All in the family.

Spend any time in a recovery support group and one of the first things you’ll hear is that addiction is a family disease. The addict is sick, certainly, but the “disease of addiction” affects the entire family. Everybody is sick. No one is immune.

When you’re the non-addict in the family, especially if your loved one is in recovery’s infancy, the revelation that you are also sick feels like an unfair — and, depending on the delivery, downright offensive — accusation. How can I be sick when I’m not the one with the “problem,” the one who is (or has been) actively destroying everything around me?

And yet, it was an undeniable, simple truth. I was sick, too.

No, I didn’t drink or abuse drugs. Heck, I even avoid caffeine. In many ways, my sickness was more insidious, though, because it was so easily masked by the role of a long-suffering caretaker. You see, the hard truth is that addicts (especially those pesky “high-functioning addicts”) don’t get years into their addiction(s) without help. They’ve often masterfully developed an intricate support system of enablers — yes, I still hate that word — who assist, cover, supply, support, and excuse. Maybe it’s done out of love, at least in the beginning, or later out of protection or even embarrassment, but the involvement of this support system is necessary for the addiction to flourish.

I was more than involved. I was enmeshed.

I was both a victim of the destruction and a partner in it. As a result, the addiction had come to define not just my wife, but it defined me and also our marriage. In that defining, it isolated us from the world. At first, I allowed myself to believe in the twisted romance of it all — it’s us against the world, baby — until I began to realize that the romanticized “partnership” was nothing but a tedious game of smoke and mirrors.

When my wife first started to get help, I was relieved… and then petrified. She had what seemed like a team of recovery support — counselors, groups, meetings, sponsors — all tasked with this new mission of getting and keeping her sober. But I was still isolated. I was left completely gutted by the experience, too ashamed (proud?) to get help for myself, and too overwhelmed to know where to begin.

The months that would follow — those first few months of my wife’s sobriety — were the darkest of my life. Even now, years later, I struggle with putting it all into words and I still tear up when I try. Looking back, I know that it was a deep depression, although that seems like an unfathomable realization when you’re in the midst of it. Much of it remains a blur. I know there were times when I would find myself driving home late at night, daydreaming about speeding off the side of the road into the river. I sobbed in the shower. Every shower, until it couldn’t have been possible for there to be more tears. When chasing (the always elusive) sleep, I sometimes prayed that I’d drift off and simply not wake up. It was a profound, soul-crushing pain that I hope to never experience again.

And here’s an uncomfortable truth for you. During that time early in my wife’s sobriety, there were moments when I wished she would start using again. It would have been easier, I rationalized, than the pain of deconstruction. I’d lost everything that defined me, so I thought, and I just couldn’t risk losing even more. On top of it all, I was worried that I wouldn’t love the new sober version of her… and more worried that she wouldn’t love me. I hadn’t been warned that often times in recovery, it gets worse before it can begin to get better… and, at least for us, it got exponentially worse.

There wasn’t an exact moment when I began to see light again. Unfortunately, I have no step-by-step guide to share for digging your way out of the mire. I know that some small things — the unconditional love of our dogs, silly as that sounds, one or two friends who said just the right thing at the right time or maybe knew when to say nothing at all, and my father and brother taking me golfing on Sundays as if it were the most natural thing for us to do — made a difference more than any of the aforementioned will ever know. Those moments sustained me in a time when I felt like I was teetering on the edge of personal destruction. Those moments pulled me back.

There has been a lot of difficult, soul-searching work since that time. The task of rebuilding, or recovery, continues. It’s a process, I’ve learned, and you have to learn to walk the balance between participation in the work and a certain surrender to the unknown. What I can tell you, though, is that yes, “recovery is possible” for someone struggling with addiction — my wife is proof of that — but I also know that recovery is possible for those who found themselves drowning in addiction’s wake.

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Direction.

I’m still trying to find my footing and a sense of direction (if not purpose) for this whole blogging experiment. Five weeks and a dozen and a half posts later and I still find myself unsure of the next step. Or maybe it will be a leap. I just don’t know for sure.

