ve come to recognize in recovery that even with almost 11 years of sobriety, I’m not really 100 percent sober. I still have drinking thinking.

In other words, I’ve substituted being busy — workaholism — for alcoholism. The workaholism is a placeholder for my lack of honesty with myself, and my fellows. I’m throwing myself into a flurry of activity and busyness because I’m avoiding facing something that needs doing.

And that’s not good. The placeholder can easily segue into drinking, if I’m not careful. It happened once before.

Granted, here in D.C., being a workaholic is not a vice. In fact, you get plaudits for nearly driving yourself insane with productivity. But for this alcoholic, the need to avoid doing the hard work, to find the easy way out/around rethinking things or relearning things is to procrastinate by doing something else.

I’ve figured out that something else is a need to feel achievement.

I don’t always feel like I achieve much with Emmett’s book, either. I am making progress, yes, but I’m a long way from a publication date, and so after four-plus-years of shuffling papers and organizing myself, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much.

I turned to something that would give me a sense of gratification and accomplishment: I volunteered to teach catechism to 7th graders at my parish Sunday school once a week.

For the past three years, I’ve taught that one class. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a great bunch of kids to work with. Most participate in the lessons and activities without complaint, and I have a good rapport with both the parents and the school of religion staff. I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it — so much so that in 2016, I was named Catechist of the Year, an unexpected and wonderful honor.

Catechist of the Year, 2016. That cold breeze you just felt was Hell freezing over.

Obviously, this gave me a great sense of accomplishment. The downside of recognition, though, can be a loss of humility, if one isn’t careful.

The recognition was sweet, and psychologically intoxicating.

Of course, I wanted more.

So, this past summer, when the Director of Religious Education asked if any of the catechists would consider teaching a second class — a new high school program — I raised my hand.

Like the alcoholic that I am, I thought that perhaps more volunteering would mean more accomplishment, more plaudits. It would fill the hole in my soul where I felt I wasn’t making progress with Emmett’s book. It would be a useful placeholder.

Right?

Wrong.

The problem isn’t the second class; the problem is that the teacher is now overwhelmed trying to save a pilot class that was too small to run in the first place (less than four students enrolled; and now only one or two are showing up). The DRE knew it, and decided to run the class anyway, despite advice to the contrary. She said I’d be great, the students would love me. And because I enjoy a challenge, and bought into that flattery, I jumped right in.

Three months later, it is foundering. There’s only one student, and today, I’m putting too much time and energy into trying to save an unviable situation, which is not my situation to solve.  I’m only a volunteer, and it has taken over my days.

Rather, I’ve let it take over my days.

I have to have an honest conversation with the DRE that this class/situation isn’t working, and why. Something inside of me resists, because I may lose the chance to win that damn recognition this year. She may not think as highly of me anymore.

I’ve forgotten one of the main sayings in our program: What someone else thinks of me is none of my business.

And damn it, I don’t volunteer because of flattery. But somewhere in the past six months, I’ve forgotten that, and used the privilege of being of service into something else, that makes me feel sick, and I’m near burnout over it.

I’ve lost humility and gratitude.

And the end result is that I am getting sick about it.

Today, I’ll have an honest talk with my DRE, and I will offer several suggestions for success. The DRE will need to resolve this problem, because it is hers to manage.

Today, I’ll work back towards resolving the central issue behind all of this distracting, over-volunteering crap, which is to focus back on Emmett’s research in a meaningful way.

Today, I’ll call my sponsor and get to more meetings, because that’s how I stay grounded.

And, hopefully, I’ll remember this lesson going forward.

 

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The Miracle

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On Saturday morning, I said goodbye to a dear friend.

My dear friend, Michelle.

You’d have liked Michelle. She was a pistol. She was someone who lived life like a loose garment — she had poise, humor, smarts. She also had a way of getting right the point, of saying the right thing at the right time, when it mattered.

And, she was my friend.

