Thanks for Saving my Life

I don’t miss flashing red and blue lights. I don’t miss spending so much time chasing my next escape that I lost who I was. I don’t miss wondering what the hell I did the night before, or why a strange car might be parked in the driveway. I don’t miss trying desperately to remember the complicated, intricate lies I felt I had to tell in order to extend the charade that my life had become.  I don’t miss detox. I don’t miss psych wards. I don’t miss the isolating, soul-crushing feeling of hopelessness, and I don’t miss who I used to be.

I’ve been fortunate to have been given the gift of some time in recovery, and lately I’ve done some reflecting on it all.  One of the things that keeps pushing its way to the forefront is the reality that that I wouldn’t be here without the help of an army of people.  

In a world where common philosophy is to be self-made and self-sufficient, I have come to realize that I can’t even pretend to claim that status, and I’m okay with it. I am a collection of influences, interventions and conversations taken from the people who have crossed my path. It’s past time to thank just a few of the people for crossing when they did. 

Law enforcement

In all my experiences with law enforcement, belligerent as I often was, they were always more than patient with me. With very, very few exceptions, my encounters with law enforcement were positive, even under the often crappy circumstances I pulled them into.  As with life in a small town, we all knew each other, and as with life in addiction, we saw more of each other as time wore on.  But, they always arrived ready to de-escalate and to show empathy and understanding with me, no matter how their days had gone before coming into contact with me.  One of my old hometown officers even drove me to my last detox after he had completed his shift. Others still check in from time to time, and I appreciate that.

Law enforcement officers have tough jobs to do, and I know I didn’t do much to make it easier on them back then. I have a lot of respect for them, especially the guys who served my hometown.

My hometown clinic

When I began this process of recovery after many failed attempts, I planned with the understanding that it would be my last chance. I had to look at things that had gone wrong in previous attempts in order to give myself a better chance at survival.  I had to become willing to try things I wasn’t willing to do before, whatever they might be.

At the time of my recovery, I didn’t receive treatment for opiate addiction and withdrawal. There were no methadone clinics, I didn’t have suboxone, nor any other medication-assisted treatment that today is known to offer the best long-term recovery outcomes.

To add to that, and to make matters more complicated, I wasn’t honest at the time about my relationship with opiates, due at least in part to the stigma associated with it decades ago. As far as that part of my addiction went, I left myself no choice but to go through the withdrawals without the stabilizing benefit of medications.  Being upfront about it could have made things a lot easier, but I wasn’t. Lesson learned.

One of the things that was available for my addiction to alcohol was Disulfiram, or Antabuse. Disulfiram works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down consumed alcohol to acetaldehyde, resulting in a very unpleasant experience.  Without that enzyme, alcohol basically becomes a poison to the body, and the effects of consuming alcohol while taking Disulfiram are nightmarish. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve tried it. I don’t recommend it.

When part of my recovery plan called for Antabuse, the people at my hometown clinic welcomed me in after work three days a week for a long, long time.  I was always met with a smile and led to a room, usually without waiting.  They would dispense the medication and allow me to sit for 20 minutes, or however long our conversations would last on a given day.

After they had spent long days tending to people who were sick or injured, they would invest their time to improve my chance at recovery.  Each person I encountered at the clinic treated me like I was the most important person there. Three days a week, every week.  I’ve never forgotten the kindness of the life savers at the clinic in my hometown, and I think of the impact they have had on my recovery often.

Pastor Lewis Thompson

Nothing about me or my environment would lead you to believe I am religious about anything.  While I grew up in a church, I have never had the enthusiasm many have for organized worship.  I’ve always been more private about my relationship with God, the Universe, or whatever it is that carved out all the wonder that is life and existence.

None of my reservations about church membership, singing in the choir, or participating in activities mattered to Pastor Thompson.  When he learned of my struggles, he offered to share his time with me. This is the same man who would, a few months later, end his sabbatical early to return to tend to my Dad’s passing.

I decided to take him up on it, even while playing scenarios in my head about some sort of fire and brimstone message regarding the evils of drink. As it turned out, we had some of the best talks I’ve ever had with anyone about recovery, specifically, and about life in general.

What made those talks memorable was that Pastor Thompson didn’t share so much as an agent of a particular faith bound by a certain message, but rather as a student of the miracle of existence and as an advocate for the power of hope, joy and connection. Pastor Thompson, in my experience, was hope personified. 

There was no quoting of scripture. We would simply talk. He had an entire flock to take care of, so to speak, and he took time with me. There were no lectures on right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, we talked of the tangible and intangible, and that within that mix, the power of change stood. The human spirit as a universal property and a powerful mechanism in the harnessing of reclamation and power, and whether he knew it at the time or not, he was sharing with me one of the most powerful principles of recovery, the principle of hope.

There aren’t too many days that go by that I’m not reminded of Pastor Thompson and his impact on my life, and some day I’ll see him again.

Detox staff 

Going into a medically-supervised detoxification (“detox”) is quite an event. People don’t casually stroll into a detox unit to check it out. Depending on the substance or substances a person uses, withdrawal is at the very least uncomfortable, and can even be deadly, depending on blood levels, duration of use, tolerance and other factors. If one is lucky, they get some form of treatment, usually inpatient or residential, that immediately follows detox from alcohol or other drugs.

There is a kind of reckoning when one goes to detox, that there has been a level unlocked in the progression of the ingestion of chemicals in which the engaging of medical professionals is required to safely intervene in that ingestion.

In my experience with detox stays (there have been a few), I was always shocked by how they did what they did (and do) for the people they do it for, in the way they do it. Detox just plain sucks, and the people who had to put up with me saw me at my worst. Yet, they were always patient, kind and understanding, all within an often unforgiving process. They didn’t put up with a whole lot of nonsense, but they didn’t give any either, and I am grateful for them.

Inpatient behavioral health staff

Today, psych wards are called by cleaner, more sterile, more user-friendly, non-stigmatizing names like “Behavioral Health Unit” or, “Secured Behavioral Health Center.” For lack of a better description, these are fascinating places in the way that there are people from all walks of life, often making up every demographic in the area, who face a wide range of mental health issues, all captured within one small unit in an otherwise huge hospital. Mental health issues are health issues, and they are more common and more devastating than we’d like to believe.

For many, substance use disorder and mental health issues go together. That was certainly the case for me, and that mix of self-medicating untreated, or undertreated, mental health and substance use issues led me to a few fairly short stays in such a unit, if there is such a thing as a “short” stay there.

Much like the rest of my examples, the people who worked at the units I visited went above and beyond in what was often a chaotic environment, and through their care, expertise and resources, they did a lot to make sure I could be here today.

Naysayers

Naysayers are everywhere.  You’ll find them in your neighborhood, at work, school or social events, and you may even find a few among family and friends. 

I’ve had to deal with the Naysayer within me, and still do, whether the messages have been planted by someone else or are a product of my own experience with setback, past failures and insecurities. 

External Naysayers are different from the people in your circle who are healthy, supportive mentors, friends or peers who challenge you or share a perspective out of care and concern. Naysayers are in the business of dream and purpose limiting, and they enjoy the status quo. There is homeostasis, a balance, that people tend toward, even when that balance is toxic or unhealthy. At different points in my life, I seemed to surround myself with Naysayers, or at the very least, welcomed their presence as some sort of elaborate form of self-sabotage.

Naysayers can certainly hold power over a person, depending on relationship dynamics. They can plant messages that become part of one’s thought cycle, especially if they have some influence in your life. Settle. You can’t. You’ll never. You’ll always. Why can’t you just. You should. In my experience, these are some of the preferred tools of the Naysayer.

But beneath my outwardly calm, fairly quiet, introverted outer shell lurks an equally present non-conforming, pissed-off ten year old. Right or wrong, that kid comes to the surface when I am in contact with a Naysayer. He always has, and I’ve learned that it’s a built in safety feature for me as my journey continues.

I’ve come to terms with the idea of a sort of gratitude and empathy for Naysayers, because they have helped me to maintain a defiance that fuels my recovery from the things that once all but destroyed me.

Those who model recovery

People model recovery, not by telling you , but by showing you. Hell, people who aren’t even “in recovery” from substance use disorder or mental health issues are role models for me, and we’re all in recovery from something. Football and basketball coaches I have been blessed to have worked with and played for over the years, a custodian where I once worked, and an old health teacher of mine have modeled recovery, to name just a few. There are many definitions of “recovery,” and just about every organization has one.  If you’re lacking a role model in an area of your life, I invited you to find one. One would be hard-pressed to swing a stick and not hit a prospective role model. They are out there, they are everywhere, and I am lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to meet some good ones.

Old friends

I used to be hell on wheels. One never knew quite what they were going to get with me. I could be the life of the party. I could also be an out of control shit storm. I was sick, and I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to. How do you tell someone you consistently think about escaping your own life while trying to hide from it all by numbing yourself with chemicals, while also not being able to explain the need to do both?

I was no good for a reasonable relationship of any kind when I was in active addiction, and a lot of good people paid a price for my inability, or unwillingness, to tell those closest to me what I was going through. Instead, they were left to come to probably the only reasonable conclusion they could arrive at: I was trouble.

I pulled people close and pushed them away, often at the same time. What was going on inside me often made its way to the outside, no matter how hard I tried to keep it in, and I worked hard at it. I was often wrapped tightly in the spiraling cycles of addiction and mental health issues that were out of control. As a result, I treated a lot of people like hell while they tried in vain to figure out what was going on and how they could help. It is a testament to the strength and character of those who did the best they could with me, even when I gave them every reason not to.

People gone too soon

I am aware that I have been given more chances than I care to admit sometimes to figure this stuff out. We all know someone who has lost their battle to addiction, mental health issues, or both. Like everyone else, I mourn the loss of those gone way too soon, and with grief travels the wonder of what might have been.

It used to tear me to the brink of rage. I used to get angry about it, and sometimes I still do. The death of one friend led in time to a relapse, which in itself, was completely counterproductive and disrespectful to what our goal was in the first place. Our goal was to recover. Another lesson learned.

I still grieve, but not like I used to. I can’t stop time or be consumed with guilt over what magical, super-human thing I could have done to save someone, and no one else should ever be in that position, either.

I’ve come to terms with loss in the only way I have been able to. I believe I’ll see them again. Until I do, I take their memory with me. That seems to make it easier to keep moving. Do their spirits live on? They do here. Every single day.

Self-help groups

Overly-enthusiastic 12 Step Guy, Sober-for-years-and-still-pissed-at-the-world Guy, God Saves Guy, Treatment Relationship Guy, Newly Sober Expert Guy, Working A Solid Program Guy. At one time or another, I’ve been most of them, and probably still am in one way or another. We are all works in progress, and that’s the often overlooked beauty if it all. To my peers in recovery, thank you for putting up with me. I am here, and I am always going to be.

Mental health and addiction counselors

At one time or another, I despised each and every one of them.

During one of my first rehabs, a little old counselor told me I needed to say, “I am a beautiful, intelligent, worthwhile human being,” in the mirror every morning. I thought he was joking. Turns out he wasn’t. It took me years to say that without sarcasm, but I remember it decades later.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of consistent, safe, supportive, evidence-based programs where I was held accountable and was part of the decision-making process from start to finish over how I was going to go about the business of not dying from the things I was dealing with. Change isn’t about comfort. For me, it was about calling me on my crap, sharing some practical tools, and identifying the strengths I had and how to use them. As time goes on, I realize more and more how lucky I was to have access to those resources.

Over the years, I was blessed with competent, ethical, person-centered counselors who challenged and supported me, even when I didn’t want them to. Most of them used their platform, not as a hierarchical, pathology-based, empowered-helping-the-powerless relationship, but as a partnership where we got to work and straightened up my wreckage together. That is counseling at its best, and I thank them for it. All of it.

Family

I wasn’t raised in a home that was neglectful or abusive in any way. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was raised in a loving, caring home with an equally loving extended family, neighbors and family friends. Many of the people I have known who deal with addiction and mental health issues weren’t so lucky. There is a connection between abusive or neglectful childhoods and alcohol and drug use in the family, and future mental health and addiction issues, but I didn’t have any of that.

I think the hardest thing for my family was what must have been the overwhelming feeling of helplessness during my dance with addiction and undiagnosed (at that time) mental health issues. They couldn’t love me enough, or cry enough, or worry enough, to help me not destroy myself and everything around me. They didn’t know if they were enabling me or setting boundaries, and I didn’t do much to help them out with it all. They didn’t know if they should yell at me, or hug me, or both. They didn’t know if they should stand back or step forward. They didn’t know if they should tell someone or say nothing. When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, they didn’t know if it was one of my drunk friends or if they were going to be notified that I was found in a ditch somewhere. They didn’t know how to deal with their own life issues and health emergencies when their lives were often consumed with waiting for the sky to come crashing down again, as it always seemed to. They didn’t know how to answer questions from neighbors and friends about my name being in the paper for one substance-fueled escapade or another. They didn’t know if they should get help themselves or continue to do what they could to get help for me. This is often what a family experiences when someone struggles with addiction.

Lost trust and shattered dreams aside, every time I asked for help, they were there. A trip to detox in the middle of the night. Driving me to outpatient treatment after I’d lost my license more than once. Visits to one of my several inpatient treatment stays. Financial support, even when they had to cut out other things to make it work. I could go on for days about the ways my family showed up for me, even after all I put them through.

Each time I told them I was going to try again, failed attempt after failed attempt, they supported me. I imagine their enthusiasm and hope may have been a bit beaten up each time something went wrong, but they never lost it, and I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the garbage without them right down there in the mess, sleeves rolled up, ready to go. I would have been gone long ago if it wasn’t for my family.

My circle

I have been given the gift of some longevity in the realm of addiction, mental health issues and recovery. The people in my life today help feed the fire of recovery. They see possibilities instead of roadblocks. They offer their insight and experience, rather than judgment. The people in my life contribute to what others helped start, and I try, sometimes failing miserably, to share that with others. We often make the mistake of believing we are somehow finished works, or that we have to do it on our own. That doesn’t fly with the people in my life today. We are all works in progress, and I am grateful I have people who are supportive of, and hold me accountable to, that work.

