Alcohol, Anxiety & Xanax

Bad anxiety is probably the single most miserable emotional state humans can experience. It is truly a living hell.

Dr. Charles Raison, Psychiatrist, Emory University Medical School.

 

My stroke experiences in 2017/2018 took me back to June 1974:

I was in trouble, and I knew it.

I sat on the edge of the hospital bed and smoked Marlboros—one after another. I was alone in the chilly room. My hands shook. My second night was a lonely Friday night at St. Mary’s Hospital Extended Care Center near the West Bank of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The third floor was an adult alcohol treatment center reputed to be one of the toughest and best in the country—a boot camp of human development for broken lives. I normally got drunk on Friday nights. I was cold sober on this June night and I didn’t feel at all like the Marlboro man.

I had just finished the book, I’ll Quit Tomorrow. The book described the dynamics of alcoholism. Each page was a sharp-edged piece of a shattered mirror that reflected my life. I was shaken to my core—until that moment, I did not know I was an alcoholic. I was defenseless: my denial penetrated, and my delusions about my life exposed to me. I saw the impact of alcohol on my life, my work, and my relationships. What I saw hurt. The person I saw was not the person I started out to be.

The father of three young children, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Minnesota, and a 3-year special agent in the United States Secret Service, I was now 28 years old, unemployed, and broke. I was 6’3” tall and weighed 150 pounds—down 20 pounds from my normal weight. I was alone, scared, and depressed.

I stared at the sterile and indifferent wall across from me. How did I fall into this abyss of despair, addiction, and self-betrayal? Could I find the courage and strength to save myself? Was salvation even possible or had I gone too far? Could I redeem myself? Could I again realize my possibilities?

I could change or die, and the choice was mine alone. My “bottom” wasn’t as low as some, but it was as far down as I wanted to go. I chose life.

Treatment—the most difficult and most spiritual experience of my life— challenged me more than any other event of my life; I had to look at myself honestly under watchful eyes. I was humbled by the experience, and by the power of authentic human connections. I felt anxious although I didn’t know it then. I was determined to rise above this setback in my life.

I left St. Marys with a profound sense of commitment, albeit more than a little shaky. Treatment began my conscious life of self-development and my vow to live my values to the best of my imperfect ability.

My existence depended on an authentic and value-driven life.

As I described in an earlier post, my five strokes were painless with no permanent loss of function. My days in the hospital were easy.

But the next three months (January-March, 2018) were as difficult as or harder than my month at St. Mary’s. As I went through the weeks of TIAs, new spots on my brain and a cancer scare, I felt anxiety and fear that may have been greater than what I felt when I was in treatment almost 44 years ago. I was anxious about dying, the unknown, potential disability, and simply losing myself. And probably many other things.

I had never thought of myself as an anxious person. I was never treated for it.  Sure, in the hours before I gave a speech I wanted to run away. Didn’t everyone feel that way? When I began to talk, I immediately went into my flow mode and I had fun and usually got high marks.

Once, anxious about being confronted, I didn’t go to a post-treatment growth group session long ago at St. Mary’s. But I showed up an hour later and took my lumps. In my last year or two at the Star Tribune, I felt anxious. I feared people with more power than I wanted to neutralize my success. The thing is, they did.

I asked Melanie if she thought I was anxious. She smiled and said if she were to list three top characteristics of mine, anxious would be the first one. Daughters Cari and Becky thought the same. I did worry and sometimes catastrophized outcomes. But I figured that was my job as a leader and consultant: Figure out the future possibilities and put scenarios together to avoid unanticipated and negative outcomes.

Whatever the past, I knew I felt a dark anxiety after the strokes.

My doctor prescribed me Zoloft for depression and low dose (.25 mg) Xanax for anxiety (both common after a stroke). I was proud of my long sobriety and did not want it threatened. I resisted Xanax. I thought of Xanax as a highly addictive drug and I feared going down the path of addiction again. My mind flooded with memories from my 10-year journey into the darkness of alcoholism and my first years of recovery as I faced life without alcohol. I did not want to go through another recovery from addiction.

I felt anxious about taking a drug to reduce my anxiety.

Melanie pushed me to take Xanax anytime I felt anxious. So did my daughters. I considered Xanax to be a worst-case drug so I would tough out the day and only take a Xanax as a last resort. The doctor prescribed up to two tablets (.25 mg) twice a day as needed. I took no more than one tablet a day. After a few weeks of going around and around about how much Xanax to take, my doctor said, “Let me worry about addiction. You will not develop tolerance or addiction taking one .25 mg of Xanax a day.” I never took more than one tablet a day. Many days I took none. Xanax also helped with my hand tremor, worse after the strokes and my moderate voice tremor (called Essential tremors). As the weeks passed, I came full circle from resistance to acceptance of Xanax as a drug that could help me where other drugs had failed, when taken as prescribed.

I’m sure many recovering alcoholics and those who struggle with addiction to other drugs, have had the angst I had felt. My friend, Bruce Nelson, wrote to me and I share a long quote of his so wonderfully written:

I can particularly relate to your mixed emotions over the Xanax. I started my 39th year of sobriety yesterday, and have wrestled a lot with the same dilemma you faced over those decades of recovery. I religiously avoided anything stronger than Advil for 30 years.  

