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Take Opportunities Where You Find Them.

5 November 2015

A year and a half after I finished my doctorate, I was still hanging around my graduate advisor’s lab doing mop up work and overseeing a few students. I was trying to start my own business, and failing. I was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, and derelict in every responsibility I had. I was doing a few small projects, one of which would eventually become the job that launched me to where I am now, and I was serving as teacher/advisor to a group of students doing their baccalaureate thesis.

The leader of this group (I’ll call her Mary) was the best student I’ve ever had. An African American woman, brilliant, engaged, ambitious, and eager. In the intervening 8 years, I’ve only encountered a single other student that comes close to her abilities. She carried her two colleagues on the student project and produced a spectacular simulation that was of decidedly professional and academic quality. I think I was a little jealous of her. She had the spark that I had lost to booze and indolence.

In February, in the middle of their project, which was due in early April, for a May graduation, I left. It was time for me to go to rehab, and I dropped everything and left. Just like I said to here. The day came when I realized I couldn’t go on the way I was going, and so I stepped away from everything and went to get help. I think – I no longer recall precisely – that I told them I had a consulting job in California that would take me away for six weeks.

I returned in early April, just in time to read their final report. I wrote glowing recommendations based on the work, and on my guilt about abandoning them in their project. Mary went into a master’s program, and then to industry. She kept up with me, asking for recommendations from time to time. About two years ago, she decided to apply to PhD programs. I wrote recommendations again, and she was accepted into a spectacular program on the west coast at one of those universities known and respected world wide.

Last week she reached out to me because she was going to be in ECC for a conference. Presenting work she’d done in health care engineering as part of her doctoral studies. It’s very cool work, and I wish I could write about it here. It blends epidemiology, economics, and health care delivery in very exciting ways. She’s going to make waves in her career. She asked if I want to have dinner. Of course I said yes.

I took her out and we talked about her studies and her experience living out west. After dinner I walked Mary back to her hotel. On the way, I said, “Listen, I always felt that I owed you an apology. In the middle of your senior design thesis, I bailed for like six weeks. The reason I did was that I was drinking way too much, and I needed to go get treatment. I haven’t had a drink since then. But I wish that I had been a better mentor to you, and I’m sorry.”

Mary told me she thought I’d been a great mentor and never had any idea there was anything wrong. That’s a common response when making amends. This experience was typical of my amends experience. Rapidly accepted with little or no knowledge that there had ever been a problem. And I’m fortunate that I didn’t need to make more serious amends, involving restitution of some kind.

I “finished” my ninth step a long time ago. But every once in a while people pop back up in our lives, and this time I realized that my alcoholic behavior and consequences might have had an effect on someone I hadn’t acknowledged them to. I needed to say something to set it right. It was about me, more really, than about Mary. She’s doing very well and my alcoholism hasn’t left any indelible marks on her. But I regretted not telling her the truth. And now I have.

Recovery is lifelong. Because alcoholism is lifelong. When opportunities to work the program well present themselves, we take them. We take them to solidify our sobriety. To do right by the people we may have harmed. And to live freely in clear conscience.

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