08Dec/20

My Grandmother

(I wrote this on December 8, 2016)

This is a photo of me and my grandmother in the summer of 1994 at the Hunterdon Medical Center. Her name was Ruth B. Apgar (maiden name of Brown) and she would have turned 99 today. She died a little over 21 years ago — during the absolute worst year of my life and and also the one in which I had the least ability to handle it.

Gram was not a relative by blood. My parents moved to our house on Water Street in Tewksbury Township in 1971. Ruth and Wilson Apgar lived next door, where they had a family farm. My sister was born three months after my parents moved in, and Ruth volunteered to watch my sister whenever my Mom needed help. A friendship ensued. By the time I was born, Ruth and Wilson were known as Gram and Pop and I grew up at their home and on their farm. I walked by their house everyday on the way to the bus stop. After school, I stopped by to eat (usually hamburgers or milk and cookies…sometimes both) and watch cartoons. I spent Friday or Saturday nights there throughout my childhood (I am intimately familiar with mid-80s shows like Hunter and Riptide).

Life on the farm was grand. The TV was from the 60s (when they got a 19″ color TV, it was a huge deal). The furniture was from the 30s through 50s. There were cows, pigs and chickens. There were two old barns and an amazing number of places to climb and hide. I loved swinging on some dangerous apparatus in the hayloft and walking on the roof. Gram occasionally caught wind of it and expressed alarm for my safety. I would explain that I knew what I was doing. She would tell me about some young man 40 years earlier who fell and broke his back.

Gram bought me my first bike when I was 8. Along with my mother and sister, she accompanied me for two weeks of violin camp in Ithaca, NY during almost every summer in the 80s. She drove me to and from soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1st through 7th grade, and took me to my traveling soccer games all over NJ every Sunday.

She had an older cousin, Mickey, who lived about 8 miles from her house. We would go over there. Gram would drop off medications, cook and clean. She would empty Mickey’s colostomy bag. She would bath her. She did the same thing for Pop’s mother, who was deep into her 80s. Gram did this without complaint or fanfare. I admired her so much for being there for other people. I remember thinking, even at that young age, that I wanted to be someone who was there for others and was willing to get my hands dirty with the most difficult of life’s tasks.

When I was 7 or 8, I found a wallet on the school bus. It had money in it. I momentarily thought about taking the money, but I didn’t and I returned it to the bus driver. I told Gram immediately after school, thinking she’d be proud and pleased. She wasn’t. “You did the right thing. As you were raised. You didn’t do anything above and beyond.” That stuck with me.

I remember sitting on her porch on warm summer evenings. We’d play Monopoly. She would make lopsided trades in my favor, which I didn’t like because it was letting me win (my father brutalized me in our trades). When I didn’t have a friend around, she would play along with my Star Wars action figures (btw – she took me to my first movie in the theater, which was ROTJ when I was 6). When I was 12 and 13, she took me to dozens of summer movies. She was 72 and sickly, but she sat through The Lost Boys, Batman, and Robocop (she was a bit horrified by that last one).

She was an old woman by the time she was 60. She had diabetes. And polymyositis. She was overweight and had a really bad back. All these problems meant that treatment was difficult, and she was in and out of the hospital from the time I was 5. I worried about her health throughout my childhood, and whenever the ambulance was at the house my heart would sink.

When I was a senior in high school, I was causing enough problems with my parents that I moved out and moved in with her for several months. I helped out around her house, picked her up when she fell and occasionally helped her with her blood pricking and insulin. I also threw parties in the barn and on the upstairs floor. She begged me not to do it, but I was 17 and a bit of a drunkard. I got in trouble with the law a few times (my Mom called the cops) and eventually moved home. I still saw Gram daily.

In 1994 my parents divorced and sold the house. Gram got really sick, she and Pop had to sell their farm. This picture is from when my mother brought me to the hospital. It would be the last time I saw her. Her blood relatives moved her to a nursing home in Delaware. I was such a mess that I couldn’t get down to see her. For a drunk without a license, it was so far away. I talked to her on the phone every week, but the move seemed to accelerate the decline in her health.

She died in June of 1995 and I found out from a notice in the local paper. I can’t convey the depths of the anguish, sorrow and regret I felt. I spent the next 6 months in a substance induced haze. I had watched her be there for everyone throughout her life and wasn’t there with her at the end. It is the single great regret of my life. On December 17, 1995, I took my last drink. I joined the Army in February and went to college that September. During difficult moments in early recovery and basic training, I would talk out loud to her.

I am a very good son to my parents. It is because I love and respect them, but also partly because of my regret for how I was not present at the end of Gram’s life. I only have a few pictures of her (so if nothing else, make sure you have lots of photos of all of your loved ones). Despite never meeting her, my ex-wife had a pretty good understanding of the importance that Gram has in my life. When we were looking at houses several years ago, she accepted that I would talk for a long time to old women who lived alone. They reminded me of Gram.

For years, I thought of her every day. Now it is a few times a week. I had such a great childhood. She was such a force for good and just a wonderful human being. She lives on in the lessons she taught me and much of my altruism springs from her.


  • This was originally posted on Facebook, but I have published it here as part of a series of stories leading up to my 25th sober anniversary on December 17th.
08Dec/20

My Early AA Meetings

I attended my first AA meeting while in treatment in March of 1994. My parents, my high school, and the state of NJ had all strongly suggested that I go away for 28 days in the middle of my senior year. I don’t recall anything about the meetings we went to in the community, but I do remember what happened each night in the facility. I was a few months shy of 18, so I was on the adolescent wing. Every evening at 8 pm, an adult from the other side would come over and tell their story. Every time…every time they would talk about how they wished they had an opportunity to get clean at 15 or 17, instead of creating a mountain of wreckage from which to struggle to crawl out from under. It was the one thing from rehab that really stuck with me.

