23.

SCAN0001There was a freak ice storm on the day we were married in a beautiful old Methodist church in downtown Tulsa, 23 years ago today. I was nervous about all sorts of things that day — I worried that the weather might make it more difficult for out-of-town family and friends to be there with us, I had a weird obsessive fear that I’d cut myself shaving on the morning of the wedding only to then spontaneously bleed out mid-ceremony, I was sure that I’d trip and fall over her enormous dress when escorting my bride-to-almost-be up the stairs to the altar, and I was paralyzed by the prospect of the hours of forced social interaction that a reception would surely bring — but I wasn’t nervous about actually being married. I was riddled with all of these crazy fears and yet, completely calm at the same time. All it took for the obsessions to fade, though, was the sound of the music that signaled the doors to swing open in the back of the sanctuary, where Chelli would be standing with her dad, ready to begin our journey. Wishard, the dear pastor who came out of retirement to marry us as a personal favor to my then-blonde wife and her parents, leaned over to me when the doors flung open and whispered, probably a bit louder than he intended, “well, would you look at that.”

SCAN0002In the years since, this woman has loved me often far more than I deserved, encouraged me, driven me batshit crazy, held my hand through some of life’s darkest moments, challenged me, challenged me some more, made me laugh and sometimes cry, patched together my brokenness in ways I didn’t believe possible, calmed me, infuriated me, broken my heart, and then guarded that same heart ferociously, all while helping me learn some of life’s greatest lessons. We’ve had a marriage. Not one of those “every day has been pure bliss” Instagram-filtered collaborations, but a real marriage full of love and loss and heartache and triumph and disappointment and laughter and growth. We’ve faced challenges and hardships, sometimes together and sometimes not. We’ve made mistakes and been awful to each other, but we’ve also tried to learn from each of those missteps and have made it a priority to be there to help heal any wounds we’ve inflicted.

IMG_1689This last year has had its share of soul-crushing moments. Devastating illness can strain even the best of relationships, illuminating the emotional stress fractures that often lurk just below a marriage’s surface. Somehow, though, when everything else this year seemed to be conspiring against us, the thing I was always sure of was this: us. I’m not sure why that is, why some relationships disintegrate in the midst of a shit storm and others do not, but I can tell you with all certainty and complete conviction, I have never loved her more than I do right this very minute. I love her with my whole heart and all of my beautiful brokenness, simply because she’s taught me that such a thing is possible.

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The illness assumption.

anxietymentalhealthillnessbipolarI know and love people who struggle with various forms of mental illness. They are caring and beautiful souls, who just happen to be afflicted with a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sometimes these imbalances are easily kept in check with medications or therapy and sometimes these people fight for years to find a treatment to successfully counter their disease, just as is true for people who battle a whole host of other diseases. Almost without fail, though, my friends and loved ones who battle with mental illness are also confronted by the stigma we so readily attach to it. In that way, mental illness is a cruel two-pronged attack: first a chemical imbalance, followed closely by shame, blame, and misunderstanding.

Whenever we experience a tragedy like the one in Charleston, particularly (only?) when the assailant is a white guy, we immediately hear people making judgments about the shooter’s mental health. “Obviously he was sick,” we say. “Clearly, he’s mentally ill.” “He must have slipped through the mental health cracks,” we posit. Sometimes, particularly from a certain demographic, this alleged early focus on mental illness is an effort to not talk about other issues, like racism or the proliferation of guns. This demographic is easy to pick out of the crowd, because they are the same ones who oppose extending health benefits, mental or otherwise, to people at large. They are also often the same people who declare the shooter was “obviously” mentally ill, but they don’t think we should bolster background checks on weapons.

Sometimes, though, for a lot of us, the assumption of “mental illness” is simply because the events seem so unimaginable that we’re left to assume there must have been some sort of profound defect in the killer’s brain. How else can we explain such unspeakable horror, after all? In the crosshairs of our assumptions, though, are real people who daily struggle with diseases that most of don’t understand. They are people who are, statistically, far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it.

All of our mental health suspicions might well be proven to be true about Dylann Roff as the investigation unfolds and actual mental health professionals — ones with specific knowledge of this case, not paid pundits on cable news — begin to weigh in. But what we actually know right now is that Roff was a racist with deadly racist intentions, independent of any sort of mental illness. We also know that racism is not a mental illness caused by some chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead, the hatred of racism is a learned behavior. It’s something we teach.

