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.]

Reason.

She would have been 36 today.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe the adage is a comfort to some, knee deep in a shit whirlwind of their own making, but I’m not sure it has any sort of honest application beyond that. To believe that everything happens for a reason — everything — one has to accept that some pretty awful things can (and often do) happen to some pretty wonderful people, in order for us to have one of those Oprah-ish a-Ha! moments later on. I don’t accept that.

Of course, sometimes things happen to us as a direct result of our own actions, the good and bad with their respective benefits and consequences. Sometimes things happen to us because of the actions of others, too, completely out of our control. And sometimes things, well, they just happen.

When our friend Michele was still alive, especially in the last year of her life, we talked a lot about addiction, recovery, and the meaning of it all. We would often try to convince her (or maybe, ourselves) that if she was still alive after everything she’d done and everything she’d been through — a list that was quite impressive in the way that blockbuster horror stories can sometimes be — there must be a reason. God must have a plan, we’d say, something bigger in store for her. It was meant as encouragement, I guess, but it was the sort of encouragement that was tinged with no small amount of guilt. How can you be stupid and die now, kiddo, when God has a plan?

After she died, I thought a lot about those conversations and wondered if she ever really believed any part of them. Was she thumbing her nose at this notion of The Plan or did she, once again, know something that I am only now accepting?

I don’t think her death was some predestined event that happened “for a reason.” I think she died because early in life, some pretty horrific cards were stacked against her, cards that were later drowned in decades of bad decisions, love and loss, addiction and disease, unbelievably close calls, and no small amount of grace. In the absence of a cosmic reason, then, we’re left to find and assign meaning. Meaning is different, I think, because it requires work on our part. It requires healing.

Since Michele’s death, I’ve come to understand my wife’s own struggle with addiction better than I might have otherwise. (Coincidentally, I also fear it more.) I find that I’m more open about the subject with others, too, because I know that shame is one of its deadliest weapons. I hope I’m more appreciative of the select few I let close to my heart, because I know all too well that the future isn’t guaranteed. I’ve also developed special ties to a couple old friends, brought together again by shared grief and love, that I wouldn’t have imagined prior.

Let’s be clear, though. None of those things are reasons. Our friend didn’t die so that I could achieve some paltry self-improvement list. Those things have happened to me because, as grief turns to healing, I am tasked with finding some semblance of meaning in the unthinkable heartbreak.

She would have been 36 today and yet, I am the one finding my way toward a gift. That’s just like her.

Heart.

What I remember most about that moment was the panic. Not mine — I was just coming out of an anesthetized haze and was still completely unsure of my surroundings — but the panic on the faces and in the voices of the people in that cold and sterile room with me, people who were supposed to be professionals of the calm, cool, and collected variety. I remember what seemed like shouting, although it could have been amplified by my confusion, and a piercing beeping noise. I remember a nurse leaning down on to me and whispering something indecipherable as she stuck the breathing tube back down my throat. And then I remember nothing more. Nothing, but blackness.

Sometime later I would be told that I’d flat-lined in the recovery room, that the surgeon had already left and gone on his (I’m assuming) merry way, when something unexpected caused my situation to go terribly wrong. My heart simply rebelled. Days later, I would be told about all of the confusion that followed my “event,” the term we started using to describe the horror of the days surrounding my surgery for paroxysmal — and later, persistent — atrial-fibrillation. I’d learn how the hospital staff in charge of keeping my family updated had misplaced me, how my wife took it upon herself to search “every goddamned inch of this place” until I could be located, how I had to be transported immediately to the ICU, how my cardiologist thought for sure they’d lost me both in the recovery room and then later in transit, how worried my family had been, and how on-death’s-door I looked when they were finally reunited with me many hours later. I would be told of all the details of my unconscious moments in due course, but the next thing I’d actually remember on my own was waking up in a bed in the ICU, tubes everywhere, strapped down tight, unable to focus my eyes enough to make out much of anything in the room except for my father in the chair next to my bed, noticeably tired and shaken.

