Before I went to bed last night, I changed my Facebook status to: “Have you ever felt that if today were your last day on earth, you would die knowing that your life has made a positive difference? That's exactly how I feel right now.” When I was deciding what to write about in today’s post, I kept coming back to ideas of shame and inadequacy that permeated most of my adolescence and adulthood.
I’ve never written about this publicly before, but I was sexually assaulted at the age of 9 by a hockey coach, and less than two years later, I was the victim of a vicious sexual assault by two young men in a ravine in North Toronto. I grew up in a very broken and physically abusive home, so I internalized at a young age that I was never good enough. I battled these feelings throughout the next 35 years and attempted to numb them with drugs, alcohol, and later, endurance sports. I realized this past summer that the only hope I had for moving forward was to break free of the people who had always held me back and made me feel inadequate. There’s a lyric in a song entitled “The Conversion of Pear Hart”, by my favourite Canadian recording artist, Jory Nash. His refrain has been buzzing in my head nonstop for weeks, and I think it eloquently expresses my toxic relationship with my birth family. “I’ve left my family a thousand times. Once for certain and the rest in my mind.”
I think I’m in such a better headspace today because I’ve learned to recognize that there are certain things you need to carry forward with you in your life, and equally, there are others that are better left behind because they will only weigh you down. The day after the Boston Marathon last year I was an absolute total wreck—I was incapacitated by what I had experienced the day before on the streets of Boston after I had finished the race, and I was emotionally raw having only disclosed the childhood sexual abuse a few weeks before the marathon. Fast forward to today, and the man you see before you has worked hard to free himself from the shame of the abuse, and the family who had always been an anchor dragging him down—has been left behind where they can no longer hold him back. Just as the song says, I had left my family a thousand times “in my mind”, but now it is for “certain”.
Part of my healing process to come to terms with the abuse in my childhood has involved “going back” to that young boy who was “left behind” and to bring him forward into a place of safety where he has a “voice” and can thrive. As I said before, there are some things that you just need to “carry forward with you in your life”—This is why I’ve decided to return to the Boston Marathon this April and to use it as an opportunity to race funds for The Gatehouse , a treatment centre that offers support to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
I’ve been granted special permission from the race director to run a Double Boston Marathon this year. I will arrive at the Finish Line at 4am on race day and then run the 42.2 km to the official start of the race in Hopkinton, where I will turn around and complete the 42.2 km Boston Marathon with the rest of the runners. I consider one direction to symbolize going back to that place in my childhood, and to that place in last year’s race where the trauma lies, and the second direction is to carry those events forward with me in my life, so that I can thrive, not merely survive.
I promise I’ll never do this again in my blog, but I would really appreciate it if you could head over to my charity page [BY CLICKING HERE] and make a donation. Anything you can do to help raise awareness of this childhood tragedy that reverberates throughout a young person’s life would be appreciated. The statistics are not pretty folks--1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the time they reach age 18. Your financial support is not the only way—you can also help by sharing the link to my Canada Helps Page.
Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local terrain. They were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region, particularly for expeditions to climb Mount Everest. Today, the term is often used by foreigners to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, regardless of their ethnicity. Because of this usage, the term has become a slang for a guide or mentor in other situations.
So you’ve decided to run your first big race—a 10k, half marathon, or possibly a marathon. You’ve been scouring the Net for training plans and the perfect apparel. Maybe you’ve even signed up for a running clinic to keep you motivated. In the midst of an endless sea of running advice, a critical consideration is often neglected—Have you lined up a faithful running sherpa?
I turned to long distance running a little over 15 years ago when I decided to finally confront my alcohol addiction and get clean and sober. Since that time, running has been a constant companion that has weathered me through some rather turbulent times in my life. I’ve met some incredible people in the running community, and I’ve pushed myself to physical and emotional limits I never thought possible. Having run 75 marathons and quite a few ultra marathons, I’m often asked how I have been able to keep training and racing at such an intensity. There is no doubt that you can’t cheat the distance and you need to put in the miles in your training, but a critical part of my longevity is the tireless support of my lovely wife, Mary-Anne, affectionately known as my running sherpa.
