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Glenn Beck: How he recovered his life and his free will

In their new book, "The Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life," Glenn Beck and Keith Ablow, M.D., candidly discuss how the nationally syndicated radio and television host managed to turn his life around. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In their new book, "The Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life," Glenn Beck and Keith Ablow, M.D., candidly discuss how the nationally syndicated radio and television host managed to turn his life around. Here's an excerpt.

My darkest moment
It was 1996. Christmas Eve. My first wife and I had divorced a few months earlier and I’d spent part of the day with my amazing daughters, then five and eight years old.

I remember them being so excited for Christmas that they were literally trembling with anticipation. Their eyes sparkled. They couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning, find their gifts under the tree, and check whether Santa and his reindeer had helped themselves to the treats they’d left out for them. (It wasn’t until much later in life that they realized their father liked baked goods far more than Santa did.)

I hoped there was enough magic in the air to blunt the hurt that was emanating from every iota of my being. When you are newly divorced and are forced to walk away from the kids you love, you know a brand of suffering that you would willingly trade for a freshly broken limb. You can’t help but think you’re letting them down, because you seem to be turning your back on people who love you infinitely more than you deserve. Now, with night falling, the kids were back with their mother and I was once again alone. I looked around my place — a temporary apartment in Hamden, Connecticut. Olive green shag carpeting. Someone else’s framed posters on the walls. My empty luggage stacked in a corner of the living room. It was the stereotypical sad, stale, unwelcoming, divorced man’s apartment — less a home than a constant reminder of my own failure as a husband, father, and man. My children were the only beings on earth who could brighten the apartment up. When they left, I felt it. The place went from feeling like a home to feeling like a cheap, extended-stay motel room.

Luckily, the visits from my daughters were legally mandated.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was alone. No, worse than that — I was alone even though, just minutes away, there were people who wanted to be with me. That’s a kind of pain that’s hard to live with.

I wondered what my kids might be up to. I remembered how good it had felt when I’d been able to tuck them in and wake up with them on Christmas morning. How their smiles and laugher could light up the whole house. Then the questioning and self-doubt began: Why hadn’t I been able to put my marriage back together? Why hadn’t I been able to stop drinking and using drugs? Why had I worked so hard for so long and yet now sat in an apartment alone, more miserable than ever? Why could I never seem to make the right decision? Why couldn’t I find real meaning in life? Why couldn’t I answer the questions that continually nagged me both consciously and unconsciously? Why couldn’t I interest my wife in finding any of those answers together? Why was everything seemingly falling apart?

I felt broken, and the pieces didn’t seem to fit together in any way I could bear to live with. I doubted I had anything inside me truly worth loving. And I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything inside me that would do anyone any good, including myself. I felt poisoned — but I also felt poisonous. I really believed if you came in contact with me, you couldn’t help but become sick yourself.

Maybe you’ve been at that place in life and know what I’m talking about. Maybe you think you might be headed there. Or maybe you’re there right now. No matter your situation, please just keep reading, because I can very much relate to and understand what you are likely going through — how dark and hopeless you might feel; how it seems like there is no way out, no way to ever find the happiness that has slipped through your fingers.

There was a time several years earlier when I was clinically depressed. I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time and would drive by a highway bridge abutment on my way to work every day. In my mind, that hunk of concrete had my name on it. Often, as I approached it I would step on the accelerator. A couple of times I had even veered toward it. But I always drove right by. I could never take that final step. I was too much of a coward. It’s funny, but  sometimes God’s blessings come in unexpected packages.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to do it. I wanted to die back then. Really and truly, I did. You can feel so trapped by depression that suicide seems like a logical way out. The illness hijacks your brain. You wrongly believe — with all your heart — that death is the only answer, the only way to make everything okay again. Fortunately, a friend of mine took me to see a doctor who started me on medication. In the days before the medicine began to work I was holding on by a thread. I understood then, probably for the first time, how my mother must have felt; how she had suffered.

My mother struggled with alcohol and drugs when I was a child. My parents eventually divorced and then, when I was thirteen, my mother killed herself. I had gone to visit her in the funeral home and had to wade through all the what-ifs. What if I had talked to her more that day? What if I had been there more for her that month? What if I had listened more to her that year? What if I had been a better son?

My mother was unfailingly kind to me. She treated me as if I was her favorite, the brightest spot in her life, and she had unknowingly sparked my love for (and eventual career in) broadcasting.

When I turned eight, she gave me a collection of comedy and drama productions from the 1930s and ’40s called "The Golden Years of Radio." I became mesmerized by how the words on those albums created pictures in my mind.

Everything I had become was, in part, because of my mother, and I had never been able to get over losing her that way. It had tied me up in so many emotional knots that I had no idea how to get free.

