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Month: September 2020

Blocked by the Voice in My Head

Breaking free from my self imposed mental prison

We moved to Shelton when I was in 7th grade. Middle school was already tough, and now I was the new kid starting in a new place, midway through the year.

I was mortified by the Puma sneakers my mom made me wear, because they weren’t Nike or Reebok, like everyone else had. I thought to myself, no one will like me because I’m not wearing the right sneakers. I didn’t talk to the people at the bus stop and kept to myself at school, because in my mind, they wouldn’t like me – so I beat them to it by not liking them first.

Then in high school, I was obsessed with losing weight because I saw all the pretty, popular kids having a good time. I obsessively created endless checklists to eat less and exercise more. Instead of looking for friends to enjoy lunch with, I sat by myself with a salad, telling myself, I’ll be happy someday. Once I get through this, I’ll have lots of friends.

In my twenties, I was in a rock band playing out in bars around New Haven. We were pretty good, and the other guys were really into it – but my internal dialogue was always focused on the negative: people aren’t paying attention and no one wants to listen to us, and I can’t wait until this is over. (Wasn’t that supposed to be fun?)

The truth is, I was NEVER happy where I was.

Was someone trying to sabotage my life? (Yes, me.)

Apparently, I didn’t want to be anywhere, so drugs became more appealing. I was aiming for happiness, but settled for getting numb. Eventually, I couldn’t function without both cocaine and heroin – every day.

I was in a dark and hopeless place, where my entire existence consisted of working to buy drugs, up until the point where no amount of drugs was enough to drown out the guilt, shame, and remorse I was feeling, caused by that lifestyle. Then … when I could go no further – I hit bottom.

I desperately cried out for help, and something snapped inside. I woke up. I became self-aware like never before.

Suddenly, it was clear that what I had been looking for was not “out there.” There wasn’t some magic job, girl, or bank account that would make me happy. I needed to find peace on the inside.

With the help of some amazing people and the 12 steps, I started to question every thought that popped into my head. I saw the lies – all that crap about me not being good enough, and not being worthy of love and friendship. Says who? I could see how all the stories I had been telling myself, about myself, were blocking me off from everything good.

The most critical moment was when I realized that I was neither my mind or my body, that there was this other thing – an awareness, that could see everything from an outside perspective. That awareness was the real me.

For the first time, I was able to dis-identify with the voice in my head.

The more I was able to step back and observe my thoughts, the more they slowed down, and I began to feel connected to everything around me. I was able to experience moments of presence, of just being right where my feet are, enjoying whatever was going on. You hear that? JOY! This was the happiness thing I had seen all those other people doing.

I could plainly see how that little voice in my head is not always right, and I became free.

Today, 15 years later, I’m still sober and I’ve never lost that essential awareness. But I need to constantly make a decision to NOT engage with every single thought that pops into my head (which can still be very difficult). But, without fail, when I follow one moment to the next, without giving in to that nagging desire to control everything through over-planning and worrying, amazing things happen. Inspired action happens. Luck happens. Synchronicity. God moments. Whatever you want to call it … things are overwhelmingly better for me when I’m present.

It’s like I now have access to power that I didn’t have before. It was always there, I just had to make space for it.

How we experience life comes down to perception, right? We see things happening around us, but we get to assign meaning to it. Is it good or is it bad? For most things, it depends how you look at it.

Thoughts happen. I can’t stop them. But, when I’m awake – aware – I can see them coming, and decide which ones to listen to.

How would your life change if you stepped away from your thoughts once and a while, looked back and said, “nope – that one’s bullshit. I’m gonna ignore that one.”


You’re probably thinking, how can I get to this place of awakening? Is suffering a requirement? For me, it took a crisis to wake me up. But, you may get there with just a little practice. Mindfulness is like a muscle – the more you use it, the more it grows. Here are a few things to try: Pretend you’re the Karate Kid, swatting thoughts away (remember, wax on, wax off … we’ve been watching Cobra Kai on Netflix!) You can say to yourself, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” then wait – see how long you can go. One of my favorites: all throughout your day, especially during conversations, occasionally push your foot firmly down against the floor to remind yourself to stay in the moment, to be where your feet are, and not drift into random thought. By shining a light on your thoughts, they start to slow down. Start by making a little space up there in your head, and more will be revealed.

