Overseas

So, I went to England. I know that, in and of itself, is no great shakes. People travel abroad all the time. Reams of people spend time in other countries and then return to this country. Actually, I suppose some of them just stay in those other countries never to return. But that is neither here nor there. I mean, it’s here, in that I am writing it here and you will, perhaps, be reading it here. What I mean to say is that I am aware that the statement, “I went to England” is something less than earth-shaking. And, quite frankly, what I have to tell you about my going to England is probably something short of earth-shaking as well. But I am going to tell it to you nonetheless and you can decide for yourself whether the earth shakes or not. The point of this piece is not meant to be so much a description of my experience in England (although I will touch on that), nor is it to describe the landscape of England to you (I couldn’t possibly. I was there for three days and saw virtually nothing). The point is to share about two distinct things I discovered about myself in traveling to England. The first is that, for one reason or another, God sees fit to place me dead center in the middle of some of His coolest miracles. The second is that I am an idiosyncratic weird bird. Actually, the latter is not exactly news, but I gained some important new insights into my freakishness. But let’s tackle the first first, shall we?
So here is why I ended up spending about 72 hours in the queen’s wonderland. About eight years ago, I got very involved in an Alcoholics Anonymous movement called back to basics. If this is your first time careening through the random stream of consciousness that serves as my blog, I have been a recovered alcoholic for a little over eighteen years. The back to basics movement is exactly what its name infers. It is a framework of going through the 12 Steps which mirrors what the original co-founders and pioneers of the movement originally intended long before A.A. became a cesspool of people bitching and moaning about their problems and using the rooms as free therapy or a place to escape their nagging wives or an arena for hooking up with wounded, vulnerable members of the opposite sex (or same-sex) or just a forum for spouting their wrongheaded notions about the program in general.
So, anyway, I was setting up and leading a whole lot of these back to basics movements around that time. There was a clubhouse in West Chicago that had reached out to me to change one of their topic meetings into a back to basics meeting and I agreed to do so. During the first month of leading this meeting, there was a gentleman coming attending weekly who was a videographer. One night after the conclusion of the meeting, he approached me and asked how I would feel about his taping all four sessions of the back to basics format. I was hesitant and more than a little suspicious. “Are you looking to sell them,” I asked. “No,” he answered, “I just think they would be great to have as a resource to share with people who are unable or unwilling to attend the meetings. This made a certain amount of sense to me so I told him, “Well, first you need to talk to the board of the clubhouse and get their ok. If they say it’s cool and I am the only person who can be seen on the recordings and we take a group conscience at the beginning of each meeting and no one objects, then I guess it would be fine. So that’s what we did. He taped the four sessions, gave me copies of the recordings, and then, shortly afterward, I turned over the meeting to someone else and did not see my videographer friend again.
About a year later, I was giving a lead at an inpatient center. As I spoke, there was a young kid (no more than 18) staring fervently at me as I spoke. I had never seen him before and his gaze was so intense that it was making me a bit uncomfortable. When the meeting concluded, he nearly ran straight at me and declared, “Dude, you’re the guy from those videos.” “I think you have me confused with someone else,” I answered. He pressed on. “No man, on YouTube, you break down the steps in a way that finally makes sense to me. I’ve shared them with all my friends. I can’t believe you’re here. I didn’t even know you lived in the area. You have changed my life. You are awesome!” As he spoke, shocked and confused as I was, I eventually put two and two together (they equal four as it turns out) and realized that he must be talking about the videos that the guy had shot at the clubhouse. But had he just gone ahead and posted them on YouTube without asking me? That seemed unlikely.