 Then I went through a hip replacement in 2009. I couldn’t tolerate any of the physical therapy I needed to do after the surgery and my doctor persuaded me that opioids would dull the pain so I could do the exercises necessary to get my new metal hip to work with the rest of the body. I was really frightened, but what he said made sense. So I used them for two or three weeks and everything worked just fine. Yeah, I felt a little high from the drugs. But my then 30 years of recovery had also changed me. I wasn’t desperate for an escape or eager to shut down my feelings, like I was back in my active alcoholism days. The opioids served a purpose, and I used them for that purpose and then quit taking them.

I went through a similar episode with them in 2011. I had a huge malignant tumor on my chest, between my heart and lungs, on something called the thymus gland. They split my chest open just like they do for open heart surgery and yanked the mass out.  Full recovery after radiation. But I went back on opioids as I recovered from the surgery, with pretty much the same effect as they had after the hip replacement: [I] took them until the pain subsided and then stopped.

My real opioid challenge came in 2014. I slipped on the ice and broke two bones in my back. The pain was incredible, so I went back on the drugs. Unlike surgical pain, the back pain seemed to be without end. It turned out that I also have spinal stenosis, a chronic pain condition. Well, I quit the opioids two months after I fell. The pain had subsided a little but was still bad but I was damned if I was going to take those things for the rest of my life. They were dulling my brain to the point where it was really hard to focus on anything.  

 My primary care physician saw me a month or so after I stopped taking the pain meds. I thought I was doing pretty well, but she said she could see pain all over me, from my face to my movements and even my voice. She was keenly aware of my feelings on opioids. “What would you say if I could give you something that is not a narcotic that would take the pain away?” she asked. I told her masochism wasn’t my thing, and that I would be glad to try whatever she was talking about. She prescribed Tramadol. Amazingly, it did exactly what she said it would do.  Most of my pain was simply gone, and there were absolutely no feelings of being high or in any way mentally dulled.   

 Several months after I started taking it, Tramadol was reclassified as a narcotic and a controlled substance. My doctor swears she didn’t know this was coming! It was a combination of two pressure points, one out of corporate greed and the other well placed. Whatever company markets Codeine put all sorts of heat on the DEA because the non-narcotic status of Tramadol was giving it an unfair competitive advantage. The growing opioid crisis was another source of the change. Apparently there is some low-grade opioid in Tramadol and addicts were taking it in huge doses. I’m still taking it. My lifestyle would be greatly reduced without it. When I don’t take it, I have several hours during the day where the pain overrides everything else. I can’t think, focus or even begin to carry on a conversation. The Tramadol reverses much of the pain and allows me to feel more human.  

 I also keep a very limited supply of Percocet on hand for very special occasions like when I try to insert my 6-foot-8 body into an airline seat or have to go through a CT scan or a two-hour dental procedure. Those kinds of things bring the pain way past the Tramadol level.

 When I started this email, I had no intention of going on this long with my medical stuff. Sorry about that. It’s just that your story about your trepidation over the Xanax really resonated with me, in a way that only those who are in recovery can understand. Taking these drugs can be an agonizing decision.  But in the end, I think we both did the right thing. We both used drugs at one point in our lives to detach from life, to not feel or think or focus. Now we carefully use them to make all of those same functions possible. It’s a careful and delicate balancing act.

 See Bruce’s blog: Let’s Think This Out for some wise, smart and well-researched commentary on our crazy world.

 I’ll end with another quote from Dr. Raison:

“The vast majority of people who take benzodiazepines for extended periods are highly compliant and follow doctors’ orders closely. Indeed, in my experience many anxious patients who would benefit from benzodiazepine treatment are so worried about addiction and other problems that they deny themselves an important potential pathway to well-being. But the other extreme is even more problematic. Although in my experience benzodiazepines do not have the addiction potential of something like opiate pain pills, they can cause significant trouble when abused. Hence the importance of taking exactly as prescribed.”

More to come in future blogs.

 

TIAs, Strokes and Cancer

The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. Ernest Hemingway

See my blog post: “I didn’t see it coming.”

Melanie and I were walking around the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in mid-January 2018. The four fingers on my left hand went numb. Then my left side, left cheek and left forearm. This wasn’t the first time I had these symptoms since leaving North Memorial Hospital on January 2, 2018.

The first time the symptoms returned happened on January 4, 2018, the second day after my release from the hospital. The fingers on my left hand went numb and our lives changed again.

While in the hospital, the nurses and doctors were adamant: “If you have symptoms, call 911. Time is brain cells.” Should we call 911? I felt resistant. Our insurance company had paid $1,700 to transport me a few miles from Maple Grove hospital to North Memorial hospital on December 29, 2017. I didn’t want to risk my life to save the insurance company money but calling for an ambulance because my fingers went numb for a short time seemed excessive to me.

Melanie called my internist. He counseled us not to go to the ER: “You’ve already been treated for the strokes. The ER can’t do anything. Double your dosage of Lipitor until I see you.” Then my lips went numb. Melanie called the doctor again. He repeated his instructions.

At first, we felt afraid for my life. Some nights I dreamed of numbness on my right side, which would be a new stroke. The dreams were so real; I needed a day to determine the numbness was not real.

One night, I dreamed I was walking down a dark street. Three younger men walked toward me. I knew they would hurt me. I was powerless to stop it. When they got right in front of me, I began to swing at them. I heard a crash and Melanie yelled at me. I woke up and saw I had thrown a punch at the lamp on the bedside table and cleared it of everything.

The transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) continued. I lost trust in my body. I didn’t know how it would react at any time. I was hyper-sensitive to every feeling. I feared TIAs or a stroke when I was away from home. I put my social life on hold, except for family.