So, in the end, I am no where near self-made, despite the fleeting delusions I sometimes have. I am certainly in charge of my recovery today, but a lot of people helped make that possible, as unlikely as it may have seemed back then.

For all the things people have done and continue to do for me and others in recovery, and for those who help people get to recovery, you have my undying appreciation and respect. I’ll finish what we started together, I’ll take care of it, and I’ll keep working at it. Thank you for giving me that chance.

If you or someone you know needs help with substance use disorder or mental health issues, reach out. Google resources in your area. Call your county department of human services. Use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator online. Contact someone you know who is in recovery. Resources are there, and you don’t have to go through it alone.

In memory of those who lost their battles while waiting for help to come.

Remembering Third-Person Pete

(Trigger Warning: Suicide)

I had just completed  the necessary intake proceedings to begin  my third inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug addiction. 

Mark, the intake counselor at the place, was leading me up the stairs to what was to be my room for the foreseeable future.

“Pete doesn’t wash dishes!  Pete doesn’t do kitchens!” someone yelled  from what I could only guess must have been the kitchen area.

Great,” I mumbled, as I dragged my duffle bag up the last few steps.

“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said, looking back toward me as we walked down the hall.  “He’s harmless.”

I nodded in reply to his reassurance as we arrived at my room.

“Pete will scrub toilets!” the voice from down stairs continued, becoming louder. 

“Pete will shovel shit,”  he continued, having reached the top of the stairs. 

“Pete will do anything but work in the kitchen!” he finished just in time to reach the doorway of my new residence.

“What’s up, Mark?” Pete asked, half out of breath from the combination of scaling steps and reading the riot act to some poor soul downstairs.

“Hey, Pete, this is your new roommate,” Mark said.

Pete raised an eye brow, shrugged his shoulders, and slid between us to enter our room.

“Welcome to rehab, this place sucks,” he said, flopping onto his bed.

I looked at Pete, gave the room a quick look, and turned to glare at Mark.

Mark smiled.  “You’ll get used to it.  Welcome.  If you need anything, I’m around,” he said as he turned and walked back down the hall.

Great,” I mumbled as I entered our room.

Inpatient treatment isn’t so bad once a person comes to grips with the reality of it all. 

Leaving one’s life for 21 or 28 days, or for what would turn out to be almost 150 days in my case, is tough.  It’s a tall order to leave one’s life, no matter what that life is like, and by the time one agrees to inpatient treatment, life’s usually fairly crappy.  Leaving what one is used to, good or bad, is a shock to the system.  Completing a four or five day detox stay prior to that doesn’t seem to make things any easier.  It never did in my case, anyway.

This was to be my first experience in a residential inpatient setting, after having been a guest at two medically-based settings before hand.  The hospital-based treatment was just that.  It felt, looked and smelled like a hospital.  There was an around-the-clock staffed nurse, and they did their own medically-supervised detox on site.  They also offered outpatient services, like groups and individual counseling.  I entered detox there once again prior to moving on to the center to become Pete’s roommate.

“Why are you here?” Pete asked, arms folded behind his head and feet crossed on his twin bed.

“What do you mean?”  I asked as I bent down to unzip the duffle bag that lay on my new bed.

“You know. Drugs? Alcohol?”

“Both. You?”  I started to unpack.

“Pete’s here to make Mommy happy,” he said, with no hint of sarcasm.

“Good for you,” I said, continuing to unpack my stuff.

Pete sat up on his bed.  “You don’t believe me.  It’s the truth.”

“Look, I just want to unpack.  That’s great that you love your mom,” I said, not really interested in the banter.

“Actually, I was committed, by my mom,” Pete shared, laying down again on his bed.

I stopped putting my clothes in the little chest by my bed.  “So, you don’t love your mom?”

Pete started laughing. “You’re going to do alright here,” he said, rolling over to face the wall.  “Wake me up at five, it’s pizza night.”

Great,” I mumbled, as I finished putting away my clothes.

Five minutes to dinner…

I woke Pete so he wouldn’t miss pizza, and we talked some more after he introduced me to the other people at the center.  As one might guess, the twelve of us represented quite a sample of age groups, professions, drugs-of-choice, and back stories. As they say, addiction doesn’t discriminate.

As time wore on, through days filled with groups and counseling sessions, urine tests and Twelve Step meetings, I got to know Pete a little more. 

After all, we were roommates, and, often purely due to familiarity and shared space, roommates tend to talk.  They talk when they wake, they talk before lights-out, they talk whenever.  I was always a little put off by his habit of referring to himself by name, but it just became a part of who Pete was.

Before arriving at rehab, Pete spent some time in what used to be called a psych ward, or what is known more today as a “secured behavioral health unit,” at a local hospital.  It was indeed true, that his mother had called emergency services, which set the whole process in motion.

Pete really only shared snap shots, a flash in group, a flash in the kitchen, a flash outside while shooting baskets, a flash before lights-out, and usually the story was told within the third-person framework, never in any order.

Pete was a 28 year old single male at the time.  He had moved back home to live with his mother in his childhood home after losing his apartment, after losing his girlfriend, after losing his job, after losing control of his alcohol use.  Pete’s father had passed away several months before it all happened, which may, or may not have been the catalyst for the chain of events that led him to treatment.

Pete never spoke of his mother negatively, but he never really spoke of her positively, either.  In fact, he spoke of her as if he had to, as if she were mentioned only because she was a necessary part of the tiny bits of the story he did share. The only time I remember him mentioning his father was to say that he had died.

The best I’d ever able to put things together concerning how he had gotten to rehab via the psych ward, Pete had been literally out of his mind on alcohol and whatever else when he engaged in what became a heated argument with his mother, the subject of which he never mentioned.  After the argument escalated and spiraled out of control, Pete threatened to hang himself in the garage, going so far as to fashion a noose out of an old swing set chain.  Police arrived, an ambulance arrived, his mother cried, and they took him away because he was deemed a danger to himself and everyone else.

“My counselor’s full of shit and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

“I’m out of this damn place,” Pete said one afternoon, busting into the room after slamming the door open against the wall. 

“What happened?” I asked him.

Pete sat on his chair with a thud and threw his assignment folder at his night stand, knocking over the lamp that had been, up to that point, standing there peacefully.

“What’s going on?”

“That bitch doesn’t think I’m taking responsibility for my actions.  I’m here, ain’t I?” he said, opening his arms and gesturing to our room.  “This is bullshit.”

Pete leaned forward off the chair and crawled to his bed, reaching under it for his bags.

I closed the book I had been reading and sat up on my bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.  “You’re not going to leave.”

“The hell I’m not,” he replied.  “Pete’s had enough of this shit.”

“What did she say?”

“She said the same shit they said at the nut farm.  She said the same thing my mother said.  Bullshit.  All of it,” Pete said, dragging his bags from under the bed.

“You can’t go, I don’t want another roommate.  It’s taken me two weeks to get used to you,” I said, mixing humor with honesty.

“Look,” I said, “You can’t leave.  Just do what you have to do.”

Pete stood up and walked over to the lamp that was laying on the floor.  He picked it up, popped the dent out of the shade, and returned it to its place on the night stand.

“I don’t want to do what I have to do.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t,” he said, collecting the sheets of paper that had scattered from his assignment folder when they collided with the lamp.

“Why not?” I asked, an answer I had been curious about for the entire two weeks I had been there.

“I just don’t.  Pete don’t.  Both of us, none of us.  I want to stop drinking.  I’ll do that.  They can kiss my ass about the rest of it,” he said, extending a middle finger in the general direction of the office area of the center.

I thought about it for a while, staring at the floor, as Pete continued to salute the counseling wing.

The autobiography is a staple of many an inpatient treatment center. 

It’s basically a rite of passage, an initiation, if you will.  One writes, as much as they choose, information about their family, their friends, their use and their part in it.  Then, they read, or present, it to the group. Some of them are really long, and some are fairly short, but length isn’t always a good indicator of quality.

Some people use their autobiographies to cast blame on others and other’s roles in why their lives are a mess.  Others use it as an opportunity to impress other residents by recalling some of their more outlandish and excessive history, including consumption, outlaw behavior and sexual exploits.  But in my experience, most autobiographies are just that; they are highlight stories of people’s lives.  For whatever  reason, Pete didn’t want to share much, if anything, about his life.

“Just do it, Pete,” I said, after weighing the pros and cons of the autobiography question.

“Hell no,” he said.

“Just skim it.  Don’t tell your deepest, darkest-“

“Stop it,” Pete warned, pointing at me.  “It’s not going to happen. You write your shit.  Tell them everything if you want to.  I don’t need to tell them anything.”

“I’ll do mine,” I told him.

“Yeah?  Well, Mister ‘I’ve been to treatment more than once,’ you know how to do it, don’t you?  At least you should, anyway, right?  What good did it ever do you?  We’re in the same fucking place, if you haven’t noticed,” Pete snapped, again throwing his folder, this time the folder and its contents coming to rest safely on his desk.

“You won’t leave.  They’ll take you back to the nut farm,”  I said as I left the room.

“Nut farm, Pete ain’t going back to no nut farm, and Pete ain’t writing his autobiography,  neither!” Pete yelled as I walked down the hall. He continued as I walked down the stairs.

Great,” escaped a familiar mumble as I headed toward the group room.

A week later, after much begging and pleading from staff and peers, and after what could be interpreted as an ultimatum from his counselor, Pete was finally scheduled to give his autobiography one morning during group time.

We were all interested in hearing what Pete had made such a fuss about the entire time he’d been at the center. We had all shared at least some of the less than flattering events in our lives, and we, or at least I, wondered what could be that bad or sad or scary. He didn’t even want to talk about talking about it.

Then it happened. He took out handwritten papers from his folder and read.  And he read.  And read.  And then he read some more, without feeling and without hesitation.

As he read, the random fragments Pete had released at different times during treatment came together to make a clear picture, all in a third-person format, as if he were reading a story about someone else.

“And when Pete was seven,” he read. “Then, when Pete was around twelve,” he would continue. And on it went.

When he finished, we sat silently around our circle in the little room.

Most of us stared either at the floor or shifted our focus from the counselor back to Pete. No one knew if they should, or how they would, break the silence that filled the room after Pete finished his autobiography.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Pete said, placing his papers back in the sleeve and closing the folder.

After what felt like hours of silence again after Pete’s comment, the counselor finally spoke.

“Pete,” she said, adjusting herself in her chair, “I admire the strength and courage it took you to share your story. However, it needs to be done in the first person. We can’t heal if we can’t own our lives.”

“Fuck you,” Pete said quietly, staring at nothing.  Pete stood up slowly and said, “I quit.”

Pete left the circle, opened the door, left the room and closed the door behind him.

What happened next, really, was a misdirected, all-out attack on that counselor by most of the participants of our group that day.

There were a lot of things we didn’t understand about Pete, at least until that 30 minutes in group, and for her to seemingly condemn him after forcing him to be vulnerable, was unacceptable at the time.  We didn’t understand why the third-person thing was such a big deal. Third-person, sixth-person, whatever. He told his story, all of it. The abuse, the trauma, the fear, the significance of the garage, the chain, the stool, everything. Then she just shit on him, or so we thought.

We made our way up to the room after our collective bashing of the counselor had concluded, and after her futile attempts to explain therapeutic protocol to a bunch of addicts who weren’t ready to hear it, only to find that Pete had already left. We couldn’t have been in there ten minutes after he left group, and he was gone.

I tried calling Pete at the number he gave me when I had phone time, the number apparently to his mom’s house.  All I ever got was an answering machine with a woman’s voice, and I never even learned what Pete’s mother’s name was.

I left a few messages, saying something like, “Hey, it’s your roommate. Call me back to let me know you’re alright.” I never heard back.  Other guys had tried to call, too.  Nothing.

A week or two after Pete left, I moved on at the center, from inpatient to more of what they used to call a “half-way house” setting. During that time, there were more opportunities to leave the center to do things.  It was a transitional period where people can do things like, look for work, attend outside meetings, and gain overnight passes, all with the safety net of returning to the center.

One afternoon, as I returned to the center, I was told by the lady at the desk that I was supposed to see my counselor after I checked back in.

On my way back to the offices, I heard chatter, sniffles and sobs from the Commons area of the center. I turned around and walked toward the sounds, more interested in them, rather than whatever my counselor wanted.

As I reached the Commons, there were people standing in a close group. 

“Pete’s dead,” said one of the other residents. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” is all I can remember saying. “It’s okay.”  It wasn’t okay.

I didn’t attend the visitation, because I didn’t know anyone.

I didn’t know his mother or any of his family or friends.  All I knew was that Pete’s mother was alive. That was it. I knew nothing about his family, his ex-girlfriend, his friends, or whether he even had any.

I do remember attending the funeral. The church itself was a beautiful place. The service was quiet and almost surreal. Afterward, I met Pete’s mother. She was gracious and even a little upbeat, which was the thing I remember most about that day. I’ve always guessed that either she was still in shock over her unfathomable loss, or it hadn’t all begun to sink in at that time.  I can still remember her face after all this time.  I remember her kind eyes and smile.  I remember her hand on my forearm, as if I were the one who needed comforting.  Her son had just died a sad, tragic death, and somehow she had the strength and grace to comfort someone she didn’t even know.  I could never quite wrap my head around that.

Not long after Pete’s funeral, I learned  that the reason I never received a return phone call was because no one was there. Pete’s mom had taken a trip to visit family, believing that her son was safe in a treatment center.

Pete didn’t answer the phone because he didn’t return to his mother’s house until the day he died.

After he left the center, he talked his ex-girlfriend into staying at her place in a sort of reconciliation attempt. It didn’t last long.

In the end, Pete couldn’t outrun his past, a past that included repeated childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect and care for him. To get some relief, he turned to what was familiar, and starting drinking again.  Not long after, he engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. The argument spiraled out of control at whatever point things spiral out of control, and he left.

Not long after that argument, Pete returned to the garage of his childhood home. He grabbed the swing set chain he had been abused with as a child, secured one end to an overhead rafter, placed the other end around his neck, and stepped off the stool he was often punished on as a child. 

Later that afternoon, his girlfriend found him.

Sometimes, there is no good end to a story. 

Sometimes, obstacles are too much for the hero of a story to overcome.  Unaddressed trauma, in Pete’s story, was that obstacle. 

