inappropriately appropriate

I was told four years ago by a mental health professional that perhaps a future goal of mine should be having “appropriate relationships” with people. Say what?

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This meant behaviors like blackmailing friends to do what I want, co-dependently controlling those around me and defaulting to martyr people pleaser mode would have to stop. Also getting the heave-ho in this quest for appropriateness? One night stands, relationships built on substances and friends acquired because of their status.They would have to be replaced by giving to others without wanting something in return, not dominating conversations with overblown emotions and generally being more considerate. This all seemed pretty difficult especially not letting emotions steamroll my whole life. When you grow up in alcoholism land, explosive crying, insane rages of anger and non-stop arguing are just kind of the norm. I learned it early and practiced it all throughout my 30s. Emotions, either of the crazy variety or the extreme repressed flavor, could become weapons in relationships and I wasn’t afraid to use them to get what I needed. Also, when you’re high and drunk for a couple of decades, the concepts of normal and appropriate become incredibly warped. You mean not everyone throws electronic devices at their boyfriends? My bad. So re-learning how to be a better friend, husband, brother and son has been a journey just like my recovery.  The biggest thing I’ve learned and have to relearn pretty regularly is that not everything is about me.

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Hard to believe but it is true. Dominating situations with emotions, personal drama and personal wants is the oldest of old behavior and something that needed to go. Teenage histrionics were something fitting at the time but in my late 30’s they were just pathetic. I’ve learned this isn’t about ignoring how I feel. Quiet the contrary. It’s about breathing and honestly assessing situations before I let emotions drive my bus into the Grand Canyon. The other thing this mental health person told me was I had to remember that no one could make me feel anything. What. A. Revelation!!! If I was in charge of my emotions, I could no longer blame others for making me feel certain things and therefore escape accountability for my actions. Again, this was another tall order. But if I wanted relationships built on love and honesty, I had to knock it off.

Today, being the married man I am, I have lots of opportunities to practice (and forget) these lessons. While my small group of friends and I indulge in the occasional bawdy, inappropriate conversation, I’m proud to say these relationships are appropriate. Free of guilt, ridiculous expectations and questionable motives, my friendships are simply allowed to be fun, supportive and precious. In my day job, I do a lot of social media marketing for clients on Facebook, Twitter and the like. I recently had to explain to a client the difference between ‘personal’ and ‘social”. Social is a lively Facebook thread about something timely from pop culture, for example. Personal, and therefore maybe not the kind of thing you should post, would be things like posting photos from a recent neck boil operation or the details of your divorce. As we discussed this delicate art of being able to express personality and humor without crossing into inappropriateness, it dawned on me I was the one being asked for advice on this kind of thing. Me, the former master of disaster relationships! Talk about a change. My friend the mental health professional would be so proud.

Stay.

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“I’m so happy you’re here. Now, STAY!”the lady with a billion years of sobriety told me on January 2nd. Stay. Of all the heartfelt things people said to me after the meeting the recent afternoon wherein I picked up a chip celebrating 4 years of sobriety, “stay” was the most profound. Just typing that makes my eyes well up and my chest feel heavy. We tell our furry friends like that handsome devil pictured above to stay because we don’t want them to run off and because we want them to stick around and not get hurt. There was time I would have thought getting such a command would have been insulting. Now being told to “stay” sounds like something honorable indeed.

Simple to say or write down, to “stay” sober or in recovery is far from easy. I want to stay at the bar or stay miserable but stay and get better? That sounds really tough. Yet somehow that is exactly what happened. I’m not sure why I’ve stayed in recovery. Probably because I was finally in enough pain to stick around and see if I could get help. By nature, I am vanishing act which is to say I have always sought and found ways to disappear. Whether it was hiding under the stairs in a secret room in my grandparent’s house, concealing notes from creditor’s in junk drawers  or cramming ecstasy down my throat, I am a master of not being here and not dealing. Staying and being present in the sober world, frankly, sucks sometimes. Not having the option to check out means I have to really experience life’s most horrible, most boring and most uncomfortable moments; straight up and with no chaser.

The kicker is that by staying and being able to walk amongst the living not stinking like a tequila processing plant is that I also get the good stuff too. I recently sat in auditions for the new show I have opening this spring trying to jump out of my skin with excitement. Here were these ridiculously talented performers saying my stupid words and making the whole thing sound just amazing and sitting next to me was my brilliant husband. How did this happen to the former waiter who was trying to drink and snort himself off the planet a mere 4 years ago? I guess the not surprising and maybe not incredibly deep answer is: I stayed. I kept trying. I kept making mistakes. From couch surfing and chicken sitting to HIV clinics and detox meetings, I stayed. Most incredibly, no matter what shitty news came my way, I stayed sober and never picked up. Again, I’m not sure how a lifelong hider transformed into a stayer, but I’m glad I did.

