(The following is a letter that was sent to my HOME podcast co-host. She read it to me anonymously over the phone and I asked right away if I could please respond to it because the content is so personal to me. The man who wrote it graciously agreed to let me respond.)
I am positive you're extremely busy and may not be reading this note but since I have no other place to turn, I thought I'd try. So, it's been close to 8 months, no booze. In that time frame, I lost my job. Not due to drinking, but rather a merger with another company. I have no desire to drink but it's not getting any easier. I think I've heard you say God won't give us anything we can't handle. There are no coincidences I believe. I have a beautiful wife and three young children. Here's the thing, I feel like I'm dying. It's been three months and I can't find a job in my industry. Everyone is willing to help, but I don't know how they can. It's like, yeah, ah, get me a job. After you stop drinking life doesn't go away. I try to remain positive and put out positive vibes, but I feel like I've hit a dead end. I'm 37, I don't think I can start something new. I've gotten really emotional and I didn't expect that. I thought I would find a job quickly. Not the case. I know the pity party has to stop. What would you do? I ask because you've seemingly done everything you've wanted to. You have this great attitude I would love to emulate but I don't know if I have it in me. Anyways, keep up the great work. I used to get to listen to you and Laura more because I traveled for work, but haven't as often because I'm home with the kids.
This is the third time I’ve ditched my response to your letter and started over. It’s 3:49 a.m. here on the east coast, and I was up for an hour before I finally gave up, got out of bed, and began writing you again. Your letter hit a nerve. I went through so much of this myself and was also married to a man who went through parts of it too. I don’t know exactly, of course; nobody knows exactly what its like to be you. But I know the place, and I’m grateful to be writing to you, even at this ungodly hour.
Before I go on, though, isn’t that kind of miraculous?
That somewhere—however many miles apart we are—someone is trying to reach you? Someone is interested in whispering, Go on, to the part of you that feels like it's dying? And all because you had the courage to send an email?
I know it doesn’t get you a job. But it’s something. In a way, it’s kind of everything—and this is why:
Glennon Doyle said in a recent conversation with us, “All problems are identity problems,” and I believe that's basically true. What she meant by this is all our problems stem from forgetting who we are. You think you are a Husband, a Father, a Director of Operations, a Friend, a Brother, a Stay At Home Dad Who Lost His Job. We believe we are who the world tells us we are, and in the process of living life here, we forget. We forget we are created in the image of the divine (use the Universe here, or spirit, or God, or Higher Power, or if none of those work for you—use what it is you feel when you look at your kids sleeping) and that we are already perfectly whole even as we're broken. We forget we are connected to something bigger, and to each other.
It is a painful but intelligent design: in order to return home, we must first get lost.
I hate when people get all spiritual on me when I have practical problems. It’s the worst. But, there’s a reason for it. Because spirituality is kind of a game until the shit hits the fan and the stakes are high. And your stakes are high now, right? I'm not telling you the answer is God, but I am telling you the answers you seek aren't going to be found in your mind, or intellect, or willpower, or the number of connections you have on LinkedIn. You won't get through this by applying more force, or repeating positive affirmations, or by bucking up and getting over your pity party. You make your way through this by surrendering to it, and then listening for the Truth that's trying reach you in the moments when you feel like you're dying. Underneath the all the fear and pain and 'getting emotional' there are friendly hands trying to work on you.
I know you have some idea what I mean because you're sober. You must feel on some level that it’s a miracle you’re not drinking today—8 months later—even though it may not be easy? If you don’t feel like it’s a miracle, you might at least recognize it as something that’s possible today, when at one time it was not. To get here, you had to at first surrender to a truth I'm guessing was not welcomed or wanted—that drinking no longer worked in your life—and you had to keep listening for the bigger truths that were guiding you when your brain told you small things, like you're a piece of shit, alone, boring, can wait until later to get better, and so on.
This is the same thing.
You’ve lost two big pieces of your identity in a short amount of time: your drinking self and your working self. Having been married to a man who struggled with the loss of a working identity for longer than either of us wanted, I know how significant it is. Yes, it was 2010 and we were in a massive economic crisis. It was really hard for young, new lawyers to get jobs, particularly when they didn't want to practice law. But there was also a private struggle going on inside him that had everything to do with his self-esteem and self-worth, and neither of us were willing to look at the truth about that. I'm not saying there's some deep, dark hidden thing going on in the background of your marriage or your life, Johhny. But I am saying the issue really isn't that you lost your job and can't find a new one. That's just how it's presenting because we are in Earth School. The real issue is that you don't want to be dying when you are.
I want to say, over the years my husband (now ex) got back on track and is now doing very well professionally, which is heartening and important to our family on many levels. But, the best part about witnessing this is not the financial success or the freedoms he’s been able to afford himself and our daughter, but the softness that grew inside the parts of him that broke. We don’t always choose the circumstances that break us, but we do choose our response. We decide whether to harden and shut down to protect ourselves from further pain, or move toward the experience and let it shape us into someone more open, compassionate, and willing. You know the difference—we both know people who’ve gone either way.
You said you can’t start something new at 37, and I wonder where you got that idea? You know how old I was when I got sober? Same as you, 37. You know how old I was when I started a new career? 38. You might jump to say my circumstances must be different than yours in some way, or that I am special, or have secret stashes of money somewhere, or more resources, or…something. But I can assure you I do not. All I have is the gift of sobriety and a hunger to keep going no matter what, and I know you already have one of those things. You're worried you don't have some kind of magic, but you do. If you didn't, you wouldn't see it in others.
There’s a Goethe poem called "The Holy Longing." I don’t pull out often because it’s pretty dark and really powerful. I think this it’s right for you, though. It captures everything I know to be true about what you’re going through in just a few lines at the end:
And so long as you haven’t experienced this:
to die and so to grow
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
You said you feel as though you’re dying, and my dear, you are. Parts of you are dying unto themselves because that is how we go from being someone who exists to someone who lives.
The problem isn't that you're dying, it's that you think dying shouldn't hurt so bad. But it should. Let it.