I believe that Pete tried everything he could to deal with his trauma the best way he knew how, even going so far as to use third-person narration in his own life. It’s not uncommon for victims of abuse to try to separate themselves from those events in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways, in order to best cope with, and to try to make sense of events that are often impossible to make sense of. Maybe that was Pete’s way of trying to protect himself from that pain, and maybe we could have done a better job of trying to understand it.

All too often, those who suffer abuse are victimized twice. 

Once by their abuser, and then again by stigma and ignorance, or by family members or friends who don’t believe them (or want to keep the abuse quiet), and by the fear, guilt and shame the person who was victimized often carry with them.

Pete’s fight ended nearly thirty years ago, as I write this. Yet, he is a kind of consistent companion as I walk along my path. I’ve come to realize that there are some things there will never be a good enough answer for, and this will always be one of those things.

In memory of my old roommate, “Pete.”

Mornings with my Demons and Aaron Beck

Good morning, demons…

It usually begins an instant after the generic alarm on my phone signals the dawn of a new day, and I am rarely disappointed.

“This is stupid. I hate this,” comes a grumble from one corner, scratchy and raw due to the excessive yelling from the day before. “Turn that damn thing off.”

“I am not equipped for this,” a whisper comes from another corner, still covered in darkness.

From yet another corner, “Well, this is just super.  There’s nothing more breathtaking than the beginning of another wildly mediocre day in this freak show.”

Here they come.  Anger, Fear, Resentment, AND…

“Act normal.  It’s really not a problem.”

Denial. 

“Just don’t encourage them.  No one has to know.  No one will ever understand,” says a stern voice, as morning overcomes the night.

Time to start another day, I think to myself and smile as I turn off the alarm and get out of bed.

It hasn’t always been this way.  I mean, it hasn’t always been the case that I could begin a morning this way and smile.  In fact, anxiety, depression and addiction were fueled for years by the unrelenting onslaught of negative thoughts in my head, while the issues I had were, in turn, fueled by my constant, toxic supply of negative thoughts.

The idea of the critical inner voice isn’t a new one.  A quick Google search will show results for articles and papers that suggest that we can have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of those thoughts can be negative.  According to research, the overwhelming majority of those negative thoughts are usually the same negative thoughts we had yesterday, and the day before.  There is also the popular belief that negative self-talk or critical inner voice, or monologue, has increased sharply in recent years, in large part due to the cumulative effects of the pandemic, social and political division, and the abundance of (and easy access to) critical material on social media. 

That seems to make sense. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be exposed to negative people, places or things for any length of time without absorbing at least some of that negativity.  Complicating matters internally, new negative messages are combined with existing material to create a larger sample for the brain to cycle through, apparently over and over again.

So, why smile?  After years of research, trial and error, wounds and scars, a little bit of hard work and some luck, here are five reasons I’ve learned to welcome my critical inner voice each morning with a smile.

CBT.  Dr. Aaron Beck is known as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Broken down into terms simple enough so I can use them, CBT focuses on the idea that thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence beliefs, and beliefs influence behavior.  The way we perceive or think about something influences how we feel about it.  A simple way of using CBT is to be aware of negative or distressing thoughts and examine how accurate or realistic they are.  Identify and evaluate the thought “distortion,” or, if you like, the validity of the thought, in order to think more realistically, which can positively influence the emotion attached to that thought or perception.  There is a lot of great, easy to use information on CBT and Dr. Beck on the internet, if you’re interested.

Resilience.  I’ve been blessed with the gift of longevity, considering the path I’ve travelled. I’ve been given many years and many opportunities to finally arrive at a point where I’ve developed and practiced my own battle plan, and I’m grateful that I get to work on it each day.  Lots of people with similar mental health and addiction issues aren’t given the chances I have been given, and I never forget that. Bouncing back from some adversity or a setback becomes a little easier when I look through that lens. Good day, bad day, whatever.  I’ll be back, and I’ll get to work.

Defiance.  Wait a minute, defiance is a bad thing, right?  Remember the four critics we met at the beginning of this post?  Their goal is to win. Mine has to be, too. I understand what the stakes are in my walk through life with these guys, and I will use any weapon at my disposal.  Mr. Webster defines defiance as “open resistance; bold disobedience,” and I can’t think of a better stance to take against them.  For years, I “struggled with” or “suffered from,” and in some circles, I was even considered to be some sort of “victim of” addiction and mental health issues. 

Defiance has helped to usher in a new perspective, and with that, a change in the way I approach the same old, chronic issues in my life.  I do not struggle with them today.  Likewise, I respect what they can do, but I do not fear them. I do not suffer from anything, and I’m not a victim.  I don’t sit around waiting to defend the castle, wondering what or who will appear on the horizon or attack under the cover of darkness.  I used to.  Today, I go looking for them, and I let them know they should pack a lunch.  I don’t accept their demands, and I do not bow down to them.  Besides, as a depressive, anxiety-prone, recovering addict with rampant ADD, resistance and disobedience have always kind of been second nature, anyway.  With a different perspective, I am able to use familiar weapons in different ways.  Always go with your best pitch.

Gratitude.  It’s probably not what you were expecting after defiance, I suppose.  The funny thing about gratitude is, it’s so easy to carry.  Entitlement gets to be so heavy, and there really isn’t a good way to carry it.  It’s just not a good look.  I kept hearing about gratitude through treatments and rehabs and counseling and all that.  Can’t you just be grateful? 

I always thought that gratitude was somehow for other people, people who didn’t have to carry the stuff  I was carrying.  I often felt empty inside, aside from the never-ending, always loud, everyone-yapping-at-the-same-time, critical, negative, destructive messages in my head.  I didn’t think I had room for gratitude.  I didn’t know where to put it, and I didn’t know how to start, until one day, I just tried it.  I think it went something like this: This is bullshit, but it’s not completely bullshit.  Okay, it’s mostly bullshit.  But, within the piles of bullshit, there is undoubtedly some good stuff.  One teeny, tiny little thing. That one thing is what I will be grateful for today. 

Even in dark times, there is something to be grateful for.  For me, the key has always been that I need to be in the position to be willing, and on days where I’m not willing, I am at least in the position to be willing to be willing.  I am a work in progress. There are still days like that, days where I think I am owed something or I should be further along than I am, or where I get hung up on comparing myself or parts of me to other parts of other things (one of the many places CBT comes in handy).

It’s still the same old crap I’ve been fighting for ages, but I am more in tune with the gratitude side of life today. I don’t have to fight this crap, I get to fight this crap, and I’m grateful for another day to be able to do it. 

Some days I even get out of bed excited about it, right from the start, like a kid staring through the window of a candy store.  I have so many things to be grateful for that it’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t come around sooner.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.

“What are you so excited about on a Tuesday morning?”  I’m going to chase down my demons and rub their noses in it today!  Honey, should I wear my plaid shirt or would the striped one be more awesome for demon terrorizing?

Hope.  In my experience, hope is where it all starts.  It has to. All I needed was a spark, and that’s all I got.  There were no angels singing while the gates of heaven opened up.  There was no choir, no cheering from spectators, nothing. It was one spark, and it saved my life.

At one point in my life, I was within roughly 30 minutes, give or take, of completing an action that would have been irreversible.  It would have been final, and at the time, it seemed completely logical.  All the evidence at that moment, distorted as it may have been, clearly showed that it would have been a reasonable, rational thing to do. 

For me, hope came in the form of a “What If?” in the face of all the evidence against it. And that was that.  Quick.  Quiet.  I almost didn’t even notice it.  I’m forever grateful that I noticed hope that day.  Since then, I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I’m grateful that I get the opportunity to do it again each day.  With that one little spark, some nineteen years later, hope has become the foundation of whatever it is that I am today. 

If you’re kind of iffy on whether or not Hope is beneficial, Google something like, “What does science say about the power of hope?”  You may just be surprised.

I’m no expert on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  I’m no self-improvement guru.  I’m not a mental health expert.  I’m not even an expert on myself, but I keep learning.  Maybe some of this stuff isn’t for you.  Maybe none of it is.  But, if you, or someone you know deals with mental health issues or addiction, my hope is that you find that spark today. If you’re struggling, reach out. If you’re able, be the person others reach out to. You’re worth it, you’re loved, and you matter. We need you. We’re all in this together.

The Canning Jar Pine Cone Museum

“Look! Look!” she screamed, eyes wide, smiling from ear to hear.

Each time we arrived at the spot on the side walk on our block, she said the same thing with the same excitement as she had the first time she saw them.

“Pine cones!” Arya would point and exclaim, as if she had just unwrapped the perfect gift for her birthday. Or Christmas. Or both.

“PINE CONES!”

We would then spend what seemed like hours beneath the mature pine trees, as we searched for the latest cone or two to be added to the growing collection.  Throughout the years of navigating our block with Arya, the exact standards that made for an acceptable pine cone have always been kind of a mystery, but that’s been part of the enjoyment of it all.

We had started gathering pine cones, a few here and there, in her stroller. As time went along, we would store a few in her little wagon. Then it was her tricycle basket, and most recently it has been her bicycle basket. After a while, it seemed that they were everywhere.

In an effort to try to keep them all in one place, and after making a promise that I would keep them safe, I found an old canning jar on a shelf in the garage.  I figured that the old jar was as good a place as any to temporarily keep her treasure.  Besides, soon enough, she would grow out of it and forget about the cones.  But, for the time being, I had a promise to keep.

After a walk during her most recent visit,  six (and a half…) year-old Arya awarded the last two pine cones their rightful places in the now-filled canning jar. 

After she had gone home, I picked up the jar from the dining room table and looked at the cones through the glass. It needed a place to sit for now, but the dining table was not that place.

At first I thought I’d take it down to the spare room, where the grandkids play and sleep when they stay with us. Upon reaching the doorway of the room, I played out all the scenarios in my head where a big glass jar, pine cones and grandkids might end badly.  So, I decided to put the jar down in my little den on a bookshelf with some other artifacts.  It wouldn’t be there long, I thought to myself. Soon enough, I would be able to throw the whole works away.

I always thought it was kind of silly that we would stop the world to look at something as random and plentiful as pine cones. They aren’t what one would associate with being rare, beautiful or valuable. It would seem that they are none of those things, at least in the world of items to collect, anyway.  I was humoring her, I thought, engaging in play time and exploring the neighborhood. It was simple as that. That is, until recently.

A funny thing started to happen whenever I returned to my den.  Each time I’d go in there, my eyes would be drawn to the jar.  In a small room filled with thousands of my own exhibits of things and stuff, I found myself spending time gazing at the jar.  It seemed odd that the one thing in the room I almost couldn’t wait to get rid of had become quite interesting.

Then it hit me.  How could I have missed it?  It was right there, right in front of me. 

Why was I so ready to discount what we had taken so much time to collect?  Why did I not see the magic in it all?  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t immediately see the possibilities, and grateful that I finally came around to them.

What I have on my bookshelf today, indeed, is an old canning jar filled with little pine cones.  No one would argue that.  However, thanks to the foresight and imagination of our six (and a half…) year-old grand child, it is also a time capsule, a museum, a record of events.  It is a magical vessel containing pieces that tell a story, the epic four-year tale of a little girl and her adventures.

Each pine cone is a separate entry in a journal filled with an unforgettable journey.  This cone was from the time she saved the pet horses and dogs from dragons and other imaginary villains.  Another cone was from the day she shared with our neighbor the details of the day’s adventure.  A larger cone was from the day we solved the mystery of time travel with sidewalk chalk.  One cone was from the time we crossed a bridge above lava alligators to get to the princess in time to take her to the dance to meet the prince; the one next to it was from the day she took her stuffed animal friends on a trip to explore space in the red wagon rocket ship.  Another cone is from a sidewalk grocery shopping expedition because, after all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat. 

For every cone, there is a story, and a memory that will be with me until the end of time.  As for the jar and its contents, it has found a permanent place within the walls of my den, enshrined with other relics from days gone by.

In the end, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from the old jar of pine cones, and from the experiences contained within.  When I deny my ability to see things not only as they are, but as they could be, I am blind to otherwise endless possibilities.  Likewise, when I deny myself creativity or play, I also deny a large part of who I am.  To be able to see the magic in something so simple is a priceless gift.  And those priceless gifts, it seems, are everywhere, if I remain open to seeing them.  Lastly, I have learned to be aware that almost anyone or anything, at any time,  can be a portal to the priceless.

There will always be adulting to do.  Bills must be paid, lawns must be mowed, and oil must be changed.  But in between laundry days and pay days, between commitments and errands, requirements and standards, there must be time to play. 

So, I encourage you to set the weight of adulting down.  Turn off the news and leave your phone in a drawer somewhere.  It will all be there when you get back. 

Hunt for your very own pine cones.  Put a few here, and a few there, as a reminder.  Explore space.  Save horses and pet dogs, or vice versa.  Find a princess or prince.  Share with a neighbor.  Cross bridges.  Grab some chalk and travel through time.  Experience the thrill of seeing lava alligators in their natural habitat.  And don’t forget to set aside time for a grocery shopping expedition.  After all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat.

Glove Day, Oscar’s gift, and the Si Johnson Special

The Si Johnson Special

I paced the driveway outside the house on Eighth Street, not knowing whether to start off without Dad, or to continue to wait for him.  It was like Christmas morning in May.  I couldn’t stop pacing, as if doing so would somehow speed things up.  I looked at the front door for any sign of movement in between glances down the street to try to estimate the time it would take for a grown man and an adrenaline-fueled ten year old to walk the six or seven blocks down to the hardware store.

This day was special.  This day was baseball glove day.  Glove day is generational and ceremonial.  It is celebration and reckoning.  Generational, in that often a father’s father had also once participated in glove day, and someday the son will get to share glove day with his own son.  Ceremonial, as when the first ball hits the glove for the first time, and celebration comes with that first opportunity to play catch with Dad using the new glove. The reckoning portion would come soon enough.

After standing out in the driveway for what was a childhood eternity, I heard the familiar sound of the screech of the old screen door. I abandoned my time estimation experiment and turned around to see Dad standing at the top of the steps, smiling. 

“Ready?”  Darn right.

Dad quickly and flawlessly covered the reckoning portion of glove day as we walked down the main street in town. 

