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How & Why I Am Learning to Feel at Age 55

It’s been a long, strange trip these past 50 or so years, and it feels like I’m waking up from a dream. I’m going to share with you some of that dream, with a warning. The parts I am sharing are not the pretty parts. Those you can find elsewhere.

The reason I’m opening up in this way is I have a deep longing to help, to be of service, to connect with you heart to heart, human being to human being. Despite this lifelong yearning, and without knowing it, I have been hamstrung and handicapped by my own particular neurology, psychology, circumstances and character.

Sharing parts of my life like this is hard and scary, even now after years of inner work in a world-class environment for such work. In the last three days, for example, as I was revising what I'm about to share, feeling uncomfortable feelings, I fell back into an old ego pattern of snapping at my kids. My control demon comes out when I'm feeling vulnerable.

I used to ignore and deny the cause and effect between my inner turmoil, my false perceptions of reality and my behavior, but now I am aware and my focus is on shifting from controlling others to regulating my own emotions. This, I’ve leaned, is only possible by being fully honest and transparent with myself and my loved ones. Last night I brought it up in couples counseling with my wife and it felt so relieving; I got support that I never would have had I kept silent about it. I no longer feel alone in this.

Which is the point I’m trying to make. I now understand that I can be of service to others best when I’m vulnerable and real -- the exact opposite of what my ego wants me to do. The ego keeps us separate and alone and seeing one another as rivals. I’m tired of that game. I’ve played it my whole life. It’s not a winnable game.

I’m sharing because I now understand that life is a win-win game, if and only if we are willing to go deep into our experiences, our feelings, our doubts, and share them with one another.

So here goes.

* * *

Five years into intensive inner work within Leap Forward, Ronit, the founder of our group, dropped a bomb:

"It's almost as if you are not leading the life of Rafe but rather are simulating a character named Rafe. You don't realize it, but you’re not experiencing your authentic self."

While slightly shocking and shameful, I actually felt relief. I was being seen and accepted, without judgment and with genuine care.

At the same time, I sensed that if I were to allow the truth to sink in, I would be devastated. I imagine this is what the androids in Westworld experienced in those initial moments of self-awareness as they were waking up to the fact that they were not leading a fully human life. Like the androids, I was in an exciting, high-risk loop where people would pay millions of dollars to play with me, and in which my relationships were superficial, transactional and devoid of emotions.

Off to the races

Hello, my name is Rafe and I have an addiction to risk.

My first experience with gambling was playing gin rummy and going to the horse races with Grandpa Lou in New Jersey. The stakes were as low as possible. Gin was played “quarter a game, nickel a box, settle for half,” meaning that whatever the total at the end of the game, the winner would settle for half that amount from the loser.

Aunt Anna, legendary for her frugality, would accompany us on the racetrack outings. After I studied the racing form long enough and gave her my pick, she would rush off to place a $1 bet for me. I was playing with house money: at 5 years old the only money I had was from my relatives who would give me $5 checks on birthdays and holidays.

When I found out there was a board game based on a simulated stock market, I gave up on Monopoly and Risk, my two biggest passions prior to the Stock Market Game.

I became fascinated by the real stock market while watching my relatives pour over the newspaper stock listings from the prior day’s close and hearing them debate the merits of Marriott stock versus Ramada stock. I learned how Aunt Anna, though legendary for her frugality and scrounging pennies on the streets of New York, had amassed a small fortune by investing her teacher’s pension and pinched pennies in the stock market. Even my Grandpa Joe on the other side of the family, as fiscally and socially conservative as they come, built wealth by investing his salary from his optometry practice into the market.

I‘m not sure anyone considered the stock market to be gambling at that time, nor was addictive behavior considered particularly problematic. This was the 1970s and sex, drugs and rock & roll were good, wholesome things.

Plus, when it comes to the market and certain other wagering games — poker, blackjack, horse betting and sports betting for example — it's possible for the savvy investor/gambler to have an edge over the competition. Especially if he has a high IQ, is numb to the emotional highs and lows that come with bankroll swings, and can rationalize compulsive behavior as "intelligent risk taking."

For many years, my addiction to risk-taking was checked by societal norms and my internal barometer. I had seen what an obvious gambling problem looked like, after all I preyed on people who succumbed to it at the poker table.

When I finally went to a Gambler's Anonymous meeting, I couldn't relate to the experiences others shared since I had no desire to play the Lotto or sneak off to a local casino and lose my money on games of chance. It's deceiving, but a winning gambler, a gambler with an edge, can still be addicted to gambling.

My addiction went unnoticed by me and everyone else for a very long time, masked by some lucky events:

  • cashing out of my first startup, an online fantasy games company named Pick'em Sports, less than a year before the web bubble burst in 2000

  • winning a World Series of Poker (WSOP) event in 2006 when I was nearly out the cash from Pick'em

  • hitting the jackpot in 2007 when my investment in Full Tilt Poker began yielding big dividend checks, just as I was running out of cash from the WSOP win.

