Category Archives: Health

Sarah discovers that 12 Steps are part of a life-long journey

My friend Sarah, appropriately protecting her identity as she shares her story with us this week.

Sarah was one of the funniest girls in my high school class. Hence, one of my favorites.

What I did not know at the time was that she was also one of the most conflicted. With two “highly functioning” alcoholic parents, Sarah grew up immersed in addiction issues. Unlike her parents, she eventually mustered the courage to do something about them, which is why Sarah agreed to let me share her story with all of you—but, of course, not her full name, which you will understand as you read.

Sarah’s parents had experienced their own traumas. She was born just two weeks after her parents were devastated by the death of their 2-year-old son to TB. Sarah’s aunts and grandmother pitched in and doted on her. As a toddler, Sarah felt “adored.” She loved going to her grandmother’s house where she “was treated properly—like a princess.”

But at home? Her parents both were very talented and “movie star gorgeous.” Her father had served in the medical corps in World War II and saw the carnage that came with the Allied landings in Europe. He returned to the U.S. believing he could have saved more soldiers’ limbs—so, he went back to school and became a surgeon. Her mother was a professional artist, although she never got over the death of a child to TB.

Both parents turned to alcohol every day.

Sarah also faced a number of other challenges in her family. “I wasn’t as pretty as my mother or sisters. So I worked at being funny and fun.” Around 9th grade, Sarah realized that alcohol was a serious problem in her family. “So I fixed the problem. I poured out all the liquor in the house.”

Her parents “went batshit.”

That’s partly why Sarah was sent to board at Kingswood School Cranbrook, a prep school in Bloomfield Hills, MI. After six weeks of boarding school, Sarah was frustrated. “Nobody realized how special I was. And school was really hard.” Home for Thanksgiving, she cried to her parents, “Don’t make me go back.”

Sarah has never forgotten her father’s response: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  But your mother and I are spending thousands of dollars trying.”

Sarah snapped, “Just remember who the boar and the sow are.”

Back at boarding school, Sarah decided the food wasn’t bad. She competed with a friend to see how many dishes of apple crisp they could eat. She put on weight and tried, but failed, to run off the extra pounds playing field hockey. “My classmates all seemed slim and gorgeous. A couple tried to teach me to put my finger down my throat, but I couldn’t do it.” She spent 10th, 11th and 12th grade “still trying” to lose weight.

After graduation, Sarah went to Finch College in New York City. Then, in her sophomore year, she got pregnant and eloped with her boyfriend Tom. Both of his parents and her mother were “horrified.” Her father was resigned.

There was a bright period when Sarah and Tom settled into a home in a lovely Ohio suburb. “I was hitting my stride,” Sarah says. “I got contact lenses, played tennis, joined the Junior League, had a social network. We had three beautiful, smart children. Tom’s father was a big sponsor of our symphony.

“But at cocktail parties, I was drinking and eating too much. Everything tasted so delicious. To control my weight, I started taking diet pills. They just made me drunk faster. I mixed alcohol with diet sodas.”

In her mid-30s, Sarah realized her husband was having an affair. She and Tom attended marriage counseling. The counselor asked Tom, “Why are you here?” Nodding toward Sarah,  he said, “To get her fixed.” Later, Tom told Sarah, “This marriage would have worked if you weren’t so damn dumb.” They divorced.

Sarah internalized Tom’s criticism. “I went into a sad spiral.”  She started dating, but “it was going badly.” Then, her parents both died between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1982.

Worrying Tom had been right about her being “dumb,” Sarah took a Stanford-Binet IQ test. With nervous fingers, she opened the envelope for her results. “It was a big, fat number. Oh, I said, so that’s not why the marriage ended.”

Sarah’s parents had left her “a little money,” and she decided to go back to school. She “crammed two years of classes into eight months.” When she realized she’d made the Dean’s List, she says, “I burst into tears.”

