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I Am the Defeated.

10 December 2017

As I’m approaching ten years of sobriety I find myself thinking about all the cautionary tales I’ve been told. Go sit in the rooms and there aren’t too many people who have my length of sobriety. Seems like fewer people have 8-16 years of sobriety than have 20+ years. There’s a lot of attrition in the rooms as time goes on, but two groups you see the most of are the newcomers and the old-timers.

This is all anecdote, of course. I don’t have any idea what the numbers would show. But the conventional wisdom about the phenomenon is that there are specific times that large numbers of people tend to go out and drink again. One year. Eight to twelve years. In each case, the thinking goes that these are the times that people seem to think they have the disease beat.

At a year, a large number of people think, “I proved I can go a year without drinking. I can do this any time. I can have a drink and then do it again.” These people tend to disappear and not come back. Lots of them die. If they do come back, it tends to be years later, after a horrifying excavation of a deeper trough into which they fell.

The people who go out after 8-10 years tend to have a different story. “It snuck up on me,” they say. “I stopped going to meetings, I stopped reading, stopped writing. I thought I was in the clear and life got messy and I stopped doing the work.” A lot of these people disappear or die too. Often by suicide. But I’d say that more of them come back than the other group. I know a lot of people on their second time around after 8-12 years of sobriety.

And of course, a lot of people just die. But the time someone has 10 years of sobriety, they are often 40-60 years old and usually lived a hard life prior to sobering up. Cigarettes, labor, sedentism and indolence. We are not, generally, a group that inspires with our long history of clean living and commitment to health. People in the program die sober of the same diseases that kill a lot of people in their 40s-60s. Heart disease, COPD, stroke, and even the fatalities of despair. I’ve known plenty of sober suicides.

But the group of us who persist, having dodged the siege machinery and learned to love the sloughs and swamps of life and the relentless trudge through mire and wetland, will keep showing up into the rooms. So there’s a large cohort of old-timers who show the way to the younger group. That’s the group I’m looking to find a way to join, as time goes by.

I understand the seduction of indolence. I don’t go to a huge number of meetings any more. Three to four a month, usually. Though with some upcoming life changes I’m looking forward to shifting back to a twice-a-week schedule. And perhaps, in the short term, every day. Big life changes require extra grounding.

The key to staying sober, to staying in the program, in my understanding, is to stay humble and stay teachable. I didn’t get myself sober. I didn’t earn this. I am not the author of my sobriety, but I am its steward. Without the constant tending of it, it will dry up, wither, and fail.

I am lucky to be sober, but I need to always remember: I can’t be sober without being an addict. That’s the first part. I am an alcoholic blood and bone. Everything I have, everything I’ve done, everything I am, everything I can become, is predicated on understanding that I live at the mercy of a terminal disease. Today, by fortune, force, and faith, I am sober.

I am not strong. But I have been given strength. I am not brave. But I have been given courage. I cannot fight. But in surrender there is understanding, and freedom. I will never know victory in this. I am not the champion in the story of my recovery. I am the defeated.

Finding My Part when I’ve Been Victimized.

28 November 2017

Like most people in the world, I have from time to time been the victim of other people’s egregious or criminal actions. Though, thankfully, it’s rarer than for many others. But I’ve been exploited, abandoned, abused, and used – mostly in minor ways – just like everyone else. These have set up some persistent resentments in me. And resentments are toxic to alcoholics. They fester, suppurate, and eventually explode into rage or relapse.

One tool we use to ameliorate these consequences and risks is the fourth and tenth step work we do. One crucial aspect of this is finding my part. In nearly every resentment, I can find something which I did that aided the outcome – even if it’s just a small choice I made that I could have or should have made differently. This does not relieve my victimizer of any culpability. But it does help me learn, and let go, and make different choices in the future.

