Friday, February 5, 2016

Update: 2016-17 College Scholarship Essay Contest

Back in October, I wrote that my wife and I had decided to go ahead with our My Life as 3D Scholarship Essay Contest again this year. (For those who don't already know, this is a contest that awards scholarships to college students who have been affected by a sibling's addiction. We awarded two scholarships last year.)

I'll be completely honest: We almost didn't do it, because money's pretty tight on our end right now. More than two years after leaving my publishing job to pursue other interests, I still haven't found a full-time job. So putting up $500.00 as seed money for this year's scholarship wasn't easy. But we received so many emails from students asking if there was going to be another contest that we just had to do it.

Sometimes you have to make decisions based on what's in your heart instead of what's in your wallet.  

I started a crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring in mid-October to raise additional money for the scholarship(s) and so far generous donors have contributed an extra $635.00 to the cause. Our total scholarship funds as I write this post are $1,135.00, which is great. I hope people will keep donating so we can reach the $3,000.00 goal. (Honestly, even $2,000.00 would be fabulous.) By all means, feel free to share the YouCaring link-- anyone you think might be interested in contributing, even if it's just a few dollars. Every little bit helps.

Here are the key dates we've established for this year's contest:

  • Deadline for essays/entries: 7/1/16
  • Judging deadline for essays: 7/31/16
  • Winner notified/announced: Week of 8/1/16

I'm also in the process of assembling the panel of judges. I'm very pleased to announce that Jeff Jay, a nationally known clinical interventionist, educator, and author, has agreed to judge essays this year. Jeff and his wife, Debra, wrote the best-selling book Love First: A Family's Guide to Intervention. Jeff also has a new memoir out called Navigating Grace: A Solo Voyage of Survival and Redemption

So that's my update. More details for this year's contest will be shared in the next couple of months. In the meantime, spread the word. We had 30 students enter last year's contest. Maybe this year we'll get even more.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Passing on Hope to Others

Ten years or so ago, when I first discovered that my son had issues with addiction, I was devastated. I didn't want anything to do with the world of addiction and recovery. I just wanted the whole situation to go away. Little did I know that a decade later I would find myself right in the middle of that world, doing whatever I can to help others.

It's amazing how adversity or tragedy can spark a passion inside of us. You see it all the time. Like people who lose a loved one to gun violence and then pour themselves into advocating for better gun laws. That's not something those people planned on doing; instead, it became something they had to do.

As I wrote in a blog post back in October, I didn't choose this work, it chose me. Lord knows, I don't do it for money. I do it for people and families who are struggling, because I want them to know that things can work out okay. I do it because, in their darkest moments, people need hope. They need to know that things can get better.

I do it for people like Mark.

Back in early January, I received an email from Mark. I don't know Mark, but he told me about his struggles with alcohol, and I replied to him. Today, Mark emailed me again with an update.

With Mark's permission, I'm sharing our email exchange with you. By doing so, maybe we can, in Mark's words, "Pass on the hope to others."



Email from Mark to me on January 2, 2016:


My name is Mark. Today once again I know I need to make a change but fear I can't. You see I've been in recovery since 2003. I have relapsed several times and I'm afraid to tell my family. My wife told me if I ever drank again she would leave me. I have three beautiful daughters. I'm afraid of losing them also. I was a leader in a faith based recovery group. I feel I have let all of those people down. I have a business that is collapsing around me. I work in the oilfield and it is hard times right now for that kind of business. All of these things and more are wearing me down. I know I need to tell my family about drinking again but I don't even know where to start. I'm not sure why I'm sending you an email. I've been reading stories on Heroes in Recovery and your name keeps popping up. What hurts me the most is how I enjoyed helping others. Telling my story. Now I feel like a hypocrite and feel like I can never get that back. I have to make a change and I need to do it now. Any words of encouragement or ideas that might help I would greatly appreciate it. 



My reply to Mark on January 3, 2016:


I'm sorry you're struggling, but I'm glad you reached out.

I know you want to quit drinking, because you took the time to contact me and tell me. Maybe you've relapsed a few times lately, but you recognize that you have a problem. And you want to attack that problem again. So, yes...Here you go again. But you know what? Sobriety can take a lot of practice because it's a learned behavior. It takes constant practice, and with learned behaviors we learn by failing. And we learn to be and do better from our mistakes. The relapses are NOT what define us. It's how we react to the relapses. So pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back on the recovery road.