I went home, booted up my computer, found YouTube and started searching. I tried my first and last name in the search bar. Nothing. I tried back to basics. Nothing. I tried breakdown of the 12 Steps. Nothing. Finally, I had a faint recall of the videographer telling me at some point what he thought a cool name for the videos might be. I typed in “precisely as we recovered,” and there, on the world wide web, for all to see, was my face. It was a strange mix of exciting and galling. I pulled my phone out wondering if I still had the videographers number. Unfortunately, I could not, for the life of me, remember what his name was. So, I started at “A” and just scrolled through all my numbers (hundreds) hoping a moniker would just pop out at me as I passed it by. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. Hoping he had retained the number since our time together, I called, and he picked up the phone on the second ring. “Hey, man!” he said, “Long time no talk. How are you? What’s going on?” “Well,” I responded, for one thing, I’m staring at myself on YouTube and wondering why.” “Oh,” he said, “Yeah, I put them up there; figured when I run into someone who needs help but isn’t ready to go to a meeting, I could offer them the link as a doorway into what the steps are and how they could help. That’s not a problem, is it?” I thought for a minute about his question and came back with, “I don’t know yet. I’ll get back to you,” and hung up.
I called my sponsor to see what he thought. “I don’t see any clear traditions violations here, do you?” “Technically no,” he counseled. “We avoid press, radio and film, but in those cases you are promoting something. This is just you posting something in the back-ass of YouTube amongst millions of other videos. I would imagine the chances are virtually nil of anyone stumbling across them unless you linked them in. So, in that respect, you’re clean. There is the anonymity question, but it is your anonymity to do with as you please. And you don’t actually claim that you are a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the videos (but, of course, it could be easily inferred). So, in all those respects, you are fine. Here’s my only caveat. There is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law. I believe that whether or not you are violating the spirit of the law is best found in your intentions, and only you know what they are. If your only wish in letting these videos remain up is to be of help to those in need, then leave them up. But, as you well know, it is the Lord that has the final word. So, spend some time in prayer and see what the big guy has to say.” That all made perfect sense to me. So upon some solitude seeking the creator’s help I decided that the possible good that could come from leaving them outweighed any possible problems that might arise. And then I completely forgot about them.
The opportunity to send the link to someone in need never arose and after a couple of months, the fact that I had four videos of me breaking down the steps on YouTube utterly fell out of my conscious mind. about eighteen months later, I got a call from one of my sponsees. “Michael, are you aware that if you go to YouTube and put Alcoholics Anonymous into the search window, your videos are the first thing that comes up?” No, I was not in any way aware of this, nor did it seem possible. As far as I knew, what determined the order of videos that pop up when you put in a search was popularity, meaning the number of hits the video has gotten. And certainly no large amount of people were watching my video. And yet, when I put Alcoholics Anonymous into the search window, what do you know, my videos were the first things visible on the screen. I was flabbergasted. How on earth could this have happened? I clicked on the video. And there, just under the bottom right corner of the video itself was the number 135,000 (or something in that neighborhood). I think I literally rubbed my eyes, positive that I was having a hallucination. How could over 100,000 people have come across this video when I’ve never even told anyone that it existed? Who are these people? Where are they? How did they find the videos and why were they all watching. The curious part of YouTube is that there is no way to answer such questions. But over the next few months, every now and then, I would check, and the numbers just kept rising. 200,000 and then 300,000 (I think, as of this writing, it’s around a half a million). But it gets better.
One day my phone rang and the number that came up looked nothing like an actual phone number. It started with a plus sign followed by ten or eleven numbers. I answered and the person, with a rather heavy accent, said, “Is this Michael Mark?” I said that it was, and they then said, “The Michael Mark who speaks about the steps on YouTube?” Again, I answered in the affirmative. “Oh my goodness,” he said, “I cannot believe I am speaking to you. I have been trying to track you down for months.” I said that I felt honored to be hearing from him and asked where he was calling from. He was calling from Ghana. He told me that he had been going to A.A. meetings for four years and constantly relapsing and had no idea what he was doing wrong. That when he came across my videos he finally came to understand that no one in these meetings had ever offered him the true message of The Steps. Not only had he recovered, he had started the first back to basics meeting in his country and wanted some advice on what was becoming a very well attended meeting. I was blown away. Shortly thereafter, I got an email from someone in Kentucky who offered a very similar message and wanted to know if I could email her some materials. And then it just kept happening. Israel, Oregon, Russia, New Mexico, New Orleans, France, Nigeria. It was overwhelming. In a million years, I could never have foreseen this coming and I still had no idea how it had occurred. Then, one day, I got a call from a man named Gene living in the U.K.