After two weeks, my internist said, “What you feel are TIAs. They will not hurt you. You are not having another stroke. I think they will pass in six weeks. Don’t go to the ER unless the symptoms last more than two hours or are on your right side.” We wondered why someone in the Stroke Unit hadn’t warned us before we left the hospital that the symptoms could return. We would have eliminated much fear and anxiety. Then again, maybe they did or my doctor did and I didn’t remember.

We were veteran TIA managers by that Saturday when we were walking. We stopped in a park and sat until the symptoms passed about 45 minutes later and then we walked home.

On the day when I had my last TIA, February 12, 2018, I had my first appointment with the neurologist assigned to me in the hospital. She noticed my moderate voice tremor that had started at age 69–a gift from my father’s genetics.  She asked, “Are you nervous?” I replied: “You don’t know the half of it” and I told her of the weeks of unpredictable TIAs, including the one I had that morning.

The neurologist had blood drawn for many blood tests she wanted. She also wanted another MRI. I had the MRI two days later. The next evening, three days after my last TIA, the neurologist called me at 8:30 pm.

Life was about to change again.

She said, “Don’t get nervous.” That really means, “Get real nervous.”

Melanie’s notes from the conversation:

“The MRI from today shows the old infarcts (strokes) and a few new equivocal infarcts. They are not bright like the other strokes, so it’s hard to put them on a timeline. It could be his heart (atrial fibrillation, or Afib) so she wants him to see a cardiologist pronto for longer-term monitoring. She wants to closely monitor him.

She also wants him to go for labs tomorrow and she is going to check for vasculitis [I didn’t have it] and throw in a few more tests. She is putting that order in tonight so we can go at any time. She reiterated to watch for new symptoms and go to the ER if right side, or can’t walk, etc.”  

I wrote in my journal that night, “Feeling afraid of having another stroke.”

We were at the lab an hour before the lab technician reported to work so I went to a nearby clinic and had the blood drawn there. After several weeks of appointments, I had the heart monitor implanted into my chest. The monitor can track my heart for AFib for up to three years to pick up what would be a rare and almost invisible AFib in my heart rhythms. Should the monitor detect AFib, my blood thinning medication would be changed from a high dose aspirin and Plavix to a drug better for AFib situations. I predict they will not find AFib.

A week later we saw the neurologist again. She said that one of the blood tests had “spiked” and she would refer me to a hematologist for a consultation. The spike could indicate Multiple Myeloma— cancer I had never heard of. She said the odds were 50%-50% that I had it.

“Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells. Normal plasma cells are found in the bone marrow and are an important part of the immune system. In general, when plasma cells become cancerous and grow out of control, this is called multiple myeloma.” —American Cancer Society.

When the Cancer Center at North Memorial didn’t have the referral after several days, Melanie called the neurologist’s office to ask why the referral hadn’t been made. The referral was made within minutes for two weeks later. The two weeks went by slowly.

On March 16, 2018, we walked into the North Memorial Cancer Center (not a pleasant feeling) for my appointment. The hematologist walked into the examination room.

Were our lives about to change dramatically again?

He said, “You don’t have cancer.” I don’t think he had even looked at the lab results. He explained the spike I had can indicate Multiple Myeloma but a large group of people who have the spike don’t have or ever get cancer. However, about 1% cross over to the cancer group each year so I would have to get blood tests every six months.

We walked out of the hematologist’s office relieved. I don’t mind saying that the previous almost three months had scared me! I had been in “fight/flight” mode 24/7. I felt anxiety like I never had before. Over those months, life had humbled me, humiliated me and shown me once again just how little control I had. I was grateful for the outcomes of those events. I didn’t think of myself as “broken,” but I had some cracks in my body and psyche.

When the stroke process began, I decided to be open and honest about what I felt with my doctors and other caregivers. That decision left me vulnerable as many of my feelings were difficult to share: fear, anger, and anxiety. But I was open and honest, as I felt appropriate, as we went along.

I now had an internist (He was always there for me when I needed him), a neurologist, a cardiologist and a hematologist. I got good medical care from them. As for their bedside manners, not so good with one of them. It is important that we feel comfortable with our doctors. We need to trust them and be open with them about ourselves. If we don’t feel comfortable with a doctor, we should make a change.

I had put my life in Melanie’s hands. I shared every dark emotion with her and scared her at times. She made my appointments and took notes, which was invaluable. She fought for me and she loved me.

As the weeks rolled by, I realized Melanie carried a big burden: me. I hated the patient role. I began to keep some things to myself—but not important things. I tried to help around the house more and let her know I appreciated her. A time or two, I shared that I feared she might not want to be married to me: after all, I was wounded. Melanie destroyed those fears.

My children (Becky, Cari, and Mike) and a daughter-in-law (Aubrey) and I drew closer during these months. They were there for me. Natalie, my step-daughter, was a physician’s assistant in a hospital ER and was always there to answer medical questions and offer support.

Dr. Walter Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study: A 75-year longitudinal study of adult development, said the research showed him that relationships are critical to a happy, healthy and long life. We need at least one good friend. How do we know a good friend? Waldinger said a good friend is a person who is there for you when the going gets tough. 

I heard from the extended families of my life, neighbors, and acquaintances and colleagues. I appreciated their notes and calls. A couple of people stand out for me. Each highly empathetic and compassionate and able to share themselves with me. They were there for me throughout my ordeals.