Again, there would be panic, but this time it would be my own. Whatever this was, I knew it wasn’t part of The Plan when I checked into the hospital the morning before. Was it just the morning before, or had it been days or, my god, weeks? Time was lost, I was sure of it, but I had no idea how much. All I knew is that I was not warned of the possibility of straps and tubes and distraught family members, I had not been properly prepared for waking up with holes in my memory, much less my body, and I needed someone to explain it all to me immediately. Not being able to organize, much less communicate, my racing demands wasn’t helping the situation, either. So, with no other viable options on my clouded mind’s horizon, I completely surrendered to the panic, leaning into it fully.

I don’t remember her name or even what she looked like, but it would be the most wonderful night-shift nurse who would talk me down from the heights of that internal hysteria. She assured me that it was all okay, or at least it would all be okay, but I just needed to calm down and breathe. She kept calling me sweetheart in a way that was both entirely believable and somehow exceedingly helpful. Sweetheart, I’m right here. Sweetheart, you’re going to be fine. Sweetheart, breathe.

I would spend the next week in that same ICU room, with daily cardioversions — great fun, if you’re into that sort of thing — and a concerted (yet ultimately, failed) effort on my part to will my heart into submission. When I was finally released from the hospital, I was told that I’d need a follow-up surgery in six months, after my heart had been given time to recuperate. I lasted only three weeks, though, before the urgency of my worsening situation caused me to be re-admitted for Round Two.

I had a lot of time to think during that summer while my body slowly recovered. While I wasn’t left with any go-toward-the-light stories to recount at dinner parties, I did — and in many ways, still do — feel somehow changed by the whole experience. Whether that change came from the “event” itself or from the sort of prolonged introspection that can only come from weeks of being alone with one’s thoughts is anyone’s guess. I know that it was an important time for me to heal, one that I might not have granted myself otherwise, although in many ways the amelioration of my physical heart was the least of the necessary mending.

And so, April 24th marks the anniversary of that fateful day in 2007, the day I lost my life, and the day I started the process of reclaiming it.

Sunset.

I remember the moment vividly. We were on vacation in Hawaii, having the tranquil sort of time that only such a trip allows, when I decided that it was finally time to broach the subject. I was uncharacteristically nervous, in no small part because I knew that we still had a few days left on this small little island — just the two of us — and I wasn’t quite ready for our tranquility to come to an end.

I’d lead with concern. Concern seemed like the appropriate tone. It wasn’t accusatory or necessarily alarmist, and somehow, I thought, it left room for conversation. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she’d have a brilliant explanation and I’d discover that, while my concern had been well received, it was completely unfounded. I’d hope for that. My deeply entrenched denial would certainly be hoping for that.

So, the conversation. I was concerned about the sheer number of prescriptions floating around our home and the variety of doctors willingly prescribing them, as if they were handing out extra handfuls of Halloween candy to eager kids in costume. Sure, she’d been through a series of medical turmoils, but I wondered if the volume of medications might now be making matters worse. I’d mention that I was simply worried that her doctors weren’t coordinating their efforts. I had specific misgivings about the pain medications, too, I’d point out, and their inherently addictive nature. I knew of her past struggles with substances, addictions, and all of the related hells — none of it was any secret, really, although we’d managed to cleverly file it all away as some sort of misguided teenage angst — so surely it was something that we should maybe discuss. You know, casually. Tranquil like.

See, it wasn’t that our lives had become what many would consider unmanageable. (Admitting “unmanageability” is one of the hallmark first steps of any 12-step program, for those not yet indoctrinated.) We were enjoying a beautiful sunset on the beach in Maui, after all. Unmanageability should always look so good. Then again, I also knew that we were fortunate enough to be pretty well insulated from the bumps and bruises that might readily befall someone else in this same situation.

And yet, we were also both cognizant of those undeniable moments of quiet emotional chaos in our lives, although we’d rarely speak of them. We’d become accustomed to sweeping them under the rug and excusing them in some sort of vague fashion, even going so far as to refer to them as part of our relationship’s charm. But the cracks were beginning to show, especially in just the right light, and I was worried that if they weren’t addressed soon, they could become irreparable.

