A Tribute to “Frank the Painter”

October 17, 2014

I lost a great friend and mentor a few weeks ago, my Alcoholics Anonymous ‘sponsor’, Frank. In AA it’s recommended that every participant work with a ‘sponsor’ — a man or woman who has a significant period of sobriety that you call every day and keep in close contact with. In my early recovery I was adapting to a completely new way of life — dealing with the prospect of going to prison, navigating a challenging relationship, trying to start a freelance web design business…having someone to talk with on a daily basis who had been there themselves was critical.

I remember the first time I saw Frank speak at a meeting. Other members recommended that I find a sponsor, but I was very selective with who I would work with. I was willing to forge ahead alone than work with someone I didn’t totally respect. When Frank spoke, I heard in his voice and story someone who had truly been to the dark side, but now was the embodiment of humility, faith, and strength. I noticed how all other members looked at him with great respect. As a newcomer to that meeting, there was a booklet passed to me with everyone’s phone number. I noted Frank’s and made a commitment to call him.

I called two days later — I felt like I wasn’t progressing in my recovery and knew I needed the support of a powerful mentor. Frank asked if I could meet him at a local diner later that afternoon. When I walked in he smiled and gave me a hug. His next question was “are you willing to go to any lengths to stay sober?” I nodded emphatically. “Call me every day to check in, and make sure to go to meetings, ” he responded.

Three days later Frank was giving me a hard time about not calling him frequently enough. In the back of my head I felt a resentment brewing. I tried to explain that with 45 days clean under my belt, I didn’t need to be babysat, but I realized that this guy has been sober longer than I’ve been alive, and this is probably a good time to shut up and listen. So I did. That marked an important point for me — surrendering and trusting that I didn’t know all the answers, that I would be shown a better way. I realized that my best thinking got me to where I was — facing 7 years in prison and a lifetime of defeat, so the prospect of incorporating someone’s else’s advice seemed like a nice alternative.

Frank and I started going through the AA ‘step work’ — the famous “12 steps” of AA that teach principles to live by — acceptance, surrender, humility, forgiveness. We’d meet at a diner every few weeks and I’d come in with my 12 step workbook, answers all filled out. I figured I’d be able to breeze through the steps in about a month and move on to the next chapter of my life. What I came to realize is that there’s an enormous difference between filling out worksheets and actually living the principles. I realized talking about being humble is vastly different than living with humility, saying I’m grateful is different than living with gratitude. Over time I began to practice the principles and transform the way I approached life. As my approach to life evolved, my life itself and the world around me began to transform as well.

Of all the lessons Frank taught me, the following stood out the most:

Stay humble

I’ve heard so many definitions of humility, but one of my favorites is “Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less”. Likewise, humility is remaining teachable, not being concerned with credit or ego. Every year Frank hosted a dance for the local AA chapters at a dance hall in Fairfield. The tickets would sell out and about 200 people would show up. The other organizers wanted to call the dance “Frank’s Summer Breeze”, but Frank didn’t want credit for the event. He’d spend his time quietly in the kitchen making sure all the food and beverages were stocked and checking in on everyone. He was a man who rarely (if ever) took credit for success, but was the first to admit mistakes. He spoke softly at meetings, but when he did, everyone inched closer to listen. He told me the secret to his sobriety was always remaining teachable, always believing that he has a long way to go and was always one mistake away from being back where he came from.

Practice Gratitude

One of the most valuable lessons Frank taught me was the daily practice of gratitude. I always start my days now writing down three new things I’m grateful to have in my life. Sometimes it’s simply that the sky is blue and that I’m healthy. Other times I’m thankful for my amazing friends, family, and girlfriend. Frank taught me the distinct difference between being grateful, and regularly practicing gratitude. Practicing gratitude has helped keep everything in my life in perspective and always feel thankful for the many blessings I’ve received.

Have Faith

Frank was a man of tremendous faith. He may not necessarily have been a religious man, but his faith laid in the notion that if he stayed sober, life would continue to get improve. For me, faith doesn’t mean surrendering to a ‘higher power’ (like in the AA big book), but is simply an understanding that if I do the right things, life will naturally unfold as it should. It took some work, but I began to develop a deep faith, especially the days leading up to and my time during prison — I had done everything I could to put myself in the best possible position, and had faith that my future would only grow brighter. I continue to practice this concept daily, having faith that if I stay on the right path, no matter the ups and downs, everything will work out.

Be of Service

Frank always emphasized the importance of service in recovery. In late 2011 I reluctantly volunteered to make coffee before the weekly Young People’s AA meeting in Trumbull. It seemed like such a minor commitment, but it helped me meet people before the meeting and I felt a sense of contribution from this tiny act. Over time, I took on bigger commitments inside and outside the recovery groups, from running Meetup groups to organizing conferences. I haven’t found anything more fulfilling than giving back, providing as much value as possible with no expectation of anything in return.

