Weekend escape.

We’re creatures of habit, especially when we find ourselves looking to get away for a few days. We tend to have one or two default travel locations, places where we know we will instantly find something resembling relaxation… maybe even rejuvenation. This past weekend, though, I rediscovered a forgotten love I hadn’t visited in years: Chicago. It was a fantastic four days of wander, wonder, friendship, and music. I am, once again, smitten.

Here are a few snapshots from the trip, all taken with my iPhone and posted to Instagram:

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Until we meet again, Chicago. Soon, it will be soon.

[For more pictures of Chicago and various other life moments — that means lots of dog pics — you can find me on Instagram by clicking here or searching for my user name, @jeffreyaward.]

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.

Horror in Steubenville.

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I’ve started to post something about the Steubenville rape case several times over the last few days, but I never seem to be able to quite compartmentalize my own disgust long enough to get something coherent in print. So, rather than wait for coherency, I’ve decided to cast any hope for it aside.

My disgust, including but not limited to:

(1) The media coverage.

Of specific disgust was CNN’s treatment of the verdict as  some sort of unfortunate hardship for the convicted. While I usually find CNN to be a (moderately) palatable mid-point between the opinionated fringes offered by MSNBC and FOX, this was a reprehensible display. Shame on you, CNN.

Link: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/03/18/the_steubenville_rapists_are_anti_social_criminals_not_promising_young_men.html

And shame on you, too, FOX News, for having the audacity to run the name of the victim. You should know better.

Link: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/03/18/1736351/fox-news-steubenville/

(2) Somehow, we’re “divided” on the issue.

We’re DIVIDED on the issue of the sexual assault of a minor? Why, exactly? Is it because the girl was drunk? Is it because the rapists were allegedly “good students” or — gasp — athletes in a small town where sports rule? Exactly when did we decide that in some cases the rape of a minor is deserved or, at least, understandable? When did we become a community that could look at a situation like this and somehow find ourselves “divided” about it?

You know, I had to stop reading news article comment sections because of the unrelenting victim blaming. If you wonder why more women (and men and children) don’t report sexual assault, it’s because in 2013 we still manage to be “divided” when it comes to how we view the legitimacy of such crimes. (“Legitimate rape,” anyone?)

Let’s be clear, shall we? No person ever asks to be sexually assaulted, no matter what they’re wearing or how much they had to drink. Never. It is never justified.

(3) So, what’s the lesson?

I get it. We’re a society that needs to find a lesson in everything. While I can appreciate the judge suggesting that this case should compel us to talk to our young people about what is and is not appropriate content for texting and social media (it’s true, that’s a conversation worth having), shouldn’t the far greater “teachable moment” be about NOT RAPING OTHERS?

(4) The paltry sentencing.

Really, that’s it? And for the people who bemoan the incredible imposition that being listed on a sex-offender registry might create for the convicted, I have this advice to pass on, swiped from a friend on Facebook, who swiped it from Gawker:

“For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime. This is because of your decision to commit a sex crime instead of going for a walk, or reading a book by Cormac McCarthy. Your ability to perform calculus or play football is generally not taken into consideration in a court of law. Should you prefer to be known as “Good student and excellent football player Trent Mays” rather than “Convicted sex offender Trent Mays,” try stressing the studying and tackling and giving the sex crimes a miss altogether.”

(5) She’s still being victimized.

Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/rape-trial-ended-ohio-city-and-storied-football-program-remain-under-investigators-scrutiny/2013/03/18/e9713e20-8f96-11e2-9173-7f87cda73b49_story.html

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/steubenville-rape-case-twitter-threats_n_2904463.html?1363668136&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

Clearly, it’s not just our young men who are the problem. Even after the conviction, the victim (for the record, she’s no longer an “alleged” victim, despite the way the folks at The Washington Post have labeled her in the above) continues to be harassed and threatened? What is wrong with people? It’s unimaginable enough to note the way this young girl’s friends and classmates abandoned her on the night of the assault, but we’ve raised kids who continue to harass and threaten her long after she was initially victimized? It’s unconscionable. And it’s being done by our children.

(6) Abuse, institutionalized.