Heide was a good and trusted friend before my strokes and our relationship grew and deepened during the difficult months. She wrote smart and insightful emails. She brought food and visited me at home. She practiced a compassionate “tough love” when I needed it. I found I could share any emotions with her and be met with empathy, understanding, and compassion.

A newer friend, Bill, lived halfway across the country and we communicated periodically. Our exchanges were real. Bill shared himself and his life with me, and he helped me.

And, as all who have had tough times of any kind know, some folks disappoint us. As I thought about that, I turned my eyes inward and I remembered all the people in my life over the years who could have used my support. I took my own inventory and what I saw didn’t always make me proud.

Between January 4, 2018, and March 16, 2018,  I had survived 19 TIAs, a possible second stroke and a cancer threat. For the first time in almost three months, I had no outstanding issues or appointments. Maybe now I could focus on my recovery from the strokes.

More to come in future blogs.

 

 

 

 

I Didn’t See it Coming

In 2004, I read “Younger Next Year” by Chris Crowley & Henry S Lodge, M.D. The book’s message was: In your 40’s, you can decide to clean-up the bad habits in your lifestyle: Some 70% of premature death and aging is lifestyle-related, according to Lodge and Crowley. You can watch your health improve and live much longer, without significant decline, until you are in your 80’s or longer and then die quickly. Even at age 60, we can get “functionally younger every year for the next five or ten years,” wrote Crowley and Lodge. I embraced, and still do, the message of the book and recommended it to many people over the years.

Protecting our health became a core value for Melanie and me.

Last fall, I turned 72 years old: I hadn’t had a health problem since kidney stones in my mid-thirties—no surgery required. Throughout my sixties, I wondered when I would get hit with a major health issue. I didn’t think it was probable that I would get out of my 70’s without a significant health problem.

When I thought about dying, I figured that strokes would be involved: My dad had a small stroke at about my age and then another at age 90. He declined a feeding tube and passed away quickly on his own terms—just as Crowley& Lodge wrote. Dad was my model for living and became my model for dying with dignity.

Melanie and I walked five miles almost every day. I worked out with resistance tubes, dumb-bells and stretched my body three times a week. Other than having to manage my sugar consumption, my diet was good. My weight was fine. I didn’t smoke or drink.

On December 21, 2017, I was working in my office. I felt fine. My index and middle fingers on my left hand suddenly went numb. The sensation passed quickly. I Googled “Fingers went numb” and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome came up. I hollered to Melanie, “I think I have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.” I forgot about it and went back to work.

The next day, three fingers on my left hand went numb along with the left side of my tongue and I couldn’t speak for a moment. These symptoms passed in a minute or so. I called my doctor. He said, “Stop taking a low-dose aspirin and take a full dose aspirin until I tell you not to. If it happens again, go to the ER.” We planned to go to the Fargo area for Melanie’s family Christmas party on Christmas Eve. We considered staying home to be safe but we decided to go and keep our fingers crossed. Other than some anxiety for me, I had no symptoms on the trip.

Back home on December 29th, we sat down for dinner. I said, “Melanie, my fingers on my left hand, my left side, left leg, and left side of my tongue are numb. I could not speak correctly. The symptoms went away in a short time. We talked about going to the ER and I was resistant in case we were wrong. We decided to go and I asked Melanie to call my doctor along the way. He said we were doing the right thing. We went to the Maple Grove Hospital ER. We got right in and the doctor’s and staff went right to work. At first, because the symptoms came and went, they thought my symptoms were TIA’s:

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) is a warning sign of a possible stroke and is often called a “miniature stroke.” A TIA is caused by brief stoppage of blood flow to the brain. Symptoms are the same as a stroke but appear for a shorter period of time (from a minute to 24 hours) and then go away. A TIA is basically a stroke with one important difference: blood flow resumes before any serious brain damage occurs. From the North Memorial Hospital Stroke Education Guide.

I had an MRI and an orderly wheeled me back to the emergency room.

I was joking with the nurses and technicians when the ER doctor came in. He sounded kind of gruff: “You did have several strokes (five). You are lucky: you could have had a major stroke. We don’t have a stroke center here so we will send you by ambulance to the stroke center at North Memorial Hospital (Robbinsdale, MN). The ambulance will be here shortly.”

The paramedics rolled me to the ambulance and I felt the minus 15 degrees temperature. The two young men had heard that I was once a Secret Service agent and we joked about that during the drive.

I arrived at the stroke center at about 1:00 am on Saturday, December 30, 2017. I had lots of nursing attention for a while: they took my vitals, drew blood and hooked me up to liquids and blood thinners. About 15-20 staff came in and out of the room each night. I didn’t sleep much—too many interruptions and too much stimulation. I wasn’t scared: the symptoms were gone and I didn’t feel any paralysis or loss of function. I could talk fine. Everyone had treated me with dignity and respect and I enjoyed their care and attention.

Melanie walked in early Saturday followed by grandson Nate and step-daughter Natalie. I was happy to see them.

I passed all the physical and cognitive tests. The neurologist’s assistant came and spend a long time answering our questions. I liked her. Actually, I liked all the diverse staff-members that helped me.

We were told that half of the strokes emanate from the heart. Fifteen percent of them are due to the patient having untreated Atrial Fibrillation: an irregular and often fast heart rate that can increase the risk of strokes and heart disease. Blood clots in the atria (top chamber of the heart), get pumped out of the heart to the brain, blocks a blood vessel and causes a stroke. I wore a heart monitor in the hospital and would wear one on my first week at home to see if AFib was present. If they detected AFib, they would give me different medication but they wouldn’t change my medication (Plavix plus a full-sized aspirin) without the diagnosis of AFib.

