Redemption Road

08/09/2017 10:47 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2017
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Writer Caleb Daniloff’s book, Running Ransom Road – Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time, presents as a force field of positive energy aimed at beating addiction. In his case, mostly to alcohol.

But it is also something more.

It is about asking essential questions on your choices in life, and answering them. It is about growing up and finding yourself and your special place in the world, instead of hiding behind an image of someone you think you should be. It is about yearning to belong and the pain of not belonging. It is about spirituality, shame, guilt, courage and forgiveness.

And it is about redemption.

I have written about addiction before. My first solo shot at doing so was in preparing a keynote speech for an addiction conference conducted by Wellsprings Congregation just north of downtown Philadelphia. Its pastor, Reverend Ken, a former camper of mine at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, had convinced me that my work in prevention had corollaries to his work in recovery (including his own). I was dubious but quickly learned that prevention and recovery are, in many ways, two sides of the same street.

In Ken’s ministry I discovered a reflection of what I came to refer to as my own.

With him and two other former campers who found and beat addiction I wrote “Beautiful Boys: Addiction, Recovery and What They Learned at Summer Camp,” published by Camping Magazine in September 2014. Their struggles, in many ways, mirror Caleb Daniloff’s.

What were they? For Michael it was craving structure, order, guidance and direction. All the while he rebuffed others who cared for him due to his own conflict in understanding and accepting unconditional love.

Ken’s road to sobriety included going back to places where he had systematically left “items” of his life scattered along the way. He made amends to people he hurt and accessed long-buried feelings of fear, resentment and shame.

And Jay found answers to alcoholism in the form of his childhood memories of growing up with a horse farm across the street. His challenge was to face decades of drugging and drinking by putting all the manure behind him as a sort of fertilizer for a new garden, his new life.

Daniloff’s story, too, serves up a sobering tour through a littered landscape of adolescence and young adulthood.

It sounds scary. It sounds sad. But it’s neither.

Three essential questions permeate Daniloff’s writing.

1. Was belonging as human a need as essential as eating?

2. Had his years of resistance to others, to his own friends and girlfriends, his “punkass devotion to disconnect,” dehumanized him?

3. Can hearts stunted by selfishness and cynicism and anger ever regain their true shape?

Asked and answered in 229 pages.

No doubt growing up can be a daunting proposition, perhaps especially with a famous father (Nicholas Daniloff) and living in both America and the Soviet Union … and, for a time, at a boarding school in Massachusetts.

Daniloff says, “Hardly anything had been done with deliberation and forethought. Now I was being told it was time to mature. Suddenly, I could hear the clock ticking again, the one that had been paused years earlier when we left for the Soviet Union. A summoning to alignment. I couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t ready. I was still thirteen years old inside. I thought growing up was something that happened to you, rather than something you could be told to do, let alone something you could choose to do. I just wasn’t ready. I was scared about what it all meant. Cue up the self-sabotage.”

On identity formation, a hallmark task of adolescence as defined by psychologist Erik Erikson, Daniloff writes, “Sober, I had no idea who I was and I didn’t want other people discovering it for me. … [I] just had a general feeling of not wanting to be with myself, I found comfort by subtracting five years from my age or joking, ‘Yeah, there’s that black hole again.’ But just as the clock on my development was set to resume, the bottle drowned it out again, the ticking always far offstage. By my thirtieth birthday, I had grown a hell of a lot younger. Maybe running was my way of speeding things back up, living as much of my life as possible at six and seven miles an hour. A multiplier, finally.

I wanted people to like me, but even more than that, I didn’t want people to dislike me. And if they didn’t get to know me, they’d never have a chance. I both longed, and feared, to be different.”

He was different enough, or acted different enough, to finally get expelled from prep school … on the day his dad was giving the commencement address. Which leads down a cautionary rabbit hole of stories that define you longer than you want them to.

Maybe I chose to get myself kicked out of here. I’d admired the kids who got booted – a handful every year, with one usually around graduation season. I loved the tears and indignation of the student’s friends, the way they talked about him or her, now a rebel if there ever is one. It was like a funeral while you were still alive. Most of my classmates remember me as the kid expelled on graduation day with his father the keynote speaker. At the time, and for years after, that’s how I liked it: personality by reputation, seeping like vapor through the keyhole. But sometimes stories define you longer than you intend and can catch you by surprise.”

