Backdrop.

I’ve been out of sorts this week. Our house has been in complete disarray, a result of our decision to have almost every square inch of interior real estate repainted at once. I don’t deal with disarray well, which will come as no surprise to those of you who have encountered my OCD ways, so having our house — the one place where I usually can find calm and rest — all torn apart and disorganized has left me strangely off balance. Work has been more demanding, too, as I’ve been caught up in the process of closing one fiscal year and beginning anew, in more ways than one. And so, I’ve just been left a bit depleted and disillusioned.

Then this morning, after less sleep than I hoped, I woke up early. The house was quiet, the dogs were still asleep. I’m not a morning person as a rule, but there was just such an undeniable peace in the air. Thankfully, our house is slowly being put back together, there’s a beautiful new color on the walls (yes, my wife was right), and the scene out our back window served as the perfect morning backdrop.

Not long after taking the picture above, the fog began to lift off the pond as morning gave way to day. The sun is now shining, the air is crisp, and I can now see beyond the mark that was only vaguely recognizable a few hours ago. The perfect backdrop has been a perfect and much needed reminder.

Advertisements

I forgive you.

I’m good with numbers. I can tell a joke, keep a secret, and I remember birthdays and anniversaries. I’m a problem solver with good listening skills and I even can do my own laundry. Unfortunately, none of these moderately admirable qualities can make up for this glaring deficit of mine.

I’m just not very good at forgiveness. Not at all.

I never have been, really. It’s not that I’ve been one to necessarily hold long-standing grudges. Instead, I’ve always just preferred to dismiss the offending person from my life rather than having to take the emotionally sticky path of actually forgiving. Skip straight to the forget, I say. Somehow, my method always seemed cleaner, less dramatic, and a better guard against future hurts. Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice…

Somewhere between a year or two into my wife’s sobriety, after countless apologies, amends, and a tremendous amount of work on both our parts, I knew that I still hadn’t forgiven her. Or myself. At least, not completely. Our relationship had improved quite a lot and we were starting to have good times again. We even started to plan a bit for the future, something that had been noticeably and abruptly halted for several years. But I’d still have these moments where I’d be sideswiped by overwhelming hurt, then anger, routinely followed by a sanctimonious lashing out about the (real and perceived) injustices I’d endured.

I distinctly remember driving home from work late one evening, furious at something she’d done… a couple years earlier. I was lost in the moment, angry that I’d been so wronged so long ago, intentionally caught up in the fog of confusion that often separates hurt from bitterness. I usually called her on my way home, just to let her know that I was en route, but that wasn’t about to happen this particular evening. I owed her no such courtesy. I’d been the victim here, after all.

Then, in that instant, it hit me that if I couldn’t get beyond this particular thing — beyond any of it, really — I was going to need to end the relationship. It would be the only right and humane thing to do, for both of us. It would be painful and difficult, but somehow necessary. I would admit that I had tried, that we both had tried, but I just simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get past it. I’d wish her well and we’d go on with our lives, our separate lives, and try to find some measure of bliss elsewhere. So, I set a date in my head, a deadline for this elusive thing called forgiveness.

Now, years later, I don’t remember the date of my deadline or how much time passed between my realization in the car that night and the day mentally circled on the calendar. What I can tell you is that at some point during that time, it became clear to me that if I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive this person this time, I might never be able to forgive anyone for anything ever again. I’d return to the person I was before I met my wife, someone who ended relationships by cutting people out of his life with no fanfare and no discussion, someone who artfully airbrushed past friends and loved ones out of his memory upon first (or sometimes, if they were extremely fortunate, second) offense without a regret.

It was clear to me, more than ever before, that the work of forgiveness was on me. Sure, it was made easier by my wife’s often unflinching desire to apologize and take responsibility for her past actions (more than most people ever would have attempted), but that only could go so far. Now, the responsibility was mine.

I read books on forgiveness, I listened to the sermons and teachings of several major religions, I absorbed each and every “resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die” anecdote, I prayed, I meditated. And then I did it all again, hoping that something would “click” and forgiveness would just happen upon me in some sort of lavish dream sequence. Needless to say, it didn’t happen that way. In the end, I’m not sure how much any of those things really helped at all.