Make a commitment to not drink for today. Or even for the next hour or minute if smaller chunks of time make it a little easier. And do your best to keep doing the next right thing. If you mix willingness with hope enough times, sobriety can happen. You know that, because you were sober for a long time. The fact that you've slipped up doesn't make you a failure, Mark. Or a hypocrite. It just means that you're human. Because humans make mistakes. I think your wife and daughters would understand that, assuming you are willing to bust your ass to get back on the right track. If you're willing to do that, I think your family will support you. And you know what? You can still help others by sharing your story. Because the truth about addiction and recovery is this: Someone's story doesn't necessarily end when they stop drinking or taking drugs. Recovery is not a destination, but a journey. And there are oftentimes bumps in the road on that journey. Part of the "story" is how you deal with those bumps.

By getting sober again you can show people that it's possible to falter and still get back on the right path. You can possibly be even more inspirational to those people than you've already been. So my recommendation is to get yourself back on your feet and start working hard to get back to sobriety. Do whatever you have to, Mark. Meetings, counseling, outpatient treatment, etc. Just don't sit there feeling sorry for yourself. Take some action to get back to where you've been. Show yourself that you are stronger than the alcohol. I know you can do it, my friend. Just go forward, be brave, and keep the faith.

Sending you peace, hugs, and positive, sober vibes.


Email from Mark to me on February 4, 2016:


I wanted to give you a update on how I've been doing since you sent me this email.

I have been clean and sober now since 1/2/16. Thank you so much for the email you sent me. It was full of encouragement, strength and hope.

My sponsor wanted me to give my testimony last Friday at our meeting (Celebrate Recovery). I was reluctant of course fooling myself that others would judge me. I had a couple of weeks to think about. During this time my heart was very heavy knowing that I didn't think I could get up on the altar and talk. To me it is a sacred place and how was I going to go up there and still be hiding my relapse from my wife and daughters.

Thursday came (the day before I was set to speak) and I knew either I had to back out or tell my wife. I prayed everyday for a year for God to give me the courage to do this. I always had a excuse not to. Now it was time. We watched a little television as we usually do before bed. She was ready to go to sleep but I knew this was the time. I shut off the tv and told her I had something to tell her. It just came out.

I was fully prepared to pack my bags, hopefully kiss my girls goodbye and leave. That's not at all what happened. She let me talk. She told me she was sad and disappointed but would stand by my side just like she had always done. What a weight off my shoulders!

Why did she not kick me out as she promised so many years ago? Only God knows the answer to that. I really do not know how lucky I am to have a wonderful wife like I have. One by one I told my daughters the next day. They all took it the same way as their mother.

Disappointed but encouraged me to get back on track.

So here I am the next day. The day of my talk.The day my business will be closing.The price of fuel has forced me to do so. I have had a small oilfield delivery service( hot shot) for the past 6 1/2 years and I just couldn't make ends meet any longer. That night I was speaking at church, giving my testimony and touch on the subject of insanity and then sanity. I had planned this day out a couple of months ok. I didn't figure on coming out the other side certainly not giving my testimony and being sober. This was the case though. My words came out clear and spot on. God was there every step of the way. This day did not happen by accident. How blessed I was and lucky to be where I'm at today!

Today I'm looking for a job after 11 years working in one way or another for myself. Bill collectors calling everyday and the same stress that has been there but what's different is I have a new beginning. I'm going to my meetings. Making my calls. Feeding the homeless on the weekends and praying that God will let me be his hands and feet everyday. I'm not doing these things for a pat on the back or for someone to say "great job" I'm doing them to stay sober. To come back stronger than I ever was.

I'm taking it one day at a time, hour by hour, minute by minute and second by second. I just wanted to let you know that taking the time to email me back and give me your words of encouragement made a difference in my life. Thank you my friend and may God bless you and your family.


"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up." --Anne Lamott

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Unbroken Brain": A New, Forward-Thinking Book on Addiction

(Note: This book review also appears on The Huffington Post Books site under the same title.)

As a recovery advocate and the father of someone in long-term recovery, I've read more books about addiction than I can count. When my son first started struggling with drugs, I made a vow to educate myself as much as I possibly could. Knowledge is power, and I wanted to know everything about addiction. I still do. So I read about it. A lot. And I can honestly say that Maia Szalavitz's Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction is one of the best books I've ever read on the subject.

Maia Szalavitz is a fabulous writer who has penned a wonderful, very forward-thinking book about addiction. She introduces us to some new theories about addiction, several of which may have people re-examining the way they've thought about one of the most prevalent and deadliest problems in America today.