I had an echocardiogram W/Bubble Study of the front of my heart to look for defects in my heart where blood could form into clots that could go to the brain and cause strokes. No defects were found.

On Sunday, the doctor told me I would fast and he would get a Transesophageal Echo W/bubble procedure scheduled for later in the day. It didn’t happen: this was the New Year’s Day weekend and staffing was minimal. I would fast again on Monday, Jan.1, 2018. I fasted and again no procedure. Now the procedure would be first thing Tuesday morning so I would fast for the third day in a row. Overnight, my nurse told me the procedure would be early Tuesday morning. As morning approached, something changed: my nurse said I would have the test on Tuesday but maybe not first thing. Shifts changed and I got a new nurse who I had not had before.

She told me the test would not happen on Tuesday. I got mad. I said, “Hold on, you don’t have the history. I have fasted for three days and each time the procedure in Cardiology got canceled. This is not acceptable. This procedure is the only thing holding up my discharge. I’ve been here one or two extra days because the hospital couldn’t get this done over the weekend. Go talk to the doctor and tell him this.”

Melanie and I waited for the nurse to come back and plotted what I would do if the test couldn’t be done that morning.

Twenty minutes later, the nurse came back and said, “The gurney is on the way to take you to Cardiology for the procedure.” The orderly came, I hopped onto the gurney and he wheeled me to Cardiology and into the procedure room. A nurse was waiting and prepped me. I sat in something like a dentist’s chair. I had to gargle Lidocaine for two minutes and then swallow it. Then they would put me to sleep and they would go through my nose and go down my throat into the food pipe to get pictures of the backside of my heart. The examination would show clear pictures of the heart chambers and valves. The doctor came in and asked me a few questions. The next thing I knew I was awake. The procedure had gone fine and no issues were found.

My internist later said to me: “You had the Cadillac of heart examinations.”

Melanie and my daughter Becky and the nurse and two doctors were waiting in my room when I got back. An hour later, Melanie picked me up at the front door and we went home.

I thought the story was over. But it had just begun. More to come in future blog posts.

Stroke Warning Signs from the Mayo Clinic:

  1. Trouble speaking or understanding,
  2. Paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg,
  3. Trouble with seeing in one or both eyes,
  4. A headache,
  5. Trouble with walking

 

Why Didn’t James Comey Confront Trump?

Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

James Comey

 

During former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017), Senator Marco Rubio asked Comey why he didn’t air his concerns about Trump immediately while he was still FBI director.

“I think the circumstances were such that I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Captain Courageous; I don’t know whether even if I had the presence of mind I would’ve said to the president, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ I don’t know whether I would have. But in the moment, it didn’t come to my mind; what came to my mind was, ‘Be careful what you say.”

James Comey’s history reveals a courageous man. Was he showing false humility to avoid telling a deeper truth that he may not have been totally aware of?

I can imagine a different response from Comey to Rubio’s question:

I was stunned and caught off guard by the things President Trump said and the underlying messages he sent to me. I also felt repulsed by the nature of the man. My instincts told me at our dinner meeting (Jan. 27, 2017), ‘This is a dangerous moment’ and I better remember what he says and document it for he will lie about what he said if the meeting became important in the future. I focused on Trump, his words and his unspoken messages to me. I had to get through this meeting with my integrity intact and without getting fired. Not to save my job: I wanted to protect the Russia investigation from him and survive long enough to gather whatever evidence the President wanted to give me. I decided that I would document all future engagements with Trump. 

I knew some things intuitively: Confronting Trump would be futile and unproductive. He attacks anyone who confronts him. He would have refused enlightenment and efforts to educate him. I was not the President’s lawyer or advisor and it was not my job to school the President on how to do his job or to stop him from going down an inappropriate path that may become criminal. Besides, he wasn’t naïve, ignorant or inexperienced; he knew exactly what he was doing.

I talked to the Attorney General about not leaving me alone with the President. He said nothing. I did not trust him enough to say more to him. Resignation would have harmed the investigation and the FBI and there might not be a Special Counsel today had I quit. I knew without thinking about it that I would stay and do what I could to advance the Russia investigation and protect the integrity and independence of the FBI.

It was my job to document the facts and my experiences with the President. I would do so until I could no longer contain the situation and was put in a position by the President where I had no choice but to resign or sacrifice my integrity. I wondered how far he would go. I reviewed each conversation with Trump with my FBI staff and we discussed my strategy. I needed the documentation and witnesses to protect myself and the FBI. The evidence I documented led, I believe, to the appointment of the Special Counsel.

People considered Comey a smart political operative within the government bureaucracy. I suspect he was more calculating than he wanted to acknowledge–even, perhaps, to himself. I think his “calculating”–fully conscious and rational or on emotional and intuitive auto-pilot–was a good thing for it served a noble purpose and he carried his plan out ethically. For political reasons, maybe it was easier for Comey–a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself–to be self-deprecating about his personal courage than to share his deepest essence and personal reactions with the Senators. Comey may not be Captain Courageous but he has more nerve than most of us and he’s no naive boy scout.