The good news — if there ever is good news to be found in the midst of horror — is that we all, each and every one of us, have the power to turn the tide on pervasive and systemic racism in this country. It doesn’t even require an act of Congress to begin the process; it just requires an honest and willing look at the condition of our hearts.

May the families of the Charleston victims find peace in the coming days from whatever soothes their hearts and comforts their souls.

Rescued.

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I knew something wasn’t right when it was a struggle to get the door open. We were coming home from my wife’s first infusion treatment, which had been a disaster of epic proportions, and were looking forward to nothing more than collapsing in bed. For whatever reason, though, the rug in our entry was balled up and shoved under the door, the first obstacle in our quick-to-bed plan. Once we finally were able to get inside, we realized the extent of the destruction left by our normally well-behaved mutts who had been left alone far longer than intended when we said goodbye that morning. The two of them — Suki with her intense separation anxiety and Honey with her increasingly severe senior needs — left evidence of their displeasure, a mixture of shit and shredded paper towels, from one end of the house to the other. It was the final indignity at the end of an unbelievably stressful day, leaving us with the option to either laugh or cry. So we did both.

We’d been leaving Honey alone less and less, mostly because her health’s decline seemed to be picking up speed in recent months. What started as mere mobility issues — her hips and joints plagued by the sort of arthritis than one might expect in a dog of her age — was now more complicated by her increasing loss of vision (she’d lost her right eye to a cancerous tumor years earlier, but now the remaining eye was failing, too), a frequent inability to control her bodily functions, and a growing cognitive deterioration that often left her confused and very anxious. On this particular day, though, after getting my wife tucked in bed and the house returned to acceptable-if-not-spotless standards, I sat on the floor and had a heart-to-heart with our favorite fifteen year old dog. I explained that she was going to need to pull it together and hang on for a bit longer because as anyone could plainly see, we were already at our stress capacity. Then I kissed her nose and gave her a few treats. She seemed to understand.

Honey loved these heart-to-heart discussions of ours, mostly because she seemed to love any opportunity to monopolize my time and attention. For the last year or so, once it became increasingly difficult for her to get up and greet me at the end of a work day, I’d make sure to take a few minutes to lie down on the floor next to her and have a moment, just the two of us. It had become our new thing and I was just fine with it. After all, at her age, she’d certainly earned this shift in routine.

We had another of these great discussions a little over a week ago, when I came home early so Honey and I could sit by the pond and enjoy the sunshine. Her deteriorating health over those prior couple months had been building to this inevitable day and to this most important heart-to-heart. We used to walk the pond’s perimeter all the time, back when Honey was far more mobile and willing. Sometimes we’d use the opportunity to discuss the day or bitch about those infernal geese, but most of the time we wouldn’t need to talk at all. On that particular afternoon just a handful of days ago, though, I’d have to help her to the pond, as the short walk was more than she could manage on her own. I did it all selfishly, because what I needed was for her to do the talking this time, to turn to me like some cartoon dog and speak in perfect English. Maybe she would be able to tell me that she trusts us to do the right thing — the hardest thing — for her. Maybe she would tell me that she’s tired, ready. Or maybe she would be able to say the perfect thing to somehow make it all less sad. Of course, that’s not the way it happened. Honey had spent the better part of a decade bringing joy to our lives, but on that day, it was clear that the heavy lifting was going to be mine.

Honey coming into our lives wasn’t part of some grand master plan. My wife was at the vet’s office with our other dog at the time, an American Eskimo mix named Paige, where she learned that a local collie rescue group was in desperate need of foster homes for an unusually high number of dogs-in-crisis. It wasn’t a great time for us to take on any new responsibility, much less a dog, as we were still in the earliest stages of rebuilding our lives after my wife’s long battle out of addiction. In fact, if we’re being honest, the timing was terrible. We were still fractured from the whole experience in every conceivable way, but my wife also thought that fostering a dog for a short time might be a healthy distraction from her own internal chaos and a meaningful way to give of herself. So, without much additional thought or added fanfare, Honey, a six year old collie, came to live with us.

Make no mistake, Honey was what my mother-in-law would lovingly call a “hot mess.” A puppy mill rescue, Honey was malnourished, routinely abused, and in such poor physical health that she was missing both a lot of her hair and teeth. Confined to a small cage for the first years of her life, she was in a shattered emotional state, as well. She didn’t know how to walk in grass, much less on our wood floors, and she was scared of everything and everyone. So, yeah, we were broken, but she seemed broken, too.