The truth is that my heart just needed to be able to heal. In order to accomplish that, I had to truly let myself feel the hurt, in all of its laid-bare vulnerability, without the nagging distractions of anger and resentment, distractions that had been clouding my ability to see into and then beyond myself. And then, in that true, unadulterated acknowledgement and experience of my hurt, I finally began to find forgiveness.

Beautifully broken.

My journals are filled with pain. The very act of writing has often been a respite for me, a time for soul-searching therapy and then, a necessary emotional purging. Committing my disconsolate feelings to the written word both acknowledges and organizes the brokenness. And so, when I’ve found myself in the trenches of some sort of emotional turmoil, or later just trying to make sense of it all, I’ve found myself writing. For whatever reason, I allow the pain and hurt to infiltrate the written word in a way that I would struggle to find acceptable or “safe” in spoken conversation.

I write about the “good times” — joy, laughter, and love — far less. I assume it’s because those thoughts and feelings don’t require the same mental gymnastics or organization that comes from writing them down. Those thoughts and feelings also don’t require the cover of silence offered by text on a page in order for them to be acceptable or shared.

The scary thing about this blog is a feeling of permanence that I’ve never allowed in my private journals. It’s routinely been my practice to delete my old writings and journals, sometimes immediately, which is a benefit of writing on the computer instead of in a Moleskine. Deleting them doesn’t eradicate the pain of those moments, obviously, but it’s been a step toward some sort of closure for me, a way to close the book on an experience.

As part of my wife’s 12-Step process of recovery, she has made a lot of amends. Amends, if you’re familiar with the lingo, are about more than simply making apologies. Amends seek to take responsibility and make restorations, wherever possible. Much brokenness came from that time in our lives when we were traveling to hell and back with her addiction. As much as I appreciate (and frankly, at times, need) her willingness to take responsibility for so much of the destruction of that time, I also know that some of my brokenness can never been repaired or restored. I know this is a source of guilt for my wife, in no small part because of the times I expressed my grief and despair as feeling as though I was “losing pieces of myself.”

The simple truth is that we never really can completely close the book on our those experiences or gain back all of those lost pieces. While the pain of those moments dissipates with work and time (more with work than time, for the record), the brokenness left behind is something that shapes who we are and who we will be. For a long time, this fact seemed like a negative, a lingering inescapable punishment. What I’m beginning to discover now is that the process of living through and then moving beyond the brokenness is where I’ve learned the most about myself… and, hopefully, about the world around me.

Out of the brokenness, beauty.

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
-Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross

I find myself gravitating toward people who have lived with and through their own brokenness, only to come out on the other side of it as a better person. Those are the people who I find myself wanting to spend time with and that’s the kind of person that I hope to someday become.

One of my favorite songs on the newest Over the Rhine album, The Long Surrender, is “All My Favorite People Are Broken.” It’s the moving album finale, a tune filled with love, recognition, and the perfect melting instrumental goodbye. The song walks the delicate balance between warmth and sadness, which is, for me, one of the more endearing hallmarks of Over the Rhine’s music.

All my favorite people are broken. Beautifully broken. My heart should know.

Darkness.

Throughout the depths of my wife’s addiction, and then into her early recovery, I talked to almost no one about it. I know that part of my silence was because of my own shame, part of it was because of my inability to adequately articulate the quiet madness that was consuming me, and part was rooted in the misguided notion that involving others would somehow make the problem even worse. So I closed myself off, opting for implosion instead of explosion.

Don’t get me wrong. There were opportunities for help. I could have done more to reach out, get therapy, or participate in support groups. I could have more actively (and honestly) responded when friends and family voiced their concerns. I could have been more open, less guarded, less militant about my “privacy.” But I didn’t and I wasn’t. Although I’ve never been a person to have a large circle of confidants, there were certainly people around me who sensed — I imagine it was far more obvious than I would have been comfortable believing — that I was in some sort of emotional distress. And yet, I failed to seize any of those opportunities. Instead, I fell apart in an undignified isolation of my own design.

