Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's New Year's Eve. Pass the Root Beer.

So, it’s New Year’s Eve. Woohoo! Let’s party!!

Or not. Because New Year’s Eve has never appealed to me much as a “holiday.” I think the only time I ever really made a concerted effort to “celebrate” it was during a three- or four-year span during my teenage years. Maybe from the time I was 15 or so until I was 18?

Back in those days, I did some really stupid things. Overall I was a terrific kid (you can ask my Mom), but damn…when I look back and reflect on some of the behaviors I engaged in, it scares the hell out of me.

Having grown up in an alcoholic home (compliments of my Dad), I always associated New Year’s Eve with drinking. Not that it was much different than any other night in my house. I mean, my Dad was always drinking. I guess New Year’s Eve just meant that the beverages consumed included some more variety. Instead of just the usual Club Manhattans on the rocks, maybe there was some Champagne or Cold Duck thrown into the mix, too. And, of course, the kids were always invited to imbibe at the stroke of midnight, if not before.

(Cold Duck, a combination of wine and Champagne that was invented at a restaurant in Detroit--yes, as a Detroiter my Dad knew the history--was big in our house at holiday time. The first time I ever got drunk was when I had too much Cold Duck to drink one Thanksgiving. I was probably 12.)

So New Year’s Eve was, to me, a drinking holiday. Growing up, that’s what I saw, and it was engrained in me from an early age.

I think I was 15 when I had my first truly horrific experience with alcohol. It was New Year’s Eve and a girl down the street was having a party. I was excited to go because I had a bit of a crush on this girl, and she had way cool parents (or so I thought at the time). Her parents were so cool that they were letting her have a party with alcohol. The plan was for everyone to bring a bottle of something, then it would all be mixed together into a “punch.”

Great idea, right? Wrong.

Looking back, I can’t even fathom how something like this was allowed to happen. I know it was a different time--likely 1976--but what the hell kind of parents would let such a thing go on in their house? I can only imagine that it must’ve been an extreme case of “If they’re gonna drink, let’s have ‘em drink at home so we know they’re safe.” Sadly, I think some parents still subscribe to that theory, although I’m certainly not one of them.

But back to my story.

I went to the party. The punch was mixed. I drank punch. Actually, I drank a lot of punch, because I didn’t know what the f*ck I was doing. By 9:30 or 10:00, I was completely wasted. I knew I was going to be sick, so I made my way from the basement (party headquarters) to the bathroom at the top of the stairs. So, in what was probably one of the biggest examples of Murphy’s Law I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, what do you suppose happened when I got to the bathroom? Yup. It was occupied.

I certainly wasn’t planning for that scenario. I started to make my way back downstairs, but only got down a couple of steps before I threw up. And boy, did I throw up. All over the stairs. All over the wall. All over myself.

Strangely enough, nobody noticed. The kids downstairs were partying too much to notice. And the music was so loud that nobody--downstairs or up--could hear me being sick. At the time, this gave me the false impression that I was home free. That nobody would know that I had been the one to fill the stairwell up with vomit.

Yeah, right.

It didn’t take long for the girl’s father to find the mess I had created. And it took even less time for him to pin the crime on me. The fact that I was covered in my own puke kind of made it a dead giveaway.

Long story short: I was asked to leave. I grabbed my coat, left the party, and made my way down the block, on foot, back to my house.

It was very snowy out and I have no idea how I managed to navigate my way home that night. I remember wondering what the hell I was going to tell my parents, who would most certainly be up and about. But somehow I managed to go around to the back door, waited for the perfect opportunity, and snuck in without anyone knowing. I quietly went to my room, took off my soiled clothes, and got into bed.

I remember waking up the next day with my first hangover. I felt like I was dying. And at that point I wanted to die.

Happy new year, huh?

You would think that that incident would’ve taught me a lesson, but it really didn’t. I remember going out and drinking for the next couple of New Year’s Eves, too, but I didn’t get sick anywhere but in my own bathroom at the end of the night. Needless to say, there was a period during my teenage years when I was obviously hanging out with the wrong people. When I found a different crowd to run with, things definitely changed for the better. Thank God.

Maybe that horrific experience back in the mid-seventies helped mold my current opinion of New Year’s Eve. I’m sure it must’ve had some effect. In any case, for me New Year’s Eve ranks right up there with St. Patrick’s Day as, first and foremost, a “drinking holiday.” That’s why I like to spend December 31st at home, safe and sound, with people I love.

Tonight I’ll cook a nice meal, we’ll enjoy each other’s company, and maybe we’ll even make it to midnight. But it will be an alcohol-free “celebration,” and the only scary thing about it will be hearing the gunshots ring out from across the border in Detroit at 12:00.