Over the next ten years, Sarah held a variety of jobs in Cincinnati, including working in a dress shop and an ad agency—but Sarah still was drinking and gaining weight.

“My rear end would have stopped a freight train. But shoulder pads were in. They helped balance the bottom.” By age 50, Sarah was running out of money. She could no longer afford her “pretty little townhouse.” She binged on self-help books. She was unemployed. One night she “fixed a fabulous meal for four and ate every bite.” She filled three tall glasses with ice and bourbon and a splash of water, downed them and fell asleep in her wing-back chair watching Jeopardy. She awoke “wedged” into the chair and had trouble getting up.

It’s often said no one can cure an addiction problem until they’ve hit bottom. Sarah hit bottom—literally. She realized, “no matter how big your earrings are, they won’t stop anyone from noticing your ass is stuck in a chair.”

That’s when she resolved to take action and called a friend who was a member of Overeaters Anonymous. The organization was founded in 1960 by Rozanne S and two other women, following the 12-step pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935.

At first, Sarah was hesitant to attend the group, telling her friend that she would be embarrassed.

“Sarah,” her friend replied, “they already know you’re fat.”

In fact, Overeaters Anonymous’s thousands of local groups welcome anyone “recovering from unhealthy relationships with food and body image.” Many come because they are overweight; others come to the group because their “unhealthy” relationship to food amounts to anorexia or bulimia. Unlike various nationally known dieting organizations, however, Overeaters Anonymous does not prescribe any specific plans or diets. Instead, participants encourage each other through the 12 Steps to take control of their lives and find their own paths toward healthier living.

Sarah was impressed by the group’s approach. She chose a sponsor. “I chose someone who said she’d prayed I wouldn’t want her because I’m so confrontational.”

“Everybody has a sobriety date,” Sarah says. Hers is January 21, 1995, the date of her first meeting. As Sarah talked with her sponsor and others in the group, she developed a plan that “with God, one day at a time” would control her compulsive eating.

Sarah recalls writing out answers to questions about what triggered her eating. She realized that for her food meant comfort. “But the comfort didn’t last. I realized it still could, as long as I stuck to a food plan.”

Eventually, Sarah lost 113 pounds.

“Now I understand how much I can eat,” she says. After a small lapse—gaining 10 pounds in her early 70s—Sarah says, “I finally leveled out. She’s been following the plan, and helping others do so, for 28 years.

Sarah has been attending both Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since 1995. She says, “I got to the point of admitting I was powerless over food and alcohol. My life had become unmanageable. That admission is the First Step. I realized I’d also been coming on strong in relationships. What I really needed was to be quiet and calm. I have no control over other people, places or things. Myself—maybe. With God’s help.”

She says, “I realized I’d been beating myself up with thoughts like I wasn’t smart enough; I wasn’t pretty enough like my sister. Whatever my first thought is, I’ve learned to pause.”

And the past? Well, Sarah says, “We all start out as a cucumber. Once we’re pickled, we remain a pickle. We can’t go back to being a cucumber. I take responsibility for my life.”

A stronger, wiser Sarah has held a series of jobs, including as a parish administrator and as a staff assistant, now, at Northern Kentucky University. She was delighted to receive a Student Support Award for faculty and staff members who most help support students.

Sarah no longer internalizes others’ criticism of her. “I realize I just married the wrong guy,” she says. Introspection, sobriety, weight control and self-help work have led her to shed her earlier insecurity. Today, she says, “I actually like myself. I have gifts to give and am happy for the opportunity to serve.”

To keep herself centered, Sarah repeats lessons and positive messages she’s gleaned from AA.  One is making amends. When you’re wrong, promptly admit it. She apologized to her children for being hard to get along with for so long. Another: The three Cs. When dealing with someone else’s addiction, realize you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it; you can’t cure it.

Certain slogans continue to resonate.

“Let go and let God.”

“Are you trusting God or are you playing God?”

“ Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go there alone.”