Szalavitz sets out to show that addiction isn't a choice or moral failing. "But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's, either," she notes. "Instead, addiction is a developmental disorder--a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer." Yes, Szalavitz is blazing new trails here.

The author contends that "addiction doesn't just happen to people because they come across a particular chemical and begin taking it regularly. It is learned and has a history rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development." She adds that the addicted brain is not "broken," as many other researchers and writers have suggested. Instead, she says, the addicted brain has "simply undergone a different course of development....addiction is what you might call a wiring difference, not necessarily a destruction of tissue."

Looking at addiction as a learning disorder may seem strange to some, but Szalavitz states that doing so "allows us to answer many previously perplexing questions." And in Unbroken Brain, Szalavitz--who is 25+ years in recovery from cocaine and heroin addiction herself--tells us how learning is a part of every aspect of addiction, oftentimes drawing upon her personal experience to illustrate her points.

There are so many interesting and thought-provoking topics covered in this book. From the problems associated with waiting for someone to hit "rock bottom" to the myth of the addictive personality; and from the issues surrounding 12-step programs to why harm reduction isn't a bad thing. ("Harm reduction recognizes [the] social and learned components of addiction. It 'meets people where they're at,' and it teaches them how to improve their lives, whether or not they want to become abstinent." Amen to that.)

If you or someone you love has been touched by addiction, or if you're just interested in this fascinating subject, I cannot recommend Unbroken Brain highly enough. This book contains a wealth of information, but Maia Szalavitz presents it in an organized manner while writing in a clear and understandable voice. Trust me: You will not be bombarded with a bunch of scientific language that you don't understand. 

Szalavitz writes in the introduction, "Only by learning what addiction is--and is not--can we begin to find better ways of overcoming it. And only by understanding addicted people as individuals and treating them with compassion can we learn better and far more effective ways to reduce the harm associated with drugs." That is definitely the approach we should be taking with addiction. Hopefully, Maia Szalavitz's innovative new book will be the catalyst for some positive change.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Death Terrifies Me

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Death Terrifies Me: Too Many Questions, and Not Enough Answers.")

Death terrifies me.

I'm sure it's because I'm getting older, but recently I've started thinking more and more about death. I'm 54 years old as I type this, which is, I'm reasonably sure, several years beyond the halfway point of my life. (I think it's a pretty safe bet that I'm not going to live to be 108.) And while death has never been a comfortable subject for me, lately that discomfort has intensified.

There are so many triggers in my world these days that make me stop and think about just how damn old I am. Business executives look like they're teenagers. Star athletes are younger than my kids. Records I used to listen to as a high school student are turning 40. Etc.

Over the summer, my wife and I had to buy a new washer and dryer. Not to sound morbid or anything, but I started wondering: Is this the last washer and dryer I'll ever buy? The same thing went through my head when we bought a new mattress, too. All of a sudden I'm doing a lot of math in my head, and all of the story problems contain the number 54.

"Dean bought a new washing machine when he was 54. If the average lifespan of a washing machine is 14 years, will Dean ever have to buy another washing machine? Show your work."

I can't help it. That’s how I think. I know that age is just a number, and 54 isn't really that old (is it??). I mean, in my head I still feel like I’m 18, and I feel pretty damn good physically, too. So why worry?

I worry because death is the ultimate unknown for me. Nobody knows what happens when we die, and that uncertainty scares me. When you die, do you stop feeling everything? Or does your soul live on, allowing you to observe and feel stuff going on in the mortal world? Do you really go off to heaven or hell, depending on what kind of life you lived? Or do you reincarnate and come back to earth as a cat or some kid who's just being born?

Too many questions. Not enough answers.

I also worry about how my two boys will fare when their aging parents are dead and gone. I know that since my own father passed away almost three years ago, I find myself missing him more than I ever thought I would. My dad and I didn't even get along for most of my life, and I still miss him. I oftentimes wish I could call him and ask him questions when I have to fix something with the tools he left me. And when some crazy play happens in a football game I'm watching on TV, I still kind of expect the phone to ring and my dad to be on the other end asking me, “Did you see that?!” Because that's what he did.

Last month, I had to be put under general anesthesia when I went into the hospital for a procedure on my heart. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But now? I have to admit, there was a voice in my head telling me, "Hey, some people go under and never come out of it. Good luck." (On the other hand, maybe that wonderful feeling you have while being put to sleep by the anesthesiologist is exactly what death feels like. How awesome would that be?)

So I've decided I’m going to start reading some books about death. I'm going to start with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's seminal book, On Death and Dying, and move on from there. I hope to read scientific books, spiritual books, and even books by or about people who saw the white light and maybe had a talk with God before returning to life.