If I had to write a “job description” a running sherpa, it would probably sound something like this— Wanted: Faithful Running Sherpa
-willing to give up weekends during racing season
-content to wander aimlessly around race expos as I consider purchasing yet again another pair of running socks
-happy to eat pasta 4 nights a week
-forgiving of my inevitable grumpy mood and irritability during my taper before the race
-accepting that 10pm on a weekend really is a “late night” for me
-adept at taking videos with a smart phone as I grunt my way down the homestretch to the finish line
-ready to give me a big hug and a kiss after the race even though I’m a salty, sweaty mess
If you don’t have your running sherpa already lined up, my wife has provided some sage advice on how to cultivate or acquire your very own. Pick destination races that offer a great time to check out a new city or country—preferably ones with excellent shopping and fantastic restaurants. Also, don’t hold up in your hotel room the day before the race saying: “I want to rest my legs before the race.” Remember that running is a family affair and it can be an awesome time to break you out of your comfort zone and explore a new place with your loyal sherpa. Most importantly, remember why you started running in the first place, and be thankful of all of the incredible things you will discover about yourself along the way.
Why not give a “shout-out” to YOUR running sherpa in the comments section below and show your love to the person(s) who always has your back!
I consider myself an optimist, yet at times, I might be guilty of blind willfulness, or even pigheadedness. I was so excited earlier today when I stumbled upon a quote from one of my favorite writers, the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” Pema has an incredible ability to distill her ideas into such digestible bites of wisdom that can easily be applied to whatever I might be working through in my life.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve struggled with my share of demons and trauma. I spent many years battling drug and alcohol addiction, which at its height was further complicated by a diagnosis of manic depression. It really is a chicken or egg scenario as to what came first—the depression or the addiction, but what I am certain of is that had I not sought professional help, I would not be alive today. Those closest to me were relegated to the sidelines as I self-destructed before their eyes. An outsider would look in and see that I had a fantastic partner, a beautiful healthy son, and all the trappings to make a wonderful life, yet I continued to throw it all away. What they didn't know at the time, and what I didn’t acknowledge either, was that the sexual abuse I experienced as a child lay festering and untreated, reverberating throughout my adult life in addiction, depression, and eventually suicidal ideation.
Everything I’ve read about the issues I’ve dealt with in terms of addiction and depression has touched upon the idea of “brokenness”, or at its most humbling, “soul affliction”. I’m not sure if I have the words to express how when you’re a person coming to terms with these issues, reading that you are in some way “broken” can be counterproductive because it either gives you an excuse to perpetuate the self-destructive behaviour or places an insurmountable obstacle in front of you that delays recovery or treatment. It’s coming from this mindset that I am ecstatic to have found the quote from Pema this morning. It’s almost liberating for me to hear that I was never “broken” in the first place, and that being exposed to “annihilation” “over and over” has only made me stronger. I had always believed that the pain I experienced made me somehow terminally unique, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth—suffering is universal. What makes us “unique” is that “indestructible” part of us that remains. I would even argue that this unearthed part in each of us is our most beautiful and authentic self.
As runner, I tap into this each and every day. For me, running is a pure sport because we always reap what we sow. Running is all about pushing our limits in terms of training load, distance, and speed. It doesn’t matter if you’re training for your first 5k or a marathon, you discover who you really are at your point of destruction. Lining up for a race, each of us has discovered his/her “superhero power” in the process of “exposing ourselves over and over to annihilation.” I reason this is why there has been an explosion in the number of people participating in extreme endurance sports. There is no better allegory of life than burning through all of our defences and frailties to be left with that piece of us that can’t be destroyed. I’ll sleep easier tonight in the comfort of knowing that I was never “broken”—I just hadn’t been “found” yet.
With the arrival of another New Year, comes the perennial vow to get into shape, and with this comes the decision to finally take your running seriously. Motivated by the desire to shed some extra pounds, reduce work or family-life stress, or merely the opportunity to make new friends, more and more people flock to their closest athletic store and join a running group to train for their first big race. As a veteran of more than 75 marathons and quite a few ultra marathons, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of the Ten Golden Rules of Running to help with the transition from “weekend warrior” to “avid runner”.