In those first few weeks and months with Honey, her physical health began to slowly improve with the assistance of countless vet visits and a variety of medications. We spent that time working on her other issues a lot, too, such as trying to teach her to trust humans again, even though she’d suffered at their hands for so many years. That’s the truly amazing thing about dogs — specifically, rescue dogs — you see. They somehow have this seemingly undaunted ability to trust and to give of themselves, even when everything in their life experience might have taught them to withdraw instead. We were amazed at how quickly Honey did just that, how soon she was able to express love and trust that it would be returned. It was, as we would only later realize, the exact lesson our own shattered souls needed to learn…. trust, give, receive. In that way, she was a great teacher who saw that we were broken, then lovingly pushed us on a journey back to wholeness. In the process, we became unrepentant “foster failures” and she became an integral part of our family.

Nearly a decade later, we knew that having to say goodbye to our sweet one-eyed friend would not be easy. We’d been having versions of the “what we need to do” conversation with each other for weeks, probably months, in an effort to both come to terms with the reality of the situation, but also to make sure that we were on the same page. Eventually, we would make The Appointment with the vet, at the same office where my wife first saw the flier requesting foster homes. It was on that day of our appointment — just over a week ago now — that Honey and I would make that last trip to the pond.

It was important to us that we both be there with Honey when she took her last breath, to offer any comfort we could as she transitioned from this life to the next. Even though we knew it would be incredibly difficult, we did exactly that, huddled together on the floor of the vet’s office, my arms extended around both my wife and my dog. Those first moments after she peacefully took her last breath were almost unbearably sad, of course, but the experience also cracked the dam a bit on a lot of other nonsense we’d been keeping under lock and key in recent months. I think we’d been so focused on being “strong” and “positive” throughout my wife’s diagnosis and treatments, or maybe just so concentrated on the task at hand because it was all the energy we had in the moment, that we may have forgotten to allow a bit of our dreaded humanity to leak out, too. And so there we were, on the floor of the vet’s office, wallowing inconsolably in our pent-up humanity. Once again, it was Honey to the rescue, showing us the way out of our brokenness.

Love story.

running_away_by_z00m483-d37ilwkI contemplated running away today. The truth is, it wasn’t even the first time I’ve done so since this whole ordeal began a handful of months ago. But don’t misunderstand. I hadn’t devised some sort of game plan, I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, and there was no bag packed and waiting by the door. I simply let my mind wander to a far-off place.

You see, the other day, a friend was asking about my wife’s unfolding medical condition, so I found myself going over the exhaustive litany of doctors and diagnoses, schedules of upcoming tests and procedures, and the looming eventuality of additional treatments and surgeries. She asked how we were keeping it all straight and not crumbling under the pressure, then she commented on our apparent ability to weather life’s storms while always seeming so “together.” That was the word she used: together. Somehow, she said it all without even a hint of detectable irony, while I stood there feeling like a completely exposed and unraveled mess. My friend, to be sure, was offering nothing but a sincere kindness. And yet, all I could think was… yeah, but I’ve thought about running away.

I won’t, of course. We’re both in this for the long haul, whatever form “this” may take, and so even when it gets difficult, it’s still part of our sacred, shared history. It’s our for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness, health. This — today, tomorrow, right now — is the continuation of our story.

So, sure, I daydreamed about being alone in a far away location, kept company only by a beautiful sunset and a distinct lack of worry. But then, I reached out to a friend and asked for help, this new thing I’m trying on for size. I ate an entire pan of brownies, drank a glass (maybe it was two) of some cheap wine that I don’t even like, and watched a couple hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos when I desperately should have been sleeping. Tomorrow, we face another day full of some unexpected combination of challenge and humor and heartbreak and hope. And we’ll face it together.

Because the story of a love is not always a Hallmark movie with beautiful cinematography and an uplifting soundtrack. Sometimes a love story looks a little more like this.

The deepest well.

dark_river_by_kuru93I was driving along the winding river just a mile or two from our house when I found myself completely lost in the idea of letting go of the wheel and plunging my car straight into the water, a desperate internal plea for the sort of peace that I hoped the consuming rush might bring. The nightly drive home from the office that summer had become my scheduled time to let the darkness take hold after an exhausting day of pretending that everything was fine. It was my time to think, over-think, and more often than not, sob. But on this particular evening years ago, and on several more that would follow that summer, despite beautiful sunsets in the making, all I could see and feel was incredible, soul-crushing darkness. All I could imagine, all that my mind would allow in those blackened moments, was a singular desire to somehow have it end.

