We are travelers on
life’s journey moving toward our common destination—death—and what may lie
beyond. Most are free, for the most part, to choose the path we follow to this
destination. We all are born into specific circumstances that limit choice. For
instance, an Arab girl born into a male dominated culture and a boy born into
poverty have much different limitations compared to a white boy born into a
loving caring middle class American family. However, regardless of circumstances,
we share a common desire for freedom of choice and control over the path that
we follow on our journey. As a white American man, I have high class and
trivial impediments along my journey. Nonetheless, my path is not without bumps
and detours. So where am I today and how did I get here?
I am a child of
the mid-twentieth century America,
born in 1956. My parents expected me and my sister to be successful and be
emotionally well adjusted. The smiling, materialistic Ozzie and Harriet mindset
of the late 1950s and early 1960s discouraged freedom and creative expression
outside tightly drawn lines. As young boy not always able to stay inside the
lines, I was subjected special treatment and education that was intended to keep
me in line.
The first bump on
my path came at the age of twelve when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. My
parents had me tested because I had reading problems that made it difficult for
me to stay between the tightly drawn lines of the public school system. This
condition was considered by my well intentioned parents and the doctors they
consulted as a sever limitation. At first, I did not feel different from my
friends or that this so-called condition was a limitation. However, I was soon
conditioned to believe that I had a defect that must be corrected if I wanted
any chance of a “normal life.” I continually heard from adults, whom I trusted,
that I was indeed different in a negative way. I was subjected to a variety of eye
exercise treatments and tutors that felt to me like torture. I was miserable; I
had no control over the direction in which I was being shoved. Then, as if to
add insult to injury, I was shoved into a private boarding school, which deepened
my frustration and unhappiness.
During this time,
between twelve and fifteen years old, I felt social pressure to participate in macho
sports like baseball, football, wrestling, and basketball. So, with an
overwhelming desire to be accepted and normal, I did my best to join in. I was
actually a good swimmer and enjoyed it; however, I believed that my friends and
schoolmates did not consider swimming a macho sport. Bending to expectations, I
was often miserable and unhappy with my choice of complicity. Again, I felt as
if I was being shoved in a direction that I really did not want to follow.
Creativity was not
part of my young vocabulary. The tutors and private school did not discouraging
creativity, but they absolutely encouraged, rewarded, and expected logical,
left brain activity. I learned through a fear of failure to again stay between
the lines of expectation. I now realize the result of this cultural pressure eventually
resulted in undeveloped and blocked creativity that further fed frustration and
unhappiness. This grew and festered years down the road into restlessness,
irritability and discontentment; the result of addiction.
As a freshman in
high school, I had a strong desire to follow a different path. It was this
desire and a series of sports injuries led me to drugs and alcohol. I often
write about this because it is such a pivotal part of my journey. I followed
this corked, self-absorbed path for almost thirty years. At first, it provided a
welcome escape from the frustration and unhappiness I felt. It ended at a dead
end and I was powerless to change direction.
At forty three, God
opened for me a door of change and freedom from ugly drug addiction and alcoholism
that had grown to control of my life and was essentially dragging me down dark,
foggy road. During the last eight years I have slowly grown to realize that God
holds the key to what I longed for—creative freedom and acceptance. My journey
is just beginning to make sense and I realize that creativity is a gift from
God that takes many forms in my life—writing, music, and the physical movement
of swimming and Yoga practice. Continuing to grow in a positive direction, God gives
me the privilege to serve others in many of ways, such as helping those who
suffer with addictions, as I did, through AA—the fellowship of recovery that
held open a door open for me. Active participation in AA reminds me that I do
not need to backtrack on my journey.
Beulah, my mom,
was scheduled have an MRI over a two day period in June, 2006. She had
discussed with her oncologist that she could not lie still on her back for the
three to four hours to complete the procedure in one day due to her severe back
pain. They agreed that she would be admitted to the hospital and have the full
body MRI done over a two day period. The plan was to check into to NorthsideHospital on Wednesday June 7, 2006 and be back home by
My 81 year old mom
was on Medicare. Because of inefficient and arcane Medicare rules she could not
simply walk in the front door of the hospital and request to be admitted, even
with doctor’s orders. Instead, she had to go first to the emergency room, even
though her condition was not a medical emergency, and be admitted through the
ER so the insurance would cover her medical expenses.
Emergency rooms of
large urban hospitals are busy 24-7 and NorthsideHospital
is certainly no exception. Most hours of any day the ER medical staff is overwhelmed
with a variety of patients, which makes the Medicare rules regarding hospital
admission all the more bizarre. The ER triage system first treats those with
life threatening conditions and the rest wait for the next available nurse and doctor,
and in my mom’s case, the next available room. She waited for over two hours on
a gurney in the hallway before an ER exam room was available. And it took
eleven hours before she made it to a room to a room was available. My mom, accompanied
by my dad, Bill, walked into the emergency room at 3 PM on Wednesday and were finally
in a third floor—oncology floor—room at 2 AM Thursday. The first MRI session
was scheduled for later that day.
This ordeal, which
would be difficult a young healthy person, took a toll on Beulah. You see my
mom, who had suffered with back pain most her life due to severe scoliosis, had
been in constant, severe, debilitating pain for eighteen months. She had tried
a variety of treatments such as epidural blocks and pain medication, none of
which were effective. She had been taking high doses of narcotic pain
medication including viocadin, morphine, and deluded for about at least six
months. She had long resisted such meds because they made her ill and dulled
her sharp mind. She read constantly, kept track of investments, paid the bills,
and regularly worked crossword puzzles. Beulah could not function due to the
pain and the medication made it difficult for her to focus. Several months
prior to her last trip to the hospital she would lament that this was no way to
Friday at the hospital went well. The time that Beulah spent in the MRI was
uncomfortable because she was in a great deal of pain despite regular doses of
oral narcotic pain medication. Despite severe pain, my mom and dad were
preparing to leave the hospital Friday afternoon to await the MRI results on
Monday. However, during the checkout exam the oncologist, who was not her
regular doctor, suggested that she stay one more night to get her pain under
control. He said the hospital pain management specialists could visit her on
Saturday. She reluctantly agreed because her regular oncologist was returning
from an out of town conference and would make rounds on Saturday. She hoped the
MRI results would be available then as well. The pain management doctor ordered
an IV pump of deluded, a narcotic pain medication, and then vanished not to be
As the evening
wore on the medication was not working and Beulah became restless. The nursed
reminded her that she could push a hand held button to receive a dose of
deluded as often as she need it. In addition, my father had with him some of
her prescription medication from home and gave her viocadin in addition to the
deluded. The combination of this medication put Beulah in a semi-comatose state
and her respiration and heart rate fell dangerously low. She had overdosed on
In the early hours
of Saturday she was sent to ICU in an attempt to stabilize her vital signs and detoxify
her body of excessively high levels of narcotics. She received Naloxone through
an IV pump. This medication is used to treat opiate overdose. Health care
officials provide doses of this medication to heroin addicts to carry with them
in case of accidental overdose. It increases heart and respiration, makes the
patient alert while flushing the narcotic from the system.
