By Michael Nova and Matthew Le Blanc.
Addiction Rehab And Therapy Helped Heal Damaged Family Relationships.
Thomas Gagliano is a best-selling author who quit his successful business in order to help others. To achieve this goal, Thomas went back to school and received his MSW at age 51.
His first best-selling book, The Problem Was Me: How to End Negative Self-Talk and Take Your Life to a New Level, with Dr. Abraham Twerski explores how we sabotage our lives because of a fear of intimacy.
His second book, Don’t Put Your Crap in Your Kid’s Diaper: The Clean Up Cost Can Last a Lifetime was released in 2015.
Tom is a life coach, published author, and a keynote speaker with a Master’s degree in social work.
He also leads both men and women’s groups, and also works with families, so that parents can provide their children the positive messages that they themselves may have been denied of in their childhood.
Here’s our interview with Thomas Gagliano…
Thomas, can you tell us about your book, The Problem Was Me: How to End Negative Self-Talk and Take Your Life to a New Level, and how it centers around people’s tendency to sabotage their own happiness because of their fears of intimacy?
When we grow up with a distorted view of intimacy, where our caregivers shut down, run away, or rage at each other, we don’t trust intimacy as an adult.
We believe something bad will happen, so when we feel vulnerable, a fear awakens in us and we may push away love and closeness when it comes our way. We develop a warden – an inner critic that guides our behavior.
Childhood messages affect every part of our lives to the intimacy we have, or don’t have, including our parenting skills, and even the roles we choose.
You speak from personal experience. How was your childhood affected by those issues?
In my youth, I was a bully and became addicted to drugs. It took my recovery to stop and realize that I was hurting the people around me.
I came from a broken home. If my compulsive gambler of a father would come home late from work, it signaled to everyone in the house that he was drunk. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer and worse yet, on the nights he wouldn’t go to sleep right away, it meant he was going to hit someone.
Some nights, I would sit at the top of the stairs waiting for the violence to start. Being the oldest of four brothers I would have to pull him off my mother.
My mother was no angel. I was a teenage pregnancy and my father never let my mother live it down. To get back at him, she would bring me to the hotels my father was cheating on her at. She would knock on the door, run and hide, leaving me by myself.
My rough childhood led me to believe that I was the problem. I had to be. Why else would my parents treat me like they did? Why would they treat each other like they did? I didn’t let myself see that my parents were people with problems.
It is my belief that addiction leads to a breakdown of the mind. You get split into two, showing the world one face and hiding your true one. Real intimacy is impossible; you can barely accept yourself. A relentless pain grows inside you and you’re forced to find something – anything, to numb it.
As an addict, I was my own worst enemy, self-destructive in so many ways. I was blind to the reason behind all my pain and the pain of those around me.
How did things change when you got older?
When I got older I was good at two things: making money and sports. I was lucky to have a wonderful wife and two beautiful children. My business was booming. The only problem was I was spending it all on my vices, dragging my adult life through my childhood hell.
My wife eventually kicked me out. I wasn’t surprised but I had an ultimatum: put my pieces back together or be broken forever. I didn’t trust anyone or anything. Therapy, twelve step meetings, nothing stuck. I would get there late and leave early, never participating or talking to anyone.
Therapy was the definition of insanity. My therapist would ask me the same question every time and my answer never changed – “I don’t know”. What I did know was that my emotions have long since disappeared. Anytime I feel, I turn to my addiction.
So, what triggered the change in yourself?
A phone call from my mother. She told me that my father’s cancer had spread and he didn’t have much time left. I could hear it in her voice that I should visit him soon because it might be the last chance I had to see him. I guess 15 years of alcoholics anonymous couldn’t save him.
I went to see him. He looked so much weaker than his normal bullish self. It was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer.
My feelings betrayed me, I couldn’t decide whether my sadness was genuine. He never made me feel safe and here he was in the most vulnerable state I had ever seen him in.
I made my way to leave him and as I got to the door he barely mustered the words, “Son, when I was beside my father while he was dying of lung cancer, I couldn’t summon the courage to tell him that I loved him. That was 20 years ago and I still regret it today.”
It was the first time I had ever seen my father display empathy. He might’ve felt my anguish, but empathy wasn’t enough. Not after all this time.
He reached out to me but out of habit I shut down my emotions, my guard went back up. I didn’t say a word.