The difficult truth is that the weeks and months that would follow that subdued sunset conversation didn’t fortify those relationship cracks, as I hoped and assumed they would. Instead, that time was like a sledgehammer, full of unrelenting demolition, shattering it all wide open and exposing the ruination that had been hiding just below the surface. It was, for me, a bottomless dark hole that continued to reveal itself with each new day.

There were many times during those couple years when I would have given anything to go back to that night on the island, full of its sailboats and sunsets, and instead, choose to say nothing of my silly concerns. We could have lived a fine life with a few cracks here and there, right? Even now, I’m not sure why I picked that trip, much less that seemingly perfect night, to start us on a journey that would then dominate our lives in ways that were previously unimaginable to either of us. Perhaps there was something safe — something denial-friendly — about having that sort of conversation a few thousand miles away from home. Maybe I thought we could board a plane and, when the time came, just leave the uncertainty behind.

What I know now is that cracks like those aren’t something you simply repair. Unfortunately, there’s no Elmer’s easy-fix project to solidify a fractured life — or relationship — that’s been ravaged by the very real perils of addiction, no matter how “manageable” it may seem to casual passersby. The destruction is somehow necessary. Without it, there can be no rebuilding.

Sometimes still, when I see a particularly beautiful sunset, I think of that night and the “me” that was before all of this. It feels more like a distant relative than a version of myself separated only by a few years of (hard fought) life experience. I wonder what advice would have made a difference to the then-me, what I could have heard or would have accepted that might have prepared me for what was about to come. I think about this whenever people, who find themselves standing on that same brink, ask me for advice.

Do I tell them that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, that their lives are about to be shattered into a thousand little pieces, or that they will be faced with the prospect of reexamining everything they thought they knew to be true? Or, maybe I’ll just tell them to take a moment — just one more fleeting moment — and enjoy the sunset.

The boogeyman.

There’s a monster lurking in the shadows, you’re sure of it. Try as you obsessively might, you find yourself unable to make out its features or even fully anticipate its arrival, but still, you know it’s there, consuming your imagination while remaining just beyond the scope of your understanding. It manages to steal your complete focus at first, sprinkling your day-to-day routine with nagging moments of fear, worry, and dread. After some time, though, when the beast fails to make a full appearance, you begin to convince yourself that you were just seeing something in the shadows that wasn’t really there, a product of the emotional shrapnel left behind in prior wars fought.

Somehow, when the monster finally does reveal himself, you still find yourself jolted by the notion of his arrival. All of the countless hours of fear and dread spent on the anticipation of his alighting are immediately rendered useless, as you first become truly cognizant of the rising tide of a loved one’s relapse.

Relapse is part of recovery. In addiction recovery circles, you’ll hear them say it often. They even print it in publications, seemingly unbothered by the relative permanence of the written word. It’s just one of a number of slogans that are casually bantered around your neighborhood twelve-step group. One day at a time. It works if you work it. Progress not perfection. What’s not to like about those? But relapse is part of recovery? Seriously?

Perhaps the approach is comforting for someone early in recovery. Maybe it’s exactly what they need to hear, a quietly accepted understanding of the limits of our humanity when confronted with the very real perils of addiction. Sure, it’s part of the process, they’ll tell a recovering addict, but be clear, it doesn’t have to mean the end of sobriety. Consider it a new beginning, a starting over, the necessary and expected reboot of an aging franchise. Yet again, one day at a time. Relapse, a part of recovery.

For the non-addict loved one, though, the slogan is not the least bit comforting. In fact, it’s infuriating. Relapse may be “part of recovery,” but it also can be part of death and destruction. Hurt and torment. A crumbling of trust and the loss of relationship. Relapse can, and often does, mean The End. We know this on a very personal level. We’ve experienced — and in many ways, have yet to recover from — the sort of profound loss that can accompany the relapse of another.

