The koi and the dragon.

In Japanese mythology, there is a great story about an especially determined koi fish who battled the mighty currents to swim upstream on the Yellow River. According to legend, once in a great while, an extraordinarily dedicated koi would be able to succeed in leaping the waterfall at the point called Dragon’s Gate. Once that extraordinary leap was made, the koi would be transformed into a mighty dragon. This transformation was seen as both an acknowledgement of his sacrifice and perseverance, as well as a just reward. After that, the powerful dragon could take flight over the tumultuous Yellow River below.

I’ve written a lot about our pilgrimage from the depths of addiction — and all of its related unhealthy enmeshments — into recovery. It’s been a journey of challenge and unanticipated heartbreak, but it has also given us each a clear sense of purpose, a new-found perseverance, and the kind of internal growth that only seems to happen in the midst of adversity. Through it, we have experienced countless opportunities for great transformation.

For my wife, the transformation is obvious. Once plagued by a series of addictions and haunted by insecurities, she shed the crippling shackles of addiction and discovered a new life of sobriety and self-determination. Her journey continues on, of course, as all of our journeys do, but she has managed to tap in to an ability to remarkably remake the structure of her life, brick by brick, day by day. Through it all, and maybe even because of it all, she has been the very embodiment of persevering courage.

tattooAs we now know, the simple truth of addiction is that it affects everyone in its wake in some way, which means that the “road to recovery” doesn’t just involve the addict. As a result, I’ve been on a journey, too, full of its own twists and turns and — hopefully — renewal.

First and foremost were the relationship challenges, many of them documented here on this blog, that faced us once my wife made the decision to address her addictions. We had to learn a new way to communicate, to relate, and to live. But the predicament of my personal journey also had little to do with my wife or the challenges of her new-found sobriety. The reality of my wife’s addiction and recovery served simply as a spotlight on the facets of my own life that needed work.

Of course, there was also my physical health to contend with. While I’d been dealing with a variety of heart issues since my teenage years, the medications that were such a part of my life had become wholly ineffective, prompting an abrupt and unavoidable change in course. Today, I’m six years out from a tedious summer of heart surgeries and physical recovery (you can read about it here). While I accept that I still have another heart surgery to contend with at some point in the future, I feel fortunate to have made the progress required to get to this point. Frankly, I feel blessed to have a future at all.

Then, this past fall, I started the process of two very outward transformations. First, I decided to get on the offense with regard to my weight. It was something that had been bothering me for a while — the slow addition of a handful of pounds, year after year — and the time had finally come to make some significant changes to my diet and my lifestyle. I’d like to tell you that it was a decision borne of positive energy and deep reflection, but the truth is far more vain. I saw a picture of a group of my friends and couldn’t figure out who the fat ass was in the black polo shirt. Then I realized that fat ass was me. So, I cut out the artificial sugars (I was a diehard Diet Coke addict of the 20+ cans/day variety), eliminated the fast food habit, started taking yoga, and doing a little bit of jogging and exercise. It’s been a great — and sometimes, really really difficult — experience, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made.

Secondly, there was my desire to document this whole journey in some meaningful way. So, late last fall, I started working with a local tattoo artist to create something I’d been contemplating for years… a full sleeve tattoo. It’s a project that now, six months later, is almost complete. Not everyone likes or understands the whole tattoo thing, I realize, but for me, there’s something incredibly meaningful about having this piece on my arm. It honors and remembers the struggle, while at the same time, gives me hope and reminds me of the work yet to be done. It is both an acknowledgement and my accountability.

I’ve always loved that little piece of Japanese lore, both for its imagery and for its implied promise. In many ways, it’s been the story of our journey. And so now, it will be the account — my “living, breathing portable story,” as a good friend described it — told on my arm.

