I've been writing a lot lately about what it's like to walk through adversity with grace, or how it feels to remember that we are (all of us) only as strong as we will let ourselves be, and I've come to some pretty startling conclusions. For one thing, none of us stay down for very long. Human Beings, as a whole, are a colonial species–we crave connection–and, as such, will usually embed ourselves within a pretty strong support network. This is hard-wired into our genes, it seems (after all, we needed to gather our resources to survive, even as far back as the caveman days; it took a lot of us to bring down a wooly mammoth to feed our young) and we have to work pretty hard to go against this natural instinct to be a part of a group, especially when we feel isolated or at wit's end. The problem is, we want the connection but, a lot of the time, we don't want to do the work for it. I wanted connection but I isolated and shot up and judged people instead.
I've also discovered that, despite our inherent need for love and support from other people, many of us find it increasingly difficult to actually reach out and ask for help, no matter how dire the circumstance. Much of this is the product of our upbringing; I, myself, was taught never to betray the goings-on in my household when I was growing up. Family was everything and most of the time it seemed as though it was the primary purpose of our family to keep its secrets under lock and key.
But, you see, back then, I was the family secret.
For as long as I could remember, I was a drug addict. At first, it was easy to conceal my addiction. I had, after all, the ability to exploit my family's penchant for denial. Each of us were experts at looking the other way. But, then, one day I was arrested for possession. No big deal, really (in my young mind), but–unfortunately–my father was running for Governor of New York at the time and a photograph of me being led in handcuffs on the front page of the Daily News and in the New York Post did not bode well with his prospective constituents.
It destroyed our relationship.
Years later, I found myself sitting in the living room of our family home–emaciated from drug addiction, looking like Ghandi on Slimfast–being confronted by my family members about both my behavior and my addiction.
Get help or get lost. That was the message I received from my family. And I resented them for it. I resented them for confronting me and I resented them for dragging me into the cold light of day about my addiction.
And I hated every minute of it. Because my father was there. This man, whom I'd already let down more times than I could remember, looked at me with tears in his eyes and said that he wasn't going to support me or my addiction anymore. He'd had enough and–although it pained him to do so–he was willing to walk away forever. And he meant it.
Cornered and broken, frightened and desperate, I acquiesced and agreed to check into rehab. Now, if you take into account that I was a drug addict who loved drugs more than life itself, you'd think that that was the worst day of my life. I'd lost the love and trust of my family; I'd lost the ability to go out and get more of the drugs I so desperately needed (I thought at the time) to survive; and I had been rendered homeless, all in one day.
But that wasn't the worst day of my life. The worst day arrived many months later after I'd been dragged into the office at the rehab I was at and someone told me that my father had died.
"I want to go home to bury him", I told my drug counselor. "I don't want you to send me home with a babysitter, I don't want a watchdog–I just want to go home and bury my father and then I'll be back."
I'd like to think that there was a conviction in my eyes that spoke volumes to my counselor, but chances are he probably thought he'd never see me again. I'd been in and out of two long-term drug programs, there was no guarantee that I would be the guy who came back from burying a parent. Still, my drug counselor said I could go.
I remember every detail of the service, surprisingly, despite the fact that it happened decades ago. I remember who attended and what was said with alarming clarity. I remember my mother receiving condolences with as much dignity as she could muster through her tears, and my siblings, each of them carrying the weight of our profound loss in their own, inimitable ways.
We're still a family, I remember thinking. And the realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I'm not alone.
As we put my father into the ground, something deep inside of me exploded and changed me in ways that I still don't understand. You will never have to worry about me ever again, I thought to my father; You will never have to worry about me again.
I was still clean and sober when I boarded the plane back to the rehab, so I was very aware of the beautiful stewardess coming down the aisle of the 747. I liked the way she smiled at every passenger she encountered as well as the flash of her throat when she threw her head back to laugh at a joke a small child had made; I loved the elegant way she carried herself.
But none of that held a candle to the liquor cart she was pushing.
I could hear the tiny bottles anxiously rattling around inside the wobbly cart, each of them like something out of a Lewis Carroll novel, crying, "Drink me! Drink me!"
When the plane landed, I stepped off into the airport stone cold sober. I wasn't exactly glowing with pride–I'd desperately needed relief form the feelings I was having; I had, after all, just buried my father–but I knew intrinsically that something about me had changed.
I knew that I was ready to do whatever it took to stay clean and sober.
I finished out my time in rehab rather unceremoniously, I'm afraid. My experiences, my trials and tribulations, were no different than any other drug addict or alcoholic.
Indeed, the only thing I can say for certain is that, unlike many of my peers, my experience with burying my father afforded me a clarity that, to this day, allows me to acknowledge the wonderful realizations that punctuated that dark day of my life:
- I discovered that I am never truly alone.
- I finally became the man my father always hoped I'd be.
- I realized that I have the power to own my life and my experience and make them truly mine, which freed me from victimhood and the bondage of the things I thought I needed in order to survive.
We are remarkable men and women, you and I. And I say this because we all know that Life on Life's Terms is more than just a saying; it's an axiom that can make us feel sometimes like leaves getting tossed in a storm.
But storms pass. And leaves have a tendency to drift quietly back down to the earth.
And it is always a blessing and an honor, when the sun comes out and the lessons have been learned, to find myself resting comfortably with the rest of you; a blanket of leaves embracing the dawn of a new day.