All posts by fgreenagel

19Nov/22

The Year of Mourning, Remembering and Honoring My Father

My father died a year ago today. November 19, 2021. We were snorkeling off Laughing Bird Caye National Park in Belize. He had a heart attack in the water. The guide brought him to shore. I arrived shortly after and took over CPR duties from some helpful strangers. I told him that I loved him and I wanted him to fight, but if he had to die, that I gave him permission to go. We gave him CPR on a speedboat as we motored towards the mainland. Upon our arrival, the doctor declared him dead. Within minutes, I thought about a 17 year old client who lost his State Trooper Dad to a 9/11 illness when he 12. I thought about four close friends who lost their fathers in their 20s. He was 82. I was 45. I thought about all the people I know with absent or shitty fathers. My dad was an exceptional man. Unsparing in his demands and criticisms of me growing up, for sure, but those forged me into who I am today. The last 15 years or so were spent as friends and equals; it was a wonderful relationship.

During a trip to Minnesota in the fall of 2018, I noticed my Dad was falling asleep while sitting down throughout the day. A week later, we were in DC and my uncle told him that he should see a cardiologist. My father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Scary, especially because his father, the original Frank Sr., had congestive heart failure and died of a heart attack in 1980. After his diagnosis, my Dad did three things that truly surprised me: he changed his diet, started to exercise regularly, and he took medication as prescribed from his doctors. That last one was a particular shock, as my Dad had polio and lived in an iron lung all throughout second grade. The doctors told him he would never walk again. He did and forever distrusted their advice afterwards, until the fall of 2018.

I sent a group text to about 15 of my friends. I told them what happened. That I had a lot to take care of, with phone calls and a police report and arranging cremation and figuring out how I would get his remains home. And that we were still on to hang out the day after I got home and what I needed most from them was not to be weird around me and, if they could, be prepared to tell me or write me stories about my Dad.

I made a bunch of phone calls within 2 hours of his death. I called his girlfriend, his brothers, my sister, and a few of his friends. I knew it was extremely important that each of them find out from a voice at the other end of a phone, rather than a text or email or newspaper clipping or social media post. Despite my sorrow, I had to deliver the news and explain what happened and let them know what he thought of them (in most cases) and what they might do to deal with their grief and remember him.

Immediately after his death and for a few weeks after, I kicked myself for taking him snorkeling. Hard. “What the fuck was the I thinking?” I’d say out loud when no one was around. The thoughts went like this, “If I hadn’t taken him snorkeling, he’d still be alive. I had caused his demise and was the source of my pain. Stupid!” But those thoughts were often counteracted with the following: “He chose to go snorkeling. It was the activity he wanted. He loved it, all his adult life. He was never one for sitting around or avoiding things because they were dangerous. I’m the same way. I’m going to drive fast and climb huge mountains right up to my end. It’s not my fault. And he wouldn’t want me to beat myself up over it. He died before his mind began to deteriorate. He died before his body failed him and robbed him of his oh so vital independence. He died in a beautiful setting doing something he loved and I was with him.” Those later thoughts won out, early and now. But, about once a month or so, I catch myself thinking about the snorkeling and curse myself and then have to walk myself out of it again. This is part of the grief process.

My grandmother died when I was 19. I spent the next six months getting drunk and high. I didn’t work much. I went to college in the fall but didn’t go to class. I didn’t exercise. In short, I didn’t do much of anything, other then get fucked up. I thought about how I wasn’t there at her end and how I was a screw up. Those constant thoughts and the ever stream of substances made the pain worse; crystallized it in amber. I got sober that winter and spent the next several years trying to process my grief. My regrets. The single best thing that came out of my grandmother’s death is that I vowed to a) not be a fuck up and b) make sure that I spent time with people that I loved and supported them in every way I could. In 2002, my friend Frazer overdosed. I was six and half years sober. I had spent the first few years of my recovery trying to get him clean. Every time he relapsed, I thought, “How could he do this to me?” and “Why can’t he just get this? He has so much going for him.” After a lot of sharing in AA meetings and therapy, I accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control Frazer’s addiction or manage his recovery. A little while later, I realized I was angry at him for dying. That sucked, being angry at my dead friend. Eventually, I got past that too. I decided to become a drug and alcohol counselor. To help people like Frazer. And to try to prevent their loved ones from suffering the pain that I had experienced.

My counseling career started in 2004. So many of my early clients had unresolved grief. Dead parents, dead friends, dead lovers, dead children. They had never talked about it with anyone. They lived with guilt and regret and anger and a powerful sadness. I listened to them. I got them to write about their loved one. I had them do things to honor the dead. At one point, I realized that while I had a lot of memories of Gram and Frazer, I didn’t have nearly as many as I thought I should. Immediately after their deaths, my mind was flooded with memories. Long forgotten ones. It was the emotions stirring up long dormant memories. I wish I had written them down. I told my clients to write about their loved ones for 30 days. “That shit is going to fuck me up Frank,” they usually said. “Good. It is supposed to. But let me be clear, you are going to be fucked up anyway. This gets it out. And then you can write about happy memories that make you laugh. That make you proud. We are going to work through all this guilt and regret.” And we did.

My friend Eric suddenly died in March of 2018. I was in a daze the first two weeks after he died. I could not believe it. I had a hard time sleeping. I was sad and angry and guilty and confused. A terrible place to be. I wrote about him every night at 1130 pm. For 35 days. Sometimes I wrote for 30 minutes, other times for two hours. It helped. At one point, I wrote a story that caused me to sob. Guttural cries of anguish with thick drool falling from my lips. Most stories made me laugh. I shared them on Facebook. And I emailed them to people without a Facebook account. The responses were amazing. Comforting. Reassuring. People told me that my writing helped them. And inspired some of them to write. I took the best of their stories and the best of mine and my Dad edited them and published “The Book of Eric” that fall.