What I hope to accomplish is simple: I want to become more comfortable with the idea of death. I want to get to a point where I'm (reasonably) okay with dying. Obviously, I don't want to rush things, but as I get closer and closer to that day, I don't want to be terrified. I want to be able to accept it.

I've wanted to write about my fear of death for quite some time. I wasn't planning on doing it today, but this morning I woke up and saw a post my oldest son--who has been struggling lately--made on Facebook last night. It was a video for John Mayer's song "Stop This Train," and it included the lyrics. One of the verses goes:

"Don’t know how else to say it
I don't want to see my parents go
One generation's length away
From fighting life out on my own."

When I read those words, I knew I had to write this blog post today.

My father was the first person I ever watched die. I was at his bedside when he took his last breath at age 86. My mother may be one of the healthiest people on this planet, but she’s almost 85 now. And my wife's parents are in their "sunset years," too. Yes, death is inevitable, which makes it hard not to think about it. I just don’t want to be scared when I do.

"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome." --Isaac Asimov 
(Note: “Stop This Train” lyrics © 2006 by John Mayer/SONY/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Great Quote from Anne Lamott

While finishing up Anne Lamott's Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son yesterday, I came across this line that I absolutely loved. I just wanted to share it with you all.

"Laughter lifts the phonograph needle out of the scratches on my heart's album."

Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine, people. Never forget that.


Monday, January 4, 2016

My Goal for 2016: Celebrate Enoughness

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site under the same title: "My Goal for 2016: Celebrate Enoughness.")

Today is the fourth day of 2016 and my youngest son's 20th birthday. How can that even be possible?? Damn. The older I get the faster time seems to go. It's so weird how that happens.

Christmas is the benchmark for me. When you're a kid, Christmas seems like it takes forever and a day to arrive. But when you're in your mid-50s, like I am, you'd swear that somebody changed Christmas into a holiday that occurs once every three or four months.

No one can tell me that these trips around the sun aren't getting shorter and shorter.

With the dawn of the new year, many people make resolutions they hope to stick to for the next 365 days. But resolutions are absolutes. With a resolution, you either succeed or fail. That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, so, as I mentioned in my first blog post of 2014, I prefer to set goals instead.

By definition, a goal is something you strive for; not an absolute. You choose something you want to do or accomplish and you take steps to get there. If you don't reach your goal, chances are you'll at least have made significant steps toward getting there. "Progress, not perfection" is perfectly acceptable in this instance.

In 2015, I set one goal for myself: Find a job I'm passionate about. And while I didn't achieve that goal, I feel like I did make some progress. Although it's not a full-time job, I landed a freelance gig with a company in the addiction/recovery field, and it's allowing me to do work that I'm passionate about: helping others who are struggling. Not only that, but I get to write, too, which makes it even better.

It's now been more than two years since I've been employed full-time, but I can't really complain about how things are. Sure, it would be nice to have a little more money to pay the bills with--that Affordable Care Act health insurance isn't really all that affordable--but my family is getting by, and that's way better than a lot of other families are doing. So I am grateful. (Hey, at least I'm alive for 2016, right?)

This morning, while I was perusing things in my Facebook newsfeed, I came across a great piece from Brain Pickings entitled "16 Elevating Resolutions for 2016 Inspired by Some of Humanity's Greatest Minds." The resolutions were inspired by folks like Søren Kierkegaard, Susan Sontag, John Steinbeck, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and all of them were extremely thought-provoking. (Example: "Choose understanding over judgment," inspired by Anne Truitt.)

But waaaaay down at the end of the Brain Pickings list was the one resolution that resonated the most with me. And it just so happens to be the one inspired by one of my family's favorite authors--Kurt Vonnegut.

"Celebrate enoughness."

That resolution was inspired by a short remembrance Vonnegut had written about his late friend, author Joseph Heller. Originally published in The New Yorker, it later appeared in John C. Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. Here it is:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!
That, my friends, is a badass story. And you know what? I, too, have "the knowledge that I've got enough." Of course, this crazy thing called life can always change. It's entirely possible that six months from now, I could find myself in dire straits. (Let's hope not!) But today? I have enough.

So I've decided that this will be my one and only goal/resolution for 2016:

1. Celebrate enoughness.

Today's society is too damn materialistic. So many people spend too much time focusing on what they don't have, instead of appreciating all the things they do have. The Dalai Lama once said, "When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, 'Oh yes--I already have everything that I really need.'"