“A 12 step program is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”

Sarah says, “12 Step programs are simple, but not easy.” She has forgiven her parents for slights that occurred in the past. She says, “I’ve come to understand we all do the best we can.”

Amen to that, girlfriend. Thanks for sharing your journey. And for inspiring others to live their best, and healthiest, lives.

Care to learn more?

To find an Overeaters Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.

To find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you, visit the group’s website.

Mark Francis helps challenged children succeed

Mark Francis with family and friends getting ready for a football game. (Mark is the tall one!)


Mark Francis holds “Expanding Boundries,” a painting by Toma Yovanovich commissioned by the Division of International Special Education & Services (DISES).

Flying from DTW to TPA*, a man sat next to me in a window seat, economy comfort.  A world traveler, he was hoping for an upgrade. No wonder—he was 6’5”.  As luck would have it (mine, not his), no first class seats were available.  I got to meet an interesting guy.   And learn a little about educating special needs children.

Mark’s story is one of hard work, being in the right place at the right time and seizing opportunities.  It reminds me of a legend in our family.  40-some years ago, my husband was in the Palm Beach airport. From a payphone, he called his uncle Max, who lived nearby, to say hi.

“Burt, I hear you’re doing great,” Max said.

“I’ve been lucky,” Burton said.

“I want to tell you something about luck.  This is important.  Write this down.  Do you have a pencil?”

Burton said no.  Max told him to find one and come back.  Burton left the receiver hanging, ran to the gift shop, bought a pen and paper.

“Okay, Uncle Max.  Got it.”

“Here’s what I want you to know about luck,” Max said.  He paused for dramatic effect.  “Luck is on the side of the able navigator.”

Burton and I have quoted Uncle Max ever since.

Mark Francis would likewise prove an able navigator.  He grew up “an inner city kid” at 6 Mile and John R in Detroit.  (I know the neighborhood.  Teaches you to be tough.)  He served in the Army, got out “with not much direction,” went to community college on the G.I. bill.  He became a social worker, working with special ed students.  At the time, kids with IQs from 35 to 70 were deemed “trainable.”  (Today termed “moderate.”)

“I fell in love,” Mark says.  “The kids were so genuine, so honest.  If they loved you, they LOVED you.”

9 years later, Mark went back to college to get into administration.  He soon became principal of a special ed center in Michigan.  The center received awards for innovative programs.  One of which he’s especially proud: His center was the first to get a special ed student admitted into community college…

Timmy was in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy.  He wanted to go to the college his brother had attended.  He was denied.  Mark protested, “He has a paraprofessional with him.  Nothing forbids it in the rules of admission.”  Mark recalls, “We went round and round.  Finally, I said, ‘Either you can try admitting him or we can take it up with the Office of Civil Rights.’”  Timmy was admitted.  (After a semester, he chose not to go back.)

Mark continued in administration.  9 years later, hoping “to have a bigger impact,” Mark became county director of special ed for Lewis Cass, Michigan’s “smallest, poorest district.”  But he was living away from home.  His 2 daughters were in middle school.  “They needed their dad around.”  He moved back home and became director of student services for a district near Flint, MI.

Mark’s next post was a giant leap.  He became Director of Special Ed and oversaw funding for Wayne County, then the 17th largest education district in the country.  Federal funds of about $.5 billion ran through his offices.  He planned to retire 2 ½ years later at 55 and work on a golf course.

In 2010, preparing to retire, he attended a conference on exceptional children.  He sat in a board meeting.  “I’m probably ADHD,” he says, “so I wasn’t listening.”  He noticed a mention in the conference program of a session that seemed intriguing.  He left the meeting to attend a discussion about international work.

“Wow,” he thought.  “This is what I want to do.”

While working in Tobago, students showed Mark how to play the steel drums.

Mark joined the Division of International Special Ed and Services (DISES).  At the end of the week, he went home and told his wife, also a special ed administrator, “I’m going to Latvia.”