So I wrote about my Dad. For somewhere between 50 and 60 days. The stories centered around my childhood and his exacting standards, my later teenage years and substance misuse and his struggles with my problem, early recovery and young adulthood and the change in our relationship, and the last fifteen years which were filled with love and laughter and adventures and fantastic advice and support. Hundreds of people read every post. People who knew him well read them. People who didn’t know him at all did too. The feedback was wonderful. Helpful. We collectively grieved, which is infinitely better than grieving in isolation.

All the previous major deaths in my life had prepared me for this one. Because of my grandmother, I spent so much time with my father over the last 25 years. Nothing was unsaid. He saw me in my full glory. Frazer’s death taught me to lean on friends and keep moving forward in life. Eric’s death proved to me the fantastical significance and power of writing.

My father’s apartment in Phillipsburg loomed large. It was crammed full of photographs and books and jam packed filing cabinets and 25 years worth of “New Yorkers.” Sorting through his stuff would be a Herculean task. I had the energy to write about my Dad and continue to work and engage in my life. I didn’t have the energy to sort through his stuff. Too time consuming, too brutal. My mom stepped up. They had been divorced 27 years at the time of his death, but they had remained friends and, sometime in the last ten years, actually became good friends. She sorted through all his things. Figured out what should be kept and what should be donated and what should be thrown out. I went by a few times with a bunch of friends to haul stuff away to be thrown out or donated. My Mom probably put in 200 hours. It is one of the very great acts of service anyone has ever done for me. I will be forever grateful to her for it.

In late January, I ran a four part grief group over eight weeks via Zoom. It was for people that I knew from childhood or Rutgers or AA or the Army or Prevention Links or some other aspect of my life. I did it as a way of honoring my Dad. An act of service. Each group lasted 90 minutes to two hours. People had to do writing for each group. We read and laughed and cried and supported each other.

In late February, I returned to Belize to collect my father’s ashes. There are only three doctors in the entire country that can perform an autopsy – it took three weeks before his was completed. I couldn’t wait in Belize that long, so I returned to NJ. The US Embassy helped me locate a funeral home and I had his body cremated. Both the funeral home and the Embassy offered to ship the ashes to NJ via Fed Ex, but I said to hell with that (one of my Dad’s lines). I would not risk his ashes getting lost. Getting to Belize was quite the journey. My plane sat on the tarmac for three hours. The custom line was two hours long. I called the car rental company and begged them to stay open and then I called the funeral home to see if they would allow me to come by late at night to collect my father. It all worked out. While in Belize, I rewatched “Lonesome Dove,” a Western that my father introduced me to. It is the story of two old Texas Rangers and their last adventures. Gus dies in Montana and asks his friend, Call, to take his body back to Texas. “Texas? We just got here. Now you want me to bring you back to Texas.” Gus replied, “Yes, Texas!” My father had laughed at that scene every time we watched it together. I felt like Call hauling my Dad’s ashes back to NJ. While I was in Belize, I ended up taking a yoga class for five mornings in a row. It was something I had done a bit several years earlier and had meant to continue, but my crazy work schedule and then deployment and then Covid had prevented me from doing so. The result of taking yoga in Belize is now it is back in my life. Sometimes two days a week, sometimes four. I feel great. Another gift from my father.

In March, we held a memorial service at Rutgers. Dad was an atheist. I could not hold a service for him at a church. I did not want to hold one at a funeral home. It was too cold to hold one outside, and I did not want to wait for spring. Dad was a professor at Minnesota and Colorado. He was a lifelong learner and teacher. Rutgers published his first book. Rutgers is my true home. Dean Lea Stewart secured the space for the service at the Art History building. Perfect. It was a four hour ceremony. There were daffodils. About a dozen people spoke. I read a few different stories between each speaker. I cried. I laughed. I exuded pride and gratitude. My Mom gave a performance for the ages, telling the story of his childhood and work life and how he was more loving to his girlfriends than he was to her, but it was ok, as she was happy he continued to evolve.

Throughout the spring and summer and fall, I thought about my father the most while biking. We took a lot of rides together on the D&R canal; sometimes in Phillipsburg, but usually outside of New Brunswick. Dad biked a lot, especially after his diagnosis. The one constant thought that comes to me while biking is this: “my father loved how I lived my life.” That’s incredibly comforting.

I also think about him when I am driving at night. I drive a lot. At least once a month to Albany for work, and more often for some long ass hike in the Catskills or Adirondacks or White Mountains. I used to call my Dad when I was driving late at night. Catch up on his activities, my work, the Vikings, and the latest American political shit show. He gave calming advice. I miss those late night talks the most, I think.

In the late summer, I had his tombstone made. I put a lot of thought into it. I wanted to capture his various roles and activities. And I wanted strangers to wander past it in the distant future and both wonder and laugh. To borrow from George W. Bush, Mission Accomplished, but for real.

In early November, Andrew Tortora, my college roommate of seven years, came by my house to “cut my father’s ashes like a brick of cocaine.” Andrew is not a drug dealer, but rather a gourmet chef and scientist. He makes OCD right corners and had the neatest notes in college I have ever seen. He brought a little scale and weighed out my father’s ashes. We put exactly half in a box that will go in a grave in Oldwick, NJ. The rest we divided up into several bags that I plan on scattering in places of vital importance. I said it then and I’ll say it again here, get yourself a friend that will cut up your father’s ashes without question or pause.

I’ve spent the last week in Arizona. On Veterans Day weekend, I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim with some boon companions. I spread my father’s ashes in three different places: Coconino Overlook, just below the North Rim, on the banks of the Colorado River in the moonlight, and at Plateau Point at sunrise. I like the spots so much that I want some of my own ashes scattered there some day. Scattering his ashes was not a sad affair; it was imbued with love and respect and honor and devotion.