I hope all of you out there enjoy your New Year’s Eve, no matter how you celebrate it. Just remember: if you drink, don’t drive. Don’t make this holiday one your family will never forget for the wrong reasons.

Now, pass the root beer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve, 2014. I'm sitting on the couch with my wife, watching Law & Order reruns, and listening to the rain from a Christmas Eve thunderstorm pounding down on our family room roof. It's almost 50 degrees outside, which is not very Christmasy. But I'm not complaining. Our younger son is upstairs, safe and sound in his room, playing an online video game with friends.

Oh, yeah. We just ordered Chinese takeout, too.

I grabbed my laptop and wanted to write a blog post, but I don't know what to write about.

There have been a lot of thoughts running through my head over the last few days. My mind always starts racing--even more than usual--around Christmastime, even though I've never been a huge fan of the holiday. Especially since it's grown so commercial over the years.

I know Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday first and foremost, but we aren't very religious. (We're spiritual, not religious.) So we like to think of it as a family holiday. Almost like a second Thanksgiving. A time to be together, eat good food, and be grateful for what we have.

For several years in the not-so-distant past, Christmas was bittersweet. Sure, we had things to be thankful for. But we also had our struggles. Our older son's addiction wreaked havoc in our family and holidays were kind of like a ticking time bomb. We tried to enjoy Christmas, but something deep down inside us was saying, "It's gonna blow up, it's gonna blow up," over and over again. And sometimes it did. We just dealt with it the best we could and salvaged what we could of the holiday.

Since our older son got clean in July of 2012, Thanksgiving and Christmas have become kind of ethereal. We spent so many years wondering what a "normal" holiday felt like, that when we finally got a chance to experience it...well, it took some getting used to. Nonetheless, I'm so incredibly happy that this will be our third normal Christmas in a row.

Some people won't have a normal Christmas tomorrow, though. One family in particular, a family from the suburb in which I live, will have the agonizing task of trying to get through Christmas without their 16-year-old daughter. She was killed Monday night when a gunman sprayed the car she was in with 30 or so shots from his automatic rifle. This happened on a desolate corner in the neighboring city of Detroit.

There were four other teenagers in the car, too. Three of them were wounded and one was unharmed--if you can consider having to live with what happened to them that night for the rest of their life "unharmed."

I keep thinking how horrible it must be for the deceased girl's parents and family. A few days ago, they were likely full of joy, preparing for Christmas. Now they are full of grief, and have to prepare for a funeral.

Christmas will never be the same for them again. Never. Ever. I can't imagine how painful that must be.

There's been a lot of speculation on social media and in the papers about exactly why this happened to the suburban teens. They were admittedly sitting in the car smoking some pot right before the attack. Some people are saying the shooting was a drug deal gone bad. Others say it was a random robbery attempt. Lots of folks say the kids shouldn't have been where they were, or doing what they were doing.

I say, "Does it even matter?"

I don't really care what the kids were doing. What happened to them was another senseless act of violence in a society that has pretty much become numb to such acts. This tragedy has received a lot of media coverage because it happened to a group of (mostly) suburban kids while they were in the scary old city. But the sad truth is that things like this are happening every single day, all across our country.

Pardon my language, but what the fuck has happened to our society?

I posted this on Facebook today:

One thing that's wrong with the world today: Too much blame. Not enough compassion. Life's too short for constant finger-pointing, people. We're all in this together.

Things are so screwed up these days. People get shot and people blame the victims. Or people get shot and people blame the police. Or people get shot and people blame the president. Sometimes I just want to pack my bags and move somewhere that's free from the constant finger-pointing I mentioned on Facebook.

Okay, so I feel like I'm rambling now.

The Chinese food will be here shortly, so I need to wrap this up. Our Christmas Eve will be very low-key, just like every other day and night around here. Tomorrow morning, we'll open gifts. Or, should I say, the boys will open gifts. We are not very materialistic in this house--especially this year because I'm still out of work. My wife and I bought books for each other, and we've already made the exchange. (I got Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Fast. She got George Clinton's Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir.) There just wasn't anything that either of us really needed, because--and this may sound unbelievable--we already have everything we need.

Tomorrow the whole family will also be together for Christmas dinner, and before we eat we'll recite our new regular "grace":

"Right this minute, we understand that this is all there is, so let's really be together." (Thank you, Anne Lamott.)

I wish all of you who celebrate it a very merry Christmas. When you read this, take a moment (or several) to truly appreciate what you have. If you have a spouse or significant other, hug them and tell them you love them. If you have kids, hug them and tell them you love them. If you're with your family for the holidays, hug everyone and tell them you love them. Because we never know what tomorrow will bring.

Please don't ever take things you have for granted. Note: By "things," I mostly mean non-materialistic things. Because those are the "things" in life that really matter. Everything else is just stuff. And I know one family that would gladly trade all the stuff in the world for the chance to have their beautiful daughter back, to hug and hold closely this Christmas.

