A son’s question on an autumn day reminds a sober dad just how far he’s come
This fall, I was raking the lawn and my 22-year-old son, Nico, was bagging leaves for me. At one point, he asked me, “Does raking make you happy?”
My initial thought was, Just stuff the leaves in the freaking bag. But knowing my son to be truly sincere, contemplative, and, at times, provocative, I also knew that he really wanted to know. Before I share how I answered him, I’d like to flashback to “what it was like.”
As a teen alcoholic, I was very lazy. I typically only did what I needed to do to get by. Often, I fell short of that, resulting in getting grounded, losing the use of the car and eventually going to outpatient and inpatient treatment. I was very resistant to doing anything that I had to do. I always sought the easy way out. My dad was a doctor, and I often wished that he were a medicine man and that, as my birthright I too would be a medicine man.
What I mistook for happiness was typically avoidance of discomfort or—better yet—pleasure. I thought pleasure was happiness. Any other state was unhappiness. This misconception, or myth if you will, carried well into adulthood.
My fall from what grace I had was gradual. While I was able to achieve financial independence, marry and start a family, alcohol and drugs did not always meet my demands for pleasure. One day, I came home to a tearful wife and a packed bag. I remember looking at myself in the bathroom mirror in my parents’ house and realizing why my behavior did not align with my morals. I realized that the best chance to save my family life—which I truly cherished—was to do without that which had served me so well for 25 years.
I found AA, asked for sponsorship from a man who had what I wanted, followed instructions and worked the Steps. I gradually increased my self-awareness, including defeat of another myth of mine: that “I am less than, because I am not a doctor.” A milestone like that is the result of a great deal of work. Much of this work is really about doing the little things, but they were things that did not come naturally to me. I learned to suit up and show up and be of service (for family, friends, sponsees and employers), to listen to others, to seek counsel, to pray and meditate a little, to do random acts of kindness, to express gratitude and love, to manage expectations and practice acceptance, to be honest and to find some humility and faith in a Higher Power. While at times it can be a grind, this fundamental “blocking and tackling” or “chopping wood and carrying water” is, for the most part, what I try to do on a daily basis.
By doing the right thing, I gain self-esteem and a comfort with myself that results in serenity and happiness. This self-esteem is also a result of exercising discipline by not doing things that I’ve determined I should not be doing. I try to refrain from acting selfishly, judging myself and others, being impatient and angry and stroking my ego with any number of inappropriate behaviors. I believe that I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong. I know I’ve grown because I can no longer deceive myself about the difference.
The work that I try to do today is possible by an active program of faith, family, fellowship, awareness, acceptance and action. A guy who passed through my meeting one Saturday said, “Willingness without action is fantasy.” I love that quote. I’m certainly not perfect in my execution, but this is my practice.
So, back to the fall day with my son and the answer to his question: “Does raking make you happy?”
I told Nico that I considered raking a chore—something that had to be done. I also told him that I enjoyed spending time with him, working with my hands and being outdoors. Furthermore that as a result of this work, the lawn would be healthy in the spring, look good in the summer and be a source of pride for his mom and me. While raking did not provide any immediate gratification, there were certainly some long-term benefits.
I told him that my initial thought was to tell him, “Just stuff the leaves in the freaking bag.” Instead, I said, “Yeah, grab another bag.”