So here I am, here we are, one year later. For sure, I miss my Dad. But I never fell apart. Because I did the work. I wrote about him, talked about him, listened to stories about him, kept working, spent time with family and friends, exercised, and kept doing things I like doing (I hiked and biked and took yoga classes more than any other year and attended a ton of plays and ate a lot of steak and smoked a bunch of cigars). There was always something I had to look forward to doing to honor my Dad. Purposeful grieving. Actions with meaning. This is how I got through it. And why I am thriving today. Thanks for reading. And I hope that this helps some of you with your own grief journeys some day. Peace and love and remembrance. Ever Forward!

This photo was taken on 11/18/2021, the day before my father died. He is sitting on a comfortable Adirondack chair reading an analysis of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I am swimming about 50 feet off the dock under the gaze of the Mayan Mountains in Belize. It is an ideal moment.
Here I am practicing a speech in September of 1989 when I was running for 8th grade Class President. Dad had me read it aloud over and over again. Changed words here and there. Made me work on pauses and inflections. He was exacting.
For his 70th birthday, we journeyed to Green Bay to watch the Vikings beat the Packers in 2009. His college debate partner and oldest friend, George Curtis, made his son give up his tickets for us. We got to the game quite early and walked around and chatted with a number of the local fans. They were great. So much so that years later, my Dad said, “I know I’m supposed to hate the Packers, but those fans were just the nicest people.”
Over the last dozen years, we attended a lot of plays together. I drove my Mom and Dad up to Boston in the winter of 2016 to see Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced.” We didn’t get back to my place until 4 am and they both still had to drive home. It was a glimpse into how I live my life. It was so much fun that we did it again a year later when Akhtar’s “The Who and the What” played at the Huntingdon in Boston.
This was taken on Father’s Day, 2018. We saw “Paradise Blue” in NYC that afternoon. When we returned to NJ, I took my dad to Five Guys for the first time. He enjoyed the cheeseburger and absolutely loved the Oreo Shake. I love the child-like delight on his face.
I put a lot of thought into his tombstone. It is at the New Germantown Cemetery in Oldwick, NJ. Exactly 50% of his ashes will be interred there on December 3, 2022.
08Jun/22

The Immortal Legacy of Lisa Laitman

Lisa Laitman retired from Rutgers in January. I’ve long said that she should not only have a statue at Rutgers, but at every college and university that has an alcohol and drug assistance program on their campus. We honored her at the 2022 Rutgers Recovery Graduation in May. I told this story to a room of about 250 people.

Lisa began working at Rutgers in 1983 as the first alcohol and drug counselor in the school’s history. She was asked to cover New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, and the Vice-President of Student Affairs wondered if she’d have enough work to justify her job. Crazy. Within a year there was another full time staff member and within another couple years there was a full time staff member at Newark and a few years after that there was a full time staff member at Camden. More staff were added. All because of her ability to treat and advocate for students. Thousands of lives saved, family directions altered. She pushed for an on campus recovery house. College officials said, “All dorms are substance free” and “What would this say about Rutgers that we need a recovery house.” Fools. Anyway, the first recovery house on a college campus in the world opened up at Rutgers in 1988. There were growing spurts and pains. Occasionally a moronic administrator would come along and try to stop funding the program. Lisa always won. Rutgers was the first. Now there are over 200 that have program or are trying to have programs. Because of Rutgers. Because of Lisa. I can’t write enough about her, but this story will have to suffice.

Spring 2010. A few students in very early recovery are chatting after a Narcotics Anonymous meeting on the Cook Campus. A car drives by. Slows down. “Hey, look at the addicts. Hello junkies.” An arm is thrust out of the window, holding a can. “Would you like a beer?”

I hear about it the next day. I’m fucking furious. I think how if I were there I would have wanted to chase after the car, open the door, yell at the two assholes and render a furious beating. Hopefully I’d realize that I’d lose my licenses, my job, and get arrested. Luckily, I wasn’t there.

“Did they get the license plate?” I asked, super hopeful.

“Yes,” Lisa responded.

“Great. Fuck them. We’ll get them kicked out of school and have a permanent mark on their transcripts. Let it follow them where ever they go. The fucks.”

“I have a different idea,” Lisa said.

I sighed. “What’s that?”

“I want you to reach out to them.”

I liked where this was heading.

“Call them up…”

Yeah, this sounded good.

“And have them come into your office and listen to them. Talk to them.”

I hated this idea. She could see it on my face.

“And then I want you to introduce them to the students they taunted. Don’t let the students know who they are. Just let them meet them.”

Fuck. She was going to make me work with the people who had mocked vulnerable students freshly in recovery. But she was my boss. More than that. My mentor. Role model. I did what she said. Not because she was my boss but because I respected her so much.

The first guy came to my office. The “look at the addicts” guy. He said he was sorry. Uh huh. Ok. He asked what was going to happen to him. I think I made him nervous. Good. Fuck him. I said I was taking him to lunch with the kids he shouted at. His face contorted. “Don’t worry fucko, I’m not going to tell them who you are.”

About seven or eight recovery students met us at a Skinny Vinny’s Pizza. Average pizza, but close to my office. The students welcomed the misguided young man. They assumed he was struggling and needed help, because he was with me and I brought him to them. They asked him questions. Supported him. Made him laugh. Talked about movies and stupid internet shit and probably bad music.

He came back the next week. Sobbed in my office. Said he felt like such an asshole. Was ashamed. I was glad he cried. But it made me misty a little too. Because I knew he was truly remorseful. Same thing happened with the “do you want a beer” guy. Weeping in my office, about what a fucking insensitive asshole he was. That he mocked people that were so good and kind.