In the depths of it, my immediate instinct is to try to piece it all back together like a puzzle, creating a timeline of events and their corresponding emotions, meticulously identifying triggers and signs missed, all in an effort to quantify the inarguable why. What the madness of relapse taught me, though, is that the why is not mine to determine. The unadorned truth is that I cannot control another person’s relapse any more than I can control the same person’s sobriety. It simply will not be micromanaged. Much to my chagrin, again, I have found myself returned to the grand lesson of letting go.

Tangling with one’s boogeyman, whatever that personal creature in the darkness might be, can be an emotional blood sport. The clash can leave us bloodied and broken or it can be a catalyst for an even greater resolve. The choice is ours. With each shadowy altercation, even while I mourn the loss of those small pieces of myself that are inevitably lost in battle, I also discover, hidden in the rubble, the green of previously unrealized growth.

Bully.

If you haven’t heard about it already, there’s an important movie/documentary coming to theaters in March about the bullying epidemic in this country. I’d urge you to watch the official trailer for the film below and make a point to see the film when it’s released in your area.

Bullying is an issue that seems to get a lot of attention shortly after there’s been an incident of school violence, like this week’s rampage at northern Ohio’s Chardon High School, or the suicide of a bullied kid who simply saw no other way out of a personal hell. While situations like those are certainly unimaginable tragedies, we must also remember that countless kids are bullied each and every day, yet it never makes the news. Quietly, their lives are often inexplicably changed forever.

Please take a moment to watch the film’s trailer, share it with a friend, and take a stand:

PLEASE NOTE: Currently, there’s a dispute about the rating this film has received. The R rating, allegedly due to some of the language of the “bullies” in the film, will keep it from being viewed by many of the kids who really need to see it. To sign a petition directed at the MPAA, with the hope of having the rating reduced to PG-13, click here. For more information on the movie and The Bully Project, visit their website here.

Graduation.

She was just one of several dozen to walk across that stage tonight, a path punctuated by hugs from proud instructors and then, at the end, a diploma in a pristine blue envelope. For each graduate, the night had a different meaning, I’m sure. Some, who still looked too young to drive, will now be out in the world looking for that first “real job.” Others, cheered on by gaggles of excited children in the audience, are undoubtedly looking for a better way forward for themselves and their families. For each one, a different story.

One graduate in particular, though, a 40ish blond woman who I happily call my beloved, didn’t walk that stage in the sole pursuit of a career path or as the next logical step in a predefined educational process. For her — for us, really — this was about something more.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my wife being in recovery from a lifetime of addictions. But you see, conquering addiction isn’t a battle that one simply wins, only to put a checkmark in the victory column, then file the whole experience away like last year’s tax returns. It’s a fluid process… full of ups and downs, victories and defeats, crumblings and rebuildings. It’s a difficult reality to accept for someone — like me — without a personal frame of reference for the struggle, but I’m sure it’s an equally onerous truth for the recovering addict to adopt, as well.

So when my wife decided that she was going to go back to school in pursuit of something “new,” a complete 180 from her existing degree, part of me knew that it wasn’t just because a certain career opportunity had somehow piqued her interest. I knew it was going to be an attempt to bring definition to the progress she’d already made and would hopefully continue to make. It would be a process with a beginning, a middle, and a definable end. If successful, it would be more than just an educational feather in her cap. It would be a piece of paper to prove that those small daily victories have value.

Tonight, she graduated with high honors — Summa Cum Laude — which somehow seems incredibly appropriate.

But for the grace.

When you love someone who has battled her very own demons of addiction, as I have and continue to do, the sudden and shocking death of a celebrity like Whitney Houston (or Amy Winehouse before her, or countless others before either of them) isn’t just sad in a “she had such talent” sort of way, but in a very real and alarming “there but for the grace” sort of way, too.

In the coming days, the internet — and blogs like this one, I’m sure — will be flooded with Whitney Houston remembrances. Some people will be reflecting on the woman they actually knew and cherished. Others will be paying tribute to a celebrity they especially appreciated,  identified with, or maybe even “loved” in that odd way we sometimes find ourselves caring about well-known people safely beyond our reach.