It didn’t get me to stop. I came home and four days later went out with friends and drank a bit. The dam thus opened, it was back to weekends of hi-jinx, lies, pockets of chaos, and parental fits of disappointment. And then I got arrested again. Which got me back to AA meetings.

I was feeling pretty low when I walked into a meeting at the High Bridge Reformed Church one Wednesday evening at 745 pm. There were only 10 people in the room, almost of all of them old white men, which didn’t surprise me at all. But what shocked me, utterly stunned me to my core, was the smiling and the laughter that bounced all over the place. I was sure that people there would be ashen and gray and somber, and that shares would be about how “I can’t do this” and “I can’t go there” and “everything is pretty awful but I’m not drinking.”

One old man said, “You’re going to have a great life kid. Look at you, so much going for you. When I came in, I looked like a Greek God,” and he smiled and looked around the room, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Just the other day I got out of the shower and my wife told me I looked like a god damned Greek” and he and the others howled with laughter.

I didn’t know that a naked Greek was supposed to look particularly more awful than a regular nude guy, but I appreciated the word play and the self-depreciation and the laughter and the overwhelming sense of welcome that those people put forth. I listened to their stories. I observed their faces. I could see how they carried themselves. They were happy, joyous and free. It was admirable and praiseworthy.

I went to a bunch of meetings. I had reservations. I had just turned 18. Was I really supposed to never drink again? Who the fuck would I hang out with? Where would I go? I felt like if I quit, I would just miss out on so much.

A little over a month later, I drank again. A friend put a beer in front of me, I said fuck it, and that was it. My story spiraled downward for another 18 months. I failed every class at two colleges over two fall semesters, got a bunch of traffic tickets in a 1970 Buick Skylark that had snow tires and no inspection sticker (cops saw me in that car and got a boner almost every time), and I couldn’t hold any job for more than six weeks. I went back to the same rehab in the winter of 95 and was highly motivated to get well.

I didn’t get to lock eyes with Madonna and the night I got home the cops threw me in a holding cell for a few hours over a bounced check for buffalo wings. The next day, January 12, 1996, I went to a noon meeting in Clinton. There had been a snowstorm of about three feet, but I knew that the meeting would be on, despite the conditions. I asked my Dad to drive me to the church, which was just a few miles down the road. I walked in and saw that there were at least 30 people there (the idea is that you would get drunk or high in a snowstorm, so you should go to a meeting in one too). I got a cup of coffee, sat down, waited for the meeting to start, and then I raised my hand and said “Hi. My name is Frank and I’m an alcoholic. I just got out of rehab.” I’m sure I said a lot more but don’t recall what it was. A lot of people came up to talk to me afterwards. It was mostly retirees with a lot of sobriety, though there were some working people and a few residents from the local halfway houses.

I cannot communicate how good they were to me.

I went to meetings every day, and that one every Friday. At 60 days sober, I signed an eight year contract with the US Army. People in AA told me to wait, that it was very risky to go and make big life decisions in the first year and that basic training could be really stressful. I heard them, but I was impatient. I had put myself on a shelf for almost two years and I had to do something.

I got a sponsor. He said, “Get a job, get shitty job, show up every day and don’t steal.” Radical stuff. I worked the morning shift at a gas station a mile down the road. I’d get up at 6 am and walk to do a three hour shift. I’d count the days and hours I was clean. I’d usually go to a noon meeting and then hit the gym. Maybe a friend would come over to watch basketball or play video games.

When I had 90 days, I was super excited. At the start of my Friday meeting, the chairperson would ask “has anyone recently celebrated an anniversary?” I had watched others celebrate 90 days, 1 year, 5 years, 29 years (and so on) over the last three months and I was impressed and happy and jealous. My arm shook as I raised my hand (and as I am writing this, dear reader, I got chills and shaky and a little misty eyed) and said, “My name is Frank and I am an alcoholic and I had 90 days on Sunday.”

There was cheering and thunderous applause. Really. People commented on it throughout the meeting, that they had never heard that for someone at 90 days. I felt special. A few years later, I would realize that while the people had gotten to know me and truly liked me, they cheered and clapped and hollered because they had seen people come and go, come and go, and that young people almost never stuck around. My 90 days were celebrated so loudly not because of the wonder of me, but because that it meant that some young person got clean in that meeting and that other young people, perhaps their children or grandchildren, could also do that one day.

At four months sober, I shipped off for basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky to become a tanker. I had been going to AA meetings every day, but now I would be without them for sixteen weeks. I didn’t feel any physical or psychological urges. The drill sergeants got us up early, made us do push ups deep into the night, punished us for things that weren’t our fault, marched us all over, joked at our expense, and generally tried to put us in a constant state of stress. I fucking loved it. I really did. After four weeks, my drill sergeant made me the platoon guide (leader). I had to look out for everyone else, and if someone hadn’t shaved or their bed wasn’t made or they didn’t have the right equipment in their ruck, they were punished and I was punished. So I was punished most of the time each day, at least for the next few weeks.

Because I was the platoon guide, I was moved out of the main bay where 20 other guys slept and into a room with the bookman. The bookman was the title of the guy who kept the training schedule. He was another recruit. His name was David Graham. He was 23 and had already been in the Army for 5 1/2 years. He had been in the National Guard in Texas but was going active. David had been trained on the M60 Patton and was told that he had to retrain on the M1Abrams. His recruiter promised him that he wouldn’t have to go through basic training again (or shave his head or do arm circles at 11 pm or get spit on when a drill sergeant screamed in his face) and that he would just have to attend a few classes when the new recruits were learning how to drive, load and shoot the Abrams.

