What I Learned From Bill Flynn

bill flynn

A friend of mine passed away last month.

And while there’s plenty of humor about dying and being dead, I thought I’d take a short stab at writing something less sophomoric that my usual nonsense. Not a full seven-inches-in-stab, like the murderer in the song Blood on the Dance Floor. Michael Jackson wrote some dark lyrics. But boy could he move like the wind. Anyway, I’m drifting. Back to the topic at hand – my friend’s death.

The deceased is named Bill Flynn. I met him in an AA meeting seven years ago. After the lead (the main speaker), the meeting opened up to comments from the peanut gallery. Bill said something like, “Once you’re sober the real work begins. Like figuring out why you needed to escape through drugs and alcohol in the first place.” Bill had been sober for 25 years by the time I met him.

A year into knowing Bill he invited me to a group he had just created that met on Wednesdays. It had nothing to do with addiction and anyone was welcome to attend. The idea was that you could bring in your truth – something you were struggling with in life, and there would be processes to help you overcome the obstacle. He didn’t call it a support group because, well support isn’t always necessary. All sorts of people attended. Once a woman came and revealed, “My step-father raped me and now he’s dead and I’m angry about it because he was never punished.” So, Bill would set up a scenario where she could confront the memory of her father and get angry. Another woman  cried because she said she didn’t think she any man could ever find her attractive. Turns out her mother wasn’t complimentary about her robust physique as a child. It takes time to unpack that kind of damage, and she kept showing up and doing the work. Three years later she announced she had met a man and they started dating. A year after that they got married. All of us went to the wedding. That’s the kind of group it was. People worked through stuff.

In 2013 Bill announced he was leaving the group. He had taught us how to do the facilitations and his goal was always to resign as soon as everyone became competent at helping each other. I stepped in and became the defacto leader.

What I’d like to do is share a few of Bill’s most important teachings. They have helped me immensely and I find myself quoting Bill more than any other person in my life. I even referenced him in my sister’s wedding speech last fall where I was the officiant. So in no particular order here’s some of my favorite Bill Flynn wisdom.

The hardest thing in the world to do is tell the truth. – Bill Flynn

No, we’re not talking about lying to the police about how 70 lbs of illegal bath salts found their way into your trunk. If that ever happens, go ahead and lie. You’re kind of screwed regardless. Telling the truth is about telling the whole truth. The ugly truth. The dark truths about yourself that even you don’t want to acknowledge. Because if someone saw ALL the ugliest parts of you, they’d run screaming, right?

Let’s say your best friend suffers a miscarriage and you feel no sadness for her. Maybe you’re even a little happy she’s suffering because she flaked on dinner plans a few weeks before. Try admitting that to yourself. Then, imagine telling someone. That ain’t easy. Or maybe you’re about to get married and you know your future bride is the wrong partner but the wedding is a week away. Bill never suggested you should tell the truth at all times. It’s impractical and, in many cases, downright stupid. His point was that it’s hard to be honest.

We once had a guy named Jason come into the group who had been molested by a relative. He had never told anyone. He couldn’t reveal this to his girlfriend because he was afraid she would see him as broken. He couldn’t be there for her sexually because of the trauma. He couldn’t focus and was in and out of college and jobs. When we heard his story, by the end, everyone was crying. Except Jason. He looked stunned. His biggest fear was that we would see him the way he saw himself. We all have fears about revealing the hard stuff. The irony is, by revealing your truth people fall in love with you. Which leads me to another Bill maxim.

The only way to build intimacy is through sharing vulnerability. – Bill Flynn

When I first started in therapy years ago, my shrink asked if I had any close guy friends and I said I did. She asked if I ever talked with them about my own issues. I laughed and said, “Guys don’t do that.” She laughed back and said, “No, D.J. – guys do that. YOU don’t do that.” I was terrified that I would burden my friends with my problems, or that they’d see me as damaged. And then, they would want to leave and I’d lose the friendship. What Bill taught me was that if you have the courage to tell the truth (see above), your friends will bond tighter to you. And by sharing yourself you’ve created the space to allow them to share their own stuff. As soon as I started talking about my fears, they immediately shared their own struggles. I couldn’t believe my successful and happy friends had troubles just like me. Plus, by knowing someone’s struggles, you can better support them. In short, it’s how you become a better friend. Bill never said this directly, but the bottom line was if you don’t want to be lonely, have the courage to share all of you with people you trust.

