November 4, 2015

The Two Most Important Dates for My Well-being:10/28/1977 (Coming Out) and 3/27/1978 (Getting Sober)

I'm glad recent events took me back to those life-changing months from the fall of 1977 to the spring of 1978. I get so caught up these days dealing with Parkinson's and aging that I don't spend enough time reflecting on the past.

Those six months included the two most positive actions I've ever taken for my well-being:

  1. Being open about my sexual orientation, which started by coming out to my family on October 28, 1977.
  2. Finally overcoming years of denial and recognizing that I am an alcoholic, a process which began by attending my first closed AA meeting on March 27, 1978.

But something very sad happened during those months, too. My wife Diana learned she had throat cancer in late November, 1977. She was in and out of Georgetown Hospital (more in than out during the last months) and she died there May 23, 1978.

As I noted last week in a post about my "coming out," Diana and I had agreed on a separation. She continued to live in our house, and I rented an apartment nearby. We reconciled after her cancer diagnosis, although I continued to finish out the year's lease on the apartment.

Ann was completing her senior year in high school. She lived in the house with her mother during the months when Diana was in and out of the hospital. My son Todd was already living on his own.

After Diana's death, Ann remained at the house for the next three months until she left for her freshman year at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I continued living at the apartment but spent lots of weekend time back at the house. This living arrangement troubled some close family friends, but Ann and I agreed it worked for us.

As you might imagine, this time was tumultuous for everyone in the family. We all weathered the storm and have strong, loving relationships today.

Reflecting on those six months and their immediate aftermath, I have enough thoughts to fill a book. But I'll briefly (reminding myself again that "less is more") share a few of them.

Lots of Regrets
I was the only family member Diana authorized for regular visits during her lengthy hospitalizations, and I went to see her almost every day. My regret is that I focused our conversations on what my gay and AA mentor Dusty called "news, weather and sports," which he distinguished from the more substantive, meaningful topics discussed at AA meetings. I regret that I probably discouraged Diana from talking about her feelings concerning death and dying.

I have another regret. I was so caught up in my new life as a recovering alcoholic and active gay that I neglected spending quality time -- and having substantive talks -- with my kids.

Friends and Lovers
Beginning in my teenage years and continuing well into adulthood, my loneliness and my low self-esteem led me to obsess about snaring someone whom I could call "my best friend." I usually picked somebody who was a star socially. Then I could just sit in the background and hope others would think well of me just because I was his friend.

So, in the early years after coming out, I obsessed about finding a lover with star quality. Finally, for the first -- and as it has turned out, only -- time, I shared my house with "MY lover." The arrangement lasted about a year -- one of the most difficult of my life. I ended the relationship when it began to threaten my sobriety. But after the wounds healed, we agreed to continue the relationship as friends, which worked splendidly.

Since then, I've been very happy with the many good friends I've been blessed with. I've had no desire to make one of them "MY best friend" or "MY lover." I learned that putting all my emotional eggs in one basket was dangerous.

Religion, God, Higher Power
I was brought up in the Catholic Church because my mother was Catholic, and my father agreed when they married that I would be raised Catholic. My mother was troubled by serious depression most of her life and seldom attended church. But I was a faithful churchgoer through my childhood and teenage years. I even thought of becoming a priest, probably because I saw that path as a way to avoid dealing with my concerns about heterosexual sex.

I abandoned the church when I was a college sophomore. As often happens. I went to the other extreme of atheism or at least agnosticism.

But during my early days in AA, I felt I needed all the help I could get. AA's Twelve Step program for sobriety references a "Power greater than ourselves" and "God as we understood Him." We were told that those of us who didn't believe in a God of traditional religions could come up with our own "Higher Power"... perhaps the power and spirit of AA meetings.

Dusty, my gay and AA guru, was a member of St. John's on Lafayette Square, the Episcopal church known as "The Church of the Presidents." So I followed him there and soon could be found in my favorite pew at 9am most Sundays. I liked the music and the pageantry, which were similar to -- even better than -- those of my childhood Catholic church. I particularly enjoyed the sermons of rector John Harper, who became one of my best friends.

I ended up serving on the vestry for five years. I never became a true believer, but I kept from feeling like a hypocrite by substituting the word "love" for "God" every time "He" was mentioned. I had invented my own "Higher Power."

When John Harper left St. John's, so did I. But I remain grateful for the time I spent there.

My Over-Learning How to Share
When I started attending AA meetings, I was shocked by the way members would share horrific personal details in their "drunkalogues" to the group. Even more surprising was the open sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings. I soon realized how beneficial it was to have an outlet for sharing things that would be difficult for me to discuss with family or friends. At those meetings, I heard advice and suggestions that were more helpful than what you might hear from a professional therapist.

In AA, we talk about the power that comes from sharing "our experience, strength and hope." You'll see that phrase repeated in the introduction to this blog. I've watched new members of my Parkinson's support group react the same way I did at my earliest AA meetings -- being shocked at first, then developing a kind of addiction to the unedited sharing.

Just as the priesthood-bound 12-year-old became the 19-year-old agnostic, I went from closeted drunk who didn't dare discuss thoughts or feelings to someone always ready to share intimate details... occasionally details that others might prefer not hearing. Worse, I'm often guilty of inappropriately sharing information I was given by someone who assumed I'd maintain the confidence.

It would be nice if this old dog could learn a new trick -- discretion.

Learning the Value of Helping Others
I learned the great value of helping others during those early years in AA... and in the gay world that was soon devastated by the AIDS pandemic.

But that's the subject for a future post.

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