Chapter 18 -After the Music Stopped

Southwest Airlines JetFrom my book Unscrewed: Becoming Whole Again. My personal story of abuse, shame, guilt, addiction, failure,rehab and victory.

The days immediately following September 6 were an especially stressful time in Cathy and my relationship. I had never told her the truth about what had happen to me as a child. Of course when it came out like it did it was like her getting broadsided by a ton of dung. Barely twenty-four hours earlier, all she had to worry about was a husband who was addicted to “the best job in the world”.  Now, he was an emotional basket case who was nearly non-functional, crying most of the time and maybe even suicidal.   The person who came home from the office did not bare a faint resemblance to the man who had walked out the kitchen door that same morning with a gym bag over his shoulder.   She was shocked, angry, hurt, confused but maybe mostly disappointed because for thirty years of our marriage I had not trusted her enough to be honest with her. Those days were not warm and fuzzy for either of us. The truth is they were horrible days and I suspected that our marriage could actually come to an end as a result.

On Saturday September 10, we went to Prime Trust Bank near our home to get the money to pay for my treatment. We knew most of the officers as we had been banking with them since our construction loan thirty years earlier. I shudder at what they must have been thinking, when we came in surely acting strange and me looking like a cast member form the “Walking Dead”, to transfer into checking a large amount of money out of a CD that I had just renewed a few weeks.   When it was all said and done, we transferred $35,000.

Since the day in the spring of 1987 that we begin tithing, at least ten percent of our income to whatever church we were attending, God has provided for us financially. As I type I realize, somewhat ironically, that the reason that we chose to tithe was because of the example that we saw in the Robinson family. Regardless of what happened, I know that the good that I got out of those relationships far exceeded the bad. I have no doubt on that.  A few years earlier we had come into a modest inheritance. Most of that money we had put into retirement accounts, so funding my treatment was not an issue. We were fortunate in that there was never any panic about the money. That was a true blessing I did not fully appreciate for some time after September 6, 2005.

As Cathy was driving me to the airport on Tuesday September 13 for my flight to Tucson, I was barely functional. I had had nearly no sleep for over a week and had lost several pounds and looked like death warmed over. I was also crying. In fact I cried off and on now for a week. Maybe I cried more than I did not cry. I was scared of going to Sierra-Tucson. I was scared of what was going to happen when I returned. I was scared of what was going to happen to our marriage and I was scared of what people might think of me when the word filtered out that I had been abused. I was afraid that my life-long fear of being abandoned was happening and I could not do anything to reverse it.

During my flight to Tucson I felt like a frightened child. I thought back to a spring afternoon in early May when I had stood alone on a hilltop looking down on our sixty-six acre campus and our brand new state of the art building, which was the grand culmination of our highly unlikely twelve year dream.  Through God’s guidance we had traveled light years since our first “practice service” with about ten people in the round room at Brentwood Academy in the summer of 1993. I thought about the journey and God’s amazingly talented team of everyday people that he had put together which had turned our  dream into fact.  A dream for what we had called “a different kind of church” that had its genesis in the hearts of six people had come to fruition and quite frankly it was way beyond my wildest expectation.  Sixty-six acres in the center of town only a mile from the expressway, an incredible building seating 800 people and carrying a debt of only slightly over 1.5 million put Highland Park Church way ahead of the curve.  Obviously, I knew in my head that along with the others I had played a pivotal role in all of that. As a result of my coming to Christ in 1987, I had been the original vision caster.    I had worked the first seven plus years without pay. Cathy had given up being a stay at home mom so we could continue to eat along the way. I knew that without us there would be no church. Yes, I understood that. I had all the head knowledge, but as I stood there on that hilltop with a gentle, spring breeze blowing  I did not feel one morsel of personal pride or sense of personal accomplishment at all in what my eyes were beholding down below — none.

Fearing what lay ahead while listening to the hum of the Southwest 737 as it streaked west it occurred to me that maybe that day was a premonition of what was to come. Perhaps my time at Highland Park Church was over. Maybe God used that day as preparation. Maybe I would literally no longer be a part of that great campus. A few days later as I tried to explain my feelings in group while  at Sierra Tucson; I described it as kind of like I was watching an exciting movie, but I was not in it. I was not the star, co-star, supporting actor, or even an extra. That kind of feeling had been a basic facet of the diamond of my life as far back as I can remember. Other than carrying a tune and golf, I have been blessed with a fair amount of success.  But even with all the praise and accolades that I have received over my life, until my time at Sierra Tucson, I could not feel any of it in the fiber of my being. What I have come to learn and realize is that I am just one of millions who, for one reason or the other, have detached themselves from their achievements because of their toxic shame.