Of course, David’s head was shaved and he had to do arm circles and was screamed at like the rest of us. He was pretty fucking bitter about it, and understandably so. One night, after we had gone through some horrendous ordeal because of some other soldier’s fuck up, David was lying on his bunk and softly uttered, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I was dead tired, but I shot up out of bed. “David, where did you learn that?”

“What?”

“The serenity prayer.”

“My Mom is sober 11 years. I’ve been to a few AA meetings to support her. She says it all the time.”

“Get the fuck out of here. I’m sober five months.”

“You got sober and joined the Army? Usually it’s the other way around,” he smiled. And we talked and talked. It was pretty cool to have someone like David there with me.

I got on really well with Drill Sergeant Moses. I did such a good job at organizing the other recruits that he didn’t have to do that much work and he hardly ever yelled or punished us anymore. I was pretty proud of that and David told me that I was getting egotistical. That offended me, but I took in his words and walked down to the Drill Sergeant’s office and requested permission to speak.

“What is it?” Drill Sergeant Moses asked me.

“Drill Sergeant, I would like to go to an AA meeting.”

“What?!” (all these years later, the way I say what is the way he said what)

“Drill Sergeant, before I joined the Army I was a horrific alcoholic. I got sober on December 17th and now I have six months. Specialist Graham thinks I should go to a meeting because….”

He cut me off. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear anymore of this. You might fuck up my drinking.” And then he yelled, “THIRD PLATOON, RED LINE!”

And we all hustled into the hallway and stood at attention. The Drill Sergeant left us that way for a few minutes, then he came out of his office and walked up and down the hallway. And he looked us in the face as he walked and then stopped and stared when he came to me. Then he stepped back and said, “You are all in the Army. I don’t give a shit what you did or didn’t do before you got here. I expect that some of you were into some crazy shit. I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not your priest or confessor or your god damn shrink. You are soldiers now. My soldiers. I don’t want any of you feeling bad about shit that has gone before. Now,” and a Cheshire like grin slipped across his face, “you all best get to bed, because I’m going to work the fuck out of you tomorrow.”

So there would be no AA meeting for me in basic training. But I went to one the day I got back to NJ and talked about my Army adventures. And I was welcomed home.

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  • I posted this on Facebook on November 30, 2020. I was telling stories about my addiction and recovery leading up to my 25th year anniversary.
08Dec/20

Buffalo Wings

In February or March of 1995, I bounced a check for $14.95 to Hampton Pizza for 3 dozen buffalo wings. This included the delivery fee, which was essential, because I had lost my license the previous year.

Someone from the place called me up and told me the check bounced and asked me to pay. I can’t remember all the details of what happened next, but I think I said “no” and he said “why” and at some point one or both of us cursed and then he said “I’ll take you to court” and I said “great I have a rock solid case.”

Jesus.

This happened in the last year of my drinking. I’d love to tell you that I was under the influence when that conversation happened, but alas, I was not. It was just a time that I was abjectly stupid and distorted from reality.

I went to municipal court a few months later. I told the judge I was offended by the plaintiff’s foul language (I know). The judge laughed me out of the room and fined me $250. There was a guy who admitted to hitting his wife whose case had gone right before me, and he had also been fined $250.

Aggrieved at the fact that we got the same fine, I said to myself, “I’m not paying that. I’m going to school in Long Island next month and I won’t be coming back to this fucking state.”

I went away to CW Post that fall. Failed all my classes. Came home on December 17th and went to rehab (the Madonna rehab).

I completed the program and returned to my Dad’s house in Jutland on January 11, 1996. He told me that the State Police in Perryville, just down the road, had called a few times. I called up the barracks and told them that I had been away in rehab but I was returning their call.

They were glad to hear from me and asked me to come down to the station. I said sure, I’ll be right there. Now that I was sober, I knew I had to handle things in a different way. I had to own up for my bad actions; I could no longer lie or run away from shit. So I walked down the road (1.2 miles or so) and entered the State Police barracks.

They asked me if I had $464.95. I said no. They let me call my Dad. And then they threw me in a holding cell.

It was small. 4×4 or 5×5. There was a cold medal bench. It had a shackle attached to it, but the cops didn’t cuff me. There were some slight streaks of dried blood on the wall and floor, and I noticed what I was pretty sure was a whole finger nail on the ground.

Every 10 minutes or so, a cop would look in the window to see how I was doing. I remember singing a bunch of songs (mostly Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and Green Day). Not loudly or in protest, just as a way to keep myself busy. I also did a lot of thinking.

I thought about how my actions led me here. My drinking, my foolishness, my lack of money (that was wholly a me problem). I had been sober 25 days and was struggling with the concept of the third step in AA. In the holding cell, it became clear: I didn’t have a fucking clue and needed to follow another path. So I made a decision to do the rest of the steps and take a lot of guidance from those that had gone before me and were willing to freely and joyfully help me.

The cops kept looking in the window. I guessed that they had to check, to make sure that I wasn’t suicidal. I was at a peace. I knew I was going to be ok. In both the short and the long run.

My sister showed up, paid the money, and gave the cops a bunch of shit for having me come down without telling me to bring money in the first place (those are, by far, the two nicest things my sister ever did for me). $14.95 for three dozen wings cost me an additional $450 and three hours in jail.

(laughing). It wasn’t jail. It was a holding cell and not stressful at all. Years later, when I started counseling men and women in jails and prisons, I would joke, “yeah, I did my share of hard time” and they’d look at me and ask me where and I’d say, with a smile and some laughter, “for three hours in a holding cell at the Perryville State Trooper Barracks. Actually, I have no idea what you are going through.” And they’d understand that I had once been a fuck up and was a real human being and that I wasn’t looking down on them and they would open up to me.