Speaking of staying, this blog is staying put too. I took sometime off to wear my increasingly large and all-encompassing playwright hat but I’m back and it feels good. I have lots of fun stuff happening in 2013 including a new ebook, an essay collection, multiple theater offerings and lots more blogging. In closing, I’m terrible at advice and never follow it in my own life until its too late but I will say this: If you’re going through something difficult and want to run the opposite direction, trying staying right where you are first. Because as it was said to me and I mean this “I’m glad you are here. Now STAY!”

little old normal me

“The important thing is to go below the clichés to touch the texture of your experience. Your mind is hungry to be alive. You give us that gift by laying down your true mind on the page. We read it and you open up fields of our own imagination.”

Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Sometimes I need Natalie Goldberg to write. I always need coffee. I  always need to shower first.  I often need music. But only in tricky times do I call on the writing goddess that is Natalie Goldberg to help get me started. And she always delivers. The quote above this Pegasus thing (initially chosen for its title but made the cut because I actually started to like it) is in response to a student of her’s who worried that she couldn’t write a memoir because her life was too “normal.” In a way only she can do, Goldberg assured this student and then readers of her book that all  true experiences have worth. This passage, entitled “Ordinary”, really spoke to me today.

I’m in the process of reorganizing this here blog and my web presence in general and naturally when projects which require sensibility and objectivity arise, I like to slip into something less comfortable like my old buddy self-doubt. Like the student in the chapter, I’ve been worried about being normal. Now I’m secure enough to know my multiple diseases and inherent sparkly self are enough to keep me out of permanent beige town. But what if I’m too quirky that it becomes annoying? Or what if I run out of clever things to say (perish the thought!). What if my life has stopped being crazy and I have nothing left to write about? Goldberg answered all of that and essentially told me to “shut up and keep going.”

And if you think about it-normal is an adventure for people like me. After decades of self-created drama, the challenge today lies in living the truth. Things like calling people back, following through on plans, paying bills are out of the norm for me. In addition to honoring my day-to-day experiences, I need to embrace “normal” life and go against my programming to be, dare I say it, happy! Talk about drama and the ultimate fish out of water story! I owe it to myself to keep going because this normal adventure is really interesting.

So if you just paid your phone bill or cleaned your house or showed up to work on time today, congratulations! If you are used to living in calamity and uncertainty and today your life is pretty quiet, I salute you! If you can now be counted on and trusted, way to go! You are deliciously, unabashedly normal. And I think that’s pretty spectacular.

Dads, pelicans & the people who pull you through

When walking trainwrecks like myself suddenly emerge from the decades of chaos looking like normal human beings, it’s no small thing. I would love to say that I pulled myself up from own bootstraps. Sadly, I cannot. The truth is, as attractive as they sound, I’ve never owned boots with straps. But the real truth is it took a thousand hands to pull me back up.  My dad and my grandfather were two of the dozens of people who did just that.

To really know this situation and where I’m coming from I better explain myself. I was prompted to spill this out on the page because of Father’s Day and the 15th anniversary of my grandfather’s death which is on the 18th. I know, I know. I’ve only been sober for 3 and a half years so how in the hell could my grandfather have helped me?  Believe it or not, it was his spirit and life example that really kept me going. Back in 2009, it had been 12 years since he died. I never really gotten over it and numbing myself with drugs and alcohol for years had insured that I never would. So naturally when I got sober all of that stuff I never dealt with was just siting there saying, “Helloooo! Remember us?” like little orphans I’d given up, now back to live with me forever.

On the anniversary of his death, I was walking around Marina Del Rey and looking at the water. I talked to my mom earlier on the phone and she reminded me what day it was and she said my grandfather would be so proud of me. Naturally, at five months sober this made me burst into tears but so did that ASPCA commercial with Sarah McLachlan and poems about Paul Cezanne. My grandpa died of a heart attack while fishing with one of his best friends so being by the water and watching pelicans grab fish out of the ocean was the perfect place for me to be on that day. I remember feeling the breeze and praying to him, whispering “thank you” then “please help me” followed by “I love you.” My grandfather was as close to a saint as one could get so I knew if anybody could hear this messge-chant-prayer, it was him. Ironically (or not), it was my grandfather who helped my dad get sober and get to AA. Like I said, even if he wasn’t alive I was  absolutely talking to the right guy.

My dad, the police officer for 25 years, pulled me through in a way that was only he could. With less than 90 days sober, he impressed upon me that I was going to be screwed if I didn’t change everything about my life. He didn’t do it subtly or with kid gloves and he seriously annoyed me. But I received the message. This was a guy, after all, who had to get sober while in a highly stressful job on the police force while raising four kids. He knew what he was talking about. further  on in my journey, my dad was a total rock. I didn’t know what to do when I found out that I was HIV positive and my dad said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to make sure you’ll be okay” even though he himself was worried and saddened by the news. Part of his job for so many years on the force was saving lives. I can tell you firsthand, he’s really good at it.

Later that year, I took a marine biology class and learned something about the pelican I watched that teary day on the pier. The California Brown Pelican was nearly wiped because of ingesting poisonous chemicals but thanks to thousands of concerned people, he had come back. Now, the pelican is thriving with numbers  near 750,000. This bounce back from near extinction was something I totally related to. I guess the pelican-filled memory laden point I’m trying to make is just this: thank you Dad, grandpa Bob, and everybody else who in some way shape or form said, “You are going to be okay.” You were right. And I couldn’t do any of this without you.

