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.]