Monthly Archives: November 2018

Can you keep a secret?

Nobody works 15 years in psychotherapy for thousands of patients in confidence without taking away some basic truths. This one may not be formal research but it is clinical and an extrapolation I know for certain:
Everybody has a secret.
When you gain deep rapport and trust with people in pain they may eventually honor you with its revelation. And if you have any integrity, you will be thankful and keep your mouth shut about it forever except in session.
So no, I’m not going to share any anonymous case conversations shrouded to protect the identity of the patient for the sake of this story. If you thought that might be a juicy tidbit to follow here, you misjudge me. But everybody has a deeply held, highly concealed, eat-a-hole-in-your-soul “i-had-no-idea!” secret.
I’ve had a couple and discovered much too late in life that secrets are deadly. Even more tragic: the prevailing belief you should keep them at all costs.
Sarah dies a little more each day, especially today. Now 36, tomorrow will be the 18th anniversary of the child she never knew and there will be no party, just her private celebration of regret like she’s done for the past 18 years every day on this day. No festivities will be attended by family, friends or co-workers, the guy at the coffee counter she visits each morning nor the postman who brings the mail at 3pm like every day, without a single birthday card for the someone she never knew. No one will send salutations or gifts and none will know that her party is a very private one.
Keith has known since he was a little boy and has spent almost 20 years perfecting his own invention of deceit, denial and plausibility. It’s a delicate façade he puts on each morning and runs all day, every day. At this rate, it’s taking more and more effort to maintain and costing way too much to repair the leaks and holes in its thinning facade. His soul is going broke but he’d rather live an impoverished inner life than allow revelation of his secret because it seems the only defense keeping him alive yet dead to his real self.
And their unrequited, bloodless rampage continues unreported, for their secrets simultaneously make us all, like Sarah and Keith, both the victims and the killers of ourselves.
Everybody has a secret, and while the one who can keep a secret may be wise, he’s not half as wise as the one with no secrets to keep. The greatest tragedy of keeping personal secrets from others is the belief that doing so keeps us alive.
Not so long ago I would have rather been caught dead than to reveal my own. And the irony of that belief was that indeed, dead is what I already was. I am gay and I am a Meth addict. I am now also very celibate and even more sober.
My secrets are no big news to most as I’ve spent the past most satisfying seven years of my life telling my stories and in turn, discovering that like Sarah and Keith, I’m not alone. As such, the friends I have maintained are much closer, my freedom to live is much richer and the vast amounts of energy once spent concealing the secrets of my existence have been freed for use on much more important things like helping people and writing short stories like this.
As a practicing therapist treating those held captive by their own secrets in slow and painful deaths which sat in front of me every 50 minutes for years, most clients rarely escaped the same way they came in. I was a good therapist but a much better friend, both highly effective helping interventions for those seeking freedom from their haunts and lies.
People are dying to tell their secrets to those they know have had their own. Revelation of self begats revelation from others.
Can you keep a secret? I suppose so. But too many good people take them to the grave quite unnecessarily. By now I’m sure you get the moral of this story.
It’s no secret.
Share yours with a safe someone and be free. You’re not really alive until you do. And don’t be surprised if they are the ones serving your morning coffee or bringing your mail but dying inside to tell you a little more.

off the hook.

It’s late in the day and while I should be elsewhere he’s swimming around the hook of my last line cast and I’m here anxiously anticipating his next move. It’s my best line and lure but just when I thought he might take the bait and my tempting invitation all I heard was long silence followed by a click. And I sat there, phone in hand weeping for another addict off the hook still seeking dope and not enough interest in the alternative I offered that may not satisfy his craving but would save his soul.
In case you ever wanted to know, some days that’s exactly what my seven years of recovery feels like.

Selfie.

All he wanted was a photograph.
I took his picture, but not the one he wants most of all.

