Category Archives: fear

The Snuffing Out of Light


Two days ago I learned of the death of one of my first clients as a substance abuse counselor at an all-male halfway house.  As is often the case I hear about these deaths from a former resident and their biggest concern is how I will receive the news.  My husband has gotten too used to me getting a phone call or reading messages on my phone and having me crumble into a mass of sobs.   He will gently ask me, “Who?” and on this past Tuesday night, just as we were molding our bodies into our respective tv watching positions, I answered with the name of someone he knew I cared deeply about and one of a handful of guys that he and my daughter had actually met.

“T” was an exceptional young man.  When I first met him I was stunned to learn that he was almost 30.  He could easily pass for 19.  He had the words “Sick Boy” tattooed on the nape of his neck, the name of a character from the book and movie “Trainspotting,” and when I, a 50-yr old woman told him that it was one of my favorite movies, he instantly adored me.  He smiled his broad and welcoming smile, and I immediately saw the incandescent light that had to have been trademarked as his somewhere along the line.

“T” was open and out as a gay man among a house filled with brawny and toughened guys and he was adored by every single one.  Some of the guys let him color their hair pink and green, file their nails, and rub their shoulders.  He was the “pet” without EVER being condescended to.  He was the one who got up early to write famous and inspirational quotes on the white board in the kitchen, every single day for six months.  One day he picked flowers for me straight from Boston’s Public Garden which I had to tell him he could have been arrested for.  After that, every time he went home on the weekend he would snip a flower or two from his mother’s garden like he did below:


When he met my then 14-yr old daughter for the first and only time, he had a flower ready for her too.  When I told her he had died, she hugged me longer and harder than she ever has.

I spoke at the AA meeting where he received his one-year chip.  He beamed at me, and I at him, assuming that he had reached the end of his struggle with addiction.  He was ten months into a job that he loved and where he was adored, like he was everywhere.  When I learned four months ago that he had relapsed and essentially lost everything he had worked so hard for, I was devastated for him.  I reached out to him and got a text back that said, “Hi my love, things are pretty rough these days.  I just don’t know what to do.”  I answered back that he DID know what to do, that he had done it so triumphantly before, and that was the last I heard from him.

Every single Facebook post that started to unfurl on his page as people learned of his death uses the word “light.”  It is a somewhat overused descriptor, but with “T” it’s really the one word that can sum up his beautiful soul perfectly.

It makes sense for me to cite a Smiths song here, since “T” was a huge fan of the melancholy and angst in music.    In this case Morrissey got it all wrong when he writes “There’s A Light That Never Goes Out.”  “T” took his light with him and those that remember it, and him, will try so desperately to hold on to it, to bask in it, for as long as we possibly can.

This post was originally published on


The Bucket List



This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title placed to keep customers entertained while waiting in line to pay at a bookstore. Among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there was this:

“Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big as long as it’s legal and no matter how lofty could theoretically be achieved.  I give them about 10 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them. I tell them that I keep it with me so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it out loud in the exact order it was written and when recently a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, “visit mom’s grave” got added to my list.  It’s interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on a slight hesitancy in my voice.    So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.