I met Michelle 10 years ago at the 10:30 a.m. women’s meeting here in Washington, at the Del Ray Club. I was only a few week’s sober, bitchy, mad at the world because I felt broken and less-than, being unable to drink and escape everyday problems and life like a ‘normal’ person. I went to this meeting because my temporary sponsor told me to go, and while I was there, to just sit and listen, because I might lose the chip off my shoulder and learn something for a change.

I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t like women’s meetings in the early days of my sobriety, because it seemed like these meetings mostly involved folks dumping about their terrible week, or complaining about whatever drama was going on in their lives, and I didn’t identify in to anything they were talking about. I’d never had a DUI. I’d never done drugs. I’d never been fired from a job because of drinking, and I smugly didn’t think I had a problem.

These other gals, though? They had a lot of problems.

But not me.

I left the room, and before I made it out the door, this short redheaded gal with a black motorcycle-style jacket had followed me. She touched me on the arm, and asked where I was going. I told her I was going home.

“Why?”

I told her I wasn’t getting anything out of the meeting.

“Yeah. Me neither. Come on, let’s get some coffee.”

At a nearby coffee shop, we sat outside together, and I didn’t say much. I didn’t want to. In fact, I sat there fuming and irritated for the first five or 10 minutes. But Michelle had a way with people; and before I knew it, I was telling her about my last drink a few weeks earlier.

And that I missed drinking.

And that I felt like nobody understood that I felt as if I was falling apart inside, because I had no coping skills to deal with stress, or anger, or boredom. Because I would drink to deal with all of those problems, and I knew if I picked up again, I’d probably be dead in a year or so.

She nodded. “I get it.”

Do you? I asked.

Then, she told me her story — she was a CPA who owned her own business, but it wasn’t always like that. She wanted to be successful, but every time she felt pressure to perform, she’d have to take a drink, just to calm her nerves.

“For awhile that worked. For years,” she said, “or so I thought. Eventually, it just became easy, routine, to take a drink whenever I felt even the least little bit of unease, or discomfort. And then, one day, I realized I craved it, round the clock. I’d do anything for a drink. Including sacrifice my clients, my practice, my family. Nothing was more important than my feeling better.

“I drank to feel better,” she said.

So did I, I said.

At the end of our coffee meeting, she game me her number.

“Call me. And keep coming back to the meetings, OK? You’ll sometimes encounter a dud meeting, like today, but don’t judge the program by that one meeting. Because I don’t want to leave  before the miracle happens.”

What miracle? I asked.

“Wait and see.”

Michelle and I would go out and get coffee every now and then, and I saw her regularly at one or two meetings a week. Eventually, we became good friends.

===

Last year, I switched to a new home group that was closer to my work, and had better parking (a big deal here in Washington). I didn’t see Michelle that often because my new home group wasn’t close to her, but we stayed in touch now and then by email and phone.

Then, summer came; everyone went on vacation, I shlepped kids to camps all week long, we went to different meetings, and we fell out of touch.

And then, two weeks ago, a friend sent me an email that Michelle had died. It happened quickly.

Apparently, Michelle had COPD for years (which I didn’t know). She went in for a doctor’s visit in late August, and learned that the disease had progressed rapidly. In typical Michelle fashion, she asked the doctor straight out about her prognosis; he told her she’d be gone by the end of September.

Also, in typical Michelle fashion, she got to work. She paid her taxes for 2017. She planned her own funeral Mass. She got all of her ducks in order. Everyone who was with her at the end said Michelle wasn’t afraid of death. She told everyone she’d lived a good life, she was blessed with a wonderful family and friends, and that every day she’d had on Earth was a miracle.

Michelle went into hospice in the middle of September; she died on September 21, peacefully, in no pain, in full grace.

===

Michele modeled, for me, a way of life that I wanted to emulate. I feel blessed that God put her in my path, to show me the way. I also feel blessed to be an alcoholic, because if I weren’t, I’d never have had the privilege to be Michelle’s friend.

And that, my friends, was — is — the miracle.

I’m going to miss Michelle.