I had several situations in the corporate world—as a leader and as a consultant—where I was threatened with the loss of my job or income if I did or didn’t do certain things that went against my values. I sat across from angry executives who insulted, demeaned and threatened me and who had no respect for niceties or talents for confrontation. I also sat across from executives who delivered dark metamessages with a soft tone and “safe’ words. Trump embraces both tactics to get what he wants. Like Comey, I felt stunned. Also confused and crazy. Imagining myself interrupting people of questionable intent who had power over me to tell them how badly they were handling themselves makes me laugh. I would have been fired and ridiculed for my naiveté. It is even more ludicrous to expect Comey to do so with Trump. Confront a mean narcissist? Get real. Comey had a greater purpose.

In dealing with such people, I often operated at a gut and intuitive level in real-time without the opportunity to think everything through as rationally as I might have liked. These were new, confusing and dangerous situations with no manual to tell me how to handle myself. My values guided me. It took me years to sort out some crazy situations and to make sense out of nonsense. I suspect James Comey will be reflecting on his “nonsense” experiences with Trump and his own feeling  and reactions for a long time.

The moment always came with those executives when I had to choose to sell my soul, quit or get fired. My commitment to truth and my values was deep and I never gave in to threats made by powerful people. Comey managed his situation as long as he could without selling his soul. Trump fired him before Comey felt he had to resign (May 8, 2017).

It’s hard to stand up for our values in a world filled with madness. James Comey faced darker craziness with far greater things at stake than I ever had to deal with. He did so in the public eye certain to be criticized and attacked. He is a noble and honorable man.

I look up to the James Comey’s of the world who—often alone–stand up to malevolent people with full knowledge that they will suffer personally for their commitment to something larger than themselves: in Comey’s case a powerful allegiance to our Constitution and to the integrity and independence of the FBI and to his own values.

I was once asked disdainfully, “Who do you think you are, the keeper of the values?”

Yes, I am the keeper of the values and so are you and you and you.

Lifelong Learning

In the 2000’s, the American Dream faded for millions of Americans. As the 2016 presidential election approached, work rates were at their lowest levels in decades. Millions of people had dropped out of the work force and income insecurity grew. An opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin spread across white America often funded by Medicaid and disability insurance, which had become long-term unemployment insurance for many. A study showed that nearly half of all working-age male labor-force dropouts—about 7 million men—took pain medication daily.

Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies.” Suicide, chronic liver cirrhosis and drug overdoses account for much of the increase in death rates.

Many felt left behind in a world that moved faster than most of us could keep up with. Millions no longer trusted politicians, government or America’s institutions. People felt angry, afraid and anxious because America was not going in the right direction for them. Their lives were difficult and getting harder.

The time was perfect for Donald Trump. He promised he would “make America great again.” He would withdraw from globalization. He would bring manufacturing jobs home. And he would give great health care to everyone. He would build physical and psychological walls to keep Muslims and Hispanics out. He called them criminals and terrorists. I call them poor and powerless, mostly women and children, in search of a safe-haven.

Citizens didn’t have to be anxious about climate change: it was a Chinese hoax. Trump would get rid of the EPA, eliminate regulations, exploit our national parks and national monuments and double down on consuming finite resources. If facts and truth got in the way, we would use alternative facts: truth and reality would be what we wanted them to be. Fantasized wishes and opinions would replace science. Together we could create our own imaginary world and live happily ever after. Life would be great.

Working class Americans felt “heard” by Trump. Millions so wanted to believe in him. Their desire to believe clouded their judgement, emotion trumped reason and the unfit and needy con man who lies more than he tells the truth became president.

Today only a few months into his presidency, Trump’s lies cover up his picking the pockets of the American people. Trump betrays those who voted for him and he and Republicans in Congress will continue to cater to the wealthy–indifferent to the suffering of everyone else. His biggest lie was about “healthcare for everyone.” His plan takes healthcare from 23 million Americans and is more a transfer of wealth from everyday Americans to the richest two percent of us than a healthcare plan.

Millions need to deal with addiction.  Trump made combating the nation’s drug-overdose problem a focal point of his presidency. “We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth,” he said… “and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted .” Trumpcare will, in all probability, reduce funding for treatment for Opioid addiction when the nation needs it the most.

More lies will be exposed: Globalization isn’t going away; we must be engaged in the world. Manufacturing jobs will not return; coal miners won’t get their jobs back. Climate change is real and we better get honest about the dangers: wars, famines, mass migrations and economic collapse. Walls won’t protect us, alternative facts won’t make reality go away and opioids, heroin and alcohol won’t restore purpose and meaning to our lives—only values, purpose and meaningful work will do that. Trump’s “make America great again” is a road to decline.

We can think of working class Americans as canaries in the coal mine. The issues that drove them to Trump may one day be everyone’s issues, their stories may be our stories. No group or economic class will be immune from the greed, selfishness and the lust for power of the Trump’s of the world. They have no loyalties other than to their own ego’s. We have to say “NO” to “Trumpism” and the dark side of humanity that he symbolizes if we want to have any dreams in America.

We need to be aware of two highly probable future realities: Technology will continue to evolve rapidly and many great advancements will come from robotics, biogenics, nano-technology and artificial intelligence. But technology has a dark side that we need to manage: addiction, distraction, the loss of freedom and the loss of our humanity. And unemployment and income insecurity in the working class alert us to a future that will affect almost everyone. In the decades ahead, massive numbers of people will lose their jobs to technology: lawyers, doctors and accountants along with cab drivers and clerks. Some jobs will become obsolete; others will be done by robots, machines and workers in other nations. We need to adapt.