The cancer had taken over my fathers’ system entirely. Even in his weakened state, he still seemed strong. The thoughts in my head were telling me to run and leave him, not to show any emotion. I said goodbye and he started to cry.
How different it was to see him crying in a hospital bed and not drunk, on his knees asking for forgiveness. My outer self didn’t show any emotion, but by the time I had left the room something inside me hurt terribly. I left in silence.
I prayed to God as I waited for the elevator. The life of an addict becomes a dichotomy when something this miserable happens. Either my vice or support system. My pain was overwhelming; I didn’t know which I would turn to.
When the door opened, I saw a familiar face. It was a member of a group I went to. It was nice to see a friend. I needed to be comforted, so I ran towards him with open arms and we hugged. His reason for being there was grim but it was what brought me solace, however brief it may have been.
So how did all of this affect you?
Recognizing what happened that day made me grow spiritually. Support has presented itself as if by the hand of God. I am a witness of divine intervention; my friend was sent to save me from falling back to my addiction. Without him and without God, I may have gone down a dark path that day. It only took a few days before I told my father I loved him.
Many people from my groups and meetings showed up to my father’s wake. Seeing them warmed me inside because I knew they cared for me. The feeling of importance is one that I had never experienced with my parents. I had waited my whole life to matter to someone and here I was, at one of my lowest points, and I had several people who cared. This was a feeling no addiction could even mimic.
Soon after, my mother gave me my father’s journal. In it, I saw a completely different person, not a monster but a human being. I saw myself in his words- a mind lacking self-confidence, perpetually seeing the dark side of life.
To reconcile what I held against my father with what I had read, I knew I had to forgive him. Seeing my therapist that day was too much. I couldn’t speak, but I couldn’t hide my emotions either. It was clear that I was filled with sorrow. It was something therapy never brought out of me. My therapist asked me, “Tom are you okay? You look upset.” I was more than upset, I was devastated.
It was time to change my life. I turned my attention two things: helping others who had broken childhoods and to make sure my children never felt as I did then and especially as a child. There was no chance I was letting them turn to any sort of possible addiction, I was determined to ensure that they knew they could share anything with me.
So then, this starts a new chapter in your life. How did you make the change?
I shifted my focus away from business and dedicated more time to sponsoring others with addictions. I began facilitating biweekly twelve step groups either at my house or in a school.
An opportunity to show my son he could share his feelings with me came when we had to put down our dog. Even though he was my oldest, it was still devastating for him to say good-bye to his friend. I asked him how he felt and he said he was okay. “You can always tell me how you feel, son,” I told him.
I hugged him tightly. He began to cry and hold me closer. This was the safe space I had imagined all along to make sure my son could let himself feel. I may not have had this growing up, but I wasn’t having my son experience that loneliness.
So what happened then?
Sharing that experience with my son was a revelation. I made the connection between what we hear and see in our childhood with how we perceive intimacy and what makes us parents later in life. The link between our youth and adulthood is real. It affects our choices more than we know. This was the essence of my approach to the groups I would organize.
And how did you become an author?
Members of my group encouraged me to write a book on my insights. One of them knew a notable psychiatrist and author, Dr. Abraham Twerski and took my manuscript to him. One day I received a call from Dr. Twerski, “this book has to be published!” he said. He told me people needed to read about my helping other people, it would inspire others to do the same.
Finding a title was next step. After several failed attempts to impress my wife, I suggested The Problem Was Me and we both knew it was the one. I couldn’t believe it when the book became a best seller. Don’t Put Your Crap In Your Kid’s Diaper was the title of my next book.
Over time, different group members would implore me to go back to school for my Master’s degree in social work. They believed in me as a strong motivational speaker but I needed a degree to give me the academic training.
I wasn’t sold on the idea. What spurred my decision towards doing it was two of my sponsees who were starting their own Master’s degrees. Their assurance to help me use a computer, a skill I didn’t have, encouraged me to make the commitment.
School was never for me but my support group quieted my reservations. I was heading to Rutgers at 50 years old after a 27-year hiatus from school. On an early September morning, I left my house with my backpack, water bottle, and pencil case on my way back to school. I looked up to the heavens and said: “I hope you’re enjoying this, God, funny how things change.”
So how did it go at school?
Once I got to campus I quickly got lost. I couldn’t find my class; I didn’t even know if I was in the right building. I started to get angry with thoughts of giving up slowing percolating in my mind. Frustrated, I spoke to God again and asked for help. I walked into what turned out to be the wrong class and asked the professor for directions. He turned and immediately recognized me.