1. There’s only one bad word when it comes to our sport, and that’s “jogging”. Unless you’re comfortable getting the death stare from a member of the running community, don’t use the word: “jog”—and I mean not in its verb form, gerund form, or noun form!
2. There are no shortcuts in this sport. If you show up for your race having done only half the training, be prepared to pay the price. One of the most beautiful qualities of running is that you get back what you put in. Dragging your butt out of bed and showing up for your running group or solo run pays dividends in terms of not only improved performance but also a general feeling of well-being.
3. Brace yourself for this inevitable question from your aunt, neighbour, or a total stranger: “How far is your marathon?” Believe me when I say this, you may not think this is a big deal now, but this question will start to drive you bananas like nails scraping across a blackboard.
4. If you sign up for a race, and you get a race shirt, it’s not “cool” to wear it in the race, or even to wear it before the race. If for some reason you don’t end up doing the race, I believe the proper protocol is to quietly bury the shirt in your backyard. There is one exemption to this rule—It’s acceptable, and sometimes even enviable to wear a shirt for the same race given on a previous year.
5. Our sport has become so popular that in many races, we are herded like unruly animals into race corrals. If this is the case, don’t lie about your pace just to get assigned a higher seeding. You’re not going to win the race, so there’s no sense in causing unneeded congestion in the first 500 meters of the race.
6. If you’re embarrassed about bodily functions, this sport may not be for you. Get used to lining up for porta-potties and marking your neighbourhood trees, buildings, and bushes like a stray dog. Before you know it, you’ll be able to identify all of the public washrooms along your running route—You’ll also have a few faves!
7. Remember the 10% rule is a Cardinal Rule! Increase your weekly milage by more than 10% at your peril. This rule is closely associated with “Rule Number Two”—There are no shortcuts in our sport.
8. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Dress appropriately and you’ll have a much better run regardless of the weather conditions. As a side note, when shopping for running apparel, it’s never a good idea to drag along your spouse or partner. Trust me…It’s worse than shopping for back to school clothes with your mom.
9. Be safe out there! Wear reflective clothing, slow down if the traction is poor, inform someone of your running route, buy a RoadID, run facing the oncoming traffic, and hydrate and fuel your body appropriately.
10. Finally, don’t be a running snob. If you pass another runner while you’re out on your run, smile and wave. If a colleague or a family member asks you about your new addiction, fly your freak flag high! You’re a runner, and you’ve joined the best tribe on the planet!
There is hauntingly terrifying scene in the sci-fi film Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock’s character breaks free from her tether while out on a space walk. It’s horrifying watching her float off into deep, cold space seemingly alone in the universe. Call me a cynic, but I think in some respects, we are all set adrift in this life, and we find strength and hope by tethering ourselves to the loved ones closest to us, to institutions, or to our faith, all in an effort to keep us buoyant in the turbulent times we face. As a recovering alcoholic, I see my sober-self as sitting in a lifeboat. In the almost 17 years I’ve been clean and sober, I have spent a lot of time bailing out my lifeboat just to keep afloat—to stay sober another 24 hours.
What I find most achingly frustrating is that if I let down my guard and allow things to “slide”, I quickly find myself ankle deep in water again. There are certainly no guarantees in this life, but experience has taught me to have trust or “faith” in my ability to ride out another rough patch. It feels as though it hits me right out of the blue on days like today, and it takes every fibre of my being not to just say “fuck it”, and to pick up a drink. Intuitively, I know this won’t help anything, but that knowledge does not inoculate me from these feelings.
In every AA meeting, someone will read aloud “How It Works” from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s one line that always resonates with me: “Remember we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help, it’s too much for us.” The first time I heard this in a meeting it was as though someone else had finally articulated what I had been grappling with my entire life—alcohol’s almost voodoo-like powers over me. I’m convinced that believing that alcohol was some mystical entity to be not only respected but feared, was the cornerstone of me staying sober for my first 10 years. In my evolution as a recovering alcoholic, I have started to question this belief, and I have sought to unlock the mystery of these words.