“…to accept the things I cannot change…”

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Two weeks ago, the realization that it was time to accept things I cannot change arrived at the door, around 11:15, courtesy of our mail carrier Jesse, of the United States Postal Service.

 

 

My dear friend Nancy’s cousin had written earlier that week, asking for my address, because Nancy had gifts for me.

Christmas gifts.

This was unexpected: Nancy was still in the hospital a few days before Christmas without any discharge date in sight. Also, she and I had a deal where we didn’t exchange Christmas gifts. Just corny holiday cards. Thing was, I didn’t know Nancy’s condition was precarious. Had I known, I would have gone to visit her, and I’ve regretted it ever since. I said as much to her cousin.

“Nancy was an extremely private person. She didn’t want anyone to know. You were on her mind even as she was failing,” she wrote to me. “She wanted you to stay strong and she was proud of your accomplishments.”

The box arrived.

The box sat on my desk for several days.

Now, I admit, I haven’t completely processed Nancy’s death, and I don’t expect to ‘process’ Nancy out of my life, ever. I’ve grieved on and off outwardly, but I’ve put her death aside mostly because I don’t like to wallow in sadness. I’ve come to understand the addictive nature of my personality. I would latch onto that grief; use it as a way to defer action on Emmett’s book, for example, or to hide behind it as an excuse to eat mint chocolate chip ice cream every day. I know Nancy wouldn’t like that one bit. She’d give me holy hell for shelving Emmett, and/or for using her death as a crutch to not get on living life, to not face life on life’s terms.

So, why delay opening the box?

If I opened it, it meant I was acknowledging she was gone, that life continues on, even though she’s not physically there.

I miss Nancy. I miss talking to her. I miss her counsel and her god-awful jokes, and her nutty sense of humor, and her abrupt, direct way of telling me that I could do better with a certain paragraph, or section of Emmett’s story. She got me and I got her. We were friends.

Yesterday, I opened the box.

 

Three things — the first was the Mississippi State University official cowbell that I sent her for her birthday last October. Nancy had come to love my alma mater’s often inconsistent football team. She’d watch the games on Saturday afternoon, and ring the cowbell, surprised and delighted at how loud and deafening it was!

Nancy’s cowbell will hold a special place in my office, next to my own old, beat-up cowbell that I was given during my Freshman year decades ago; both will definitely get used!

The long blue box held a pewter house blessing, that reminded me of another dear friend of mine who died a few years back, Chris.

I meet Chris in the rooms of AA. He was one of the first people who saw the emotionally fragile, spiritually brittle person I was in the early days of recovery. I remember telling Nancy that whenever I saw Chris and asked how he was doing, he’d always say, “I’m blessed.” When I first met him and he said that to me, my first reaction was to take his inventory — to judge him. This guy was a nut, I thought.

And then, I slowly got to know Chris. I realized he truly was blessed, and lived his life like a loose garment. He was sober, serene. Unfettered.

I wanted what he had. And because Chris saw through the facade I put up when attending those early meetings, and extended the hand of friendship, things got better.

Finally, there was this.

Nancy knew well how difficult it has been to conduct Emmett’s research, then find a way to tell his story.

There have been days when I just wanted to (and did) say to hell with Emmett and his story. I questioned both my sanity and the purpose of doing a project on a long-dead, obscure man who drank himself to death. Why bother, I remember asking Nancy a long time ago, when I was going through a particularly frustrating period in Emmett’s research?

“Because his life was relevant. His life had meaning, and a message. And because he picked you to tell his story,” she’d said, in an email message to me. “It’s worth it. I think you know that, too.”

Indeed, one of the most precious gifts I’ve received from doing Emmett’s story is friendship. I’d never have had the privilege of becoming friends with Nancy if it weren’t for Emmett.

Emmett’s story has definitely been worth it so far. And I will see it through.

Emmett, Catholicism, Faith, Amends

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It was a tough time to be Roman Catholic in Florida during the early 1900s. Heck, it was tough to be Catholic anywhere in the U.S. at that time.