When I arrived at
her room early Saturday morning, Beulah was receiving 25 ml per hour of this
medication and, of course, no pain medication. She was alert and in extreme
pain. She pleaded with me to ask the nurse to give her something for the pain;
she could not continue living in such pain. My dad and I explained that the
nurse could not giver her anything for the pain until her vital signs
stabilized. She grabbed my arm, and with more strength than I believed she
could possibly posses, pleaded for relief, “I cannot live like this.” She also
said over and over, “You must write this story” and “Please write my story.” This
went on for another day and a half. The only time she could rest was when the
nurse would reduce the Naloxone dosage to 10 ml per hour or less. Exhausted,
Beulah would sleep; however, instead of restful sleep, it seemed more like
During these two
days, while watching my mom slowly die, I found the only thing that made any
sense was to pray. I was powerless to do anything else for her. Of course, I
prayed for my mom’s recovery; but as time passed it became clear Beulah would
not recover. Sandy,
an ICU nurse prepared us for the reality that Beulah would likely not recover
form the over dose and that her health was failing. I prayed that I could carry
her pain I remember late one night praying that she be freed of her body so she
could fly free.
One afternoon I
sat alone with her as she struggled in pain from the Naloxone, her strong hands
gripping my arm and hand, pleading to let her die. Around a nurse reduced the dosage and mom drifted
to sleep. I sat in a chair staring at an electrical outlet in the high tech ICU
wall behind her bed. With my palms open I prayed that God grant Beulah, my mom,
some peace and to let me carry her pain. The room that had swirled with anxiety
and pain a few minutes prior was now peaceful and calm—Beulah was resting. I
dared not move from the chair or even remove my eyes from the plug. I connected
to and plugged into God behind that wall. We stayed just like that for over an
hour until my dad returned. I let him sit in that chair to watch Beulah sleep.
I hoped he would plug into what I had found sitting in that chair.
came to visit on Monday, June 10 and said there was a suspicious lesion that
showed on the MRI and he recommended a PET scan and biopsy to confirm what he
suspected was cancer of the spine. This came as no surprise to Beulah. She took
the diagnosis much better than my dad, Bill, sister Martha, and I took this
news. The doctor also suggested that following the biopsy, while under local
anesthetic, the pain management doctor could insert an epidural catheter to
deliver pain medication directly to the source of her pain. She and my dad
agreed to the biopsy and the catheter.
With the results
of the PET scan and biopsy in hand that confirmed spinal cancer, her oncologist
recommended a limited series of five radiation treatments. However, Beulah’s
condition had worsened and Sandy, the ICU nurse, suggested that consider
hospice care because her condition would not improve. Reluctantly, my dad,
Martha and I made arrangements at a hospice.
was a silence between Bill, Martha, and I. We knew Beulah would probably not
recover and that she was dieing. None of us wanted to loose hope and we wanted
the doctors and nurses to do all they could to make her comfortable and help
her recover from the deteriorating state she was in. However, as the days
passed, we knew recovery was not realistic. Eventually, our thoughts were
spoken. Mom talked with Martha about the dress in which she wanted to be
My mom had in
place a living will which stipulated no heroic life prolonging measures in the
event of a terminal diagnosis. It seemed that time had come and she knew it.
When she was conscious, which became less and less as time progressed, she
would say, “Why can’t I die? I cannot live like this, I just want to die” and
“Mark, this is a story you must write.”
On Friday, June 16, Beulah was moved form ICU
back the oncology floor. Sitting with her on Sunday, June 18 about I felt plugged in again. My mom
had developed severe fear and anxiety at night. It would begin about five or
six in the evening and last most of the night. I found on the American Cancer
Society Web Site that this is a side effect of the combination of cancer and
pain medication. However, this evening she was sleeping. I tried to open the
window; however, it was screwed shut. I was sure if the window was open she
could fly free, but the hospital window would not let her out. I sensed she was
disappointed that the window would not open.
After two days
delay while the hospice made arrangements for the pump and medication for the epidural
catheter, she was finally moved to the hospice on the morning of June 19. That
evening at , she died
while my dad and I held each her hands.
This story did not
end the way any of us wanted to end. However, all of our life stories do end.
The details of my mom’s death really do not begin to reveal how she lived her
life. I have heard so many stories for m her friends and from people she worked
with that Beulah unselfishly took care of many who came to know her. She never
dwelled on herself, including the pain she lived with. In the end I think
because she could not take care of those she loved and others around her,
that’s why she did not want to continue living.
When I started the
Master of Arts in Professional Writing (MAPW) program at Kennesaw StateUniversity
in the fall of 2003 I had no idea if I would complete all of the course
requirements. I only intended to take a few courses and see if I could keep up
with the young, gifted MAPW students who I found to be so adamant about their
writing. After all, I’m what one may refer to as a well-seasoned, mature (old
geezer) writer who had not been in a classroom as a student in twenty-three
years prior to my first MAPW class. So what made me think I could sit in a
student’s seat, complete ten classes, finish a capstone project, work forty to
fifty hours per week, and be a father and husband? And could I write well
enough to earn passing grades?