He told me that the videos had changed his life, given him his recovery, and he had started his own meeting. And this wasn’t even someone from A.A. Gene is a member of S.L.A.A. (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). It was even more amazing that the message was translating across fellowships. He told me that he and a few compatriots had put together a fund and wanted to fly me out to London and have me deliver a one day seminar in which I would take the membership through all twelve steps over the course of eight hours (actually ten hours but we had lunch a bunch of bathroom breaks.) He said they would take care of everything; flight, food, lodging, transportation. What could I possibly say other than yes?
So there I was. Standing in front of sixty people (some of whom had flown in from other countries just for the seminar) delivering the good news of God’s grace thinking, “This is otherworldly. This is supernatural. How does something like this happen without divine intervention? How blessed am I that the Lord would choose to use me in such a miraculous way?” And so hearing that, you would probably think to yourself that this was a very enjoyable trip for me. But, in truth, it wasn’t. Not exactly. And this brings us to the idiosyncratic weird bird part of the story.
You see, I am something of a mental case. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being needlessly hard on myself. It’s just the reality of my life. I have ADHD and I’m Bi-polar. I suffer from anxiety (often severe). I’m super-sensitive. When I don’t have my whole life arranged just so, I immediately begin to feel off-kilter and skittish. Unfortunately, the general flow of my day is greatly determined by my med cycle. And my med cycle operates most efficiently when I am in my regular routine and there are no major surprises. Also, I really don’t like the experience of feeling confined. So, right off the bat, the onus of an eight-hour plane trip was overshadowing any excitement about the coming trip as it grew nearer. In reality, the flight was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. My best friend Jonathan had remotely downloaded eight movies onto my computer to keep me busy on the plane. Also, the flight was less than half full. So I was able to lay down across three seats with pillows behind my head and my computer on my belly spouting exciting cinema into my plucky ear buds. I watched Bridesmaids (for the second time. It is so ribald in such a delightful and warming manner), Carlitos Way (I hadn’t seen it in years. It didn’t hold up as well as I had hoped but it was still pretty intoxicating) and We Bought a Zoo (I don’t know why this didn’t do well in the theaters or why no one I know had told me to watch it. It’s pretty terrific). Just about the time my computer faded to black as a result of its battery life frittering down to zero, I got up to pee and the stewardess told me that we would be landing in about a half an hour. Additionally, I had my vape (which I have substituted for smoking cigars… a step in the right direction I think) and snuck off to the bathroom every twenty minutes or so for a big drag.
So there I am in the middle of Heathrow airport looking for a man I have never met named Steve (one of the group that put this whole thing together. I left O’Hare at 7:55am and it is now 11:00pm. But my body thinks it is 4:00pm. I’m in a bit of a daze and I cannot find this guy. I’m awash in brits coming and going and obtaining luggage and seeking cabs and I keep hoping that one of them will smile and say, “Michael?” But this does not happen. And I am deeply uncomfortable. Wandering about in a foreign land desperately seeking refuge. Finally, I called Gene who called Steve who then magically appeared walking up a ramp with a back to basics book under his arm. He turned out to be older than I imagined; remarkably polite but not as immediately engaging as I had hoped. I don’t know what I was expecting. Certainly not a banner reading “Welcome Big Book Guru” and a line of marching girls performing in front of a robust marching band. But Steve was a bit demure and the connection wasn’t immediate and it had me feeling adrift and more than a little freaked out as we flew down the highway on the wrong side of the road as I sat motionless in the driver’s seat with no wheel in front of me. We arrived at his little charming two bedroom apartment (he had recently separated from his wife) and he gave me quick tour; letting me know whatever I could find in the refrigerator or cupboards was mine to partake in, wished me a good nights sleep, and retired to his bedroom.