As an example. When I bought my house in ECC, it had several major problems not revealed by the inspection, but surely (though not provably) known to the sellers. Now I am probably getting ready to sell it again, and these problems may cost me $100,000. They’ve already cost me about $25,000. This represents a huge percentage of my entire net worth. This is going to affect my retirement, and my long term financial stability.

If the sellers knew of all this, it is their fault for selling the house with the undisclosed problems. They are responsible. But I have a part as well. I was too excited, and made decisions too rapidly. I ignored feelings of discomfort and dismissed them as my ordinary anxiety. I didn’t take the good advice of friends, or BB, who advised me, and instead plowed ahead with my own foolish path.

I let my desire for the location and the fabulous bathrooms overwhelm my common sense. And as a result, I ended up in a situation that made me easy to take advantage of. I bear responsibility for my actions, which were part of the reason I ended up in the situation I’m in now. And I have to deal with the consequences. There’s no other remedy.

Finding my part allows me to take concrete action about next time: listen to my misgivings, allow others to inform my decision-making process, fire a real estate agent I don’t trust, etc.. It doesn’t mean I’m to blame for being taken advantage of – the criminals and users who did that are to blame. But I certainly could have behaved differently that would have enabled me to be a less opportune target.

And of course, in some situations, I don’t have a part. But in every single negative event in my life, save one, I’ve been able to find an aspect under my control at the time that I could have changed. And that gives me power over my future. It doesn’t guarantee anything; I’m capable of making the same mistakes or new ones. But it improves my outlook and gives me agency.

And more importantly, it helps me be less anxious and resentful about my current situation, and therefore less likely to suddenly find myself in a situation where I feel the need to drink about it. Life gives what it gives, I take what I can, I do the best I can do given my experience and options, and the rest will take care of itself. I am fortunate that a house misadventure will not bankrupt me.

And I am even more fortunate that I have a system of living whereby I can look at myself, and not cast stones (justified or not) uselessly at others. I have to move forward. As my friend Hope Jahren said about houses, “Easy come, easy go.”

Thanksgiving in the Forest.

27 November 2017

The last four Thanksgivings, BB and I have taken a cheap flight to some international destination. This year we never found a good cheap flight, and there’s been a lot of chaos relating to some upcoming life-decisions that would have made a trip inconvenient this year. So we didn’t travel internationally. Instead, we drove to northeast Pennsylvania and stayed in a fancy B&B.

It was backed up against the state parks and hunting grounds. We went to some parks and went trail-running in the forests. Pennsylvania isn’t famous for being mountainous, but it has some steep bits in the Poconos, which is where we were. One run had about 500 feet of gain over a 5 mile distance. Another couple of short hikes had 300 feet each in about a mile. In total, we did about 1400 feet of gain over twelve miles of workouts.

I like trail running but the potential for getting lost is anxiety-provoking. Especially around the halfway mark of my run. I always start to panic that the way back is too far, and I’ll be lost and going for miles. So I often turn around when I’ve gone half the distance I want to go, in order to not get lost. But that means I miss the second half of loops. Luckily, my new watch helps with that, because I can see a small map of where I’ve gone. I think I just need to get more comfortable with trails.

I am very excited about some major upcoming changes that I anticipate will come to pass within a month or so. Time will tell, of course, and I don’t want to jinx anything. But I think some good things are about to happen and I am ready for the change. Life is good, but I think it will be (after a period of intense anxiety and challenge) even better soon.

Philadelphia Half-Marathon Tomorrow!

17 November 2017

Tomorrow morning in the cold and possibly damp, BB and I will be shrugging on our chilly-weather running gear and heading out to run 13.1 miles across Philadelphia. This will be the fourth time we’ve run this event. Three times the half, and last year the full. We enjoy the event, and it’s a good lead-in to the winter running season.

As I know I’ve written many times, I hate running in the heat. And even more, I hate running in humidity. My body just collapses when I get warm and then sweating doesn’t cool me. I end up dehydrating and then my HR races and I have to walk. It sucks. It is somewhat fitness dependent in the sense that when I’m running 100 miles a month in the summer it seems to happen less than when I’m running 50. But not much.