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The Threshold of the Dragon’s Gate

Beneath the serene quiet of the water lilies
a young carp senses a calling . . . swelling up in her heart
like the swirling waters at the base of a great waterfall,
Somehow summoned to go beyond the barrier
of crashing water and veiled mist
The churning waters of the waterfall’s bottom
matches that of the young carp’s desires

Finally with a burst of enthusiasm the carp has launched herself
up the wall of rushing water
cresting the first falls with a surge of effort
only to be met with relentless rushing water.
Persevering from one cataract to the next
the carp makes it to the summit’s last falls.
Regrouping her energies in a pocket of scouring effervescence
every essence of strength, courage, and spirit is consumed
in the launching over the fall’s summit.

And the dragon’s gate accepts her efforts a transforming gate of fire
Revealing the birth of a new Dragon
born of the seed of desire planted in the heart of a small carp
that once hid in the shallows.

–Howard Schroeder

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The Leopard Princess.

leopardsuperheroThe polite word to describe her would be “eccentric.” In reality, she was a plump woman well into her 60s, decked out in bad blond hair extensions, coke bottle lens glasses, and animal printed frocks from head to toe. On one occasion, I distinctly remember that she was wearing what can only be described as a superhero cape. Except that it was in leopard print, of course. She blew her nose constantly into a pile of used Kleenex she kept at her side, drank lord-knows-what from an enormous thermos, and seemed to get lost in her own thoughts as a matter of sport. She was, for that brief moment in time, my therapist. And, if we’re being honest, she might have saved my life.

For the most part, I’d lived pretty decisively, believing that life was but a series of choices and intentions. Make good choices, get good outcomes. Bad outcomes, it seemed clear at the time, were due to bad choice making. It was all in our control, I would argue, all a matter of deciding on the correct path at the exactly right time. Practice would and should make perfect. In my mind, we were living a grand “Choose Your Own Adventure” story and every turn of the page was a matter of deliberate intention.

Yet, when I ended up in the office of the Leopard Princess, it was clear that I was floundering. Emotionally threadbare and in a manic-fueled exhaustion, I’d stop making all decisions because it had become alarmingly clear that I was in control of absolutely nothing. Obviously, this was no longer the adventure of my choosing. What I wasn’t cognizant of at the time, though, was how much I had succumbed to the fear. I allowed myself to fully lean into it, losing all sense of perspective with the sort of spacial disorientation that causes one to confuse up with down. I didn’t know how to turn that next page, but even more than that, I was scared to try because I was sure that the page I’d find might be The End.

We’d been to a series of “professionals” during my wife’s journey from addiction into sobriety. First, there were a variety of addiction specialists, appropriately focused on the disease that was ravaging my wife, each relegating my floundering to back burner status. They were followed by a disastrous (!) experience with a church counselor and a catalog of faux-experts from various twelve step groups. It wasn’t until we ended up in the office of the Leopard Princess, though — my wife newly in sobriety, but deeper than ever in turmoil — that I felt like someone recognized the mess I’d become in the process.

On our second or third visit, my wife was excused from the room. This would be the moment of my wake-up call. Yes, it was true that the situation was not of my choosing and yes, it was true that I didn’t have sole control over what might appear on life’s next page. I would have to surrender my naive ideas of the way things “should” be and instead realize that all I could control were my actions on that very day. It was time, the Leopard Princess would tell me, to draw a line in the sand. It was time to set a boundary and to bring that specific page to an end, come what may.

I won’t tell you that setting a boundary made everything instantly better, but I can say with some certainty that nothing about our slow downward spiral would have changed in its absence. It was a boundary for my relationship, sure, but it was also about giving notice to the darkness of my own fear. Boundaries, I would discover, were more about setting an endpoint for my own internal descent than they were about setting limits for the chaos around me. I could end my part. I could draw that line in the sand. It just took a bizarre superhero in a leopard cape to shine a light on the way forward.

In many ways, I’ve not ended up with the life I might have imagined at the beginning of our adventure together. There have been pages and chapters of this journey that remain, even to this day, difficult to go back and re-read. Painful as some of those experiences may have been, though, now punctuated by boundaries and their corresponding new beginnings, I know that we might not have ended up here without them.

And here is pretty fantastic.