TKD Heart“Is he drunk?” I asked the young boy seated by the window just as the flight attendants began the safety demonstration. As his father slumped forward, he edged back in his seat to quietly whisper, “Yes he is.” I felt his embarrassment.

I prefer to take an aisle seat when flying, it gives me the freedom to move about especially on long flights. I also wait for the passengers in the middle and window seat to show up before I buckle up.

As the last four passengers bustled to their seats I caught a glimpse of the woman, she had a small child in tow, and she felt scared to me. She sat in the row behind me with her son. Her other son, along with her husband sat in the middle and window seats in my row.

Instantly I smelled alcohol on his breath. I watched as the young son struggled to get his Dad’s seat belt done up. Noticeably I felt the absence of his wife, she was quiet in the row behind me.

I immediately felt frightened and at the same time somewhat paralyzed seated beside this drunk man. I wasn’t breathing and suddenly felt like I was 14 years old.

So I took a breath and began to get present to just how I was being triggered unconsciously. Without an obvious explanation, this triggered response was difficult to tolerate… not to mention, disorienting and disturbing.

This trigger was body based. It automatically showed up creating fear and a loss of breath. In fact, it showed up even before my mind consciously registered it. That’s just how I am wired.

A flood of memories streamed my way. I remembered being on a flight from Vancouver to Calgary, my older brother was very drunk, and it was 43 years ago. I was 14 years old.

I remember the shame of having to be seen with him, his loudness was excruciatingly embarrassing, but I was helpless. I remembered wanting to scream for help. I didn’t make a sound.

With nearly a decade of studying shadow work with Debbie Ford and the Ford Institute for Transformational Change, I was able to quickly recognize what was going on in my brain. And instead of disappearing like I did 43 years ago, I was able to presence myself to what was really going on for me.

Our brains are organized to constantly make connections between what’s happening on the inside and outside in the world around us. It does this so that we can more reliably predict the future and with that, ensure our survival. For me, it is about creating my own sense of safely. In my lifetime that is one of my primary responsibilities given my experience with alcoholics in my life.

Having experienced trauma on that flight with my brother 43 years ago, my brain remembered the necessary aspects so it could prompt me to avoid a reoccurrence of the event. Each aspect of that event was registered as an emotional charge in my brain.

I am really proud of how I responded to the circumstance on that flight even as I listened to a tiny, but loud voice in me, which was saying, “Be quiet. Don’t even think of asking for help. No one cares about how you feel.”

As the man beside me passed out and his son struggled to get him seated upright, I quietly raised my hand to get the attention of the flight attendant who was just finishing the safety demonstration.

As she walked towards me with concern in her eyes I again heard the voice in me say, “Don’t create a scene. You’ll be okay.”

I suddenly heard myself saying, “This man is drunk and I do not feel safe flying with him beside me.” I glanced over and caught the eyes of his son. They instantly reflected relief.

The flight attendant asked how I knew he was drunk. My glance to her must have translated my fear and she immediately went into action. I shared that his son told me. They immediately questioned his wife who sheepishly said, “Yes, he’s a bit drunk.”

Citing federal law prohibiting passengers who are drunk from boarding an aircraft the flight attendants quickly inferred that they needed to consult the captain. In short order the plane was headed back to the gate. The announcement to the passengers stated that a situation had arisen that required immediate attention.

I was quick to notice all kinds of emotions as the four passengers were escorted off the plane. I felt huge compassion for the young son seated beside his Dad; my heart went out to his Mom whom I felt had been here many times before. And to the youngest boy I felt relief for him; perhaps he was too young to realize what just happened.

Although not usually easy, I love discovering the light at the end of my trigger. The more conscious I choose to be, the easier it is to recognize what’s triggering me. Not surprisingly, it’s also a heck of a lot easier to self-care during these moments.

A Mom, travelling with her two young boys, seated across the aisle from me thanked me for helping to keep her boys safe. One drunken passenger, according to the flight attendants, is a very serious safety issue.

To the Dad who was drunk I offer my gratitude. Through you I found my healing after 43 years.

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peace“Oh dear, I’ll miss this place.” These words were quietly shared with me by my Mom as we left her favourite restaurant in Calgary nearly nine years ago. In the midst of a good night hug she told me, “This will be my last date.”

Fast forward to nearly a year later, as I summoned the courage to find the final words to share with my Mom as she drew closer to taking her last breath, I asked, “Do you remember our last date?” She squeezed my hand and said, “You are my best date.”

From as long ago as 1969 I can remember sensing when it was that I might not see someone again.

It started with my grandfather. He and my grandmother stepped off a city bus on Kensington Road in Calgary as I happened to be walking by. After a quick chat, a warm hug from both of them, I felt this uneasiness. It was towards my grandfather. I remember spinning around to wave good-bye to him. Two hours later, that day, I was told he died of a heart attack while watching sports in his easy chair. I would be the last grandchild to see him alive.