I can’t tell that story without crying. I’ve told it a lot lately. I cry every time. I cried when I told it to 250-some people and Lisa standing right next to me. I wanted to beat them. Expel them. Punish them. She knew there was a different path. A better path. A path towards understanding and redemption. Think of all the horrific people in the United States with their awful political and social values that come from a place of ignorance and misunderstanding. Lisa’s solution might work really well with a bunch of them, but it would require someone like her pulling the string and making it all happen. So, really fucking unlikely.

You might think that the biggest winner in that story was the Rutgers Recovery community. Or that it was the fact that Lisa transformed two shitty dudes into a better version of themselves through a short meeting over pizza. And those are good thoughts. But I was the biggest beneficiary of that lesson, because Lisa taught me that a little listening and conversation and exposure to different people can make people see the error of their beliefs, speech, and ways. I think about that story every week, because I still think about beating on people and punishing them. And I try to remember the lesson that Lisa taught me, all those years ago. And to be better.

06Jun/22

Never, ever trust a military recruiter

Those six words are enough, but I’ll expand on it for those that need further instructions.

A few days ago, a friend of mine told me that his kid got a text from an Army recruiter. His kid is a high school senior and never signed up for anything with any Armed Forces branch. Turns out, his high school gave his phone number to the local recruiting station (feels like some kind of violation, but I’ll leave it to some litigious parent to make a huge stink about this kind of behavior).

Back in 1995, I did sign up to be called. I talked to a recruiter and eventually took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). I got a perfect score. The recruiter specifically worked for a Tank Battalion, so I was offered to go to school to be a Tanker.

“Aren’t there any other jobs? Infantry? Intelligence? Psychological Operations?”

“Not right now. The Army is completely full. It’s tanker or nothing.”

Obviously, that guy was a fucking liar. I was sober about 45 days. Neither of my parents had been in the military (my paternal grandfather had been, but he died in 1980). There was no one around to tell me what most service members and veterans know: almost every recruiter is a lying scumbag.

Sure, there may be a good one, somewhere. But finding one is like finding a politician who isn’t influenced by money or a frat boy with empathy.

They lie to meet their quotas. They only care about their numbers. They aren’t there to help someone go to college or get money to help with the family or get trained in something that can actually help in the civilian world.

They lie about bonuses and benefits and duty stations and time off and anything they need to get you to sign the dotted line. They are like Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” except they lack Baldwin’s hair and charisma and they use patriotism to fuck over the recruits.

On top of all this, there is a whole lot of systemic racism baked into the recruiting and placement process. Way more recruiting stations are in poor and urban areas, which is why the US military has a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics than make up the general population. On top of that, minorities are constantly pushed into the worst military jobs that in no way prepare them for post-military life. Most of the cooks and truck drivers and fuelers I’ve ever met were black or Hispanic. Those are shit Army jobs.

If your kid wants to join the Army (or Marines or Navy), tell them to join the Air Force. I’m only half joking. In all seriousness though, make sure they talk to another adult who is in the military or who was in the military and can give them some real information and share their experiences.

To close, make sure that the potential recruit can answer these questions:

  1. Why do you want to join? Are you bored or running away from something? Is it the benefits? What are the benefits that are being offered?
  2. What branch do you want to join? Why? Have you talked to veterans from other branches?
  3. What job do you want to do there?
  4. Will that job prepare you for work or school after you get out?
  5. What will you do after you get out?
  6. Do you understand that if you sign a 3 year or 6 year contract and are miserable that you can’t get out?
  7. Have you talked to more than one recruiter?
17Aug/21

Bill Kane: A Legend

While I was at the Green Day concert on last Sunday in DC, I got an email about Bill Kane’s retirement luncheon on August 12th.

I was at the Dodgers games in Philly on 10th and 11th (both rain delays, both victories, both times I got home around 245 am) and had plans to go solo in the 98 degree heat for the final game in the series at 1 pm on the 12th.

I try to avoid luncheons and work meetings and random social invitations. I’m very much of the Larry David mindset for things I don’t plan: “No.” But Bill Kane’s retirement luncheon is something that I could not miss. Thus I skipped the Dodgers game.

Bill was born and raised in Newark. He graduated with an English degree from Seton Hall in 1962. He served in the Peace Corps in Africa for two years before returning to NJ and completing law school in 1969. He got sober in 1979, eventualy earned his alcohol counseling credential and, in his non-legal practice time, helped postal workers and adult men in prison get sober. He eventually turned his eye towards helping other lawyers and established the NJ Lawyers Assistance Program, which he directed from 1993 until today. Anyone who is anyone who counsels lawyers throughout the United States has been trained or taught by Bill Kane.

Bill started teaching at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies in 1981. I took my last three credentialing classes over the course of a week there in the summer of 2006. I had two classes in the morning that were just terrible. I was most displeased. It was 95 degrees out and the afternoon classroom had no air conditioning. Bill walked in wearing a three piece summer suit. I noticed his impeccable fashion, wide smile, and kind eyes, but I was most impressed by the fact that he wasn’t sweating.

He asked us a bunch of legal questions that none of us got right. Then he told us at the end of the week we would get them all right. Each day, he gave us loads of information, told funny stories, and adroitly answered questions. In short, he was the best classroom instructor I ever had in the field of alcohol and drug counseling.

When I became an instructor in the program in 2007, I was most proud to be a fellow faculty member with Bill. What made it even more special was that Bill welcomed me to the faculty and gave me a hearty congratulations. It felt like I had made it.

Over the last 15 years, I have sent my students and interns and supervisees and employees to take his course. “He’s the best teacher at the Center of Alcohol Studies,” I always told them.

That was often met by one of my students responding, “I thought you were the best teacher here.”

And I’d laugh and say, completely seriously, “Not until Bill retires.”