I may not have an HDTV, a new car, a full-time job, fancy clothes, or an overflowing bank account, but I don't really care. Because I am rich in so many other ways, and I already have everything that I really need. I am content. And I have enough. And I'm going to be grateful for that every single day of 2016.

I invite you to take a good, hard look at your own life and realize just how wonderful it is. Maybe you can celebrate enoughness along with me.


"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." --Epicurus

Kurt Vonnegut got it right when he wrote "Old Dean."

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The End of My Month-Long Causes and Effect Blog Run

(Note: For the month of December, I took over the Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily blog, which was created by Melinda Newman in 2013. Today was my thirty-first and final post for that blog. The words below made up the majority that post, entitled "Three Final Donations to Wrap us 2015.")

I have a confession to make:

I almost backed out of taking over this blog for the month of December.

When I found out late last year that Causes and Effect creator Melinda Newman was looking for 12 individuals to take over the reins of the blog in 2015, I was quick to throw my name into the ring. And I was incredibly excited when I got picked to be one of the blog's writers for a whole month. The only downside was that I was assigned to December and had to wait almost a whole year before I could dive into writing.

Then life happened.

Despite being grossly underemployed for the second year in a row, 2015 was a great year for me. But the lack of a decent income reared its ugly head around mid-year when a series of unfortunate events started to happen. At times I felt a bit like Lemony Snicket.

First the washing machine broke. Not surprising, really, since it came with the house when we bought it ten years ago, and it had probably been in the house at least ten years before that. Buying a new one was inevitable. While we were at it, my wife and I decided to splurge and buy a matching dryer, too. After all, the dryer was also pretty ancient, and we had never bought a brand new washer or dryer before. So forking over the money for a shiny pair of appliances wasn't that painful.

Speaking of pain, as 2015 went along I started waking up with a sore back and neck with some regularity, which I attributed to the fact that our mattress was about 15 years old. So my wife and I opened up the checkbook to buy a new mattress and foundation.

See, that's the problem when you age: everything you own ages, too. And it needs replacing. Like our gas range, which decided to die in the middle of baking a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies in late October. And the custom canvas awnings above our front and side doors that got shredded in a November wind storm and had to be replaced. Again, these were things that came along with the house and had just worn out. (For what it's worth, I had no idea that awnings could be so damn expensive.)

Things settled down a bit until some annoying episodes of atrial fibrillation--an irregular heart rhythm--started kicking my ass. After almost 18 years of having that condition kept in check by medication, I decided to have a catheter ablation done on my heart to try and fix the problem permanently. Because we buy our own health insurance, which has a pretty high deductible, that procedure ended up costing us quite a bit out-of-pocket. It was definitely well worth it, but it was also another unexpected expense incurred in 2015.

Lastly, just to put some icing on the proverbial cake, my wife and I bought a second car late in the year. Having one car is something we've done for a long time, but sometimes it's a bit inconvenient. So when the opportunity to buy a 2007 Ford Focus that a friend of ours was selling at a ridiculously good price presented itself, we figured what the hell. (Believe it or not, the car was the cheapest of all the purchases I've mentioned in this post.)

Now back to my concerns about this blog. It wasn't the writing that I was worried about; it was the money. Because the idea behind Causes and Effect isn't only to write about charities and good causes, it's to donate to them, too. At least $10.00 a day times 31 days meant that my family would be spending at least another $310.00 during the month of December (which is more than we paid for the Focus!).

I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and tell Melinda that I couldn't do the blog. Surely she'd understand. And it wasn't like she wouldn't be able to find somebody else to do it, right? But something inside of me told me to stick with it.

There are two things I know about money:

1. It really isn't everything.
2. There's always somebody who needs it more than you do.

I think that's the essence of the Causes and Effect blog. The idea that giving, even if it sometimes hurts a little, is the most incredibly rewarding thing you can do. Knowing that you are helping others and making a difference, no matter how small, just makes you feel good.

Writing the Causes and Effect blog this month has been one of the most amazing, gratifying things I've ever done. It's taught me so much, not just about writing--like how hard it is to sit down and write a reasonably meaningful piece every single day--but about life. I’m so glad I didn't back out of this wonderful opportunity.

Thanks to Melinda Newman (and Brian Mansfield) for having faith in my ability to take care of this blog for 31 days. Hopefully I've done a decent job. And a very special thanks to my wife, Kathy, for her willingness to let Causes and Effect become an integral part of our lives for the month of December. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Now let's just hope the refrigerator, dishwasher, and furnace behave themselves for a while longer.

"Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides....When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back." --Anne Lamott