I’ll have 25 years clean and sober in a little over three weeks. I haven’t been arrested or detained in all that time. A minor miracle. I still really like Buffalo wings too.

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  • I posted this on Facebook on November 27, 2020. I was telling stories about my addiction and recovery leading up to my 25th year anniversary.
07Dec/20

Lessons From Rehab

I went to rehab when I was 19 in December of 1995. It was at a center in the Catskills, somewhere between Liberty and Monticello. I was highly motivated to get clean; one of the many reasons was that I felt like I hadn’t accomplished shit in about 18 months and wanted to hit my twenties with a full head of steam.

There was a young black man from the Bronx that was in group with me. “Frank, I’m 29. I don’t have shit to show for my twenties. Nothing man. No education, no job, no money. I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anything. But I want to have a good thirties. You are way ahead of me. Lucky as hell.” He and that little speech stuck with me.

Christmas in rehab sucked. Not really for me (my Dad was a real champ and drove up), but it was brutal to see other people there without families all sad and shit. A lot of people were pretty down for the next few days. Then it got better. And then people started moaning about New Year’s.

There was one group counselor/tech that really stuck out. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jerry. He split his time with the adolescents and the adults, so we only got to see him in small doses. Jerry was a white male in his late 60s. Totally bald. Thin. Cursed a ton. He was sober a few years. He had abused all kinds of substances, but he bottomed out on “doggy cough syrup.” People laughed when he told them. “Fuck you, it’s the best. It’s loaded with alcohol and sedatives and painkillers. I used to get it by the fucking case from this crooked veterinarian.” His groups were fantastically funny and informative. For whatever reason (choice, short straw, punishment), Jerry was on duty with us New Year’s Eve.

8 pm: Some people had dressed up. They were smiling and trying to spread a little cheer. Others sat there in sweats, unbathed, arms crossed, with sour puss faces. I was somewhere in the middle, a relaxed observer.

8:30 pm: Jerry came downstairs and called everyone to order. “Listen up people. We have a new resident coming in tonight. She’s had an awful time of it this holiday season and is ready to get sober. She’s a celebrity (people started looking around at each other), and I want you to leave her the fuck alone. (He looked around the room with a series of hard stares) I’m deadly serious, she’s an addict just like everyone else. So I don’t want anyone to fucking bother her. She doesn’t need your bullshit.” (Then he paused and just glared around some more. We could tell that he meant business)

After twenty seconds or so, he turned and started up a spiral staircase that went to the second floor. He was about halfway up when someone asked, “Who is it?”

Jerry raced back down the stairs and yelled, “It doesn’t matter who she is. Don’t fucking ask me. Leave her alone.” The veins in his neck bulged out.

9:15 pm: Three middle aged women (they were probably in their 30s, but they seemed pretty old to me at the time) ran into the room and said that they had cornered Jerry by the coffee machine in the cafeteria and that they hounded him until he gave up the identity of the celebrity. He had sworn them to secrecy and then returned to his office, at which point they literally sprinted into the big room where we all congregated.

“It’s Madonna! Madonna is coming here tonight!”

The energy in the room changed. A couple people over by the door started singing “Material Girl” and dancing. Others nudged each other. Most everyone was smiling.

I was sitting on a well worn couch that reeked of cigarettes and sweat (people could only smoke outside, but the furniture still smelled) as I took this all in. I looked at the women dancing by the door. The rehab couples whispering to each other. The barely detoxed heroin users who were nodding out and the hyped up forty year olds who had all kinds of energy with the booze freshly out of their system. I made a point to take a quick inventory of all the men.

“I’m the best looking guy here,” I thought to myself. A huge grin exploded across my face, “I’m going to fuck Madonna!”

I ran upstairs and took a shower and put on the best clothes that I had.

9:30 pm: I came back downstairs and sat on the couch that was opposite the door. I couldn’t see the TV from that vantage point, but it was an easy sacrifice, because I wanted Madonna to lock eyes with me when she walked into the treatment center (I knew that Elizabeth Taylor had met her seventh or eighth husband in rehab).

9:45 pm: Jerry came downstairs. I didn’t want to look at him because I was afraid that he’d see me and immediately know what I was up to. To my horror, he took out a pack of cigarettes and headed for the door. I tried to slink down, to hide myself, but to no avail. He saw me. “Frankie, you got all cleaned up. Why?”

Fuck. I had to think fast. “Um…I figured that I’m a new sober man and this is a new year, so I should try to start it off in a new way.”

He stared at me. I figured he knew. I was waiting for the explosion. He smiled, “Good idea.”

10:30 pm: People kept talking about Madonna. Many were singing and dancing. I was tense, looking at the door like a hunting dog. I just knew that we’d hit it off. She’d appreciate my hair, my muscles, my knowledge of music and the sensitivity that I had hidden from so many people with my substance abuse and youthful arrogance. I expected we’d have crazy rehab sex and then she’d take me to warm places after we both had 28 days clean. I was in a daze.

10:45 pm: Jerry came back down for another cigarette. “Jesus, you are still sitting there? What are you doing?”

Fuck. “Just thinking about my life.”

“Good boy.”

11:15 pm: No Madonna. About 25% of the residents had already gone to bed.

11:30 pm: No Madonna. My emotions would rise and fall every time I saw headlights.

11:45 pm: No Madonna.

12:00 am: “Happy New Year!” screamed half the people left in the room. I didn’t move from the couch, nor did I acknowledge the moment. I had laser focus.