With the help and
support of my family, the encouragement of the MAPW faculty, with the
collaboration of my classmates, and with God’s help, I have earned that degree.
In doing so, and by completing a variety of academic coursework, I have grown
as a writer and look forward, for the most part, to time spent writing.
I enjoy writing,
especially writing “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott discusses at length in
her book, Bird by Bird. The random
thoughts that pour on to the page, when I am confident no one will read them,
often frighten me and confirm, in a concrete way, that bizarre and random
thoughts seem to continuously rattle around in my head. And when I re-read a
“shitty first draft” and realize I have no idea at all what I was trying to
communicate, I begin to seriously question my ability to write and to even
develop coherent thoughts. However, through perseverance or perhaps desperation
when I pick through first draft detritus and find a sentence or phrase that
catches my attention and imagination, the real work of writing begins—revising
and rewriting. I subject myself to this work in order to convince a client that
our engineering firm is eminently qualified for a particular project or to
connect with more or less normal people and convince them, and myself, that we
share common experiences. In other words, through repeated refinement and
revision, I find the words to engage my audience and develop ethos and
Writing is vital
to who I am and what I do for a living. Words, the form they take on paper, the
story they tell, and where they lead never ceases to amaze me. However, at
times writing begins to stray—“spaghetti,” in the words of Ralph Keyes from his
book The Courage to Write. When this
happens I have learned to walk away and return from a different direction, or
perhaps abandon an ill-fated ship of words entirely.At other times words and my writing process work together and my
voice, which often fails in spoken conversation and argument, speaks clearly on
paper and I develop a clearer understanding of my subject. Whether the subject
is an engineering topic at work, a personal nonfiction essay, a fiction story,
or a poem, when I connect with my audience and they respond, my readers are
collaborating with me and improving my writing.
Response lets me
know what is important to my audience. For example, my nephew recently
commented on similar feelings and experiences through a series e-mails after
reading an essay I sent him about my recovery from drug addiction and
alcoholism. I am over thirty years older than my nephew; however, we are
connected by a common disease. We discovered this common ground through
writing. Our conversations at family gatherings have never touched on this
subject. Other family members do not share our interest in recovery, so the
subject rarely comes up. Writing has connected us in a way that spoken words
A second example
of connecting with my audience comes from the workplace. I gained a valuable
client by writing a detailed engineering proposal outlining an economical
solution for constructing a sewer line through an ecologically sensitive area.
The client responded by awarding my company with the design project, as well
as, several subsequent design projects.
My experience in
the MAPW program has changed my approach to the writing process and
collaboration. I’ve become less fearful of writing and more sensitive to my
audience’s needs and desires. I’ve grown to enjoy collaborating with readers.
However, most writers agree that writing is work and involves risk. Committing
words to paper opens the writer to the risk of rejection. For example, writing
a statement of qualifications engineering proposal entails the risk of being
judged unqualified or at least less qualified than others by a valued client.
Also, personal essay writing lays the writer bare to being judged unusual,
peculiar, or downright bizarre—much like the reaction of some to my story of
recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. However, taking chances through
writing keeps life interesting and keeps me connected to those around me. And,
perhaps, my audience will understand that it is okay to be unusual and to seek
help if they find themselves in an unhealthy situation.
process has become a vehicle to freedom for me. I have found freedom from my
self-absorbed daily grind. As an adolescent and young adult, I fancied myself a
free spirit, a revolutionary, removed from the “establishment.” The reality
today is I’m very much part of the establishment and my freedom often feels
compromised, not by the responsibilities themselves, but rather by my
perception of responsibilities and the choices I make. I know, on one level,
there is nothing at all confining or wrong with being responsible to my family
and the workplace; but, my obsession with those responsibilities is often
unbalanced. Writing frees my spirit. It lets me fly and shake loose from the
drag of mundane chores and my often obsessive, addictive behavior. I choose to
write because the work of writing rewards my spirit. Writing transforms my
creative imagination into a tangible, concrete expression that has the power to
touch others. When my writing works well, I am able, in the words of Caroline
Westerhoff, to “touch the Mystery,” or gain glimpses of God in everyday life,
as I discuss in the essay “Touch the Mystery: A Conversation with Caroline
Wwsterhoff.” I do not fully understand what or who God is, but what I cannot
explain, such as my daily recovery from a hopeless situation with drugs and
alcohol, gives me faith in the Mystery.
As I note above,
my writing included workplace writing and creative writing as well as
composition and rhetoric writing. Regardless of the genre, my writing process
includes common elements and dysfunctions. I cannot just sit down and write
without first cleaning my desk, going for a run, making sure the house or
office is in order, or some other form of procrastination. I wish I could just
immediately start writing because I have limited time to write at work and at
home. So, to make the most of my available writing time, I have learned, the
hard way, to take the time to outline my story or subject. I also research and
read about my subject. With this preliminary work done, I push through a rough
(shitty) draft, then walk away from it for a day, if possible. When I return, I
read the draft aloud with my outline and research material at hand. I cut the
irrelevant stuff, which is often painful. This revision and rewriting process
involves at least three iterations, sometimes many more. As the deadline approaches
for completing the piece, or when I am just tired of looking at it, I put the
finishing touches on it and call it good.
Finding time to
write what I want is a challenge because I work forty to fifty hours per week
as an engineer writing letters, reports, and proposals, and supervising civil
and structural design projects. Climbing the stairs to my home office to write
after a long day at work is often tough. I found encouragement recently in a
biography of Stephen King that I saw on television. King began his writing
career by writing after work. He was motivated to write and stuck with it
through some tough times. King’s story motivates me to keep writing.
Making an outline
prior to writing is time well spent. This realization came after struggling
with several stories and by reading and rereading Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story. Prior to reading this
book, I thought outlining creative writing was unnecessary and a waste of my
precious writing time. Wrong. I have trashed numerous drafts and entire stories
because I had no clear idea where I was going. In addition, I never start
writing at work without an outline. So what made me think I did not need an
outline to write a short story or personal essay? I was inexperienced with
creative writing and had many misconceptions, such as writing talent could
carry one through difficult writing situations. I learned that without the
direction of an outline my mind will wander to unknown places and invariably
become hopelessly lost.