I certainly don’t blame my shortcomings on her suicide. At least not anymore. I understand that I was the one who had made a mess of my life back then, nobody else. I alone made the series of decisions that had brought me to the brink of suicide. My mother killing herself didn’t mean I had to fall into the abyss. I chose to let that happen.

I spent decades of my life disconnected from faith and denying that free will exists in this world. I saw my circumstances as something thrust upon me, rather than the result of my own choices. I now realize those beliefs were simply the next in a very long line of misguided assumptions.

There not only is such a thing as free will in the world, but it exists even when it seems to be invisible. It crosses traditional lines of belief. My faith calls it agency. My father’s granola-hippie–New Age spirituality (which I actually really agree with) simply said, “Life is a series of choices.” Either way, free will could have been my lifeline — if only I had believed it existed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I discovered free will I had to live with the haunting memories of my mother’s death. It was agony. I blamed pretty much everything wrong in my life on her suicide. My terrible decisions, I told myself, were the result of her terrible decision. It felt like things were on autopilot; there were no decisions to be made — I would just get up, let bad things happen, go to bed, and repeat the cycle.

I was constantly searching for an escape from my own sadness, moving from one job to another. One possession to another. One drug to another. From thirteen, to twenty, to thirty years old, I hadn’t been able to think of myself as lovable because I figured that if I hadn’t been valuable enough to my own mother then what could my life possibly be worth?

Even though I found a doctor to medicate my depression and keep me from crashing my car, I continued killing myself slowly by drinking myself to death.

I remember one day my doctor had looked at my blood test results and asked me what I’d been “putting into my body.” I’d told him that I’d been having a drink or two a night. Technically I was right; it was only two drinks a day ... it’s just that those two drinks were gigantic tumblers of Jack Daniel’s with a splash of Coke.

But the extent of my drinking wasn’t the only thing I was delusional about. I had convinced myself that drinking during the day would be a bad sign. (That should give you a glimpse inside the mind of an alcoholic.) To me, it wasn’t the destruction of my family, my marriage, and my liver that were the bad signs — it was the time of day that I did it. Solid logic, I know. My days had become a horror show of anxiety. I watched the clock, waiting for 5 p.m. with the focus of a sixth grader waiting for the Friday school bell to ring. I felt horrible about my life, but if I could just wait until five, then, well, I couldn’t be an alcoholic, because alcoholics drink during the day.

(I should mention that I found a work-around to the whole staring-at-the-clock thing: afternoon naps. I would intentionally go to sleep after the radio show so that the wait for five o’clock would be more bearable. If only I had thought to apply that kind of ingenuity to my personal life ...)

I had tried to quit drinking again and again, to no avail. The lame excuses I came up with to justify my drinking didn’t do much to prop up my self-esteem. That’s where real self-loathing seeped into my soul. I knew I was failing to take control of my life. I knew I was acting pathetic and weak — and I hated myself for it.

I now know that millions of people experience exactly what I did. Whether they’re trying to quit alcohol, stop overeating, end an addiction to pornography, or stop gambling compulsively, the feelings of helplessness are similar. I know how painful it is to feel reprehensible when you are defeated by addiction again and again. But I also know that even dozens of defeats don’t mean that you can’t ultimately be victorious.

Anyway, my doctor didn’t seem particularly impressed with my efforts at alcohol-induced justification, either. I remember how he nodded, glanced back down at my liver function tests, and then looked straight into my eyes. “Keep poisoning your body the way you are, Glenn, and you’ll be dead inside of six months. Do you understand?”

“I get it,” I  lied.  

“I’m not kidding about this and I’m not guessing at it, either. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve done this work a long time.”

“I understand,” I said solemnly.

That night I poured myself two tumblers of Jack, with a splash of Coke in each one. I did the same thing the next night and the next. Absolutely nothing changed about my drinking — other than emptying bottles a little more quickly than I had before.

Fear could not motivate me to quit. After all, if you’re not scared of dying, what are you scared of? Self-loathing couldn’t make me quit. The only thing that could motivate me, I realized much later, was love.

The story I’m about to tell you isn’t one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s a story I tell because it’s the kind of thing I once would have kept bottled up inside me (pun intended). It’s a page of my life history I was once desperate to forget. That’s why it’s so critical to remember.

By the way, I have learned that self-disclosure is one of the best antidotes to self-hatred that you will ever find. And it’s also one of the best ways to reach out to anyone who feels alone with their suffering. When you finally forgive yourself for being fallible and fragile — for being human — you can start forging ahead. Not until then.

God’s love is there for us each and every day, but it’s easy to walk right by it. In fact, as long you keep hiding parts of yourself, it’s basically assured that you’ll walk by it. Think about it as though you have a physical disease; you cannot be healed unless and until you are willing to allow yourself to be healed. Covering up your symptoms only results in your ailments getting worse. To cure them you have to stop hiding them and then go see a doctor. It’s the same with healing our minds. Hiding our issues (or self-medicating them) only ensures that God’s healing love is not yet welcome.