12:15 am: Still no Madonna. Only about five people still remained. They were all talking and laughing. It didn’t matter. I was waiting for Madonna and for that moment for our eyes to meet. What the fuck was taking so long?

12:45 am: I was the last resident that hadn’t gone to bed.

1:00 am: Jerry came down for another cigarette. He saw me, “Why are you still awake? Is something the matter?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Frank, what is going on?”

I gulped. The moment of truth. I didn’t want to tell him and deal with his rage. But I also couldn’t think of anything else to say (I was 14 days clean, my head still foggy). I sighed. “I was waiting for Madonna.”

Jerry grinned and let out a big laugh. This was unexpected. “Oh that?” He bent over, laughing. “That was a lie. I was just bored and decided to fuck with everyone for a bit. Teach a lesson. I see one was learned.”

“God dammit,” I muttered.

Jerry was laughing and sat down next to me. “Look, kid, if Madonna came here, you, probably more than anyone else, would have the best shot with her. But, Jesus man, you think she’s coming to a place like this? You’re smarter than that. I didn’t think you would have fallen for it. And you really shouldn’t mess around or date anyone in the first year anyway. (He stared at me). You know that, right? (I slightly nodded). Good. Well, you made my night son. Made my fucking night.” And he smiled and walked away.

Brutal.

About ten years later, I told that story at the last drug and alcohol class I ever took before I got my license. The room was 90% female and almost all of them were 20 to 40 years older than me. I told it because the teacher had asked us to tell some stories about celebrity encounters. As I wove my tale, I could tell the audience was rapt. When I got to the punchline and the fact that Madonna was never going to come (and thus, we weren’t going to have fantastic rehab sex), there was a chorus of painful sighs. I swear to you, they were more upset that I was that I didn’t get to fuck Madonna.


  • I posted this on Facebook on November 20, 2020. It is part of a series of pieces on the end of my addiction and beginning of my recovery.
07Dec/20

On the Death of Stan Lee

(I originally posted this on Facebook on November 12, 2018)

I don’t have it in me today to write an essay on Stan Lee and what he means to me, but I am compelled to put something together for a human that had a giant-sized (X-Men reference too) role in my life.

I started reading comics when I was seven or eight, and I read more Marvel books on a monthly basis than almost any of you could possibly imagine (not Power Pack though). While I was thrilled by the battles and space odysseys that were oh-so-far-away from my safe home town in Western NJ, I was exposed to a constant barrage of social issues and values that helped shape my worldview all these years later.

It’s funny, because comics in the 1950s were under attack by the government and censorious busy-bodies (often hypocrites to boot) for causing juvenile delinquency. Thus the comics code was born.

The superhero comics that were produced by DC starting in 1938 and Marvel in 1962 were largely written by Jews and immigrants. Faced with bigotry and both in-your-face and hidden oppression, they created heroes that looked upon everyone equally, fought for the little guy, and braved the big battle (alliteration is for you, Stan), despite the serious consequences it may have caused in their professional or personal lives.

Marvel heroes worried about their older family members (Aunt May), had typical romantic relationship problems, and never forgot those that died (Jack Murdock, Uncle Ben, Bucky Barnes).

In the late 1980s, Captain America turned in his shield. He refused to follow the orders of an unjust government. This blew my mind. Those in power aren’t always right; sometimes they are selfish, corrupt or just plain incompetent (this was the theme of the second Captain America movie). Stan Lee didn’t write the “Captain America No More” story, but he approved it. He allowed his creative teams to take risks.

Just this past weekend, the question of values came up when I was with my mother, father and uncle in Washington, DC. My battles with big corporations and institutions were discussed and I was asked some form of the question, “Why do you want to take all of this on?” and I quickly answered, “I grew up reading comic books. I want to fight injustice at every turn.” That shit happened.

Stan Lee had a great life. He was married for almost 70 years, entertained millions (billions?), eventually made a lot of money, influenced 20th and 21st century culture and lived to the ripe old age of 95. I am sad he died, but I’m not deeply mournful. I am forever appreciative and grateful. Thanks Stan.

Excelsior!

07Dec/20

On the 25th Anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s Suicide

(I originally posted this on Facebook on April 8, 2019)

I knew this anniversary was coming up. I was a high school senior when Kurt Cobain shot himself in April of 1994. It had been a rough year for me, as heavy drinking fueled some adolescent legal problems, familial conflict, and a general sense that I had fucked up a winning hand.

I was late to Nirvana. I grew up without cable and didn’t listen to the radio much, other than the classic rock stations out of NYC and the Lehigh Valley. In the spring of 1992, I heard a few songs from Nevermind in the Voorhees High School weight room. I was transfixed. “What the fuck is this?” I asked whomever was around.

“Nirvana. Where have you been?”

Indeed. Where had I been? I bought Nevermind and devoured it. Then back to Bleach. Then I waited with baited breath for word of the next album. I bought bootlegs from concerts, demo tapes, and unreleased b sides.

It was new. It was different. Rock had been angry. Rock had been rebellious. Rock had been mournful. Nirvana didn’t communicate anything particularly unique, but they had a novel sound that spoke to me. It was for me.

I read that Cobain was horrified about the football player bully types who liked Nirvana’s first album, so he wrote this about them “In Bloom”

     Hey - he's the one
     Who likes all our pretty songs
     And he likes to sing along
     And he likes to shoot his gun
     But he knows not what it means

A line from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has kept my admiration deep into adulthood:

     Our little group has always been
     And always will until the end

I could go on and on and on about the lyrics. But that’s enough.

I was in the cafeteria line in rehab when someone told me that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. I didn’t believe it. Then I did. My initial reaction was very selfish. “No more new music. This sucks.”