With an outline in
hand, I begin researching. This process helps me keep my story straight. I have
learned not to trust my recollection of the order of past events and some
important details surrounding those past events.
With my outline
and my facts straight, I write a rough draft. I usually write on a computer
because I have found this saves time. When writing a first draft I turn off the
spell check and try to reach the end of the draft with limited rereading. At
this stage, I do not even try too hard to keep my mind from straying from my
outline. Sometimes I am surprised when I end up in uncharted territory.
Occasionally, these uncharted directions work with the story and I revise the
outline. Other times the uncharted writing is a waste of time and I return to
the outline road map.
A good test for
the material that remains is to read it aloud to myself. Where I stumble, I
rewrite. What sounds trivial or does not suit my voice, I revise.
Time or my
patience usually runs out on the revision process; therefore, I often call the
last revision I have time for my polishing revision. However, I have found that
revision never really ends. Rereading so-called “final” drafts long after the
due date often reveals something that is not quite right and in need of
A final test of a
story or essay is to ask myself how it makes me feel. Will it resonate with my
audience? Will my audience understand what I am trying to tell them? I also ask
if I am happy with what I have written. My reaction may range from this is just
okay to feeling satisfied by discovering something new or something that I did
not fully realize prior to writing.
after writing a draft of “Out of the Fog: A Leap of Faith,” I had two dreams that I attribute to writing about the details
of my alcoholism. I have told my story several times to various groups, but
this did not have the same effect as writing about this subject. In the first
dream I was an inmate of a prison. I was helping two other men build something
in murky water. My job was to swim from deep water near a bridge pier, avoid
snakes, traverse a rocky bank, find construction material, and return to the
two men treading water. Danger lurked beneath.
In the second
dream, I found myself tied to the outside of a car with running boards. Several
people pushed the car into the water. As the car descended, the car turned on
its side and I watched the surface retreat from view. I was thankful that the
car was beneath me instead of the other way around—there would be no hope if
the car settled to the bottom on top of me. Time was running out as I struggled
to free myself. I knew when I got free I could not go straight up because
whoever had pushed me in was waiting above and keeping watch. I swam under
water to a bridge, slipped quietly out of the water, and climbed a steep,
rock-lined bank to escape.
Well yes, this is
weird, but I see these dreams as a sign that I was perhaps headed in the right
direction with my story. I see connections between my writing and past life. My
dream of drowning while tied to a car represented my sinking into alcoholism
and drug addiction. I used my car to transport me from bar to liquor store to
dope dealer—it enabled my addictions. The other dream is not so clear. The
prison situation had something to do with addictions, but I seemed to be
helping the two in the water, which also has to do with recovery.
No matter what the
type of writing, connecting with the audience is what it is all about. The
workplace audience is looking for specific information. Students and teachers
are seeking to expand their knowledge by reading composition and rhetoric
writing. Readers of creative writing do so for entertainment and to identify
with characters or the narrator. Fr me, the most important aspect of writing is
the response from an audience.
It was on December 22, 1999, and I was frantically putting the finishing touches on a proposal that was due at that afternoon. The proposal was for the design of a pedestrian corridor and bridge for the City of Marietta, Georgia. The last item I needed for the proposal was the drug free workplace certification that was required by the City, which read:
Associated Engineers expressly prohibits the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensing, possession, or use of controlled substances. Violation of this prohibition will result in immediate and severe penalties, which may include dismissal and/or criminal prosecution under the jurisdiction of the state of Georgia. We the undersigned acknowledge and support every effort to maintain a drug free workplace.
I was the last to sign the form, although my name was at the top of the project team. My hands were shaking so badly that my scratching barely looked anything like a signature. I had been up most of the two previous nights working on the proposal that I had put off for a month. I was drinking heavily and eating handfuls of amphetamines. I had slept a total of five hours during the previous seventy two. The drug free workplace certification was simply a requirement of the proposal and it had no real meaning whatsoever as far as I was concerned. I felt it did not apply to me.
I threw the completed form on the secretary’s desk and said. “Make five copies and bind the proposals. They have to be there in an hour.”
I returned about thirty minutes later, grabbed the package of bound proposals and buzzed out of the office telling the secretary that I would be out of the office for the rest of the day and with no word of thanks for helping.
I hopped in my car and drove like a maniac three blocks to City Hall. I could have walked from my office to City Hall faster than it took me to drive it, but I really wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. I made the delivery with fifteen minutes to spare—yet another successful proposal writing process.
I returned to my car and again drove like a maniac two blocks to Crystal’s bar to celebrate my resounding success. Crystal and I were old friends. She had worked as a bartender at Shillings bar for years before opening her own place. I drank my usual combination, Gunnies and scotch, for two hours before driving four blocks to St. James’ Episcopal Church for Wednesday dinner. At that stage, I wasn’t capable of walking four blocks to the church. I really wasn’t in any condition to drive either, but that seemed like the only viable option at the time. I flicked a cigarette in the street before making my way into the parish hall. I met my family, Cindy, my wife and Alexis and Rachel, my daughters. I explained what a crazy and hectic day I had had. I then made my way to the boxes of wine and drew a glass of the red.Boxed Gallo wine is really awful stuff, but it was just what I needed to get me through dinner and the after dinner program.
This was a typical day for me at the time. I had been under the influence of drugs and or alcohol most of the previous twenty-nine years. However, it was taking a toll on me physically and emotionally, not to mention what it was doing to my family.My childhood was the only time I could remember feeling in control and not confused, doubtful, and fearful about my life.
Laid Back Lantana
I grew up in the South Florida town of Lantana, a small easy going town. I was seldom confused or doubtful about what to do or my place in the world. I knew most of our neighbors for several blocks in all directions. My parents repeatedly told me I could do anything I put my mind to and I believed them—they never lied to me. This was during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when South Florida was peaceful and thriving. The country was experiencing a peaceful lull following World War II and the Korean War. Even in times of occasional conflict, such as the Bay of Pigs confrontation, our country and president John F. Kennedy seemed to come out on top and were able to face down the Russians.