And yet, for some of us, those of us who spend a fair amount of our lives juggling a deep love for an addict and the fear of addiction’s ultimate grasp, the remembrances are less about Whitney’s life, or even her death, and more about the (often purposely) unacknowledged frailty inhabiting our own homes.

May Whitney rest in peace, indeed, but may those of us who remain to fight addiction’s battle, or love those who do, find a measure of peace, as well.

Penmanship.

For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand — maybe it was just because I needed a summer job or maybe it was because she recognized the same perfectionist gene in me that had been her hallmark — my grandmother decided to teach me the ins and outs of accounting (she called it “bookkeeping”) when I was in high school. She had been in charge of the books for the family business since its inception, which was something she did with both pride and precision. Yet, by the time I could drive, she had already taught me to post sales transactions, balance the night’s receipts, handle deposits, balance the bank accounts, prepare customer statements, write payroll checks, and compile the related tax returns.

“To the penny,” she’d always say, because she believed that it wasn’t right until it was exactly right. She did everything by hand, all in the sort of pitch perfect cursive handwriting that they used to teach in elementary school. There was nothing flowery or eccentric about her handwriting. It was deliberate with no frills, precise, and consistent… much like her. I used to practice my own handwriting obsessively (which, it should be noted, now looks nothing like hers) because there was something about her penmanship that, for me, spoke to who she was as a person. Every so often, even now, I’ll be going through old papers at the office or helping my grandfather sort through something at the house and I’ll encounter a note that my grandmother had written — there’s no mistaking her handwriting for anyone else’s because nobody writes like that anymore — and it always makes me smile.

I think I was in middle school when I first remember my grandmother, who would have been in her early 50s at the time, talking about the fear of “losing her mind.” She didn’t call it “Alzheimer’s” (I’m not sure anyone really ever used that word in her presence, even years later when it was clear that it had consumed her) or even “dementia.” Her fear was that she would lose-her-mind. This was often said in hushed tones, as though it was something akin to insanity or, at the very least, something shameful. Every time she’d forget or misplace something, like we all do from time to time, she’d lament what she knew to be the beginning of the end. She wasn’t a fearful woman, but this — this — she feared. She would talk about her various family members (parents, siblings, etc.) who she’d witnessed lose their grasp, too, which was something she felt certain was a precursor to her own eventual fading. It was, she thought, an inevitability.

Some years later, she did lose her mind, although the process was far more gradual and insidious than I think even she feared. There was a span of years where she had “good days” and “bad days,” the former being those days where she recognized people and wasn’t generally confused by her surroundings. As the years passed, the threshold for what constituted a “good day” became a bit of a sliding scale. The in-between years, when her days of lucidity were sprinkled amidst days of complete mental disarray, were the worst because she spent those moments of clarity being upset about the other days, those muddled days that she was all too aware were happening on her crippled watch. There was a specific point when my single prayer became that she would lose her mind completely, simply because the fleeting lucid moments seemed to bring her more pain than joy. For each moment that we were heartened to have been recognized or called by name, she was experiencing a moment of fear and regret for the forgetting that she knew was lurking around the corner.

Amidst the incredible soul-crushing sadness of her decline — for anyone who has witnessed the gradual loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s, you understand what I mean — there were also moments of curiosity, even moments of humor. For a while, she was convinced that my sister was her sister. My sister would leave the room, her own kids often in tow, only to have my grandmother immediately begin to tell me a story about when they were growing up together. Strange how the mind begins to play tricks when one loses a defined concept of time and place. Then there was the time at a family Christmas gathering, in a room full of grandkids and great-grandkids all taking turns greeting my grandmother, when she pulled my wife aside and quietly asked, “just who are all these people?”

Mostly, I learned a lot about commitment during my grandmother’s illness. Their “in good times and in bad” exchange was decades earlier and yet, in that moment, when times were far from good, their marriage remained. Granted, it looked nothing like it did when I was a kid (there’s no clearer example of this than when I learned that my grandfather decided to bake cookies on his own), but the core of their marriage was unshaken, even in what I imagined to be the worst of circumstances.