My solitude became a self-imposed prison sentence, the only right and just punishment for someone who had been willing to look the other way when destruction was all around. There was a price to be paid for such blatant disregard, I concluded, and maybe this was it. This was deserved. Earned, perhaps. Just.

My wife took the opposite approach. She talked, she therapied, she grouped. She went to meetings, she had sponsors. She sought help wherever and whenever it was offered. And I resented it. I resented that she would air her (our?!) problems to complete strangers, that she could care so little about this need of mine for privacy, that she’d found help elsewhere when it couldn’t be found in me. Mostly, though, I resented the fact that she was willing and able when I was ill-equipped and obstinate.

As a result, I think it took me far longer to dig my way back out. I’m still digging, even now, years later. I’d like to be able to say that I’d do it differently given another (please dear god, no) opportunity, but I’m not sure that I really would. Maybe that’s my continued stubbornness more than anything else, but I wonder how much of the bottomless darkness was necessary in order for me to be able to see light again.

If you’re in pitch blackness,
all you can do is sit tight
until your eyes get used to the dark
.”

-Haruki Murakami

When I first decided to start this blog, I knew that I would write about my wife being an addict. My first post on the subject — Lottery. — was full of thoughts that had been ruminating in my head for some time, thoughts that somehow now needed to take shape as actual words. I thought I would post it, freak out, and then it would end there and I’d move on. It would be cathartic and a wonderful experiment in unflinching revelation, sure, but then I would return to a strict diet of politics and snark, my normal wheelhouse of blather.

Then something unexpected happened. While the act of revealing a portion of my soul was affirming, it was in the response and conversation that would follow where I began to find some measure of healing. I guess, after all these years, I’ve started to learn the value of community. And so I thank you for that, for this grand and unexpected lesson taught by each of you who have taken the time to respond.

You’ve made a difference.

The letting go.

Several years ago, when my wife’s addiction was nearing its breaking point, she made a trip to visit her extended family in New Mexico. She wasn’t really used to traveling solo — she’d be the first to tell you that she’s not a great traveler, even in the best of circumstances — so this was a relatively new experience for us both. I really don’t remember why I didn’t accompany her on that particular trip out west — maybe I had a work obligation or maybe it was intended to be a “girl’s weekend” sort of thing — but we decided that she would make the trip alone. This was a big deal.

I won’t describe the details of her rather harrowing return trip home now (the experience is one of those areas of still-sensitive emotional shrapnel that has yet to fully heal) other than to say it was an enormous final straw moment that helped to push me out of the denial that had become so miserably comfortable. Without that frightening and painful experience, I’m sure we would have just continued on with our clumsy two-left-feet dance with denial and justification. Her addiction, however, decided that it was no longer willing to be ignored. Something had to change.

The weeks and months following that ill-fated trip were just the beginning of this strange journey for us both. Early on, when it was clear that neither of us had any control over the addiction and the havoc that inevitably accompanied it, we opted to instead try to control the environment around us. I think most addicts go through a stage like this early in recovery, as part of an effort to find organization and accountability in a strict routine. Having a routine becomes a safety net, offering much needed structure to the addict and a sense of containment (if not calm) for the ones on the sidelines worrying. The routine trumps everything.

Over time, though, the routine that has been a safety net can become a shackle that confines and limits. And so, in tiny bits and pieces at first, you begin to let it go. For my wife, this means venturing outside of her comfort zone, allowing the unpredictability of life to happen without feeling as though her sobriety is immediately at risk as a result. For me, it means giving up my reliance on an almost parental level of environmental control… and more importantly, not losing myself to obsessive worry in the process. For both of us, it means learning to trust in the strength and wonder of a hard-fought recovery.

On Friday, my wife is making a solo trip to visit her parents in Oklahoma for a few days. This will be the first time she’s done this sort of thing since the New Mexico debacle all those years ago. I know that we’re in a different place now — she’s in a different place, certainly — but I’d be lying if I said that some of that old fear and trepidation hasn’t returned. And that’s okay. It’s just part of the continued journey, I realize, this learning to let go.