I remember classroom drills when my first grade classmates and I practiced getting under our desks, rolling into a ball, and covering our heads with our hands. This was preparation for a nuclear attack, although this was not really discussed in class or at home. In hindsight, I’m sure our defensive position under our desks would not have been effective. But the attack never came and the drills ceased. Life in Lantana returned to being laid back.
During the years we lived in Lantana, we would visit my mom’s family in Tell City, Indiana, usually during the month of August. I always looked forward to these trips and visiting the Schauberger clan—my grandma, grandpa, five aunts and uncles, and ten cousins. Most of TellCity, including the Schaubergers, had some German heritage somewhere in their family background and the whole town would close for a week in mid-August to celebrate Schweizer Fest, a German festival. There were parades, rides, and a BeerGarden. The BeerGarden was hopping from morning to late at night. I thought it was great to sit at the table with my cousins as the adults drank beer and grew louder and louder as the night wore on. When the BeerGarden closed each night, my mom would walk the children to my grandparents’ house as the other adults adjourned to the Moose Lodge.
One night, my mom took me to the Moose Lodge in search of my father. She was concerned because she knew that he didn’t drink like her brothers. She probably did not want to confront her brothers, so she sent me into the Moose Lodge to get my dad’s attention. Well I got his attention, as well as the attention of everyone in the place. Several of the patrons sitting on stools at the bar, including my dad, almost fell to the floor when I walked in. I went through the room full of drunks like I knew exactly what I was doing and sat on a stool next to my dad. My uncles howled. My dad said, “Mark, I’m glad to see you, but you’re not old enough to be in here.” “I know, but mom is outside and she sent me to let you know it’s time to go home.” My uncles howled again. I turned my attention to the electronic beer sign behind the bar that had a moving image of water flowing over a waterfall. I said, “Hey dad, how do they do that? It looks real.” He said, “Come on, it’s time to go.”
My dad slept for a long time the next day. My uncle Ramey arrived at my grandparent’s house mid-morning, drinking a beer. He asked where everybody was. I told him that my mom had gone to visit friends, grandma went to the store with my sister, and my dad was asleep. Uncle Ramey snickered. We sat on the front porch and talked until a flock of noisy black birds swooped down and roosted in the big oaks in the front yard. Uncle Ramey began to cuss at the birds. He went to his car and returned with a shot gun. He sat on the porch steps, and said, “I’ll fix those birds.” I sat down next to him as he loaded the shot gun, finished his beer, and started blasting. A dead bird or two fell in the street and the flock departed for a safer neighborhood. Then my dad came to the front door, not looking fully awake. He asked what the hell was going on. I told him that Uncle Ramey got rid of those damn black birds. Ramey and I laughed. My dad told me not to use that kind of language and he went back upstairs.
The Schweizer Fest of 1962 was a particularly rocking time when my cousin Linda married Don Robertson. The wedding was held at the Catholic Church in TellCity, a few blocks from my grandparents’ home. I have been told, repeatedly, a story about an incident that happened during the wedding that involved a buckeye.
I don’t have a clear memory of this time, but I’ve heard the story so many times from so many family members, it must be true. Don had given me a buckeye the day before the wedding and, very convincingly, told me it was a good luck charm. He said I should put it in my pocket and always carry it with me. I did as Don suggested and put the buckeye in my pocket, but I evidently didn’t leave it there. I had never seen anything like a buckeye in Lantana and I must have thought it would bring me even more luck if I held it in my hand. Well, during the wedding service the buckeye slipped from my hand and hit the marble floor of the church with what I’ve been told was a resounding thud—and the thud did not stop there. The marble floor of the church sloped to where the bride and groom were standing facing the priest, some distance from where I was sitting. The sound of the buckeye’s oblong shape gaining speed on the marble floor must have turned heads away from the bride and groom.
Don has told me, maybe a hundred times, he knew right away what was rolling down the floor and who was responsible. The buckeye finally ended up at his feet. All, who were sober enough to remember, say that Don bent to pick up the buckeye and slipped it in his pocket just before he kissed the bride. He’s convinced that buckeye brought Linda and him good luck that has lasted to this day.
In the fall of 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My sister and I were out of school on Thanksgiving break and my family was camping at a state park near Ocala, Florida. The vacation was cut short on November 22. We returned home to Lantana. I was seven and wasn’t quite sure what had happened. I was confused why we were returning home a few hours after setting up the tent. Whatever it was, it must have been important. I remember that both of my parents had voted for Kennedy and were shaken by his assassination, as was the entire world.
Lyndon Johnson became the 36th President on November 22, 1963. He inherited the Vietnam conflict which escalated dramatically into a full blown war during his six years in office and the civil rights movement became a national issue during his presidency.
People in Lantana and members of our Episcopal church, The Church of the Guardian Angel, began taking sides on the civil rights issue. I remember our priest, Father Fayer, preaching a sermon in which he told the congregation he would be traveling to Washington, D.C. to march in a civil rights rally. This sent ripples through the pews. The consensus of opinion was, it was okay to talk about civil rights, but it wasn’t okay to actually do something as radical as protest and march down a public street. My parents discussed the situation at great length. My mom and dad supported civil rights and the priest’s trip. However, not everyone in the congregation agreed with my parents and many of our friends left the church, which disappointed our entire family. Our church community was a big part of our lives and these events changed our community.
In January of 1968, our family moved from Lantana to Atlanta. In April of 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and in June Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. These were difficult, confusing times for the entire country. The community feel of Atlanta was completely different than Lantana. We did not have a network of close friends and the church we attended was much different than The Church of the Guardian Angel.
However, we did find friends from Lantana in Atlanta. The Levesque family had moved from Lantana to Smyrna, Georgia, two years before our move. Mark Levesque was my age and we had been best friends in Lantana. Our friendship continued in Georgia, and Mark L. and I would travel many roads together.
