By most measures, I led a charmed life growing up. My family wasn’t wealthy, but I never missed a meal other than when my dad took us on adventures and forgot that children need food to make it through the day. I went to good schools, with good teachers and good fellow students. I traveled the world courtesy of the US Navy. Both of my parents were around as much as they could be. Dad got deployed regularly, yet I remember him coaching most of my soccer teams and serving as a leader in my Boy Scout troops. Mom worked the night shift at hospitals, and still managed to drive my brother and me to and from school every day. They read to us, took us hiking and fishing and camping, told us stories, and planned reunions with our extended family. They provided my brother and me with all the love and support any kids could hope for. They took an active interest in our own interests, and it has paid off. My brother, aka “Grease,” flies an F-15 for the Oregon Air National Guard. My software career has taken me all over the world and helped me make hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful friendships in the process. Basically my parents did everything in their power to set us up for success, to prepare us to go out into the world and make of ourselves whatever we want. I think they did a damn good job.
One thing they didn’t prepare me for, however, was failure. Now that’s probably unfair to say, because I got the “it’s not getting knocked over that matters, what matters is picking yourself up” lecture from my dad more times than I can count. “Stick-to-it-iveness,” as my mom calls it, is highly valued in our family. My brother inadvertently coined the term “gription” when he was 8 in order to describe that never-give-up nature of his own, unable to string together as many syllables as my mom or separate the concepts of “grip” and “traction.” In some twisted way I think I can take a bit of credit for preparing him to deal with failure, having spent over a decade beating him in every contest where a physical advantage was an unfair advantage. As for me, given the world I grew up in, I never knew real failure. Looking back it feels like I was walking along the blades of a powered-off blender, unaware that life had its finger on the button, just waiting for the right moment to push.
I remember the first time I failed, or at least the first time I feel like I failed. It was my senior year of high school, when my soccer team lost in the semi-final round of the Colorado state soccer tournament. Heartbreaking as it was, losing that match wasn’t my failure. My failure came a month or two beforehand, during an after-school practice. Earlier that week, a couple of the younger players had screwed up in a big way and our coach was pissed. He began the practice by having us run “suicides,” where you start at one end of the pitch, and run sprints to and from each of the lines across the pitch. After ten of these, a downright exhausting workout, he lectured us on the behavior that he expected from our team. Then he announced that our practice would be the usual two hours, only this time we were to run suicides the entire time! We could go home when we felt like we had worked hard enough that day. Then he blew the whistle and that was that. I ran two or three suicides before calling it a day. I had AP Chem to study for, and after all I wasn’t one of the screwups so I wasn’t going to take their punishment. That’s where I failed. I failed to push myself. I failed to support my coach. I failed to stick it out with the one player – our team captain – who ran until our coach forced him to stop because he looked like he was going to fall over and die. I failed to serve as a good example to the younger players on my team. I failed to share with them the lessons that I had learned from the truly excellent leaders I was blessed to work with in my life up to that point.
I won’t be offended if you’re laughing at me by now, at this self-indulgent account of failure which doesn’t even begin to touch the realities of life. I direct you back to my blender metaphor. That was the year that life pushed the button on me. Still, I think it was closer to a puree setting than full on ice crush or liquify.
That was the year that my parents got divorced, my high school sweetheart dumped me, and I voluntarily enrolled in an engineering school in upstate New York. Lacking any sort of motivation to get out of bed most days, and feeling a billion miles away from the supportive family I grew up with, I started getting bad grades for the first time in my life. I got my first D, and my second D, and then I dropped out before I could get my first F. I moved to Washington state where I could play poker, and lived with my dad for a month when he took me in in an effort to bridge the relationship that I had chosen to sever. Living with mom wasn’t an option. She liked to tell us that her job was that of an archer, drawing the bow back and aiming it as best she could and then relinquishing control once she had let the arrows loose. She was pissed, hurt, and fearful when one of those arrows chose to drop out of an excellent university and play poker instead.
At this point I’m still 19, and the blender is still set to puree. Most people know what the higher settings feel like, as I’ve learned since then – family members battling cancer; friends going to prison; friends going to fight a war, and not always coming back; people lying and cheating and stealing; loved ones passing way too soon.
If I’ve made you depressed, I’m sorry. This stuff has taken the last ten years of my life to sort out and it’s pretty clear that I need to get it out now. I promise to turn things around and end on a positive note.
I was not prepared for any of the nasty things life threw my way. I was not prepared to be hurt far beyond anything I had experienced before, for reasons that I could not understand. The world I grew up in – the happy, blissful, charmed existence of my youth – was shattered, and I was fucking terrified. I stopped doing many of the things I loved. I stopped opening myself up to new people and new experiences. I stopped pushing myself because I was scared to fail, that I would fail to achieve every outcome that I wanted. I was given plenty of lessons that I couldn’t predict and control every outcome, and that all I could control was my own response – just as my parents had taught me growing up. Being young and brand new to this reality thing, I denied it. Hard. When things didn’t go my way, I got hammered, or high, or took my anger and frustration out on people that I cared about. I didn’t think the rules applied to me, that I was exempt from the harsh realities of life. I spent the next ten years engaging in the parts of life I enjoyed and escaping from those I didn’t.
Some folks who know me might find this post strange. After all, I’m a happy guy, I do cool things, I have incredible friends and family. I’m certainly not a giant fuckup. The reason I can spend this much time writing about the negative things from the last ten years is that there’s not enough time in the world to write about all the positive things that have happened in that same time.
I feel weird. Despite all the positives and success in my life, I feel like I have been just a shadow of who I really am, who I can be. I have been so afraid of failure and pain that I have denied myself opportunities to achieve the success I want. I didn’t really have any idea until recently. Several months ago, one of my best friends flew down to see me to find out what was going on with me. He looked me in the eye and said, “You have so much potential, and it seems like you don’t even know it and you’re throwing it away, and it fucking kills me. What’s up?” All I could manage was “I don’t know man…I don’t know.” I was too scared to tell him the truth, scared to tarnish the image I felt he had of me as someone having my shit together. I was too scared to tell my best friend – one of the few people who cared enough to ask and cared even more to listen – that I struggled with addiction and depression, both made worse by the fact that I didn’t understand why and was too proud to tell anyone or ask for help.
I have made big changes for myself. I’ve kicked the bad shit and cut back on the not-quite-as-bad shit. I am now willing to face the unpleasantries that are part of the reality of life. I choose to face them instead of escape. I choose to get over my fear of being exposed as imperfectly human to myself and others, to share my failures and get help when I need it.
Looking back, I feel bad for the kid who felt the need to escape whenever he didn’t like what life threw his way. But I get it – I am that kid, just a little older and wiser. I’m still scared of pain and failure, that hasn’t gone away. I don’t need to succumb to it anymore. I don’t welcome it, but I acknowledge it, and choose to experience it as a part of my life. I understand now that each moment where I actively engage in my own life is a blessing that I give myself. There’s nothing profound about that statement, I must have heard it hundreds of times in various forms from other people. What is profound, for me, is applying it to myself for the first time that I can remember.
To the people who have helped me through tough shit: thank you. You engaged me when I couldn’t do it myself. To everyone who has seen the spark in my eyes when we work or play or talk or hang out: thank you. You engaged me in that moment and in doing so helped me engage myself. You helped me get a win that I didn’t even know I desperately needed until now. You let me experience my true self in those moments. After enough practice, I’m able to do it on my own, even when the moments are unpleasant.
TGIF. Let’s kick some ass today