Rest in peace, Paige. My family is praying for you and your family.

"The value of life is not in its duration, but in its donation." --Myles Munroe

"The marks humans leave are too often scars." --John Green (in The Fault in Our Stars)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Note to Parents: WE Are Our Kids' Role Models

At the risk of sounding like a scrooge or a grinch--or maybe just a plain old killjoy--I've decided to go ahead and write this blog post.

Those of you who know me know that I'm on Facebook a lot. It's one of the primary ways I network with the recovery community and share my writing.

I've been on Facebook a long time, and there aren't a whole lot of things that bother me when it comes to what other people post on their pages. But one thing that has always bothered me is this:

Parents posting photos of themselves partying with alcohol.

I've seen several of these photos lately; maybe it's because the holiday season is upon us and people are hosting or attending Christmas parties. And while I understand that not everyone leads an alcohol-free life, as parents we should know that WE are the role models for our kids. What we do has a tremendous amount of influence on our children, whether we like it or not.

Sure, people will argue that they're adults and they have a right to do whatever they want. But I'm a firm believer in parenting by example. If your kids see your alcohol-related photos posted on Facebook, what kind of message do you think that sends to them?

In his terrific book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff writes:

“A study undertaken by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that children of alcoholics were four times more likely than other kids to become alcoholics. Kids who have seen their parents drunk are five times more likely than kids who haven’t to get drunk one or more times a month.”

If you're the parent of a teen or tween, think twice about what you're posting on your own Facebook page. It's very likely that your child(ren) will see it, so use common sense. (That's what you tell your kids to do when it comes to Facebook, right??)

Bottom line: If you're out partying this holiday season--or any season, for that matter--it's probably not the best idea to post photos of your imbibing self on Facebook.

I will now step down from my soapbox.


"We should never permit ourselves to do anything that we are not willing to see our children do. We should set them an example that we wish them to imitate." --Brigham Young

This may be an extreme example, but you get the idea, right?

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Better to Give Than to Receive

(Note: This blog post also appears on the Huffington Post's blog site under the same title: "It's Better to Give Than to Receive.")

I woke up this morning, turned on the Internet, and came across a New York Times OpEd piece titled "Is It Bad Enough?" Written by food writer, author, and columnist Mark Bittman, the piece focuses on the current state or our country and the spontaneous protests that have been going on nationwide.

Bittman writes:

"The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country’s people combined."

Those numbers were shocking to me. How can one family have more money than so many others? I'm all for the American Dream, but looking at those stats can certainly make one realize why the non-rich may feel at least a little bit slighted.

Earlier in the week, I read another eye-opening article about being a "have-not" in the United States. This one was on the website. Titled "Why People Stay Poor,"  it's actually an excerpt from Linda Tirado's book called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

Tirado says:

"It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. . . .When I have a few extra dollars to spend, I can’t afford to think about next month--my present day situation is generally too tight to allow me that luxury. I’ve got kids who are interested in their quality of life right now, not 10 years from now."

Tirado talks about how she once lost a truck that was towed because she couldn't afford to get it out of impound, and about how "It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right--and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet."

Reading those pieces from Torado and Bittman made me feel extremely fortunate. Which is strange, because just the day before I had posted this as my status update on Facebook:

"I kind of thought this to be the case, but I can now confirm based on experience: paying bills is way easier when you have an income!‪"

Looking back at that status update made me feel like a fool.

Yes, it's true that I have been unemployed for a year now. I've been doing some freelance work here and there, but I don't have a steady income by any means. That said, my wife works. And although her income is modest, we do have some money in the bank. The bottom line: We are far from being poor and are likely way better off than a very large number of Americans.

After I read the Bittman piece, I read part of it aloud to my wife. She was astonished by the statistics it quoted as well. Then she looked at me and said, "We should go to Kmart and pay off some people's layaways."

You have to pay a fee to use layaway. That seems unfair.
Paying off a complete stranger's layaway account is something my wife and I first did three years ago. Knowing that someone's holiday hinged on their coming up with enough money to free Christmas wish list items from a back room at their local Kmart was unsettling to us. So we went to Kmart, explained what we wanted to do, and went "shopping" in the layaway room for bundles of gifts we wanted to secretly pay for. We were "layaway angels" to three families that year.

Today, we did the same. Granted, things are way different for us this year. Three years ago, we were both working and things were pretty damn good. Today, only one of us is working. In fact, I applied for unemployment yesterday. But we are still blessed and do not want for much. Spending some money to brighten the Christmas of three less fortunate families just seemed like the right thing to do.

There was another article that caught my eye the other day.  It was a story in USA TODAY about a layaway angel who spent $20,000.00 to pay off every single layaway account--all 150 of them--at a Toys R Us store in Bellingham, Massachusetts.

