By Jeff Jay
“Just go,” the young captain told me. It was an offhand remark to him but a benediction to me, a blessing on a decision I’d already made. There was no going back, but I wanted an experienced ocean sailor to assure me I wasn’t crazy.
He was newly back from two years in the Virgin Islands, where he’d worked his way up from first mate to skipper of a good-sized yacht. I was getting ready to sail my boat to the same place all alone, so to me he was an expert, and this simple remark had instantly made him an oracle in my eyes. Truth be told, he was the first person to actually endorse my plan. All my friends thought I was nuts.
I peppered the young captain with questions, foolishly proud of my encyclopedic knowledge. He was probably bored, as it was all commonplace to him, but he was enjoying the big dinner and he continued to answer tolerantly—though I felt there was something more on his mind. I was getting carried away with my own enthusiasm and the particulars of getting ready to go, when he stopped me cold to make a point.
“Look,” he said, “you can’t get ready. There’s no such thing as ready. Boats always have jobs that need doing, and there’s no end to it, ever,” he said. “If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never go.”
He sounded just like me at my day job, talking to alcoholics and addicts as a counselor. Not being ready to change was a common excuse with patients, but it was a smoke screen. I was well acquainted with the myth of being ready, and now I saw my own delays for what they really were: fear.
He took a sip of coffee and continued. “You’ve got everything you need: a good boat, a little cash, and time. You can fixx what breaks along the way.”
I had good reasons for my unspoken fears, though. My boat was built to be sailed by a crew of three, at a minimum, and I had no idea how I’d manage it alone in the middle of the ocean. My self-steering mechanism wasn’t installed yet, and I didn’t even have the crucial part that attached its steering lines to the ship’s wheel. My auxiliary engine was a hopeless wreck, the massive bolts that held the keel to the bottom of the boat were rusted out, and the list went on.
The captain took another sip of coffee and thought for a minute. Was he reading my mind? He shook his head and looked at me dead-on. “But you’re crazy if you go alone,” he said.
So I went. And by the time I reached Annapolis a few weeks later, I realized that I was a little crazy, having burned through two-thirds of my cash before even reaching the ocean.
I was pushed and pulled by my heart. I had the dream before me and it thrilled my imagination. But I was also suffocated by grief and remorse. I had to escape, to start again, to run out into the sunlight and find another chance. Together, the two forces blended into one, like the push and pull of the wind as it flies around a sail.
So it was with me, both pushed and pulled into action. The dream of the Caribbean, a new business, and freedom pulled me forward with the strength of desire. But the second force came from the losses and a longing to escape, which pushed me from behind, out of the clutching past and into the future.
A lot had happened. My father had suffered from leukemia for seven years when the doctors decided he also needed open-heart surgery. He was dead six months later, struggling the last two weeks in an intensive care unit, unable to speak or even write. I learned so many horrible and beautiful things at the end as I held his hand. But I couldn’t think of that now. I had to go.
My young marriage to a lovely woman broke up for reasons beyond all imagining. It was neither her fault nor mine, but I had to leave after I learned the real story. Sometimes the past can foreclose the future, with no option but to start again.
But I couldn’t think of any of these things. There would be plenty of time on the boat when I could sort them out. If it took every last penny I had to get under way, so be it. There was a certain rough justice to it all, since I’d be at the bottom again, only this time sober. Nine years sober. Dreams aren’t born easily into this world. Like all the rest of us, they come screaming and blind, surviving only on the love of the dreamer. So a quiet part of me cradled the dream and my broken self and carried us through the hours. I knew my life with God was safe, even if this mad adventure killed me.
I had a growing allergy to everything commonplace, and I was determined to do something marvelous, something men only talk about and then regret not doing. I already knew what it took to sail all night in a storm, to navigate beyond sight of land, to live in the luxurious whisper of the wind. I was going to do something dangerous and daring and hopelessly romantic. Is there any other kind of dream? And though I was thirty-five at the time, I had the grandiosity of a teenager, the hilarious conviction of youth. What could go wrong?
The short answer is: anything mechanical or electrical. Old sailboats are filled with strange devices that are either rusted out, shorted out, or on the verge of giving out. So, one will start sailing on a lovely afternoon thinking everything is shipshape, only to find, at the most inconvenient moment, that a starter motor is dead, a pulley is frozen, or an indispensable gauge has gone haywire. Over time I became convinced that my old boat was the favorite haunt of little demons who flocked to its dark places by the caveload.
But I didn’t know any of that as I sat in the cozy wooden booth, enjoying a fine dinner, calling for more coffee, and paying the bill. The advice of the young captain was the only thing I wanted to hear: “Just go.”
About the Author
Jeff Jay is a professional interventionist, educator and author. His work has appeared on CNN, the Jane Pauley Show, PBS, Forbes Online and professional journals. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and a certified addictions professional. He has served as president of the Terry McGovern Foundation in Washington, DC, and on the boards of directors for several professional organizations.
Jeff is the coauthor of Love First: A New Approach to Intervention for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction and At Wit's End: What You Need to Know When a Loved One Is Diagnosed with Addiction and Mental Illness. He and Debra Jay heads a national private practice that provides intervention and crisis management services. He is a former clinician with Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. His personal recovery from addiction dates from October 4, 1981.
"I am passionate about intervention for a very simple reason," says Jeff. "Intervention saved my life."