As I made my way to the baggage claim I felt like a little boy. I was afraid of the unknown. I was clueless what rehab would be like. I wanted to be back with Cathy. More than anything I wanted to be in control. My instructions said that my driver, who would take me out to Sierra-Tucson, would be holding a sign that would say “Fred”. What if he is not there? Oh, he will be there, they must pick up “nutcases” like me all the time. At what they charge they will not screw up meeting me. Stop worrying! There he is! Fred looked like white haired angel. As we made eye contact he flashed a warm smile as he extended his right hand while saying, “Welcome to Tucson, John. You have nothing to worry about. Everything will be OK.” For some reason I believed him. On the drive over Fred was very encouraging. I could tell that he was the real deal. I recall thinking, I hope he is the one who will take me back to the airport in 30 days. I was sold on Fred, but not so much as to my immediate future.

We drove through downtown Tucson out into the high desert and the stunning Santa Catalina Mountains. Even in my condition those mountains rising out of the desert floor were an incredible sight to see. Unfortunately, my sightseeing tour was short lived. As soon as we pulled into Sierra- Tucson my fear came rushing back full force. As I checked in I had to surrender my phone, wallet, medications, laptop and control. All I got in return was a plastic water bottle. I felt shortchanged. Upon completing the registration process, each new patient is assigned a room in the detox wing. Fortunately I was only there the first night as my physical exam showed that I was free of any drugs or alcohol. I did not sleep any the first night so I had ample opportunity to reflect on the horrible fact that I was in the detox hospital room. The next day I was assigned a room with a roommate. He seldom got out of bed and snored a lot.  Burt from New York City and John from Music City made quite the contrasts. The only thing we had in common was that we were both there and did not wish to be. Burt disappeared after ten days. I heard that he was asked to leave.

The second night, after dinner, we all gathered outside in a circle in a huge recovery meeting. Between 2000 and 2005 I had attended around 1200 Twelve Step meetings. But none were as impacting and life changing as this one was going to be as I sit under the stars in the Arizona desert with fifty or so people I did not know. Finally my turn came. “I’m John, I’m from Nashville Tennessee. I am here to deal with trauma from being sexually abused by a priest at my high school when I was fourteen. I kept it a secret until last week”. The thing that amazed me was that the very secret that I had kept for 45 years somehow rolled off my tongue with ease and precision. Not one person got up and left. Nobody abandoned me. They loved me and I loved them back. From that moment I was cool with Sierra – Tucson. I made some very good friends and left my fear of what will people think if they know in the Sonoran Desert that night. It was gone and would never come back. I make a habit of recommending Sierra-Tucson to folks because a miracle happened to me there on the second night and there were many more to come.

Every Sunday afternoon, while at Sierra Tucson I called Cathy.  Those calls were a strain on both of us. They were not what you would expect from a husband and wife who had to be apart for an extended time. The truth was we were in our own isolated worlds of confusion, hurt, uncertainty profound disappointed and fear separated by almost the entire continent and what seemed like millions of questions without answers.  Consider the fact that Cathy had been married to me for 30 years, when she was abruptly blindsided by Glenn Cole’s malevolent revelation of my childhood abuse.  That was promptly followed by my emotional / mental breakdown. Then within a matter of a few days, I had left town for treatment, more or less looking and acting like a complete basket case, leaving Cathy holding the bag back home.  So during that critical time in our relationship, we both were in the initial steps of our own personal healing journeys, but with miles and miles ahead before we would attain any sense of normalcy again. When I called her the afternoon of October 2, 2005, the instant Cathy said “hello”, I intuitively knew that something was very wrong in Nashville. The very next thing out of her mouth was “John there is something I have to tell you. I have talked to the people at Sierra Tucson; they think this is the right thing to do.  John, Glenn has moved into your office. Dave is not going to let you come back.”

That particular moment in time is etched into my brain like the day   President Kennedy was murdered. I can remember every minute detail of our conversation.  My pain was immediate, profuse and excruciating, as I know it was for Cathy also. There was a feeling of a death-like grip talking hold of me.  I retorted, “Why did you tell me this now? I am 2200 miles away and there is nothing I can do from here. Cathy, why didn’t you wait until I got home to tell me this?  Her reply made perfect sense, but at the time it did not register at all. “Because you will need some help in dealing with this new trauma. I have talked to the people out there. They will be there for you. They will help you get through this.”