When Emmett moved back to Pensacola in 1906, to rebuild his career after his embarrassing tenure in Illinois, image was important. Connections were important. So, Emmett spent a lot of time during the first year making connections, attending luncheons with important folks, avoiding any opportunity or situation that might reflect negatively on his character and/or business future.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, close friend, mentor, Roman Catholic.  Source: Wikipedia.com

And yet, Emmett was surrounded by Catholics. Several of his closest colleagues were Catholic. His closest friends (whom he considered family, and vice versa), the J. Walter Kehoes, were Catholics. I wonder if, during this time, Emmett felt torn being around them on occasion.  Catholics were persona non grata at this point in Florida political history. Florida’s governor Sidney Catts, who ran on the Prohibition ticket, campaigned mightily against Catholics, and anti-Catholic sentiment was growing during this period in the United States. Yet, the Wilsons and the Kehoes were longtime friends, and trusted business partners.

I believe Emmett didn’t really care about the Kehoe’s Catholicism, even when he lived with them, broke bread with them daily. Emmett had to have bowed his head — and prayed along on occasion — as Walter or Jennie and their children said grace with each meal.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, about 1865.

It wouldn’t have been a stretch: Emmett was Episcopalian, raised in Chipley, Florida by a mother who was devout and would spend Sundays singing hymns with her children at home when they were unable to travel to church for services (the closest Episcopal church was in Marianna). The Episcopalian prayers are almost identical to the Catholic prayers. Emmett was comfortable in the Kehoe household, regardless of brand.

When Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, he joined Christ Church (the same that his mother, grandfather, and uncle attended). His attendance was inconsistent, although he did give occasional financial support, and it was noted in The Pensacola Journal that he signed a parish petition to retain a minister.

It is near impossible to know what Emmett thought about God and religion; knowing Emmett, if he did have a strong faith in a higher power, he would have kept it, like his personal life, quiet. He was not demonstrative about these things, certainly not in public.

I like to think Emmett had some kind of ongoing, internal dialog with his Higher Power, but perhaps, he spent more time talking than listening — something else Emmett and I have in common.

===

I’ve been putting edits into the first chapter of Emmett’s book this week, and it is going well, although it is a difficult process. The first chapter opens on Emmett as he lay dying of alcoholism in the San Carlos Hotel. It is a painful exercise recreating the end-stage alcoholic condition, its intensity, and its effect not only on Emmett, but on the Kehoe family, who obviously loved him as a son, and but could only helplessly stand by and wait for the end.

There was no Alcoholics Anonymous yet; treatment of the alcoholic was inconsistent and sporadic in most communities, and the general philosophy was to give the alcoholic drugs — which were often just as addictive. The general view was that drunks were mentally and spiritual decrepit — why else would they turn to outside substances to maintain their addictions?

So, it has been a tough 10 days — it is emotionally wrenching as I try to understand what it was like to struggle with alcoholism at a time when there weren’t many options? Emmett tried to stop at least twice — and he couldn’t do it, obviously. He needed help, and he was unable to get what he needed.

I know what it feels like to struggle with this disease; today, we have options, and programs, and (for the most part) more understanding about how to treat alcoholism. There are programs that work. One needn’t suffer alone — and that’s a foundation of AA — you are NEVER alone, and together, we can make it.

Ten years.

Yesterday, I picked up a 10 year chip. It may sound strange to say this: Sobriety hasn’t been easy, but it has been good, and the struggle is worth it.

Telling Emmett’s story is part of my program, you know. His story has helped me stay ‘on the beam’, and I often believe that doing this with Emmett is a way to help him close the circle, make amends. His message is still relevant, even 100 years after his death.

On to the Second Draft

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The review of the first draft is finished.

Complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

It’s a five-chapter mess, not counting the bibliography and notes section.

It is a relief to have gotten through a complete first draft. But, no lie, the real work begins with the second draft.

The good news is that I have enough information, but about a third of it needs to be put somewhere else and massaged into shape.