Header image artwork “Rainbow” by Abigail Liebensohn, courtesy of Zen Mantis


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The Journey From Technical To Emotional

How I finally learned to be a proper rock star

My first experience playing guitar in front of people was a little like downloading a program then double-clicking the icon, or inserting a floppy disk then typing RUN into the command prompt, for those of you from my generation. What I’m trying to say is, my performance was as if someone strapped a guitar to a robot – it had no emotion.

The year was 1992, and Shelton High School was about to have it’s first “Rock Festival”, organized by our beloved music teacher, Ms Dziamba. There were many audition tapes submitted, but only 5 or 6 bands were chosen to perform – and I was in one of them!

We were called The Prions, based on something random we picked out of a biology book. Randy was on bass, I played guitar, and Robb sang. We would get together and eat pizza, drink cases of soda, and write ridiculous songs. Our collective influences included Iron Maiden, Primus, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, and of course, it was the 90’s – Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

But now we had a gig to prepare for, the perfect excuse to start taking things more seriously. We needed a drummer, so I began courting Brandon, who I knew from the marching band (where I played bari sax.) He wasn’t interested at first, but eventually I got him – with a china cymbal – which we would need for our opening song, Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson.

I’d been obsessed with learning this song since the transcription appeared in one of the monthly guitar magazines. It was just the right combination of extremely hard to play with a hooky melody – perfect to show off a little for the people at school – to show ’em what I got!

I was a shy kid, completely wrapped up inside myself, in my own little world, as a means of survival. It was hard for me to connect with other people, because I was full of fear and anxiety. My plan was to put myself out there, literally, on a stage, hoping that I might attract some attention, then people would approach ME to be friends. 

After months of prep and rehearsals, we were ready. We even wrote an original song (mostly Robb did), called Turn Away.

It was finally show time. 

The energy that night was insane. I could feel electricity in the air, the unruly crowd of teenagers in the audience, the hum of the amplifiers, the rah rah of the other bands and the crew pumping us up as we strutted toward the stage to plug in and prepare for takeoff. 

I tested my amp … false start. Total amateur move. I was shaking and so nervous. My bare feet were sticking to my brown boat shoes.

I plunged right in, starting the intro to Cliffs of Dover, with its heroic 16th note runs, all by myself, alone. I might as well have been naked, standing at the edge of the stage, looking out into the dark abyss of the auditorium, knowing the discerning eyes of my peers were sitting just below me. Then, just as the rest of the band joined in, the hot lights came on. Red, blue and yellow gels lit us up like a Pink Floyd concert. And, there was a fiery white spotlight pointed right at ME. Holy shit.

I kept going, Randy was stage left, just eating it up. He had done this before. Brandon was up on a riser, doing his best Neil Peart impression, banging on the $70 cymbal I bribed him with. I paced around a little, back and forth, as I played. Then, in anticipation of the main hook of the song, I moved closer to the edge where the front monitors were, thinking I was really getting into it. Later on, I watched the video one of the parents made with their camcorder, and saw the truth – that I was just standing there, barely alive … fingers moving, but looking down at the guitar, with no emotion, no enthusiasm, and no excitement.

When the song was over, after a minor flub in the last crazy fast guitar run, everyone cheered. That applause was really cool, but MUST CONTINUE! Robb ran out to join us, waving his arms like a maniac – he was the perfect front man. We started The Evil That Men Do by Iron Maiden (according to Randy, that was the ideal choice because it was more “pop” than Infinite Dreams.) We also played Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd (which included Jim Russell on guitar), a Pearl Jam song, and Smells Like Teen Spirit

When it was all over, we walked off, and I was on top of the world – it was such a rush … to be done with it! There, I checked all the boxes; the computer program had ended. For the most part it went to plan, with only a few minor errors. People seemed to like it. I got some nice compliments the next day at school, which was my goal, but nothing really changed. I did not go on to become class president.

The band carried on for a while, with different line-ups. After high school and college, Randy and I re-tooled and created a Beatles inspired band. We became very interested in songwriting, thinking we might be just be the next Lennon and McCartney. We called ourselves The Trumen, and started playing out at bars around West Haven. One time we even played at a school dance. 