To assign alcohol the human quality of being “cunning” is in itself problematic. When I think of cunning, I envision a fox sneaking up on a chicken coop or a wily used car salesman. Today I think that this conception is detrimental to me because it reinforces the idea that alcohol somehow has an “agenda” against me. Although this belief does keep me sober at times, it also leaves me feeling sorry for myself because alcohol has in some way targeted me and not other people. Referring to alcohol as “baffling” is also counterproductive because it assigns a “mystical” quality to alcohol. Even my limited knowledge of the science of addiction informs me of the chemical responses of addiction that take place in an addict’s mind. Booze, itself, is not “baffling”—what’s baffling is my desire to numb my feelings with the depressant drug known as alcohol.
Every addict I’ve ever met hopes that someday the obsession to use the drug will be lifted. I am only speaking for myself when I say that I believe that this obsession will remain with me until I draw my last breath. I believe my respite from the addiction does not lie in prayer, meditation, or therapy. Instead, it involves a process of continually pealing back the layers of what triggers me to want to pick up a drink or a drug. In other words, my addiction is but a symptom not the root problem.
All of this brings me back to the funk I’m in today. What I’m left with is reflecting on what possibly triggered my desire to pick up a drink again. I’m not going to lie to you—sometimes I would do anything just to get out of my head for a little while. Trying to explain that feeling to a non-addict is like trying to describe a sunset to someone who has been blind since birth. I do find solace in running, and to a lesser extent in yoga too, but without drugs and alcohol, I no longer have my “escape hatch” or “safety valve” to quiet my mind. I do appreciate all of your messages of support and encouragement, but I feel that my primary purpose in writing this blog is to “keep it real” and to allow you a brief window into my journey. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, or if you, yourself, are in the throes of addiction, all I ask is that you be patient and kind because love, be it “self love” or “love for another” is really the only balm to soothe the pain of addiction.
This may sound weird to you, but the other day I was thinking about what two items I would like to be buried with when I die.—It’s definitely a morbid thought; however, if you really give it some consideration, you might be surprised how difficult it is to make this decision. The two things I would chose are my wedding ring and my first Boston Marathon Medal. The wedding ring was really a “no-brainer” because I think my greatest accomplishment has been my 27 years with my wife Mary-Anne. We’ve ridden a lot of of ups and downs and raised one incredible son, of whom we are incredibly honoured and proud. When I was going through a particularly difficult period in my life this past summer, Mary-Anne wrote an anniversary card to me in which she said: “Who knew when we said for better or worse, that it would be the worse that made us better.” Now you might understand why my wedding ring is so valuable to me.
The other constant in my life has been my running, so the thought of spending eternity with my first Boston Medal around my neck just seems fitting. Over the years, I've learned a lot about myself through running, and I thought I would share some of my “runner’s wisdom” with you now.
1. What you did yesterday impacts what happens today.
Having run 75 marathons and a few ultra marathons, I can’t tell you how many self-induced painful long runs I have had over the years because I opted for a second helping of dessert the night before, or because I decided to stay up later than I should have. Training for a marathon is like a game of chess—If you’re not thinking two steps ahead, be prepared to pay the price.
2. I have an intimate relationship with all of the raccoons, sex trade workers, tomcats, and newspaper delivery drivers in Toronto.
I’m up and out of the house for my run every day by 4:30am. I know that sounds “insane” to most of you, but it’s the most beautiful time of the day. Heading out the door early allows me to have the streets pretty much to myself, so even on snowy, icy days, I can charge down the street where the traction is better. As an added bonus, I take in the sunrise most mornings—When I’m lying on my death bed, I’d much rather have all those sunrises in my memory than the hours of extra sleep I’m missing.
3. It’s always a good idea to protect the bits.
I’ve seen too many people crossing the finish line of races with blood-stained shirts because they neglected to take preventative action. I never leave the house for a run, of any distance, without putting bandaids over my nipples. Speaking of “protecting the bits”—As a male runner training in -35 degree conditions, I’ve learned that you can never protect “the boys” enough. In the winter, I wear running briefs with a windbreak panel in the front, but I also shove a plastic bag down between my briefs and my tights. I love those bags that they use to wrap our newspaper in—works like a charm!
