“No, it won’t kill you.”
I was sitting in the office of a surgeon I’d only met 30 minutes ago, listening to him recommend – what else – SURGERY. “It won’t kill you,” he continued, “unless it twists around and cuts off the blood flow. Then it’ll kill ya.”
I had a double hernia. My regular physician referred me to this particular surgeon because this was his specialty. “He’s the best in the city,” my doc assured me.
“It’s not a major procedure anymore,” the surgeon went on. Now, it’s day surgery, just a small cut below your navel, a scope and a micro-tool, that’s it. Three day recovery, max.”
So, one week later, lying on a gurney in the hallway outside of Operating Theater A, I was inhaling the ever-present eau de antiseptic and staring blankly at the green painted walls. I found myself reflecting on how I got there. It was like the newsreel of my life rolling in my brain.
Most people travel life’s highway with tools to deal with its hazards and roadblocks. I’m guessing they picked up most of those tools while they were growing up. In my dysfunctional family, the toolbox was empty. I roared into my life’s journey without a clue; I had no idea how to deal with difficult situations. I was even more clueless about relationships. So, by the age of 17, I self-medicated with booze and, being a Baby Boomer, drugs. The only tool I had was the game of “Grandma.”
“Grandma” was Rose, my Mom’s mom. I loved her dearly but, like all the women on that side of the family, she was crazy as a loon. Tough as nails on the outside, Rose (and my mom) carried a ball of fear and anxiety in the pit of her stomach.
To “protect” Rose, the family employed – no, took great joy and entertainment creating – complicated conspiracies to keep any bad news from her. Back in the early 60’s, my brother fought in Vietnam but, when Rosie visited the conversation took on a surreal non-specificity.
“How’s Steve doing?” she would ask. “I haven’t heard from him in awhile; he hasn’t written.”
“Oh, he’s fine, Grandma. You know how bad he is at staying in touch.”
“Is he still safely tucked away at Okinawaa?” she would always press.
“Well, they keep moving him around but, we’re sure he’s okay.” It wasn’t exactly a lie but it wasn’t the whole truth either. This was the game of “Grandma” and we played it with everyone. The message was, “don’t confront life; hide from it.”
With that message in my toolbox, I “enjoyed” countless unhealthy, unsuccessful relationships with countless unhealthy women. I lost jobs and devolved into a consultant-without-clients. By the age of 51, I was a desperate, unemployable mid-to-late stage alcoholic visiting a psychiatrist once a week. I was too old for potential and too young for over-the-hill. Finally, in June 1998, I staggered – drunk – into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Underlying the 12-Step recovery in AA is the belief that a Higher Power, a “God of one’s own understanding,” can do for the drunk what he or she could not do alone: stop drinking and lead a wonderful productive life.
When I finally stumbled through the doors of my first AA meeting, I had 220 (beer-fueled) pounds stuffed into a 175-pound frame. I was a husband/father whose primary function was to get high and stay high. Spiritually, I was empty.
Before I could start on my road to recovery, I had to deal with “The God Thing.” For most of my life God was not an issue. I never thought about God and patently rejected the concept of organized religion. I merely careened drunkenly through life, leaving wide swaths of destruction without ever considering the possibility of God.
Over the final five years of my active alcoholism, I drank daily, starting as soon as I awoke and ending whenever I passed out at night. I was in deep depression, suffering alcoholic blackouts and periodically bleeding in my intestinal tract (where the alcohol wore away the lining). At the dinner table, if I got into a squabble with one or both of our kids my wife would disdainfully say, “Now ‘children,’ cut that out.” The implication was clear.
Then one day, I hit another emotional bottom. The difference this time was, I didn’t bounce back. So, on June 10, 1998, after guzzling down my last six-pack of beer, I staggered into my first AA meeting.
Before the program could work for me, I knew I’d have to come to grips with my ambivalence toward God. Even though I am a non-practicing Jew, the only person I felt comfortable with for such a discussion was a local rabbi. What I learned in a short 30-minute conversation with the rabbi opened the door to my recovery.
