Boxing With Ghosts
On a Friday morning in November 2017, I found myself alone in a small hotel room in New York City. I had noticed how busy the lobby was on the way back up from the breakfast buffet, but it was quiet on the 22nd floor. The wind sucking through the small opening of the bottom sash provided the audio, and the high-pitched howl didn’t help my mindset.
A few weeks before I had left my home in Los Angeles and chose to land in Manhattan, my childhood home. My fifteen-year marriage hit a speed bump, and we thought it best to take some space and re-calibrate. I was an open wound. Full onset of mid-life crisis, yet I had achieved an unfamiliar state of willingness, the kind that is often born of worn out desperation. I peered into the dark void of the unknown. It scared me. I needed guidance but didn’t know who to ask or how to trust.
I had recently reconnected with an old friend. It happened in a 12 Step meeting. I’d realized that drinking was not helping things and in those rooms, I found relief in the daily ritual. It was a wonderful reunion, the kind of silver lining that often accompanies pain in life. During the years we hadn’t talked she had embarked on a journey of recovery and spiritual growth. It immediately showed in her glow of strength and personality. The renewed friendship at that time provided a trickle charge of electricity.
Back at the hotel, my friend called. “What do you have planned today?” she asked. I had nothing much on my schedule except for an early afternoon trip to the country where I had dinner plans with friends. “You need an action list,” she told me. Not being a fan of lists or direction of any kind, my defenses were up. I was an independent 49-year-old male who cherished his hard-earned rebel stripes. But I listened.
“How about you cancel on your friends, tell them another time,” she suggested. “Isn’t there a later bus you can take? Get into the hotel gym and afterward hit a noontime AA meeting” She continued, “If you are going to be in New York solo for a while, I suggest you register for The Landmark Forum. They have a workshop coming up in December. It will be three and a half days of your life that you will never forget, better than ten years in a shrink’s office.”
Eager to show my friend that I could accept a challenge I agreed to all, including registering for the $800 workshop; seemed cheap compared to rehab.
By the day’s end, I felt fantastic. For a guy who had been depressed for weeks, this gave me a bounce. To successfully execute all items on my action list was a mini success. I wanted every day to feel like this.
The week of the Forum rolled around. I had taken an apartment, so I felt more settled, no more hotels. My friend told me to get prepared for three long days in a cold room. Bring plenty of food, water, a hat and a scarf. She was excited for me. I began to get a little nervous. Long days? I guess I could handle that. Be prepared? I’m a pro traveler. It sounded like a mom’s direction, endearing, but I paid little heed. I’d been taking care of myself since boarding school.
The workshop began on a Friday at 8 am. I received an email that said the days would run until 10:30 pm. Same for Saturday and Sunday. There was also a short evening session on Tuesday. I assumed that these estimates were worst case scenario, and there would be plenty of long breaks.
I was handed a name tag when I arrived on time. I detested name tags, reminded me of corporate meet n greets from my work in sales. I pinned it to my shirt. A Landmark employee told me: go down the stairs, take a right, end of the hall. I entered the room and took a seat. It was a typical hard metal chair with a modest amount of foam, a slight upgrade from the standard folding metal chair I knew from 12 step meetings.
The room had no windows but compensated with hospital fluorescent lighting. I noticed the massive wall to wall rug was clean but not new. There were 150 people nervously assembled by the start time. A stage, a podium, a microphone. A Forum leader introduced herself. We began the day.
The leader spoke and continued for two hours. She talked of breakthroughs, of mending relationships, of thinking differently. The language made sense, but the usage was unfamiliar. When is the first break? I had already gone through half my food and water. I looked around the room. Not my crowd. The AC was blasting, odd for December. I fidgeted in my seat.
The hours went slowly. There was a short break followed a few hours later by lunch centered around course assignments. The Forum leader spoke quickly while writing tons of information on a whiteboard. No notes allowed, we were told it interferes with the process. We were asked to find partners. I didn’t like talking to strangers. I did notice magnetic energy as our Forum leader spoke. She believed in what she was saying, and the conviction helped hold my attention, but my thoughts continued to wander. When is dinner? It was 3 o’clock, and I began to panic. There were still seven hours left according to the program. Landmark employees in yellow shirts stood by the exits.
Finally, we were let out for dinner. Told to return promptly in one hour because there was valuable information in the evening session. If we missed it, the rest of the weekend would be harder to follow. I grabbed my coat, my bag, and headed briskly out to the street.
I texted my friend: Landmark is intriguing, and they say a lot of good things, but it’s all stuff I’ve heard before. If I should be anywhere tonight, it’s in the rooms of recovery. It’s too cold, and I am also hungry. I’ll give it another shot tomorrow. As I descended into the no service depths of the transit system, I checked my phone for a response. She’ll get it, I thought, no big deal leaving a little early, right?
Her response was swift and merciless: You’re leaving early? Ok, so you are going back to your apartment and wallow in your misery? Then don’t call me. I hadn’t realized how much you enjoy being in your pain. Remember that everything you don’t like about that room is what’s holding you back in life!
Yikes. Not the kind of text I like seeing. But screw that! I don’t need another woman in my life telling me what to do. I know what’s best for me. Besides, those hours are inhumane.
I got off the train and went directly to an AA meeting. My people! But the seats felt stiff there too. I couldn’t hear the speaker. The voices in my head were drowning out all other sounds. She’s right they said to me.
After the meeting, I went to the market to get better supplies for tomorrow. As I lay in bed that night in my high thread count sheets, I realized that I had built a life of creature comforts that yielded hollow returns. I deliberately avoided situations or surroundings that might challenge me. I had passed on opportunities for growth for what seemed safe and secure. I was comfortable but miserable. Was the trade worth it? Restlessly, I fell asleep.
The next morning, I showed up at Landmark with a new sense of purpose. Suddenly the leader seemed like she was talking to me. I heard it all. The room didn’t bother me. I was warmer this time with my hat and scarf. The seat was still hard, but I sat still. I was tuned in. Alert.
By the end of the third day, the people in the room were no longer strangers. In fact, they became family. We had sincere and honest conversations. We watched each other cry without judgment. We exchanged numbers. How could I have thought them all so alien only two days earlier?
Landmark showed me that my memory of significant life events was distorted. That I had created “stories” about things that had happened. I saw how for most of my life I had been boxing with ghosts. My intuition was unreliable. I had been right twice out of a hundred times, but I still thought that I had a strong gut instinct. I saw a 50-year-old man get on stage with a girl that had hurt him in seventh grade who he had not seen since. They made amends and embraced. Something opened in me.
The Forum leader spoke about leading life from a place of integrity and authenticity. All we have in life is our word. I realized how loosely tethered I had been to these principles. She said life had no meaning! That the present was all that mattered. It was a stunning and transformational moment. To shake off my preconceived notions of comfort and what I thought was right for me. My sense of uniqueness as a human being had not served me well. I had finally made it a priority to change my thinking above all other concerns. It worked. It was as if I had grown an extra two inches. They told me I could be “unmessable.” I learned to let go, willing to drop old hurts and anger. With the possibility of strength and power realized, I signed up for the next course.
I share this experience to show how sometimes it takes getting so beat down by life that you become willing to change by leaving your comfort zone. I would say to anyone who is in that dark and fearful place to take that step. Ask for help and do what is suggested. Even if the actions don’t follow a clear path at first, the dots will eventually connect to growth and freedom.
And the friend who gently pushed me toward this path? She’s the author of this blog. Thank you, Thayer. I’m forever grateful. You continue to inspire me by pushing past our limits.