4. Pay it forward and say thanks.
I’m honoured to live in an area with so many races to choose from, so for each of the past 5 years, I’ve run 9 or 10 marathons a year. I make sure I “give back” to the running community by doing at least one of those races every year as a “Pace Bunny”. I love running with a big group and keeping them motivated and entertained along the race route. I also make sure to thank all the police officers along the course directing traffic and keeping us safe, but best of all, I try to high-five the kids cheering us on along the sidewalk.
5. Sometimes it’s not bad to get lost.
Wherever we travel, I make sure to head out for my morning run. I think it’s the best way to connect to a new environment and discover the “real” sense of place. That being said, over the years I’ve been stopped in my tracks by a majestic buck, chased by a guard waving an M16, stalked by a rabid coyote, had my head attacked by a threatened bird, and my all time favourite—had an electrocuted squirrel fall off a wire and hit me in the head. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that my training runs are not a race—I always have time to stop to admire a gorgeous sunrise, be amazed by crashing waves on a beach, stare back at cows in a field, check out a potential restaurant for dinner in Manhattan, or simply be proud of myself for getting my ass out the door for another day!
Last night, I visited my eldest sister in the hospital, where she lay recovering from open-heart surgery. By nature, I’m a hypochondriac, so any time I find myself in a hospital, I have a tendency to obsess about my own health instead of focusing on the individual I’m visiting. I’m not going to lie to you, as that did happen again last night, but something else was foremost on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about who would be visiting me if it were the one lying in that hospital bed. I’ve written on many occasions about my strained relationship with my birth family, so it comes as no surprise that I’m not really sure if I would want them to be around my hospital bed. It did cause me to pause, and to think about friends in my life, and what sort of relationship I have with them.
In his book “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships”, Geoffrey Greif divides friendships into 4 categories that I think we can all identify with--Must Friends, Trust Friends, Rust Friends, and Just Friends. Our “Must Friends” comprise our inner circle, and they are the people we trust with our darkest secrets. For me, this intimate group includes people who have come and gone in my life. I would even hasten to say that with the exception of my wife, no one else has been constantly present in this select group. The second category, “Trust Friends”, includes those in our life with the utmost integrity. These are the people you turn to with certain issues, but you typically don’t spend a lot of time with members of this group. I would place my friends from my addiction recovery program, and most recently, other survivors of childhood sexual abuse into this group. I have a special bond with these friends that I don’t even have with wife. Despite sharing a very intimate and vulnerable part of myself with this group, we rarely socialize outside this context. “Rust Friends” include all those peripheral friends that have been with you for what seems like forever. They are like that old chair sitting in the corner of your living room—You don’t really think about it unless it’s broken or suddenly, no longer there. The final group, “Just Friends” are the people we are thrown together with due to circumstance. They include other parents you see at your child’s school functions, neighbours you socialize with at community events, and even people you might share a hobby or passion with. I’m fortunate to have had a few “Just Friends” evolve into “Must Friends” over the years.
The older I become, the less tolerant I am for “meaningless”, or “superficial” relationships. Gretchen Rubin, the author of “The Happiness Project” suggests an interesting activity to help analyze friendships in our lives. On a piece of paper write all the people you consider friends and group them into shared clusters. Highlight anyone’s name whom you consider a “connector”, someone who has brought other people into your life. When I did this, I discovered that the “connectors” in my life are indeed amongst the most important people to me. Sadly, they are also the people I most take for granted—Maybe it’s time I let these individuals know how important they are to my well-being and sense of belonging.
As I started to go through my list of friends, I decided to assign them labels or subcategories. There were people I think of as “leaders”, those who I aspire to be like. I had “mirror friends”—people who reminded me of myself, and to whom I most identify. I think we all have what is referred to as a “trophy friend”, the person who makes you feel “cooler” just because you know him/her. One of my favourite labels was the “vicarious friend”. I assigned this name to the people in my life who seem to travel in a different “orbit” than I do. When my wife and I were new parents trapped at home with a baby, these were the carefree friends who traveled, stayed up late, and seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. The remaining people on my list included those people I often avoid because they are “gossips”, “energy vampires”, or “emotional Eeyores”.
