I bit off more than I can chew


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.



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.



The Addicted Life


The blogger Michael Segal asks an interesting question: Is ambition an addiction worth having?

As some of you know from a few earlier posts, Emmett Wilson essentially drank himself to death at age 35 on May 29, 1918.

Behind the drinking, I think, was another addiction: Ambition.

Part of a eulogy I was able to find described Emmett, his life, and career as ‘meteoric.’ Indeed. It came and went fast; this was a man who was the youngest District Attorney in the United States at one point (age 24); and in a few years the youngest U.S. Congressman (age 29).

Emmett was probably familiar with this quote. Source: quotesvalley.com

I feel like this quote was something that impressed Emmett early in his career. Source: quotesvalley.com

In between these key points in his life were significant professional achievements, all coming together for a young man who had no wealth to speak of, no family of his own, no prior experience in politics other than the fact he was related to individuals who were considered important in Florida’s legal and political world at that time.

I don’t know about you, but I remember when I was 29. I was also living in Washington, D.C. at the time. I was certainly not wealthy, I had no local family members, and, I definitely was not interested in politics. Even if I had been, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live in Emmett’s world.

My point is, I believe Emmett was pressured to do well and to achieve big things very early on by family and friends, and to become one of the key cogs in the family political machinery. In an earlier blog, I had mentioned his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, who was looked upon as the rock of the Maxwell Dynasty in Florida. He, his nephew Judge Evelyn Maxwell, and Emmett’s brother, State Senator Cephas Wilson, had big dynastic dreams, which, no doubt included having a county named for the family one day. By the way — in the 1920s there was a plan to name a county “Wilson” (after Woodrow Wilson), but instead, it was named Gilchrist in honor of Albert Gilchrist, who was a close friend of Cephas, Emmett, and Evelyn Maxwell.

I say all of this because I believe Emmett saw the successes of his brother and family friends; he was told to work hard and fame, fortune, and prominence would be his, too. And then, of course, Emmett’s grandfather (for whom Emmett was named) saw in the young man potential, promise, and the next generation of the Maxwell Dynasty at greater heights. Family and friends encouraged Emmett: He had a taste of success and it was heady, sweet, and addicting. That, in my view, is how the foundation for Emmett’s other addiction — alcohol — eventually was put into place. Addiction research bears out that a person with what is called an “addictive personality” often has more than one ‘intoxicant’ working behind the scenes; one can easily lead to the other.

Addiction is subtle, cunning, baffling. It can creep into a person’s life without notice and sometimes, without being checked, even by loved ones. For instance, workaholism is considered the ‘respectable addiction,’ especially here in Washington, D.C. Often, if you want to make your place in your profession, you have to put in a lot of overtime. For some, that can become addicting — we achieve, we feel good about our results, we are praised for working 80 hours a week (i.e., often held up as examples to slacker colleagues and students), and voila, before we know it, we have become workaholics. According to this article from Psychology Today, the seeds of workaholism and ambition are often planted in childhood. Emmett certainly had this modeled for him with his family members. It makes sense he’d want to follow their example.

Source: someecards.com

Source: someecards.com

The ambition and workaholism definitely shaped Emmett; he became prominent and successful very quickly. The problem was that ambition, then workaholism, then alcoholism, created an incredible tug-of-war within Emmett, and it ultimately destroyed him.

At the end of Segal’s article, he asks, “Is ambition an addiction worth having? Does it lead to happiness, or to a life focused on the wrong values?” I know that Emmett’s life at the end was not a happy one.

I wonder if he ever felt like his ambition had been all worth it in the end; or if he had embraced the wrong values as he lay dying. Unfortunately, this is something I’ll never know.