As if feeding on the turmoil and confusion of the 1960’s, young people and college students began questioning the judgment and authority of those in power. Also, during this time drugs became readily available and I became involved. I also became selfishly invested in the push to end the Vietnam War when I was faced with the possibility of a low draft number.
Richard Nixon became the 37th President in 1970. Interestingly, there are two key figures in the George W. Bush administration who began their long political careers in the Nixon administration—Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. They kind of remind me of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Cheney and Rumsfeld have been in the public eye almost as long as Keith and Mick. Just like the Stones, Cheney and Rumsfeld seem to keep turning up like Ever Ready bunnies.
Also in 1970, four students were killed and nine students wounded by National Guard Troops at KentStateUniversity. The Watergate scandal broke in 1972 which eventually forced Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.
The changes and disappointments in the world around me, my family’s move from Florida to Atlanta, my involvement with drugs and alcohol, and my rebellion against “the establishment” changed the way I saw the world. For the first time I was confused and I doubted the news I heard and read. I was not into church during this time, although I went occasionally, and God had no place in my life. I also rejected the family that loved me. Drugs and alcohol became a fog that shrouded and enveloped my life. In the words of Jackson Browne, “I took my young imagination to the acid test […] I let my pleasures lead my little world astray.” I turned on a bumpy road that took almost thirty years to ride out.
Dinnertime in our family has always been a time of gathering and connecting. However, one evening in 1971, dinner was a real trip, so to speak. I was fourteen and in the ninth grade at NorthSpringHigh School. I had quit the swim team, broken my wrist playing junior varsity football, and I was running with a crowd that was into protesting the Vietnam War and doing every drug we could put our hands on.
One crisp fall day while I was waiting in the school smoking area for class to begin, a friend, speaking under his breath, let us know he had orange sunshine acid for sale. He sold out in a very short time. To say the least, that day at school was very eventful and so was dinner that evening.
Still feeling the effects of the drug, I really wasn’t up to sitting down with my mom, dad, and sister for pleasant dinnertime conversation. We had spaghetti for dinner that night. The noodles and sauce were doing strange things on my plate and my dad was looking at me as I played with my food. My mom asked, “Are you feeling okay Mark?” I said, “I feel fine, why?” She said, “Well, you don’t seem hungry; you’ve hardly eaten a thing.” I said, “I’m fine, leave me alone” and I added, “I’m going out after dinner.” My dad asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “Just out.” There were many difficult dinnertimes to follow. I was present for most dinners because my family insisted on it, but I was often in a fog.
Eventually, I ended up with a very different family at dinner. When I was fifteen, my parents sent me to St. Andrew’s, a private boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee.
It was a cold gray day as my parents and I drove northwest out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was Super Bowl Sunday, January 16, 1972. Driving up the mountain toward Monteagle and Sewanee we slowly ascended into low hanging clouds. The fog surrounded the interstate and my thoughts. I had no idea where they were taking me and the gathering fog disoriented me. I was very apprehensive about what I would find at this school. St. Andrew’s was my parent’s attempt to find a solution to my out-of-control drug and alcohol use and complete lack of interest in school, although at the time, I didn’t see any problem at all. I couldn’t see where we were going as we turned off of I-24 toward Sewanee because of the thick fog. I remember one overriding thought: “Where the hell are they taking me and how am I going to get out of here?”
After my parents helped me move my stuff into the dorm and said their goodbyes, I set up my stereo and put on a brand new Led Zeppelin album—the one with “Stairway to Heaven.”
My roommate, Marty, whom I was sure was from a planet other than earth, came into our room to let me know it was time for dinner. I said I really wasn’t hungry and would not be going to dinner tonight, thank you. He said I had to go or I would get “stuck.” I asked what in the world “stuck” meant.Marty said, “If I didn’t check in at dinner and breakfast, or if I broke any rules, I would receive weekend detention and not be able to hitchhike into town on the weekend. “You’ll be stuck on campus all weekend.” I said, “Great, I love this place already.” So, Marty and I headed for the dining hall. We walked out of the dorm into the cold fog. I asked “Which way to the fucking dining hall and where did all this fog come from?” Marty pointed to a glow about twenty yards away and said that I would get used to the fog. He said, “Don’t worry, it should lift around March.” “Great, I really love this place.”
Dinnertime at St. Andrew’s was a requirement. Whether you were hungry or not, you had to attend and check-in with the Master of the Day. The reason for this was twofold. First, the school wanted to make sure you were still on-campus. Second, everyone was required to hold a coherent conversation with the Master to prove you weren’t under the influence of a mind altering illegal substance—the Master always sat in a well lighted area of the dining hall. The real attraction of the dining hall was connecting with members of my school family to discuss plans for the evening or to plan our weekend trip to the thriving town of Sewanee. The only legal attractions in Sewanee were the Movie Theater, University Bookstore, library, and Student Union. However the off-limit places held the most alluring attractions and was the subject of most conversations. We occasionally discussed class assignments, but only if we had nothing better to talk about. The food was only a secondary consideration. Everyone had their place in the dining hall with a group of friends. But, I recall as a new student, I found these groups intimidating and difficult to join. I entered school in the middle of my sophomore year. I was the only new kid to start that January.
As Marty and I walked into the noisy hall, the first thing I noticed were banners hanging from the high ceiling around the perimeter of the hall. They were obviously banners from the last forty or fifty graduating classes—how weird I thought. Then I suddenly realized that the room was growing silent and all heads seemed to follow me as I walked past the Master to the food line. I thought, “Great, now I’m on display.” I got my food and sat with Marty to eat under the watchful gaze of about seventy five of, what was to become, my St. A family. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to find fellow earth people.
John sat down after Marty had left. As we talked, he must have sensed my displeasure about finding myself on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a shroud of fog. He said, “So let me guess, you don’t want to be here and you’re thinking of going over the hill.” He explained that “going over the hill” was thumbing down the mountain to either Chattanooga or Nashville. I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I have in mind.” But, John immediately dashed my hopes saying that he had tried “going over the hill” twice and the Master of the Day had tracked him down both times. He said, as a result, he was not able to go into town for a month after each excursion. So he had decided to make the best of the place and I may as well do the same. I said, “Great.” He said, “Cheer up; I’ll take you into town this Friday to Archie’s house.” He said, Archie was a day student and he would introduce me to him. John added, “Keep this quite because day student’s houses are off limits. I said, “Ok,” and found myself feeling better about the place.