What I wouldn’t realize until months later — after therapy, intense introspection, and the sort of emotional distance that sometimes, if we’re lucky, can come with time — was that I had fallen into a deep depression. I had fully lost myself in the heartache of my wife’s addiction, her rocky and incredibly destructive initial battle for sobriety, and the resulting shambles that had come to define our marriage (and by extension, me). At some point, a switch had been flipped from relentless attempts to micromanage everything to the stunning realization that I no longer controlled anything, not even my own thoughts. I was at the mercy of an inexorable helplessness that had turned dark. And then, most maliciously, even darker still.

While I would never claim to know the sort of life-long depression that could cause someone like Robin Williams to take his own life, my experience in despair’s deep well that summer changed how I will always view people suffering in mental health’s darkest recesses. While I once might have viewed depression as a “choice” (can’t you just cheer up?) or thoughts of suicide as “selfishness” (a narrative that I’ve seen play out already with regard to Mr. Williams, with at least one prominent news anchor characterizing Williams’ suicide as “cowardly”), I now know how the mind can betray us when we’re at our most vulnerable. Maybe even especially when we’re at our most vulnerable.

I also know how fortunate I was to still have people in my life who may not have known the depth or the details of my situation — by design, few did — but instinctively knew enough to remind me, in both words and deeds, that I had value. I may not have believed them at the time (I most certainly did not), but there was something sustaining about their acts of thoughtfulness and empathy just the same. Their efforts, whether they realized it or not, gave me emotional energy when I had none, preventing my dark flirtations on those summer evenings from taking root and festering into action. Thankfully, it was the gift of enough strength to allow me to eventually seek help and, ultimately, crawl out of the abyss.

But I realize that I was lucky. Many people suffer far longer and far greater than I did that summer, developing an intense clinical depression that prides itself on being impervious to the sort of encouragement that made a difference for me. And yet, we must be vigilant, because life quite literally hangs in the balance. We know that depression lives in the shadows and feeds on stigma, so we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our relationships, shining a light and extending a hand, even when the person in the well wants nothing more than for us to go away.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you or someone you love is having thoughts of helplessness and/or suicide, please tell someone. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800)273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Another fantastic organization that I’ve come to support over the years is To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. To learn more about TWLOHA, visit their website at twloha.com.

You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.

The anonymous tether.

LifeRaft


“I can see the beauty of glass objects fully
at the moment when they slip from my hand.”

–Andrew Solomon

Since going public with our addiction/recovery experience on this blog, I’ve received a lot of correspondence from people who find themselves in a similar situation. Some have come from family members or close friends, but often the notes come from people I barely know. The theme is universal: “I don’t know who to turn to, but I’m at the end of my rope. I’m worried and scared. This is destroying me.” These are people looking for a life raft.

Each and every time I read one of their stories, I’m flooded with the sense memory of all of those same feelings. I understand the desperation because I lived it… not for a day or a month, but for years. I know the feeling when frenzied chaos becomes the new norm, the warped filter through which everything is viewed. I know what it’s like when those feelings stop and numbness, no less desperate, begins to rule to the day. So when these people write to me, looking for anything that might be helpful, I understand.

And yet, I feel ill-equipped to offer a real solution. I usually talk about the importance of taking care of yourself, even in the midst of a loved one’s addictive free fall (prioritize mental/emotional/physical rest, eat even if you don’t feel like it, don’t be ashamed to seek out anti-depressants, consider seeing a therapist on your own), but invariably, in my rambling prescription of something — anything — that might help, I mention twelve step programs. Maybe if their addict loved one would be willing to attend a meeting or perhaps you could find some people in the same situation in an Al Anon gathering, just for a sense of “you are not alone,” might those things help? Sure, I guess they might. However, I also know based on everything I’ve read and, even more importantly, my experiences with twelve step groups, that these programs are not the actual answer to much of anything, certainly not long term. [A recent Salon article on the subject, found here, details a lot of my concerns.]

Early in my wife’s quest for sobriety, we encountered a whole host of different counselors, therapists, and “experts.” Almost without exception, each and every one of them recommended that my wife attend twelve step meetings (AA, NA, and the like). In fact, some of those experts required it as a condition of continued treatment. This is not uncommon. Additionally, it was routinely communicated that if I, as the non-addict spouse, wanted to “be a participant” in my wife’s recovery, I should “commit to a program,” too. Pursue my own “recovery,” I was told. For either of us to do otherwise would indicate some sort of moral failure or, at the very least, a sign that we weren’t somehow willing to do the work.