I always leave my door open when I’m on site at the senior center twice a week. I set up shop there to meet low income senior citizens and try to engage with them to show them the kinds of services I can offer free of charge. Ways to save on utility bills, plans for having food when the money runs out before the month does, budgeting help, how to escape from being prey to payday loan companies and so many other services that can make a meager fixed income go much further and last much longer.

This generation of senior citizens are a unique breed. They are the aging baby boomers and what I consider the last of the moral few. They grew up on the belief you should always work hard, scrimp and save, pay your bills and be willing to sacrifice if you can’t. They grew up without computers or an online education and today know very little about how to navigate most things younger people do from their phones in an instant.

And, sadly, they are a generation of lost people. There are no large scale wars that unite them as a group. Their children were born in the “me” generation of self-centeredness and permissiveness and who, for the most part, have found keeping generational ties is generally unimportant. As a result and more often than not, they abandon the older generation as if it is somehow the respectful thing to do. Today’s seniors are also a generation first to experience the insufficiency of social security income to buy the retirement they had hoped. What are so errantly called the Golden Years are truly as thin and flimsy as aluminum foil.

I work the saddest shift at the non-profit charity I chose to join five years ago today.

My open door policy, however, seems to make it a little easier for these needy yet ashamed old people to be willing to break the ice. Like rescue dogs beaten down from years of abuse, they often are afraid to make the first contact. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at that and regularly seek out and engage many solo seniors who have had nobody to talk with for years. Their lifetime friends are now six feet under or six hundred miles away and they don’t have money for milk much less travel in these Aluminum Years.

Again, I made the first move.

For three weeks, he’d passed by while I was in what they call the Library at the senior center. It’s not much of a library, really. It has a cache of donated old books and magazines piled neatly as if they were new editions. Nobody is fooled by the name of the room which doubles for bingo on Tuesday afternoons where winners receive rolls of toilet paper as prizes.

I never heard him coming down the hall and mostly only got a glimpse of his profile as he passed through the light streaming in the doorway so many times before. Each trip, he always turned his head and proceeded at a steady pace as if on a conveyor belt to nowhere.

It took some coaxing. I got up from the computer and stood by the door so a chance meeting might be a little easier for him if it was to happen at all. He was far down the corridor, head down and without direction. But he must have heard me or seen my friendly gesture somehow, for as I sat back down, he was right there at the door, seemingly in reciprocation.

“Hey there!,” I spoke loudly as most of the people around here are hard of hearing or not used to being selected for a conversation.

He looked up and through the doorway. As he approached I could see great depth in the crevasses of his face and his long, black feeble shadow met me long before he did.

“How’s it going on this beautiful day?”

He looked around as if perhaps I was addressing another, more important passerby. I introduced myself and my reason for being here and asked the same of him.

“I’m Al, and I just need a photograph.”

I invited him to sit awhile and tell me about this photograph he wanted.

At first, he wasn’t well spoken but when he did, his long grey beard moved in synchronicity with each syllable. Obviously anxious at the thought of talking with a complete stranger and worse, having a need to present to one, he chose his words carefully.

Al hadn’t seen his three kids in some time. It had been years for two, perhaps a decade more for the oldest. He knows he must have grandchildren by now and wonders if one of them might be an Albert or Alan or Allison…named in his memory as if he were already dead and gone. It’s not likely. After his wife died in ’84, the kids moved him to this senior living community in the desert where he’d “have a really fun time with all the people his age and their games and bingo” and the cache of lies he was told as he managed the last $700 of his savings as a deposit when he signed.

He was all of 81 now, and in addition to winning a roll of toilet paper now and then, he spends holidays, birthdays and anniversaries alone except when he can get a ride to the library or the cemetery where his wife was laid to rest 30 years earlier. To make best use of the ride and the welcomed time away, he goes grave to grave to pull weeds, straighten dirty plastic flowers and talks to all the horizontal people his age and older and forgotten. Except of course Sally, his wife, who only made it a half century before a drunk in a pickup truck ended their marriage and for some reason, the only real connection to the children and family.

