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

Vigilance.

PSHThe details started to leak out, as they do in this TMZ age, in the immediate hours following his death: He was found in the bathroom of his apartment, wearing just a t-shirt and shorts, with a needle still in his arm. There were dozens of bags of a specific well-known street brand of heroin, as well as various prescription pills, strewn around his home. There were theories that the heroin might have been cut with fentanyl, an extremely dangerous and potentially lethal drug combination. (Preliminary tests would then indicate that there was no fentanyl found in the heroin.) At the time of his death, his three young children were at a playground just a block and a half away. He’d separated from his long-time partner, the mother of his children, months earlier and had subsequently moved into the very apartment where he would be found dead. He reportedly appeared “drunk and disheveled” in the days leading up to his death. At a recent film festival, he told a reporter that he was a heroin addict. And, of course, people in the know had been worried.

Despite all of these bullet points, when I started learning more about the unfortunate death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, my singular focus was on the fact that he had a couple decades of sobriety under his belt when he reportedly relapsed sometime last spring.

Early in my wife’s sobriety, she kept meticulous track of her “days.” This information is so important that it becomes a vital part of one’s introduction — “hello, my name is… and I have 27 days sober/clean” — in the world of Anonymous meetings. It was important to us, too. We were sure to celebrate all of the anniversaries (it’s been three months, now a year!) as though we were marking notches on a door frame, each mark slightly more hopeful than the last.

When my wife relapsed and The Count had to start over at Day One, we had discussions about how important this day tracking thing even was. For her, I think it was initially as devastating as the relapse itself, this feeling that all of that work had been in vain or somehow now “didn’t count.” There would be the shame of telling people, particularly her friends in recovery, as her introduction (and thus, her position in the hierarchy) would now require an important revision. For me, it meant reverting back to a routine of waiting by the phone whenever she was out of my sight, refusing to sleep at night “just in case something happened,” replacing planning-for-the-future language with the recommended one-day-at-a-time rhetoric, and the return of the same soul-crushing anxiety that had just started to abate.

What we learn from the Philip Seymour Hoffmans of the world, though, is that the disease of addiction can be a persistent and calculating enemy-in-wait, no matter how many days, months, or years one has acquired. This isn’t necessarily new knowledge, of course, as it’s one of the fundamental tenets of any Twelve Step program, but it’s a point driven home when an accomplished man with a young-adult-worth of sobriety cashes it in for a needle in the arm, and then dies.

The challenge becomes learning how to live — and I mean, truly live — in addiction’s enemy-in-wait reality. We must find a way to celebrate all of the gifts and possibilities that recovery has to offer, without allowing ourselves to succumb to the arrogance of complacency when the last relapse becomes a increasingly faded memory. More than anything, we must learn to be ever-vigilant without being ever-fearful. It’s a delicate balance that I’ve not yet mastered.

But I’m working on it.

Troubled.

cory-monteithMaybe his death was drug related and maybe it wasn’t. After all, there was nothing in the immediate reports to suggest one way or another, as the only accounts are that he left the hotel with friends earlier in the evening, then returned back to his room late and alone. There won’t even be an autopsy until sometime this week, I imagine, with any official results coming days or weeks after that. And yet, mere hours after the initial reports that Cory Monteith, one of the stars of the television show Glee, was found dead in his hotel room, adjectives like “troubled” started being added to the headlines announcing his demise.

“Troubled actor dead at 31.”

I’ve never really been a big fan of Glee. (Perhaps there is something about the idea of misfit kids in an Ohio high school show choir that hits a bit dangerously close to home.) I have been familiar with Cory Monteith, though, and the rather eloquent way he would periodically talk about his past battles with addiction. I admired the way he spoke about his journey — drug abuse by age 13 or so, a hard-fought battle for sobriety, then landing an acting gig on a big show — with both candor and gratefulness. When there were stories in the news about him checking himself back into a substance abuse program this spring, I quietly pulled for him in the way that you do for complete strangers when you have loved ones of your own who have walked the same path.

I understand that when an otherwise healthy 31 year old dies, particularly one who had been vocal about his battles with substance abuse, it’s natural to wonder if addiction played a role in the end. What bothers me, though, is the way we allow the stigma over addiction to become a pejorative in those wonderings. Monteith, who wasn’t known for the sort drug-fueled antics or arrests that have become commonplace with young Hollywood, suddenly becomes “troubled” in death.

We don’t handle other diseases this way, immediately casting blame at the feet of the deceased. We don’t respond to the news of a beloved actor dying of a heart attack with headlines about his shitty diet or lifestyle (“Fat Guy Who Refused To Exercise”…) and we wouldn’t so callously lead the news of a death due to lung cancer (“Two Pack A Day Smoker Dies”…) before the family had even been given a chance to digest the horrible news. You see, in almost every other situation, we just wouldn’t dream of labeling people “troubled” when their disease ends up taking their life. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. When someone passes away after a hard-fought (but ultimately unsuccessful) battle with cancer, we rightly talk about how courageous they were, even in the midst of setback and defeat. Courageous until the end, we often say. Yet, when it’s addiction? “Troubled actor dead at 31.”