So I’m always super happy when winter rolls around and I’m able to go run in 40 degree weather – or colder – and run faster and harder without succumbing to hyperhydrosis.

Tomorrow we are not running for speed. It’s been a crazy week or two, and we haven’t gotten great training in. We’ve done our long runs, but mid-week runs have been a little sparse. So we’re just going to head out there, jog for a little over two hours, and then go have pancakes. It’s not that dissimilar from a lot of Saturdays except we’ll get a medal.

I love doing this with my partner. It’s an exciting and fun and relationship-building to be able to go and run and enjoy our time chatting and building fitness together. And that lets us eat at fancy restaurants while maintaining capability and metabolic vigor. I’m looking forward to starting to run more trails and explore more challenging environments than just the flat river path all the time.

So here we go. This will be something like my 15th half-marathon in the past four years. And that’s something I can’t even begin to imagine considering my life before. It’s like a fairytale.

Chasing Pain.

8 November 2017

I love pain. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Doesn’t matter. Pain burrowed inside me at a very young age and has lingered there. My affection for this pain has expressed itself in myriad ways, throughout my life. But it’s formative. Antiquitous. Pain is at the bedrock of who I consider myself to be.

I was five years old, sitting in the back of the family station wagon, playing with the Swiss army knife my father had given to me, as we drove over the Cascade mountains through Ellensberg on out way to my grandmother’s house in Connell, Washington. I pressed the little blade against the palm of my hand and dragged it deep in the simian crease. Blood welled up. And I thought, “I know I can do that, if I have to.” It didn’t occur to me to wonder why I’d have to. I just knew I could. And that felt like it gave me power.

When my parents divorced, I was told, “You’re the man of the house now. You have to take care of your sisters.” I was six. My whole life had just been burned away and the meaning of that for me was, stand up. Press the pain back. Childhood over. You’re a man now. Of course, I failed at that. Obviously I would. But the pain of being told I had to be a man, and the pain of failing at it, were both incorporated into my sense of myself as a conduit for endurance.

We went to family therapy, briefly, when I was about twelve. My stepfather – a terrible man – told the therapist, in front of me, that he was jealous of my relationship with my mother. I needed to back off and let him have her. Now, it was true my relationship with my mother was close – too close, probably. I needed a separation. But this interloper making the demand, when he was the one tearing my family apart?

I imagined myself as a crumbling column. I wasn’t much. But I was the only thing left. A marble column of cracks and pockmarks. My sisters had both left home to live with my father, or at boarding school. At the time, I saw them as fleeing, quitting. I understand now that they endured far worse than I did. But at the time, my sense was that I was the only thing left standing, the family, the world, teetering atop this column – only I was left intact. Everything laid upon me.

The fantasy of a child, of course. But the sense of self as unbreakable, and yet infinitely fragile, solidified. I am made to endure endlessly: the thing that doesn’t break. The thing that goes on and on and on.

This was recruited into my depression, my anxiety, and my alcoholism. I saw the misery I endured as simply the natural state of things, and as some profound trial that I was undergoing. There is a deep selfishness to it. I found glorious martyrdom in my pain. I wrote bad poetry. I cut myself in the bathtub. I made myself unlovable.

The truth is, I loved being in pain. I admired myself for enduring pain. I sought out pain to prove to myself I was the greatest of the martyrs.

As I began my journey in sobriety, and in therapy, I slowly relinquished this toxic obsession with being miserable as if it were a nobility. Time passed. My understanding grew. But one thing never left me. I still love the pain.

But I have a different relationship to pain today. I still seek it out. But my life has become about conquering pain, not existing in it. I still hurt. I hurt in long, glorious stretches where my body shrieks in acute misery and my lungs beg to collapse. But I am not hurting for the pain anymore. I’m hurting to pass through the pain. I keep hoping there’s a revelation on the other side.