Today, he was missing them and wondering about their well-being. He had their addresses on some scraps of paper he pulled from his wallet as I offered him a cold bottle of water. There were no phone numbers, just penciled addresses which had blurred illegible after so many years there next to what looked like high school pictures.

Al hadn’t had a picture taken of him since he could remember.

We talked of his history and my own in extended groups of topics from fishing to art to puppies. I came to discover he was quite a well-rounded man of experience who had evidently cared so much for his wife and children when he was a younger man that his kindness had been taken as weakness and his family had exhausted most of his time and assets before he was shipped out to the desert to wither and die with hundreds more just like him. As he became more comfortable, we even talked about death itself and speculated how each of us might eventually kick our respective buckets.

I didn’t share it with him but by the look of his frail, taut face and thin weathered body, he was sure to die of starvation if something wasn’t done soon. I told him we have a food pantry I bring every Thursday morning and suggested he be first in line with a couple very large bags. It was the first smile he had given me all morning.

I used that smile as an opportunity to fill him in on some things I thought we could do to help his situation and stretch his $718 monthly social security income and $15 in food stamps. That brought the second smile of the morning. I was on a roll and thought I might go for three by asking him to sit back against the wall as I used my IPhone to do for him what he’d come for.

He obliged, licked his fingers and briefly ran them through the few hairs on his head, straightening his beard in what was obviously his own idiosyncratic method for many, many years. I chuckled as he did his little routine and told him my beard would never be as long as his but surely as grey. And the instant he laughed, I snapped the picture and showed him how great he looked in it.

I’d have easily guessed he had not seen himself in a mirror for what might have been years the way he held my phone and gazed at his own image. His last picture was at the DMV four years prior. He had aged quickly in four years. Very quickly.

“Wow, you look a lot different from your ID picture, Al.”

“I kinda guessed I might. A lot has changed in four years.”

Al shared he had been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer 3 years prior and at the last visit to his doctor, was told he probably wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving.

Al wanted a final picture of himself that could be displayed on his own grave wherever he might be buried like so many horizontal friends before him. It wasn’t likely that his family would make the trip to see dad and grampa before he passed but if so, he wanted them to see the man he’d become just in case someday they became curious about what happened to old Al.

He said he could never figure out what he’d done wrong for them to drop contact him again and hoped this picture of April 7th, 2015 might be different enough from how they knew him years before and that even from the grave, he might get a second chance to show them how much he had thought about them over the years and hoped they’d made lots of babies, perhaps one named Al.

I printed the picture and presented it to him for the fourth smile of the morning. I don’t think he had had mustered four smiles in a morning for as many years.

With our work done…or perhaps just begun…he got up and shook my hand and thanked me for having stood in the doorway an hour ago.

And as he left through the sunlight of that same doorway, I extended an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at my house with my own three kids.

The fifth smile.
I took another picture.

Thanksbirthday.

God willing, 4:21pm Monday I’ll turn 58.

Butch, my beloved roommate, shares my birthday, entering his sixth year on four legs and our traditional Thanksbirthday weekend celebration is at a holiday peak.

Across town today, hundreds of generous Thanksgiving workers are sweating the stuffing that matters.  St. Thomas More Catholic Community is carrying out the final turkey leg of our 19 year tradition together delivering full Thanksgiving meals to 1,000 shut-in and uninvited senior citizens having neither family, food or somewhere better to be. Other partner non-profits are ministering deep within the darker and more desolate parts of town and elsewhere making sure no one goes hungry.  Indeed, across America, prompted by the abundances in their ovens and on their tables, epiphanied kitchen cooks everywhere are finding themselves suddenly inspired to extend spontaneous invitations to complete strangers and forgotten others, sending them home afterwards both with leftovers and a homespun experience many never had and some never will again.

Every breath we take is a moment growing older.