It’s difficult to read accounts of the unfolding trial in Steubenville and not think of the situation at Penn State. It’s evidence that it doesn’t have to be a big multi-million dollar collegiate football program to make us turn the other way when it comes to sexual assault. Even a small Ohio town with a beloved high school football program — “Big Red” — can fall prey.

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/17/steubenville-rape-trial-depressed-town

If nothing else, it should make us look at the way we act and interact in any group. What do we let slide, what do we turn away from, what do we pretend not to know…. in our neighborhoods, in our school systems, in our civic organizations, and in our churches? Stand up and be accountable, people.

Stand up for the least of these.

Twenty.

20I’d already known the woman who is now my wife for a couple of years — casually, a sort of friend-of-a-friend situation — when we ran into each other during my visit to Tulsa the summer before our junior year of college. When I returned home a couple days later, a good friend picked me up at the airport. He asked about the trip and all I could say was that I’d run into the woman that I would some day marry.

Had you known the twenty year old version of me, you would have known that almost any statement I could have possibly made — “I think I’m going to move to Ecuador and grow bananas” or “I think I’m going to shave off my eyebrows and take a vow of silence for a month” — would have been more probable than something positive about me and the dreaded institution of marriage. And yet, for reasons that still baffle me, I just knew.

I realize that a lot of twenty-somethings say they’re never going to get married. Maybe they say it because they think it’s cool or because they’re still focused on wild oat sowing. For me, though, I vocalized my disdain for marriage mostly because somewhere deep inside I feared that I didn’t have it in me. I feared that I’d grow bored, I feared feeling trapped, I feared losing the occasional isolation that the introverted part of my personality requires, but mostly… I feared failure. I just wasn’t sure that I’d be good at it.

I would say that this journey to our twentieth hasn’t been what I expected, but then, I don’t fully know what I anticipated when we stood at that altar. I had some overly idealistic ideas of how our lives might unfold, as kids who stand at altars usually do, but I also found myself okay with the great unknown before us, simply because I knew we’d face it together. I still wasn’t sure that I’d be good at it, but I hoped and suspected that we just might.

There have undoubtedly been struggle and heartbreak along the way, the sort of things that altar-approaching twenty-somethings rarely consider. For the longest time, those chapters of our life were sources of shame, whitewashed in an effort to present what we thought was the expected appearance of our relationship, rather than the truth of life’s hard fought battles. The wisdom of hindsight, though, has taught me that through those very struggles, our marriage was first formed, then tested, and now fortified.

I have no idea what the next twenty years may have in store for us and I’ve given up on guessing. Whatever it is, I know that I’ll be holding the hand of my best friend. And that is enough.

[Happy anniversary, honey. I love you.]

The constant.

In the midst of life’s inevitable ups and downs, through nearly two decades of our married life, we’ve had a canine constant. I will start by saying that when we first brought that fluffy, white puppy home almost nineteen years ago — an American Eskimo mix of some sort, we would later learn — and my wife declared that she would be named “Paige,” I was absolutely mortified. “But that’s a people name,” I would argue, only to discover that was exactly the point.

And so it began.

She was a nightmare of a puppy. In just a few short months, she managed to destroy our favorite oriental rug, a lamp cord or two, a pair of my glasses, the down comforter on the bed, and in one fit of what I can only assume was inexplicable rage, she chewed every belt loop off every pair of jeans she could find in the laundry. Only my jeans. Every belt loop, every pair. She would also lose her mind if either of us had the audacity to talk on the phone and, if we tried to take her somewhere with us in the car,  she’d throw up the second we’d take our foot off the brake. So, we sent her to puppy boot camp, hired an immensely odd dog whispering trainer, and worked together to calm the savage beast that would become our closest ally and confidant.

Like nobody else, she would have a front row seat to our marriage and each challenge we would face. She offered overwhelming doses of love, joy, and companionship when we needed it most, whether we were cognizant of the need or not. As dog’s somehow do, she sensed every sadness or sickness and offered herself up as a therapist and healer. In some of my darkest days, she was the one thing — the constant — that helped me push through.

