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“Charles:” A Memorial Day Message

FlagAsk any veteran who has lost comrades in war and the veteran will tell you they never really get over the loss. They learn to live and function with the loss, but it’s always there.

Here’s a story that comes from my book, Windows II: A book for those with a heart for helping kids heal. The story is true.


Charles and I were, without question, as different as two people could possibly be. I was a white, rural, middle-class professional; he was an inner city black, surviving only on welfare. Charles had traveled 2500 miles to do his best to break the clutches of alcohol and cocaine.

I was his doctor, the psychologist for the treatment center. My job was to interview Charles. Fear and apprehension were etched into the premature lines across his face, yet deep into his eyes there rested a gentleness, something marvelously serene. It was an element of certain hope that layered itself just behind a mask of incredible toughness.

The mask had served him well. It hd gotten him through prison and a hitch in Vietnam. The order for a marine was clear: either kill or be killed. So Charles killed plenty–and he stood helplessly by, consumed with rage, as he watched friends die and the body bags accumulate into piles.

But in war no one stops to mourn or grieve. You just go on. Besides, opium was cheap there. Enough of it blanketed all the feelings into numbness.

In treatment, Charles learned that drug and alcohol addiction flourished and thrived on toughness and numbness. The name of the game was simple: change or die.

Charles shared that he wanted to live, so he took a risk. He made a commitment to follow directions, even when those directions caused him to walk the paths of his greatest fears and pain.

One of his directions involved a mock funeral–the burial of the Vietnam experiences as Charles had lived them. It was a time of grieving and tears as Charles wrote of those times, name by name, face by face. With the support of his counselors and the other patients, Charles dug a hole and lovingly buried what he had recorded. He then stood, took three steps back and saluted the grave and the memories.

The toughness and the numbness were gone. Charles was becoming real. At last, he had found the road that leads to recovery.

Shortly after Charles had returned home, I was flipping through his chart. His handwritten comments on a piece of yellow legal pad caught my eye. It was his response to a direction to write how his epitaph would read. (This activity is a common direction given to patients in treatment. The activity often gives clues to a patient’s deepest feelings about his future and his newfound sobriety.) What Charles shared was as unique as it was sensitive. In it, he demonstrated the ability to love others, for he was finally capable of loving himself. Charles wrote:

Here rest the weary bones of one of God’s chosen, for he was a martyr that stood amongst the righteous. His perseverance and valor shall be recorded in the annals of history. Now his spirit stands with the angels. Let the light of his memory shine forth as a beacon, a witness to all mankind.

If you were to ask Charles about his recovery from drugs and alcohol, he would tell you his sobriety is a gift that is handed to him in daily measure by a gracious and loving God. He would also tell you that sobriety is never a destination, but rather the journey.


For more information about the book that contains this story and 23 others on topics of healing, click on this website address. It will be the third book down the list.

James Sutton, Psychologist

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Counselors, Educators, Inspirational, Self-esteem | 4 Comments

A Hard Look From a Seven-Year-Old

I ran across this piece the other day. Its author is listed as Thomas Jones. I must warn you, it carries a sad message.


Something to Think About

Across the fields of yesterday he sometimes comes to me,

A little lad just back from play–the lad I used to be.

And yet he smiles so wistfully once he has crept within,

I wonder if he hopes to see the man I might have been.


I told you it was sad. To me, this poem is loaded with regret, but it needn’t be. It made me think of how interesting (possibly troubling) it would be to be evaluated today by ourselves at age seven. Would that seven-year-old be pleased or disappointed?

It’s a fair question. You measuring you, separted by a few decades of life in the trenches. How would you do?

I grew up in post-WWII/Korea times, and times weren’t always the best. Things were tight sometimes; we didn’t have a television until I was almost out of elementary school. My father worked for wages in an oil production related job and my mother was a homemaker. Dad’s early advice to me was to focus on a career where I could use my head and work indoors. (I never really understood if he was stipulating two separate characteristics, or if that getting an indoors job would mean I had used my head.)

I managed to accomplished that.

At age seven, I didn’t even know what a psychologist was, let alone have the foggiest clue that I could become one. Perhaps ignorance was an advantage; there wasn’t much pressure. In fact, I never felt much pressure from my parents to become anything specific, other than an honest, hard-working, decent, spiritually-aware person.

Come to think of it, that can bring enough of its own pressure from time to time.

James Sutton, Psychologist


May 21, 2007 Posted by | Counselors, Educators, family, Inspirational, Parents, Self-esteem | 3 Comments

Gratitude: One Cure for a Wrong Turn

 Folks in emotional distress turn inward. Everything is about THEM. As bad as it sounds, the inward turn starts off as a survival mechanism, a call to arms. But it’s too easy to get stuck there.

