The opening lyrics of the song “Empty and Beautiful” say this…
My past won’t stop haunting me
In this prison there’s a fight between who I am, and who I used to be…
The first time I heard these words I thought of a hundred things in my past that I thought I could never write about. Things I was certain made God cringe – that made heaven go silent while every saint stopped what they were doing and whispered a prayer on my behalf.
But I remember the words of Audre Lorde, “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs,” and I’m reminded that this broken bird will always have a place to land.
This morning I needed a pick-me-up before getting my workout on, so I stopped by the gas station for a Red Bull. Just as I stepped up to the counter, a man behind me began talking loudly to the attendant, which apparently qualified him to go first. He stepped right in front of me, so I stepped aside and shot him a look. He was dirty, had ill-fitting clothes, hadn’t shaved for at least a couple of weeks, and was loud in a way that was surely getting him judged (by me). And what was he there for, you ask? Lottery tickets. Judge judge judge. Red Bull was a much more respectable choice. I let out an audible sigh.
He investigated the Lottery tickets, shifting from foot to foot – the Hoosier Powerball, Mega Millions, Quick Draw, the Daily 4. So many choices. Hmmm…how do I want to get rich? I imagined him thinking as he ran his fingers over the greasy overgrowth on his face.
“So the Powerball is 60 million, right?” he asked sinfully loud for 5:50am, never looking up from the shiny silver and neon tickets on the spool.
“Yep,” the attendant said, watching my eyes. He was judging too. We both sighed.
“What about Mega Millions? How big is that?” I could feel my blood beginning to boil. IT’S MEGA, I wanted to scream. I imagined bashing my head against the counter repeatedly.
“43,” the attendant says.
43 million actually was kind of Mega. I considered getting one, but I couldn’t buy both the Red Bull and the Mega Millions ticket because I just can’t bring myself to spend more than five bucks in the mini-mart of a gas station without feeling like my next purchase will be The Claw from “As Seen On TV.”
“I’ll take three Powerballs and four of the others,” he finally said. But while the attendant was ringing him up he added at least five more tickets to the pile. “And one of those, and that one there, and how about this one here too,” he said. I was beginning to think he had a good chance of winning. His total was thirty something dollars and change. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Hey, after this how about we go to your bank and set your safe deposit box on fire.”
He picked up his tickets to leave. “Let me get out of this man’s way,” he said, nodding at me and heading out the door. I purchased my Red Bull and the clerk and I exchanged one last eye roll as I grabbed my receipt and left.
Sitting in my car, I got to thinking about my perception of who I thought this man was. I hate it when I put myself above others simply because they buy lottery tickets or talk louder than they should. And the truth is, I only do this when somewhere inside I think my worth is based on something I have done, created, or been, rather than because I am simply a human being. And when I live with the false reality that I am the sum of my offerings, I begin categorizing and labeling people based on my own personal taste for what I believe life should be like, and self-select yours truly for the top of the heap. Long story short, I was wrong. And I knew I was wrong. I saw him as less than me.
I whispered my apologies to the man as I pulled out of the gas station. “Sorry dude. You’re just as worthy as the rest of us.”
Then I got to thinking about how hopeful this man really was. I mean, when you think about it, a person isn’t buying a lottery ticket, let alone ten of them, unless there is some hope left in them. This man can actually envision something unbelievable happening in his life. I wondered if I could envision the same. It’s amazing what people can suffer through in their lives and still have hope stuck in their craw. It’s the last thing left in us before we completely give up.
Every day of high school my hope was renewed. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if this might be the day the football players would finally recognize that the choir, the band, and the drama kids were worthy of being put on their shoulders and carried around – or that the cheerleaders would talk to the administration about holding an All-School-Pep-Rally for us just before our spring production of Man of La Mancha. I had always been hopeful like this. But after years of struggling to see things pan out, hope dissipates, doesn’t it? It did in me. But then I see a man buying lottery tickets in a gas station, and after judging him for his gross appearance and odd spending habits, I feel a pinch in my gut and am reminded that hope is alive. That it may be a bird with no feet, but it is nesting in a tree with no limbs, and everything is going to be okay.
Thank you, obnoxious man in the gas station. Thank you. I wish I could put you on my shoulders.
I would guess that for the most part, the only people who are truly believed to have lost all hope are those that end their own lives – but even then we can safely assume that many of those who have suffered suicide, have done so with the greatest hope that wherever they were going would certainly be better than where they were. Therefore, I do not believe hope is something we lose as much as it is something we let go of, or turn our backs on. And if this is true, then hope, though dormant or hibernating, is still alive in us somewhere.
