I was working with a veteran firefighter from South Boston who came into our PTSD treatment program at the behest of his superiors to obtain help from the ravages of alcoholism. He was told by his Chief that if he didn’t straighten up, he would lose his job – one of the few things in life he still values.
He arrived at the program completely intoxicated and spent the next five days in our alcohol detoxification program.
It turned out that he had recently gone on quite a binge after being laid up at home with a work related injury to his foot.
His usual daily routine is to work hard all day as a firefighter and then drink Jack Daniels all night until he passes out. He told us that when he is at work he doesn’t think about any of his demons and once he is home with his buddy, Jack Daniels, Gentleman Jack keeps those pesky demons at bay.
Because of the nature of the injury to his foot he was prescribed a form of medication that prohibited him from drinking. While he was healing his bum foot, he was home, out of work, alone, with nothing to do but hang out with his thoughts, feelings and emotions. He was also in constant pain from his injury.
Once the foot finally healed and he was taken off his prescribed medication, he headed straight for the nearest package store and picked up a gallon of Jack. He drained it by the time he went to bed that night – the first day of a multi-day alcoholic binge that ended with his arrival at our program.
We were talking one afternoon and I asked him what he found valuable about family. He confided that he had never been married but really admired his brother’s family and wished he too would have married and started a family like his.
At that point he really began to open up and told me his story. It turned out that he met the love of his life as a young man – the women he intended to marry and spend the rest of his life with. During a two year stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he received a “Dear John” letter from her. She wrote to let him know she found someone else to take his place.
When he got back home from the war, he discovered she had married and had a child with this other guy. He was so heartbroken that he never married himself and spent his entire adult life living alone. He had many relationships over the years with other women but never found anyone who could take her place in his heart.
Recently however, through a simple twist of fate, he encountered his true love – some 40 years later. It turned out she had only stayed married for two years after which time her husband left her. She raised her son on her own and never remarried. All these years they had been living separate but somewhat parallel lives only miles apart in South Boston.
The two youthful sweethearts had found their way back to each other after all these years. It was his hope that they might be married after all and have the family he had always dreamed about.
There was only one hitch in this plan: his alcoholism and binge drinking. He knew, that he really had no chance with her if that was all he could offer her this time around. He felt stuck like the hub of a wheel that can’t turn. In sanskrit, the word for this is dukkha.
Knowing that drinking is often just a form of self medication, we began to explore the notion that the booze was just a way to anesthetize himself from his own internal mental experience. Booze was a way to avoid the internalized life experiences that haunted him: his painful thoughts, feelings and memories of the past.
We explored how well the “drinking cure” had worked for him over these many years. It was quite clear that the booze worked well as a short term fix, however, it never permanently removed those memories from his internal landscape. They always came back sooner or later – often with a vengeance.
Psychologist Steve Hayes is quoted as saying, “Life is a choice. [Difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, etc.,] are not a choice. Either way you go, you will have problems and pain. So your choice is not about whether or not to have [difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, etc.,] Your choice is about whether or not to live a meaningful life.”
In the first case of the Shoyoroku (The Book of Serenity) compiled in the 12th century in China, we are presented with the following koan:
The World-Honored One Ascends the Platform
One day the World-Honored One ascended the platform and took his seat. Manjusri struck the gavel and said, “When you realize the Dharma-King’s Dharma, the Dharma-King’s Dharma is just as is.” At that, the World-Honored One descended from the platform.
The term “World-Honored One” is another term for Buddha. Buddha means “The Awakened One.” What did he wake up to? The nature of reality as it is.
We can be a drunk, a soldier or a saint. We are who we are in this moment. And we can choose to change what we are in this moment. Whatever we choose, that is reality as it is. We can be a sober Buddha, a drunk Buddha, a soldier Buddha, or a saintly Buddha … whatever we choose, we remain Buddha even if we do not realize this.
No matter what life we choose – we remain from the very beginning all the way through to the end, “The World-Honored One.”
Coming or going, ascending the platform or stepping down from it – the truth is just like this.
Where would you like your life to take you now?