In his journey, and on his runs, Daniloff found a form of spirituality and a path to what he told me was “ransom.” He said in an email, “When I disappeared into a world of alcoholism and drugging, I'd essentially kidnapped myself, held myself for ransom (but never sent out a ransom note); running became my way of paying the ransom to get myself back. There is, incidentally, a street called Ransom Road that bisects the Boston Marathon course, right near Heartbreak Hill.”

Who knew?

As the road hugged the water, I knew that, over the years, running had infused a necessary spiritual weight into my life. While I loved the Bible stories and Greek myths my mom used to read to me, I’d been raised without religion, my formative years spent in a decidedly atheist country, and embraced a cynical and morally dubious young adulthood. Mom later lamented not sending me and my sister to church. But running had cracked me open, letting light into the hard-to-reach corners. It was a confessional baptism by sweat … Accessing the spiritual side of yourself, in my view, is an essential component for successful recovery – in other words, tapping into something bigger than yourself, slightly mysterious, that is beyond judgment and isn’t fully knowable but can be felt. Achieving mindfulness without thinking. Faith, humility, submission, amends-making, moral inventories are indeed necessary ingredients in this effort.”

I think this is where the redemption part starts.

They say that alcoholism is the fear of life, and when fear rules your days, that’s all you’ll feel. As a drinker, I was terrified of conflict, something both amplified and brought on by the bottle. Even after I quit drinking, I stayed scared, the fear ingrained in my fibers. I began to believe this was who I was, born afraid. It took years to realize that courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s being scared and acting anyway.”

On shame, Daniloff shares, “Who was I running for? Not just for small kids with big ears and a bed-wetting problem. Not just any kid whose body conspires against him, who feels on the outside looking in, desperate to control some element of his life, who burns with shame. It went beyond me. As my drinking grew into my sidecar and then my twin, I’d become fascinated with former child stars like Danny Bonaduce, Dana Plato, and Jan Michael Vincent, their post-career drunken descents splashed on the cover of tabloids. They had it all, then they didn’t. When I got sober, this People magazine rapport evolved into feeling for the average Drunken Joe, too – a driver who mowed down a young mother in a crosswalk during a blackout, a wasted student athlete who woke up to find himself charged with attempted rape, the drug-addled teen driver who’d paralyzed his girlfriend taking a turn too fast. Lives changed forever in a single moment; such moments had been coiled within me, too, but for some reason never sprang. … Goddamn, I’d been lucky.”

Lucky in more ways than one. He still had time to change. Time to atone. Time to talk about the power of expectations.

It’s scary when you realize how malleable we all are. Like the body expecting motion when stepping on a dead escalator or learning to look in the opposite direction when crossing a street in London. By the same token, we should be able to get unused to anything, too, no matter how calcified it once was. It was OK to have loose ends, to feel the sting of regret. The key was not to tear myself apart for feeling this way. The pain wasn’t a stamp that I’d done wrong but a reminder that I know I can do better.”

Doing better started with writing letters of apology.

I was grateful for every email address I received. But I hadn’t been sure how to begin this kind of correspondence. The offenses took place years ago – some were blacked out, many misted over by time. I wanted to explain who I thought I was at that time and some of the why as best I understood, to take responsibility for my words and deeds, and let them know that despite my harsh talk, obnoxiousness, and scummy actions, I had cared for them. That I was sorry for how I made them feel. That there had been smiles. I saw them … I penned every letter by hand, standing at my dresser. I wanted a physical act, to feel my legs tire, my hand cramp, my lower back ache. I wanted to trace a line from my heart to my brain to my hand to the page … to make it tactile felt poetic, almost romantic, but somewhere inside me the letters felt unsatisfying, as if I were apologizing to a piece of paper. It didn’t feel painful enough.”

That pain he found in running. Complete with a life-changing analog from a street corner in Cambridge.

Seeing the white ‘Walk’ figure is the most beautiful work of art, a shadow box with the raw power of a cave drawing. Go, be, become. … I’m running in a state of gratitude and acceptance.”

And without self-defeating expectations.

It’s still about the basics, one foot forward, then the next, running a bit farther each time, the wind against your cheeks. She’s beautiful. I’m almost jealous; she has yet to discover that running in the pouring rain allows you to own the weather, the day, everything around you. Or the first time you inexplicably burst into song along with your run mix, that moment when running feels like dancing. Or the moment when you forget that you are running, the realization that you are not a prisoner of your own mind. That you can achieve not only presence but a state beyond, one devoid of expectations, fears, criticisms, of self.”

Good lessons learned running Ransom, or Redemption, Road.

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