A new glove was an investment, and for our family at the time, it was quite an investment.  It was something to take care of and look out for, and if I did those two things, I would have that glove for a long time.  I should be careful not to leave it anywhere, and to always double check before leaving a game or practice.

Dad’s talk turned out to be necessary.  A few years prior to glove day I was playing out in the yard with Dad’s circa 1954 baseball glove, and I left it out in the rain.  It rained and rained for two whole days, and the glove wasn’t discovered until several days after that, lying in a corner of the back yard.

The glove Dad had used for decades in all kinds of baseball and softball games had been destroyed by carelessness.  I don’t remember him being mad about it.  Disappointed?  Sure, but not mad.  There was a lesson to be learned in it all I guess, and apparently that glove was the price of the lesson. 

Although it had long ago left for old sports equipment heaven, I remember that glove fondly. For me was like trying to catch a ball with a garbage can lid, but Dad worked that old thing like a magician.  It was an old “two-hander,” where there was no real fold or crease in the glove for easy open and closing. No, with that glove, there was a timing and finesse that involved a three step process:  Aim glove at ball, ball hits glove, cover ball with throwing hand.  Funny thing is, I had thought quite a bit about using that glove for baseball, until it succumbed to the devastating combination of Mother Nature and an absent-minded ten year old. Rest easy, leather trash can lid…

I took three steps for every one step Dad took on our walk to the hardware store that day.

I was trying to set a pace, my impatience and excitement clearly getting the best of me.  It was always fascinating to me that Dad could cover so much ground with each effortless step, and on that day I was glad he could.  I always wondered if his unearthly ability to cover ground like that was one of the many reasons for his nickname, Moose.

When we finally arrived at Si Johnson’s hardware store on the end of main street,  I could hardly wait to get inside.  That little store had everything, or it seemed to, anyway.  The glass store front gave a glimpse of the wide array of items one could get with just one stop.  Kitchen knives and toasters, nuts and bolts, toys and candy bars, masking tape and paint were some of the things that would sometimes be in the window. 

“Ready?” Darn right.

When Dad opened the door, the bell above it  jingled to signal our arrival.  As we stepped inside the store, the first thing I saw was our neighbor, Oscar Torpen.  Oscar and his wife, Miriam, lived two houses down from our house.  Back then, everybody knew everybody in our little town, that’s just the way it was. Oscar had worked at Si Johnson’s for as long as I could remember.  It seems like we were always running down there, or to one of the other hardware/everything else stores in town.  Oscar was always one to meet you with a smile, and always seemed to take a genuine interest in people, whether down at the store or in the neighborhood.

We walked down the main aisle to meet Oscar at the register as he and my Dad exchanged greetings and the object of our mission that day.  I don’t remember exactly what was said during that conversation some forty years ago, but I remember Oscar showing the way through the aisles of the store while I followed him, and while Dad followed me.  Navigating what was to be the last corner on our journey through the store, we passed an end cap full of canning supplies when Oscar stepped to the side and raised his arm to what was the sporting goods portion of the of that particular aisle.  And there it was.  In the midst of a few softballs and baseballs, a frisbee or two, pairs of long, white tube socks with bright stripes in a variety of colors, and cans of tennis balls, sat the glove.

I could hear angels. Heaven’s light shined on that glove from the moment I saw it.  That was the one, never mind that it was the only one in the entire store.  That one glove was the perfect glove.

I stood there not knowing exactly what to do, while Dad and Oscar continued to talk about whatever they were talking about.  Oscar asked me if I saw anything I liked, in the way that a kindly, gentle older man would point out the obvious by using humor. 

“Well, try it out,” he said.

I’ll never forget the moment I reached onto the shelf and carefully lifted the glove off of its perch on the display.  Finger hole, soft leather, cross stitch weave. The scent of the leather. It wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small.  Out of all the gloves made on a given day and shipped around the world, different sizes and shapes, different colors and stitches, somehow the perfect glove had made it to the store on the end of main street in my hometown.

I remember looking up to Dad and showing him the glove.  He smiled and did whatever it is that us dads do to make sure a child’s glove fits half way decent.  I have found that I also have learned to do whatever that is over the years, first with my son, and now with the grandkids.  You know, turn it over, pinch and push it, bend it, punch it a few times, flip it back over again, ask them to try to squeeze it closed, turn it over again, and so on.  During that day’s exercise, it seems that Dad and Oscar had reached the same conclusion: the glove passed the test.

“Sure this is the one?” Dad asked, following up Oscar’s humorous take on that particular glove being the only one in stock.  

As we followed Oscar back to the register, he grabbed something off one of the shelves along the way.  When we arrived at the register, he said, “What you have there is the Si Johnson special, and with the Si Johnson special, you need something to take care of it, to keep it new.”

“Saddle soap,” he said, reaching up to give Dad the round metal container.  “Your dad will have to show you how to use that stuff.”

Dad and Oscar continued to talk as I stared in wonder at the new piece of leather artistry covering my left hand.  Dad then opened his wallet and took out what seemed to be an awful lot of money and handed it to Oscar.  With a few clicks and the opening and closing of a cash drawer, it was done.

“One more thing,” Oscar said, reaching to the back table again.  He turned back with his hand closed. 

“Open your glove,” lowering his hand to the glove.  He placed whatever was in his hand in the glove and carefully shut it.

“Now, that’s from me.  Don’t open your glove until you get home, can you do that?  Then you and your dad share it while you break in that glove.”

“Thanks, Oscar!” I remember saying, and we left the little store on the end of main street.

I held that glove closed, with the help of Dad’s watchful eye, until we got home. I ran the last few blocks as fast as I could, then I turned and waited for Dad.  Breathing heavy, and bent down with my arm outstretched as to show Dad the glove was still closed, he finally reached the yard and stood in front of me.

Opening the glove, we found that Oscar had placed one pack of spearmint gum safely in the webbing. 

Dad smiled as he picked up the pack from my new glove.  He carefully unwrapped it and pulled out two sticks, one for each of us.

“Ready?”  Darn right.

As with many days from my childhood, I had no idea at the time the impact this would have on my life, even decades later. Memories of grass and dirt, dugouts and bleachers, bats and gloves. A brand new ball. Rivalries. Teammates. People and places, snapshots in time.

For whatever it’s worth, I still have the old glove and the memories that radiate from it. It has spent a lot of its most recent years in an old duffle bag, until recently. It’s worn and it could use a few new laces and a good oiling. I think I’ll take the time to do that this weekend, after a trip to the hardware store for some saddle soap and a pack of spearmint gum.

Darn right.

My Secret Weapon Against Depression

Some of the memories of events in my life that others recall as exciting, happy or fun always seem to be recalled in my mind with at least a little bit of emptiness, sorrow or a “blue” feeling.

Not all of them, for sure, but enough for me to recognize a pattern as time passed.  I’ve lived with depression for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, I just didn’t know it at the time. I wasn’t treated for it, and it was never mentioned, until I was in my late 20s.

Since then, I’ve tried therapy.  I’ve tried meditation.  I’ve tried so many different types of antidepressants over the years that I felt like a study subject. SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, and MAOIs. If you can throw three or four letters together, I’ve probably taken an antidepressant in that category.

They all worked about the same. Great at first, with side effects following soon after with most of them, while others seemed to do nothing at all. In fact, I was even one of the unlucky seven percent of people who went through what is called “paroxetine withdrawal syndrome,” which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Months of tapering off a medication that had side effects during use, and sometimes worse side effects as I tried to stop using it.

I’m not saying paroxetine or any other kind of medication is bad.  It just wasn’t good for me. I’ve known people who it has worked well for and had no side effects.  I just wasn’t one of them.

I’m not a doctor, and I would never tell anyone what they should do regarding depression or anything else. I can only share my experience.

The “great at first” parts of medications or therapy, for me, surely could have been the placebo effect, as much as it could have been chemical changes in the brain made by a pill.

Webster’s dictionary defines the placebo effect as, “improvement in the condition of a patient that occurs in response to treatment but cannot be considered due to the specific treatment used.”

A few examples might be sugar pills for pain management, or to relieve anxiety.

Therapy was another avenue I tried, with mixed results. Sometimes I saw a therapist while prescribed antidepressant medication, and sometimes independent of it. Either way, seeing someone seemed to help while I was there, but I wasn’t able to take some of the things outside the appointment. Again, maybe it was the placebo effect. I was talking with a professional who was trained to help people and make them feel better. They were non threatening and most of their offices were comfy and cozy. It was a good environment in which to believe that things were going to be okay.

But that only lasted for so many hours after leaving the appointment.

To emphasize, this went on for years and coincided with a battle with addiction. My experience wasn’t a one-and-done conclusion. I saw many professionals who tried to help with my version of depression over a span of several years by all sorts of means. I’ve gathered real world data for the only case I have any experience with, and that’s my own.

I’ve read articles and studies. I’ve tried to break down research papers and collaborative works of groups of people with more sets of initials after their names than I could make sense of.

I tried self help books.  At one point I had a pile of them. From Peele to Robbins, to Frankl and Covey. Religion, spirituality and meditation. Existentialism. CBT, REBT and all kinds of behavior modification.

They all worked, to some degree. But they only seemed to charge my battery, so to speak, while I was in the moment, reading or working hard at it.

What I realized after years of working to not feel depression and the anxiety that accompanies it, was that I was putting in so much effort without much return. Self help was tiring me out.

Ups and downs are natural in life. Good days and bad days string together due to foreseen and unforeseen events. But I was tired of the extreme lows and I was just as tired putting in all the work to prevent them.

I am grateful that through the years I have managed to live long enough to have had the exposure to the many sides of treatment for depression, even with the less than stellar results I gained from it all. I use some of the techniques and exercises I learned years ago to navigate the day. It’s been a little like a psychological and physiological salad bar. A lot of the stuff isn’t all that appealing, but there are a few things that are really good. I have learned how to use these weapons with practice, and a lot of trial and error.

Depression is a condition, I’ve often heard, where your brain works to destroy you. If nothing else, that makes for a complicated relationship with oneself.

I had become worn down over time from trying so regularly to change what always has been, and seemingly will always be, a large part of me. I got to a point where I wasn’t really sure who I was anymore, to an even greater degree than was the norm prior to all the work. I was tired of self help, positive thinking, buzz words and catch phrases. I was tired of smiling. I was sick of being grateful for what I had, when it didn’t feel like I had time to enjoy it all.  I was tired of reading books from transformational gurus who were late on a rent payment one month, contemplated suicide due to that one hardship, and then were delivered from the abyss miraculously from a shift from the Universe. After all, suicidal ideation for a depressed brain is child’s play.

I apologize if it seems as though I am making fun of someone’s life-threatening ordeal, and, honestly, that last part was made up. There is a place for motivational people. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. But, again, learning how someone went from dead broke to living with power and influence, which could be guaranteed with $497 and a three hour seminar, just wasn’t for me.

I was completely sick and tired of things not working, and with the situation I was stuck in.  So, frustrated by it all, I finally got angry. I developed an attitude. I was fed up. I wasn’t going to take another day of the same old dark, empty garbage.

I didn’t act out. It’s not like I became a bully with this change in attitude. I didn’t start going around giving people wedgies or throwing rocks through windows. The change was inside, and what I received from that experience has become my favorite weapon in the all out war I wage on depression.

That weapon is defiance.

It was incredible, that instant in my life. Defiance. Who would have thought? It was then that I went from reacting to acting. Instead of always trying, usually with the skill of a novice Whac-A-Mole player, to stop the downward cycles and ever changing pits of emptiness, I went on the offensive. Instead of defending the battered castle, waiting for the next attack, I went out and looked for the enemy, which was that part of my mind that controlled the constant, everyday shit show that is depression. I didn’t figure I had anything to lose.

Not in a thousand lifetimes, and not with a thousand armies.

In my practice, defiance is simple. I have a healthy respect for what depression can do, but I am not afraid of it. Under no circumstances will I bow down to it.  Ever.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period. 

When I’ve shared this with the few people over the years I’ve talked to about it, they sometimes react as if my answer is the product of a previous psychotic break. I’ve had some supportive and inquisitive responses as well.  I had a counselor tell me years ago that my idea of defiance may actually be hope masked as such.  I’ve often thought about that, and it’s an interesting way to look at it.  For what it’s worth, although I like hope, somehow defiance seems more assertive and battle-ready.  Whatever it takes…

Defiance has been defined as open resistance and bold disobedience. After decades of playing defense and often being woefully unprepared for the next barrage, the mind shift of taking taking the fight to the enemy has been liberating.  I follow the “open resistance” and “bold disobedience” parts of defiance in cooperation with the other weapons I have at my disposal in the battle against depression.

Self care, hope, resilience, gratitude and self awareness are some of the other things I practice and work at today, day in, day out. It’s a system that often works well in solving conflict, challenging thought patterns and checking reality with the information coming from my brain.  When I use them.  When they are working in unison, things seem to run more smoothly.  When they don’t, defiance kicks in and I put on my armor and fight until I can get the system up and running again.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period.

A Sunny Thing Happened on the Way to My Demise

The July sun glared through the living room window and onto the wood floor. I sat in a puffy old chair, leaned forward, elbows on my knees.  I counted the floor boards that were bright in the sunlight.  Twenty-four.  Right to left.  Twenty-four.  Left to right. Twenty-four. Over and over.

On the outside it may have looked as if I were daydreaming, peacefully enjoying travels in my head to some far away place as I stared blankly at the floor. But on the inside churned chaos.  My mind was a mess.  My body was a wreck.  Emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, I was a disaster. 

While I counted, every department in my brain was assessing damage and calculating my next move.  Each department was giving information at the same time, with no organization or priority.   Critical thinking and linear thought were abandoned in favor of  haphazardly throwing information onto a growing pile in the center of my brain.  The overall message amidst all of the chatter was that my current state could not, and would not, continue.  I was battered.  I was tired. Twenty. Four.  I stopped counting.

I stood up and continued to look mostly at the floor as I walked back and forth on the boards I had just spent the better part of an hour counting.  The frenzy of information whirling in my head had finally ground to a halt.  Chaotic and disorderly as it was, the information was in.  It was time to make a decision.

