The deed is done. Transition to a new circle and cycle, stage and phase of life has begun. It truly is the sadness of a happy time, all against the backdrop of a pandemic. It’s not my script but it is the script I was handed. God’s will not mine be done.
About two years ago I was informed that the building where my office has been for now twenty years had been sold to King County Housing Authority, a housing agency that is not in business to lease office space. I was told that at some point down the line the building would be emptied and converted to housing. As it played out in real time, my plan was to semi-retire at the end of 2019, finish my commitment to my four year men’s group that would be done at the end of June 2020, and then fade into retirement including international travel. I was so OK with that and then in February word came that the building would be shuttered permanently on August 31, 2020. I had been given a hard stop date, a do not pass go end date. My fate was sealed, minus a last meal.
The irony of this story is that I have not worked in the building since March 12 due to COVID-19. Truth be told, the virus helped wean me from my daily attachment. This office space was more than just a place where I worked, it was my space. I’ve been in this space longer than anywhere else I’ve ever been in my entire life and that’s counting my childhood home, anywhere else I’ve lived, and relationships.
This room defined me. Whenever I would talk to someone about my office, either a counselor type, personal friend, or a potential client, I would always say that words can’t describe my office and that you need to see it, it needs to be seen to be understood. For thirteen of the twenty years I was working there as an addiction counselor and for the past seven years my role morphed to recovery coach. Most counselor types have nice offices that create an ambiance of calm, and at a closer look you would see that there would never be anything personal on display, except maybe a credential on the walls or on the bookcase. My office was different. My life was in plain sight. It’s a visual thing to really grasp what I’m saying.
Every inch of wall space was filled with pictures of all of our 300 No More Secrets (NMS) men and 150 NMS women taken at yearly events from 2004 thru 2019. I had fifteen large picnic plus fifteen holiday party pictures on the walls, some as big as three feet by two feet. I had pictures of the thirteen men who got married on my watch and in many of them I was with my wife keeping my promise that I would one day dance at their weddings. I also had photos of five babies that were born to our couples throughout the years. The first baby is graduating High School this year. Whenever someone would ask me what I did for a living I would reply, “I build community.” I would also say that all my successes and my failures were on my walls. My room was a different kind of a space. My room was outside of any conventional norms. My room was me, not just a place I rented and worked. Dismantling this office was difficult. Every item had a story and every story is personal. Blood sweat and tears. Lives changed in this room. People got real and some people ran away.
Over the course of three weeks I asked past clients, now friends, if they were interested in anything from my office. As I looked to give away as much as I could, finding a suitable home for my memorabilia was a priority. During that time twenty NMS folks came wearing masks and keeping social distance to take back to their homes items that had been proudly displayed for years in my work home. With each person who came to visit came a chance to reminisce. Walking down memory lane with each person filled me up inside and somewhat lessened the pain of leaving, and since Covid it had been nearly seven months since I had seen most of these folks live, Zoom has its limitations. I believe in my heart of hearts that the work WE did here in my office will live on, way beyond me.
I didn’t really think that these were twenty goodbyes. We are all connected in a very indelible way. Since the virus, I figured that I’ve been missing about fifty hugs a week. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection! I also took apart the frames of three of the big pictures and mailed them to men out of state. I could only imagine the smiles they invoked when unwrapped. And after all, it was the right thing to do.
NMS is not ending. Next year if there is life after COVID-19 we will once again have a summer picnic, a trip to watch a Mariners baseball game and a holiday party. We currently still have three working men’s groups and the necessary therapeutic help is in place. No More Secrets is not going away even though my office has. This experiment in behavioral change is now more important than ever. My plan it to continue the web page plus my blogs.
I tell people all the time that recovery must be transportable and that you can’t just be well in my office or in my group room. Everywhere you go there you are, and the same must be true with recovery, holding close to your soul that what you do matters. My golden rules about wellness are simple: don’t hurt you and don’t hurt anyone else, stay sane, safe and sober, say what you mean and mean what you say [tell the truth] and be of service to someone else [get out of your own way]. That’s the NMS way.
On Monday August 31, 2020 after the last man came by and we exchanged air hugs, I just sat there looking at the newly barren walls. Then my friend, colleague, and loudest cheerleader, Dr. Hilarie Cash, stopped by. It was her office building first and her faith in me and this concept that got me here twenty years ago. As the door closed behind us, I was wondering what would be heard if these walls could talk, it got me thinking. I had someone take our picture for the last time by the back steps. As the “Grateful Dead” would say: what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Part Two coming soon and remember misery is optional.