It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that maintaining a B average had definite advantages. If your average fell below B, you were required to attend supervised study hall in the school building from to , Sunday through Thursday. So, I studied and kept my grades up. However, other than keeping my grades up, it didn’t take long for my life to reach the same uncontrollable state that I was in at North Springs.
For instance, I soon learned that everyone who lived on the mountain was related to Mr. Tate, who was one of the most dreaded Masters and my biology teacher. I could pass for eighteen, the legal drinking age at the time, so I was designated, from time to time to ride my bike on the back roads to buy beer at the Sewanee Market. One afternoon, however, one of Tate’s relatives called him and described this tall guy on a bicycle that may have been a St. Andrew’s student. Well, Tate knew I had a bike and the description must have fit. He put his arm around me at dinner that evening and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I was to stay away from the Sewanee Market.
After that, the only place we could drink was at the University of the South Fraternity Houses on party weekends. We would supply the pot and drugs and the fraternity brothers would let us drink all we could hold. We thought this was a great deal. The only problem was that St. A students were not allowed into town on party weekends, which meant we couldn’t hitchhike into town, as usual. We had to walk down the mountain through Shake Rag Hollow and back up the mountain into town. It was a tough walk into town, and an even tougher walk on the return trip.
One party weekend, John and I were partying in an upstairs room of a fraternity house. It was getting late and we decided to leave so we could make it back in time for bed check. I opened the upstairs door and through the smoke I saw Mr. Tate walking in the front door. John and I immediately decided that we probably should not leave at that time. We checked the window. We weren’t sure we would survive the fall, but jumping was not completely out of the question. We watched Tate stroll around downstairs for about ten minutes, which seemed like several hours to us. Then he left. Or had he? We weren’t sure. We asked someone to check outside. Apparently Tate had indeed moved on. John and I made it to the trail without being seen by Tate and were back to our room just before bed check. Tate had an annoying habit of showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He evidently showed up walking down Abow’s Alley in Sewanee at the wrong time one Wednesday night just after the start of school in 1972, my junior year. I had given Marty, my old roommate, a few joints. He and three others were walking down Abow’s Alley smoking and ran into Tate—busted. When asked where they got the pot, they named me.
I did not go to town that night and was relaxing in my room studying when Andy Simmons, the Master of the Day and my math teacher, barged in and said to follow him immediately. I said, “Sure, what’s up?” He didn’t answer. We made our way to the administration building. I knew something bad was going on and began feeling more and more uneasy. We walked to the headmaster’s office. Father Martin, sitting in the large office behind his desk, said, “Have a seat, Mr. Holmberg.” I felt sick. He explained how Marty and the others were busted and that they had implicated me. He said that I was expelled immediately and that my room was being searched. He said that he had called my parents and my mom was going to pick me up Thursday morning. He instructed me not to talk to anyone about this. I didn’t.
My mom arrived at the next day. It was a long ride home. Needless to say my mom and dad were not pleased. They also knew that my chances were not good at North Springs High.
Around Thanksgiving, my parents said that St. Andrew’s had agreed to let me return to school on the condition that I would be permanently expelled if I had any discipline problem at all. I was relieved and excited about returning to St. Andrew’s.
I turned over a new leaf. I tried out for and made the basketball team, cross country team, and football team. However, I didn’t completely give up my old habits, but I was much more discrete about it.
I graduated from St. Andrew’s in the spring of 1974 and my drug and alcohol use escalated immediately.
Mark L. and I have been friends since we were two years old. We rode many bumpy roads together and ended up in several ditches along the way.
One evening in the winter of 1975, we ended up in the Smyrna, Georgia, jail, sharing a cell. We had been out on a Saturday night drinking, as usual. It was getting late and the liquor stores would be closing soon, so Mark L suggested that we stop at the nearest bottle shop so he could run in and pick up something for Sunday. As I pulled in the parking lot, Mark L said, “Park on the side of the building, not in front.”He also wanted to borrow my coat. I am six foot five and Mark L is maybe six feet tall. I said, “Sure you can use my coat, but what’s wrong with yours?” “Yours is just better.” So, off he went in a coat about two sizes too big for him. Two or three minutes later he came running to the car and said, “Let’s go, now!” I said, “Okay, what’s your hurry?” “Don’t ask, just drive.”
When we were back on the road, Mark pulled a half gallon of vodka from under my coat and said this would get us through Sunday. He said, “Pull down Lee Street and we’ll stash it somewhere.” We ended up stashing the bottle in a hedge on a side road next to BrawnerHospital, a psychiatric facility specializing in drug addiction and alcoholism treatment. Once done with that, we headed to Mark’s house.
Suddenly, there were blue lights behind us and a Smyrna cop car, blue lights flashing, swerved in front of us. With guns drawn, the officers strongly suggested that we get out of the car and lie face down in the street. Not seeing another viable option, we assumed the suggested position. The officers searched the car and finding nothing inside, began to question us. Not being real forthcoming with Smyrna’s finest, Mark L and I soon found ourselves handcuffed and being led to one of the police cars. I asked, “Why the fuck are we being arrested?” One officer said, “Shut up,” and hit me in the back of my head with his nightstick. Mark L said. “What the hell, you can’t hit an innocent handcuffed man.” The other officer told him to shut up and hit him in the face, giving Mark L a bloody nose. We didn’t grasp the shut up concept until the officers explained the consequences of continuing to run our mouths a few more times with nightsticks and fists. I still to this day don’t know why they didn’t give a breath test, but they didn’t. A DUI would have been just another charge against me. The officers were intent on finding the bottle of vodka that the store owner had reported stolen by two guys driving an orange Camaro—we fit the description.
We never drank that bottle. The subtle interrogation techniques of the Smyrna Police soon worked and Mark L told them where to find the stolen merchandise.