The bad news is that this is the first rough draft, and frankly, it looks like it.

And sometimes, the problem with the text simply comes down a need for clarification.

I’m not sure when I’ll have a final draft in hand. I wish I knew, but for now, I’m good with not knowing. As my friend Nancy used to tell me, the book is meant to be; it is a matter of time. It will come together when it is the time is right.

I tell my students that writing is both a journey and a process:

  • Much of what and how you write is about self-discovery, and finding out where you need to change. I noticed in the review of the draft that I am uncomfortable talking about Emmett’s alcoholic behavior. The writing feels stiff and awkward; as if I’m trying to save face for him — when the reality is that writing about the discomfort, shame, and embarrassment of his drinking misbehavior closely resembles my drinking behavior. Even though I’m almost 10 years sober, I’m troubled thinking about my past; I know that if I don’t address this, it could lead to trouble.

In AA literature, the third Promise tell us that, as we become sober people, ‘we will not regret the past, nor will we wish to shut the door on it.’  Becoming truly, completely sober doesn’t happen overnight; it requires living the principles of the program every day, and being mindful of them. Emmett’s story has helped me discover my need for a close relationship with my program, and that I can’t ‘wing it,’ as Emmett tried to do (and failed).

  • Your first draft will not be perfect; neither will the second, and maybe not the third. My experience has almost always been that the first draft is the worst, especially if the particular writing project is new. For example: In my writing classes, the first papers almost always reflect the lowest grades of the semester. It isn’t that the assignment is particularly hard; mostly, the issue is that students do not proofread final copy before submitting it for a grade. But almost always, when students do second, even third, drafts, the writing is dramatically improved.

The other issue with drafts is time: Writing can be tedious if you dislike the topic, procrastinate, or simply don’t have enough information/research. With Emmett’s book, I worried constantly over the past four years whether I had enough information to tell the story adequately. There are still information holes but there is enough to do a decent biography for Emmett.

[I am also hopeful that perhaps one day, someone may read this blog (or read the book!) and realize they have one of Emmett’s scrapbooks in an attic somewhere.]

More later!

I See the Light

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Good news:

I’m nearing the end of the first installment of Emmett Wilson’s biography. There is definitely some light shining in the tunnel, even though I still have quite a way to go before the journey is complete.

In January, I decided to break the story of Emmett’s life into four specific sections or installments. I hesitate to say the final version of Emmett’s bio will be told as a sequel, because I may simply consolidate the story into one volume at the end.

Or, I may release them one at a time. Goodness knows, I have enough content in one installment for a stand-alone book.

But, for now, this makes sense, because his life followed a steady pattern that repeated at four different intervals:

  • Education/recognition of goal
  • Transition to importance & prominence, nears goal
  • Major screw up/drama/bottoming out
  • Restart

Organizing the story into this pattern made a lot of sense to me. Also, it made me a little impatient and angry with Emmett: He was a logical, INTJ-kind of guy. Could he not see history repeating itself in his own life?

Or did he simply miss the not-so-subtle cues because he was a full-blown alcoholic in the last quarter of his life?


Occasionally, I’m asked how a story about an obscure guy like Emmett Wilson is relevant today.

Emmett’s biography is also the story of his family and friends — the story of what it was like to live with, work with, and love a family member who was not only incredibly intelligent and talented, but also tragically self-destructive.

This is nothing unusual or new — or different, really — in the 21st Century.  Most of us probably have an Emmett Wilson in our own lives.

Since Emmett’s time, medical science has come a long way in the treatment of alcoholism, but the disease still exists as it did in Emmett’s day — as does the lack of general understanding about what it is like to live with an alcoholic. Many people still say and assume about that sobriety is a matter of will power.

It’s horrible to watch someone you love destroy themselves; especially when you KNOW that THEY KNOW that they want to stop, but they can’t.