A friend asked what prompted me to start writing about addiction and if that was my plan when I started the blog. The question surprised me a bit because, even though I’ve written every word and knew full well that a few of them were about that experience specifically, I hadn’t been overly cognizant of the developing theme. Strange, I know.

I guess I find myself writing about my experiences with a loved one’s addiction because in the telling, there is healing. More than a little of this urge is also because, when we were at the worst point in our journey to hell and back, I wish someone would have been able to pull me aside and tell me some of these things. Maybe I would have listened, maybe I could have heard. I find myself writing about these experiences because my experience tells me that addiction lurks and grows in the shadows. I don’t want to be a contributor to those shadows any longer. It’s important to me, to her, to us. I find myself writing about these experiences with addiction because, as my beloved Prius-driving cousin would say, it’s become “my truth.” I hate it when a Prius owner is right.

I’m still not ready to declare any sort of official direction. Not that it would matter if I did. Mostly, my only goal is the same as it was when I started. I want to push myself to be honest in a way that goes beyond my usual I’m-willing-to-tell-you-the-hard-truth modus operandi. I’m searching for the kind of unflinching honesty that brings with it a certain measure of vulnerability. And I’m hoping that in that scary vulnerability, there can be healing, too.

Ultimate justice.


In a recent Republican debate, when moderator Brian Williams pointed out that Governor Rick Perry’s state of Texas has executed “more death row inmates than (under) any other governor in modern times,” the crowd of Tea Party types cheered. Whether you like Perry or not (I don’t) or agree with the death penalty or not (I don’t), there was something alarming about the fact that, upon hearing the number of people killed by the state under the Governor’s watch — 234 at the time, although the number is larger now, only a couple weeks later — people felt it in their hearts to clap. Some whistled. When Williams would later ask Perry what he made of the applause, his answer was that “Americans understand justice,” the “ultimate justice” he called it.

Do we? Just the other day I read an article that made reference to a 2009 Gallup poll which concluded that a third of all Americans — 34% — believe that we’ve put innocent people to death in this country, but they still support the policy anyway:

For many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

So, an innocent life here and there is just a small price to pay? Is that really justice? How can justice have any meaning when we know that innocent people can be and are being executed?

For the longest time, I assumed that people who support the death penalty must just be unaware of the facts, such as (1) there’s no question that we’ve put innocent people to death who are only later exonerated, or (2) a black man who kills a white man is over 16 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black man, or (3) defendants with money and access to above-average representation are convicted to death very rarely, certainly far less than those without the same financial means or access, or (4) it costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than it does to put the same prisoner to death, or (5) no reputable studies have ever concluded that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to violent crime. And yet, with the recent stories in the news regarding the death penalty, it’s clear that people are aware of these things, at least some of these things, but refuse to be swayed by them. Our lust for revenge as a society, it would seem, is just greater.

Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong, in this confusion of justice and revenge. Justice is the moral, righteous, and equitable principle determining just conduct. Revenge, however, is something else entirely. Revenge is to take vengeance for, inflict punishment for, or avenge. What are we trying to accomplish with our laws, what should we be trying to accomplish with our laws, and perhaps most importantly, which would be the response of a moral and civilized society?

Of course, it’s worth noting that I’ve never lost a loved one to violent crime. I’ve not had to sit in a court room, watching the trial of a man or woman charged with harming someone I love. For those people, I understand the impulse to exact some sort of brutality against the person or people responsible for ending the life of someone held dear. I understand how a death sentence may seem like a small price to pay, how it all could seem too regulated or even too thoughtful. Those are all normal, human responses to unspeakable pain and tragedy. I just don’t think they should be the foundation of our laws.

Some years ago, I remember seeing a family of a murder victim interviewed after their loved one’s convicted killer was put to death. They talked about a sense of relief in knowing that he was dead, how they could finally breathe again, now over a dozen years since their horrifying loss. They talked about their hope for closure. I’m not sure what closure would really mean to me, much less to those people specifically, but I wondered how much sooner they could have found some measure of peace had they not been forced to invest so much time and energy in the endless appeals, court rooms, and sterile confrontations with the man who unapologetically took a young woman’s life. How much had the system of putting someone to death taken from them, even after they’d already lost so much?