My next thoughts were harsh. “What the fuck? He had everything. Amazing talent. Huge sales and critical acclaim. Admiration of millions. Admiration of other artists. Married. Kid. What the fucking fuck?”

Then it was back to group and my own little world. I got home a few days later and read newspaper and magazine articles about it. A Gen X suicide. This generation’s rock martyr. All kinds of horseshit.

I couldn’t comprehend his supposed self-loathing. Not with all that he had. Even with, what I supposed, the disaster I had made my life, the idea of taking one’s own life just seemed so out there and pointless. It made a confusing time more confusing.

The mourning of the fans and the pictures of Francis Bean got to me. My own problems got worse. The MTV Unplugged Album came out. “New music. Great…..I can’t believe he killed himself. This sucks.”

His death caused a collective trauma for millions of people around America, and beyond. Eventually, his self-loathing was glorified. I remember getting angry at people who thought his death was cool. “Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.”

I still listen to Nirvana, all these years later. Not as much. But a week doesn’t go by where I don’t hear one of their songs on my Ipod (yeah, forever). I feel terrible for his wife and daughter and mother. And for people who attempted to justify their own self-injuries and other destructive behaviors by pointing to him. Kurt Cobain was immensely talented. I wish he didn’t commit suicide. I wish he had gone to therapy, quit drugs, and then talked about going to therapy, quitting drugs and addressing his suicidal impulses. He could have made a monumental impact. I’m not angry at him. It all just…sucks.

The music endures. We can learn from his life. And death.

03Dec/20

The Problem with Imposter Syndrome

A few years ago, a former social work student who had started working in Child Protective Services in NYC reached out to ask me how she should deal with Imposter Syndrome.

I hadn’t heard of this before. “What are you talking about?” I wrote back (I usually respond with perfect punctuation).

She sent me this:

I asked her what she was feeling inadequate about.

She responded that she struggled getting through to difficult parents and that she was afraid she couldn’t protect all the kids on her caseload. She told me of a recent situation where she had recommended the removal of a kid from a home and her supervisor blocked it.

I told her that it is often really hard to reach people, and that parents involved in child protective cases can be quite resistant, whether they are abusive or not or negligent or not. Because no one likes having someone else come into their life, poking around and making suggestions for improvement with the threat of losing their kids hanging over them. No one. I reminded her that she took a very tough job that has a high turnover rate because of the stress and quick burn out. And that any good child protection worker would worry about the things she was worried about.

For centuries, people learned their trade or job through an apprenticeship. In the Middle Ages, painters, sculptors, blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors, bakers and other aspiring professionals worked under an expert for a period of about seven years. They watched and learned and practiced and honed their craft. A number of renaissance artists had apprentices and it has been a challenge for all but those with the keenest eyes to figure out what painting was made by Rembrandt and what was created by an apprentice.

21st century society no longer allows for a seven year training period (not even for doctors). We are too rushed and living is too costly. So people get a quick education, often a shitty internship, and then they are hired into a job with a bad boss or poor supervisor and thrown in the deep end of the pool and left to figure it out.

There are terms for new people: rookie, private, freshman, beginner, fng (fucking new guy), cub, novice, newcomer, trainee, first-year, adept, initiate and tenderfoot. There are a bunch of others.

Those names exist for a reason. I thought about that conversation a few months later when I saw that a first term US Congresswoman tweeted that she struggles with “the imposter syndrome.”

Being new doesn’t mean you are an imposter. It means you are new. And that there is a lot of stuff you don’t know. And it takes time to learn. And the best way to learn is to watch and copy and ask questions of someone who is a little bit ahead of you.

If you are in a great school because your celebrity parents paid for a coach to lie and say you were great at swimming, you are an imposter. If you are an executive at a real estate company because your Dad owns it, you are probably an imposter.

If you are a first year nurse or a new school social worker or a rookie cop, you aren’t an imposter. You are just new.

With rare exceptions like Kevin Maas, Tyreke Evans, The Killers, and Ryan Gosling, most people don’t peak in their first year. If you are in the first year or two of a career or new position, it is probably going to be a bit of a challenge and you will sometimes doubt yourself and occasionally be overwhelmed. This is natural and proper and expected.

When I was in my early 20s, I wrote a poem to myself:

Most of us need polishing. Because we are new, not imposters.

If you still need a bit more reassurance (or are someone who has been in your job a long time and still feel like a fraud), go over these questions with a friend or family member or colleague or therapist or someone else that you trust (and can hear):

  1. Did I prepare for my job/position/career with a formal academic education or trade school?
  2. Did I fully apply myself in that education?
  3. Did I have an internship or apprenticeship or formal training period?
  4. Did I have a supervisor or mentor or trainer who met with me regularly and whom I asked a lot of questions?
  5. Did I lie or cheat or have sex or pay money to get this position?
  6. Am I still being trained or supervised now? If so, is my boss helping my development? If not, can I find someone to help polish me a bit more?
  7. Do I consult or chat with other people in my line of work?
  8. Have I read about other people’s experiences in this field? If not, will I?
  9. Do I show up early and/or stay late?
  10. Am I trying my hardest?

Someone told me recently that Imposter Syndrome was burning up on various social media platforms and people were claiming to have it and that it should be a diagnosis. No and no. Look, ask Google for directions or Alexa how to scramble eggs or Siri who wrote The Guns of August or Facebook for the best Pink Floyd Album, but don’t ask them or other social media to help you pick a romantic partner or figure out if you are doing a good job at work.

Everyone could benefit from a mentor, regardless of whatever stage of work or life you are in.

Back to my former student: she’s kicking ass in her job and is now helping new social workers get acclimated at CPS. I’ll end this with some recent words of wisdom from her, which can sum it up better than I could:

“You were right. I was just new.”