I hyperventilated once last February and lost count but still calculate 58 years breathing and more alive today than ever before. This past year, some lost that gift and those of us who remain will spend some part of the day and much of the ensuing season swimming in teardrops and memories that will decorate our faces and our Christmas trees.  Older now, I know living is much less a celebration of another year or another holiday and more the simple thankfulness to be very much alive, even to write this short story for your Thanksgiving Day.

Writing stories for and about people is my passion. Today’s marks the 247th  on my website and a baker’s dozen more brewing in my head for followers to catch a laugh, a cry or a deeper thought in the coming new year.  Like many of you, I will also be thinking about my parents and many others who today are enjoying breathless feasts in a faraway place at a table which will soon hold a place setting bearing my name. An all-you-can-eat-buffet with none of the fat. Yet while I’m still alive, I write my stories to breathe a little life into a dying world and of those around me who are selfless servants across the nation at this very moment.

Stories sparked by inspiration are my gifts to those who need reminding that someone cares and that the season for making memories is now in high gear.  For Butch and me it’s neither because it’s our birthday nor because it’s Thanksgiving.  It’s because we’re not yet  corpses of turkeys after today’s meal and that’s pretty remarkable considering the life I once lived.

So as servants all over and the many heeding quiet summons as early morning cooks in country kitchens everywhere, I hope we all extend invitations to the uninvited, and write an unforgettable chapter in the lonely life of someone who needs a good friend and a hot meal.

Indeed, bigger things are happening in our world today. Much bigger than birthdays or birds on dinner tables. But in the midst of the daily news, human kindness begins with an invitation and a pen to author generosity in the life of someone who really needs some. That’s just how love works.

Happy Thanksbirthday to my dog and me, and happy human kindness to all who still have breath, life and a hot meal to share.

Moms are great

When you visit Mom some things are sure things. Like the bed sheets are always fresh and crisp and still smell and feel like a warm dryer. The Kleenex and toilet paper is the really good kind. She always has extra batteries and she sneaks a couple into your bag just in case. And if you need a spoon, it’s always in the drawer clean, never with chunks missed by the dishwasher because she is the dishwasher. And there’s no dust. Anywhere. She always has a choice of ice creams. Always. And blanket fairies who visit when you doze on the sofa. The clothes you wore were magically folded in the middle of the night. Sometimes washed and folded. You could shave in the reflection of the bathroom fixtures and if you had to, you could eat off the toilet seat. But if you tried, she’d bring you a plate. Moms are really great. Every kid should have one.

Oh, Don!

In these days of high technology, people forget to spend time with each other, have conversations and create memories. Life isn’t so much about hashtags or followers but about who you follow and where they take you.

Just a few months back Jackie and I were out to breakfast distracting ourselves from the rather large and ominous elephant in her living room and having another one of our life-changing 2 hour chats on current events, philosophies and things that seem to matter most in life. It was then that she interrupted our stream of conversation with an observation that sounded like the steady push of a needle across a 45 record… “You know Don, this thing in my head is gonna be the death of me and everything I am.”

Rarely am I without words or at least a funny comeback, but after taking the pause we needed to finally turn this corner, I said, “Well yes and no Jake. It may indeed be the death of you but it will never be the death of who you are, were or will still be.” And that’s the moment she again smiled and said “Oh, Don” and asked me to speak at today’s memorial and to make it something inspirational because that’s what she was to so many of us, and inspiration is what I enjoy most in life. Conversations with Jackie were often my source material.

She’s been gone from us now for over a month during which time many things have crossed our minds about our own memories of Jackie since.  For me, it’s that little tremble in her voice when she would say “Oh, Don.” And I can hear it still like it was yesterday. It usually followed something I said that resonated, a joke we shared or some epiphany we stumbled upon while out day driving to nowhere in particular.

So in the spirit of Jackie, my words for you here today are about things and experiences.

She and I pondered this topic more than once and from afar, I’m certain she approves of this message.