How To Get Free Booze, or, Pilots As Enablers

I hate flying.  I’d rather be anywhere else on earth than on a plane (Being in Penn Station on one of the hottest days of the year about 20 years ago comes in a close second.)  From the second a ticket is booked, whether it’s five months before, one month or two weeks, my sense of security is thrown off balance.
I recently flew to Los Angeles, a trip I’ve done at least 15 times, to visit my father who has lived there for 30 or so years.  I’ve been flying since I was an infant, visiting grandparents who lived in Florida every Christmas break until I was 13 or so.  I’ve been to the UK three times and flew quite a bit for a couple of jobs, taking me to some really great American cities.   Friends say I need to do it MORE, to get used to it.  I think they’ve gone slightly mad.
Now here’s the thing:  you never know when a good flight is going to turn bad.  You never know, as you’re coasting along quite beautifully when you’ll hit an air pocket, fly through a thunderstorm, suck a poor unsuspecting bird into the engine, be struck by lightning, have some crazy passenger storm the cockpit demanding to be taken to New Zealand (the longest possible flight there is). 
The week before I most recently flew, the news played a tape of a conversation between a pilot and an air traffic controller after the plane had lost its hydraulic system.  Their voices were calm (ish) like they always are.  Then, when the controller asked how many “souls” were on the plane, SOULS, not people, I knew that a crash and mass casualties were expected.  The captain of the Titanic was asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION and we all know what happened there.  Somehow the plane landed and everyone was fine, their souls intact.
Flying is lovely when the seatbelt sign is off.  I look out the window, at the grids and circles on the green and brown ground, but, when we start to experience even the slightest bumpiness, I wait in fear to see if that seatbelt sign is going to flash on and the inevitable scripted announcement from the pilot that says, “Well folks, it seems as if we’ve hit just a little patch of turbulence.  Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts and we’ll try to get through this as quickly as we can.  Thank you.”
At that point I just stare out the window thinking I’ll see something on a clear day that indicates how bad it will be.   Those flights are the ones that confuse me the most—there are no clouds, no discernible winds, nothing that can explain why we’re suddenly being bumped around.  If one more person tells me that it’s just like a bump in the road or recites the statistics that the chances of crashing in a plane are infinitesimal compared to how many people are killed in car crashes, I will throttle them.
I envy (Re. hate) people who LOVE to fly.  My friend Phillip (who also loves going to the dentist) laughs his way through turbulence.  I can see him squealing “whee!” when being slightly tossed around.  I think flight attendants are freaks.  I study their faces when they too are asked to sit down during a rough patch and marvel at how they can just flip through a magazine as if their lives aren’t about to end.  Who ARE these people??
I’ve developed quite a brilliant and foolproof  strategy in recent years so pay close attention:  The second I step through the gate and onto that jet way thing where you begin to smell fuel and that one-of-a-kind footstep sound, I begin to panic slightly.  I check out the part of the plane I can see and curse it for holding me hostage for 6 hours.  At that point I’ve already taken at least one ativan but it really does very little.  As I take that dreaded step over the threshold and onto the “aircraft” I pop my head into the cockpit and ask if it’s going to be a smooth flight.  Most of the time they are nice and automatically pin me as a nervous flyer.  On this most recent trip they asked me what seat I was in and I knew I had scored big (keep reading).
They never say that it’s going to be the most turbulent flight in their history of flying, but they might say, “It’s going to be a bit bumpy over the Rockies but other than that, we should be fine.”  We SHOULD be fine!   I ask the flying time, willing it to be an hour shorter than I know it will be and when the pilot on the way home told me it was going to be 5 hours and 4 minutes, I said, “But it’s going to be shorter than that, right?”  He responded by saying, “No, it’s going to be 5 hours and 4 minutes.”   Fuck.  You.
So, after I’ve talked to the pilot, I then ask the first flight attendant I see the same questions.   They smile and say that they haven’t heard otherwise from the pilot.  Throughout the flight, I will periodically check in with them to make sure they haven’t lied to me.  When I work my way back to use the bathroom and see people drooling in sleep I wonder why they have chosen to sit in the bumpiest part of the plane.  But they don’t care.  They’re SLEEPING!
So, as the drink cart made its way down the aisle on this most recent flight I started to jones for that first sip of wine.  A guy two rows in front of me started asking the flight attendant a bunch of questions about God knows what and I felt like jumping out of my seat to begin pilfering the cart.  The other attendant pushing the cart looked at my aisle number and said “The pilot told us to give her whatever she wants.”  SEE, that’s how it works!  Thank you lovely pilots.   Two bottles of wine and one more ativan had me smiling and doing crossword puzzles.
Obviously, a trip in one direction requires a trip in the other.  I throw away the used boarding pass and rue the fact that there is still one more trip to get through.  I’m so grateful on the first day that I made it through the first  flight that I generally don’t start panicking until the day before the next.  For some reason the trip home was harder, coming off the heels of a rather emotional trip.  My heart started beating the second I woke up and I took the ativan sooner than usual.  I had a glass of wine at lunch before we boarded and the aforementioned pilot didn’t take the bait.  I watched our entire flight on the screen in the seatback, as a computer image of our plane crept its way across the country.  In case you were wondering, Nebraska is a big fucking state.  I watched as the mileage countdown changed, challenging myself not to look for as long as possible.  My husband, a meteorologist and someone who considers flying the same as sitting on the couch, felt badly for me, but we made it home, safe and sound.
So, even if you’re not terrified of flying, I’m sure you can act afraid for a few minutes, put on your best award-winning performance in order to score some free booze.  What you can’t do is tell them that it was me who told you how to do this, as I may single-handedly be responsible for another airline declaring bankruptcy.