To her credit, my wife eagerly committed to the rigorous — “90 meetings in 90 days” is commonly suggested — schedule of meetings. She fully immersed herself in the schedule, the dogma, the literature, and the anonymity. Her life was filled with meetings (two and three times a day, if needed), phone call “check-ins” with fellow recovering addicts, faux-counseling sessions with her sponsor(s), and group study sessions to review/read/discuss the various twelve step texts. There were reading assignments and homework to be completed, too. It was all of the time and it was always under the veil of anonymity. It was, in my estimation, a (secret) religion.

Soon, after years of feeling that I might lose her to her various addictions, it now became clear that I would lose her to sobriety. Throughout the process, I was cast as the outsider, someone who wouldn’t (couldn’t!) understand. Perhaps I was even someone who was holding her back from the sober life that she could have, as long as she stayed in the program with the people who understood her and continually “worked the steps.” Everything else (read: our marriage) and everyone else (read: me) was but a distraction in her program-approved quest for wholeness.

When I’ve talked to friends at length about our journey, I’ve often said that, at least for me, the first year of my wife’s sobriety was worse than all the years of her addiction combined. “It gets worse before it gets better,” I commonly tell people on the cusp of a similar journey. I think that’s true for a variety of reasons, not the least of which involves an addict trying to navigate his/her way through every (usually amplified) human emotion without the numbing power of substances, often for the first time in their adult lives. However, in the case of our marriage, it also got substantially worse due to the influence of twelve step dogma, some of the specific (damaged) participants in those programs, and their unflinching focus on brokenness and its corresponding prescription of separatism.

Let me be clear. I know people who swear by AA (and similar twelve step organizations). Some of these people believe their sobriety hinges on their continued participation in “the program” and, as much as I might disagree with that sentiment, I acknowledge the value of sobriety over a life of addiction. I also know people who credit twelve step programs for turning their lives around, all while managing to strengthen existing family ties. It’s worth noting, though, that I also know people who became less of themselves because of their involvement in these same groups. I know people who would go on to eventually lose their fight to addiction, despite years of dedication to various meetings, programs, and rehabs. To say that results vary is an understatement.

I’d like to believe my wife would have found her way to sobriety even without those first few agonizing months and years in twelve step programs, but I can’t be sure. I do know there was no real healing for us, or for our marriage, until her involvement in them ended. Even still, I am hesitant to reject their potential positive influence completely. I realize that for some, these programs seem like a tether to a new life, sometimes the only tether within grasp. More than anything, I understand that when times are desperate — if you know someone who is losing a battle with addiction before your eyes, yes, times are desperate — you’ll try almost anything to stem the tide. Maybe that’s a value of the program that I can recommend: it’s something to disrupt the vicious downward spiral of addiction.

The next time someone asks for my advice, I will undoubtedly be faced with the same dilemma. Do I mention twelve step programs as a potential life line, even though everything in my being and in my experience tells me something to the contrary? The truth is that I probably will. At the end of the day, if I know nothing else, I know that addiction is a formidable and complex enemy, requiring a formidable and complex response. As such, a prescription of whatever works — whatever keeps the addict alive and encourages a life better lived —  is all I have to offer.

For more information on this subject:
Salon | The Pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous
NPR | With Sobering Science, Doctor Debunks 12-Step Recovery

The monster.

phelpsRather than rejoice over the death of one very flawed — and I would assume, exceedingly tortured — man, maybe the best way to mark the occasion of Fred Phelps’ passing is to (re)dedicate ourselves to fighting the sort of bigotry he embodied… in whatever form, wherever we may find it.

Remember, bigotry doesn’t always do us the courtesy of carrying a “God Hates..” sign announcing its arrival and it won’t always show itself by picketing the funeral of someone held dear. Instead, too often we find it masquerading as “opinion,” as “tradition,” or as some sort of “strongly held belief.” We grant it entrance into our families, our churches, and our communities in far more subtle, but no less insidious, ways.

In the end, bigotry doesn’t thrive in this world because of a few asshats with colorful posters and loud voices, reprehensible as they may be. Rather, it takes root in the small moments when otherwise well-intentioned people find themselves justifying discrimination and turning their backs on the oppressed. Those moments are the true “monster” in our midst, not some pathetic old man who has now left this earth.

For more on the death of Fred Phelps:
http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/20/us/westboro-church-founder-dead/