Everything I Needed to Know About Recovery—I first Had the Opportunity to Learn in Little League
By KEN WELLS, LPC
Life is rooted in community which is about bonding in relationships. Bonding is strongest within communities where values are forged, convictions are cemented and care for one another is formed. When bonds are broken, community suffers from its break down. I learned early in life that baseball is a microcosm of life.
Little League is about fitting in. It’s not unlike any other sport for a kid. Belonging matters. It’s that way for adults, too. Regarding addiction, I never met an addict who did not struggle with fitting in. It’s a common struggle for most. Without this experience of belonging in relationship, most addicts don’t recover.
It was a warm spring day when my youngest son Sam came running in after school and announced “Coach called and I got practice today at 6pm”. He had been drafted in Little League and his coach called to tell him whose team he was on and when the first practice would begin. You would have thought the president of the United States had called. Everything about belonging and fitting in was wrapped up for a little kid in that announcement. That is so much about what Little league was about— fitting in. Though it doesn’t happen as much as desired, in the early stages the rules of the game of baseball are designed to promote belonging and fitting in. Kids don’t get cut in Little League baseball. Every kid plays at least 2 innings— at least in my town they did. During the early leagues, no one kept score. But that didn’t last long. Still, the focus was including everybody. Baseball and other sport is about bonding. When players decide to hang up their cleats and retire after a short or long career, one of the things they miss most is the chemistry, connection and camaraderie they had with their baseball fraternity.
Most stories I know about addiction center around this profound issue about bonding, belonging and attachment. The way I know I matter is when my parents participate with me on my terms in sufficient amounts of time. When it doesn’t happen I am prone to subconsciously search for significance through performance in ways that might get mom and dad’s smile of approval. The problem is when I become an adult I can never perform enough. Eventually the focus on performance becomes very painful and empty. At this point, an addict can never get enough of what he really doesn’t want. He then seeks to medicate the painful emptiness with an addictive behavior.
Kids who love to play sport experience at an early age the magic of belonging. Little League creates this experience for many. But, for the kid who either doesn’t like baseball or sport, community can become very painful when sports are heavily emphasized.
I remember when my oldest son Jimmy played varsity baseball in high school. There was a home school kid, Jamie, who tried desperately to fit in as he attempted to make the team. He was not a great player but adequate. Yet, he could not fit in and was unable to create a sense of belonging. It was painful to watch. Jim’s team won the state championship that year but missed an opportunity to learn how to build community through acceptance of someone who was different. Looking back, the memory of a championship season faded. But, the reality of intolerance, exclusion and judgment that fuels hatred, strife and addiction continues to permeate communities throughout our world.
A lack of connection in community always fuels socially destructive behavior including epidemic addiction . I won’t forget a friend whose name was Sigler and who attended the church college that I attended. He was from Detroit. He moved into a dorm and lived on the same floor that I lived. It was a dorm floor that for the most part was dominated by kids who grew up in the South and who were redneck about their religious beliefs and life in general. I did not grow up in the South but I loved the fun loving ways that was demonstrated in the lives of these guys. Somehow, I was able to fit in. Sigler didn’t. The school was conservative and evangelical. It was important to be “born- again”. You would not fit in if you were not.
Apparently, Sigler, had been forced to go to this Bible-based school by his parents. He was unhappy about being controlled. He gave evidence of his displeasure by wallpapering his room in Playboy and Penthouse pinups. He smoked cigarettes and cussed a lot, too. Sometimes, he even smoked in his dorm room. Well, for Bible-belt, fundamental, southern boys who had come to learn to preach the gospel, this behavior was a “no-go”. So Siglar was picked on and excluded from the community. In fun-loving seriousness, a few of the southern boys decided to take matters in hand. One time one of the southern boys whose name was Danny, took a cigarette from Sigler’s pack of Winston’s and with tweezers pulled out the tobacco. He inserted a firecracker and re-packed the tobacco. Later, Sigler went to get some beer at a Seven Eleven convenience store. He pulled out a smoke from his pack and lit up. It began to sizzle. It blew up in his fingers while Sigler was looking at it, wondering what the heck was going on! It was fortunate that he did not get hurt seriously. When hearing about the story from Sigler later, Danny, the culprit, with a capricious smile uttered “Turn or Burn Sigler!”.
On another occasion, Sigler was asleep in his dorm room. He did not have a roommate. One of the southern boys stole the master key that fit all of the dorm rooms from the Resident Assistant (R.A). About 3am, he took a paint pan and filled it with wadded toilet paper. He then sprayed hair spray all over the paper. he turned off the hall lights and sprayed Sigler’s door with hairspray as well. He recruited a partner in crime, then quietly unlocked Sigler’s room. On the sly, he tiptoed up to his bed. Sigler was in a deep sleep. He positioned the paint pan just above Sigler’s chest. He took Sigler’s cigarette lighter and lit the paper which immediately burst into flames. At the same time his partner in crime lit the hairspray on the door which also burst into flames. Then they both screamed “Fire!-fire!-turn or burn, Sigler”! Even though there was no damage done to the door or to his room, needless to say, the prank scared the hell out of Sigler, who had been terrorized out of a deep sleep by this craziness. He was a far better sport than what I would have been, had the trick been played on me. Sigler never returned to the school after that year and I never saw him again. For sure, he left, not fitting in and of course, unconverted.