With that in mind, let’s get back to the story.

The morning in question started out like any other. I woke up, got dressed, and started downstairs from my bedroom. My daughters were already up having breakfast. They heard my footsteps and ran to intercept me as I was heading toward the kitchen.

“Daddy, Daddy, tell us the story about Inky, Blinky, and Stinky you told us last night! That was the best one ever!”

I smiled, but inside I was confused. “Last night’s bedtime story?”

“Yes! Please!”

I started to worry. I remembered Inky, Blinky, and Stinky well enough; they were the three mice I had told the girls about before they went to bed nearly every night. I’d usually create a new adventure about their mission to reach the Island of Parmesan Cheese while always on the run from Thomas the Cat. Telling them these stories was a point of pride for me as a father. I was creative, I was entertaining, and like my pasta sauce, I always found a way to work Parmesan cheese in. This was something that I was good at, and it was the one time of each day that I felt successful.

The trouble on this particular morning was that I didn’t remember making up a story about the mice the night before. Worse, I didn’t remember reading to the girls at all. In fact, I didn’t even remember being at home.

I had blacked out. Now, I realize that every college freshman who has done something idiotic while drunk makes that same excuse. But this was real. I hadn’t deleted a horrible mistake in an after-the-fact effort at self-preservation, I had erased an invaluable memory with my daughters. Blackouts were, unfortunately, becoming a regular occurrence for me. Both at home ... and at work.

Keep in mind that, at this point in my life, I’d convinced myself that alcohol made me a better dad. Yeah, that’s right: Jack + Coke = SuperDad. That’s how delusional I was. But, in my warped mind, alcohol made me more calm. More creative. It made my Inky, Blinky, and Stinky stories even better! Yeah, right.

I tried to hide my panic.

“Daddy! C’mon!”

“Tell us!”

I am ashamed to tell you what I did next, but it’s the truth: I gathered my wits about me and tricked my precious daughters. Or, to put it another way, I lied to them.

“Well,” I said, “if you liked the story so much, let’s just see how much of it you can tell me. Were you really listening?”

Oh, yes, they had definitely been listening. They excitedly told me all about the most recent adventure of Inky, Blinky, and Stinky. (And it was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.) I nodded at every twist and turn, pretending to remember every single word, though the reality was that I didn’t recall even a single one.

That Sunday I went to an AA meeting in the basement of a church in Cheshire, Connecticut, and introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “My name is Glenn. I think I’m an alcoholic.” I finally admitted that I was out of control. Lost. I didn’t know how to save myself. I was powerless over alcohol.

A lot of people would end the chapter there, as though standing up at that meeting were like taking an antibiotic for an infection. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Not even close. I struggled for years to win the battle I finally started fighting in that church basement. I’m still fighting it today. When the president of the United States is mentioning you by name as an example of what is wrong with America, it’s hard not to start daydreaming about the deliciousness of Jack Daniel’s with a splash of Coke.

I realize now that raising my hand and admitting my addiction was the end of the beginning of my struggles, not the beginning of the end. Every day is a challenge, and anyone who tells you different is probably lying. To anyone who can’t understand addiction, think about it in terms of a diet. Anyone can lose some weight for some time — but how many people can keep those twenty pounds off forever? How many people can make the decision each and every day, at each and every meal, to eat healthy and go to the gym?

That day I stopped drinking, and to this day, I haven’t started up again. It may sound cliché, but to anyone who has seen the darkest that life has to offer, every day in the sunshine really does count.

But sobriety was only part of it. The pain inside me hadn’t stopped when I said goodbye to Jack Daniel’s and drugs. And taking antidepressant medication may have lifted my mood, but it didn’t do anything to get at the roots of my depression: the cauldron of toxic thoughts and feelings, stored away for so long, which were still poisoning me. In fact, two years later, I felt that pain more than ever as I sat staring at green shag carpeting alone on Christmas Eve.

I decided to write my kids a note. It wasn’t a suicide note. It was an apology. I wanted them to know what spectacular human beings they were. I wanted them to know that I had never understood before how my inability to look at myself truthfully had kept me circling around imminent self-destruction. I wanted them to know that I understood how that must have harmed our relationship and how I could be setting them up to make the same mistakes I had.

In retrospect, I think that it was hitting that low of a point, while sober, that forced me into the next stage of recovery. When you get to the bottom, you finally realize that the only thing you really own is your good name, and I didn’t have one. No one in my life believed me anymore. My word was no good. I couldn’t say “I love you,” and have anyone believe it. I couldn’t say I wanted help and have anyone believe me. I couldn’t even tell anyone that I was going to go home to kill myself and be taken seriously. I’d lied too many times about too many things to too many people.