When it comes right down to it, I think friends are like cookbooks—You definitely need more than one because you really only identify with certain parts, or qualities, in each one. Bernard Meltzer, the late US advice columnist, once said: “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” The last, and I think the most important category of friendship, is what I refer to as your “lifeboat friend”. This is the one person you would want in your lifeboat—The person you’d want to be headed towards a desert island with, or the person with whom you'd want to spend the last hour of your life. Twenty-seven years later, I’m more confident than ever to say that Mary-Anne is not only my wife but also my best friend—my “lifeboat friend”. Talk about having “friends with benefits”…
The Holy Grail of long distance running is qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon. Every April for the past 116 years, runners have gathered in the sleepy little town of Hopkinton to line up for one of the most brutal foot races on the planet. On April 21st, I will be returning to run my 9th Boston Marathon, but this year’s race is particularly special.
Many amateur runners spend their entire life trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a goal that becomes increasingly elusive as the race organizers continuously tighten up the qualifying standard. The course itself is not particularly pretty; the entry fee is astronomical, not to mention the inflated cost of hotel rooms on marathon weekend! If you talk to anyone who has run Boston, (s)he will tell you how challenging and technical the course is. It starts with several miles of relentless downhill that turns your quads into jello. Just when you get some relief from that, you enter the Newton Hills, cresting on “Heartbreak Hill”, when you hit what is commonly referred to as “The Wall”.
At this point, you are probably asking yourself, “Why is JP going back there for more of this insanity?” Well….. I’ll try my best to convince you that I’m not “crazy”.
I started running marathons about 15 years ago—It was my attempt to take up a new “addiction” while battling another addiction, alcoholism. I trained for my first marathon with two other gentlemen I had met in my AA meetings. We would get together every Sunday morning and do our long training run together, but really it was an opportunity to whine, laugh, and belly-ache about how bloody hard it was to stay sober. Something “magical” happened during that training cycle. We learned to rely on each other, and we started to show our families that we could actually follow through on something for a change. All three of us managed to qualify for Boston at our first marathon, and we celebrated after the race with rice pudding and not beer! Things had definitely changed in my life.
I’ll never forget my first Boston Marathon experience: walking into the most massive race expo I’d ever seen, slipping on my first Boston Marathon race jacket, walking around downtown Boston amidst a sea of boney-assed runners and their families, boarding the yellow school bus to be shuttled out to Hopkinton, sitting around on the grass trying to quiet the butterflies in my stomach, walking towards the corrals about 45 minutes prior to the race, singing the American national anthem as an F-16 buzzed overheard, winding my way along the race route lined with almost a million spectators screaming encouragement, seeing the Citgo sign in the distance marking the one mile to go mark, turning onto the homestretch on Boylston, and finally feeling the weight of my first Boston Marathon medal hanging around my salt-stained neck.
Three weeks before last year’s Boston Marathon I disclosed to friends and family that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. A few days before my wife and I were to fly down to Boston, I registered for a support group at a treatment centre that specializes in working with adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I was so eager to just get to Boston and “escape” all the emotions that were surrounding me at home. As you all know, none of us expected the tragedy and horror that would mark the Boston Marathon on that sunny Monday afternoon. I had already finished my run, showered, and had just gone back onto the street to grab a bite to eat with my wife when the bombs went off. The devastating events that I witnessed, coupled with my disclosure of sexual abuse, sent me into a PTSD spiral that resulted in my taking a 4-month medical leave from work.
I’m heading back to Boston this year with a goal of not only putting some personal demons to rest, but also with a special mission to raise money and awareness for the treatment centre here in Toronto that has given me my life back. My plan is to arrive at the Finish Line of the marathon at 5am on race day, run the 26.2 miles to the Start Line, and then turn around and run the marathon with everyone else. One way is to undo the past, and one way is to move forward.
I’d like to end this post with a poem that I wrote 3 days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Like so many others, I was grappling with trying to understand what could have motivated two young men to carry out such a brutal act.