This day was the end result of a three day drinking spree after a year of dry time.  Dry, in that I didn’t drink or drug during that year, but I didn’t do anything else, either.  There were no meetings, there was no self care, no counseling-  no recovery plan of any kind.  I just stopped using.  I was hard to be around.  I hated everything.  I was frustrated, angry, and miserable.  I was so miserable after that year that I returned to what I knew. I knew how to drink.  I went back to it just as I had left it the year before, fully understanding the probable consequences.

That three days led me to sit in a chair, to count floor boards, and to arrive at an undeniable conclusion:  Not only could I not live clean and sober in recovery, but I also couldn’t live anymore as a practicing addict.

As I paced the living room, in and out of the sunlight, the idea that I had failed so miserably at both addiction and recovery weighed heavily on me.  I no longer felt the euphoria that chemicals once provided.  I could no longer use to feel, or not to feel, and it was clear I couldn’t abstain from using in a consistent or predictable manner. 

I could no longer even temporarily escape the mundane, painful, or scary.  Earlier relapses had often lasted months, but not this time.  In the past I would drink, use, and dig deeper holes, but there was always some relief.  There had always been a trade off, in a completely irrational way that only an addict can truly understand.  Of course, my using or drinking would almost certainly hurt people, especially those who cared about me. But it was all written off as collateral damage in the master plan of textbook insanity that is addiction. 

For me, using was a self-medicating, self-absorbed break from anxiety, insecurity and the constant, consuming emptiness of depression.  Even the partying portion of my using was smoke and mirrors; what was genuine was the disconnect it afforded.  Substances provided a diversion from reality, and I was willing to pay an often considerable price for chasing a distorted, chemically enhanced version of peace.  But even that was gone now, and it took only three days to arrive at the deepest, darkest place I’d ever been, and this time I couldn’t find a way out.  I didn’t want to do it anymore.  I’d had enough.  I sat down and leaned back into the old chair.  It was over, and I knew it.

It was then that two familiar inner voices stepped out from the shadows of my mind and joined me in the living room.

****************

The easiest way to explain it, I guess, is perhaps you’ve seen a movie or a cartoon where a little devil pops up on a character’s one shoulder, and a little angel appears on the other. The appearance of those additional characters signals the back and forth battle between good and evil, hope and despair, and so on. These two sides of struggle and conflict are as old as life itself. For the sake of simplicity, and with apologies for sounding silly, I’ll just call them Sunny and Rainy.

In my head, Sunny is the quiet, patient, empathetic one, with the emphasis on quiet. Sunny never yelled.  Sunny had never argued with Rainy, and never forced his views or acted in haste.  It was because of these traits that I came to believe Sunny was weak.  In fact, I blamed Sunny for not speaking up during some of the most crucial events in my life to that point.  Sunny was more abstract.  Parables and feelings, dreams and memories, rainbows and sunshine, all in the hushed tones of a whispering librarian.

On the other hand, Rainy had a tendency to be impulsive and easy to provoke.  Rainy was the bull in the China shop.  Where Sunny was a fine-tipped brush used to put the final touches on a beautiful oil painting, Rainy was the guy throwing gallons of paint at a huge canvas, buckets and all.  Rainy possessed little patience, was quick to judge, and rarely used diplomacy during times of conflict.  In a crisis, Rainy was the one who showed up first, and I could always hear him coming.  But to be fair, and for all his faults, Rainy had served me well at times, and actually saved my life during a few dangerous situations I had walked into over the years.  But on this day, Rainy was different.

“No,” Sunny said firmly.  “This isn’t the way.  Think about what you’re proposing.”

“Well, well, you finally left the circus.  The other clowns must be heartbroken,” Rainy said, sarcasm on full display.

“This is absurd, you can’t be serious about this,” Sunny said, looking at me, and then to Rainy.  “There is so much left to do.  There is so much left to see.  You have a lot of life to live.  I won’t be a part of this.”

“You’ve been filling his head with this garbage for years,” Rainy began.  “Sobriety and relief from depression and the beauty of life and all that other crap.  When does that finally happen, Sunny?  Never, that’s when.”

I sat quiet in the chair.  Sunny stood quiet in the corner.  Rainy stood in the middle of the living room like a speaker at center stage.  The debate was on.

Rainy continued, “What would you know about anything, Sunny?  What would you know about life?  Haven’t you seen the suffering, the mistakes, the failure?  When you finally say something, it’s always the same old nonsense.  It’s over.  This will never, EVER get better, and you have only yourself to blame.  Leave.  We have a job to finish.”

Rainy then turned to me while Sunny stood, still quiet, in the corner.  “There is no shame in admitting defeat.  This has gone on far too long.  You’ve hurt everyone you know.  You’ve tried this addiction stuff for fifteen years only to get your ass kicked.  You’ve been depressed your whole life.  You have been thinking about this for a long time and it’s not coincidence that we are in the same goddamn spot today that we’ve been countless times before,” Rainy went on, his voice becoming more stern and his body language more aggressive.  “What you’re doing is not living.  You, my friend, have been dead for years, you’re just too stubborn, or too dumb, to admit it.  Today is the day.”

“That’s just not true,” Sunny said.

Rainy spun around and stomped toward Sunny in the corner.  “Sure it is, and you know it as well as he does,” he said, now almost nose to nose with Sunny while pointing back at me. “How many times have we followed him to treatment?  How many times have we gone to detox?  Psych wards?  How many tickets?  How many nights in jail? How many times have we gone days without knowing what the hell was going on? How many times have we been talked to by cops, priests, counselors, doctors, neighbors, friends and people we don’t even know?  Do-gooders, well-wishers and the like?  Sob stories, calls to arms, pep talks, threats and a boat load of other advice and care, and here we sit.  It’s time to get this over with.”

As Rainy finished with Sunny, he maintained eye contact as he backed away.

Turning again to me, he said, “Too damn many.”

“What?” I asked.

“You heard me.  Too damn many.  That’s how many times you’ve been to treatment,” he replied.  “That’s how many times you’ve been to detox.  That’s how many times people from all walks of life have tried to help you.  And for what?  It makes me sick.  Doctors and lawyers and counselors and hurt friends and family.  Bad relationships and dead end jobs because you can’t get your head right.  We could be living the good life, but you insist on messing things up.  You’ve taken beds at treatment centers that others could’ve used.  You’ve been in detox so many times they know your name.  You know every cop in the area because of the crazy things you’ve done during your career in the lunatic business.  You aren’t even trying anymore.  This is over, and if you don’t follow through with this, so help me, I’ll do it myself.”

Rainy sat down on the arm of the couch on the other side of the room.  He took a deep breath and paused, trying without success to calm himself.

Leaning toward me, he said, “I think you’re making the right decision.  Life is hard.  It’s unfair.  You’ve done your best.  All that pain?  The depression?  The disappointment?  It will end today.  It’s time.”

Rainy wasn’t wrong about a lot of what he said.  His delivery was harsh and crude, but he was quite accurate about it all.  We had been at this crossroads together before.

It was hard not to admit what I at least half-believed most of my life.  It was time.

For what it’s worth, I never really used the word “suicide” in my head. For me, suicidal ideation had never been a constant cycle of thought, but more of a nosey neighbor that occasionally stopped by unannounced.  I always used words like “escape” or “relief” or something more comforting and less… final. But the idea, complete with planning and attempting to project the resulting fallout for those left to deal with the aftermath, was a subject that was visited more often than I’d ever felt comfortable admitting to anyone.

It’s not a smooth subject to talk about, ending one’s own life.  There’s just no easy way to make it comfortable or attractive, because it isn’t.  In fact, I struggled a lot with not only the idea of writing this, but during the writing itself.  Not because I’m afraid of my own demons, but because it is such a heavy subject, and due to concern over how it may impact those who read it.  It is always final.  It is always tragic.  It’s more common than anyone wants to recognize or admit. And no matter what, those left behind are always, always, always, left with questions that will never be answered during our time on Earth.  There are some things we just don’t talk about, yet each of us knows someone…

I walked over to the secretary and shuffled through the drawers to find a suitable paper and pen, and went back to sit down on the old chair.  Rainy stood up to come closer, while Sunny remained in the corner.

As I looked down at the paper, Sunny asked, “What if?”

It was a quiet, almost unnoticeable question, as if he had mumbled it to himself.  Rainy looked up from the paper to turn and smirk at Sunny, rolled his eyes, then turned back to focus on the paper.

“What if?” again Sunny asked, a little louder.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sunny, don’t complicate this with your silly, hypothetical bullshit,” Rainy snapped.  “You’ve had your chance.  For years you’ve had your chance.  Today’s the day this ends.  Sit down and shut up.”

Again, “What if?” Sunny asked, calmly.

“Stop it, Sunny,” Rainy said.  “All you’ve ever done is delay the inevitable, trying to sell hope like there’s a market for it here.  Hope is for fools.  Hope is for those with nothing left, and we are beyond nothing now.  You are grasping at straws and you sound like an idiot.”

I looked up from the still blank paper to Rainy.  “Hold on.  What did you say?”

“Inevitable?  Fools?  Grasping at straws?  Idiot?” Rainy recited the bullet points from his rant.

“Hope,” Sunny said, stepping out of the corner.  “You said hope.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, this is a joke, right?  Are you serious?”  Rainy was beside himself.

“Do you mean to tell me that this is your solution?  That somehow all of this can be solved with something so intangible?” he continued.  “What in the hell is hope against the fact that much of your life has been a miserable, lonely, messed up experience? A miserable, lonely, messed up experience, may I remind you, that will continue until you’re a miserable, lonely, messed up old man?  This craziness needs to stop. Don’t screw this up.”

“The least we can do is hear him out,” I said. “It’s not like we have any place to be.”

“This should be good. Sunny the motivational village idiot.  Perhaps we should print up posters and sell tickets for this,” Rainy said, dripping with disdain.  “Two minutes.  Do you hear me, Sunny? You’ve got two minutes, then we get on with what we should have done years ago.”

“What if,” Sunny repeated, “What if you could learn to ride a bike, or to swim?”

“This is just embarrassing,” Rainy cried dramatically.  “He rode a bike when he was five! He swam across the lake in middle school!  Big deal.  Since then it’s been pretty much downhill.  What’s next?  First tooth?  First pee on the big  potty?  Hell of a pep talk, genius.  Can we just finish this now?”

Sunny ignored Rainy and continued, “What if you could memorize multiplication tables or learn how to high jump?”

“Have you lost your mind?” Rainy yelled at Sunny.

“What if you had to get your driver’s license,” Sunny said, “or climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood with the older kids?  What if there is a reason you have lived long enough to become a father?  What if you’re supposed to stay around to help people who need you?”

“This dreadfully random trip down memory lane has been brought to you by the letter S, as in SSSSSTUPID,” Rainy snapped.  “This is so dumb, it’s painful.  Are you done?”

“Please let him talk,” I said, feeling more now like a referee than someone in the middle of trying to make life’s biggest decision.

“What if there is a reason you survived long enough to make it to detox?  What if you needed each and every treatment, each and every talk, from each and every person, to get you to this point,” Sunny asked.  “What if these are not failures, but lessons or cornerstones?  What if every other time we’ve been at this point, you’ve chosen to go on?”

The items Sunny mentioned were all things that at one point in my life I never believed I’d be able to do, or get through.  I never thought I’d be able to ride a bike.  At one point, I stood on the shore of the lake or the side of the swimming pool believing that I’d never be able to do the things others were doing.  Living through addiction as long as I had was against the odds by almost any measure.  The tallest tree may as well have been a never ending tower to the heavens, at least before I climbed it.  And there was a time in my life where I believed I would never live long enough to become a father.  Hope surely must have played at least some part in it all.

I began to believe that when I listened to Sunny, there was hope.  Hope, at least in part, made some of the good things in my life possible.  Hope also made some of the not so good things bearable.

“What if,” I sighed, shrugging my shoulders. 

“Maybe it’s just that simple,” Sunny replied.

“So that’s it?  Hope is the magic plan and the cure to all our trials and tribulations for the infinite future,” Rainy exclaimed in disbelief.  “We just hang our hats on hope and all will be okay?  Where is the resolve?  Where is the defiance and the declaration that life, and all of its baggage and wreckage, is just not worth it anymore?”

“It’s not infinite, Rainy,” Sunny replied.  “In fact, maybe it’s just this moment.  Maybe it’s this hour or this day, one little piece of time connected to the next.  What if we miss something great?  What if this can turn around?  What if?”

“I give up on you guys.  Next thing you know,” Rainy said, “you two will be singing praise songs, selling all our stuff and leaving to join some cult.  It is my hope that when you do, they shave your heads and make you sell beads at a mall.”

Rainy then stormed off, back to the corner of my mind from where he came. I listened to Sunny talk about the plan of continuing the journey that is life.  We discussed the role hope could play in another attempt at recovery from addiction and in surviving depression.  I came to realize that Sunny was always there, and that he wasn’t weak.  Sunny just wasn’t as loud as anger, despair or frustration.  Sunny was more subtle, but not any less present.  I just had to be willing to listen and patient enough to hear what was being said.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

That July day was almost 19 years ago.  I talk to Sunny a lot more now than I did before that day.  We meet first thing in the morning, and agree that we will see this day through to the end, come what may.  We make that commitment daily, even if we don’t talk about much else.

That’s not to say that Rainy doesn’t still show up now and then.  He has to, he is a part of me.  But if he’s around too long, there’s always some kind of trouble.  Admittedly, some days I seem to spend as much time with Rainy as I do with Sunny.  It’s not a perfect system, and I don’t fool myself into believing it ever will be, but I work at it.

Hope is a powerful thing, if sometimes more quiet or less visible than anger, frustration or despair.  For me, hope has been an invaluable tool in my recovery from addiction, an irreplaceable weapon in my war against depression, and a consistent companion in the now almost two decades of life I wouldn’t have had without it.

In memory of warriors at rest, In honor of those who still fight.

The Beauty of War, Barber Chairs, and Missing Buster

I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal.  My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock.  Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down.  I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it.  I hoped I could make it there on time.

I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning.  I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there.  I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front.  As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push.  The door didn’t budge.  As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.”  There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.

As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open.  Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile. 

As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.

**

To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat.  I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited.  Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave.  It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect.  Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent.  Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door.  Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs.  To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.