And there I was. Alone. In a simple room. In a foreign land. And massively disoriented and more than a little anxious. Then tragedy hit. You see my vape had been having some trouble over the last month. The port in which you stick the cord to charge the thing had worn down through no fault of my own; so to charge the thing, you needed to put in the charger and simultaneously hold it in a downward position to make the thing charge. So I would charge when I was sitting at the computer or in the car when I had an extra hand to hold the thing down for twenty minutes or so which would being me back to full charge. It was a pain in the ass to be sure; but a reasonably manageable pain in the ass. I had the option to send it back to the manufacturer who would surely replace it, but I simply could not be without nicotine for the few weeks that process would take to reach commencement…Anyway, I arrived in London with almost a full charge. Just to be safe, since the next day was the big event, I plugged it in to get it fully charged. And upon plugging it in… nothing. I was horrified. No matter which way I bent and shimmied the cord, absolutely nothing would make the little red+ light come on signaling that the thing was charging. The charge I had would not last through the next day, and I was facing two full days in London with no nicotine. And this potential reality had me in very bad shape. I sat there helplessly trying and trying but nothing was working. Then I though that, if need be, I’d eat the loss and buy a new one the next day. Luckily I had my sleeping pills and I was soon resting in a deep, although not entirely peaceful slumber.
Steve woke me up at 7am to shower, ger dressed, down a cup of java, and head out to the school in which the event would take place. I had this splendid opportunity to carry God’s message to a room full of people in need and I am utterly consumed with my ever lessening vape charge. I informed Gene of my problem, quite sure he would say that we could just go to a local vape shop after the event. Turns out, this was easier said than done. Even though culture in the states seems to generally follow the brits (that is when new edgy music and fashion hit in New York and L.A., they were usually popular nine months earlier in London, somehow this has not occurred with vaping. It was explained to me that while vaping existed in England, it was still very new and fringy and had just recently gained the beginning of a foothold. My anxiety was rapidly increasing, and I was pissed that I was letting my need for nicotine ruin this amazing opportunity to experience this new and exciting land. By God’s grace, I spoke for eight hours to a riveted crowd, many of whom claimed to have had life-altering experiences over the course of the day. For this, of course, I was eternally grateful, and yet I was not ina good place. The long plane trip, followed by a quick sleep and then an right hour talk had me rather char-broiled. Nonetheless, the boys were dead set on taking me on an outing through the heart of London to see some sights and get some dinner. At the moment, I would rather have pulled a few of my fingernails out with a tweezer, but I just didn’t know how to refuse. So we set off.
We walked through SoHo and Chinatown. The town was hopping and it was far too much visual and audio stimulation for my weary form. My feet were also killing me from standing all day and all the walking was becoming quite excruciating. All I wanted was to find a vape shop and we were failing in that endeavor. We found one rinky-dink side of the road stand selling everything from hats and t-shirts to snow globes and key chains. They had a tiny corner of vaping items but it was more than pitiful. They had one little stick of a machine that ran $60 american dollars. Just to back myself up, I felt compelled to purchase it, knowing it was a mistake. When we finally returned to Steve’s, I loaded up the stick and took a drag. It was dog shit. $60 bucks down the drain and no closer to a solution. Sleep on night two was remarkably easier as I was blindly exhausted. I got a full nights sleep and awoke to a vape on fumes. This day (Sunday) was to be entirely devoted to hanging out in London, seeing sites and such and the idea of doing it sans-nicotine sounded like the seventh circle of hell. What was worse, the eight-hour flight in the morning sans-nicotine sounded even worse. I was on Google trying pitifully to find a vape shop and I was getting nowhere. Steve could read my badly hidden frustration, and in his rampantly polite nature told me to take a shower and allow him to try to find me a shop. I agreed, but got in the shower, thinking, “Yeah right. You’re looking on the same Google I am and you barely know what a vape shop is. I’m sure this will work out with flying colors.”
But God is bigger. God is better. God is smarter. And God knows well more than we do. I dried off and got dressed as Steve told me that he thought that there might be one of these vape shops next to a little cafe in a nearly vacant corner of town. He further said that he thought the shop opened at 11 and it was presently about 9:30. He suggested that we go to the cafe, enjoy a beverage, and wait until the shop opens. I had exactly no hope that was going to work out and my now complete lack of nicotine was making me increasingly cranky. We get in his backward car (in which he again needed to remind me to get in on the other side) and drove through a series of back and side streets, finally pulling into a parking lot. I looked left and saw a charming little cafe with comfy outside tables. It was a beautiful day out for a coffee on a veranda. Then I looked to the right at a shop called Vape World. My heart raced. It had all the earmarks of a genuine vape shop and I experienced a glimmer of hope. Just as I finished polishing off my caramel latter, a young thin guy on a bike pulled up to the vape shop.
