The story below is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Finding My Smile”. Profits from the sale of my books directly support the Smile Out Loud Foundation.
The beauties of the Wolf House were innumerable. Seeing the men get their lives back, watching as they matured into citizens who could be part of the community again, was the most smile-generating experience imaginable. Through our one-on-one meetings, our group sessions, our communal projects, and simply building relationships, I’d encounter the unique story of each of these men and watch as his story continued to evolve. In their successes I would discover the power of a person to remake himself and to turn his life around. It was beautiful beyond belief.
But the Wolf House also sucked away my smile. I was the only full-time employee of the House, and as the state decided to establish more locations, I became responsible for more men and more tasks. Daily I would manage the finances, stock the food, offer counseling, and monitor the success of nearly seventy-five men. Juggling so many details for one house was a handful, but as the Wolf House network grew, so did the size of my responsibility. My extremism hadn’t diminished over the years, so rather than share some of the chores, I carried everything by myself. That meant commuting between the three Wolf Houses an hour at a time, six times a day.
At first everything seemed possible. I could administer the houses and work with the men to get through all of the daily tasks. When I began to have to testify in court regarding the Wolf House’s success or as a reference for my clients, the number of duties increased. Rather than spend any quality time in any given spot, I continuously moved from one job to the next. I wore the hat of the boss, night watchman, delivery man, witness, social worker, and counselor. To allow myself time enough to accomplish my tasks, I would conduct business in the car as I ate drive-thru fast food. Mountain Dew and beef jerky kept me awake and energized. As the months passed, I gained over two-hundred pounds.
Linda worried about my sleeping habits as well. On any given day something out of the ordinary would come up and disrupt what little routine I had. Sleep would invariably take the last priority. Often I would end up getting home at nearly 6 in the morning, only to catch a few hours of sleep before beginning again. Linda would do what she could to foster my rest. Some days she would refuse to wake me and would turn off my cell phone after I had fallen asleep. When I woke up to learn how much time had passed, she’d simply answer my challenges with a shrug that said she didn’t mind being the bad guy if it meant I got some shuteye. She knew that I ran on empty, occasionally falling asleep even on the road. And she worried about me.
My doctor used to sit me down with a threatening voice. “David, you’re going to need to lose the weight,” he’d warn.
“How much weight?” I’d ask.
“Two-hundred-fifty pounds, at least.”
I’d laugh. “How will I lose that much weight?”
“You put it on,” he’d say with a shrug. “Now get it off.”
I attempted to follow his advice at the same time as working for the men of the Wolf House. One solution I created was to ride a bike across the state of Nebraska to raise money for our program. With Drexel in tow, we got publicity and funding from every town we stopped in. I had trained enough in advance so that the two of us managed to ride across the state in eleven days. When it was over, I looked at Drexel. “We’re going to do it in half the time next year,” I said. He laughed at me, but when we managed the trip in five days the next year, I was the one laughing.
Unfortunately, our bike riding wasn’t enough to get the weight off, and I hadn’t changed my schedule enough to eat healthier. Instead, I downed more Mountain Dew and juggled more balls in the air.
It came back to kick me in the butt.
“So mine’s a bit high?”
I was having trouble with my vision. First, things were simply blurry. Then I started seeing bright starbursts everywhere I looked. I spoke to one of my clients about it. He said that his mother was a nurse and that he’d ask her advice. When she told him to bring me in immediately, I knew something was wrong.
As I brought her son over for a day visit she tested my blood sugar. When she saw the results, she just stared at me.
“David, you’re blood sugar is over 800!”
I shrugged. “So? What’s normal?”
“Between 60 and 100.”
I chuckled. “So mine’s a bit high?”
She didn’t appreciate my joke. “David, you have to go to the hospital. We have to get your blood sugar down.”
I looked at her as though she had three heads. “I can’t go to the hospital. I barely have enough time to be here right now.”
“If you don’t get your blood sugar down, you’ll die.” She injected me with insulin to begin to lower my sugar levels. Then she explained to me how to use an insulin pen. “Go to the doctors as soon as you can. They can put you on a pill to keep your blood sugar even, but you’ll have to use insulin to get your numbers down. Have your wife give you this shot when you get home.” I followed her directions and then, later, the doctor’s. I had never expected things to get that bad.
Being diagnosed as a diabetic made me much more conscientious about what the Wolf House was doing to me. It had become the love of my life—every day, being at the Wolf House and witnessing the transformation the guys experienced through their stay gave me an astounding satisfaction. My smiles were never as big as they were while I toiled for those men’s success. But the Wolf House drained me a bit more every day. It required every ounce of devotion and creativity I could provide, which meant that there was less for my wife and family. I realized that I was dying because of it.
So I decided to take a month away from the House. Linda and I and a few of our close friends decided to go on a cruise along the coast of Mexico. Harold and Judy, our travel companions, were several years older than Linda and I. Seeing their relationship and the amount of time they spent together cast a shadow on the limited time I had allotted for Linda. Harold’s zeal for life also revealed how faded I had become through my work. Love Wolf House as I may, love was not enough.
When I returned from that trip, the final straw broke. I knew I had to quit: I had begun to dream of using alcohol again. Linda and I had made a deal when we got married that if I ever drank or used drugs again she would have to leave me. So when I woke up one morning after our trip to Mexico and found myself yearning for a drink, I knew that it would either be the Wolf House or Linda. I couldn’t stay sober if I continued working there, and I couldn’t have Linda if I wasn’t sober.
For as much as I loved the Wolf House, I couldn’t do it anymore. I notified the board of directors and quit. As I walked away, I didn’t know if I’d ever smile again. Yet, I had my smile cards, knew that I had changed many people’s lives, and trusted God that things would get better. Whether it was through the smile cards or sheer will, I would rediscover my happiness. Everything else in life proved that it was possible. And I was certain it would happen again.
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