This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use.  The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art.  White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself.  These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned.  Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift.  Swivel.  Style and grace. The perfect chair.

I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop.  He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943.  Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information.  As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way.  As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific.   He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do.  He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds.  He described trees in colors and shapes and textures.  Experiences with the food and drink, even candies.  Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint.  Wartime in the South Pacific.  Beautiful.  And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.  

I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street.  Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years. 

Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway.  And it was authentic.  Genuine.  A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community.  The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver.  The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.

The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile. 

There was always chatter, at the very least.  No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War.  From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies.  All sorts of sports were discussed.  From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored.  Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by.  From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.

But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments.  I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there.  People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter.  The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something.  In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong.  After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver.  We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.

**

Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth.  Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there.  In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc.  I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse.  I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once.  Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.

In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase

The File Cabinets and Chalkboards in my Head

Imagine walking into a room of file cabinets. Upon crossing the threshold, you notice an order and cleanliness about the place. There is no door, only a doorway to this room. The file cabinets are all the same color, size and shape. Even the little labels on each drawer match, with bold printing in a simple font. There are just as many cabinets on one wall as there are on another. The lighting appears to be more than sufficient to remove, replace or read files without causing eye strain or headache. The paint is a neutral color, not boring and not brash. The carpet looks and feels new, and it compliments the paint, cabinets and furniture. There is a soundtrack playing from an unseen speaker that you find neither too loud nor too soft, and it seems to be noticeable only when you want it to be. There is a solid table and padded chairs for reviewing the files that wait to be placed into or pulled out of the cabinets. On the table sits a small stack of writing paper and an old coffee mug full of sharpened pencils, quality pens and yellow highlighters. On one wall hangs a large whiteboard or chalkboard for big ideas or collaborations for times when a mere pen and paper just won’t do. There is some communication equipment neatly arranged and accessible in one corner. While the room is neither perfect nor imperfect, it appears to be fully functional and organized enough to complete whatever tasks the room is set up for. It seems like a pleasant place to spend some time.

Let’s say purely for point of reference, that the file room I just described is a typical human mind and what I’d like to do, completely against better judgment, is to invite you to my file room.

Since you’re a guest, let’s take the direct route today, a route that not many people get to travel. The public route to my room is like an obstacle course without a finish line. Picture the people at the mall who use the “You Are Here” maps. But in this case the maps don’t make any sense and are designed to take whoever on a complicated trip that ultimately leads them back to the same map. Truth to tell, some people never make it farther than the lobby.

It hasn’t always been like this; over the years I have worked on it quite a bit, little by little. There is usually so much confusion and distraction that by the time anyone gets anywhere close to my file room, they are so exhausted and frustrated or confused that sooner or later they stop trying to find it. That is the point, after all……

There is a lot at play here, and I’ve always been on guard about letting people see my files, for lots of reasons. I realize, too, that what I do isn’t what you would call “typical.” There are a lot of people I know who consider hindering anyone’s access to their rooms a huge mistake. They want people to see their room, to sit at their table, to take notes, and to even go through some of the cabinets. Some people actually welcome people in. Nonsense.

As we walk, I’ll share some of the how’s and why’s of keeping people out of, and away from, my file room. You’re going to know once we get there, anyway.

First, and probably easiest to explain, I am an introvert. No, no, no, not just an “introvert.” I am an IN-TRO-VERT. I’m just built that way. The fact that we are talking about it now, or to write or share any of this stuff usually carves chasms in the very room I try to protect. I religiously dislike attention, and a quick “aww shucks” deflection is usually the first sign of that. If it continues, I’ll usually change the subject. I’m not trying to be rude, I’ve just never been comfortable telling people I’m uncomfortable. On the flip side, I am completely comfortable telling others what a great job they did at something, and to be sincere about it… It’s a one-way street. The guy must be weird in the head, right? And that’s just one of the symptoms of introvertitis. Introvertism? Anyway…

I’ve tried, over and over (by all kinds of unhealthy means) to make myself an extrovert, or at least a little less of an introvert. For years I left a wake of confused and hurting people in my past because my inner conflicts seeped out past the walls of my file room, and I never really knew how to deal with it. However, after years of disastrous trial and error, I have made one discovery and that is: I really hate crowds. I would rather spend a month in our storage shed in the backyard than go to a social event. Ten times out of ten. I just can’t have tons of people in my room because there isn’t enough space for everyone at one time. I think you’ll understand better when we get there.

A second barrier to my room is a bit more complicated and has sometimes been messy. This barrier is almost impenetrable. It’s barbed wire and land mines and lazers and all the gadgets one would expect to see in an action movie, it just isn’t anywhere near as glamorous. Really, it’s this meat grinder-mix of shyness, introversion, depression, anxiety, ADD and the remnants of addiction, all glued together by shame. My addiction story is for a visit on another day. And shame is a destructive, toxic, evil force that kills. For the record, shame is not guilt. Guilt can be useful and constructive. Shame has no redeeming qualities.

I’ll give you a quick thumbnail since we don’t have all day… the opposite of depression is vitality. The opposite of anxiety is serenity. The opposite of order is Attention Deficit Disorder. And, holy crap, the ADD….. Let’s just say that a typical grocery list looks like this: bread, milk, butter, eggs. My grocery list tends to look something like this: Bread, car keys, you are my sunshine, ants are so cool, where the f*** did I put the grocery list?

I know what you’re thinking. Medications, right? Therapy. You’re paying attention and I know where you’re going with this. But, I can’t do medications. I’d very likely abuse the benzodiazapines and stimulants because, well….. because they are benzodiazapines and stimulants. I am an addict after all, whether I’m using or have been clean for a week or a hundred years. Just can’t do it. But, therapy is good. Support groups are good. I have no problem with either and I’ve been that route more than once in years passed.

Careful, we’re getting close now………Watch your step.

The final roadblock to my file room is actually fairly subtle. It is the societal norms, taboos and subjects that simply just aren’t fun to talk about. Not only are they not fun, often they are quite painful and come to the forefront only out of necessity or emergency. Stigma…… Misinformation…….. Ignorance……… We don’t talk about depression at the dinner table. We don’t talk about suicide on a night out. We don’t talk about anxiety while at a game. We don’t talk about addiction when family visits………….Unless we have to.

Extroverts are often seen as confident, successful and even preferred, while introverts appear to be less than or different from the “norm.” Men don’t cry, and they shouldn’t show feelings. That’s been a long-held standard. We still live in a world where depression and anxiety are widely viewed as weaknesses and addiction is seen as a lack of will power. An ADD diagnosis is brushed off as a lack of discipline and laziness, “If you would just concentrate!” These types of issues are usually other people’s problems…… until they hit home. When and IF people do concede that these conditions exist, often they are given tags to lessen or separate them from other, more “Valid” conditions. One of my favorite labels is “invisible illness.” Because there isn’t a bone sticking through the skin or surgical scars, that means that somehow it must be qualified another way. Marginalized. Set aside. Stigma and bias are still alive and well regarding mental health issues and addiction, regardless of the progress that has been made. Both sadly and conveniently, it serves as steadfast justification for keeping people out of my files….. But don’t kid yourself. There isn’t much about any of these conditions that is “invisible.”

That’s it…….just ahead. After all I’ve told you, you can’t possibly be surprised by the door. And you can’t possibly be surprised by what you see, now that we are here.

First of all, I apologize for any distraction caused by the speaker. It goes on and off, sometimes just random clips of things, sometimes it’ll play the same damn thing over and over and over. Sometimes it’s just static. It’s weird, but I’ve gotten used to it.

I tried to tell you about the grocery list. Papers all over the place. Drawers open, chalkboard filled with scribbles and gibberish, folders on the floor, the table piled with stacks upon stacks of files. Posters and maps on the walls. Pictures of people no longer with us. Framed photos of teams I was lucky enough to be a part of. Articles cut out and strewn everywhere. Paper clips sparkle here and there. Post It notes throughout the room in a pattern that may suggest that one of my grand daughters may have walked through and stuck them on whatever she wanted to, and that’s quite possible.

HOW CAN YOU FIND ANYTHING IN HERE???

You should maybe sit down, once I find a chair for you. Look, I tried to keep everything in here organized. I tried all the way through school, into adulthood and for a long time after that. I would clean my locker, only for it to be a disaster again in a few days. I would attempt to organize my thoughts to try to explain why my thought process was so jumbled and fragmented. But when I tried to speak, it often fell apart on the way out of my mouth.

To many, my room looks like a disaster. It may look like someone ransacked the place, and sometimes that is what I do to find stuff. In my own little office at home, for instance, I actually have an old chalkboard that I scribble on. I have files and piles of dead trees that make sense to only me. I have an old wooden bowl that holds notes I have scribbled on whatever paper I could find. Grocery items on the same piece as ideas and goals. It’s a controlled chaos, more than anything, I just don’t fight it anymore.

After years of trying to be “typical,” I’ve come to accept that I am whatever it is that I am. I don’t think it’s a matter of better or worse. Maybe it’s more of a style, a unique style, like handwriting. And we adapt. We just do.

Please bear with me while I continue to rummage through my file room and attempt to sort through the mess in my head so I can try to get my thoughts out in print……..my original intent was to tell my story the best I could, in hopes to help someone else……….but I am starting to notice that just maybe the person I might be helping the most is…me. I’m no writer, for sure. But writing has become a neat way to take scattered thoughts and fragments of ideas from the wood chipper my mind can sometimes be and cut and paste them into something fairly coherent.

This has been a different kind of post, and I appreciate the fact that you stayed through to the end. Thank you for reading, liking and/or sharing my posts. It means a lot to me, and I hope something in them can be of help to you or someone you know. Thank you.

What do you do? Is your file room similar to the one in the beginning, neat and orderly? Is it more like mine, some sort of paper bomb epicenter? Have you had to do things to adapt the way your mind works due to circumstances in your life? Do you let people in? Do you keep people out? Introvert or extrovert?

Whatever you are, be you. The longer you’re not, the harder it will be for you, or anyone else, to find their way to your room.

Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson

Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

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I grabbed the jersey display case from its perch on the bookcase in the den. I tucked it under my arm as I walked through the house and out the door. When I got to the middle of the driveway, I took it in both hands, raised it above my head and threw it down at my feet as hard as I could throw it. Glass exploded and flew in every direction as the crash echoed through the neighborhood. Perfectly fabricated wood joints shattered and seemed to chase the glass. As the echoing subsided, the pieces came to rest in different parts of the driveway, while the jersey laid crumpled at my feet. I stood in the driveway in the middle of it all with my hands on my hips, cursing the wreckage, fuming over the death of a friend a year and a half earlier. And I felt enraged by what I saw as the absolute futility of life. I called out God, Higher Powers and every other spirit I’d ever heard of for their collective inaction. I cursed the Universe. I begged them all for a sign or a signal, and I dared them all to give me their best shot. Oddly enough, the fact that there was no response from anywhere in the living world nor the world beyond only served to fuel the rage that had finally come out. “F*** YOU,” I said, pointing down at the mess at my feet, “AND F*** YOU, TOO,” I said, raising my arms to notify the rest of the world. It was at that moment that I had, in fact, had it.

This was the culmination of over a year and a half of seething, festering guilt and frustration, over acting “as-if” and of playing the part. It was pretending to make temporary sense of a permanent loss. I tried to act as if, I tried to go along and get along. I tried to pretend all was well and that what I was really feeling was sadness, and it was a natural part of the process of grief, especially when someone young dies unexpectedly. But the truth was that I wasn’t sad. I was sick of getting along, and I was tired of acting as if. I was angry because Dave’s passing devasted his family. I saw the faces of his old friends and neighbors at the funeral. I was angry because I remember calling Jimmy to give him the news, and I remember his reaction. I was angry because the three of us finally had stuff figured out, together, and now it was gone. I was angry because he had his whole life ahead of him. I was angry because he didn’t reach out and I was angry because I didn’t do enough to stop it. I was angry because the three of us had come so far. And that day, in one feeble, violent, misguided moment, I took it out on a carefully crafted display case which held an old jersey in memory of my friend. Now that was ruined, too.

To know Jimmy and Dave was to know life itself. They both had tons of friends growing up, they were charismatic, they were popular and they were each blessed with a great sense of humor. They were both talented athletes. Jimmy was built like a linebacker, a position he played with an enviable efficiency. He had a square jaw and a smile that could make you feel both at ease and yet still wonder what he had just gotten away with. Dave was a quick, smaller bundle of energy, an energy that you could actually feel. He and I had our lockers next door throughout school because of our last names. He had an infectious laugh and was a walking, talking social event. His family owned the bakery in town and I will never forget the beautiful sights, smells and tastes we were blessed with on a regular basis from that magical little place. The two of them were a memorable part of the cast of characters in our small hometown.

We were always teammates and classmates, although it seems that the three of us were never really all that close back then. After graduation, and the school years which contained both highlights and scrapes with authority, along with the prerequisite growing pains, we each went our own directions out into the world. One of us would enter and exit the military, one of us would scale water towers, and one of us would fail miserably at two colleges, before reuniting in our small town, to begin rebuilding our lives.

********

I literally ran into Jimmy not quite ten years later at the bank in town. I was begrudgingly going to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement that night at the urging of my family, when I swung open the door and ran into my old friend, who was on his way to his car. Jimmy had been in recovery for a year and had a good job with a big construction outfit in the area. We spent some time after the meeting catching up and after some convincing, I agreed to go to meetings regularly. He became my mentor and my babysitter. The drinking hobbies we began in high school as “boys will be boys” -type behavior had become full blown addictions in almost no time, only to somehow lead us back home to try to sort it all out. After the reunion that night, we were pretty much inseparable, and it seemed we had almost come full circle.

A few months after our meeting in the doorway of the bank in town, Jimmy and I received word that Dave was back in the area, too. He had run into some trouble, and we went to visit him to see how we could help. Then there were three.