In 2012 I was named the Chairman of the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force. Eric Arauz was the vice-chair (I called him the co-chair though). The first three people we picked for the Task Force were Gov McGreevey, Dr. Lou Baxter, and Bill Kane.

Governor Christie’s office put a bunch of government lawyers on the Task Force. A couple were great; others resisted some of my criticisms of treatment programs, insurance companies, doctors, law enforcement, and Big Pharma. Because of money and political power. They would cite some statute or ruling as a way of resisting a new program or legal change. Bill would chime in and say, “That is not entirely correct.” That was his way of saying they were completely wrong. Then he would cite caselaw and name the law by letter, number and year. This happened a few dozen times. On each occasion, I would fold my arms, smile, lean back in my chair, look around and say, “That’s why I brought my own fucking lawyer.”

One time, one of Governor Christie’s people said something about a law involving school counselors. “That is not entirely correct,” Bill responded.

“How do you know that?” smugly replied the Christie stooge.

“I helped write the law back in 1987,” Bill responded.

Eric smiled, and tried to protect the other lawyer’s humiliation, “Well, that answers that.” But it was a complete and total smackdown. But in a gentlemanly way. My guy.

I gave a speech about Bill at the luncheon and told those and other stories. I could have gone on and on. Bill has worked as a lawyer for 52 years, been sober for 42 years, and has worked in the helping profession for 40. I have never come across anyone who had something bad to say about him. He made no enemies. And I am but one of thousands of admirers and people he has directly touched. Bill is an icon and a role model for me. I’m not a snappy dresser, I curse a lot, and I seem to collect a new enemy each year. So we have some different methods, but man, I dig his style.

I admire his fire, longevity, impact, and the joy with which he works. His retirement is a loss for the field, the legal profession, and the public. Make no mistake about that. But he has left an impressive legacy and a workforce than can carry on his teachings and values. And the man deserves some down time. So, I’m incredibly happy for him.

But I’m still going to call him with legal questions.

Salut, Bill. You’re a fucking legend.

17Aug/21

On Emotions: Their Complexities and Their Roles in Our Functioning and Happiness

People who have difficulty acknowledging their emotions, processing them or dealing with them could find themselves feeling very anxious, depressed, disconnected, dissociative, or upset without understanding why. One of the keys to recognizing that there is an emotion unprocessed is confusion. If you can’t understand why you were so angry, or why you were so hurt, or why you felt intense jealousy from a particular situation, then there usually is something else that can explain it. It could very well be that it wasn’t the particular event or person that made you react, but it could be that it had triggered a past unprocessed emotion. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? We’ll come back to these questions once we’ve understood emotions a little more.

Emotions are to mental health as physical sensations are to the body. Through the physical realm, we understand our environments through our senses. The sense of smell let’s us know if there are any pleasant or unpleasant things around us, or if we are safe or not. Touch helps us understand if something is smooth or rough, if it’s hot or cold. Each of our senses has its job in keeping us out of danger and closer to things we need. We don’t get annoyed at their presence. We don’t blame our skin for burning in 97 degree weather, or at our fingertips for burning from hot pans, or at our noses for smelling gas. We don’t get annoyed because all of these sensations are helpful. They help us navigate information for the betterment of our lives and our basic survival.

Our emotions are similar. Emotions let us know if something feels right or wrong. They help us build bonds with people or stay away from those that harm us. They help us practice empathy because we also understand pain and hurt. They help us move through life and achieve our goals and learn from mistakes. They tell us when we’ve done too much or put ourselves in negative spaces. Emotions help us navigate the feeling world; the world of our identities, purposes and futures. But we don’t see emotions, nor do we physically interact with them in any way (sometimes we actually do when our bodies begin feeling pain or tension in challenging moments). And so it is challenging to understand them, especially as we are not taught how to interact with them and are often taught to ignore them. It gets more challenging if one has grown up in an abusive environment or is gaslit in adult relationships or just punished at any age for showing them.

It’s important to take a step back when a very strong emotion is experienced. Let’s return to the introductory questions. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? While there are some people who can answer these questions by themselves, all of us could benefit from getting some feedback from someone else. Hence therapy.

Even when we do understand why we are feeling the way we are, we may experience frustration at the emotion. “Why am I still feeling this emotion? Why is it still in my life? What can I do to stop feeling this emotion?” That frustration could be the result of an inner conflict in which there is denial or even a sort of self-berating that happens. “Because I am feeling upset, I am not, a good person/a forgiving person/a rational person.” And so, as one is attempting to feel the emotion, the inner voice comes in to express disapproval.  And feeling the emotion becomes almost a triggering event.

If feeling the emotion leads to avoidance, confusion, frustration or another complex emotion, it is important to express curiosity as I did earlier in this post; asking non-judgemental questions that allow for free expression. We ask these questions to ourselves as our dearest friends would ask them of us. We want to understand why so that we can feel. There will be times in which an emotion can be felt and it will no longer have a strong hold, and some times when it will keep coming back. In both scenarios, you are learning about yourself, building trust with your emotions, and allowing yourself healing whether it feels like it or not.

The only way to let an emotion go is to go through it. It is normal to feel. It is okay to feel. It is important to feel. It is necessary to feel. Feeling and expressing curiosity allows us to go through the emotions. It allows us to heal, and it allows us to become more intentional with our lives and others.

To get to the point in which one can embrace their emotions and use them to help navigate the world, there are a couple things that can be done. Journaling about these emotions in a dialogue-style where one is conversing with the emotion is a helpful way to make something abstract and hard to grasp very apparent and clear on paper. Drawing out emotions allows us to not intellectualize the emotion but to see how it feels. Taking walks, breathing exercises, yoga sessions are all great ways to calm the body down when it’s felt a strong emotion. Being able to talk to a therapist to understand these emotions can also be very helpful in keeping one consistent with this inner work.