In 1987, my oldest brother Rick called to wish me a Merry Christmas. I was married at the time and remember telling my wife how uneasy I felt after saying good-bye to him. I said, “I think I need to go and see him.” Rick was living in a small town north of Edmonton and it was quite a trek to get there. Something nudged me to make the trip. It would be the last time I saw him alive. He died in March of 1988.

As a boy I was teased for being sensitive. As a closeted gay boy the story I made was that only sissy’s were sensitive. I got pretty adept at masking my sensitivity with an athletic, more masculine persona. I used the jock part of me to hide my sensitivity. To that I would add never feeling safe enough to tell anyone about this ‘sense’ I possessed.

Darcy was the first man I ever met who was living with hiv. His strength astonished me, as did his courage. It was early 1991 that he shared he was going home to visit his family and wanted to know if I would  meet him for a tea before he left.  Before accepting his invitation, I remember sensing that this might be the last time I saw him.  Shrugging off the feeling, I quickly said yes to our tea date. A week later his former partner called to tell me Darcy died at home while visiting his family.

This ‘sense’, so I thought, was supposed to be relegated to family. Clearly, I was wrong.

It would be within the confines of therapy that I would feel safe enough to explore what this ‘sense’ was connected to or what I thought it meant to me. I distinctly remember the first question my therapist asked me relating to this dynamic in my life. “Is there anyone, you can remember, who told you in some way you possessed this strength?” First, he called it a strength and next I remembered my grandmother telling me, as a little boy, that I was special.

As my life has progressed and right up to only recently I now know how to use this sense, strength or specialness, as Grandma called it, as a way to be present with those I love. It is also empowering to share this story perhaps as a way for others to also relate to a specialness they possess. It helps me remember that I am not alone.

Today, this sensitivity is one of my many strengths. Listening to this sense has gifted me with seeing some friends and family for the very last time and never feeling regret for not showing up with them. For as much heartache as I have endured saying good-bye, I have been equally blessed with knowing I showed up when I was called. My gift through all of this is peace.

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su·i·cide ˈso͞oəˌsīd/ noun 1. the action of killing oneself intentionally. “he committed suicide at the age of forty”

“I love you Tom”, was the last phone message I received from my brother Jim. His voice was very calm, yet I knew something wasn’t exactly right.

A dear friend , on Facebook, posted this graphic yesterday: 


What eeked from my heart the moment I saw the post was, “No”, at least not for my brother. He had attempted to leave one time before and was not successful. This time he was.

I wrote this to my friend, “It (suicide) took my brothers pain away and from that I gained one of the most exquisite lessons of my life. It was his gift to me.” My friends reply was, “I’m speechless.” I couldn’t resist and replied, “So was I.”

This is not a post about the wrongs, rights or religiosity of suicide. It is me sharing that in the darkest of circumstances, if we are open, there is always a lesson to learn.

My family never spoke of Jim’s suicide. I don’t even have a photograph of him. All too classic a response for a catholic family riddled with the devastation of addiction issues.

Jim was gorgeous. He was a talented writer, one of Alberta’s top junior football prospects, bright as a whip, a hilarious storyteller and someone many people admired.

James Joseph, named after my father, was the fifth of ten children my parents would bring into the world. He was part of the older five. We younger five never really knew them.

From all of my older siblings I sensed great pain. It was as if they all harboured a horrible secret that no one ever spoke of or didn’t know how to speak of.

I have no facts to back up my story, but I always felt that every older sibling of mine had had their innocence ripped away from them.

Each of them used a different strategy to cover their pain. Yet the common denominator were substances with the constant companion of addiction.

Jim’s pain seemed more palpable. He chose not to express it violently like his older brothers, but I could somehow relate to it in a way I couldn’t with my other older siblings.

There was a quiet temeluchusness to his presence. I felt his fear. He would spend many years in prison for crimes I knew nothing about.

He and I had something in common. I thought it was that he too was gay. That wasn’t it, it felt more connected to how we learned to hide.

Jim would become the perpetrator, my perpetrator. As he had learned to hide, so did I.

I remember a huge breakthrough in my therapy that had me connect to the compassion I needed to find for my brother. I got there by wondering who sexually abused him.

My heart ached for him.

A few weeks prior to listening to my brother tell me, via a taped recording on the phone,  that he loved me, we had a chance to speak.

He told me how proud he was of me for finding the courage to come out and uttered something to the effect that he could never summon such courage. Also, as he turned away from me he said, “Please forgive me for what I did to you.”

Jim had always scared me. Yet something that day moved me to follow him back into Mom’s kitchen, ask him to turn around, look into his beautiful blues eyes and say, “I forgive you.” He said nothing.

It was in the wee hours of the morning, perhaps 7 – 8 hours after listening to his taped voice telling me that he loved me, that his girlfriend Sheryl called to share that he had died.

Days later, in Victoria, as I sat beside his casket it suddenly dawned on me that this was the first time I hadn’t felt that my brother was in pain.