I asked, “Are you the vape guy?” “I sure am,” he answered cheerily. It was only 10:45, but I couldn’t wait. “Can I come in now? I asked hopefully. “Follow me,” he generously responded. I pulled out my vape and asked, “Do you have something of this caliber?” He took a gander, smiled, and said, “Oh, we can do better than that!” If it felt even remotely appropriate, I would have french kissed him. It turned out that I only needed a new battery. He showed me a black unit that had twice the power of my present unit. It was stunning. I was fully prepared, though not pleased, to spend $250-$300. The battery was $100 american. Turns out that a vape battery is the only item available in London that is cheaper than a similar item in the states. He ran my card, opened the box, affixed my glass cylinder to the new battery, gave it a quick charge, and I was ready to go. I was overjoyed. I must have thanked him fifteen times. He was genuinely touched and grateful to have rescued me in my time of need, and me and Steve were off to meet Gene in the heart of the city. I felt calm and serene for the first time during my trip and, concurrently, a bit guilty that I had basically flushed two days of a potential once-in-a-lifetime opportunity stressing about nicotine. I was well aware of the irony that I had been flown out to speak on recovery and I killed forty-eight hours trying to feed my addiction. It made me feel the slightest bit fraudulent, but there was no mistaking that I had helped a slew of people the day before nonetheless.
The guys kept asking me what I wanted to see and i kept responding, with more than a hint of embarrassment that I really didn’t care. I’m not much of a sightseer. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They showed me Big Ben and I though, “It’s a big clock. That’s pretty much what I thought it would be.” They showed me Westminster Abbey and the queen’s castle residence and they were both just, like, big ornate buildings. I suspect this is a shortcoming of some kind in me. I just don’t know. I simply don’t care much about a whole lot of things. I always say that my wife knows a little bit about everything and I know everything about, like, four things and don’t care about much else. If you want to talk about the gospel, A.A., baseball, books, movies or my kids, wife or puppy, I’m your guy. Beyond that, I just can’t mount much interest. I’m just not the guy who stumbles across the history channel or the discovery channel and decides that it couldn’t hurt to know more about the mating rituals of sperm whales or the history of Czechoslovakia or King Henry the VIII’s experience as monarch of the Tudor dynasty. I am also, to my great shame, painfully Americanized. While I am completely aware that the gentrification of America is not a good thing. I know it is not a product of genuine progress that every suburb in America looks practically identical strewn with Starbucks and Panera Bread and Wal-Greens and The Gap. And yet, when you take me away from here I am troubled by the fact that I can’t find a Starbucks or a Wal-Greens or that there aren’t reruns of Will & Grace that I can watch on the tube.
Ben and I had about four hours to kill at which point he would hand me off to another member of the crew named William who would be putting me up for my last night and take me to the airport in the morning. Ben took me to a recovery club where I got to spend some time with some of the folks from the seminar who had questions or required some council. It was enriching and powerful. I spent time with some truly wonderful people and felt strongly connected to the people of the culture as well as the culture itself. We then walked through an amazing museum (something about items from around the world. Pretty cool.) as we talked. Ben, born a Jew just like myself, had been investigating the concept of Jesus and was interested in hearing my testimony. As we walked through the museum floor by floor, I explained the path that led me to getting saved and, while it didn’t conclude with his saying the sinner’s prayer or getting baptized, he made it clear that our talk had a major impact on him and he had every intention of investigating the subject further. We met William in front of the museum and I hopped in his BMW for the hour-long ride into the countryside. William is amazing. He made a veritable fortune in the corporate world, retired, and now leads wellness seminars across the world and works as a medium for individuals and groups. We had a stunningly intense and fulfilling conversation before pulling into his property which emitted from me the only words that seemed appropriate. “Holy Shit!” He and his wife own a full former farm. At least two acres of land with an absolutely resplendid house and a separate coach house which is where I would be staying. I had two floors all to myself with every amenity a person could possibly desire. I dropped my bag off and we adjourned into the house where I met his wife. She is one of the kindest, funniest, genuine, beautiful woman it has ever been my pleasure to know. The three of us sat in the living room, sipping coffee, conversating like people who had known each other for a lifetime. They then took me out to a mouth-watering dinner at a gastro-pub which was homey in a way that made me want to set up a cot in the back and move in. By the time desert arrived, I asked if they might consider adopting me; and I was only half kidding. I loved them so much. I wished my whole three days had been in their presence. Not to say the rest of it, along with Gene and Steve, hadn’t been fruitful, but this, my final night in England, was my first experience of relaxation.