Live and Let Live

Frank told me that his measure of spiritual strength lay in his ability to ‘live and let live’. I remember early in recovery nearly ripping a guy’s head off in a meeting because he was slurping his coffee or tailing people in traffic who had cut me off. What I came to realize as I grew is that life is so much more effortless once I’ve developed an ability to let things go. I can let go of resentments and frustrations and recognize that I don’t have to control or influence everything, especially people. People will be who they are, for good or bad, and it doesn’t have to affect or frustrate me. Frank’s ability to ‘live and let live’ was his expression of acceptance — acceptance of circumstance, or people, and of life.

Be Consistent

Whenever anyone would ask Frank how he managed to stay sober for over 30 years, his answer was always the same — “a day at a time”. “Don’t drink and go to meetings,” was his advice to me. But it extended beyond that — it was be consistent. Develop strong daily practices that will push you closer to who you want to be. He always asked me if I had said my prayers in the morning, made sure I called him, and went to meetings. The same principle applies to any area of life — show up and do the work, day in and day out. I’ve tried at many times in my life to over-complicate everything — finances, relationships, health, and business. Frank taught me the simple lesson of showing up everyday and doing the work with great pride.

Honesty & Integrity

In AA “Step 4″ tends to be one of the exercises people avoid most — taking a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory’, then sharing everything with a sponsor. I had lived a lifetime of dishonesty — lying both to myself and to others, and for the first time was looking back on my past with a clear mind. Frank taught me that honesty extends beyond simply telling others the truth, but also being true to oneself — recognizing shortcomings and character flaws. I remember sitting at a diner with Frank walking him through all the misdeeds of my past — certain things I’d vowed to take with me to the grave, and he simply smiled and nodded, because he’d been there himself. Developing that practice of candor and being forthcoming has served me well as I’ve become more public with my story and background. I’ve found that by opening up as completely as possible, it encourages others to do the same, allowing us to build deeper and more meaningful relationships.

As my time to enter prison drew closer, I spent more time with Frank, seeking his guidance and wisdom. I’ll never forget the morning of January 23, 2013 — my last meal before going to prison was breakfast at Chip’s Diner with Frank. I walked in wearing 4 white t-shirts, 2 gray sweatshirts, 4 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of boxers, and 2 pairs of gray sweatpants. When entering prison, you’re allowed to keep with you the clothes you have on (if they meet specific requirements), so I came prepared. Frank and I spoke about the challenges that I would face ahead, and throughout my time in prison I spoke with him every other day over a collect phone call. I continued working through my step workbook and keeping him posted on my growth. Hearing his voice reminded me of the beautiful life that waited for me on the other side.

When I got out of prison, Frank was one of the first people who greeted me at my welcome home party. In typical fashion, he smiled and joked then quietly ducked out, never wanting to draw much attention to himself.

With my legal issues behind me, I put the pedal to the metal growing my businesses. I started going to recovery meetings less frequently and forgetting to call Frank. Over the past few months, we spoke once every 4–5 weeks. I was always proud to update him on my progress, but he’d quickly remind me to stay humble and not let my ego take hold of me. I made a commitment in June to receive my 3 year sobriety coin with him at a meeting, but we could never find a time that worked for both of us.

So over the past few weeks I kept trying to get ahold of Frank — let him know I was doing well and excited to hear about everything on his end, but for the first time since I’d known him I didn’t hear back. A client of mine sent me a text asking if I knew “Frank the Painter” (as he was known in AA), letting me know that he had passed away. I dropped the phone and started to cry.

It was challenging being at the wake and knowing this would be the last time I’d see someone who shaped my life and helped me navigate such a challenging period. But like other times I’ve lost close friends, I reminded myself that it was better to have lost a friend I love than to have never had that friend at all. I’m just incredibly grateful to have had Frank in my life.

What I learned through all of it

Losing Frank reminded me how short life truly is and how much I sometimes take for granted. I looked at Frank as someone who would likely be by my side at important events in my life — getting married, having kids, buying a home. My biggest regret is losing touch with Frank over the past few months, but I’m also thankful of all the times that I told Frank how much I cared about him — how much I loved him as a friend and mentor, and how I wouldn’t be where I was without him. I feel more comfortable saying things like that now to people I care about, partly because I realize it might be the last time I say it to them.

At the same time, I know that I handled this loss with more dignity than I had when losing friends in the past. In 2008 I lost my two closest friends, Andy and Tim, within 3 weeks of each other, one to leukemia and the other after getting hit by a drunk driver. Back then my coping mechanism involved isolation and hard drugs. Fast forward to now and my coping mechanism involves reflecting and reaching out to others for guidance and support.

As I paused and said a prayer over Frank’s body the last time, I felt great pride in knowing I had made him proud. I know it meant a lot to him watching me living out the principles he had passed on, and that I too one day would help carry the message to others in need.

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Originally published at clintwarren.com on October 17, 2014.

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