Thomas Friedman in his book Thanks for Being Late wrote that we must become lifelong learners: we must continually learn new things and develop new skills if we want to even begin to keep up with change and have a place in the future. To be employable from now on, we must reinvent ourselves throughout our lives–life is learning.

Lifelong learning might strike us as a small fix to complex challenges today and in the decades ahead. But the impact of valuing learning and weaving learning processes into the fabric of all aspects of life: you, me, our schools, our organizations, our communities and our local, state and national government and institutions would bring forth massive creativity, evolve our capabilities and prepare us for a future life more different than most of us can imagine today. Such change will require a well-balanced mix of government help and personal drive and responsibility. The alternative might be spending our productive years sitting in front of screens stoned on drugs and living on a small stipend or disability check (See: Homo Deus by Yuval Harari for more about the future of work and massive unemployment).

But we need to do more than just develop new job skills. We must also learn how to navigate difficult changes easier and faster. Friedman wrote, “Every society and every community must compound the rate at which it reimagines and reinvents its social technologies, because our physical technologies will not likely be slowing anytime soon.”

I used the work of William Bridges to manage external change and the internal emotional transitions that accompany external changes and must be guided if we want changes to be implemented well. A deeper understanding of change helps people make changes easier and faster and also helps people tolerate uncertainty and cope with chaos and complexity better. If you or your organization can change easier and faster, you will have a competitive advantage.

Daniel Quinn wrote in Ishmael: Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn’t know how he ought to live. We need to do more than learn new job skills and learn how to change faster. We need to learn how to live differently. Our way of life and our existence as a species is threatened by our addictive consumption of the earth’s biomass. Earth is over-populated and we cannot sustain our way of life for much longer. Either we will change or we will not. Either way, something spectacular is going to happen soon.

We must see reality clearly and we must create new, positive stories for our collective future and unite around them. Then we can leave Trumpism behind and consider it a bad episode in America’s history.

 

 

Bring Light to Dark Places

Every day repulsive Donald Trump shocks us with his malicious and bottomless dark side, his lack of a rational thought process and his lust for love, cruel behavior, overall incompetence and deceitful and self-delusional promotion of himself. Every word and deed services a limitless and unrestrained ego spewed on the world from the most powerful and esteemed office in the world. How did we end up with this vile reality TV charlatan as President?

Almost more painful to watch than Trump are the sycophants who fawn over and enable him: smart people who have sold their souls and don’t seem to care about the harm they inflict on the world if they get their reward whether it be money or celebrity or momentary power.

A prerequisite for being in relationship with Trump is a willingness to be diminished as a human being. Those who refuse to be made smaller quit or get expelled from Trump world. Perhaps a few brave souls choose to stay and suffer the indignity of Trump to help the nation. They too will reach their limit.

Worst of all may be the repugnant Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and those who follow them in our Congress who seem willing to sacrifice our democracy and hurt our people for tax cuts for the richest Americans who do not need the money–all at the expense of poor, working and middle class Americans.

The election of Trump was a national expression of poor judgement. I no longer believe that there is wisdom in the electorate. I fear for our democracy when fake news and alternative facts go mainstream and replace truth, reason and science for many people who don’t care or take the time to recognize and separate truth from fiction.  Did many voters choose distraction and entertainment over thinking and discernment?  I think so.

Spiritual writers tell us that a spiritual awakening is spreading across the planet. I believe they are right. But others have said the same thing for decades. I wonder if the movement grows fast and large enough to bring light to the darkness in time. Many people choose to live in the shadows of a fake reality and to be distracted and entertained instead of doing the hard work of seeing reality accurately. I have little hope for them.

This essay is for those who want to wake up and evolve as people.

My edited 2002 version of The Allegory of Plato’s Cave. I believe it fits today’s world in which many do not see reality accurately.

The allegory describes a scenario in which what people believe to be real is, in fact, an illusion.

Imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who are chained and cannot move. They can only look at the wall directly in front of them. Behind the prisoners an enormous fire blazes continually, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads. Sounds made by the people on the walkway echo off the walls of the cave and make new noises. The prisoners cannot see the raised walkway or the people walking, but they watch and talk about the shadows cast on the wall by the people, not knowing they are shadows. The prisoners believe the shadows to be real and the sounds to be coming from the figures on the walkway, not just reflections of a different reality, since the shadows are all they had ever seen.

Imagine that a prisoner is freed and permitted to go outside of the cave and look around. The prisoner would be shocked to see that the shadows are only reflections of a more encompassing reality and that everything he thought he and his fellow prisoners knew about reality was wrong. If the prisoner returned to the cave, he would return as a changed person who could never again believe or act in the old way because the world was now a different place. The changed  person would want to act on his new understanding, could not bear to be confined in the cave any longer, and would pity his fellow prisoners. He would want to share his new wisdom with the other prisoners, but they would reject his new knowledge and would make fun of him because the reality they understood had not changed.

The cave prisoners know nothing but the shadowy reality of their limited world. They could not relate to a world they have never seen. The more aware prisoner would be seen as a threat to the established ways of seeing the world. The prisoners would not embrace the new world but would deny it, fear it, and cling more tightly to the old world.

Each of us has Plato’s Caves of our lives—places where ego, fear, greed, habits, wounds, denial, addiction, conformity, ignorance, manipulation, and even a cherished way of life blind us to greater insight, awareness, perspective, authenticity and possibilities. Caves are places where we mistake false appearances for reality. We can’t see what we are blind to.