Historic study of the treatment of alcoholism and addiction in America. I refer to this source often in Emmett's biography. Source: Amazon.com

Historic study of the treatment of alcoholism and addiction in America. I refer to this source often in Emmett’s biography. Source: Amazon.com

In 1918, Emmett and his fellow alcoholics did not have AA (it didn’t exist until 1935), and most alcoholics were treated with morphine or other nostrums that often did more damage than booze (such as lithium). Alcoholics often became addicted to those other substances.

The medical community didn’t consider alcoholism as a disease until the 1930’s. According to William White’s book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, there were two waves of state laws between 1907 and 1913 that called for the mandatory sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, which included alcoholics.

I often wonder how many alcoholics that Emmett, as District Attorney and later, as State Attorney, had committed to Chattahoochie (the state mental hospital)?

I wonder if Emmett lived in fear of being placed there himself?


How is Emmett’s story relevant to today?

My colleague, Donna the Nephrologist (who is reviewing Emmett’s biography for medical accuracy) reminds me that people were reluctant to talk about alcoholism in the 1900s; mostly, people ignored the alcoholic in their families, or shunned them, which did nothing to alleviate their suffering. Hiding it, shunning it, solved nothing.

Even today, she said, there’s still a reluctance to talk about it. It’s not a comfortable subject. People don’t want to admit that they have a problem with drinking; that they can’t ‘drink normally.’ But if we don’t talk about it, how can those who suffer with it find help?

Hopefully, in telling Emmett’s story this way, there will be a little more understanding out there about alcoholism.

Perhaps it will contribute to a more open dialog about how to deal with the disease in our midst.

Perhaps it might encourage someone to reach out to the loved one who is suffering, so that loved one won’t end up like Emmett.

 

He just stopped coming around.

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I found out a few days ago that someone I knew from my AA home group died of our common disease.

We used to see him all the time at the club (what we call our regular meeting rooms at a local church) several times a week.

He had many years more sobriety than I do. He was a kind person. A good man. He’d listen to you, He told funny jokes. But more importantly, he shared his story with us in the group, and in his story, I heard my story.

Whenever I hear my story coming from someone else, it has this effect of righting my thinking. I feel more grounded. It saves my life; I don’t feel the need to escape my life anymore (if not drinking, through other mind- and soul-numbing addictions that still bother me). I’m not terminally unique.

I estimate the guy saved my life at least once; his story resonated with me, kept me from wanting to go out, from wanting to numb myself in some way.

How it happened: He just stopped coming around. He wasn’t seen in the rooms regularly. Then, not at all. In a very short time, his disease was back in full bloom (alcoholism takes up where you left off; there are no ‘start-overs’).

I don’t know what happened that he stopped coming to the rooms, but life has a way of getting in the way of sobriety, and that old feeling of wanting to escape your own life because you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin is always under the surface somewhere.

That old feeling sneaks up on me if I’m not careful, and I’m guilty of wallowing in it, turning it into a pity party. For this alcoholic, that’s the doorway to drinking. I will let piddly little problems keep me from meetings or calling my sponsor. If I don’t get to a meeting at least once or twice a week, the dry drunk behavior kicks in. I start feeling angry at the world, then at myself for being so angry. Then, I want to escape feeling angry…yada, yada, here come the numbing/escaping behaviors… See where I’m going here?

This is how it happens for many alcoholics. Cunning.

Anyway. My friend started isolating himself; turned to the booze. It became his world once again. We don’t know why. No one knew where he was, no one knew he was that sick. There was something else wrong with the guy, health-wise (also, thanks to alcoholism), but if he stayed away from the booze, took his meds, he would be fine. If he drank again, though, didn’t take his meds, didn’t take care of himself, he’d kill himself.

Which is what happened.

Know why I’m telling you this story?

Remember me saying earlier that this guy’s story was my story?

Well, it turns out that this guy’s story is also Emmett’s story, the end-part, anyway. Maybe the whole story, too. This guy used to say he drank to escape feeling anything. So did I. Probably so did Emmett.

Cunning, baffling, powerful. That’s alcoholism.

Take care, people.

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