We began working on clearing the wreckage of the past and getting busy with the work of getting our lives back a little at a time. We were sober, clean, recovering and kicking all kinds of ass at it. Meetings, conferences, more meetings, making amends, helping others, sharing our stories at schools in the area. We even returned to the church we had spent so much time in growing up, which we thought to be kind of poetic. We talked about the glory days of football and basketball. We talked about college and owning businesses and houses and whatever else came to mind. We had dreams again and we weren’t shackled to our addictions, waiting to die. We were alive. We held each other up, we held each other accountable and we walked through it all together. You didn’t miss a meeting or someone would be there, banging on your door. You answered your phone even if you were busy or didn’t feel like it, because it was what you were supposed to do when someone reached out. If one of us had a court date, we all had a court date. We high-fived and trashed talked each other. We were at once humbled by what we had survived and confident and proud of our new lease on life. We were, in so many ways, back.

********

But as time wore on in our new lives, maybe we started to become complacent. Maybe we took some things for granted. Maybe there were some underlying things we didn’t or couldn’t fix within us or between us. I’ve never been completely sure, and that’s always been part of my problem with the whole thing. Maybe the high fives weren’t shared as often. Maybe the conferences, meetings and speaking opportunities became easier to brush off in favor of new things. Or old things. Maybe we stopped being grateful. Maybe we stopped telling each other the truth. But in the middle of it all, we had lost our way, and I didn’t know exactly how much until we couldn’t get ahold of Dave.

Jimmy didn’t seem too bothered by not being able to get in touch with Dave, at first. There were all kinds of possible reasons, and they didn’t have to be bad ones, he thought. I was frustrated, but in the end, we both figured he’d come around. There had been a few things that had happened recently that may have accounted for it. Maybe he got a job. Maybe he was pissed at us. Maybe he was burnt out on recovery and the pace at which we were going. We decided, fatefully, to give him space. For two weeks we went on with life – work, meetings, family- waiting for him to come back to the fold.

********

The alarm went off that Friday just like it did every other morning, the beep-beep-beep pulling me out of slumber to be replaced by a clicking sound and the local radio news morning update. I sat up in the dark, eyes still shut, when I heard, “A one car crash over night leaves…. County Road A….David…..”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned and I had to rewind and play again in my head what I thought I had just heard. Confused and still half awake, I grabbed the radio and tried to tune in other stations on the chance that I might hear it again, but I got nothing. Turning the radio off, I called work and told them that I wouldn’t be in, that a friend had been in an accident. I dressed on the way to the door and put my shoes on as I hopped down the sidewalk toward the car. It can’t be, I thought.

I drove and thought. Thought and drove. My mind raced and feared the worst, and then a wave of reassurance due to being half asleep and the belief that I simply had not heard it correctly. But I still felt I had to drive down there and check. It couldn’t be. The farther I drove and the closer I was to the approaching town, the better I felt. Stupid dream.

Then, rounding the last curve in the road on County A, the last corner before town, I saw the tire tracks. I saw the car. I saw the police cars. I saw the tape. I saw the tow truck parked off to the side. I pulled over and got out. I leaned up against the car with my arms folded. I didn’t know what else to do. After some time, an older deputy approached me. We talked for a few minutes about what details he could give, he shared his condolences and went back to work. It was surreal. It was bullshit. It was over. On the way back to town, I wondered what his family must have been going through at that moment. I wondered how they were ever going to make it through the loss of a son and brother. I wondered how Jimmy would take it, and I wondered how I was going to tell him. And I wondered why. Then there were two.

********

We were never the same after Dave’s passing. Jimmy couldn’t even bring himself to go to the funeral and I went mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to not go. We talked a lot, Jimmy and I, but it was never the real, teammate, crunch-time, got-your-back, kind of stuff that we had grown accustomed to. There was no banging on the door if one of us missed a meeting. There was no car in the driveway if we didn’t answer the phone. Little by little, Dave’s passing, and our assumed responsibility for not preventing it, slowly pulled us into the swamp of relapse. Eventually we just stopped calling and contacting each other because we each believed we were a little more at fault than the other for what had happened somehow. We carried the burden as quietly as we could for as long as we could.

While I don’t believe Jimmy ever touched another drink, I know that he fought demons that rarely let him rest. For my part, I stayed clean for another eight or nine months before I went back to using, and only a few months after that came the day I spiked the case on the driveway and challenged the world to a fist fight.

********

It was twelve years after Dave passed, that I learned Jimmy had died suddenly. That was in 2006. Over that twelve-year span, I had to work to recover from addiction and fight mental health issues, and to deal with the memory hoarder’s paradise that is survivor’s guilt. Counselors, therapists, other addicts, family, friends, enemies -you name it- I had help. It wasn’t an exercise in valor or the yearning for a higher level of existence, it was an exercise in survival. And then there was one.

It was during the time of my Dad’s passing, in between Dave’s and Jimmy’s, that a pastor put a hand on my shoulder and suggested that maybe the best we can do is take them with us on our journey until we meet again. I’ve never forgotten that, and that little act of kindness and empathy forged a gigantic shift in my view and perspective on the finite of life, and the infinite universe, but that’s a story for another time.

That shift, that little spark, was part of a lengthy process moving from fixating on something I could never change and riding it to hell and back, to coming to the belief that there is a different way. Who wins a war with the Universe? Who calls out spirits and challenges a God or gods he isn’t even sure he believes are real? Who seeks closure through rage? I did, and it didn’t work. When you get your ass kicked that badly, sometimes it’s best to accept it and regroup. There is no science to it, and it may not even make sense. All I know is that it seems to work day to day, and I am not imprisoned by guilt anymore about something I could never control in the first place.

********

Today, I am where I am in no small part because of Dave and Jimmy. And although I don’t carry the baggage I used to, I love them like brothers. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, even in the eye of the storm. There is no doubt that they helped people achieve lasting recovery while they were here, and I owe it to them to keep walking, come what may. Without our paths crossing back then, I’m sure there would have been an early end to my own story.

Today, I use the suggestion I received and I take them with me, and we get to do the things said we would. After I’d been in recovery for quite a few years, I went back and finished school and earned a counseling degree. Behind the curtain that graduation night, I met with Dave and Jimmy. We made it, gentlemen. Each time I reach another year in recovery from addiction, I call on them. We made It, Fellas. Before playing football for the first time in twenty-one years, I walked over to the corner of the end zone during pregame and met with Dave, Jimmy and Dad. We made it, gentlemen. When our granddaughters were born, I made it, Guys… When it’s quiet and there is that fleeting moment of clarity and peace, however brief, that we once worked together for…. We made it, gentlemen.

And it isn’t just them. Others who have passed, I’ve learned to take along the best I can. That is something I carry without fatigue. I am still part of this world, don’t get me wrong. But I am grateful today to be able to do it until we meet again, however and wherever that is. That is of course, if God or the spirits don’t hold grudges and if the Universe isn’t sore for my tantrum in the driveway all those years ago.

We made it, gentlemen.

In memory of

Dave Mickelson

and

Jim Torpen

Old Coaches, Depression and Warrior Mentality

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It was during the fifth day of my third inpatient treatment, fresh off a four day detox, when my newly appointed counselor looked up from her assessment notes, and asked,  “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

We had been sitting in her office for what seemed like days. She asked me questions about everything from my friends and family to my drug of choice to thoughts and feelings.  I didn’t really give much thought to the answers until she asked the one about depression.  Up until then I had never been screened or diagnosed with anything.  I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction after all, and not for depression.  I had no idea at that time that depression was real and that addiction and depression could be related.

The only time I’d ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist up until that time was after I wound up in my first detox stay and weekend hold, and that was only to assess whether or not I was a danger to myself.  The night I ended up in that detox, I had been out with some friends one evening and, as was the norm, I drank too much.  What wasn’t the norm -at least at that time- was that during a blackout I threatened people’s lives (including my own), and I was apparently unhinged enough that my Dad had to hold me face down in the yard, after one of the times I fell, until the policeman in town and the ambulance arrived.  I still remember, many years later, Mom crying and Dad apologizing to me as he held me down to protect me from myself.  It turns out that a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit agreed neither with my mind nor my body, and it didn’t do much for the people around me, either.

Back to my counselor and the assessment.  In hindsight, that question, and her insight and willingness to ask after it had been missed in previous interventions, probably did a lot to save my life.  She connected me with a doctor in the area who had a lot of experience with patients with co-occurring disorders, patients with two different issues going on at the same time.  In my case they were addiction (substance use disorder) and a suspected depression.  The result of our meeting was that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I learned as we continued to meet that it is something that I had lived with as far back into my childhood as I could remember.

 

When I was diagnosed with depression, I felt two completely different emotions at once, or within  seconds.  When the doctor described the diagnosis and some of the symptoms and how they may explain some of the deep, dark things I was going through at that time, I felt an enormous amount of relief.  There was a name for it.  It was something I didn’t have to (if I so chose) hide anymore.  There was help.  There was treatment.  There was hope.  Then, an instant later, a feeling of dread washed in like a wave on a beach, ruining the neat little sand castle of hope that my mind had built on the shore during that few seconds of relief.  Dread, of course, due to the realization that now not only would I have to fight a drug and alcohol addiction that was raising hell in every facet of my life, while I seemed almost eager to aid in the destruction any way I could, there was another enemy to fight in depression.  However, what I learned over time was that the dread was unnecessary.  It wasn’t really a new opponent.  It was a new label.  I used to describe it with words like “empty” or “dark.”  From that point on, it just had a new name.

All this happened many years ago now, around the time of the big antidepressant boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and over the years I was prescribed everything under the sun which was thought to ease depression, rewire the brain or to help balance brain chemicals, with varying success.  Back then, antidepressant medications were everywhere and were thought to be real life savers for people with mental health issues, issues that up until that time were often not spoken about, even between family members, close friends or spouses.  Depression, anxiety and the like were often seen as weaknesses, and they could be fixed much like addiction, with new routines, added diligence and more will power.  There was a long-standing stigma to mental health issues, and sadly, some of that still exists.

That day in treatment was many years ago now, and although it marked a turning point for me in my battle with addiction and depression, I wasn’t able to achieve long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs for some time after this.  At that time, I counted it a failure, my not staying clean after that treatment experience.  But I’ve learned in the almost 18 years of recovery since that it wasn’t a failure, and I didn’t lose the war.  I lost a battle.  There is a huge difference.

There is a question often posed in treatment and recovery circles, and for people with co-occurring disorders, about which disorder came first, a chicken or egg thing, I guess.  Some people claim their depressive disorder or anxiety disorders are brought on by addiction.  Some say trauma makes one or both likely, in either order.  In my case it is clear cut.  I’ve never wondered about it.  Depression, the “empty,” was a tenant in my head long before addiction was, but they seemed to feed off each other once I found alcohol and then drugs.  I look back at some of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in my life at that time, and I wonder, among other things, how some of them didn’t lose their sense of reality in what must have been a heavy storm for them, or lash out at me in fear or frustration, which they did not. In the end people in my life at that time had two choices: they could stay and eventually become pulled into the ongoing chaos, or they could save themselves and leave.  Sometimes I left because even early on, the alcohol and drug use had become a full time job, which didn’t leave much room for anything else.  I was continually trying to kill the depression and fill the empty with chemicals, and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s another story for another time.

“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but  vitality.”   -Andrew Solomon

Today, I still battle depression and it is all a part of daily recovery.  It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t kid myself thinking that it ever will.  There are days when I am pretty sure I can take on the world and come out of it okay, while there are still days that are quite the opposite.  There are days when I cope well and there are days when I act like a pissed off four year old in the midst of a sugar crash.  I’ve seen people tougher than me die from addiction and depression, and I’ve seen people overcome odds that seem impossible.

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to adopt and adapt my mindset as my journey continues, and I learn from a lot of inspiring, motivating people who battle their opponents daily.  Even words, terms and my perspectives on things have changed along the way.  Words have meaning, and I don’t share the following to upset anyone else on their journey with addiction recovery or mental health recovery.  I share it because it is important to me, and it has been important in my recovery from both.  Earlier I said I battle depression, and that is what I mean. I used to struggle with addiction.  I used to suffer from depression.  Today, I battle it, and that simple change in terms and perspective has been invaluable in the way I approach recovery.  I don’t suffer from it.  I don’t struggle with it.  I don’t bow down to it.  I don’t use it as a crutch.  I battle it, and I prepare, not as a victim or prisoner, but as a warrior.

 

When I was growing up, my classmates and I had the privilege of playing different sports at a small school for three coaches who would later end up in their respective coaching halls of fame.  Each of the three had vastly different coaching styles, huge knowledge bases and experience, and unique ways of communicating their knowledge and developing skill.   There was also the belief that we were never out of a game, no matter the score, if there was still time left on the clock.  I recall arriving at film studies and chalk talks and being met at the door with scouting reports that were so thorough and film that was so dissected that we knew more about the teams we were going to play than they knew about themselves.  Although I have borrowed a lot from their teachings and applied them to my life over the years, the one thing that stands out above all else was their preparation and attention to detail, and they were masters at both.

Perspective and preparation have gone hand in hand in my battle with depression and journey through recovery. As someone who suffered or struggled, I spent a lot of time reacting, playing defense, and waiting for my opponent’s next attack.  I was always tired, and it seemed I could never really plan or enjoy anything because I could never really be sure when the next wave would hit, and I didn’t do a good job preparing for it either way.  That isn’t to say that thinking about an obstacle differently somehow changes the obstacle.  In my experience, it doesn’t.  It changes me.

Today I have a scouting report on my opponent and I use it.  Today I better understand my skills and abilities as they pertain to battling depression and continuing the journey of recovery.  I have family and friends, I have hope and the gift of today.  I can share my experience in hopes of helping others, when for years I kept it all hidden.  Adopting a kind of warrior mentality and having the mindset that my opponent is beatable has truly made all the difference.

 

 

On Pep Talks and Beating Goliath

Several years ago, as I was nearing the end of a substance abuse counseling internship, I was asked to deliver a graduation message at the correctional treatment facility where I had been working. The message would be a small part of the ceremony for a group of inmates I had had the privilege of working with who had successfully completed the treatment program there and were nearing release. I got to spend a lot of time with the men in the program and I learned a lot about not only their offenses, their sentences and their addictions, but about them as people- their hobbies, their families, and sometimes their hopes and dreams. They were all very different people in age, class, profession and ideology. Most of the time it seemed that the only thing they had in common, really, was that they all new their release dates and they were all dealing with the consequences brought by their addictions.