22Jun/20

My Frustrations with Humanity

I have labored, really labored, to improve the lives and conditions of others for almost 20 years. There have been a great number of individual triumphs – lives turned around, families restored, jobs saved, and lessons taught. And yet, the 21st century has seen a fair share of horrors and 2020 has been utterly disastrous for so many people all over the world. When one takes a hard look around, it is easy to get frustrated. Exhausted. To even consider packing up and isolating in a forest on a mountain in order to avoid falling to despair. In good times and bad, I often seek solace and answers from literature.

In the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offered up the following line that I often think about: “The wisest man minds his own business and does not worry about the conduct of the world.”

Because if you worry about the conduct of the world, you will be perpetually frustrated and often aghast. I can understand why someone would just want to retire to their library or garden or “sail away from the things of man” (this is a line from the terribly underappreciated Joe vs the Volcano).

Huckleberry Finn had enough of humanity to decide that he wanted to float away on a raft because civilization was terrible. Life on the raft with Jim was wonderful, and every time he went ashore he was yet again confronted with awful examples of human greed, racism, selfishness, anger, and violence. In the middle of Twain’s novel, Huck observed a group of townspeople tarring and feathering two con men and said, “Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see.  Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” By the end of the novel, Huck’s alcoholic and physically abusive father is dead and Jim is freed, yet Huck decides to leave civilization anyway and make out for “the territory.”

Like Twain, Shakespeare despised the mob (not the Northern NJ Italian type) because they were rash and violent and fickle. At the start of Julius Caesar, the people are out in the streets celebrating Caesar’s latest triumph. Marullus and Flavius, two Senators, engage a few of them in conversation before Marullus chides them, “O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome, Knew you not Pompey?” Because they used to cheer and celebrate Pompey before he was defeated by Caesar. Throughout the play, Shakespeare does not take a stance for or against Caesar, but he clearly has great disdain for the quick turns that humans take and how easily they cheer other people’s destruction.

Throughout human history, religion has sought to temper these violent impulses and drive away the worst aspects of humanity while encouraging kindness, charity, and peace. In theory.

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, many of the absolute worst people who beat and murder slaves are “pious souls” and “devotional” and one is “a class leader in the Methodist church.” Not only has religion failed them, but it is used to prop up these heinous people. Some of them even use religion to justify their abhorrent behavior. His autobiography provides such a devastating indictment of American Christianity that Mr. Douglass felt the need to explain it in the appendix: “between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy, is of the necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked.” While American Christianity (in all its many flavors) is far more enlightened in 2020 than it was in 1845, there is still a rampant hypocrisy that seeps out of churches throughout the land.

In the excellent show Good Omens (written by Neil Gaiman), there is a scene in episode three where an angel and a demon are watching the Crucifixion. The demon asks the angel what Jesus said that so offended those around him. “‘Be kind to each other,’” the angel informs him. “Yeah,” the demon replies, “that’ll do it.” It’s a funny and scathing moment.

As a student and now teacher, as a reader and now writer, as a therapist who engages in work on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels, I am continually reminded that people are amazing at pushing their perspectives and largely being unable to see other people’s sides. Most people that I talk with about culture, society, politics, work, religion, gender, race, sexuality, or class tend to lead with and focus on their experiences and their grievances, rather than listening to others. People love to tell others how to live. Again, I’ll cite Twain: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky.”

I got sober at 19 with the help of treatment and ongoing therapy and AA meeting attendance. AA was brilliant in that it had me focus on myself, my problems, my flaws, my behavior, my part, and what I could change. I was exposed to the the Prayer of St. Francis, which provides excellent advice:

Grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned

About ten years ago, I was counseling a student at Rutgers who was a finance major who had a job lined up with a Fortune 500 company. His plan was to spend a couple of years there and then to get his MBA so that he could return to Wall Street and acquire more power and make “some real money.” With that line, he summed up the true religion of modern America (go read Ayad Akhta’s Junk and then you and I can talk). I remember thinking about how there are some people that don’t deserve my help; I understand that few people will actually engage in meaningful work that improves the lives of others and leads to the betterment of society, but I think that people should at least follow the Hippocratic oath when looking for work: “Do no harm.” I wrestled with the notion of whether or not I should help someone who would profit off the work of others while contributing nothing to the world, and in fact, possible working on destabilizing the economy and getting rich while others have less and less. I ended up giving him the exact same attention and care that I would have anyone else.

This piece isn’t written for everyone. In fact, it is for a minority of people. Those that are good and that are trying to better the lives of others. Not in theory, but in practice (years ago, I was friends with someone who had an astonishingly distorted view of himself. He thought he was a wonderful person, but he was incredibly selfish and argumentative and ended driving a lot of people, including myself, away). It is easy to be frustrated. At any time. But certainly now, in 2020. Not just with the pandemic or systemic racial injustices or economic disparities, but a litany of other problems too, including, most significantly, climate change.

Thoughts of giving up or quitting and sailing (or floating or hiking) away are normal. And rational. But these feelings and this debate are not new. J.D. Salinger wrote about it The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield was horrified with society. The book was published in 1951 and as a rich young white male, he was certainly in that era’s great winners’ circle. He had, in fact, been exposed to very little and was still thoroughly upset. Near the end of the novel, he meets up with a former teacher of his, who offers some wonderful advice that I also often lean on:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t educational. It’s history. It’s poetry.

Of course, the advice is muddied when that same teacher starts petting Holden on the head while he is sleeping. Holden wakes up and runs off, thus further alienated from people. Still, the advice is very good. It was a brutal stroke for Salinger to give that to the reader and then have the speaker attempt to molest the protagonist.