I’ve Got it All Figured Out! (And that’s a problem)

Once upon a time, there was a hard-drinking, coke snortin’ waiter in Los Angeles who would go to great lengths just to be right. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Brainy Smurf. But in his never ending quest to be right, this guy was equally as annoying.

Give yourself 100 points if you figured out that pain in the ass know-it-all is none other than me. Yes, nearly as much as I enjoyed being drunk, I loved being right. I adored knowing more on a topic than you. I enjoyed making better decisions than you. And I loved when you were wrong. Like really embarrassingly wrong so I could say, “I knew it!!!” I always knew that you were going to break up with your boyfriend and I knew that you said the wrong name of the place we once had brunch ten years ago. I just knew that you didn’t know who directed that movie we watched on TV. I knew you were gonna mess up that job interview. And I knew that your life was a bigger disaster than mine. But lucky for you– I also knew how to fix it!

Funny. No one ever took my advice or did exactly what I said. Hmm. It couldn’t possibly be because even the most effed up folks in my life knew on some level that I was full of hot air and that taking my advice on how to run their lives would be like taking low-fat cooking suggestions from Paula Deen.  Nah. That couldn’t be it.

This “colorful personality trait” or flaming character defect depending on how delusional I am at any given time, has peaked it’s gnarly head out recently and said, “Helloo!!” and I’m not glad to see him. In fact, I think it’s pretty ugly. I’m in several creative work situations where I have to listen to others, bend on my opinions, let things go and collaborate. Lately in these situations, I have been acting like I know best. Like my way is the only way. In other words, I’m acting like a dickhead. This stubbornness and inability to work with others really takes a toll on me today. When I “get like this”, I’m overly passionate and misdirected and angry about things that aren’t worth my explosive behavior. Yeah, it’s admirable to fight for what you believe in but it’s also courageous to listen and work with others. So after days of wanting to be right and show everybody I had the right answer, I let it the fuck go. My psyche operates the best when I’m at a place of “I don’t know.” Once my chokehold on being right was let go, I instantly felt better. Spiritually. Mentally. Physically.

I got sober with a guy who used to always say in meetings, “I don’t know shit!” He repeated it like a prayer or a battle cry or sometimes like he was screaming it at himself. Mainly, it was a reminder that no, I do not know everything and yes I need help. And that my old ways never worked. Sobriety has taught me these things. It’s also taught me that when I forget these things I can also go back to the beginning and keep trying. So that’s where I am today. I’m Sean Paul Mahoney, a writer and a person who doesn’t know shit. And I’m okay with all of that.

Expert Advice Wanted- Especially My Own.

I don’t believe in experts. In fact, I sort of detest them.  Now people who are knowledgeable in things I have no idea about, I can respect. But self-appointed chuckleheads who know more about everything than you do make me nuts. As usual, it’s because my own know-it-all  tendencies drive me bananas. If you give me just a glimmer that you need me to tell you what to listen to or how to dress or what to think, I’ll take it and run with it like some sort of soul-sucking makeover show from Hell. There’s an extremely controlling part of me that wants to pull the puppet strings behind everything and everyone and God help us if it all doesn’t go my way. So it’s a good practice for me when, like today, someone actually asks for my advice.

More than experts, I hate unsolicited advice. So it’s a unique sort of hell that I’ve found myself smack dab in the middle of the never-ending fountain of unwanted advice coming from the mouths of all-knowing experts: a 12 step program. Everyone in meetings has some idea how you should stay sober, how long everyone’s share is supposed to be, where the chairs should be placed but my ideas about those things are just naturally better. I kid and over time I’ve learned how to take advice, how to listen to other’s valuable experience and how/when to simply nod, smile and scream-pray in my mind for the grace to listen to some whackadoodle’s opinion about how I should look for a job. Seriously, people in the rooms have saved my life so I try to be open for suggestions.

But back to today’s stint as Dear Abby. So a friend from the program asked me for advice about how to deal with a soul-sucking person who demanded too much of her attention. How she thought I know anything about that topic, I have noooo idea but I “dug deep” and drew upon my own experiences as soul-sucker who demands too much attention. We had a great chat, a few laughs and I felt inspired when we left. I have no idea if I helped her but I felt better just spending time with someone who needed somebody to talk to. I was able to tell her stand up for herself and not to worry about it too much because this crazy person probably thrives on drama and conflict (again  I have no idea about what that’s like whatsoever) so by not engaging the problem would take care of itself. What was remarkable about this whole exchange was I cared about what she was growing through and it wasn’t just me spouting off controlling advice that she didn’t ask for. I realize non-soul-suckers without addiction and alcoholism are probably capable of giving heartfelt heeded advice all the time. What can I say? I’m just special.

So let’s hear from you what the best advice you’ve gotten in recovery or in life? I’ve already shared one here and now it’s your turn!