By the day of the graduation I felt confident that I had put together a half way decent message. As the ceremony began, the large commons room was filled with different staff members of the prison, invited guests and family members from the outside, and the graduating men. A few minutes before I was to speak, I snuck one last peak down at my cards to make sure I had them all, and had them all in order, when a staff member sat down beside me. This staff member had been at the prison for many years and, from everything I had seen up to that point, was everything one could imagine in someone who provides addiction treatment. "Don't waste your time on a pep talk, it won't do any good." Then, just as quickly and quietly as they had sat down, they were gone.

Webster's Dictionary says that a pep talk is, "a usually brief, intense, and emotional talk designed to influence or encourage an audience."

I remember that to this day, and I often think about how it pertains, in the way of pep talks or outside motivation, to me and my own recovery journey. And why some people give up, when others don't. No matter the reason for the statement -whether brought on by frustration, bias, fatigue, hostility, or any other reason- I realized it said much more about the professional in that instant than it did any of the offenders. Truth be told, it gave me a resolve that I have hung on to since then that I would counterbalance that attitude in the universe by never betting against the possibility of recovery, no matter what the odds seem to be. Because if you've been around addiction and recovery long enough, you know that David can beat Goliath.

Back to that day. I remember most of it vividly. It was quite an event, complete with a powerful Native American drum ceremony, words of congratulations and celebration, gratitude and excitement, held together with reminders about vigilance and caution. My little talk? I don't think it qualified as much of a pep talk, and to be honest, it is one of the things I remember least about the whole day. What I do remember is the people. I remember people who were thrown together in what wasn't a beach-side. five-star resort-type rehab, to work on their problems, to pay their debts and to try to change their lives and to help those who were in the same predicament. A common goal. I sometimes wonder about those graduates and how their lives have turned out in the years that have come and gone since then. I wonder if they are still in recovery despite the obstacles many of them faced, and I am always hopeful that they are able to accept and enjoy and share the gifts that come with recovery from addiction.

In the end, we don’t need to be Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant or Pat Summitt or John Wooden to make an impact. I guess we just need to be whatever it is that we are. When we show others we believe in them and we are pulling for them, often just by showing up, especially after they’ve fallen or are in a tough spot, we can spark hope. And hope is the foundation of not only recovery, but in the conquering of all things once thought impossible.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Addiction

I have been in the addiction and recovery arena in one way or another for almost 30 years.  About half of that time was spent battling addiction personally, in and out of treatment centers and detoxes, with fleeting stints of sobriety. The other roughly half of that time has been in continuous, sustained recovery.  During my time in recovery, I’ve been able to see things from the eyes of someone who struggles with addiction, someone who has his own recovery path and someone who has spent time as a substance abuse counselor.  My attitudes and biases have naturally changed as I have grown and gained knowledge, which seems to be a requirement if one is to defeat an enemy who is constantly at the gate.  Here are five things I have learned about addiction.

ADDICTION IS ONE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD ILLNESSES ON THE PLANET. There is an old saying that has to do with alcoholics being around since man first learned to crush grapes.  If you believe that as I do, that covers many centuries. In more recent times, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded somewhere around 1935, and the American Medical Association declared alcohol addiction an illness 1956.  If my math is right, that is 85 years and 64 years ago, respectively.  One would think that with all of the technological, scientific and sociological advances made during that time, we would have a better handle on the symptoms, causes, treatments and recovery paths for something so destructive.  And we would have a better view of the illness as an illness, and not a punch line, a head shake or an opportunity for horrible advice.
Yet, addiction is still widely misunderstood, even in 2020.  Doctors prescribe treatment they believe will help, yet medical professionals have over prescribed opiates to the point of being one of the catalysts to an epidemic.  The War on Drugs has gone on for over 45 years and has cost well over a trillion dollars, with really no meaningful, positive change.  In fact, the War On Drugs has been called an abject failure, but that is another post for another day. I promise.
Family members, friends and coworkers close to someone with a substance use disorder are often heard saying, “I wish they’d just quit this nonsense,” or “If they would just stick to beer.”  Movies portray addicts in ways that seem to exaggerate the symptoms to make a point.  Even the news media is involved.  It is not uncommon (in my area is it very common) for the local news to report on a burglary, high speed chase, standoff, or some other crime where charges result in, among other things, possession of heroin, methamphetamine and/or THC. These are just a few examples, and I’m not picking on anyone.

In modern society, we fix things with pills, when often pills are what get us into trouble in the first place.  (Don’t believe me?  Two words: television commercials.)  Family members, friends and coworkers also mean well, and often travel to the ends of the earth, and to the edge of sanity and well passed exhaustion, to help.  But, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, sometimes we contribute to the muddying of the waters and don’t do well to separate the myth from the truth concerning addiction, treatment and recovery.
All too often, if something is said enough times, if we see it in the news or on social media enough, even if it is completely wrong, it somehow becomes truth (see: politics). Stigma is a huge issue that perpetuates the myths concerning addiction.  Underfunding by our national, state and local governments is another barrier in the understanding of addiction, the reduction of stigma and the availability of treatment for those who struggle.  We can do better.

ADDICTION COSTS A LOT.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse in the U.S. to alcohol and drugs costs over $520 billion annually. Let me say that again. FIVE HUNDRED-TWENTY BILLION DOLLARS per year.  The Institute includes crime, lost work productivity and healthcare costs in its numbers, while the healthcare numbers alone are $27 billion for alcohol and roughly $11 billion for illicit (illegal) drugs and $26 billion for prescription opiates.  (The cost concerning opiates will surely go up as new data is processed and becomes available.)  To put that into perspective, the cost of the effects of tobacco use and addiction in the U.S. costs roughly $300 billion a year, with over half of that ($168 billion) being healthcare costs.  Not only is addiction and its consequences costly for the person who struggles and for those close to that person, it is also a huge drain on our economy. Imagine if we spent anywhere near that on education, intervention and treatment accessibility and availability. And what if we spent money to develop prevention programs that work?

ADDICTION IS NOT A CHOICE.  I grew up in a small town in a neat neighborhood. My sister and I had lots of friends within a few blocks and the neighborhood was always alive with activity. Some of us wanted to be doctors when we grew up. Others wanted to be cowboys. Princesses. Astronauts. Dirt bike riders. Mechanics. Nurses.  Sometimes our future career choices depended on the popular TV shows or movies of the day. At the risk of dating myself, I’ll stay clear of listing those here.  But, of all the kids in my the neighborhood where I grew up, not once did anyone ever say they wanted to grow up to be an addict.
Addiction is a primary, progressive illness. It can travel alone or, as it often does, it can occur with other conditions like depression, anxiety disorder and so on.  It’s also impossible to predict with certainty who will become addicted to alcohol or other drugs or when it might occur. But there are some risk factors including genetics, age of onset (use), a preceding mental illness and trauma.
People make the choice to abuse, that is, to use a substance to gain a desired affect. People choose to binge drink. People choose to take pills or take a various array of other chemicals in many ways to gain or lose something in their lives, even temporarily, and I’m sure you’ve heard some of these reasons. To lose boredom. To gain excitement. To gain energy. To lose sadness. To lose stress. To gain camaraderie. To gain concentration. To lose weight. We could go on and on. But people choose, whether it is drinking to access, or to double a prescription dose, or to smoke, sniff or inject a substance. Obviously, we all make choices, and sometimes those choices have far reaching consequences. However, to make the connection that since one chooses to abuse, one then also chooses addiction, is irresponsible and really lazy. We choose to abuse. But we don’t choose to become addicts.

ADDICTION IS TERMINAL IF LEFT UNTREATED.  The American Medical Association classifies addiction as a disease and follows a disease model, much the way it classifies diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  The AMA also says that causes are sometimes determined by biological, environmental and behavioral factors. There is much debate about addiction as a disease or an illness, and a quick Google search can open up all sorts of thoughts and ideas on what addiction is to different people and organizations.  Here is where I usually ask people to do all the research they can. Ask questions, reach out. Find credible sources. Think critically.
This July will mark 18 years of continuous long term recovery from alcohol and drugs for me, but I believe truly and completely that I am only in remission.  One drink or drug will surely activate my illness.  You may ask how I know that. I gained valuable yet costly, first-hand experience on relapse personally before I gained long term recovery, and I’ve watched countless others do the same.
NIDA defines addiction as, “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
There are other definitions that echo this idea, some are quite long and more in depth.  For simplicity’s sake, I like to use this definition, and it describes my own addiction, and the addictions of the countless others I have met over the years, perfectly: “Addiction is chronic, and as such will get worse and never better over time if left untreated.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 88,000 people in the U.S. die each year from alcohol-related causes.  The CDC estimated that in 2017, there were over 72,000 opiate overdose deaths, which included both prescription and illicit drugs. To put that number in some sort of perspective, that was 197 people per day, every day, in 2017, from opiates alone.

ADDICTION IS BEATABLE.  Now that we have all that other stuff out of the way, we can get to the good stuff. Addiction is treatable, it is beatable, and you or someone you love can get their lives back. There are millions of people around the world who celebrate long term recovery. For all the data involving the negative aspects of addiction, there is also data on recovery. There are many pathways to recovery, and each path is as unique as the individual who makes the journey, and there have never been more pathways to recovery than in years past.  Recovery from addiction is possible, and there are millions of us who are proof of that, and there is plenty of room for millions more.
One of the most basic keys to recovery is that it is self-directed, meaning that the person recovering is in charge of determining the path he or she will follow.  Of course, there is much help out there to help guide along the path, or even to help one make the decision of which path to follow. The intervention someone who struggles with a substance use disorder receives, meaning the interruption of behavior, whether family, law enforcement contact, medical, or self-directed, can come in many forms.  Whatever form that intervention comes in, considering consequences, can be the foundation for an effective plan for recovery.
This is certainly not an unabridged, comprehensive reference guide on addiction. These are merely a few things I have learned along the way. There are many resources available online to learn more about addiction treatment, recovery groups, detoxification when needed, and often a medical professional can assist in finding the best option and level of care

5 Things I’ve Learned About Relapse

You or someone you know had a few weeks or months, or even years of recovery. Things appeared to be going well. Lives were getting back in order. The past was becoming just that. Things were good, or better than good. Then it came seemingly out of nowhere. Relapse. The hope, the ability to breathe easy -the overall feeling that things were getting better- were torn away. It seems that all the effort put into getting help and working hard to gain recovery was all for nothing.

But does relapse erase any previous growth or success? Here are five things I’ve learned about relapse from being around addiction in one way or another for 30 years.

Relapse Sucks. For the person struggling with addiction, relapse sucks. For the people around him or her, relapse also sucks. Rebuilt trust crumbles, restful nights once again turn sleepless. Every time the phone rings, it brings with it a dose of panic. These things are common for a spouse or significant other, friends and family members, clergy, counseling professionals, coworkers, neighbors or anyone else involved with the wellbeing of someone who struggles with substance use disorder. But, as someone who survived more than one relapse before I found long term recovery, there are some things to consider.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean You Suck. My experience with relapse came with a boat load of shame. Because I relapsed, I was not only defective, I was broken. Bad. I believed somehow that I deserved addiction and therefore didn’t deserve recovery. Shame is toxic, devoid of any constructive use whatsoever, and in my case, shame prolonged my active addiction and complicated recovery efforts. Shame, quite simply, kills.
Early on, I hadn’t come to grips with the idea that I was battling an illness or disease. What I believed was that because I couldn’t control my drinking or drug use and kept using even in the face of worsening negative consequences, there was something unfixable within me. Today I know that to be false. I didn’t choose to be an addict. No one does. Not you, not your parent, not your husband, daughter, cousin or the guy down the street. I’ve been around this stuff for a long time and I’ve never heard anyone once say that their life’s dream was to become an addict.

Relapse Isn’t a Spur of the Moment Thing. Regarding drinking and drug use, we’ve all heard about people who “slipped,” or “fell off the wagon,” after some time without using chemicals. Along my winding path to sustained abstinence and long term recovery, I used the same language to describe my relapses, usually to my own benefit, to explain to others that I got drunk out of no where after some clean time. In reality what I was doing was trying somehow to magically reduce my responsibility in the whole matter. I was doing great. Then, all of a sudden, I drank! I know, weird, right?

Looking back, I never “slipped.” It never came out of no where. I was never blind sided by a return to using. Instead, there were always doors I had left open or things I hadn’t done, whether intentionally or not, to make it easier to return to using. I kept old friends and relationships. I kept going to parties and bars under the guise of being a “designated driver.” I thought I could handle it. I wasn’t always honest with myself about how serious my addiction was. I daydreamed about using again and thought usually of only positive consequences. When I did think about the negative possibilities, I often minimized, rationalized or denied them. What I was doing was setting myself up for relapse.

Hearing relapse stories, studying relapse, surviving my own relapses and working with others through theirs, experience says that what seems to be a “slip” can usually (if not always) be traced back to something done, or left undone, during early recovery.

Relapse… Happens. Data shows that people with substance use disorders relapse at a rate comparable to people with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma or hypertension, according to the National Institute of Health.

Relapse Can Be A Good Recovery Tool. I would never, ever, never, ever advocate for someone to relapse back to using or anything close to that. Some people don’t make it back from relapse and we face an illness with often heavy negative consequences.
But a point to make about relapse is the idea that it doesn’t always mean using, if you believe relapse is a process, just as recovery is. More often than not, however, the act of using or drinking is what is talked about, because that is when relapse is most easily identifiable. For example, if someone in recovery would stop doing the things they did to get sober, say, if they were to quit going to therapy or meetings, that would be something to look at and find answers for. If he or she were to go back to doing some of the same things they did while in active addiction -hang out in bars, hang out with old using friends, spend a lot of time thinking about the “old days”- they may be areas to highlight as well. A new or reestablished negative outlook (they used to call it “stinkin’ thinkin’), money being spent, whereabouts being unaccounted for… These are just a few quick examples, and when identified and corrected, can help establish a new, improved plan of attack in recovery.

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This, of course, is in no way a comprehensive list of ideas regarding relapse. It is merely a quick sketch of things I have picked up along the way. There are many things to learn from relapse that can help forge a path to long term recovery. Recovery is a journey and relapse can be part of that journey, but it doesn’t have to be the end of it.