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About the author: Ayah Issa is a therapist who works with trauma, spirituality issues, identity issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. She received her social work degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work with a concentration on international affairs and community work. She works through a trauma lens with an understanding of community, spirituality, intersectional identities and a holistic view of the self. She can be contacted at ayahissatherapy@gmail.com.

15Aug/21

Writing Prompts for Death and Grieving

A few years ago, Frank wrote an article about writing as a way to deal with death and grieving. When Eric Arauz, his close friend and colleague and veritable big brother, died in 2018, he took his own advice and wrote about him for 30 days. Those stories and other people’s memories were eventually forged into The Book of Eric.

Most of us aren’t writers. Just sitting down and typing out stories is quite daunting, especially if we are grieving. So I took Frank’s grieving work (with his blessing) and added over 30 different prompts to help people remember their loved one and process their grief.  

What: Write about the person for 30 days straight. Without failure. Could be for five minutes or a few hours. Write. Every day. For 30 days.

Why: Grief triggers emotions and memories. You will have many thoughts that come up and you will never remember the person that passed better than you do in the month after their death. These memories will fade. So, Write. Every day. For 30 days. Preferably at the same time each day.

While this is most effective in the immediate aftermath of someone’s passing, anyone who has some unresolved grief should consider doing this. Even if the death was six months or 5 years or 20 years ago, you will still benefit from this exercise.

Tips: Do not worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. No need to proofread as you are writing, just write. Below are some ideas. Feel free to come up with your own, go in any order, or edit them as you feel necessary.

Writing Prompts

  1. A lesson they taught you 
  2. A time you made them laugh  
  3. A small memory that seems minor/insignificant (a day before or after school, a dinner time story, a car ride, a trip to the dry cleaners, the time you spilled fast food all over their desk) 
  4. Another small memory that seems minor/ insignificant 
  5. A winter memory
  6. Funny things they said (quotes, words, pronunciations)
  7. A time you spent the day together alone (did you do something? go somewhere? get food? what happened? how did it feel?)
  8. Activities you did together (big or small. pick at least 1 to describe in as much detail as possible)
  9. A summer memory
  10. A time a joke/ prank was played (either you to them or them to you)
  11. A time you were pissed off with them (what happened? what did they do? how was it resolved?)
  12. Find one of your favorite pictures with them. Describe what happened that day. (you can repeat this with other pictures, as Frank did with Eric) 
  13. A time when they embarrassed you 
  14. If you were having a rough day, what would they say to you? 
  15. One of you happiest moments together
  16. Your earliest memory of them
  17. Another random memory, seemingly minor/ insignificant (watching a movie, going to the store, a conversation, anything. describe it in as much detail as you can). 
  18. One of their birthdays
  19. Something they did for you on one of your birthdays
  20. A late night or early morning spent together (or one of each)
  21. A time you both could not stop laughing
  22. One time on Thanksgiving (can replace with any holiday)… Finish the prompt
  23. An inside joke or saying that only you two would understand 
  24. A time you felt the most comforted by them 
  25. A habit of theirs that drove you nuts
  26. Find a random picture, describe that day
  27. Their favorite movie or TV show
  28. A time something went wrong
  29. What was their first job? (what was their last job?)
  30. A time they helped you (learn a skill, homework, fix something)
  31. Words or a saying they repeated to you over and over again 
  32. A time you didn’t listen to them and they found out (or said “I told you so”)
  33. Random memory that has something to do with the color pink, yellow, blue, green, or purple
  34. A time you felt the safest with them
  35. A time they came to your rescue 
  36. Something really awkward was when… Finish the prompt
  37. How will you continue to honor them? 

You can use none, some, or all of these in any order. You may also change prompts around or use some of them to spark other memories. Use this as somewhere to start as emotions, thoughts, and memories arise. During or after the writing process, you may want to share this with a therapist. Or religious figure. Or friend. If other people are grieving the same person, they might really like to read a couple of your memories. It may be the best thing you can do for them.


Shayla Carroll, MSW, LSW, is a first generation college graduate. She double majored in social work and psychology at Rutgers before completing a masters in social work there. Partly because she grew up in an intricate and extended Dominican and Irish/Polish/Hungarian family, she understands how challenging it can be for young people to start and gain control over their lives. Shayla is passionate about helping adolescents, young adults and their families overcome difficult situations, unhealthy patterns and maladaptive behaviors. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, anything by the water, eating sweets, walking her dog, reading modern Latin and Caribbean fiction, and spending time with her family and friends. She can be reached at shaylacarroll3@gmail.com

01Apr/21

Medicinal Tobacco’s Shocking Success at Treating Mental Health and Substance Misuse Disorders

Tobacco has been grossly misunderstood, unfairly maligned, and improperly utilized. For over a decade, I have had tremendous and shocking success using medicinal tobacco in treating people with serious mental health symptoms and grave substance misuse disorders.

I’m sure that some of you are incredulous. You know about the incredibly strong link between cigarettes and cancer, and you may be aware of vaping and popcorn lung. There is a decent chance that you know someone who has had some serious health problems caused or exacerbated by smoking. I am not denying any of those problems. But to be clear, those problems are caused by cigarettes and vaping devices.

For over a hundred years, cigarette companies have been loading their products with over 7000 different chemicals; and we know that over 250 of them are dangerous, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia. There can be no denying that cigarettes are still one of the top health problems in the United States.

Vaping devices sprung upon us a decade ago, with sweet flavors (for the kids) and the false promise of the safe ingestion of nicotine. While vaping devices avoid some of the harms caused by cigarette smoking, it is pretty clear that they cause a variety of serious lung and brain problems that we are still just beginning to understand.

Naturally grown, 100% pure tobacco has been unfairly lumped in with cigarettes and vaping devices. American Indians and the indigenous people of Central America and Cuba have been using organic tobacco for thousands of years. It has been used in a variety of shamanic ceremonies, celebrations, community events, and at the sacred moments of birth, marriage and death.