When she had only months left we were talking about my own recent medical history and how I might not be very far behind her.  She asked me “How do you know when you’re ready, Don?” And of course, we spent another two cups of coffee speculating on the possible answers as if we knew them.

It’s no surprise that her cancer, of all opportunistic places, took hold of her brain. Cancer has a habit of stealing our most beautiful parts, and that seven pound diamond mine atop her neck always produced gems and wondrous moments. It was among her most stunning features.

Jackie was a question mark looking for life’s answers. She was self-examining and philosophical since the day we met 35 years ago all the way up to her quiet end last month. I visited her again the day she died, hoping for just one more conversation but she was already on the way out of this world into one better.

Rarely did we waste time on small talk or trivial matters. Our most memorable times together over the years were simple talks turned complex about everything and anything that seemed to matter in the world, and years back, ending in either decent answers after two bottles of wine or a good joke. And always that “Oh, Don!”

For Jackie, everything mattered and nothing was off limits. Ever. “I wonder if everyone considers the things we do” she would ask, when really she was hoping everyone did and enjoyed them as much as we did together.

And I think the most important question Jackie has now answered for herself might be the one we ask our own selves about the life we’ve been living. The pensive, internal things we think upon, ponder and discuss within ourselves and with those few we let in on the conversations.  Because those are what kept Jackie alive, took with her, and what she leaves behind for all of us. The important experiences, not the urgent things. For the things we grasp at the very end are never things.

The holidays now upon us once again with Veteran’s day this week, Thanksgiving next, followed by Christmas and the New year, all are laced with memories, traditions, those we love and those we loved, and others who still need to be.  We look forward to our celebrations with family and close friends, long talks and reminiscing around our fake fireplaces with real opportunities to gather our thoughts about life, friendships and what makes us tick and what matters most.

Jackie never missed these opportunities. Her favorite gifts were always memories and experiences.

We all will miss her at the fireplace, the table, the tree and our celebrations. What took her from us and took from her her most beautiful part has left us with fond memories and asks us all the question “What if I’m next? And what will I take with me?

Will you, like Jackie, leave this world for the next having fully examined the most important questions of life while you still have one? Will what you leave be bigger and more glorious than what you worked at for a living, where you vacationed, or things you own? Or will you leave the remnants of your thoughts and ponderances indelibly imprinted upon others to carry on that which is the most beautiful part within you?

You see, the things that accompany us over that lonely narrow bridge to the other side are never things. We won’t be grasping ceramic mementos or tchotchke but memories of those long conversations, words and experiences that mattered most while we lived. And for me they will certainly include Jackie’s beautiful trembling voice so many times when she would say to me,  “Oh, Don.”

An immodest proposal.

I have an immodest proposal.

Let recovering drug addicts choose our congressmen. We are uniquely qualified for the job.
Having lived years of lies, deceit, theft, skillful manipulation and bad reasoning, recovering addicts are the most adept at smelling bullshit before it ever sets foot in a room.
We’ve nothing left to lose because we’ve lost most of it to our addictions already. We’re not partial to one over another, only to the raw revelation of honesty and good reason and we go to any lengths necessary to find it. Our motto is “principles over personalities” and our goal is to see the emergence of integrity in others. We don’t acquiesce to emotional appeals or spins on the truth, but call them on the carpet. Our training was imprisoned, on the streets of selfish coercion, and usually both. Recovery has made all our secrets public with nothing left to hide or hide behind. We are all veterans of a war who walked away victors and are among the smartest combatants for others in the world.
We know the enemy because he is who we once were.
By nature, it takes a virulent set of skills to become an addict and ruthless pursuit of humility to escape from it. We know when someone’s under bad influence, on something, onto something or just needs a few sobering days in jail.
We let people be flawed and forgiven but not rescued.
We demand integrity in one another and are the first to recognize when it slips. We are accountable to no special interests but the power of the One higher and smarter than ourselves and know that sometimes losing is winning.
This is my immodest proposal.