Right then I noticed that my lips were dry and parched, as was my throat.  Sensing that phenomenon, my mind flashed back to my cotton mouth of September 6, when I had to excuse myself in the midst of my emotional breakdown to get some water. Fortunately, this time around, I was already holding a bottle of chilled water; I sipped it as I listened to my wife, in essence,  tell me that the church which we had spent the last twelve years sacrificing to build,  had been taken from us by my best friend, Dave Robinson, under the presumed tutelage of his jealous father.  If you ever played sports and had the wind knocked out of you that is about how I felt. In my ears I could hear the thundering beat of my pumping heart; it seemed as though it might explode with each mighty thrust. The “fight or flight instinct” kicked in.  In a matter of seconds, my mind replayed my twenty year relationship with Dave. They were mostly good memories, but in hindsight and in my recovery, I now see all the multiple red flags over those years

So as I listened to Cathy on the phone, I felt like crying, but I did not.  I knew the truth of what she was in the process of explaining to me; yet, something deep inside me thought, “No, somebody is going to shake me and tell me that this is only a nightmare”. I guess my emotions unconsciously held out hope that somehow things would magically become like they had been before. From two time zones away, Cathy, was trying, as best as she could, to support me, even though she was as devastated as me. In my absence, Dave had pulled a bloodless coup, unilaterally fired Cathy as children’s director and told her not to come onto the church property. Dave’s true character had manifested itself unfettered. I felt completely lost, alone and without hope. For some reason, I recalled the words of my friend Eric Armstrong. During his time in prison, during a desperate act of self-defense, he had stabbed another prisoner to death. Eric once told me that when he had been in solitary that he felt so dark and alone that they had to “airmail me light”. As we talked I felt like I was in absolute darkness. I longed for even a shred of a ray of light because I was very frightened.  I became aware of a pervasive evilness that I reckoned had its genesis in Dave’s very soul. Several times in our marriage, Cathy has said that I was the most naive person she had ever known.    I had trusted my best friend, who had promised to help me deal with my abuse. He had promised me that “I will take care of everything while you are away taking care of yourself and getting well. If Kristen is still pissed off when you get home, you can work at your house until she gets over it.” (2) At his insistence, I had agreed with a counselor, whom I barely knew and who was a friend of Glenn’s, to go to Sierra Tucson for thirty days in patient treatment of trauma for my childhood abuse.  Because I thought Dave was my friend, I had blindly trusted him.  At the time, under my diminished mental condition, I had failed to factor in George, his jealous dad, who in my thirty day  absence saw his opportunity to get something he later unabashedly admitted  to Lou Alvarez, in a clandestine  meeting at Palmer Park, that he had always wanted —-  “a church like this”. In that same conversation he told Lou, “I have finally got my son back”. (3)

The previous August, on a Wednesday night, George had stopped to chat with me in the hallway of our new building. While he was marveling at that wonderful structure, as was his usual habit, he repeatedly and rapidly picked at his left chest with his right hand. That is a reoccurring tic that always seemed to manifest itself most, whenever he was serving up a double portion of his ego-based bull shit. He said to me, “John it is remarkable what you and Dave have accomplished since the Franklin days. (4) And you know John, I have never been jealous of you”.  Ding, Ding, Ding!  I mentioned George’s remark to Cathy as soon as I got home.  She immediately said, “Be careful because what he is really saying is that he is jealous of you”.  Cathy is almost always right about people. She had long before seen through George Robinson.   That evening I knew she was right on target with her assessment of George, as I had already heard the bell ring loudly earlier in the evening.

When we got off the phone, I did not know what to do, so I just sat there in silence trying to absorb what I had been told.  Since I was a little boy, when my mom had depended on me for her emotional support, I had always known what to do in any and all situations.  I had been wrong many times, but I always had a plan. This time I had no plan. It was surreal; I did not want to do anything.  Specifically, I recall not wanting to fight.  Many times during adulthood, events as simple as a word inflection or a look would trigger what I called “my little boy feelings”.   This was one of those times that the little boy trapped deep within me was feeling particularly venerable and really very small. In typical little boy thinking, I considered running away. At no time during this mess did I ever want to fight for what was being taken from us. I never considered doing that. After being the primary force behind Highland Park Church from day one, I simply decided to give to Dave and George what they craved enough to possibly risk forfeiture of their very souls and just walk away from them. To be perfectly candid, I am not sure why. Since that terrible day with Father Hollis, I had stood my ground, but not this time. I think part of that stemmed from the fact that I loved Dave and Kristin with a near unconditional kind of love, a love that, even today, the embers still continue to glow a bit.  Secondly, and perhaps even more causatively, was that I was extremely codependent on Dave. I think we had both realized years earlier that our relationship was no longer a healthy one. But neither of us had a clue what to do about it, so we chose to do nothing. Doing nothing seldom make things better.