All roads lead back to mom and dad. – Bill Flynn

Bill was convinced that most of our problems as adults are because our parents screwed up. Now, this is a difficult concept for some to get on-board with, especially if you like your parents. If your folks were obvious shitheads, this is a no-brainer. But what if they paid for your college, told you they loved you, and tried their very best to make sure you had everything you needed? Can you really say that you have low self-esteem because dad traveled too much for work and missed important events in your youth? Yes. You can say that. Bill taught about the difference between blame and telling the truth. He would say, “Our parents did the best they could. And it wasn’t enough.” Then he would pause and say, “…and it’s okay.” It’s a massive disservice when we make excuses for others’ bad behavior. It’s okay to acknowledge their imperfections and the resulting ripples in your psyche. That’s not blame. That’s just the truth. And speaking of acknowledging the truth…

You cannot forgive someone until you hold them accountable. – Bill Flynn

So, back to our previous example of a jetsetting, absent father. You’re a thirty year old woman and don’t trust men because you never got Dad’s affection or attention. Your relationships are suffering because of the damage your father did to you as a child. Did he mean to screw you up? Probably not. But it happened. Your dad did other wonderful things, so it’s okay to praise him in your mind for the good. It’s also okay to condemn the bad. People are complicated and imperfect. But, how do you hold Dad accountable? Actually, you already did. By telling the truth to yourself. Dad did some things perfect, some things just okay, and some things that crippled your mental health. That’s not blame. That’s honesty and accountability. It happens in the mind. And once you hold that person accountable, it opens up the ability to forgive. In fact, it often happens automatically. It’s a cool trick that I was never taught in school. I was too busy taking stupid classes like civics.

Anger is the best way to protect a boundary. – Bill Flynn

Anger is a healthy emotion. But it scares us. I know I’m not entirely comfortable with my own. Growing up anger is condemned and shamed. In reality, anger is just a feeling that naturally arises from the body and mind. And it’s a damned good tool to have in case anyone tries to violate a boundary. Bill used to say, “If you can’t get angry, you’ll be fucked because some time in life you’ll need it and it might just save your life.” If you’ve ever had to protect someone physically, you know how important anger is to summon. It’s the only thing bullies understand. If you want to defeat a bully, defend your boundary. Anger protects us.

The healthiest relationships are in which two people are free to leave. – Bill Flynn

I just had someone end a relationship with me. It was the most painful experience of my life, moreso than even my divorce. However, the reality is that you cannot control someone’s decisions. You fight like hell for them, and you give them all of your love, but ultimately you honor their choice to leave. And if you “can’t live without them”, well maybe it’s time to pick up a book on co-dependence. Of course you can live without them. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t care whether someone stays or goes. You will care. It will level you when someone disappears from your life. It’s loss and it’s supposed to hurt. Or as Bill used to say, “It’s the risk of love. And it’s worth it even if they leave.”

Bill’s Favorite Poem

I could write a dozen more Bill expressions, but the reality is I’m no biographer. And most people don’t have interest in this kind of stuff. But Bill did. I do. And hundreds of other people who were helped by him. the reality is that I’m a healthier person because of some of the stuff Bill taught me. I’m a better person, too.

I’ll wrap up with Bill’s favorite poem. I’ve read maybe seven poems in my life and the only one I remember is “To the Virgins, To Make Use of Time” by Herrick. Probably because I was a virgin when I read it. Anyway, Bill said this sanskrit poem out loud so many times, I damn near have it memorized. It perfectly sums up what he was all about.

Look To This Day

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn.

– Kalidasa

Bill Flynn · 1945-2016