I dream one day I will run through a curtain of rain and into a wide valley of light and meadow. That I’ll spin, amazed, in the high bright sky above the path down from the mountain to the shore. The place on the other side of all this pain.

But I don’t know if that place is real for me. Or if it would mean anything, if the pain weren’t the bas relief of its warmth and comfort.

I run to hurt. Because I still love the pain.


6 November 2017

Saturday BB and I ran a 5km road race with some people from work. It was a cancer benefit race, and we ran because one of my former colleagues was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (Stage 4, metastatic) immediately after retiring. Like, within days. It’s as terrible a diagnosis as I can imagine, and her prognosis is very poor. The team running for her raised over $17,000 to fight the disease, and I contributed a little bit of that. My fundraising total ended up being about $180.

The race itself was really good. I set a new personal record, with a time of exactly 24:00. Last winter I ran a 23:59, but that course was easily .08 miles short of a real 5km, as I wrote at the time. So I’ve never really considered that to be my personal record. Now, I have run 24:00. That’s a 7:44 pace. Three straight miles, at a sub-8 minute pace. I’m flabbergasted.

The gun went off at 0803, and I was in a crowd of densely packed people. BB and I ran it separately rather than together, as is our habit for shorter races these days. There were 901 people running the race, 402 men and 499 women. I had to weave a bit to get into clear space, and pushed hard from the start. The race was in a big park on the west side of ECC, and winds around through fields and forests. It’s a nice run.

I, of course, saw none of that. I was just pushing as hard as I could. I passed the first mile in 7:34 and was kind of amazed. That’s right about my fastest mile ever – I think I did 7:26 once – and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hang on. But at that point I thought, it’s only two more miles. Surely I can run hard for two miles. I did ease back a tiny bit, but soon after pushed harder again.

When I’m running as hard as I can, I feel like I’m constantly accelerating. Because my body wants to slow down so much that pushing it to keep pace feels like speeding up. The second mile started with a long, very shallow but definitely detectable uphill. I could feel it sapping me, but leaned into it knowing that at the pace I was going it would be over soon. I expected to be much slower for the second mile, and so I got a shot of adrenaline and hope when I hit mile two in 7:51.

I figured that would be it for my speed. I expected to crash in the third mile. I’d been pushing really hard for more than fifteen minutes, and the third mile has some undulating hills. None very long, but steeper than before. I focused on my breathing, pushing the air all the way out of my lungs so that I could take really deep breaths, pulling in as much oxygen as I could.

My blogging friend Hollie writes regularly about how the third mile of a 5km race is all about hanging on for dear life. It really is. I’ve only run about four 5km timed races ever, but they’re a strange beast. Almost a sprint, but long enough to require strategy. If you go out full-tilt, like I did, then the final mile is going to be a masterclass in pain. Every tenth feels like a mile. Every minute feels like an hour.

My heart rate was up in the high 180s, my lungs were burning. And I was level with the finish line, and heading down hill. That was deeply demoralizing. I knew I’d have to turn around and come up to get back to the elevation of the finish. Luckily, because of a knoll as I rounded the corner, it looked worse than it was. In actuality it was probably only a total of about 25 feet descent and then ascent. But it was concentrated in a really short distance.

I was absolutely dying as I came back up that hill, but I could look straight ahead and see the looming finish line, a quarter mile away. “Two minutes,” I told myself. “You can do anything for two minutes.” I ticked through the third mile in 7:48, absolutely stunned. Not only had I maintained a sub-8 for the third mile, I’d actually sped up a tiny bit. On somewhat challenging terrain. I thought about what Hollie writes about for the end of the 5km – the “kick”.

For the last tenth of a mile (a 5km is a 3.106 mile race), you’re supposed to dig deep and give every last ounce of energy, to keep that asshole next to you who isn’t even breathing hard from passing you at the end. That’s the kick. Find whatever you have left you haven’t given away, and leave it on the road for the final tenth.

