Staring at the Drapes

By Mark E. Smith

I lay in this hotel room bed – alone – thinking of Vic, who committed suicide almost 22 months ago to the day.

This evening, I spoke to a group of around 170 people, half-way across the country from my home – and I knocked ’em dead, as they say in show business. It was my kind of event – dinner and cocktails – where I have the liberty of really working a festive crowd. And, I hit it home with a theme of following the ramps in our lives – bridges of opportunity that take us to places we never dreamed – by interweaving stories from the humorous to the poignant. And, the gracious crowd was with me all along – an exchange of amazing energy – and then I rolled off stage to their flattering standing ovation.

At the time of Vic Chesnutt’s suicide, many chalked it up as the quadriplegic musician who was tired of living with the daily trails of disability, that the physicality of it all caused him to take a fist full of muscle relaxers, mix a dangerous cocktail, and check out for good – his fourth and final suicide attempt. But, as I wrote at the the time, there was more to the story than that:

…From what I knew of Vic, from what I’ve since learned of Vic, and from what I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life, I believe that the unique pressures of living ultra-successfully with disability caught up with him, where he wasn’t able to cope with the extreme fluctuations in his life. See, when you have an exceptional level of success like Vic did while living with a disability, it can become a tale of two cities. On the one hand, publicly, everyone’s telling you that you’re a huge success and inspiration, putting you atop the world. Yet, on the other hand, you’re a real person, with real-life issues toward health, relationships, and finances. And, when all isn’t kept in balance, you can go from extreme highs to extreme lows in literally a matter of moments – in the time it takes to go from on-stage in front of a cheering crowd to a lonely hotel room where you’re left to face the realities of your everyday life. Truly, when you have such extremes in life – and you’re emotionally unable to center yourself – it’s just as easy to get consumed by the lowest of the lows as the highest of the highs, where the healthy middle-ground needed to survive doesn’t exist. And, that’s where the tragedy in Vic Chesnutt’s life occurred – not in his literal disability, but in his inability to find that middle ground of understanding and comfort in life as a whole, where, by all accounts, he lived a tormenting oscillation between the highest heights of elation in his work, and the deepest plunges of despair in his personal life, with no middle ground to just be at peace.

My colleague and I leave the banquet after the program’s finished. I thank our host for the engagement, and I convince my colleague to go across the street with me to an eatery for a late night snack. Again, going from a stage to an empty hotel room can be torturous – there has to be a bridge in-between to help one transition from the energy of a packed house to being totally alone. And, by getting something to eat, I’m stalling – buying my time, avoiding the empty hotel room in which I will inevitably find myself. But, I can get through it – alone, the hardest part of it all that Vic knew too well.

Eventually, I make it to my room like countless other nights on the road. I lay in this hotel room bed – alone – thinking of Vic, who committed suicide almost 22 months to the day. And, I realize that everyone’s assumptions of Vic’s suicide truly were wrong. See, as I stare at the shadow of the drapes in the dark, I know that the challenge for guys like Vic and me isn’t being alone in our disabilities; rather, the challenge is being alone in ourselves.

When the Drinking was Done

By Mark E. Smith

“Alcohol and I had many, many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party together; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home….” –Harry Crews

I wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces, a short-short story on my quitting sporadic drinking, about a year ago, and never published it. Why? The answer was because I didn’t think that I could live up to it – quitting drinking for good, that is:

When the Drinking was Done (Original)
I asked the hotel concierge – a woman in her 60s, no less – where I could drink in complete anonymity, and she told me to go up to Peachtree Street, hang a right, and look for the shamrock sign over the sidewalk. No, it wasn’t my normal mode of operation by any stretch, but we just have to be honest about these things – especially with ourselves. I didn’t want a party or dressed-up chicks like usual; I just wanted a night of quiet, having been on the road for days, speaking at a conference on one side of the country, then working a trade show on the other. The noise builds up in me – the retention of events and all of the introspection, where I just want quietness, the type I only get from writing in solitude. But, that night, there was to be no writing – just a drink alone, then bed. So, I headed up to Peachtree, hung a right, found the shamrock sign, and a homeless guy opened the door for me. The place was empty – just two guys and a “barman,” as the “bartender” is called in these types of pubs. With my power wheelchair’s seat elevated, I rolled up to the bar, picked up a stool, and set it aside. The barman and two guys just watched. My knees tucked perfectly under the bar – an ideal. “I’ll have a double shot of Southern Comfort, warm, please,” I said to the barman. He set a tumbler glass in front of me, grabbed the bottle, poured the drink to maybe three or four shots, and without thinking twice, grabbed a straw, placing it in my glass. He stepped back as if to see what I was going to do, and I could see via my peripheral vision the two guys just staring at me. I placed my lips on the straw, and downed the glass full, in a single, drawn sip. The barman grabbed the bottle of Southern Comfort, refilled my glass, and said in a strong Irish accent, “This one’s on me.” It was a fine night – they all are on such terms – and when I awoke the following morning, glancing out my hotel window, the quiet was gone, and I knew so had to be gone the drinking – for good this time.