The colonial big cigarette companies snatched up this wonderful, all-natural product from the indigenous people, added poisons, commercialized it, mass produced it, glamorized it, and lied about its negative side effects. And native discovered, organic tobacco is paying the price. It is grossly unfair.

I have a Panamanian friend whose grandmother uses fresh tobacco leaves to make a medicinal tea. Her friends and customers claim that it helps with low energy, constipation, anxiety, and shyness (additionally, fresh tobacco leaves also keep bats and rats out of houses when strategically placed near the entrances of a house). She was so confident about the benefits and the lack of negative side effects that she gave medicinal tobacco tea to her children and grandchildren.

I have used medicinal tobacco to treat Soldiers, Marines, and Veterans with complex and severe PTSD. I have used medicinal tobacco to help people deal with the tragic grief that accompanies suicide. I have used medicinal tobacco to assist people with getting over the end of a marriage. I also have found it wonderful in treating social anxiety.

I combine medicinal tobacco with my patented radical truth therapy. Now that I have had well over 500 smashingly successful cases, I am confidently telling the world. The long drawn out smoke that comes from organic medicinal tobacco eases anxiety and calms nerves. Stunningly, it raises perception and energy levels at the same time. A wonder! Only something so natural and from fresh soil can do this.

There are no unnatural pauses or silences in my radical truth sessions when medicinal tobacco is used. Clients will draw their cigar slowly and blow out the smoke even slower (those that are really trying to make a significant change will hold it awhile before releasing it). A bond forms in our individual and group sessions; the kind of bond that sustained Native American cultures for thousands of years before colonial conquerors brought lies, diseases, guns, and death.

I have had such success with my military clients using medicinal tobacco that it is unethical for me not to offer it to them. Those that smoke cigars with me do far better than those that don’t. It is uncanny. A majority of my cigar smoking clients who are in recovery from substance misuse have abstinence rates that are far higher than the non-smoking clients. No rehab in America can compete with my numbers.

But it isn’t me. It’s organic, medicinal tobacco. And I’m happy to inform you about it. Those that rail against my radical share may be in the pockets of Big Cigarettes, Big Pharma (why use horrific and addictive drugs when there is a much cheaper and more natural alternative), or Big Marijuana (don’t get me started). Or you may just be horrifically racist and anti-Native American and/or anti-Cuban. Or you may be anti-military. Shame on you if this be so. You have no right to let your misconceived notions interfere with the freedom and health of the people that can benefit from medicinal tobacco. Check yourself.

* I have found Cuban medicinal tobacco to be the very best, though Native American medicinal tobacco can be decent in a pinch. I do not recommend the Dominican and Nicaraguan strains, as they have still not refined their process, nor do they have proper regulations.

** I owe much to the groundbreaking work of Jonathan Swift for this article

15Jan/21

Optimism after the Day of Traitors and Terrorists

I watched the attack on the Capitol on January 6th with a mixture of horror, rage, and embarrassment. Horror that US citizens would invade a Federal building, threaten officials, and attempt to overthrow the oldest continual democracy in the world. Rage at the Confederate flag, the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, and the other paraphernalia that celebrates racism, anti-Semitism, ignorance, hatred, and failure. And embarrassment due to the current state of our country.

President Trump’s embrace of white supremacist values and terminology has led to an increase in the numbers, activities, confidence, and violence by these awful domestic terrorists. Those that have held elected office, served in the military, or worn police badges have earned the additional disreputable label of traitor, for they betrayed the Constitution and the American people with their malignant and treasonous actions.

I believe that January 6th, 2021 marks a new era in our country. An era that will be filled with more ultra-ludicrous conspiracy theories, constant threats to state and federal officials, violent protests before and after elections, and regular terrorist acts against the public, particularly communities of color.

And yet, one week later, I see reasons for optimism.

  1. I think it is impossible for a rational person to watch the violent white domestic terrorists and traitors of January 6th and the lack of a security presence and compare it to the mass personnel and regular use of excessive force against peaceful protestors of color. American hypocrisy was on full display in our national Capitol for our citizens and all the world to behold. Those that deny it are most likely liars, racists, or delusional.
  2. Multiple social media companies banned Trump and purged a number of extremist groups shortly after the day of terrorists and traitors. This slows the spread of disinformation, disrupts their ability to recruit and organize, and sends a very clear message that Mr. Trump and many of his most ardent supporters have spoken and operated in ways that are antithetical to our democracy and principles. These actions were years too late, but I still applaud that they have finally been taken.
  3. After 9/11, the US security state turned its full attention to terrorism from the Middle East. The Department of Homeland Security was created. Our Armed Forces engaged in a perpetual state of war for almost twenty years. Over the last four deranged years, President Trump and many of his followers made specious claims about the Deep State, the corrupt failures of the FBI, and the oppressive and unfair attention paid to some right-wing groups. These were vicious falsehoods. After 1/6/21, I hope and believe that the US security state will, for the first time, be giving a great deal of attention to alt-right militia groups, white supremacists, domestic terrorists, and other abject human failures who preach hatred and violence. This should have happened over a decade ago, but our history has shown that we get most things wrong before we finally get them right. I can think of no better use of the National Guard then to seek out and destroy those who waive Confederate and Nazi flags on American soil.
  4. In the fall of 2019, I deployed to Poland with the US Army National Guard. Our base was in the Northeast, less than 50 miles from the Russian border. I traveled around Poland and the Baltic States. I visited museums in all four countries that were dedicated to WW2, the Soviet occupation, and the peaceful overthrow that happened between 1988 and 1991. Those people have endured far worse in their lifetimes than the typical American can possibly imagine and today their countries are freer and more prosperous than in any time in their histories. We have a number of advantages that those countries lacked, including a free press, huge oceans as borders, and a democracy that is 231 years old and survived a civil war, the Great Depression, two world wars, a false red scare, and the nuclear age.
  5. Most significantly, my heart has been warmed by the response of Fortune 500 companies over the last eight days. Coca Cola, Goldman Sachs, Marriot, Dow, Visa, Walmart, Google, Microsoft, Hallmark, and many others have halted political donations and some have cut financial ties with Trump’s various businesses. It was a bus boycott that began a move away from segregation in the South. Since World War II, economic pressure has led to many changes in our country, for both good and bad. I imagine that corporate boards and executive officers have been partaking in extensive, nervous, and soul-searching meetings and weighing whether saving 5% in taxes and eliminating regulations is worth the tradeoff of conducting business and living in a country where home grown terrorists seek to thwart democracy and federal politicians urge rioters to kill their rivals in the streets.  Pay close attention to what these companies do over the next six months: if they refuse to donate money to Congressman who sought to decertify Biden’s landslide election without a shred of evidence and cut permanent ties with the Trump organization and selfish politicians who seek to pick up his baton of fraud and disgrace, then you’ll know that, in the words of the immortal Bob Dylan, the times they are actually a’changing.  
04Jan/21