Well, the band broke up, as they say. If I’m honest, it was all my fault. I was dealing with demons of the drug and alcohol variety, which unfortunately consumed most of the next 10 years. Part of what fueled my need to escape reality was a longing to have a life in music, but not having the self-esteem and confidence to really go for it. I was in many bands, had many jobs, lived in many states, and even worked at a recording studio for a while, trying to find my way, but I just couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t make anything work. Apparently, what I was looking for was not “out there” ( … it was inside.)

Long story, short – I finally woke up, cleaned up, got married, had kids, and got on a path of recovery and self-awareness. 

I began to see my past and present from a new perspective. Life got better in so many ways, but music was still in a weird place for me. Why is it that, even though I was technically a really good player, I was unable to successfully express my feelings through music? There was certainly no lack of emotion, I was an emotional roller coaster!

Through the 12 steps, meditation, and slowing down my mind a little, I started noticing how I had a habit of hammering away at songs, treating the notes like they were a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a computer program waiting to be executed. This was nothing new, but now I could see it happening – I was aware. It seemed that playing each riff perfectly, the way I had heard it on the record was all that mattered, that each song was just a means to an end, a check box. So, I decided to change. I started learning songs to the point of muscle memory, then when it came time to perform, I’d show up and just try to be in the moment, without thinking. I made progress, but still had a long way to go.

My wife Heather and I started writing songs together. Once the kids were old enough to use the bathroom on their own, we recorded an album with some amazing players at Carriage House Studios in Stamford CT. We played some shows, but I was still uncomfortable around other people, and had difficulty channeling my emotions into the music, but I knew I was getting closer. Time went by …. getting even closer. Until …

One of the best nights of my life was playing to a packed room at Cafe 9 in New Haven. They weren’t there to see us, we were the opening band – but that was ok. I don’t know what got into me, but from the start I was completely in the moment, in the zone, totally enveloped by the experience. During our set, I was moving around, interacting with my band-mates, smiling, even dancing a little, connecting with the audience – filled with enthusiasm AND emotion! THIS is what it’s all about, the feeling I had been looking for all my life! The songs, my voice, the guitar – they were just vehicles to allow me to experience the moment. I knew how and what to play without thinking about it. I was fully alive, like a fish swimming from note to note. I saw opportunities to express emotion (energy) in each stretched-out vowel of a vocal phrase, or slow drawn-out bend of the 8th fret on the B string. It was that place within the notes, the gray area in between, that allowed me to insert my true self. Everything that had been bottled up was suddenly, beautifully released in a way that freed me and fed the audience. 

So, what had changed?

I transitioned from technical to emotional – from computer to human. I was present, vulnerable, and enthusiastic. 

It turns out that authenticity and humanity are what moves an audience, not how fast I can play Cliffs of Dover.

Performing is fun now, because there’s no longer all that pressure to “do it right”. When I walk out on stage, I’m there to interpret and express the song, the way I see it. I don’t need to sound like Eric Clapton or Marvin Gaye. I can give them MY version. If I’m honest and authentic, and not overthinking things, I can’t go wrong. Because there is no wrong! This is art! Whatever is supposed to come out, comes out, and the right people will gladly receive it. 

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, that I’m embarrassed to say because it seems so obvious – is this: if I’m having a good time, so will the audience.

Header image of Parkway South at Cafe Nine in New Haven, CT by Sherry Lynn Photography


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Sausage, Pancakes & Suffering for No Reason

Is it good? Is it bad? I get to decide

Heather is more well-adjusted to life than I am. A lot more. And these days I’m remarkably and painfully aware, noticing when my thoughts and emotions seem to be out of line, when it appears that I’m overreacting – especially when we are experiencing the same exact situations. I’ll often look over at her and say, “Why is this bothering ME so much, when you seem just fine?” It has taken MANY years just to get to the point where I’m questioning my own reactions, wondering if there’s a better way. (The old me didn’t even know what he didn’t know.)

“They’re just facts.” she said. “I just don’t let them bother me.” 

“Ok, I get that intellectually,” I said, “but, it still makes me crazy.”

Earlier that morning, the last Sunday in August, we slept late – like teenager late, 10:30. Although nothing compared to my old hangover sleep-in’s, which lasted until early afternoon, this is very uncommon for parents with 3 young kids and an idiot dog.