I wrote that literal, biographical short-short story with the intention that my drinking days were done. However, in my public position, if you’re going to tell the world that you’ve stopped drinking – you’d better darn well give up drinking entirely, forever – or everyone will see you as the ultimate hypocrite. If you’re a closet drinker – even an alcoholic – and you vow to yourself that you’re giving up drinking, there’s no real consequence if you don’t live up to it (other than the consequences on your own life). However, if you’re a social drinker like me, and write an essay to thousands of readers that you’ve given up drinking altogether, you’d better do it – as people are watching when you’re out on the town or on the road. Based on this reality, where my written words are in blood, so to speak, I could never get away with publishing an essay on quitting drinking unless I really did.

For the reason of integrity, I never published a piece on quitting drinking because… well… I never quit drinking! That is, despite my truly wanting to give up drinking entirely a year ago, and writing the original piece, I knew that I wasn’t ready — good times on the road, and the occasional flirtatious woman at a party or bar were so linked to a drink or two that I wasn’t prepared to give up those fleeting good feelings that came with booze. But, I also knew that at some point I’d be ready, that I’d have to give up the booze entirely. I felt so much personal guilt about even rarely drinking, that it lingered with me for days, weeks, and months after even one drink – and that wasn’t healthy. I had to just give up drinking entirely at some point.

While my own history with alcohol is one of moderation – I’ve never drank at home, my daughter never saw me drunk, and so on – the history of substance abuse around me has always been present: My great-grandparents were alcoholics, my grandparents were alcoholics and addicts, my parents were alcoholics, my ex-wife was an addict, many of my friends have been alcoholics – and I’ve seen all of their lives harmed or destroyed. And, the question I’ve wrestled with is, How can I see so many lives destroyed by alcohol and addiction, and still touch a drop myself? It’s like playing with fire when you know it burns.

With that said, I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings about my best times drinking, where I look at them with both guilt and fondness. It’s a juxtaposition that I suppose most drinkers face when they stop. I grew up with parents who were Skid Row drunks, so I’ve always known the realities of alcoholism, right down to my family’s demise and my parents’ deaths. In fact, I didn’t drink until I was 33 – that’s how freaked out I was by alcohol. However, once I started drinking, my association with alcohol literally went from the horrific to the glamorous. In my mid 30s, drinking was no longer about Mom neglecting me as a child because she was drunk, or Dad drinking himself to death; rather, drinking was now about high society, where I was at lavish social events, with beautiful people – and drinking just made it all the better. A few shots of Southern Comfort added a glossy sheen to my vision, where I felt relaxed, suave – everything more engaging, like going from watching a movie to actually being in the scene.

But, then, there was always the next morning, then week, then month where I didn’t drink, but the guilt and hypocrisy of such nights stuck with me – too much so. There was always a haunting issue in my mind, where I always knew that I have to be either assuming entire sobriety, or be unrepentant about drinking – and to try to justify living in-between was hypocritical. Sure, I realize that lots of people drink socially, and it’s not an issue. But, for me, I could never roll that line: I was either stone sober or drinking – and I couldn’t be both. Again, if I wanted to keep drinking, then I’d have to learn to be unrepentant in it, not feel guilt, not relive pains of my past, not look in the mirror and see my father staring at me, not see the hurt of a child in my own eyes looking back. But, I’ve witnessed too many around me destroyed by alcoholism and addiction, and for me to glamourize drinking in my own life, knowing all of the hurt washed down with it, seemed not just hypocritical, but morbid.