When we brought our second dog home almost six years ago — a troubled six year-old collie rescue — it was Paige who would take on the role of trainer and mentor. The collie, timid and frightened of everything after years of abuse and neglect, wasn’t much of a quick study, but Paige persisted. Our collie, a sweet girl named Honey, is the wonderful dog she is today because of her time with Paige.

Over the years, Paige had many health issues. Her first bout of cancer, a large tumor on her leg that appeared out of nowhere, was nearly eight years ago. At the time, the veterinary oncologist warned us that the average life span of a dog her size and breed was probably only 11-13 years anyway, even in the best of health, so we should take that into consideration when deciding on a treatment plan. We went ahead with the available treatment, not just that time, but several times to follow, betting on beating the odds. Paige would continue to defy the odds for years, through several more cancer recurrences and surgeries. Sometimes I think she lived as long as she did just to thumb her nose at that vet’s ageist predictions.

The last year (or maybe even two) marked a slow decline for our once fluffy puppy. Much of her beautiful coat had fallen out or broken off, she’d developed weird asthma-like breathing problems, her hearing had become far more selective, and her bladder was unpredictable at best. She was on meds for this or that, a special diet, and required frequent trips to the vet. But she always still had the spirit of a pup, managing to run and play, antagonize the collie, or bark at her long-time foe, the evil UPS man.

I don’t know what the easiest way is to finally lose a much-loved dog, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t experience it. After a long night of trying to comfort her struggling, while cradling her in my arms, I felt her seize and then the life leave her body, as my wife frantically drove us to the clinic, the place where we would finally collapse in grief.

We used to joke that she was going to outlive us all at the rate she was going. Of course, we knew this wouldn’t truly be the case, but it was the reality we would have preferred. She was with us for almost nineteen of our twenty year marriage, so it’s hard to imagine our lives without her. Coming home to our now smaller family is difficult, as there are reminders of her absence everywhere we look, but mostly in the confused eyes of our collie, the “sister” she left behind.

Shortly after we lost her, a friend posted the following Twain quote on my Facebook page:

“Heaven goes by favor.
If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
— Mark Twain

The truth is, I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I know that in this life, we were made into better people because of the time we had with that dog.

May she rest in peace, our sweet constant companion.

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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.

Say yes.

They will tell you that it’s as simple as putting your right foot on the step, waiting for your tandem partner to do the same, then simply counting to three. They will say it all in a calm voice, even though you just finished signing your name forty-seven times on various waivers assuring them that you and your heirs will not sue them for anything that might happen after that step. Right foot, right foot, 1, 2, 3. This is going to be cake.

It’s been six or seven years since I made the decision — a very conscious and probably overly belabored decision — to start being more open to new experiences. I was beginning the process of closing the chapter on a rather dark period and found myself in one of those moments when you take inventory of all that you’ve become and all that you still want to be. More than anything, it was painfully clear how incredibly insular my life had become. Much of it seemed like the sort of necessity that can only come from (often failed) attempts to manage a loved one’s addiction, followed by her journey toward recovery, with a couple rather serious heart surgeries of my own thrown in for good measure. But if I’m being honest with myself, those things, while legitimate, also served as wonderful excuses to never step outside of my cleverly crafted comfort zone.

I started small. I played golf here and there, something I’d always refused to do. I tried new foods and new restaurants, occasionally without reservations. I was more open to unplanned (unplanned!) opportunities when they presented themselves. I began to travel more, sometimes even on my own. I started reaching out to friends instead of habitually dodging their calls. Basically, I tried to learn to say the occasional yes when I always would have said no.

Good things have come from this developing change in course. I’ve driven on the Autobahn, discovered an absolute love for sushi, and I’ve taken time away to visit old friends in Los Angeles, bachelor-style. More recently, I’ve started taking yoga classes and have even hired a trainer, in an effort to be proactive with my health instead of always reactive. While these things may seem incidental for a lot of people, for me, the shift has been extraordinary.