I don’t know if I have a kick. But I felt like I found something.

It’s true: the 5km feels like ten marathons when you run like hell. I tripped the wire at 24:00, exactly. I was 51st of the 402 men. I was 67th overall. That sounds impressive, but most people were walking. Nevertheless, I’m very proud of it. My watch recorded me at 24:11 for 3.13 miles – I turned it off a few moments after finishing, as I couldn’t think about anything but breathing for 10 seconds.

I sat down and gasped, seeing a couple of hardcore 20-30 something runners from work who’d finished in 20 minutes. BB finished about two minutes later, having run at about an 8:30 pace, which is her goal tempo pace right now as she trains for a fast 10km race.

I’m proud, and still feel it in my legs. We ran 10 miles at an 11-minute pace the next day as we train up for the Philadelphia half-marathon. I am pretty darned fit right now. I feel good.

Reflexive Belief.

3 November 2017

I didn’t want to believe the stories about Kevin Spacey. I still don’t. But I do. But when the very first accusation against him was made, my instinctive response was to question the credibility of the accusation. I really liked Kevin Spacey. I really like his acting. He comes off with a humility and sincerity on screen and in interviews that I found charming and thoughtful. He’s a great actor, with rare gifts.

The current wave of exposures of criminal sexual activity in Hollywood, and indeed in a large swath of industries, may finally be a turning point against the pervasive habit of harassment and assault that seems entrenched in our entire culture. Mostly women, but generally the powerless at large, are victimized by mostly men with money and power. Used as disposable playthings, or simply humiliated for sport. This creates a power funnel by which men are drawn up, and women discarded. Even men who do not behave this way benefit from the vortex; though we are learning that it is a much smaller proportion of men than we’d hope who resist these base urges when given money and power.

Exposing the criminals in these places is a good thing. It needs to go on and it needs to play out.

But I also want to be honest about the strange conflict I feel at the revelation of each new accusation. I frequently flash first to a reflexive disbelief of the accuser. I find myself thinking, “If these accusation garner publicity for the accusers, it won’t be long until we have false accusations in an industry which thrives on publicity as currency.” And that might be true. But it’s no reason to disbelieve any particular accusation.

I find myself ashamed by association, and that tells me how important representation is. I dream of being one of those white men with money and power. I hope to rise in hospital management, becoming someone of import and authority. But as I look at the group of people I hope to join, right now I see it as a cesspool of avaricious, licentious men with only concern for satisfying their various appetites.

That’s not fair of course. Judging a group by its individuals’ shortcomings is the definition of bigotry. But it informs me deeply of the critical importance of representation. It feels terrible to be on the side of “all these horrible people look like me, and even though I am not like them, people will think I am because of what I look like.” It’s an education that white men rarely receive.

It makes me think how American Muslims must feel after the attack in New York this week. To be judged by so many fellow Americans by skin and creed, not character. How women must feel when they are generally assumed to be less capable in the sciences, based on their representation as bimbos and sex objects in the media. How black Americans are assumed to be inferior simply because they bear the brunt of centuries of oppression.

It is not the same as any of those things, of course. It is not even close to as severe. It has only the vague, elusive flavor of the consequences meted out to those others. My whiteness and my maleness and my straightness remain powerful cultural assets.

But it is important to use whatever opportunity arises to empathize and understand the experience of others. The use that experience – as harmless to me as it is – to bend my prejudice in favor of the oppressed. Of the victim. Of the marginalized. My general experience is that I resemble to hero. John McClean saving the world.

It’s important here to recognize that in this, I resemble the villains. The heroes are the ones speaking up, at great risk, and great cost, to bring some small measure of justice to the powerful men who’ve victimized them. I won’t dismiss this experience as the acts of a few bad apples. Bad apples spoil the barrel. I am tarnished by these men. And if I want to live in a world worth living in, I need to accept that, and learn from it.