“The Jewish people have struggled with the question of God’s existence for more than 5,700 years,” he said. “Why don’t you stop struggling and stop seeking a definition of whom or what God may be. Just open a door in your heart and mind to the idea that there IS a God. Before you know it, God will walk through that door.”
That simple advice set me free. Somewhere early in my sobriety, I came to a complete acceptance of my Higher Power. As this new faith grew, I began to slowly figure out which things in life I control (a very short list) and which things I must trust to God. This faith is the very foundation of my sobriety.
Shortly after I entered recovery, I found employment in an industry where I’d been persona non grata for almost 20 years. Two years after that, with my self esteem, professional reputation and credibility firmly restored, I went to work for a large public agency where I earned the respect of my peers and the satisfaction of accomplishing important things for the community in which I live. Throughout my first seven years of sobriety, however, life on the home front remained shaky.
In spite of my recovery – or maybe because of it - my marriage continued to deteriorate. Alcoholism is a family disease. It’s not that everyone starts drinking; the disease strikes family members emotionally. The damage is often serious and far-reaching.
My wife certainly appreciated my sobriety. From her perspective, though, I was on my own. “It’s your problem, not mine,” she informed me. So, I recovered alone.
“Leave that marriage,” my psychiatrist urged me early in therapy. “The relationship is toxic and she continually acts out her rage against you.”
I began to fantasize on a daily basis about divorce but couldn’t pull the trigger. I was paralyzed by fears I couldn’t even describe. As time went on, our paths grew further and further apart. Even as I took joy from almost every other part of my life, I felt trapped in a dead marriage.
Now, here I was, waiting for surgery just ten days before my 25th wedding anniversary and wondering whether I should make one last try to make it work or finally just walk away. Before I came to any conclusion, the anesthesiologist was putting me out.
I awoke several hours later in the recovery room. Even as I was adjusting to my surroundings, the nurses stood me up to see if I was ready to go home but, my legs turned to jelly, things started to go black.
I knew something was very wrong. Yet before I could panic, I very clearly heard a voice in my head say “You are not dying.” I immediately trusted that voice; I knew it wasn’t my voice. It was something much deeper and more powerful than my own thoughts. I felt safe and I knew I wasn’t dying. Then I fainted and crashed to the floor.
The doctor had nicked something during surgery, didn’t notice it and sewed me back up. When I fainted in the recovery room, my blood pressure crashed to zero. They stabilized and monitored me, until I crashed again. Off I went to Intensive Care, where I crashed a third time. A CAT scan revealed a belly full of blood. Three-quarters of my blood was replaced by transfusion and they rolled me back into the operating room for emergency surgery.
It turned out that I was the only one who knew I wasn’t dying. When they rolled me back into the O.R. for emergency surgery, the doctors told my family that IF I came out alive, I would probably be coming out on life support.
I never saw the white light or tunnel described by near-death survivors. I awoke the next day in the Intensive Care Unit with a nine-inch vertical incision down my lower abdomen and a morphine pump in my hand. I went home after four days of post-op intensive care constantly thinking about my brief contact with God and knew everything was different.
Before the surgery, I felt good about my relationship with the God of my understanding. When I initially opened my heart to God my obsession to drink was lifted. After seven years of sobriety, I thought my faith was strong. That’s why my experience in the hospital was such a shocker.
Now, my faith was deeper and far stronger. I felt a new purpose and clarity. My divorce fears were gone. Ten days after coming home, I walked up to my wife and calmly said, “I don’t know any other way to say this. I’m done; I can’t do this any more.”
“What do you mean you’re done?” she asked almost innocently.
“What is there about ‘I’m done’ you don’t understand?” I answered. “I’m moving out. We will never get back on the same path of life together.” Knowing I'd done everything I could to make the marriage work, I've never looked back.
Instead of chaos, I felt a peace and strength in my heart I’d never experienced. People I’d known for years looked at me, did a double-take and often said, “you look different; you look (pause) so, so…. at-peace.”
Perhaps the most important result of my experience, though, is the telling of it and the fact that a man who never considered the concept of God until he was 51 years old now feels compelled to share his deep and abiding faith in God. I greet each day with unimaginable optimism and constant gratitude for everyone and everything in life.