The music (and my good luck) stopped when the U.S. Department of Justice levied charges against me and my colleagues over Full Tilt's business practices. On a Friday morning in 2011, I woke up to this message when I logged onto play:

What the world saw on on April 15, 2011 (“Black Friday”)

Rafe Against The Machine

Not that I blame the DoJ (or anyone other than myself) for my predicament. I had many

choices along the way, and I made some really bad ones when it counted, including:

  • Joining the Board of Directors, even though I was unqualified and unwilling to do the job properly. I made this decision because I feared that my fellow investors would do a worse job than I would. Now I know I was wrong about that.

  • Endorsing the actions of the company and the CEO, even though the DoJ included some serious allegations that extended beyond illegal gambling, including fraud. Rather than do the smart thing of investigating the situation myself, I assumed the fraud was a bogus claim, so I hastily signed a response letter to the DoJ which practically obligated them to prosecute me personally.

  • Not listening to the sound logic and personal pleas of my closest friends (who were also Full Tilt investors) to step aside and let the DoJ shut down operations and investigate.

How did I slide into the abyss?

In 2001, my second year of playing in the World Series of Poker, I took a meeting with fellow computer science geek turned poker pro, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. Chris had won the WSOP Main Event the year prior, and was starting a new online poker site. Despite the already-crowded space of online poker, Chris made a compelling case that a site where you learn, chat and play with the pros, built by champions, would be a great investment. After committing $50K of my own winnings to the new venture, I recruited my friends to not only invest but join the founding team.

When we needed a Chief Marketing Officer, I reached out to my network and convinced the legendary "Mad Man", Bob Wolf — who created Chiat Day and helped Apple Computer topple IBM in the personal computing space with the iconic 1984 commercial — to come out of retirement to lead our marketing. I helped hire other key folks in marketing and in tech.

Then I went traveling and forgot about my investment, until they needed help in the trenches and I went to work on email campaigns.

When we were running out of cash I called on my investment banking friends to see if they could help.

When new legislation made it risky for online poker to operate in the U.S. and we needed to move the entire company from LA to Ireland, I remained on the Board of Directors, despite the fact that none of the other investors would join for fear of making themselves a legal target.

All the while I was blowing through my nest egg by co-founding and co-funding a soon-to-fail instructional video startup called Expert Insight, ironically built on the notion of learning how to make good financial decisions under extreme certainty and risk.

So when the Department of Justice made their move I was not going to go down quietly.

Hello, my name is Rafe, and I have an addiction to my identity as an intelligent risk taker.

Embattled with my fellow Board Members during the spring and summer of 2011, my opponents had become not only the DoJ, but also my close friends, the poker trade rags, and millions of customers who were taking to social media and calling for us to be ass-raped in prison.

My stomach was in a constant churn, every moment brought a new hopeful way out, followed by dashed hopes and a horrible surprise, seemingly out of left field. I could barely sleep, my relationship with my wife was on the rocks. I felt paranoid and that I couldn't trust anyone.

Message in a bottle

"They say that eventually in the addict's journey, it's not about getting high anymore, it's about needing a fix just to survive and 'feel' normal."

Sometime in the middle of it all, the phone rings and it's Ken calling to check in on me. I'd met Ken several years prior at a TED conference in India, and he seemed to always have a way of putting things into perspective.

"Hey Rafe, how are you?"

I stepped outside of my home-office-turned-war-room, where I had spent the last 8 hours fielding calls between LA, New York and Ireland — the routine I had been doing for the better part of two months.

"I'm okay. Actually, I'm not. I'm feeling really paranoid."

"What's going on?"

"I'm pretty sure the FBI is going to show up at any moment. I probably shouldn't say anything right now because the phone is likely tapped."

It was like I was in a movie. I was dissociated from my body, the only thing keeping me standing was the fear.

"Rafe, I want to you to grab your forearm with your opposite hand and feel the solidity. Now do that with the other arm. What do you feel?"

"I feel my skin. I feel the warm sun on my face. I feel a slight breeze coming from the ocean."

"Now, look around and tell me what you see."

"I see the busy street with busses, cars and pedestrians going by. I see trees and seagulls and homeless people."

"What do you hear? What do you smell?"

"I hear the traffic noise, I smell the ocean mixed with garbage."

"Good. Now tell me, right here, right now, are you in any danger?"

"Not physically, not at this very moment, but--"

"Stop. There's only here and now. Everything else is not real. If you start spinning out again, just do that exercise we went through. It's really important that you stay present to your physical reality."

Then Ken revealed, in the same calm matter-of-fact tone, that a month earlier his wife began serving a three-year prison sentence for financial crimes that she didn't commit. Ken was suddenly a solo father of their four kids.

I was stunned.

"Ken, oh my god, I had no idea. Why didn't you tell me about this sooner? Are you okay? Are the kids okay? Is there anything I can do?"