About that time, I looked up and saw Maureen Jones standing in the lobby watching me.  I walked over to her and related my conversation with Cathy. She hugged me and suggested that we hook up with Katie Moss and the three of us go for a hike in the desert. God in His divine protection assigned Maureen and Katie as my tandem guardian angels for the remainder of that horrible Sunday afternoon.  Our time together was exactly what I needed.  I felt Maureen’s and Katie’s love for me, as the three of us journeyed along the forbidden trails of the Sonoran Desert. I knew Maureen and Katie were there because they loved me. And oddly, I was able to soak up their love like a sponge without any feelings of unworthiness. Writing this nearly ten years later, I now realize that by accepting their love that awful day, it was a sure sign that my rehab was producing fruit. Even in the midst of my profound pain, I sensed that my life was in paradox mode.  I felt my recovery was taking hold.  Yet, that afternoon, under the crystal clear Arizona sun, suspended in an incredibly deep blue sky,  like some kind of fire hot Christmas ornament, as the three of us walked upon God’s fantastically beautiful desert canvas, I did not have a clue what to do next.  As we neared the end of our hike, perhaps fifteen yards ahead, a rattlesnake slithered across out path. It was the first one that I had seen; although, I had been warned that the desert was full of them. It was months later, during a time of reflection that I realized the hidden meaning of the snake.

When we got back from our walk, I soon realized that every staff person was aware of what had gone down in Nashville. Each made a point to reach out to me. Cathy was right, as usual; it was best that I learned of Dave’s betrayal while I was at Sierra Tucson.  The staff helped me to understand my feelings and well as Dave’s actions. More importantly, they let me begin to process them, verbally, emotionally and spiritually.  When asked for one word to describe my feelings, I immediately responded, “confused”.  That confusion would follow me like a dark and menacing shadow until Monday April 10, 2006.

One day, in a session Mary Harper, my therapist, made a reference to the “known and the unknown” in my situation. I actually laughed and accused her of being a student of Donald Rumsfeld. (8) That was the first laugh I could recall in almost a month. I cannot remember the exact context of her comment, but the bottom line was something like,   what I already knew about Dave’s actions, as bad as that knowledge was to me, at least I knew about it. What I did not know was what else his newly liberated ego was cooking up on his fast track climb to be top dog for the first time in his life and escape his self-perceived, perpetual second-string life.  I never saw him that way, but I knew that was the way he saw himself when the lights were turned off.

What a son does or does not get from a father always has a profound effect. It seems clear to me that Dave’s betrayal was ignited by the unquenchable need to feel affirmed by his dad. To have that need realized, Dave willingly paid a huge price. God’s design of each human being contains a phenomenal healing ability. That Sunday, Dave’s hatchet job was just underway and with each day it became clearer to me that his sinister intent was like a snowball rolling downhill. As it grew in size and speed he decided that he would  destroy me however he had to. Fortunately, God protected me from the full force of his butchery.

On October 14 a few days before I left for home, in a phone conversation Dave told me that if I attempted to come back to HPC that he would have me arrested and he was thoughtful enough to remind me what that would do to my mom and that if that happened she would learn of the abuse. He said the media would have a “field day”. He then instructed me to call him cell and leave a message that I had decided not to return. I did that as soon as we hung up. What was so amazing about was that I did not have any trouble whatsoever in doing that.

Before we hung up Dave told me that I should sue the Catholic Church for “big bucks” and even offered to put me in touch with an attorney. He also suggested that I write a book about my abuse, saying “You might end up on Oprah”. This is that book; that was the first time I considered writing this one. Good ideas can come from strange places. Then he went into damage control mode when, he told me that my friend, Lou Alvarez wanted “to throw me under the bus, but that I (Dave) would not let him”. Of course I knew he was lying.  He also said there were “many rumors” about me at church. I responded, “I bet there are; why not just tell them the truth about what is going on?” He replied that if he did that people might feel for me over Kristen (9). When I inquired as to the nature of the rumors, he replied that for one, Sam Garrett was “stirring up trouble”. He said that Sam was telling people that I was a racist. I pretended like I could not know Sam Garret, but the truth was I knew Sam well.  I also knew that Dave was on one of his trademarked lying binges.  In fact, as he was talking, I imagined him having to look away from the phone, as he lied to me. Dave had spent a great part of his life looking away when he was talking.  He is not an eye contact kind of guy. During my stay at Sierra Tucson, I learned a great deal about liars.

By coincidence, when I returned home, Sam Garrett was one of the first people to contact me. I met with Sam and his lovely wife Linda. They told me that when they had gone to Dave to see what had happened to me, that Dave had told them, “John is a very sick person; he is a racist and that has finally caught up with him”. Linda interjected that it was obvious he was lying because she had known me since my building supply days when I had regularly called on her company. She said, “Dave could not look us in the eyes at all”. Sam told me that he “jumped all over Dave about the racist comment” and told him he was going to tell me about it as soon as I got home. Obviously, when Dave claimed on the phone, that Sam was the source, he was merely trying to cover his tracks.  I thought to myself. A lot has changed over the past month, but Dave has not.

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