I have no sympathy for those who murder and destroy. I don’t seek to spare them from this “ultimate justice” because of a bleeding heart condition too focused on the destroyer instead of the destroyed. Instead, I simply believe that a society that respects life should not be charged with the task of killing its citizenry. When we do, it changes who we are.

Risk and reward.

I’m not a gambler. I don’t buy lottery tickets, I’ve never played blackjack, and I don’t tinker with risky investments. There’s just no great thrill in it for me, no adrenaline rush or sweaty palms or child-like excitement. It’s not really that I have some great fear of the loss, although I’m sure that’s a factor. It’s more about my need to intellectualize (okay, over-intellectualize) the decision-making process. I just can’t suspend my grasp on reality long enough to believe that I might have that winning lotto ticket. Let’s face it, I know the odds. As a result, when tasked with picking a way forward in a given situation — whether I’m deciding what to order for dinner or selecting the right paint color for the walls — more often than not, I will take what I perceive to be the safer route. The beigey-gold is fine, thanks.

So, last fall, when my wife started talking about going back to school, I focused on the risk. She’d waged war on addiction and seemed to be in a good place, her health was the best it had been in some time, and she enjoyed the benefits that come with a lack of employment. Who would risk that? It made no sense that she’d want to put it all on the line, but that’s because I was focused on the risk when she could only think of the reward.

After some healthy deliberation and a little concession, she enrolled. At first, it would only be a nine-month program and — this was the part of her argument that swayed me — we’d have an agreement in place if any of her hard-fought accomplishments (sobriety, health, etc.) started to go south. It’d be fine, she assured me. She was ready.

I have to tell you, I believed the worst. I thought it was a terrible decision that would end badly. I knew it was important to her and I knew I had to honor that, but I thought she was wrong. Maybe, disastrously wrong. So, I put up walls and I braced myself for what I felt certain we’d soon regret. I was ready, too.

Part of me thought (or was that hope?) that she would want to quit after the first week. Certainly, the novelty would wear off or she’d realize that the risk was too great. It’d be an expensive mistake, sure, but one that we could recover from. After the first week went off without a hitch, I assumed that maybe a quarter would be enough. But she persisted. Then, when she was diagnosed with Melanoma (Stage 1, successfully removed) at the end of the second quarter, I was sure it was some sort of sign that we’d bet too much, but she was sure that she could still do it. She was so close and it would all be fine, she insisted. Trust, believe.

She finished her classes this week, ended her practicum, took her final final, and gave her big presentation. In February, she’ll wear a robe and Honors cords to receive written verification of her great accomplishment. I’m so proud of her, not just for completing the task and acing her classes, but for having the strength of spirit to acknowledge the risk, deal with the speed bumps, and still manage to look forward with hope. That says a lot about the person she is and the person she’s become.

Oh, and we’re talking about changing the paint color on the walls at home, too. The beigey-gold was nice for a spell, but it’s time for something new.

The shame.


When you live with someone in recovery, the battle with addiction becomes a common and consistent thread in your thoughts, your conversations, and your decision-making. It becomes the filter through which everything else must flow, similar to the way that dealing with any life-threatening disease might begin to color even the most inane interaction. Decisions, big and small, aren’t made until their potential sobriety ramifications are considered. This is especially true early in a loved one’s recovery and then lessens with the passing of time, but it’s a filter that I think will always be a part of our lives. It is part of our new normal.

For the longest time, this angered me. Must we talk about this again? Can’t we have a night off? The constant talk of recovery seemed selfish and self-indulgent, almost as much as the addiction itself. It was difficult not to feel debased, my own feelings seemingly relegated to mere afterthoughts. As a result, I avoided the conversations (or feigned participation in the ones that were unavoidable) because I was too emotionally exhausted, too bitter at their everything-before-me focus, and too ashamed of the outward appearance of the decisions that would inevitably have to be made as a result.

For me, everything began to change when our friend Michele died. It became clear to me that those conversations could no longer be brushed aside because of their perceived inconvenience. Or worse, shame. We’d lost our kid sister, a part of our adopted family, and I couldn’t be a passive participant any longer. Her shame — and now, my shame — had a quantifiable price.