But every once in a while, we get pushed, dragged—or even venture willingly—out of one of our caves. For example, the alcoholic on his deathbed is forced to make a choice of life or death. If he chooses to stay in his cave, he will die. If he chooses life, he must then see himself as he is—always the first step of change— not as his delusions and self-deception tell him he is. At first he is as mad as can be at this forced change. It is always painful to be confronted with our false realities. But he slowly becomes acclimated to a new reality. Increased self-awareness and new knowledge bring forth new ways to live with meaning and purpose. This transformation is often called a spiritual awakening.

Like drunks, everyday people have their caves too. Some never leave the caves of their lives and live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” Others may leave a cave or two and then stop—content with their lives. Still others understand that our worlds have many caves in them. They know they’ll never run out of caves to abandon in search of greater aliveness. They are determined to seek out the caves of their lives and leave them proactively because caves always eventually confine or threaten their spirits.

Despite the loss and fear of change, these seekers choose intentionally to jump into new situations, new learning, and diverse adventures to expand their empathy, experience, and understanding. These people don’t stop leaving the caves of their lives until they die and no one knows what happens after death; perhaps the adventures continue. Whatever the circumstances, leaving a cave involves an inner shift that brings forth a deep examination and change of values, beliefs, and assumptions that evolve life.

The spiritual awakening of the alcoholic, the insights of everyday people, the enlightenment of the seeker, and the moment of metanoia — a change of the inner person–are similar, as each requires a temporary surrender of the ego, a re-ordering of the psyche, and a fundamental shift of perception.

No one who experiences this transformation will ever see the world in the same ways again. We should not be too proud of our initial inner expansion for we will be called over and over again to leave cave after cave, and journeys always humble the traveler. Of course we can choose at any time to refuse the summons of change and stay back.

Leaving a cave can be dangerous. Some cave-mates feel threatened when others change; they prefer the comfort of distraction and self-deception. They work hard to lure the courageous one back into the status-quo. The fearful might try to bribe or threaten the adventurer. They might lie or manipulate. They may say bad things. Those who dare to venture into the unknown are sure to become alienated from some long-time cave-mates.

We live in times of danger and difficulty. New threats loom over every horizon. Our planet is threatened and our way of life in peril–threatened from within. Fakes and charlatans with venal and regressive visions that return us to a more primitive condition clamor for our trust. We can look around and see how people under great stress—from our national leaders to everyday people in organizations, to the fringes of our political parties—become small, petty, and greedy and try to return to their old caves for safety. Some deny fact and truth. Others can feel strongly about every side of an issue depending on the audience. Some reject science for self-serving opinion. Many substitute intellectual honesty with black, white, and senseless beliefs grounded in fear and their inability to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity of life. Their fear consumes them, and they live in darkness. In dangerous times, we need to be our best selves, not our worst.

We have only one healthy choice: to find the caves of our lives, to see reality clearly—even when it is painful—and to do what we can to become more wise, conscious, discerning and compassionate. There is no going backwards unless we want the dangers of our world to become realities.

Trust the Process

Life is a process. We are a process. The universe is a process.

Anne Wilson Schaef

 Jack Kornfield in Path With Heart told the lesson in patience and unintended consequences from Zorba the Greek:

I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree just as the butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings needed to be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

Zorba’s not alone in his impatience and lack of trust in the process of life to unfold naturally.

I went on a photo workshop in Yellowstone National Park with professional wildlife photographer Tom Murphy. Tom said he could always tell which photographers were from the city: They jumped out of their cars, took a quick picture and jumped back in their cars to get to the next location. He advised us to be patient and to watch and observe animal behavior and get some great photos in the process.

I’ve been an amateur nature and wildlife photographer for a long time. I’m always in a hurry to get the next location—to jam as much into the time I have. I wonder how many great shots I’ve missed because I couldn’t sit still to watch and wait for the behaviors of the wildlife I watched or for the light to be a bit better over the scene I wanted to photograph. Only in the past few years have I tried to tame those inner drives. I was the same in my work. My friend, consultant and Clinical Psychologist Diane Olson, Ph.D. said I had the intensity gene.

To become patient and to trust the process of life may be the biggest challenge I have.

I have so much I want to do, so much I want to learn. The speed of change in our world increases faster than I can keep up. Aging only intensifies my intensity to move fast before I run out of time. The madness of our world makes it hard to trust in the process of life.

I began to meditate a couple of years ago hoping to understand my mind better and calm my inner drives. Maybe I can uproot my impatience and accept that I am not in control. Meanwhile, I can be aware of my impatience and difficulty in “trusting the process” and make conscious choices to act counter to my inner drives.

I think many of us feel exhausted and overwhelmed due to our impatience and pace of life. In Uncommon Friends, author James Newton shared a letter he received from Anne Lindbergh who wrote about her pace of life:

I have not yet learned quite how to deal with those periods when one is learning and living too fast to digest. There was a wonderful story once told by Andre Gide of a trip he took through the jungle, very fast, with African guides. One morning the native guides sat around in a circle and refused to move. When Gide urged them on, saying he was in a hurry to get somewhere, they looked up at him seriously, reproachfully, but with complete rock-like firmness and said, “Don’t hurry us-we are waiting for our souls to catch up with us.

I want to do my small part to contribute to sanity and greater consciousness in the world. One way you and I can do that is to slow down and take time to be present without thought and separate time to think quietly.