As morning came, I got dressed and walked out into the crisp morning air staring out at a vista that simply took my breath away. I felt more than a little regret that I had failed to really drink in this glorious God-given opportunity. I just couldn’t shake the idea that I am this fragile little being with a persistently restless spirit who has a reasonably hard time really being happy. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have an amazing life. I do. My darling bride of seventeen years is my best friend. My two daughters light up my heart like a fireworks display. We have a beautiful home that I would be more than happy to die in. I have a slew of wonderful friends who I trust implicitly and who truly adore me. I have my sobriety and I have been saved by the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I have no complaints. I have everything. But everything includes me, with my deep-felt, often debilitating emotions, my family of origin brokenness, my bevy of psychological difficulties, and my highly intelligent, creative brain in which the hamster runs tirelessly on the wheel 24-7 without showing even a hint of slowing down. It’s just not easy living inside of me. I’m not saying I’m terminally unique or anything. I just find the experience of being a human being very tiring and very difficult. But I accept this. This is me and this is my journey and the details of my history, warts and all, have all proven useful in my mission to help God save lives. That’s what I do. The good Lord, as a product of nothing I did to earn it, saw fit to get me sober and save my soul and then went so far as to hire me to work for him. Jesus said that we had to pick up our cross and walk. So every day, I wake up staring down the barrel of a long day that looks imposing for no particular reason, strap on my cross and carry forth. I like when it’s easy, but it doesn’t have to be easy. I like being happy, but I don’t have to be happy. That’s all gravy. What I have to do is remain sober, sane and stable that I may successfully do the work assigned to me by my heavenly employer. And, in spite of my bevy of problems and challenges, I think I do that work pretty competently. And, honestly, I can’t ask for much more than that. No matter which way you slice it, I am playing with house money.
The flight home from England was longer (wind currents) and less comfortable. The flight was full and I was cramped in a shit pot of a coach chair for nine hours. But I kept my computer on my lap and watched The Departed (even better the second time. Scorsese is the man!), Inside Llewyn Davis (one of the Coen brothers weirder efforts but interesting and well done nonetheless) and The Wrestler (again, even better the second time. Mickey Rourke gives a bravura performance). When my computer crapped out, I still had two hours to endure, so I sucked it up and played games on my phone and listened to the book on tape that I was in the middle of and only mildly interested in. And upon my arrival, my beautiful wife was there with that same riveting smile on her face that I fell in love with nearly twenty years ago.
So what did I learn from this trip across the ocean. I’m not sure. I guess I have to go back to the beginning. The sovereign Lord of the universe sees fit to use me in truly miraculous ways. And I am a quirky, tortured, idiosyncratic, anal, rebellious, bizarre force of nature. I wouldn’t mind changing the latter. In fact, I would like that very much. But, in a million years, I would never sacrifice the former to ease the latter. Never. Not a chance. My central purpose in this universe is to serve the kingdom for the Lord’s pleasure. And if the road to pulling that off needs to strewn with all kinds of broken shards of glass and scattered detritus, that’ll just have to be ok. I am a seeker of truth and a shepherd to the downtrodden. I have the best job in the world. As long as I get to keep doing that, the rest of it can be whatever it needs to be.
And, surprisingly, despite a decidedly difficult trip, if they see fit to invite me back, I am pretty sure that I am on board.

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  1. #1 by tyallison on November 7, 2015 - 8:31 pm

    Well-told story. Relatable. Interesting even with the absence of some God-parted-the-sky-and-beamed-Heaven’s-light-down-upon-you type of moment.

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