“Tom! What on earth are you doing here?” It was a gentleman from one of the groups I had organized for many years. “You look frustrated,” he continued. He reminded me of some guidance I used to give him, walk and your body will follow.
He told me that I had saved his marriage and likely his life too. “You’re going to help a lot of people,” he said. It was a few days later that I recognized divine intervention taking place again.
I graduated from Rutgers University two years later.
That’s awesome, Thomas. So looking back on it now, when you look back at your addiction, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you think you internally make the shift away from it?
By making my life a “we” process, soliciting the help of others to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself. I built self- awareness first which helped me understand the actions I needed to take and when I consistently maintained those actions I healed what was broken inside of me
We don’t often hear how being a bully can affect someone’s life. How did being a bully affect your life?
It was about power . I felt powerless over the abuse I received and being a bully gave me a distorted sense of power.
And why did you eventually decide to stop bullying others?
When I found compassion for myself, I then found compassion for others. I thought I was a bad kid who deserved to be punished but later realized I was a discouraged person who needed to take the hand of others to restore me to sanity.
What basic advice do you have for people who are being bullied?
To solicit support from those who don’t judge you but allow you to feel unconditionally loved. This can be family or friends or professionals.
So tell us about what you are doing now.
Now, I’m a keynote speaker and I continue to organize weekly groups. The problem with addiction is that it replaces intimacy in the minds and souls of the addicts. Instead of trusting the healing power of human interaction, addicts will turn to detrimental vices.
Addictions masks our true selves. We are all the same regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or income. The feeling of inadequacy consumes us, forcing to give up trusting other people.
I give people with addiction the tools to enhance their empathy. The lack of that emotion in those around them during childhood precludes them from fully developing their own. The lack of conversation in their youth, asking them how they feel, leads to malevolent, often destructive behavior.
My experiences enlightened me to the link between our upbringing and our character later in life. This allowed me to help my group members understand this link – the connection between conflict in our childhood and the lack of belief in intimacy in adulthood. Anger, lack of positive emotions, and no parental consolation affect addicts on a deep level.
My hope is that I can help people overcome their fears from past experiences and realize that communicating one’s emotions is crucial to a healthy mind.
It is so important that addicts know they aren’t alone. A lonely childhood leads them to think that no one will be there to care for them.
The lack of control is destructive in its own way. A rough childhood often limits the ability of an addict to accept and trust the recovery process. Without control, they don’t feel safe. It’s essential that recovery starts before an addict is ready because, in reality, they may never be.
That’s a pretty heavy realization Thomas. Can you give us an example of how you work with people who have these issues?
One method I use in my groups is role-playing, in an effort to realize a greater self-awareness. Maintaining a consistent and healthy structure through positive actions and continued self-evaluation is imperative.
Knowing yourself is the medium to uncovering your path in life. Without self-awareness, personal growth is not possible. My hope is that through my teaching I help people realize the power of choice and the importance of expressing yourself emotionally. My goal is to empower.
So again looking back on your story, what did you learn about what’s most important when you think about overcoming adversity in life?
Allowing others in to help you. Asking for help is not a weakness but takes courage. Validate those who have the courage to do that.
And based on your own personal experiences and your expertise counseling parents on how to provide their children with positive and loving messages, what basic advice would you give to the parents of a child who is currently struggling with adversity?
Validate and hear their fears and feeling. Tell them what you would have wanted from your mom or dad at that age. LET THAT COMPASSION GUIDE WHAT YOU SAY AND THE WAY YOU SAY IT. SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES AND STRENGTH WITH THEM.
Remember the most important relationship we all have is the one we have with ourselves. That’s the common denominator in all our relationships. We can’t give others what we don’t possess inside ourselves.
Thanks to Thomas for being so forthcoming in our interview. What’s so inspiring about Thomas’s story is that he lived it, through all his family problems and addictions. This is why he’s able to be successful with his clients, because he can relate to where they are now because he’s been there himself.
It’s been said that the first step towards change is acceptance. Thomas accepted his shortcomings, and by doing so, was able to move forward in re-creating himself to become that person he wanted to be.
Now he helps others to do the same… to realize that you can fall down seven times, but you can rise up eight.
What do you think of Thomas’ Journey? Please comment here…