I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
By Johnny Cash, from "I Walk the Line"
There are certain things that I, as a recovered alcoholic/addict, have to be on the lookout for. While I do consider myself recovered from addiction, my recovery is contingent on daily maintenance of my spiritual condition. Without this, I am prone to extreme highs and lows which, left unchecked, could easily lead me to ruin. There was a time that I thought lithium was the answer to my condition, as it provided a chemical way to keep my system on an even keel. Better living through better chemistry!
However, in and of itself, the lithium therapy never really worked for me. It always left my spirit feeling empty, untapped, needing more, feeling isolated, unreachable. This is why, when I was on lithium regularly for those two years, 1978 and 1979, I also smoked dope, regularly. That seemed to compensate for what I felt was missing, and felt like it helped me tap into my true spirit, whenever I got high. But, it proved to be fleeting, a combination that only lasted for so long. It was unsustainable.
After 4 years of continuous abstinence from everything, but before finding recovery, I was contemplating going back on the lithium. I’d been on the emotional life roller coaster for those 4 years, and I needed to get off. I needed emotional and spiritual stability. Even if it meant having that feeling of being cut off from my true spirit, I didn’t care – the drama simply had to stop. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was too much.
Then, I found a sponsor in the program and began my journey through the 12 Steps of AA, and began to believe that they would be enough, that a structured spiritual path would be sustainable. But by then, I didn’t trust my own instincts very much, as they had led me astray, and sabotaged me so many times. So, I asked my sponsor about it. Should I trust the 12 Steps and the program, and not go back on the lithium? Or, should I try going back on the lithium, and see if I can do the 12 steps in combination with it?
My sponsor said he’s not a doctor, and I should talk to my doctor about it. So, I did. When I explained what I was doing, and my question, the good doctor proposed that I continue what I was doing with the 12 steps, stay off the lithium, for now, but visit him once a month, and talk about what’s going on. I did that, and after a few months, we both agreed that the 12 Step approach seemed to be working, and perhaps I didn’t need the lithium, after all.
This has continued to be the case, for 32 years since that all happened. There are times, though, that I get a little out of kilter. This is where the 10th Step really helps pull me back to center, and the 11th Step gets me back on track, with the spiritual centering it provides. The 10th Step is, “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admitted it.” The 11th Step is, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us, and the power to carry that out.”
Earlier this week, I found myself in danger of getting too ego-involved. It can happen when things are going really well for us. Our heads swell, illusions of grandeur subtly, imperceptibly, sneak into our psyches, insidiously painting us into corners we might find difficult to escape from. This is how recovered addicts and alcoholics wind up relapsing. They feel trapped, and the only way out is to get loaded.
This is where the daily practice of the steps really is key. We learn to notice when we are off, and to take a look at why we are, and quickly do what we need to do to pull ourselves back to center.
It was pretty heady stuff for me, being tapped by the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety to come over to lead the Office of Management through a difficult transition. He told me he trusted me to be able to do it. Several before me have tried, and as far as he is concerned, failed. Now, I was finally getting my shot. It was a career-defining moment. A big part of me was feeling like I had arrived. As soon as those feelings started to swell up inside of me, I should have been waving big, red “Warning” flags at myself, but it felt so good, and so right, I rode the feeling for a few days. There was so much good will coming my way, from all corners, so many congratulations, so much…too much.
I was doing all the right things for a couple days, but then I was really beginning to feel it, and believe all the great things people were saying, and forgetting what it is that brought me to this point. Humility. Honesty. Groundedness. Fortunately, even when I’m not seeing things right away, life has a way of humbling me. Kind of like that time I wound up playing softball in my White House pants, and getting them all muddy when I sprawled head first into a big, old mud puddle.
This time, it was waking up on the morning I was going to a big off-site meeting with all of the agency leadership, and realizing my hearing in my left ear had gone completely out. I was completely deaf in that ear. On the entire first day of the two day off-site, I was struggling to hear what people were saying in this large room that had funky accoustics to begin with, exacerbated by my sudden hearing loss. Then, to boot, I was experiencing vertigo all day, then really intense vestibular migraines. Confidence? Forget about it. I was really feeling bad, and certain that I was going to blow the whole thing. At the end of the day’s session, that took forever, going well into the evening, I checked into my room, and fell right onto the bed, and put some ear drops in. As I lay there, I realized my emotions were way out of whack. I needed help to get them back in check. That was my first admission that something was wrong – it wasn’t the physical stuff. That was just the manifestation of something deeper going on inside.
It didn’t take long. Maybe 20 minutes later, I went down to the hotel bar, where everyone was relaxing and having a few drinks after a long, hard day. I got a diet coke, relaxed myself, and just chatted with a couple of my fellow executives, no longer feeling all pumped up, but just being Pete. That’s all I could do, all I can be. I’m no great executive who’s going to save the day and do something amazing. If I make a difference, it will take a lot of help from others, and a lot of luck. I know this. I am not superman, not by any stretch. I’m just me, and when I’m not all full of myself, I tend to have a way with people. People like me. They like to do business with me. I treat them well. I like to help.
After a bunch of us went out to eat, and just had a good time, telling stories and enjoying each others’ company - I even spun the Pete Rose Hat Story for a gal who briefly worked for me when I was the acting Deputy CFO a couple years ago, and she loved it – I felt a lot better, and got a good night’s sleep.
The second day went so much better. I was much more humble, wasn’t trying to be anything I wasn’t, and even though I still couldn’t hear a damn thing out of my left ear, was able to step into my role, be an effective leader, and get the difficult work we were there to accomplish done, without trying too hard. It was so much easier. I no longer felt like I might blow the whole thing. My confidence returned. The support I needed was there, and I felt like I was back on track.
I know full well how it might have spun out of control in other ways. It’s what used to always happen to me, before the 12 Steps. I would ride those feelings of greatness, of having arrived, of ego-driven self-centeredness, for all they were worth, and eventually wind up on my ass, wondering how it all happened. It usually didn’t take long for the self-destruction to be complete.
Now, it self-corrects just as quickly. I am so fortunate to have found this way of living. This morning, I’ll go to a meeting, go to the doctor, hope whatever has stopped my hearing in my left ear is something manageable, and then I’ll go to work, and try to be of service to my colleagues, customers, and constituents – what I am there to do, and be. I’ll let somebody else worry about greatness. I just want to have the feeling, at the end of the day, that I was able to help somebody solve a problem, and to be of service. That’ll be a good day.