Cartoonist, John Callahan’s, later years and death have also had a profound effect on my journey toward sobriety. John was a hardcore alcoholic – it’s what led to the car crash that caused his paralysis – and he sobered up some years later, not touching a drop for decades. Despite his in-your-face antics and work, he noted that sobriety added a peace and strength to his life, not the guilt and angst he felt when he drank. If John maintained sobriety – turning off the guilt and angst – so could I.

The catalyst for me to publish this piece – that is, to sign on the page in blood that I’m done drinking for good – is really just where I’m at in life. I’m a 40-year-old, full-time single dad, focused on my career and simply trying to do right by everyone, including myself – and I have to get it all right. I’ve seen too many lives around me destroyed by alcohol, felt too much guilt and pain in myself for too long in even having an occasional drink – and I’ve deemed, Enough is enough with the booze at any level – don’t want it, don’t need it, the drinking is done. Is it a bold declaration? Maybe. Will it remove all of my unsettling feeling surrounding alcohol in my past, dating as far back as I can remember as a child? Certainly not. But, is it a move in the right direction for me to make? Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where if something isn’t working – if it’s inducing guilt, pain, shame, and hurt – stop doing it! Sometimes we just have to man-up and take accountability in ways others may not fully understand, where we say, F- it, I’m going above and beyond simply because it’s the right move to make, and I don’t care what the world thinks. And, I’ve finally said in my own life, F- it, the drinking is done, and I’ve done it for me. …All alone – after all.

At this writing, I have a speaking engagement this week in Fargo, North Dakota. I asked someone from Fargo what’s there to do in town?

“Drink,” he jokingly said. “We have more bars than anything else.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “I’ll have time to read in my hotel room, then.”

When Life Isn’t Fair

By Mark E. Smith

I had the absolute privilege of visiting a summer camp for children and teens with various forms of muscular dystrophy. It was among the most fun I’ve had, as the campers were so awesome, such spirited personalities, as children are. However, as much fun as MDA camp is for everyone involved, there’s still a looming reality: Most of the campers will pass away by their mid twenties.

There’s truly an injustice to it all, one that, for me, is impossible to explain – that is, the universal “unfairness” that within 10 years or so, many of the campers whom I met will no longer be with us, that not only will their lives have been lost, but with them, we all will have been robbed of their amazing life-long potentials. I mean, their time on this Earth is impacting – I know, they profoundly impacted me – but to think of what these amazing individuals could accomplish over sixty or seventy years – not just twenty – is limitless. Yet, we’ll never have the chance to know because of the inexplicable injustice of a life-robbing disease.

I remember leaving the camp thinking, Cash my chips in now, God, and give my lifespan to anyone of those kids – I’ve had my shot at life, and I’d gladly pass my years left on to any one of those children….

Although visiting the MDA camp was a reminder to me of the seeming inexplicable injustice in the world, the question of universal unfairness is one that I encounter almost every day – that is, why do such terrible circumstances happen to such good people? In the wheelchair world, consumers often share with me that they’ll never understand why they received their injury, illness, or disease, that they wrestle with the injustice of it all. And, I never have a direct answer. But, I do have at least one perspective that touches upon the subject of life’s “unfairness” – and the MDA campers hit home the point for me.

Of course, we know that there are direct attempts to answer why bad occurrences happen to good people. Religion has its answers that run the gamut, from it’s God’s master plan, to it’s bad karma from a previous life. And, science, too, has its direct answers, from cancer being gene mutations, to paralysis being an injury to the spinal cord. These answers, however, still leave intellectual loopholes, where we can look at examples like Dr. Wayman R. Spence, an original anti-smoking crusader, who himself ultimately died of cancer after 50 years of treating others, and it’s truly impossible to see any justice in such an uncanny circumstance – it’s haunting, really.

Still while maybe we will never be able to intellectually answer life’s injustices beyond, Life isn’t fair, we can use coping mechanisms to address them. See, we universally approach life from three perspectives: What is; what can be; and, what should be. And, by understanding the roles that each of the three perspectives play in our own lives, we can better cope with seeming injustices.