What to do if the drug/alcohol treatment program you are at is shit

Three years ago, I wrote this piece on what to ask of programs so that you can identify if they are honest and effective.

Most of the detox, inpatient and outpatient substance treatment programs in NJ are terrible and can’t give viable answers to the questions that I listed in that article.

So if you or a loved one are at a treatment program and you have experienced problems, this is what you should do:

  1. File an internal grievance. Every program is required by law to have a written policy on the wall at their center that describes how to file a grievance and whom to send it to. You need to write something up (short, detailed examples of the problems) and send it to the clinical director, executive director, and the owners. Save a copy for yourself.
  2. You should contact the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and let them know about your problems/concerns. You can contact them here.
  3. You should send an email to lawyers at the NJ Attorney General’s Office. Kelly Levy LevyK@njdcj.org and Sharon Joyce Sharon.Joyce@law.njoag.gov are two lawyers there that I trust and are assigned to look into abusive programs.
  4. You should probably go to another program. Don’t think that your complaint is going to lead to better treatment for you.

By the way, treatment programs that have sober living attached are not allowed to make you attend their treatment programs. You can continue living at their housing and attend a different treatment program. If they deny this, they are in violation of the law.

Also, sober living houses cannot deny you from living there if you are taking medication to help with your addiction. If so, they are in violation of the law.

If you want to sue those awful treatment programs, go get an attorney. I really trust CK-Litigation.

24Dec/20

The Horrific and Inaccurate Portrayals of People in Recovery on TV and in Movies

The Umbrella Academy is a comic book written by Gerard Way (NJ native and former frontman of My Chemical Romance) that was turned into a hit series on Netflix. The second season just concluded. In one of the later episodes, a main character who is three years sober relapses. Klaus Hargreeves is number four of the seven siblings who make up the team.

Faced with losing the love of his life, Klaus gives up and goes to the liquor store. The sequence is disturbing: he is smiling and skipping up and down the aisles to a happy musical montage. His drunken period afterward is played for laughs. I was quite irritated when I watched and it marred an otherwise excellent season.

For years, I’ve been explaining to people how poorly alcohol and drug problems are portrayed on TV and in movies. Much too often, alcohol and drug use is humorous. I’m still waiting for the producers to come back with the much needed sequels: Cheech and Chong with Early Onset Dementia and Harold and Kumar Go To Rehab. The funny and harmless depictions send the wrong message to the public.

I don’t have much of a gripe with depicting the downward spiral (A Star is Born) or going to treatment and entering early recovery. In fact, The Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman, Ray, and Walk the Line all do a pretty good job with early recovery. Bubs begins his journey in The Wire as a homeless IV drug user in season one. He gets beat on by dealers, ripped off by other users, mourns friends who overdose, suffers the cold, is shunned by his sister, and he routinely trades his knowledge of criminal activity to cops for $10 to spend on dope. He experiences a horrific trauma at the end of season four and his early recovery is handled brilliantly throughout the fifth season. Despite it’s radiant storytelling, The Wire falls into the category of all the other shows and movies in that it only hits upon early recovery.

Whenever there is a show or movie that has a character that is in recovery from alcohol or drug problems, we are most likely going to see that person struggle at some point or even relapse. And while a lot of people with substance misuse disorders do struggle and relapse, there are a few million Americans who are clean and sober many years and they are usually quite stable and productive. Their stories are not being told.

TV and movies are good at showing that some people with drug problems are wildly talented, whether they are using or clean. But those characters are often flaky and inconsistent and unreliable. And while those cases absolutely are rooted in reality, they are promoting an inaccurate message that all addicts and alcoholics (pejorative terms for many these days) are like that. And it just isn’t so.

I am waiting for the TV show or movie where the smartest and most competent character is in long term recovery and they never relapse. It isn’t hard to imagine Lester Freeman in The Wire or Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones or Five in the aforementioned Umbrella Academy as characters who are sober for decades. I know a lot of people in long term recovery who are smart and competent and prompt and resilient. A few are incredibly strategic and wonderful leaders.

I’m not asking you to do anything. This is not a call to write your state senator or cancel a studio (I’m anti-cancel, even for the shitbags out there) or engage in hashtag activism. I just want you to be aware of this. So that the next time a show or movie introduces a character in recovery, you can pause it and turn to whomever you are watching it with and say, “I bet they will have them be flaky or even relapse as part of the story.” And then let them know that shit ain’t right.

And if the character is sober and never relapses and they happen to be the most competent person on the show, please contact me. Because I’ll need to give that writer-producer-director-actor team an award.