I don’t know what caused Monteith’s death, but I can tell you this much. From everything I’ve read about him over the years and from everything I know about the ravages of addiction, Monteith fought a long, courageous battle against a pertinacious enemy.

Let that be a headline.

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

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.

Revisited.

It’s difficult to believe that a year has passed since I posted my first piece on addiction. It was never my intention to start a blog about addiction and recovery, much less to talk so openly about our experiences as a couple who survived the journey to addiction’s hell and back. That period of our lives was something I’d always guarded ferociously, justifying it by an all-important need to “protect our privacy,” but knowing that it was a lot more about protecting my ego.

Looking back, I’m still heartened by the response that my initial admission generated. People were unflinchingly supportive and generous, as I hoped they would be, but I was surprised even more  by the number of people who wrote to me about their own (often secret) struggles with addiction and its related heartache, either in their own lives or in the lives of someone held dear.

There’s a certain universality in battling and overcoming — and then sometimes, battling yet again — life’s great obstacles. For the first time since the whole experience began to unfold for us, I could appreciate the comfort in that universality.

One year and a couple dozen addiction-themed posts later, I thought I’d go back to the beginning and re-post my very first entry on the subject.

Lottery.

My wife is an addict.

There were a great many years when I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence, much less express it publicly. Just the word addict was full of too much stigma, too much shame, and too much responsibility. So, I called it other things or, preferably, nothing at all. It was the topic that caused me to whisper, as if lowering the volume of our conversation would lessen the reality of it, as well.

To her credit, my wife began to wear the label long before I was comfortable with the sound of it. She attended meetings and added the clarifying “recovering,” but my discomfort remained. I worried about what other people would think, mostly because I was concerned that they would view the word — and as a result, my wife — through the same judgmental filter that I had. And then, if we’re being perfectly honest, how would that make them view me?

My wife would tell you that she knew she was an addict the first time the warmth of hard liquor hit the back of her throat. Something just clicked for her — something that never clicked for me, despite my most valiant efforts — and in that instant, her subconscious began to map out a destiny for her that would include some form of addiction. I’m not sure why that happens to some people and not to others. It’s a twisted lottery of sorts and you don’t know if you have the “winning” numbers unless you have the ticket in hand.

When Amy Winehouse, who was as famous for her substance abuse as she was for her musical ability, passed away in July, the comedian Russell Brand wrote a piece on her for The Guardian. Brand, a recovering addict himself, talked about the very nature of connection with someone in the throes of addiction.

“I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”

Brand’s words hit me sideways because they expressed an unspoken truth that I’d long known about loving addicts. I’ve always struggled with the disease model for addiction, popularized by 12 Step groups and the like, but it’s hard to deny the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, whether you call it a disease or not. It’s easier to blame an addict who continues to use drugs in the face of unimaginable consequences, throwing emotional shrapnel at all those around him. Or maybe we just blame the addict for taking the very first drink, the one which started it all. No amount of blame we assign, though, will ever be able to compete with the shame they already feel.

Before our dear friend Michele passed away last year after her own lifetime of addiction struggles, we’d often talk about the “why.” Why was I able to walk away from the partying of my youth without a second thought, why was my wife blindsided by addiction for so many years only to then be able to walk a path into sobriety, and why was Michele seemingly unable to escape addiction’s grasp? It wasn’t a difference in will power or moral fortitude and it certainly wasn’t because one of us simply prayed harder than the other. I do know that shame somehow plays a part, as I don’t think any addict can reach a point of consistent recovery until he deals with the often self-imposed shame of his affliction, but even that does nothing to answer why some of us become addicts in the first place when others do not.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my two teenage nieces about life, high school, college… and, eventually, addiction. I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that most kids will “experiment” with alcohol or some sort of drug. The statistics are as staggering as they are depressing. As a parent, I’m sure I’d obsess about every instance of that experimentation, threatening all manner of hell-fire for each and every teenage stupidity. However, as an uncle, particularly an uncle who has walked a path alongside addiction’s casualties, I worry more about the lottery of it all, about the ticket purchased with that first drink or binge or blackout.

As fatalistic as this all seems at times, personal experience also tells me that there is hope and there can be recovery. Recovery is, at times, a hard-fought battle against insurmountable odds, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it’s possible.

In the year since writing the above, I’ve gained such a profound appreciation for the importance of being open about our journey, wherever it takes us, warts and all. I’ve learned that in that openness, perhaps others can find comfort or even hope. And I’ve also learned that in that honest expression, another step toward healing reveals itself.

Remember, September is National Recovery Month. For more information on recovery resources and events in your area, please click here. To read more of my posts on addiction and recovery, please click here.