Anxiety produces a physical ailment. It buzzes in my chest like a knot of electrical wires. I feel unsteady and light-headed. My heart thumps. My limbs jerk around in their duties like Reddy Kilowatt’s appendages. I don’t sleep, my thought racing around in smaller and smaller circles—snakes eating their own tails.
Last month, I received an ominous letter concerning a mistake I made years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot talk or write about the details due to a confidentiality agreement that accompanied a settlement I paid. But I can talk about how the deal made me feel and what I went through dealing with the issue.
I generally handle threatening situations and emergencies with a level head and calm demeanor. But the letter pushed all my buttons at once. Where I had felt a contentment and satisfaction about the way life was progressing that morning, I panicked. My god, I thought, how could I have let this happen?
The uncertainty rocked me and brought back all the old feelings I felt nearly every day back in my drinking days. Back then, I could drown the emotions and ignore whatever wrongs I may have done.
As I read the letter, I suddenly feared for my family’s financial future, as I might have to go through a lawsuit and was clearly in the wrong. How much could they come at me for? Could they take the house? What about retirement accounts? Garnishment of wages? I’d never been sued before and had no idea how much lawyers would cost on top of paying for whatever the judge might award to the person who levied the suit.
I worried over my reputation. I’ve finally gained a foothold in Kansas City’s literary and arts community. If word of my transgression got out, how would people view me and the efforts I’ve made to establish myself as a writer? I know now my writing has influenced others, and some people hold up my work ethic as something they should strive to emulate.
Shame and guilt overwhelmed me. I should have known better. Or, maybe, I didn’t know better when I transgressed but I certainly had come to know. I neglected to right the situation when I had the chance. I’d gotten caught and had my hands in my pockets. There was nothing I could do but lay down and take what was coming.
I’d felt like this two other times since I gave up the bottle and turned my life around. Back in October 1990, when I was only four months sober, my girlfriend called me to tell me she was pregnant. It was like being struck by lightning. Frozen in my tracks, I couldn’t figure my way out of this. This was much bigger than me. What did I know about being a father? Where was the money going to come from? A lifetime of commitment faced me. I could hardly show up for a doctor’s appointment.
Then, I thought this kind of thing happened to other people, not to me. I felt guilt at having had the relationship at all. My physical and mental weakness put me into this spot, and I felt all the guilt of a lifetime of dissipation. After all that time drinking and having everything I touched fall apart, I supposed that just trying to get ahead was beyond me. Why did I even try?
The shame washed over me. I was an unmarried father. I had absorbed a lifetime of negative images and opinion about men who fathered children and weren’t married.
The immediacy of the emotions couldn’t be talked away. Fortunately, I had built a good group of friends in AA and was able to call on them to listen. I may have worn some of them out, but they were supportive and helpful. Worse things can happen, they said. You could go out and pour a little alcohol on this and have it really blow up. You could dodge your responsibilities, but you’ll never outlive them. Face the fear. Walk through it. You’ll be fine if you deal with one thing at a time. Fatherhood will come to you as it does to everyone. There are no manuals for this sort of thing.
I thought about everything people told me, people I looked up to, people who had been through worse than me. I could run. But I couldn’t live with the constant and enduring guilt. I had started life over again and had made up my mind that I would do my best to be a decent father, regardless of what happened between the child’s mom and me.
And that’s the way it worked out. I stuck by my girlfriend and saw her through the pregnancy. Fatherhood perplexed me but I did all right. My daughter is 28 years old now. She’s doing well. She’s going to be all right. I needed to go through all those emotions and face all those fears. When fatherhood came around a second time, I knew more. I can deal with the complications of fatherhood better now. I’ve been sober a long time. Getting through the first child makes the second almost second nature.
I also felt the buzzing anxiety when I walked to Montana. Every day for the first month of my journey, anxiety weighed heavily on me when I woke in the morning. What would the day present me? Where would I sleep that night? What happens if I fail?
I forced myself out of bed, usually in a picnic shelter in some small town or in a hedge in the middle of the countryside. Instead of swallowing the whole day, I did one thing at a time. I packed my sleeping bag. I started water for tea. I washed my hair and shaved. I packed the backpack and drank the tea. Slowly, things went into the pack and before I knew it, I was packed and ready to go. Then came the first step down the road to my next unknowable destination. The rhythm of walking took over. My fears melted away. The anxiety diminished to a memory. Soon, my head was empty as a soap bubble and I dealt with things as they came up. And what came up was usually a whole lot less serious than what my mind had built in my early waking hours.
Just when I thought I was over the fear and anxiety, I faced the river and the trip home. All the feelings came back to me with a vengeance. I didn’t even know how to paddle a canoe and I’d committed myself to taking the Missouri from Montana back to Kansas City. Just like the walk to Montana, I started each morning doing just one little bit at a time. I learned in increments how to handle a major river. I made it home and wound up writing two successful books about the trip.
These two instances—my daughter and the long journey—showed me that what I fear almost never matches the facts of the matter. Nothing the legal letter represented was insurmountable. I had good friends who helped me through this thing, and I realized once again the good choices I had made being loyal to them over the years.
In the end, this wasn’t life changing—like having a child or walking 1,450 miles through strange country or canoeing a 2,300-mile long river. I look back over the last couple of weeks and see that, yes, I was willing to face the consequences of my actions. I wasn’t revealed to be a fraud, as I so feared. I understand that I had to go through all those difficult emotions. That’s the person I am. I care about things. I love my family. I’m not a bad guy.
Instead, I was a guy who made an honest mistake. The good thing is that I was willing to face the consequences and not look away. I faced the issue as I would anything—one thing at a time and with the confidence that, in the end, I’m going to be just all right.
Oh, yeah, I hate to be secretive, but don’t ask me what the legal issue was about. I can’t tell you. That’s behind me now. I faced the issue and its consequences. No one’s happier about it than me.