A couple months ago, we were at dinner with my niece, a sort of celebratory goodbye meal before she would leave for Spain for a semester abroad. She’d recently been skydiving for the first time and was excitedly recounting every detail. The thought of skydiving wasn’t something I’d ever really considered, pro or con. It wasn’t some bucket list thing — I am inexplicably annoyed by the term “bucket list” — but it also wasn’t something that terrified me. It just hadn’t really been on my radar. Listening to my niece talk about it, though, I was struck (and then surprised) by how much I wanted to do it. So, we started to make plans. When she returned from her trip, we’d jump out of a perfectly fine airplane together. It was one of those unanticipated opportunities and I was going to say yes.

What they neglect to tell you is that when you go to place your foot on that small step, you will no longer be inside the plane. Intellectually, this is an obvious detail, but when the hatch swings open and the wind starts to rush in as you gaze down at the step below, the notion of “right foot, right foot, 1, 2, 3” suddenly becomes an immensely complicated concept to wrap your head around. Somehow, though, in that most surreal moment, you find yourself doing something that makes no sense. You step outside of a plane some 12,000 feet in the sky. And then, you jump.

What surprised me about my first jump wasn’t the adrenaline rush of the 45-second free fall that seems more like five or six minutes. That was expected, although not fully estimated. Instead, what surprised me most was what happened after the parachute opened. There was an immediate peace that I hadn’t fully anticipated and still can’t quite describe. It was a perfect beautifully blue day, with gorgeous views of rural Ohio below, and I was little more than a quietly drifting observer. It was the sort of stillness that I haven’t often allowed in great measure. It was the sort of stillness that might have previously received a no.

Sense memory.

I wish I could tell you that it was the first time I’d found my wife bloodied and broken — sometimes literally, often figuratively — but the truth is, when you’re the spouse of someone who has journeyed to the center of addiction’s hell and back, a part of you learns to expect this sort of thing. Or, probably more to the point, never completely unexpect it, no matter how much time, distance, and positive life experience you’ve managed to carve out since the last great catastrophe. Accordingly and ever reluctantly, you wind up with a certain crisis-management skill set, dormant but just below the surface, an adrenaline rush ready to push you through the lion’s share of the fog and noise.

There I was, again rushing into a crisis situation, this time after hearing an unexplained crashing noise — just sure she’d knocked over the dog food storage barrel when she knew better than to attempt to fill it on her own, an argument we’d had a thousand times or maybe just twice — only to find her passed out on the kitchen floor, spread-eagle, her hands and face covered in blood. Quickly, there are the important things — check her breathing, determine what is hurt, take her pulse, wipe away the blood, check her mouth and teeth, keep her awake, catch her when she passes out again (and again and again after that), turn her on her side when she starts to seize, try not to restrain, breathe — but there are also The Questions, just waiting for the first available opportunity to demand answers. Have you taken anything? Are you using again? Is there anything else, anything at all, that I need to know? Even when you feel certain you know the answers, you ask because you’ve been the victim of the unasked question before. You’ve been one to elect willful denial over uncomfortable perseverance and you’ve paid the price with a portion of your soul. So you ask, and then you ask again once more, finding yourself listening more to your own gut’s barometer than to any response offered.

I’m not sure if or when any of that goes away, at least fully. Perhaps it’s no different from the Alcoholics Anonymous admonition that an addict has a life-long disease, manageable and controllable, but always there, lying in wait. If there is to be any truth to that — and believe me, I’m generally the first one to argue the relative truthiness of AA’s many catchphrases — how can my experience, as someone who continues to make the choice to love a recovering addict, reasonably expect something different?

Yet, there is growth to be noted. I’m learning to reach out in the face of these challenges, whether that means calling in re-enforcements and asking for help (thanks, Mom) or posting a simple request for prayers and good thoughts (thanks to the countless ones who responded to my purposely vague Facebook note with love and encouragement). This, as people who have known me longer than either of us would be comfortable admitting will recognize, is not nothing. And of course, there is the simple fact that when hearing that terrible crashing noise this morning, I found myself assuming something humorously inane instead of mentally going to the familiarly dark doomsday place. Well, that’s something, too.

These are admittedly small changes, sure, but this is growth just the same. During those times when it’s most important to find something to be grateful for, sometimes what we have before us — what we often must choose to see — are these incremental blooms.

[Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated as my wife recovers from what the doctors feel reasonably certain were the dramatic effects of severe depletion/dehydration, resulting from an unrelenting flu bug.]