I am frustrated with people and Americans in particular (this has been a two decade thing, by the way). The news is upsetting, comments at the end of articles are often sickening, and the selfishness and conflict that seem to pervade so much of our modern world understandably urges me to throw up my hands and say “Enough with the lot of you” and leave the mess because, in Roger Water’s words, “it’s not easy, banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

Humanity is the mad bugger. Clearly.

And yet. I choose to stay. And work. And help. And hope. I am inspired by the work of others; by their effort, their care, their perseverance, their stories. It is possible to hold the conflicting thoughts that humanity is often terrible and yet I’m going to stick around and help them anyway. So, don’t give up. We keep trying til the very end. Just make sure you stop and smell the roses, walk among the lillies, watch the sunsets, and laugh a bit.

13Jun/20

Police Are Serving on the Frontlines of the Heroin and Opioid Epidemic

*note: I wrote this in March of 2017 for a website that is now defunct. I stand by the sentiments herein. I have been thrilled with the police response to working with people with substance misuse disorders and the willingness of many departments to change their longstanding procedures. I believe that with proper recruitment, training, and supervision, the profession can continue to evolve and improve.

——————————————————————————

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. There was a brief respite under President Carter (who unsuccessfully called for the decriminaliziation of marijuana), and then President Ronald Reagan ratched up both the rhetoric and incarceration rates while also cutting funding for treatment. Presidents GWH Bush and Bill Clinton continued to spend billions trying to arrest away the drug problem. The roots of the modern opioid epidemic began during the Clinton and Bush II administrations with the aggressive marketing of pain killer by companies like Purdue Pharma. While incarceration rates have gone down the last few years, the United States continues to be, by far, the number one jailer in the world in both rates and total numbers.

The Vera Insitute of Justice estimates that the US spends about $75B a year on corrections, and this does not include capital building costs or pensions and benefits for corrections workers. For that money, over 66% of ex-offenders are arrested again within three years and almost 50% return to jail or prison within that same time.  It has been a terrible return on the public dollar.

Despite the money spent on incarceration, drug overdose rates in America have increased from about 23,000 in 2002 to over 50,000 in 2015. Drug counselors, law enforcement, policy experts and politicians started sounding the alarm at the end of the last decade. The Massachucettes Bar convened a Task Force in 2008 and released a report. Other states and counties followed (I chaired the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force in 2012 – you can read our report here). Forward thinking governors  began to pay attention, and both Democrats (Pete Shumlin –VT, Andrew Cuomo – NY) and Republicans (John Kasich – OH, Chris Christie – NJ) accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid Expansion and instituted new policies to combat the epidemic (the implimentation of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, Needle Exchange Programs).

I have trained thousands of law enforcement officers in multiple states (I’ve also provided counseling to many). Whenever I conduct a training, I ask them why they joined the force. While answers like “I was in the military and missed the uniform and comraderie” or “It’s a family business” or “It is a good job with benefits,” the most common answer has always been “to catch bad guys” or “to help my community.” Police have been the action arm in the failed war on drugs for decades. Not only has it not been effective, but it has burned out a few generations of cops. The drug war violated the rights of many Americans (dis-proportionally people of color) and it inflamed conflict and negative views between minority communities and the police.

After decades of arresting
millions of people for small possession, 
law enforcement officers started to make changes on the local level.
Veteran police officers talked about how they had spent their careers busting
people for drug use and that the problem had only gotten worse. Other cops
stated that the focus on low level drug busts and arrest stats took the focus
away from more important crimes that required more work – burglaries, violence,
and sexual assaults. As drug overdose deaths continued to skyrocket this
decade, police officers began to carry Naloxone. Only a few departments used it
in 2012, but more and more added it to their basic equipment each year and now
it is standard in most departments throughout the nation. Police officers
administer naloxone to individuals who are overdosing more than any other
professional group.

While many veteran officers
support this change, young police officers often wonder “what is the point of
using Naloxone on a drug user?” Law enforcement officers occasionally express
frustration over administering Naloxone to the same individual several times
over the course of a few months, or reviving someone with a long criminal
history, or reversing an overdose of a person who has obviously been neglecting
their young children. This frustration stems from both a lack of training on
addiction and a overall macro level failure of public policy.

Naloxone was given to police
and first responders to reduce the number of overdose deaths. But there was no
initial follow up plan, so after a drug user was revived he was just sent on
his way. Over the last few years, a number of police departments (or county organizations)
have created programs to assist drug users after they have been revived. Over
the last three years, new programs (often called PAARI – Police Assistance
Addiction and Recovery Initiative) have sprung up around the country. Programs
like Angel in Gloucester, Massachucettes were set up to help heroin users get
into treatment instead of arresting them. Some programs have an embedded social
worker in the station (Arlington, Mass), while others hand out information
about treatment (START in Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, NJ), while others
take them to local hospitals and detoxes (Operation SAL in Camden County, NJ).
Most police departments have not developed a program yet to better handle the
people that they have revived. There are enough models that departments can
choose the one that best fits their department and municipality.

It is important that police
get training on this issue from someone that is knowledgeable about drug
treatment, state and federal policies, and also has a working knowledge about
law enforcement work and culture. In the last two years, there has been a
number of for-profit treatment programs that have attempted to train police and
set up relationships with departments in order to funnel clients with cadillac
insurance to their rehabs. Not even senior law enforcement leaders know the
difference between a non-profit program that uses modern data analysis and a
predatory for-profit program that has no interest in assisting indigent
clients.

The War on Drugs failed. Both
Democrats and Republicans have finally said so. Law enforcement knew it before
the polticians did. Now cops are the ones that have made the biggest change,
and they need proper training.