What is, is truly the givens, the realities of any situation as known in the present. It’s the, my father has cancer, my husband is an adulterer, my daughter is an alcoholic, I have multiple sclerosis.

What can be, is what we logically can do to address a situation moving forward. It’s the, my father has cancer, but treatment will extend his life; my husband is an adulterer, but I need to get a divorce and find a loyal guy; my daughter is an alcoholic, but getting her into a rehabilitation program is a wise step; I have multiple sclerosis, but medication and therapy may slow its progression.

What should be, is truly wishful thinking, not based in reality, but dwelling in questions of fairness. It’s the, my father shouldn’t have cancer; my husband shouldn’t be a cheater, my daughter shouldn’t be an alcoholic; I shouldn’t have multiple sclerosis.

What’s fascinating is that when we look at the three perspectives – what is, what can be, and what should be – only two are relevant, having any impact or meaning in our lives. The third simply leaves us empty, without the ability to do anything, trapped in despair. Can you guess which two are empowering, and which one is debilitating?

Of course, what is and what can be are very empowering – that is, we can act upon them. However, dwelling on what should be is truly debilitating because there’s nothing we can do but wish upon a seeming impossible, asking ourselves, Why?, silently screaming, It’s not fair! Nothing good comes out of stewing over what should be.

And, that’s what I ultimately took away from my visit to the MDA summer camp. As adults, we’re so caught up in the what should be’s of life – how life is unfair – that we overlook the intrinsic value of what is and what can be. For example, rather than celebrating the current life of our loved ones who have cancer, we dwell upon the unfairness of their pending passing. Rather than moving forward from bad relationships, we stew over how we were wronged. Rather than appreciating our jobs, we focus on any negatives. And, rather than accepting those around us for who they are, we want to change them. That is, we go through life lamenting – often to the point of depression – about how things should be, not recognizing what is or realistically what can be.

Yet, the kid’s attitude at the MDA summer camp was just the opposite – it was totally about what is and what can be, and it was contagious. I only saw life, love, and laughter. It was the most positive place on Earth, making Disney World seem glib. It was a true celebration of living in the moment, where no one questioned what should be, but reveled in what is and what could be. Even we adults ended up with our faces painted, coloring with the kids, and eating watermelon!

Yes, bad things happen to the best people, the weight of the worst can land on our shoulders – and none of it’s fair, justified, or explainable. Yet, we don’t live in a world of equitable should be’s; rather, we live in a world of what is and what can be. And, let us make the most of those, where our days aren’t filled with longing or self-pity, but are celebrated with appreciation and joy for what’s within our immediate presence: The beauty of what life is and can be.

The Glory of Vulnerability

By Mark E. Smith

I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable about it, nor was she. See, there I was, all dressed up to give a talk in front of a corporate group, but I was presented with a pre-talk lunch served by our gracious host, consisting of sushi rolls. I knew from the very sight of the rice-covered sushi rolls that, due to my poor coordination, there was no way that I could get them from the table to my mouth without rice and who knows what else ending up on my neatly-pressed pants….

So, I had two choices: One, I could simply not eat; or, two, I could have the courage to ask for help.

With little hesitation, I asked for help because it’s just as important to me to acknowledge my vulnerabilities as it is my strengths – that is, I want those around me to know my entirety, not just selected parts. I wouldn’t be true to myself or those around me if I only showed my strengths, and didn’t admit any limitations of my disability, my vulnerabilities.

Fortunately, my asking for help was easy in that instance based on the fact that a dear colleague of mine was with me, who’s traveled with me quite a bit, so asking her for a helping hand was natural. What’s interesting, though, is that getting to that comfort level – where I could turn to my colleague and say, “Would you mind feeding me my sushi, so I don’t get it on my clothes?” – took time and candor to evolve. On her part, my colleague’s sincere, genuine nature has been touching, and she’s proved truly intuitive in getting to know me as a person, disability and beyond – all of which speaks to the exceptional qualities of her character. However, I’ve likewise have had the openness not to hide any of my vulnerabilities – the realities of my disability – from her. She knows that I drink through a straw, I squirm in airplane seats to shift weight off of my rear, and can be a bit messy when I eat, and on and on. I am who I am, and I trust that my comfort in living with my vulnerabilities – where I don’t display only the so-called best of me, but the true me, flaws, spasms, and all! – has likewise made her more comfortable. None of us are perfect; we all need help at some point in our lives. And, allowing others to see our vulnerabilities is a positive trait, one that unifies, where asking for help and helping others is an inspiring exchange. We don’t get through life alone, and sharing our vulnerabilities is a key that we all need in living a life that allows us to truly connect with others in the most genuine ways.