My wife and I only spent one-tenth that much today, but the end result was the same: We made a difference in some people's lives this Christmas. Our hope is that the beneficiaries will realize that there are indeed still people in the world who care about others. Maybe someday they will remember what someone did for them and be inspired to pay it forward.

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another." --Charles Dickens

Looking through the shelves in the layaway room.
So many things to choose from.

Friday, December 12, 2014

I Think We'll Celebrate

Today is my son's 25th birthday.

When I woke up this morning and remembered that, I started to cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed with happiness.

It you'd have asked me as recently as a few years ago, I would've told you that I wasn't sure my son would even make it to 25. Sure, I had hope. But addiction and depression can twist a person's life in ways that are totally unpredictable. I had no idea what loomed on the horizon for my son.

Four years ago today, on my son's 21st birthday, I wrote a blog post called "21 Years Later." In that post, I said:

"When you become a parent, nothing is guaranteed. You hope that your children are healthy and intelligent, and grow up to be fine adults. But if there are a few bumps in the road along the way--like addiction and depression--you have to improvise and ad lib to the best of your ability in order to help everyone--most importantly, your child--get through it. There's no owner's manual. It's like trying to figure out the most complicated computer software known to mankind just by sitting down and playing around with it. Trial and error. Over and over and over again."

Today I am grateful that we--me, my wife, and our beautiful boy--never stopped trying. Even though there were times we probably wanted to, we never gave up.

When our son comes over for dinner after work today, my wife and I will probably tell him (for the umpteenth time) how incredibly cold it was the night he was born. And how beautiful the full moon was that night. But more than that, we will tell him how much we love him. And how incredibly proud we are of him.

Today is my son's 25th birthday and his 893rd consecutive day of sobriety. I think we'll celebrate.


"Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day." --A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Catching Up

It's been a week since my last post, and some stuff has been going on. So I thought I'd stop by and give you an update.

First of all, I've had two new pieces published in the past week over at the Heroes in Recovery website.

The first piece is a blog post entitled "Being Transparent to Help Break the Stigma." It talks about how sharing my experiences with my sons addiction is therapeutic to me, and about how sharing helps bring addiction out of the shadows and into the light.

The second piece is a story I wrote in the aftermath of one of the best Thanksgivings ever. "The Greatest Gift I Could Ask For: My Son's Sobriety" let's people know what an amazing thing my son's recovery has been, and that they should never give up if they, or someone they love, are struggling with addiction.

I hope you'll take the time to read both pieces. And feel free to leave comments on them at the Heroes website. I always like to know what people think about the topics I write about.

The other stuff going on in my life has to do with facing the ugly reality of unemployment. Without going into detail, I was being compensated for a while (with health insurance), but that has now run out. I am doing some freelance work, and my wife is working; but having a major chunk of our household's cash flow disappear has been pretty eye-opening.

Here are some random thoughts that have kept popping into my head over the last week or so:

*Paying the bills is tough when you lose your largest, steadiest source of income. It's certainly a wake-up call, and things will no doubt be incredibly challenging for me and my family going forward.

*When your health insurance benefits go away, you realize how important they actually were to you. It was kind of easy to take them for granted. Now I'm trying to decide whether to go on COBRA for a while--at a cost of nearly $1,600.00 a month--or if I should just take the plunge directly into the world of Obamacare.

*Something else you take for granted when it's included in your employer's benefits package: life insurance. You cruise along for years with ridiculously affordable life insurance--again, taking it for granted--then all of a sudden it disappears. If you don't know this already, trying to find life insurance that won't break your bank account is a pain in the ass. Especially when you're in your fifties and have some minor health issues. My advice to younger folks out there who are blessed with having life insurance through their employer: Go buy some life insurance from another source while you can do so at a decent rate. It'll save you a lot of hassle later on.

*I need a job. So if you know someone who might know someone...

I guess that's about it for now. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and wish you a very happy holiday season. Remember to take time daily to be grateful for the little things in your life. Some of the greatest gifts we have in life are things we tend to take for granted. Live in the moment and appreciate everything each day brings you. There are no guarantees for tomorrow.

In the same vein, there's a fabulous quote in the new Anne Lamott book (Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace) that I've fallen in love with. This quote hit me so hard that I printed it out and hung it up on my dining room wall. And I've used it as "grace" for the last two dinner gatherings I've hosted with my entire family.

"Right this minute, we understand that this is all there is, so let's really be together."

Amen, Anne. I think that line sums up life perfectly.


P.S. Here are direct links to my newest pieces on the Heroes in Recovery site:

"Being Transparent to Help Break the Stigma":

"The Greatest Gift I Could Ask For: My Son's Sobriety":