I wrote another few pages to myself that were more of the same — a tour through the mind of a man who sees goodness everywhere around him, but none inside him.

Then I lay down on the carpet and began to cry. I hurt so much. And I was convinced I had hurt too many people. Not just myself, my wife, or my kids, but other people, too — people who didn’t deserve to be hurt.

Take, for instance, a coworker of mine in the early 1990s. My friend Pat Gray and I were cohosting a Top 40 FM morning radio show in Baltimore. We were paid pretty well to show up at local businesses, like car dealerships, where we’d shake hands with customers and sign autographs. One of our producers was responsible for making everything flow correctly, including keeping the line for autographs organized and moving.

One day this producer handed me a ballpoint pen to start signing autographs. I looked at it in disbelief. “I told you to bring me a Sharpie. I always use a Sharpie,” I said. “Next time, please bring me a Sharpie.”

The next time, he once again brought me a ballpoint pen. I fired him. Just like that. Two meaningless strikes and you’re out.

A few days later, Pat noticed that the producer hadn’t been to work for a while and he asked me about him.

“Oh,” I said. “He couldn’t even remember to bring a Sharpie with him to the signings, so I fired him.”

Pat looked at me with the mixture of incredulity, disappointment, anger, and empathy that he reserved for the times I really fell short. (In other words, it was a look that I’d become very familiar with.)

“What?” I said, glaring back at him. “I warned him once. I mean, how hard is it to bring a marker to a signing?”

“Wow,” Pat said. “You’ve totally lost perspective. You don’t like yourself right now, and you’re taking it out on other people. And it doesn’t have to be that way, Glenn. You’re a much better person than you believe you are.”

“Yeah, well, whatever,” I said. “I still think he was in the wrong.”

“I know you do,” Pat said sadly.

Deep inside, I was so scared of having no real direction in life that it had to be my way or the highway. My sense of self was so fragile I had to reinforce it in every way imaginable, including wielding the little power that I had in ways that were terribly destructive to others.

Think about it: I took a man’s job away for bringing me the wrong kind of pen. I did that. I was that guy. And that poor producer was far from the only one who suffered because of me.

The memories of those I’d hurt swirled through my brain as I lay on that olive green carpet. I felt so hopeless. I curled up into a fetal position and I thought to myself, I just can’t do this. I just can’t go on. One way or another — even if it’s by drinking myself to death — I know I’m going to die, and soon. Maybe that moment would have marked the beginning of the end of my life. Maybe I would have headed to a package store and gotten enough rum to start down the road to oblivion, again. (It would have been a short, dead-end street.) But instead something strange happened: I thought about my ex‑wife. She was standing in front of me in our garage the day it was finally clear that our divorce was really going to happen.

She looked at me in a way that combined equal measures of real compassion and intense anger. Then she burst into tears. She poked her finger into my chest. “You are not your mother!” she yelled. “You are not going to repeat the mistakes that she made. Quite frankly, if that’s what you want to do, then that’s what you want to do. But you are not going to do that to your children.”

You are not going to do that to your children.

That Christmas Eve those words came back to me in an avalanche of emotion. I was all alone, without my good name or a voice of my own, but I could remember the resolve in hers. I could feel it. Years after they were launched, those ten words finally connected with their target. They gave me the power and the courage to go on. Just barely. But when you’re where I was, barely is a lot. It’s the whole world. I began to look at my mother in a completely different light. I realized that, for her, the thread of hope had finally snapped. It can happen. I had been so close myself so many times.

Right then and there, for the first time in my life, I forgave her.

I could not yet forgive myself — not even close — but in that moment, I forgave my mother. My entire perspective on her pain had turned around. I realized her suicide wasn’t about me not being special enough or lovable enough or a good enough son. You can be suffering so much that you just can’t see any of that.

That didn’t mean the pain instantly left me. Like that first trip to AA, there was no sudden lifting of all the weight off my shoulders. In fact, I barely got up off the floor. But I did. Only now can I look back and realize that that was an accomplishment in itself.

That night I felt no different standing up than I had lying down on the carpet. I just went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel any different, either. And it went on that way for a long while. I was really at a loss on how to find a way to take a single step forward. I was afraid. I didn’t see a path. I didn’t feel like I had any choices. Free will, it seemed to me, was dead — I had no decisions to make; no alternatives to choose from.

And that’s when my stubborn side, a trait that I’d fought against for years, once again rose up inside me — but, this time, for the better. If all the doors in front of me seemed to be shut, then I’d just have to build a new door.

From the book “The Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life” by Glenn Beck and Keith Ablow, M.D. Copyright © 2011 by Glenn Back and Keith Ablow, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Threshold Editions. All rights reserved.