Several months ago, in the days leading up to what would have been Michele’s 35th birthday, I wrote the following:

This coming Thursday – May 19, 2011 – would have been Michele’s 35th birthday.  More than nine months have passed since her death and yet, we still occasionally find ourselves shocked by the realization that she’s gone.  Although she’d been a fixture in our lives for nearly two decades, there were times when Michele would slip off the radar for a month or two, maybe three, as addicts sometimes do, only to return with a “guys, you aren’t going to believe this, but…” story.  Each time, we’d roll our eyes, listen to her tall tale, tell her that we love her, and then work on a plan for getting back on track.  Sometimes I feel like we’re still just waiting around for one of those calls, as though we’ll outlast this insanely long bender if we’re simply patient enough.

In the months leading up to her death, we spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone with Michele, sometimes up to a couple hours a day.  She was in the midst of a particularly difficult relapse and we, like so many times before, were trying to help her come up with a plan for a way forward.  My wife is phenomenal at this sort of thing.  Chelli has a capacity to patiently listen that was only rivaled by Michele’s capacity to ramble.  They shared a common frame of reference that helped them to effortlessly develop a sort of verbal shorthand.  As a result, I often ended up playing the (much needed) role of bad cop.  It was our trio’s crisis-mode dynamic and we all understood it.

We had one of these conversations with Michele on the day before she passed away.  Chelli & I had taken a quick roadtrip to Cincinnati and for the better part of the trip home, Michele was on the phone.  In the weeks that would follow, I spent a lot of time looking back on that conversation, analyzing (and overanalyzing) each and every word in an effort to find some shred of forewarning or some unexplained fluctuation in her voice that we should have caught and questioned.  At the time, though, the conversation seemed unremarkable.  It would be the last time we would talk to her.

Michele was supposed to check-in with Chelli by noon the next day.  That was often their routine, sort of an old AA accountability system.  When Michele hadn’t called by 2 or 3 that afternoon, Chelli was concerned.  I assured her that it was probably nothing, as Michele could be habitually and blissfully forgetful.  By the time I left to pick up dinner that evening, though, I was irritated that Michele was causing my wife to worry, so I decided to call and let her know that she owed Chelli an apology.  This sort of thing was part of the bad cop’s job description.  I called her cell, which rang only once or twice before an unfamiliar voice answered.  It was Marilyn, Michele’s mother, who opened with, “Jeff, she’s gone.”

On some level, I think Michele knew that she was beginning to lose the battle she’d been waging for years.  In those last months, we talked a lot about life and death.  We talked about how many times she’d already “cheated death,” about how she must be here for some greater purpose she’s yet to discover, about how many people love her and are loved by her, and about her need to once again get (and finally, stay) clean.  Most of our conversations ended with a renewed offer to do whatever we could – fly her here to live with us, get her into rehab, call a sponsor and arrange rides to meetings for her – but invariably, Michele would insist that we shouldn’t worry so much because she’d feel better tomorrow, after a good night’s rest.  In her defense, she was usually right.  Until this time, when she wasn’t.

When we were getting ready to leave for the funeral, I wrote about Michele’s ability to find joy in the darkest of situations.  I mentioned it as a lesson for us all, although I’ve yet to put it into action.  Just recently, Chelli and I have started to talk about Michele again, ending the Michele-related conversation moratorium we’d quietly self-imposed on the long drive home from her funeral.  Maybe that’s the beginning.

When we first met Michele, she was just a kid… an unruly, wild-eyed kid, full of unparalleled life, love, laughter, and pain.  We’ve been forever changed as a result.  And so, on Thursday, we will remember to celebrate her life, even as we’re still struggling to accept her absence.

So many of those final conversations with Michele were about the shame that she simply couldn’t shake. Shame had become a part of her, something internalized so deeply that she was no longer able to see where it ended and where she began. It informed her actions, her reactions, and became the filter through which she saw the world. Eventually, it would be the thing that would kill her.