My dad bailed us out of jail on Sunday morning. He asked what the hell happened to our faces, had we been in a fight? We related a sad story of handcuffs and nightsticks and that our civil rights had been repeatedly violated. My dad told us both to shut up, that we’d gotten exactly what we deserved.
Mark L entered a treatment center and stopped drugging and drinking eleven years after that night.
I had been in various stages of disarray due to alcoholism and drug addiction since I was fourteen. I suspected that I had a problem, but I had no desire to change. I often prayed about my situation, especially on my knees in front of the commode or when I would wake up in a jail cell. Those prayers, such as they were, were never answered. Most of the time I doubted if there was a God. And if there was, He or She surely did not give a damn about me because I was a lying drunk.
The theology of the Church confused me. The Wednesday night boxes of wine seemed to be the main attraction for me at church. However, I was too fearful to just quit going to church—something seemed to draw me there.
My doubt, confusion, and fear led me to enroll in Education for Ministry (EFM) in 1996. EFM is a four-year course of theological study offered by Episcopal Church, which was based on the curriculum of the first year of Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The first year was devoted to reading and discussing the Old Testament, the second year covered New Testament, year three was church history, and year four was theology. I was sure this course held the key to my spirituality. But EFM only compounded my doubt, confusion, and fear. My addictions provided an easy escape from these uncomfortable feelings.
Each year we started our weekly EFM classes with each member of the group telling their spiritual story based on prompts from the textbook. By the beginning of my third year I realized that my spiritual life had gone into hibernation and my attention and energy was focused on drugs and alcohol. Others in the class would eloquently describe their life as a spiritual journey, which had delivered them to a wonderful understanding of God and the Church. I thought this all sounded like a load of crap. After all, I had been wandering around in a thick fog most of my adolescent and adult life having no idea where I was going. Perhaps I could have said I was wandering in the wilderness like the Old Testament Jews. But I was not honest enough to come out and express my doubt and true feelings. This created an uneasy tension as I struggled to find anything spiritual in my life to talk about during my allotted two hours of class time. I would invariably focus on my youth and made up spiritual stuff, which were lies. After all, the class members did not know me when I was growing up—it was my story, albeit with some fiction thrown in. I made it through the first three years of EFM this way. The fourth year, however, I was a little more honest and my addictions made it into my story, but all of the references were in past tense. I felt it was too dangerous for me to be honest about where I was in present tense.
Shortly after I had given my last spiritual autobiography, I found myself sitting in a Wednesday night program listening to a guy from a treatment center talk about drug and alcohol addiction. I had no idea what the program was about that night and when I realized what the subject was it was too late to make a graceful exit. That was the evening of December 22, 1999, the day I had turned in the proposal and spent the afternoon at Crystal’s bar. So, I nursed my glass of wine and listened.
The treatment center guy handed out a list of ten questions and asked us to honestly answer them. He said we did not have to share our answers with anyone. When we were done he said that if we answered two or three of the questions with an affirmative response, we may have a problem. Hell, I knew I had a problem and the questionnaire verified it—I answered yes to all ten questions. The one that really got my attention had to do with medical problems, including liver problems.
After two consecutive physical exams, the doctor had made me schedule follow-up visits because of high blood liver enzymes. Each time he said that I must cut back on my alcohol consumption, stop smoking, and lose thirty pounds. I promised to follow his advice, but I lied. What I really wanted was a second opinion that would pronounce me fit as a fiddle so there would be no medical reason to change my lifestyle.
So, after the program I slinked out of the parish hall and went home. Cindy had not stayed for the program because the girls had homework. She asked how the program was and, what sounded like my voice, said, “It was very interesting, I think I have an addiction problem. I’m going to stop drinking.” Cindy got a real strange look on her face like she could not believe what she had heard come out of my mouth. Then she said, “No shit you have a problem, I’ve been telling you that for years. You need help; you cannot do this on your own.” Again, a voice that sounded like mine said, “I Know,” and I agreed to make a phone call, which I did. I found help.
I found a group of people who cared about me and did not care what I had done or not done in the past. They just wanted me to stay sober, one day at a time and they said God would take care of the rest. They must have read my mind and body language as I was thinking what the hell do these people know about God? I didn’t want to hear about their Higher Power. They handed me cups of strong black coffee and told me not to spill it on myself. They also told me that I did not have to believe anything right now, just keep coming back. I figured what the hell, the doctor had told if I keep on drinking I’d be looking for a new liver soon or I’d be dead in a few years. I was ready for a change, so I kept going back and I did not drink or drug.
Things began to change. The fog in my head slowly began to clear. I began to feel better physically and I began feeling better about myself. When I had been a few months sober, out of the blue Mark L called. I had not talked to him for over a year, since his wedding, where I was his best man. When I told him about my recent awakening, his reaction was much like Cindy’s—he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He drove two hours to see me the next day. He brought wedding photos with him. We agreed that I didn’t look well, or sober in those pictures.
That was almost six years ago and my life is completely different today. My liver enzymes are normal and I’ve lost twenty of the thirty pounds that the doctor suggested I lose. As my dad says, I’m in pretty good shape for the condition I’m in. Slowly and reluctantly I found that Higher Power those people told me about. I choose to call my Higher Power God today. I simply took a chance and let go, if only for a brief moment, of my confusion and doubt, and came to realize that the fear I had lived with had begun to fade. It’s not at all logical and if I think too hard about it I confuse myself. So, I accept what I’ve been given because I don’t need to go back into the fog.
An engineer died and ended up in Hell. He was not pleased with the level of
comfort in Hell, and began to redesign and build improvements. After awhile,
they had toilets that flush, air conditioning, and escalators. Everyone grew
very fond of him.
One day God called to Satan to mock him, “So, how's it going down there in
Satan replied, “Hey, things are great. We've got air conditioning and
flush toilets and escalators, and there's no telling what this engineer is
going to come up with next.”God was surprised, “What? You've got an
engineer? That's a mistake. He should never have gotten down there in the first
place. Send him back up here.”
“No way,” replied Satan. “I like having an engineer, and I'm
God threatened, “Send him back up here now or I'll sue!”
Satan laughed and answered, “Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to
get a lawyer?”