The part of me that was still connected to the caring, empathetic child inside of me woke up for just a moment.

"No Rafe, it's all fine. My wife is fine, the kids are fine, I'm getting to spend extra quality time with them. Right here, right now... it's good to be alive!"

With his equanimity in the such horrifying circumstances, Ken gave me a brief reprieve and a glimpse of what I wanted for myself. Unfortunately my ego metabolized the wisdom just well enough to fuel my addiction further. I went back into game mode.

The game, though, had jumped from playing poker with my friends, to becoming the house in a global casino with millions of other gamblers, to the biggest game in town: a showdown with the United States Department of Justice, Southern District of New York, home game of Rudy Giuliani, Eliot Spitzer and Eliot Ness.

Somewhere along the way, the gambling became less about the rush for me, less about the spoils of winning. They say that eventually in the addict's journey, it's not about getting high anymore, it's about needing a fix just to survive and "feel" normal. For me, normal was feeling in control, and maintaining my identity as the smartest guy in the room, intelligent-risk taker, maverick investor, someone people can trust with their money. Someone for whom the normal rules of probability and morality don't apply.

The character that I had built up over my life — with its ingenious and effective defenses against feeling fear, shame, rage, and all the other strong emotions — had so thoroughly become my moral character, that nobody (including me) was aware of the emotional fraud I’d been committing my whole life.

When I learned that the prosecutor on our case was known as the "Babe Ruth of Civil Forfeitures," my ego soared; finally a worthy opponent.

Hello, my name is Rafe, and I'm an egoholic.

* * *

The primary feelings when I woke up in the hospital psych ward on New Year's Day 2012 were not terror, shame and rage, which I'd been experiencing for the previous eight months, but rather numbness with an undercurrent of paranoia. In some ways it was a relief though, as the fear and loathing were only driving me to compound increasingly bad decisions.

As my friend, Jason, is fond of saying, “you can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” And I’ll add…even if you manufactured the bottle yourself and climbed in voluntarily.

So how does one break out of the bottle of their life, or even recognize the bottle’s existence? Especially when it’s been effective at keeping you feeling safe and has allowed you to sail across metaphorical oceans, defeat marauding pirates, and plunder their treasure?

It takes a miracle and a lot of hard, painful work.

A month after the psychotic break, I skyped with Ken.

"So, you had an experience. Welcome to the club. Did they put you on meds?"

"Yes, Seroquel, an antipsychotic that I hate. I sleep 12 hours a day and it feels like I have marbles in my mouth. The paranoia's gone, but I'm really foggy."

"The Western docs don't really understand what you experienced. It was a spiritual emergency, known in other cultures as a kundalini awaking."

Ken's words resonated. They felt more true than the story that I was mentally ill. He guided me to resources like Am I Bipolar or Waking Up? and eventually introduced me to Ronit who was forming a new kind of peer-to-peer container for healing and personal development called Leap Forward.

I spent the next eight years intensively, surrounded by new friends, unconditional love, with practical and scientifically-grounded methodologies for transformation. Leap Forward became my 12-step program for the human condition. In those eight years I learned to regrow my atrophied heart and feel the feelings that come along with being human. To dismantle the character of Rafe, so the authentic me could emerge from the shadows.

Hindsight is 80/20

I now see how my entire business career after leaving academia was one giant gambling junket. Risk-seeking was my ground of being. Even after the psychotic break and even after joining Leap Forward, it took four, five, six, seven years of Samsara, in the form of new risky startups and investments, before I would fully engage with the anatomy of surrender.

I couldn't see myself as addicted until I came to terms with my core defense mechanisms of grandiosity and superiority, which were covering my deep-seated inferiority complex. This defense complex covers a base-level feeling of not being worthy in life unless I am achieving, winning, the world's best. At everything.

The addiction is to my ego and my defenses against feeling.

When you live in your head, dissociated from your body and emotions for many years, and when you live in a society that rewards IQ, money and antisocial behavior, you can achieve amazing things. But for how long? At what cost? And to what end?

I found out the hard way.

All the risky, self-sabotaging, attention-seeking, manipulative, co-dependent, avoidant, controlling, crazy-making behaviors were my soul's way of waking me up and showing me what I needed to work on.

Exposing the errors of my past takes me out of the shadows of shame, which is what kept me from opening my emotional world to other people. I felt all alone, which made it more shameful and scary to ask for help, to appear vulnerable.

As I will share in future posts, my life is so much better than the life I was pursuing before. I now have the awareness of what lives inside me and the motivation and tools to stay on the path to recovery and wholeness. The path to loving myself and my fellow humans, unconditionally.

While my story may seem insane and flamboyant, all of us feel like our lives are crazy and out of control at times, even if we don't express it in the world. We all need help reading the label and extracting ourselves from the bottle. If you'd like my help, Let's Talk.


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