What I didn’t say when I wrote the piece above — and what I have been attempting to examine and forgive ever since — was that in those last months, when Michele needed what seemed like an unending amount of our time and attention, I found myself dreading her calls. I was exhausted by their repetitive nature and the perceived futility of our pleading. After trying every combination of words imaginable, and then trying them all again, I was at a loss as to what I could say that would finally make a difference. I didn’t know how to battle her shame.

Perhaps part of the reason I find myself wanting — needing, really — to talk about this all now is because I’m still searching for some sort of atonement and, hopefully, some way to counter the shame of a disease that continues to affect people I love. If I allow shame to have some sort of safe harbor in my own thoughts and feelings, I can’t expect it not to be amplified in the hearts and minds of those in the midst of their battle. And so, I step outside of my own comfort zone more than a bit and I share, without shame, this path that I’ve been on.

[September has been National Recovery Month, an organized effort to encourage dialogue about addiction and provide information to those in or seeking recovery. The month may be coming to an end, but the need for that dialogue continues because it remains our best weapon in the fight against shame. For more information on National Recovery Month, click here.]

The not knowing.

There was a time in my life when I was certain of everything. Life, love, god, and country… I had it all figured out. I had a plan, an agenda. I didn’t just have beliefs or opinions, mind you. Any smart-mouthed teenager could have those. I had serious convictions. I knew things.

I’m not sure where such certainty came from, much less at such a young age. Part of it was my personality, I suspect. Even to this day, I don’t belabor decisions and I don’t get lost in the what ifs. It’s just not part of my temperament. Religious instruction played a part, I’m sure, because we’re taught to know, to believe, and not to doubt. More than a little of it was a defense mechanism, too, because with my unwavering certainty came a sense of strength. Sometimes, especially in my teenage years, it was my only sense of strength. Eventually, though, that certainty became more important than the convictions themselves. The knowing was powerful even when what I knew was not.

Uncertainty can seem like a thief when you’re first becoming acquainted with it. It steals not just your convictions, but it challenges the veneer of confidence cloaking them. Doubt makes us vulnerable, we’d been taught, and it exposes our weaknesses. It is weakness. And so, we resist. We double-down. We fight.

At some point, years later, I began to make peace with the not knowing. Maybe “make peace” is a bit of stretch. At some point, at least, I became less fearful of it. I’m not sure this was a conscious decision, but rather one borne out of necessity. I’d been through a few life experiences that were not a part of any plan I’d made or agreed to — a wife in the throes of addiction, a failing heart requiring a couple surgeries — and it was soon clear to me that for all my plans, for all my knowing, sometimes life just unfolds differently. Sometimes, brilliantly.

It’s a slippery slope, the not knowing. When you allow yourself to first question, you find yourself questioning everything — things you’d always believed, things you assumed about yourself and others, and the futures you planned — it all finds its way under this newly-discovered microscope. My first instinct, of course, was to alter my previous convictions and plans to fit what I now thought I knew. Shifting beliefs were okay, I’d decided, as long as I still had them. There was strength in that, right?

Rainer Maria Rilke

And then, several years ago, I was reminded of a Rainer Maria Rilke quote that, as I like to say, hit me sideways.

“I beg you… to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

What a novel idea… living your way into the answer.

I still am a plan maker. I still have beliefs and convictions. Some of them are the same as they were thirty years ago, while others don’t even share a passing resemblance with their youthful counterparts. But there is also so much that I don’t know for sure — about life, love, god, and country — and I find myself being remarkably okay with that, too. I’m continually learning to embrace the not knowing.

There’s a certain power in it.

A little hometown pride.

Growing up in a little town like Waldo was a bit of a mixed bag. As a child, Waldo was an idyllic playground begging to be explored, with adventures only limited by the extent of my imagination. Every barn, a foreign country. Each creek, a mighty river. I could walk home from school or bike to the Dairy Bar for an ice cream without a second thought.

Then, as a teenager, those same surroundings became an almost unbearable prison sentence, the one thing standing between me and my big, bad future. I plotted my escape, counted the years, then months, then days, and never looked back.

Now here we are, a couple decades (!) later, and the little hometown of my youth has become the perfect reminder of history and of family.

Just — please — do us a favor and resist the urge to ask Where’s Waldo? Because now you know.

Go ahead. Wiki it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldo,_Ohio