Learning to deal with not fitting in is an important skill to master throughout life. Most addicts cope with this dynamic destructively. What I have come to believe is that throughout the course of life we all become “Sigler” in that we have the experience of not belonging at different times throughout life. I won’t ever forget the sense of lostness I felt when I transitioned from stardom in Little League to being average to eventually disappearing from the baseball scene in my hometown, during my youth. It was very painful and lonely.
Much later, I will never forget the first time I walked into a 12 step room for my first meeting to address my addiction. It was lonely and I certainly did not think of myself as fitting in. Even yet, it occurred when I shed my conservative heritage and embraced a more liberal theology than the mother church I grew up. Clearly, I no longer fit in. It hurt and I was very lonely by all accounts. I felt judged and was excluded from many experiences. I had the age old experience of feeling like I was “on the outside, looking in”. It was the loneliness and non acceptance from an old familiar community that was most painful. I had lost a sense of belonging. It must have been what Sigler felt.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the opportunity that Little League baseball presents about how to live in community. Baseball for kids can introduce a critical communal element of acceptance that is so necessary for all.
Most people who attend 12 step meetings to address an addiction will never forget their first meeting. It is just about as tenuous as what the Little League kid felt at his first practice. There is such a fear of exposure and rejection. It is common to hear afterwards the amazement of inclusion, kinship and lack of critical judgment. For many, the magic of the meeting is found in the sense of belonging and spirit of unconditional acceptance. The fundamentals of community building begin with a sense of belonging and like Little League, the design of a 12 step meeting is to draw a circle wide enough to include everybody.
There’s a story I read about a guy who was able to capture a vision for inclusion as a way of reconfiguring limitations that most folk just accept. His name is Phil Deason. He seemed to believe that everyone could know the freedom and power of belonging and fitting in. He created the Moody Miracle Baseball League in Conyers, Ga. Apparently, in 1996, a mother of a spunky 3 yr old with Down Syndrome approached him. Her son desperately wanted to play ball. Phil was the president of the local youth sports association. So he put the baseball wannabe in a non competitive league which seemed to be fine.
Eventually, the boy grew too old for the league which provided the impetus for Deason to start a baseball league for people with special needs. The league developed into 10 teams with players from 7 different counties. In the game, every player gets a chance to bat, every at bat is a home run, and every game ends in a tie. Some of the players have Down Syndrome, while others are autistic or suffer from cerebral palsy. One woman was blind and her guide dog leads her around the bases. In the Moody Miracle League, everybody gets to fulfill the dream of playing baseball. Volunteer “buddies” are assigned to the players to walk the bases with the players or may stand in the field alongside them to make sure no one gets hurt.
One of the volunteer umpires said, “Some of the players can only blink or smile, but to see their faces light up when everyone stands and cheers for them, well, it’s a blessing.”
Deason himself says, “In regular youth associations, parents will holler because of a bad call or a child who didn’t get to play, but at a Miracle League game, you hear them talk of gut wrenching decisions between buying a new car or their child a new electric wheelchair. That puts it all in perspective.” He added that where he grew up, most folk fantasize about what they want in life. Few find a way to make their dreams come true and include those who most likely don’t fit.
Recovery is about people who get stuck obsessing about their fantasy and lose touch with reality. It is for those who do not think they fit or feel that they belong in social situations. These folk fail to find a way to make their dreams come true because of their stuck condition. Not many people use their creativity like Phil Deason did, to adjust the focus of their dream to include space for human brokenness. When brokenness remains unaddressed, people become manacled with failure and shame. People begin to feel disconnected and isolated, believing that somehow they do not fit. Life becomes a zero sum game fraught with losers and all too few winners. It’s a life formula that produces a driven culture where no one can ever get enough. Cultural addictions connect to a point where frenzied, frazzled folk can’t get enough of what they really don’t want. It’s a destructive dynamic that is founded and fueled by toxic shame traced to the very earliest days of our lives. The strategy of Little League baseball is to underscore the importance of the inclusion of all as necessary to the building of caring community. It is from this place of belonging that Little League teaches a child to fulfill destiny and make their dreams come true.
In recovery, without a community to belong, an addict will lose focus and most often relapse feeling like they never really fit in. The fundamental dynamics of belonging so vintage to building community as early as in Little League, is an absolute necessity in building a solid foundation for recovery in addiction.
Article by Ken Wells