The journal entry I wrote that night was just one line: “I’m not the man I want to be.”
As reunion charades go, nothing about my life actually suggested I was off track. I had ambitious public service aspirations; worked tenaciously; loved fiercely; wrote confidently about equal opportunity and the American dream; bought into and unabashedly endorsed my adopted hometown of Detroit as the best place in the country to work with meaning and purpose. I’d published a book. I’d supported my wife through cancer, relapse, and now four years of remission. I even ran a marathon.
But my journal admission reflected two longstanding personal challenges. First, despite all my accomplishments, I carried a deeply held internal anxiety about being “good enough” to meet my ambitions. Second, I believed my alcohol abuse posed a serious threat to it all. Combined, they exposed my biggest fear: was my life of meaning and purpose as I envisioned it slipping through my fingers? I decided to make a change.
After nearly 20 years of various cycles of alcohol abuse, moderation and abstinence, I concluded I would take one last shot at forging a balanced approach to drinking before turning to sobriety. I’d read about a drug called naltrexone, which is a pill that helps mitigate and manage alcohol cravings and abuse. After sporadically trying it over the prior year, I decided to use it every day for the next three months.
Change came quickly. Two months in, my weekly consumption had cut in half; it would cut in half again by early October. I lost 20 pounds and felt great. In tears, I confided to my wife, “I’ve finally broken through.”
Advertisement“I’m so proud of you,” my wife replied. “I’m so grateful you found a path that works. Let’s stick with it.” That was Monday, 10 October. Two days later, I was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. Less than 15% of people with my diagnosis survive five years.
This prompted a swift resolution of my other core challenge: I would no longer allow my anxiety about “living the right way” interfere with being my true self in all dimensions of this life. There would no longer be any distinction between the “representative version” of me online versus living every day with full authenticity. Any other way would be a total waste of time. I’ve embraced the news as an invitation to be my most honest, vulnerable and wholehearted self. I live every day as fully integrated and courageously as possible. I don’t waver.
One key outlet has been a podcast I started with my wife and best friend called Defending Your Life, where we process in real time the unfiltered experience, fears and reality of dealing with stage IV cancer. I write now more directly, less esoterically, about my experience on my blog.
Although my opportunities to achieve my public service or other professional goals down the road may now be limited by time or strength, I now know they won’t be hobbled by inauthenticity.
Most importantly, I’ve come to recognize that I have lived a life of meaning and purpose. A life rich with love and connection. Some have even generously shared that I’ve lived a life that has inspired others. And, having worked through my demons, I’m able to forgive and be proud of myself too.
Of course, what’s scary now is while there is so much to live for, this disease, despite all the science, love and everything else needed to take it on, could very well ultimately beat me. I had surgery in October and am facing upcoming systemic treatments over the next 6-12 months, and it remains to be seen whether that will make me one of the 3-6% who achieve a “complete response”, or the 94% who end up somewhere else along the kidney cancer progression line.
The truth is, we’re all terminal. I could also get hit by a bus tomorrow. Or I could beat the odds and live till I’m 90. But whatever my time left on this earth, I’ll now endeavor forward with some earned resolve.