"Patriots Day" (by: JP Bedard)
You arrived to a place much better than this
Escaped fear, bombs, and gunfire
For much needed bliss
You were looking for freedom
A simple respite
Instead you found resistance,
Incomprehension, and fright
So you built it day after day
That weight on your shoulders
Made you push us away
Grasping out of desperation
For the American dream
Got a wife, built a life
But things were not as they seem
Imported a loathing
Bred from abroad
Nothing that comes from Allah or God
Vindictive and evil
Your cold heart became
Seeking to kill, damage, and maim
A plan you did hatch
With your brother conscripted
Attack on the day of patriots
When our spirits are lifted
Along sleepy streets the families did come
Cheering on comrades for this heralded run
Meanwhile a dark shadow crept over
This innocent crowd
The bombs burst the innocence
Jarring and loud
We learned that your isolation
Has come with a cost
Bodies were strewn
Our innocence lost
From the blood rose heroes to the fore
While we all held our breath
Lest a patriot, even the score
Grieving we tried to comprehend
Where your evil was born
Secure in knowing,
You planted only strength
Neither hatred, nor scorn
A lesson we seek
But a moral we find,
Do unto others,
Be gentle and kind
Next April we will take to the streets yet again
With each step we will honour
Our most dear fallen clan
The simple fact that I write a blog is endemic to my being part of the “Me Generation”. With the ever burgeoning globalization and homogenization of technology, comes the fear that we are losing our sense of individuality, so it’s not all that surprising that we are desperate to carve out our own space, or identity, in this sea of uniformity. We are the most photographed, self-promoting generation in the history of civilization. One need only look to Facebook, the blogosphere, Twitter, and all the other social media to witness our eagerness to have a voice—a presence—in society.
The significance of narrative can not be understated as a thread that unites us to our past, our present, and our future. Some people choose to record “their story” in writing, others carry their story inside, but today, more and more people, like me, are choosing to wear “their story” on their body. Tattoos are no longer the purview of sailors and members of the fringe society; you are just as likely to see a tattoo on a “soccer mom” as you are on a punk rocker.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Americans spend an average of $1.6 billion annually on tattoos. The total percentage of Americans (all ages) who have at least one tattoo is 14%, but that number jumps to 40% in the 26 to 40 age bracket. 29% of respondents said that their tattoos make the feel “rebellious”, and 31% said tattoos make them feel “more sexy”.
Anyone who has a tattoo will attest to how addictive they are. Entering a tattoo parlour is like entering an inner sanctum—it really does have the aura of a “spiritual” or ritualistic experience. I love walking into a studio knowing that when I leave, another part of my story will be written on my skin. I think there are definitely two types of people in the world: those who have or would like a tattoo, and those who believe you’re an idiot for getting a tattoo—There really is no middle ground on this issue.
I got my first tattoo almost 20 years ago, when I was in my rebellious period, and I was a full-blown alcoholic. I really did get this tattoo as an impulse—a “screw you” to the world of conformity. I’ve since had that tattoo, a trinity symbol, covered up and incorporated into a larger Celtic design on my shoulder. I love my tattoos because they serve as a “road map” of my life, a portable photo album of where I was, or who I was, at different points of my life. One of my favourite tattoos is a “Roadrunner” that a I have on my calf. My wife picked out the design and gave it to me as a birthday present as a recognition of how transformative running has been to both my physical and mental well-being.
I often refer to myself as a “recovering Catholic”, having been the product of an alienating and repressive Catholic upbringing and education. Today, I align myself with many Buddhist teachings, so we have more than a dozen Buddhas around our house. I thought it only fitting to have a big Buddha tattooed on my back to remind me that I’m never alone, even in the darkest periods of my life. When I got back to Canada after running the prestigious Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa, I got a tattoo of the race logo and my number on my bicep as a reminder of an experience that wrenched me out of my comfort zone. On the inside of my other bicep, I had the word “Gratitude” inked when I celebrated my 10th year of sobriety. As a recovering alcoholic, I like to remind myself as often as possible how “grateful” I am to have been given the grace of sobriety and transformation.
In April of last year, I disclosed to friends and family that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I felt I needed to mark the significance of this life event by having a tattoo of a Buddhist lotus flower placed on my arm. The lotus is revered in Buddhist tradition because it is a beautiful delicate flower that grows out of the mud. For me, I see my life today as a manifestation of beauty and empowerment that has grown out of the ugliness of the trauma from my childhood. Starting from my wrist and surrounding the lotus and cascading all the way up my arm, are many colourful stars that remind me not to take life so seriously and to keep looking up at the wonder above.