I am not what I would call “suicidal.” Only once in my life have I even wondered about it. When I left my family of origin for the first time and began college, my past simply wouldn’t stop haunting me. After a lengthy bout with shame that gripped me like a Michigan winter grips February, I found myself in an empty field with a broken pop bottle pinned against my wrist. I wondered about leaving. I thought about a better place and wondered if I’d make it there. Several years later I sat with my friend at a dirty hospital watching him have a full on nervous breakdown. I’d never seen anything like it. He had paranoid thoughts of awful things he’d never done, but couldn’t shake the thought that he had. When I was 31 years old, I was asleep in my bed one night and awoke to a deep pain in my chest. I could hardly take a breath and I couldn’t speak at all. I was having my very first panic attack which, previous to this moment, was something I simply didn’t believe in. To me, panic attacks were for the crazies. They were not real. But then I remembered my friend in college, and sitting next to him as he confessed things to me that he’d never actually done. There was something about it that I couldn’t put my finger on. I decided to do a little digging.
I went to a bad therapist (they exist, just so you know) and he told me I was having “panic attacks” which made me feel real dumb, and real…girly (sorry ladies, I’m really not a pig, I swear.) Several days later I had another panic attack, this time while I was on the phone with a friend, but instead of not being able to breathe, I was hyperventilating as if I was on the Treadmill of Terror, and couldn’t catch my breath. The out of control breathing subsided after about ten minutes and I officially declared myself crazy. Like I said in 28, things get weird in your late twenties, early thirties. At that stage, Life is like a medicine cabinet full of unlabeled pill bottles – you never know what you’re gonna get.
I continued seeing Bad Therapist with mediocre results, but finally outgrew him and began working my twelve-step program. Thank God for it. It was easy to understand even though it would be a while before I actually did what it said to do.
Step one – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – and that our lives had become unmanageable.
When you come out of Crazy House like I did, the word “unmanageable” can easily be misunderstood. My answer to anything that wasn’t death was, “It’ll be fine.” Death was the benchmark. If you were not dead, you were fine. This philosophy kept me from fully embracing that I had a real problem managing my life. I didn’t see myself as powerless, and my pride and denial took me further and further away from healthy living and emotional stability. And this is when my drinking really kicked into high gear.
Milkshake Man leveled with me and said there is something he called the “F-it” line, and he believed that I was really flirting with it. He told me that once you cross the F-it line, you’ll go on a bender and not come back for ten years – that you’ll cash in your wife, your kids, your career, and your friends in the process– all for your drug of choice.
Alcohol is only one substance we abuse. Open your mind to the other culprits. Here’s a list. (Pick your favorite.)
Food (too much, or too little)
Sex (pornography, empty sexual relationships, affairs)
Constant need for excitement
Obsessive Exercise (body image)
Controlling behavior (unwillingness to accept the things you cannot change)
Drama (gossip, slander, etc.)
Some of the things mentioned are not going to be a big deal to you, and you’re right. I watch people control their drinking all the time. They’re not connected to it in an unhealthy way. The gauge becomes, is this behavior interfering with your life and keeping you from peaceful living? Are you “using” it to self-medicate? (You might want to ask your partner before you put this question to rest – or better yet, ask a therapist so they can help you get an accurate assessment.) Does something consume your thoughts? Are you in any way obsessed with another person, with being thin, being fat, finding a sexual partner for the weekend, controlling your kid’s lives, working, money, status – or have you checked out of life completely and sit in front of the TV all night long? If so, relax. It doesn’t make you bad, it just…is.
I’m an alcoholic. HATED that word. Hated the label. Felt like I was not “one of those” people. Before I stopped drinking, I remember telling a fellow alcoholic that I would rather die than be labeled an alcoholic. This was a woman I had a deep respect for. She was one of those people who was much further along in life than I was, and I knew it.
“Why?” she asked me. “Why would it be so bad for you?”
“Because my dad is an alcoholic,” I told her. “And I don’t want to be an alcoholic like him because it ruined my life.”
“Well,” she said, “maybe you don’t have to be an alcoholic like your dad. Maybe you can be an alcoholic like me.” I had watched her live her life in complete authenticity for several years. When she was angry, she said so. When she was hurt, she acknowledged it. And when she was stumped, she went digging for answers, always comfortable enough to sit in the discomfort, while still managing to do the next right thing. I sat across from her in that moment and decided – IF I actually am an alcoholic, I’m going to be one like her.
I wouldn’t be ready to make the leap for another year or so – to leave behind those things which I was powerless over. But God was preparing a tree for me, with no limbs. And when I was ready, I’d find it. Thank God I would. And thank God I did.
I am terrible at finding things. Most men are. I remember Heather grilling burgers one night a couple of years back. As she was putting them on the table she asked me to get the mayonnaise out of the refrigerator. I couldn’t see it at first, so I pored over the contents of the refrigerator again. I looked everywhere. “It’s in the door, Honey. It’s right in the door.” I swept my eyes back and forth, slowly this time, scanning for the jar of mayonnaise she promised was there. Nothing. I couldn’t find it. Heather walked over, reached in the refrigerator door, and pulled out the mayonnaise in less than second. But this wasn’t the mayonnaise I was looking for. I was looking for regular old mayonnaise in a regular old jar. But the mayonnaise she pulled out was in a squeeze bottle. I didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t typical.
Hope is a bird with no feet. It is odd and curious. And in your darkest hour, you’ll never find it if you are only looking for a regular old bird with regular old features. So open your mind, because hope is anything but typical.