My grandfather would often come down to the office in the mornings, on a short break from his primary job as my grandmother’s provider-of-all-things, and share a funny story about something my grandmother had said or a frustration about something she’d done. Sometimes he’d come down to the office and say nothing at all. But he would always return to her, without any apparent bitterness or resentment, and continue on with his pledge. In sickness and in health, even when that sickness seemed to dawdle on for years.

As the spouse of a recovering addict, it’s easy to get lost in the notion that my wife’s disease may in fact be with us for the rest of our lives. It seems like an overwhelming thought, even in these times when the addiction is being held at bay. I want to be able to embody the commitment and resolve that I witnessed, without succumbing to the very real fear of what may lurk.

In a way, I’m still practicing my own handwriting, in the hope that it will say something about who I’ve become or who I may yet be.

Memory keeper.

When we were dating — and then, later,  during the early years of our marriage — my wife kept a box full of mementos, an accumulation of various items meant to mark this occasion or that. Movie tickets, concert passes, mix tapes (yes, kids, we used to make mix tapes), letters, notes, and Hallmark greeting cards… they all found their way into this physical cataloging of a new romance. Proof of our love, I guess. The truth is, I didn’t really understand it at first — you kept that, why? — because I was a “read the card, say thank you, then throw it away” sort of guy, but I appreciated the overt sentimentality of it all. And so, dutiful boyfriend (and later, husband) that I was, I started keeping a box of artifacts, too.

We still have those memory boxes, his and hers, now upgraded from random shoe boxes of yesteryear to something more permanent and aesthetically pleasing. Now, the leather-bound boxes find themselves tucked neatly away behind glass doors in a bookcase, marking a specific time — a collection of important moments — in our lives, like the framed wedding pictures sharing the same shelf.

When my wife’s addiction began to take a greater hold of her life, she started to lose moments instead of collect them. I’m not talking about the stereotypical alcohol-induced blackouts that we’ve all seen dramatized in a movie of the week. My wife was never really that sort of addict, never the town drunk waking up in a situation or place unplanned or unknown. Instead, she just started to have small holes in her recollections, book-ended by vague memories with confused and distorted details. The worse her immediate situation, it often seemed, the less she was inclined to remember later on. From my perspective, these memory holes often seemed like a convenient “out” for someone wanting to avoid responsibility. It’s difficult to apologize for something you claim not to remember, after all. Surely, this was a willful part of the plan.

And so, I started to, yet again, catalog moments. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision, or something borne out of the pain and conflict of the time, but I began to store away memories of some of our darkest times, making sure to memorize her every hurtful word or deed. “Words have meaning,” I’d often tell her after the fact, then I’d play the words back while she claimed some sort of wide-eyed amnesia. How could you say this? What did this really mean? It was my way of holding her accountable, part of an effort to shame and embarrass her into sobriety, and more than a little bit of passive-aggressively declaring my own hurt, too, without having to risk the vulnerability of actually saying the words “I’m hurt.”

Those darkest memories, though, began to take on a life of their own, often haunting me long after any retaliatory mileage I’d been able to get out of them. Soon, I was battling the hurt of the obsessive recall of this word or that inflection, more than I was battling any new situation at hand. Just how many times could she really apologize for a tape that I continued to replay, over and over again, first for sport and later out of self-flagellating habit?

Years into her sobriety, we still encounter times when her memory fails her and I am the one to keep, and then recall, it for her. In many ways, it’s one of the worst parts of being the non-addict spouse, this unwanted position as keeper of memories.

The other day she was telling a seemingly innocuous story to a family member. She had the major details right, more or less, but I sat there knowing that she was forgetting what preceded the specific moment she was recalling. It was one of those holes, filled with a crushing personal pain that I (and only I, apparently) so closely associate with it. I said nothing and let the moment pass, wishing that I, too, could pick and choose a few holes in my memory.

I’m trying to learn to put my catalog of hurt away, behind glass on a neglected bookshelf, just like the memory boxes from our young lives together. The memories mark an important time of our lives, certainly, but I’m ready to retire the constant reminders. I’m ready to allow the memories to fade and collect dust, even just a bit.