Every time I sit down at the computer to write another post for my blog, I wrestle with two recurring questions: Why would I want to expose my scars, fears, and hopes to others? … and … What good could a reader garner from coming along on this journey? I’ve written before about my belief that happiness does not come from accumulating wealth or status, but rather from making authentic connections with those around us. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the clerk toiling away in a cubicle, the one thing you have in common with everyone else on this planet is that you are “broken” in some place in your life, and thus, you are not immune to suffering. By opening a dialogue with you, I’m shedding a light on the darkest corners of my thoughts, and quite often, readers allow me into those recesses in their mind.
In AA meetings and literature, you hear the phrase “clearing out the wreckage of the past” to describe the housecleaning necessary to move forward in life. When I first sobered up, this process primarily involved coming to terms with behavioural patterns that feed my addiction, and also making amends to various people I had harmed through my addiction.
Once again I feel that it’s time to clear a little more of that “wreckage” from the past. With increased self confidence, has come the recognition that I no longer want to be weighted down by toxic relationships in my life. We all have debilitating relationships that limit our spiritual, physical, or emotional well-being. It’s not always easy to identify an insidious toxic relationship, but the metric that I’m starting to rely on comes down to one simple question: “When I’m around this person, do I feel compromised in any way?”
The word “toxic” has its roots in the mid-17th century: from medieval Latin "toxicus”, meaning “poisoned”. I identify a relationship as “toxic” when it drains me in some way instead of nourishing me. I apply the term “toxic relationships” to my dealings with not only people, but also substances, and institutions. An immediate warning sign for me that I might be in a toxic relationship is the physical sensation that I am suffocating or even worse--trapped. My mind often plays a trick on me by trying to convince me that even though I may not be happy with this relationship, the risk of losing it would bring even more dire consequences.
It’s natural for every relationship to wax and wane, but when I’m honest with myself, it’s usually fairly obvious when a relationship has turned “toxic”. I have a mental checklist that I run through to determine if I might be better off terminating the relationship:
1. The predominate feeling is one of “shame”, I’m left never feeling good enough.
2. The thought of this relationship brings “dread”, “duty”, or “obligation” instead of “joy”.
3. The “schizophrenic” me appears—and by that I mean I’m never able to be my “authentic” self when I’m around this person, institution, or substance.
4. There’s a distinct power dynamic at play, in which I’m not encouraged to change, grow, or evolve.
Even though I’m 16 years clean and sober, as a recovering addict, I need a daily reminder that I have a toxic relationship with drugs and alcohol. My mind constantly tries to convince me that I don’t have this problem anymore, but I must be vigilant never to enter into this “dance with the devil” again. Ironically, although AA was the cornerstone of getting my life back on track, at times, it too has been a toxic relationship. Being around 12-step meetings can be draining, frustrating, and downright depressing. Over the years, I find that I check in and out of AA whenever I need a “recovery fix”, but I distance myself from getting caught up in the “recovery machine” that many people fall prey to because they fail to build a life outside the 12-step meetings.
Two years ago I had to come to terms with the most difficult toxic relationship in my life—my interactions with my mother. I’ve spent too many hours with therapists and psychiatrists hashing out the issues with my mother to bore you with an itemized list here. What I really want to get across is how gut-wrenching it is to have to admit that even the most primal of relationships can turn “toxic”. Whenever I was around my mother, I felt so much inner turmoil that I made myself physically ill. Since breaking off contact with her almost two years ago, I have struggled daily with all of the societal shame and baggage for no longer loving the person who gave me life. Believe me, I am no “poster child” when it comes to mental health, but I am certain of one thing—the initial discomfort in freeing myself from a toxic relationship, which at times may be debilitating, pales in comparison to the liberation and self-respect I gain.
I’d like to end with a little inspirational quote a friend recently posted on Facebook. “I want to be your favourite hello and your hardest goodbye.” I’m going to start to use this as a guide to help me from becoming someone else’s toxic relationship.