by Daniel D. Maurer
The Realization of a Dream
Recently I was invited by an organization from Moorhead, Minnesota to speak on how recovery has transformed my life. I was excited for the event. And I love road trips. The event was scheduled for a Friday morning in Fargo, North Dakota. What made it extra exciting for me was that my publicist had scored quite a few interviews from different news outlets. One of them was at an NPR affiliate out of Fargo, North Dakota. (Full disclosure: I love NPR and it's the only station I listen to in my car when I'm not listening to music. It's been a dream for me for a long time to be interviewed on an NPR station.)
I had scheduled to leave Saint Paul on Thursday morning so I could be up in time for the interview at the station. The live interview had been scheduled for 3pm, but the producer told me if I arrived with enough advance time, they would record the interview. He assured me that, "If we can record it, it'll take a lot of the pressure off you."
That didn't worry me much. I'm good with interviews. I'm good under pressure.
The drive from St. Paul, Minnesota to Fargo was miserable, as usual. But so the saying goes in North Dakota: "It's so damn windy up here, because Montana blows and Minnesota sucks." (A nice way to place the blame on your neighboring states for the tempestuous misery the northern plains offers—and not just while you're driving, either. The wind seems to suck the life out of you when you just step outside.) In fact, there were several times while I was passing semis, I had to veer to the far left lane of the interstate, simply because I thought the loads the trucks were hauling would topple over on my car.
I made it to Fargo unscathed though—in plenty of time, too. We recorded the interview and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The interviewer was outstanding. She had a calm presence and the conversation flowed freely.
You can listen to the interview here.
Everything Going to Plan
With an NPR interview "in the can," I then met a good friend at the hotel where the group arranged for me to stay at in Fargo, North Dakota. I pitched all my belongings in my room and went out to meet him. After the obligatory greetings and hugs, we first drove over to where I had spent my college years. I had some time to kill and I hadn't been there since 1994, the date of my graduation. I saw at Concordia College all of the construction that has taken place since I graduated (and I got to drop off a couple of my books for them, too). Then my buddy took me to meet the staff at the organization that had put the event together, reGroup.
I learned that reGroup is an outreach for addicts. They work closely with Lost and Found Ministries, a group that was started by a local church to facilitate peer advocacy for people suffering from addiction. We drove up to a plain-looking, brick-sided storefront and parked the car.
When we entered, I was met by about a half dozen smiling faces, handshakes, and introductions. I reciprocated. It seemed all of us were equally thrilled with the prospects for the event scheduled the following morning—I was there as the keynote speaker to support not only their outreach for people seeking recovery, but also my story of transformation would make it clear for everyone attending that recovery from addiction works.
I was honored to be there. I was excited to be there. The slight tinge of nervousness dancing on the back of my neck was completely normal. After all, I've appeared at rehabs and "in the rooms" to share my story at least a hundred times. If anything, the nerves give me energy.
I need to mention that something else happened while I was at reGroup's facility: the phone rang. When the receptionist answered, I found out that two people from my past would be coming to the Friday breakfast event. We set it up where I picked up the phone talked to one of them and had a few laughs at the coincidence that he had called at the same time I was touring the facility.
The guy on the phone had been my internship supervisor from Bismarck when I was still in seminary. The other friend who would be accompanying him was a parishioner from the first parish I served in Underwood. I was over the moon with excitement and deeply touched that they were taking the time to drive together from Bismarck to Fargo just to see me and support the work reGroup is doing.
The following morning brought the usual for me: a restless night. I had woke up at about 4am, and of course I was all rarin' to go. But the added energy or the sleeplessness wasn't out of nerves—I was simply excited to present.
I managed to get an extra hour of sleep and showered and got myself to the event. The hotel conference space looked like most corporate, hotel conference venues do—lots of paneled ceilings with fluorescent lighting and dozens of long tables with drapery hanging in front of them. (It makes a great spot to place the cheap, cardboard box with your books, by the way.)
I greeted my hosts, sat down at a table with a little sign labeled "#2" on it, and smiled when I saw my two friends, my former internship supervisor and my friend from my first parish when I was a pastor. They were assigned at my table, a thoughtful gesture from my hosts that I might like to chat and catch up with them, which I did.
Breakfast was served and I couldn't eat—I had no appetite. Again, this was no surprise. I'm never very hungry early in the day anyway, and especially before I speak.
The event's emcee did a good job at keeping people on track and we heard clients' testimonies of how recovery works and transformation is real. I related with their stories. They shared the wreckage of addiction, but also the hope of recovery.
Finally, the group's founder got up to introduce me. With a smile on my face and a spring in my step, I got up to share.
And then it happened.
At first, I thought I had just made a few false starts. I rebooted. I looked out into the crowd. There was something else—I felt an intense and sudden urge to cry.
You're an asshole. You're a pill thief and a junkie.
You're a drunk and a loser. Worse yet, you're fake—people buy into your shit, but you're just making it as you go along.
You don't deserve to be here sharing your story—I mean, what are you doing? You're just telling everyone the all the bad shit you did, like you're proud of it or something.
What's interesting is that I did NOT hear a disembodied voice telling me these negative messages. Instead, I only felt like the messages were implied, if that makes sense. In my mind, I don't believe any of those things. In my heart—right then, in front of everybody, and especially in front of my former parishioner and internship supervisor—I totally believed them and I felt them. Even though I knew the messages were (and are) a lie, in that moment . . . they took control.
