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.

Tradition.

santacookiesI distinctly remember putting a plate of cookies out for Santa when I was a small child, knowing full well that it would be my father who took a bite or two of my chocolate chipped offering (he was the reason we didn’t leave oatmeal raisin, which would have been my preference), only to then drink a Santa-appropriate amount of the milk left with them. Intellectually, I knew all of this, but I still went through the motions. I’m not sure if I thought it was important to my parents (honestly, I doubt that it was) or if I just got caught up in the tradition, but I can remember the doubt, the feeling that it was an important ritual somehow (even if I couldn’t come up with a remotely valid reason), and the tinge of guilt for what I perceived to be the dishonesty of it all.

I must have been a pain in the ass of a child.

At any rate, I told that story to a friend recently after she explained how much her kids are invested — she used that word, invested — in the whole “Elf On A Shelf” thing. It was magical for them, she said. (Yes, she used that word, too.) Then, after I finished my admittedly unmagical Santa story, she said it was “the saddest thing” she’d ever heard. (Really?! THAT is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? Well, good on you, my friend.) But the truth is,  it wasn’t sad for me. It was just my experience.

I guess I’ve never felt particularly beholden to tradition. On some level, I think I’ve intentionally carved out a life that tends to avoid the rigors of that sort of expectation. Sure, we were married in a very traditional way — the pomp and circumstance of a big church wedding in front of God and family with all of the vows and flowers and thank you cards that one might expect — but we pretty quickly shook loose of standard customs after that. Some of it, of course, was entirely by design, but other parts have been more of a response to the cards we were dealt. Either way, now, twenty-some years in, we have a life that doesn’t look all that similar to the lives of the people around us. As much as we’re content with the way it’s all worked out, we often find ourselves in situations where we just feel alien by comparison.

This is especially true around the holidays. For most people, I realize that the holidays are steeped in handed-down tradition, so conversations during this time of year are particularly fraught. After all, we eschewed the traditional Thanksgiving feast and gathering some years ago, opting instead for a quiet anniversary-acknowledging retreat for just the two of us, punctuated with sushi instead of turkey and stuffing. Every year when we’re traveling during that holiday week, strangers will invariably ask about our plans for the upcoming Turkey Day. When we tell them, we’re often met with a look of bewilderment, imbued with what seems like a bit of pity. “Oh, look at them, those poor, childless nomads,” silently communicated with a knowing squint. Honestly, their reaction makes no more sense to me than my friend who thought my lack of childhood Santa magic was the saddest thing she’d ever heard.

Some years back I had “comparison is the thief of joy,” a Theodore Roosevelt quote, tattooed on my arm. I wasn’t thinking about traditions, or my lack of them, when I had it done, but the sentiment sure applies here. Particularly in our social networked time, where you can immediately compare your Thanksgiving spread or the stack of presents under your tree to those of a few hundred people you’ve known over the course of a lifetime, comparison can be a particularly unsettling thief.

So, friends, whether you’re Instagramming your latest Shelved Elf moment or jonesing for sushi with a friend instead of a big holiday feast, know that you’re not alone. Whatever your circumstance this holiday season, my simple hope is that you find joy in the midst of it. And may those moments of joy be the tradition worth keeping.

100.

100 anniversaryWhen I started this blog just over two years ago, I didn’t have a plan. Or even a theme, really. I knew there were some things I needed to get off my chest, topics that required a bit more thought and space than a Facebook post would allow. And I knew I wanted to contribute to the music sharing community of blogs that I’d come to follow. But that was pretty much it.

Now, some twenty-six months later, I’ve completed an even hundred posts on a blog that I wasn’t sure would keep my interest for more than a couple weeks. The frequency of posts has tapered off a bit in recent months, a product of a cluttered life and a chest less full of things warranting removal, but I’m still committed to keeping the “Sometimes I ramble” adventure alive. Only asshats blog, as the tagline reads, and we all know I am hopelessly guilty as charged.

When I published my first post about our battle with my wife’s addiction (you can find that post, called “Lottery,” by clicking here), I assumed it would be one-and-done… I’d make the grand admission, put it all out there, then move on to something else. The surprise of that post was two-fold. First, the thing I feared for so long (letting go of the obsessive — and ultimately, ineffective — image control that had become a byproduct of the disease) was far more healing than I ever could have imagined. Secondly, and more wonderfully, were the conversations that began as a result of that post. In the last two years, I’ve talked with dozens of people who were either in the midst of their own addictive struggles or were attempting to come to terms with a loved one’s addiction. I’ve made new friends, learned new things about old friends, and grown in my own healing as a result. I still don’t believe “everything happens for a reason,” but I’ve been fortunate to find a purpose in the retelling of some of our darkest moments. Thank you for that.

[Interested in reading more about our journey through addiction and into recovery? Click HERE for the complete catalog of those posts.]

And, of course, there should always be music. I love discovering new artists, sharing my musical preferences with friends, and learning about the music that other people hold dear. Life has a soundtrack, so this blog should, too.

[Interested in discovering some new tunes or maybe revisiting an old favorite? Click HERE for a complete catalog of those posts.]

There are other topics on the blog, too. Feel free to peruse the archives, whether by category or month, by using the hot links to the right of every page on the blog. You can sign up to be notified by email when I’ve posted something new, too, simply by clicking on the “Ramble me!” button. Comment and share posts as you please, drop me an email (jawfrey@gmail.com) or check out my Instagram account (@jeffreyaward), if you’re the sort of person who might like a ridiculous number of dog pictures. They’re pretty photogenic, you know.

Mostly, thanks for following along for the first hundred. It’s been — you’ve been — appreciated.

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.