Interestingly, researchers scoured the globe for the one aspect that most connects us with others – that is, what forms the deepest, most meaningful relationships on all levels? – and allowing ourselves to express our vulnerabilities topped the list. Vulnerabilities, it proves, are only weaknesses when we won’t admit them. However, when we admit our vulnerabilities, they become strengths because we’re showing ourselves to others in the most genuine ways – and that forms the most open connections with others, the sincerest relationships.

Of course, it’s easy to know why many people hide their vulnerabilities: They’re scared that others won’t accept them in their entirety, that others will judge them. But, this rarely proves the case. The basis of sharing vulnerabilities is formed within honesty and results in our fully opening ourselves up to others – and those are the foundations of healthy relationships. When we live freely with our vulnerabilities, we allow others to accept us wholly, and we accept others wholly, as well (if I expect you to accept my vulnerabilities, I likewise must accept yours, and we’re two perfectly imperfect people connecting on the sincerest level). But, here’s what’s really important: When we express vulnerabilities with others, we’re acknowledging our vulnerabilities within ourselves, and it’s the self-acknowledgment of our vulnerabilities – not denial! – that allows us to live healthier lives.

Addiction and recovery proves an enlightening study in how vulnerability can kill us or liberate us – sometimes literally – all based on whether we admit vulnerabilities. For example, an addict in the clinches of use, will never admit vulnerabilities. An addict won’t admit to causation, won’t express genuine feelings, will try to justify even the worst decisions, and will lie about everything under the sun, including lying to his or herself. That is, addicts run and hide from vulnerabilities via substance abuse – and, at best, it disconnects them from meaningful relationships, and, at worst, it literally kills them.

However, recovering addicts do just the opposite – they admit and address vulnerabilities. Think about the first words spoken by everyone at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic. Admitting the vulnerability of addiction – that is, being honest and candid – liberates and connects. There’s remarkable empowerment in it. And, when getting into deep models of recovery, acknowledging the vulnerabilities that lead to the addiction – past traumas and such – is yet another way of profound recovery. That is, the only way addicts stop using is by acknowledging and addressing the underlying vulnerabilities that cause the addictive behavior in the first place.

In our personal lives, hiding behind our vulnerabilities – or, denying them through self-justification – is extremely dangerous, defeating so many potentials in our life: I’ve been hurt in a past relationship, so I’m not going to trust anyone again…. I don’t want to be seen as weak, so I’m not going to apologize…. I’m not going to show all of me because others will judge me…. Really, what such a closed emotional state says is, Overall, I’m going to self-sabotage meaningful relationships because I’m so scared to reveal my vulnerabilities – my complete self – to others.

It is astounding how painful and self-defeating it can be in not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. At the very least, most of us can relate with the inner-conflict that occurs when we want to reach out to someone, but don’t out of the fear of feeling vulnerable – maybe it’s asking someone on a date, maybe it’s calling an estranged family member or loved-one to try to patch things up, or maybe it’s sharing one’s true feelings with a good friend. I’ve struggled with all of these – and continue to at times! – but what I’ve learned is that while there’s always the risk of the other person not being receptive, there’s also the more likely possibility that the other person will be receptive. And, the real reward in this process of overcoming our fears of vulnerability is that we’ve at least had the integrity to act on our true feelings, with sincere intent, living openly in every way – and that’s liberating, regardless of the final outcome.

The fact is, there’s a universal bond in the truth that none of us are perfect, that we all have vulnerabilities – and some are scary to admit to ourselves and others. Yet, when we live freely with our vulnerabilities, acknowledged by ourselves and shared with those close to us, we not only allow others to know us completely, but we’re far more open and accepting of others – and that builds connections of lasting trust and meaning. I have vulnerabilities, you have vulnerabilities, and it’s all OK. Let us live fully as perfectly imperfect people – with our glorious vulnerabilities exposed! – and our self-acceptance and relationships will flourish.