It’s NOT a good place to be for a long period of time. Things sour there and become like quicksand, pulling a person down until they can’t get away.

The good news is that, for children and adults, our bodies and minds typically KNOW when enough is enough. Ever remember being sick and tired of being sick and tired? That’s the turn back outward.

Few things can turn us outward and cause us to step off the stage of our lives and stop being the producer, director and star of our own pitiful movie (that only ONE person wants to see) than the ability to recognize others … especially others to whom we are grateful.

It changes EVERYTHING.

I had the opportunity a number of years ago to interview Zig Ziglar in his Dallas office. (That interview became an audiocassette program, The Power of Gratitude.) Zig maintains his “Wall of Gratitude” right outside his office for all to see. It starts with his mother and includes his wife, Jean, and all sorts of individuals who have had a part in making his life much, much richer and fuller than he could have ever imagined. 

Gratitude is always about someone else … not us. That’s the magic. Recognizing others ALWAYS helps us. We might not have walls in our homes honoring folks who have been there for us along the way, but we KNOW who they are. And we never forget them and their precious impact. 

Melody Beattie said it perfectly:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie

I can’t think of any way to improve on that. A good parent, teacher, therapist or friend can help show the way. 

James Sutton, Psychologist


May 14, 2007 Posted by | Counselors, Difficult Child, Educators, family, Inspirational, Parents, Self-esteem | 2 Comments

I Remember His Hands: A Tribute

handThey say that, other than the face, the most striking and memorable features of a person are the hands. That’s certainly true in this piece written by my Special Education teacher friend in Georgia, Frank Bird. He included it in his May 3rd, 2007 post and graciously granted me permission to reprint it here.

When someone says something well, go with it.

I told Frank that that this piece also reminded me of my father-in-law, now deceased. Our daughter, Katie, was so pleased to play Holly Dunn’s song, “Daddy’s Hands,” for him once. It certainly fit.

Thanks, Frank, for this fitting tribute.

James Sutton, Psychologist


I Remember His Hands

It has been nearly thirty years since I first saw his hands. I recall
the day as those ugly, big hands reached for mine to shake my hand as his
daughter introduced me. Those big, ugly hands were creviced and
creased from nearly fifty years of working on C-130 airplanes. Nearly
fifty years of work etched into those hands with the black of oil and
grease clinging to his finger nails so hard to clean off after tearing
down and over-hauling engines so pilots could fly safely. Big, ugly hands I remember so clearly became beautiful reaching to hold his first
grandson nearly thirty years ago.

For almost thirty years I watched those hands fold in prayer at meals
and in church services. I watched as he placed his big hand on his
daughter’s shoulder as we were wed. I watched so many times as he would hold
his big hands down for a grandchild to cling to as they
learned to walk. I remember his hands.

I remember hands that looked so clumsy from being worn and frayed
skillfully cut fine curves on a jig saw as he made model cars and planes
for his grandchildren. I remember wondering how those big hands
could carve such a small propeller for such a tiny plane that would come to sit
on my son’s shelve now nearly twenty years. I would laugh as his hands
cut out flowers and reindeer in mass for friends and family and as his
big hands painted away in bright colors each one of those potential
gifts. How I remember those hands.

I remember hands that could cook fish so good you had to eat a ton. I
remember hands that could fix a car or repair a bike. I remember hands
reaching for the food bowls at Thanksgiving dinner, filling his plate
and then reaching for another roll. I remember those hands holding a bird
house up as he nailed it to a post and filled his bird feeders in the
back yard. I remember watching those big hands put another log on the
fire and poke at the coals. I remember those hands.

I remember the day those hands last held a cigarette so many years ago.
I remember those big hands putting up pictures of grandchildren in the
living room. I remember those hands filling his thermos and getting an
extra jacket to head for the races in Cordele, Georgia, and taking ear
muffs for his grandson. I remember those hands holding an ear of corn as
we listened to country music down at Mossy Creek so many times. I
remember those hands.

I often joked of how funny it would seem as those big hands held such a
small fishing pole and reel. I remember those hands and the passion for
fishing and being on the lake. I remember my son catching his first
fish and being hugged by those big hands. I remember those hands
videotaping every single event in his grand kids’ lives. I remember watching as
the boat was loaded and truck hooked up. I remember those hands.

As long as I have all of these memories he will be here or there and I
can sit and tell my children about those big hands. I remember those
hands. It is hard to ponder as I do that all I now have are those memories
and will not see those big hands reaching, hugging, holding, fishing,
praying and shaking my hand again. It was a long drive home as I thought
about what to write and say as I remember this man. I do know I
remember his hands.

May 5, 2007 Posted by | family, Inspirational, Parents | 2 Comments