“Where’s Latvia?” she said.

Mark boned up on Russian phrases and left for Latvia.  “I knew nobody and nothing.  I realized Latvia had declared independence but didn’t understand they hated the Soviet Union.  They’d passed a law that to move to a new job there you had to read and write Latvian.”  (He didn’t.)

Mark attended his first international conference.  The ministers of education and their staffs all wore headphones for translations.  “It was a turning point in my life as a professional.”

After, Mark noticed a man from Jerusalem who was DISES president.  He’d been a resource at the conference.  Mark sent over a drink, “not realizing he was a Buddhist and didn’t touch alcohol.”  The man came up to him.  Mark expressed interest in DISES.  Later that year, Mark was asked to become treasurer.  “Of course,” he said.  (Today Mark is president.)

Mark now runs his own consulting company, FYI-CSI (Francis Young International—Consultants in School Improvement).  Company motto: “Our passion and mission is to educate all children.”  Mark has traveled to, trained and influenced special ed policy in Kuwait, Tobago, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Jamaica and Bulgaria.  He’ll visit South Africa this summer.

The toughest part of Mark’s job?  While he works with bureaucrats to change policy, when governments change, policies change.  Hard won programs get dropped.  The best part? “It’s cool meeting people all over the world who will be friends for life.”

Mark’s youngest daughter is getting her PhD in physical therapy.  She’s headed to a mission in Haiti.  “She sees how much I love to travel.”

Does he recommend a career in special ed admin?  “When I worked in the schools, I always told people, ‘If you’re getting into this as a power gig, you’re in the wrong place.’  You end up apologizing for things you had no part of.  If parents had a bad experience fighting with a school, they may not trust you even though you had nothing to do with what happened.  I tell them, ‘I’m sorry for what you went through.  Help me understand how we can move forward for your child.’”

On the other hand, the rewards are significant.  “I always get more from the kids than I give.  I’m blown away by how hard they work to do things the rest of us take for granted.  Balancing a check book, going for a walk, cooking dinner.  I watch how they struggle and persevere.”  Mark, an athlete, has coached Special Olympic athletes in basketball and hockey.  “They worked as hard as I did or harder to succeed.  Many got as upset as I did when they lost.”

Rewarding experiences?

“As a principal, I never believed in suspension.  When there was a discipline problem, I detained students in my office and stayed with them.  One boy I sat with for 4 hours kept saying, ’You suck.’  A couple years later, I was in a local grocery store at night.  A tall young man with shouted, ‘Mr. Francis.’  I was worried he meant to jump me, but he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’  He was the boy from my office.  He introduced me to his fiancée and told me he’d started his own landscaping company.  It was great seeing how he’d turned his life around.”

Mark worked with the late mother of a cognitively impaired young woman who still keeps in touch.  His student has grown up and married.  She reaches out to Mark on FB messenger on the anniversaries of both her parents’ deaths.

In the 1990s, in a move called deinstitutionalization, many psychiatric facilities around MI closed down.  They were replaced with community mental health services, shifting costs from state to federal budgets.  Mark says interest is growing in reopening long-term residential facilities.  “We can’t just keep throwing persons with mental health issues into prison where they become either victims or perpetrators.  Prisons don’t give support.  The homeless can’t get help.  Vets with PTSD are struggling and often homeless.  Mental health hospitals, if run correctly, are a better approach.”

Working with behaviorally challenged children can be difficult, Mark says.  “We are human beings with our own issues.   But we need to try to be consistent, especially with tough kids.  Listening is just as important.  These kids often lack effective strategies to deal with their problems.  I work with staff to help them read between the lines.  Children with behavioral issues often bring anger to school  but don’t have the communication skills to tell us what’s really bothering them.”

Thanks, Mark, for being an able navigator in challenging waters.  For making the world a more comfortable place for all children.

*Detroit to Tampa