I leaned over and whispered two things to him. First I said, “My hope is that the choice you made to leave is powerfully serving you.” Secondly, as I gently wept I shared, “Thank you so much for teaching me how to forgive. I love you.”


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IMG_2603“Don’t even think about playing around the river. You’ll slip in and drown.” This order, bellowed by my Mom, topped The 10 Commandment list of my catholic childhood. Drummed out of me was the notion of trying to take risks.

On the other hand I heard, “Life is nothing more than a game of numbers.” Mom said I would die. My coaches and teachers told me, as an elementary school student, the more risks I tried to take the more rewards I would receive.

Underlying all this rhetoric was my fear. I didn’t know how to tell the world how scared I was, nor was I encouraged. I didn’t even try.

I was afraid to tell anyone that my Dad beat my Mom. That my brothers beat my Dad. That there wasn’t any food at home. That we were on welfare. That I was gay. That I was afraid of being afraid.

False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear was real for me.

Living from the vantage point of ‘don’t’ is exhausting. Learning to take risks without being encouraged or even taught how to take risks made me sad.

From a philosophical, theological and even a spiritual perspective I’ve always thought that my work, in this lifetime, centres around acknowledgment. So of course I’d come through a woman who gave birth to ten kids.

Robin Sharma shares, “To live your life to the fullest, start taking more risks and do the things you fear. Get good at being uncomfortable and stop walking the path of least resistance.” I hear, “Stop trying to be secure.”

Years ago, while studying in San Francisco with a powerful spiritual teacher by the name of Matthew Garrigan, I told him that I ‘tried’ to do the homework he assigned. Matthew abruptly stopped me and said, “Pick up your pen and listen very carefully.” He quickly told me he was going to ask me a simple question. I can still feel his intensity.

With a higher pitch in his voice Matthew said, “Try to drop the pen.”.

The pen dropped from my fingers. “What did you just do?”, Matthew asked. I nervously said, “I dropped the pen.”

“Pick it up”, he ordered and then said, “Now try to drop the pen.” Again I dropped the pen. With the patience of a saint, he said. “Thomas, what did you do?” Feeling scared I said, “I dropped the pen.”

For the next twenty minutes Matthew repeated this lesson.

Finally I got it. There was no such thing as ‘try’. I either held the pen or I dropped it. My story disappeared.

I’ve learned to stretch my boundaries, while being afraid, and not be the least bit concerned when someone says “Don’t do that” or “Give it a try, Thomas.” I am free.

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TKD 2421“I had no idea there was a restraining order, honest Officer, no one told me.”

I remember the police cruiser rolling around the corner onto 6th Avenue, it’s lights turned off, as my father was pushed to the ground by one of my older brothers. Mom told us he was never coming back.

From the moment I met my partner nearly 6 years ago I told him I wanted to visit the neighbourhood he grew up in, his backyard, in Taipei. That honour took place nearly a month ago. Taipei has such an amazing rhythm, very similar to the man I love.

Just this past weekend, in Calgary, it was my turn to share my backyard experiences. The rhythm was palpably different.

The Dolan’s grew up, more like survived, in what Calgary labels as old ‘wartime’ houses. Many of these houses still stand in the older neighbourhoods of the city. Typically, they are two-bedroom houses that I am sure don’t even qualify as bungalows. Mom and Dad had one bedroom, three sets of bunk beds resided in the second bedroom and a single bed was laid out in what we called the back shed. Nine kids lived in this place.

As my partner framed a photo of me with the house number 2421 in the background, the memory of yet another violent ordeal flooded my mind. I even remembered that the Officer my father shouted to about the restraining order my Mom placed on him, had been dispatched to our house for a previous domestic violence disturbance. I remember feeling such shame.

My partner teased me that I had plunged the memories of 15 years of living, in that house, into a 30 minute neighbourhood visit. It was all I could do to stand on the street.

What I marvel at today and most humbly assert, is that from those meager beginnings often filled with uncertainly, fear, dysfunction and a myriad of other childhood traumas is, I am ok.

As I drove by my elementary school playground, as part of the tour, I remembered walking with my grade 5 teacher during recess. He shared with me, “I’m not sure the world will ever be ready for who you really are Tommy, but it’s only important that you are.” Little did I know, at the time, that a gay man was talking to a gay boy.

The trip to Calgary and my willingness to share where it was that I came from, neatly strung together with some entertaining stories, had me acknowledge how willing I had been to turn tragedy into triumph. Add to that the blessings of having been connected to some wonderful people who cared deeply for me.

I left Calgary feeling very afraid and unsafe as an out gay man in the early 1990’s. I giggle today when I read the unique selling/marketing proposition of Calgary as being, “The Heart of the New West.”

Somewhere along my path in life I read or listened to someone who said, “We are who we surround ourselves with.” With 41 years passing since leaving the neighbourhood I toured my partner through, I realized the blessings I’ve breathed into because of who has surrounded me.

Today, the house that inspired so much of my formative life, 2421 – 6th Avenue NW, is now a day care. Clearly, I am ready for who I am today.

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