The Power Of State

Mary McNamara writes for the Los Angeles Times:

I was a junior in college, my brother a freshman, and we were home for the annual roller-coaster ride of the holidays. On this particular Christmas Day, events had unfolded as they often did — early morning present opening (hats off to Mom, who must have felt like crap at 6 a.m. but got up anyway), then a big extended-family gathering and meal during the afternoon. Things inevitably … devolved and after our guests left, my brother and I retreated to our rooms and out of the line of fire. I remember lying in bed and thinking that in two years I would be out of college and living somewhere far, far away; so far that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to come home for Christmas. Which might break my father’s heart — but, I thought, he’d live.

I was deeply asleep when Dad had his heart attack.

It was not a big one — he remained conscious — but hearing him tell my mother repeatedly to call an ambulance in a voice broken and strained filled me with fear.

Then, after my brother called 911 and things seemed as bad as they could get, the power blew…

I have already told you my mom got sober, and in case you were wondering, my father lived for many years after his heart attack — so it would be easy for me to couch this moment in the black humor that many adult children of alcoholics often use to describe the outstanding moments of a dysfunctional life. I mean, it is pretty hilarious in a way — “and then the lights went out” is a pretty good punchline for any “it could be worse” kind of story. But some stories defy even black humor; 30 years later, my brother and I almost never talk about this night because, at the time, we were just two kids shivering in the snow, desperately signaling for help.

The ambulance came and Dad survived, but the days that followed were a blur of anxiety. In the ICU, Dad was told he would need a quintuple bypass. Mom was drinking hard and refusing to speak, so we stayed away from the house as much as we could, visiting our father and hanging out with our aunt, who was the only person who had ever told us that the real problem in our house was not that we were lazy and ungrateful but that our mother was an alcoholic — and it was not our fault.

I remember telling her it would probably be best if I skipped the next semester of college to stay home and take care of my father. My mother certainly was not up to the task, and my aunt, a widow with four young children, already had way too much on her plate.

My aunt suggested gently that leaving school might not be the best plan. Then she called one of her friends, a recovering alcoholic who promptly took me to a meeting of family members coping with alcoholism. I sat through it in silence, hunched miserably in my coat, thinking only of how awful it would be to return full-time to a house I had waited so long to flee.

Afterward, I spoke with a woman who looked remarkably like my mother. I told her what was happening and what I planned to do. She shook her head and took my hands in hers.

“This is not your problem,” she said. “This is her problem, and their marriage. It is not your job to fix them. It is your job to get on with your life.”

Bud: “Luke, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute. You seem to minimize anecdotal evidence in favor of data/evidence verifiable by scholars. Yet for both therapy and AA isn’t all the power/benefit anecdotal. Like the Christmas drinking story, powerful though it may be is just an anecdote. is that reliable?”

Luke: Both have their place. Anecdotes, to me, are great for personal inspiration (the micro). Empirical data is good for analyzing the macro (society). Both are often more powerful when used together ala an anecdote that illustrates the data.

Creating and editing are two different mindsets. If you do them together, they don’t work well. When you create, you do not want to edit at the same time. Inspiration and analysis are also very different mindsets as are feeling and thinking. I don’t want to be in analysis when I am loving my woman, and I don’t want to have the horn when I’m trying to analyze marginal tax rates. Sometimes I want to run hot (emotional) and sometimes I want to run cold (analytical). I was about to go for a walk and do a heartfelt stream on being a good friend to oneself when instead I got immersed in researching and dealing with a problem. So that switch in mindset took me completely out of my ability to feel and to livestream.

When I have a tech issue while livestreaming, it destroys my ability to have fun, to laugh, and to be spontaneous. It’s hard to monitor my sound quality and think and create at same time. One moment I may feel loving and generous, next moment I have to deal with a problem and my ability to love is destroyed for hours. When I studied calculus and economics, it killed for years my ability to appreciate poetry.

I can have experiences that are so powerful, such as with yoga/therapy/12 step, that they, at times, supercede my desire for the data. Sometimes when you analyze things, you lose the placebo effect. I had a shrink who thought my miraculous recovery from CFS after getting on nardil in late 1993 was pure placebo. Acupuncture, which many studies say has purely a placebo effect, solved my carpal tunnel in 2007. I had ecstatic experiences doing kundalini yoga.

There are some things I don’t want to know, such as how many dudes my GF has banged. There are some things that just permanently warp the way you look at someone. There are times when ignorance is bliss. For everything there is a season and a time under heaven. There’s a time to feel and a time to analyze. There’s a time to get angry and a time to forgive.

Orthodox Judaism primarily spoke to a non-rational part of me. I don’t think I converted primarily out of rational reasons, but I enjoy at times rationally analyzing the tribe I joined.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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