I didn't see it coming at all. Not until it was too late.
My hands started to shake. I paused. I choked up. And spiraling down I went.
I can't do this.
The situation compelled me to call up the woman who had introduced me, and I saw horror in her face as well. More shame. More failure.
"I . . . I think I'm having a panic attack. I'm sorry," I told her. I walked out of the conference room.
I heard talking in the background. Evidently she and another employee covered for me.
I stepped into the hallway outside the conference room, and another person stepped up to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "Are you okay? Don't you speak all the time?"
I couldn't believe it. I just freaked and walked out! Did that really just happen?!
Brené Brown, in her one of her Ted Talks that made her famous, stated:
Shame comes from many places, but often stems from a person's childhood. Funny thing with me is . . . I had exceptionally loving parents growing up.
From what I was experiencing with my big choke, I felt the shame of all the junk I had done in my addiction right then and there, right when I was supposed to be inspiring people to look beyond the shitty stuff that people in the throes of addiction so often do.
I remembered the faces of people, how disappointed they were in me. I remembered the names of the people who I had hurt—and those who rightfully brought charges against me. I remembered an amend I had made, the burning look that—rightfully—that person gave to me. It stung. And I felt I deserved it all. I deserved it, again.
I bought into the lie of shame.
I think, for me, the reason why I panicked at that specific time was for two main reasons:
1) I was back in North Dakota.
I have been back to North Dakota a couple times since my arrest for felony trespass and a DUI, both of which happened when I was still serving as an ELCA pastor in Williston, North Dakota. However, the times I've been back have been only to travel through the state to get to eastern Montana, where my in-laws live. This time, it was different. I had to confront my past in front of crowd who—for reasons that make no sense, but just are—I perceived as the people who I had hurt.
2) My two friends who had come to hear me speak.
For another reason that is patently untrue, but somehow I believed, I felt an impinging and ever-cascading sense of judgment from my former parishioner and internship supervisor, who had made the effort to travel together to Fargo hear me speak.
Of course, the rationale behind both reasons is just stupid. But emotions often aren't something we think through—we only feel them.
Herein I believe stands the point I want to make. And I know that you might be able to relate with it also . . .
Just when you believe that you're beyond the shame of the past, it can return at the least expected time. And you have two choices:
A) You can relent to its power and let it win.
B) You can face it with the same empathy that you would for a person who is experiencing that shame themselves.
Shame withers with empathy. You can even give that empathy to yourself.
So that's what I did.
In the hallway outside the conference room, I took a deep breath. I said a prayer, which was in some ways more the voice of God I needed to hear in that moment.
Dan, you are a beloved child of God. People need to hear your message. People need to see redemption. Be brave. Just walk back in. I'm with you.
I walked back into the room.
Two others had covered well for me. I started again.
I told the audience that I had a panic attack, that seeing my friends there had rattled me, and that I felt shame. I don't know if I said it then, but since I'm writing this now, I'll write it here: it wasn't my friends' fault they were there. That's obvious, I suppose. But I want to write it here, just because.
Addiction had robbed me of who I really was: a loving, caring person who felt things. In my addiction, I chose to numb my feelings. I was feeling them again, and I was finally being genuine.
Sometimes, feeling those feelings hurts.
Recently, my editor for my fourth book I'm writing, which will look at the relationship between psychological resilience and spirituality, passed along an article for me to check out, “The Four Keys to Well-Being.” The article was derived from a talk given by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson listed the first key to well-being as resilience, perhaps a close cousin to perseverance.
Davidson had done research about whether specific brain circuits could be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation. What researchers discovered is, yes, a person could rewire his or her brain to be more resilient. However, it took vast amounts of practice before a person saw the benefits to their own resilience and ability to bounce back after stress.
I'm proposing that perhaps there is something else you can do—right in the moment—when you feel the world collapsing around you.
Be gentle with yourself. Find the willingness to simply start again.
That's what I did. And you know what? It worked!
I managed not only to finish my opening remarks reGroup had requested from me, but I also felt re-energized to successfully lead a teaching event for 80 minutes later in the day.
After the event in Fargo, I drove up to Grand Forks to do it again.
Below are links for the news coverage I got for that event. (I was on fire in Grand Forks, especially. Fantastic people, and an excellent opportunity to share the power of transformation.)
Here's the TV station link.
And here's the link for the newspaper story.
Lest I imply that this article is some exercise in self-aggrandizement, I will say that had it not been for the grace that the people in Fargo had shown me, it would have been much more difficult to overcome the embarrassment and shame I was feeling.
But people can be extraordinarily kind, especially in times of tender weakness. I am grateful for their kindness.
People at the breakfast event in Fargo approached me afterward. Amazingly, they wanted me to know that they could relate more with my message, because I had been "so real." (Believe me, I didn't plan it that way.) I guess seeing firsthand someones shame go down in flames after it had taken control was important. I'm glad it worked out.
Shame tells a lie. It says that you have no right to share your failures.
Resilience confronts that lie. It shuts shame down because it places the shame in a place where it most fears to be—in the light, where we see only love and acceptance. And a path forward to wholeness in recovery.
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer tends the fertile virtual pastures of the website Transformation is Real. He's an author and a speaker. He's choked. Bad. And lived to tell about it. You can purchase his books here and here. He's got more books on the way, too. So stay tuned. Daniel lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota and is owned by two cats and his dog named Lazarus, who amazingly also had risen from dead when he was a puppy. A story for another time.