It was fine, we’ve had a long week of early mornings, and didn’t have any time sensitive plans for the day, but still, that voice in my head was beating me up: “what the hell, Mike, you’ve wasted half the day … I can’t believe YOU did THIS!” What was also fueling my misery is the sad realization that now I’m old enough to snap, crackle and pop trying to get out of bed after sleeping too long, nothing like the more ‘enjoyable’ muscle ache that comes after working out (which it couldn’t be, because that was 3 days ago!)

Jacob, our autistic 9 year old, had already barged into our bedroom at least 4 times (that I can remember), asking if it was ok to turn on the TV … sure, yes, then it continues …

Is it ok to play on the computer? Yes. 

Is it ok if I make a waffle. YES.

When are you gonna get up and plug in the (Nintendo) Switch? GET OUT!!!

If only he had once told me what time it was, I probably would have gotten up.

So, Heather woke me up. No, not like that, but it was still nice to have her warm body pressed up against me, it slowed my overactive brain long enough to experience a little bit of gratitude before going into battle. Eventually, I got up and staggered down the hallway to see Jacob and Abby, his twin, playing with one of the phones –  and my nemesis, Bowie the 2 year old German Shepherd Dog was still locked away in his crate.

“What the hell! How long have you all been up? Why is BOWIE still in his CRATE!!!” I screamed.

Jacob ran over to let him out. He knew he screwed up. He had been briefed many times about letting the dog out if he was the first one awake.

“JJ, that doesn’t matter now, just … just put down the phone and go to your room,” I said, “and you too Abby.”

I was so pissed.

I don’t even like the damn dog, but for some reason it bothered me that he was in that cage for so many hours, all night, all morning, probably with an overflowing bladder.

Why was I so mad? Because I care about the dog? Because I didn’t want to clean up the mess if he had an accident? Because I think the kids are disrespecting me? Because I’ve failed as a parent, because my kids, my 9 YEAR OLDS aren’t properly and responsibly following my directions? (that was meant to be sarcastic)

I looked over at Heather. She was oblivious, in her own little world, doing Heather things, enjoying the attractions in Heather-Land. I was so freaking jealous.

Not a word. I’ve learned when to just keep my thoughts to myself to not incite an argument with my wife, especially first thing in the morning. So, I started cooking sausage and pancakes, from scratch – not for THEM, but for me! That’s right, to hell with them.

“Is Stephanie awake yet?” I said to Heather. It’s now nearly 11AM, and our 14 year old is nowhere to be found. If SHE wants the damn dog, maybe she should wake up early to take care of him, like a farmer’s daughter would have to wake up and feed the chickens and milk the cows.

I started pouring out the flower, just grinding my thoughts away, stewing in my anger. I added the baking powder, sugar, salt, making a little well in the middle to pour in the milk. Abby loves doing this part, but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction this morning. That’s right, I’ll show those little shits the wrath of my passive aggressiveness!

“How long do we have to stay in our room?” Jacob yells from down the hall.

I shouted back, “How long was Bowie in his crate this morning? About 3 hours?”

I was slicing up the sausage, mad at the pans, mad at the kitchen, and feeling like everything sucks. Just look at the cabinets, all falling apart. And the dust on top of the stove, do I have to do everything around here? Now I was caught up thinking ahead to what else had to be done that day, lamenting my endless pile of tasks, the necessity of checking them all off, just so I can go to sleep then get up and do it all over again in the morning.

What happened to the gratitude of my half naked wife laying in bed with me just a half hour ago?

Just then I became aware that I was violently spinning inside a negative thought vortex, and was able to step out of it for a moment.

“Why does this bother me so much?” I said to Heather.

“I don’t know. They’re just kids.” she said.

And just like that, the icy meanness seemed to melt, and I told Stephanie, who had suddenly appeared, to get the twins and tell them breakfast is ready.

What are the facts of that morning’s events? We overslept, and JJ forgot to let the dog out of his crate. Period. All that suffering I went through was on me. I told myself a horrible story about how my family is plotting to ruin my day, but it was all bullshit. 

I get to decide how I interpret what is happening around me – is it good or is it bad – I get to decide. But only if I’m awake enough to notice.


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