Saturday, October 15, 2016

Late-Night/Early-Morning Gratitude

I'm not sure exactly what time it was--I'm guessing maybe 1:00 or 2:00am--when I got up to pee in the middle of the night last night. (Something us middle-aged men do a lot of. Also, should I be concerned that this is my second blog post in a row that talks about urine?)

While I was in the bathroom, I heard a loud voice coming in from the slightly open window. My first thought was that my younger son and a couple of friends he had over were being loud in the family room, but I wanted to be sure before I went downstairs to tell them to lower the volume a notch.

So I opened the window a little more and listened.

What I heard wasn't the voice of a 20-something male. Instead it was a 30-something female neighbor who lives in a house on the street behind us. She was obviously out on her deck, on her cell phone, having a frantic conversation with someone.

I didn't listen long, but I didn't have to in order to understand what was bothering this woman so much: She found out her husband is having an affair.

She told the person on the other end of the conversation that she discovered some incriminating texts on her husband's phone. And that her husband's office smelled like...well, let's just say "sex." She also wondered why her husband would "want it" from someone so unattractive, saying "I wouldn't mind so much if she was hot."

I only listened to this conversation for about 30 seconds, but that was probably too long. And I probably shouldn't be writing about it either. But I can't help it. Because hearing this conversation--which was, by the way, loud and clear despite the fact that there are hundreds of feet between my upstairs bathroom window and this woman's deck--made me feel two things.

1.) I felt incredibly bad for the woman. She just had a baby a few months ago and now her world is shattering around her. I can't imagine how that must feel. I even told my wife today that we should ask the woman over for dinner. But we don't know her, so such an invitation coming from out of the blue would likely be pretty suspicious.

2.) When I finished peeing, I couldn't help but go back to bed feeling overwhelmingly grateful. Grateful that I have an amazing wife, and that our marriage--which is almost 28 years young now--is rock solid. I can't imagine ever being with anyone else; and I'm pretty sure my wife feels the same way.

Life is a challenge, for sure. My wife and I have encountered a whole lot of difficult situations that we never expected. But we've navigated our way through them the best way we know how. As a result, our relationship has grown stronger. And I'm forever grateful for that.

Like my friend Matthew Ryan likes to say, "Teamwork makes the dream work." And marriage is the ultimate team game.

I'm keeping the neighbor behind me in my thoughts and prayers today. I hope she can find some peace in her world sooner rather than later. No one should ever have to feel what she was feeling late last night/early this morning.

"A good marriage is where both people feel like they're getting the better end of the deal." --Anne Lamott

Me with my (way) better half.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Of Depression, Parenting, and...Cat Pee

It's been a difficult week in my world.

On Tuesday, a Facebook friend of mine's status update was, in fact, a suicide note. It started with "I began to think about ending my life several weeks ago" and ended with "I'm tired. SO I got the gun, loaded it up, and blew my head off." Despite a long thread of comments begging and pleading this person to please, please, please reconsider taking his own life, he went through with it. Now a teenage girl is left without a father.

On Wednesday, another Facebook friend posted that her 21-year-old son had gone missing. He left the house for school at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and hasn't been heard from since. They found the car he drove to school, but that's about it. It's a parent's worst nightmare and I'm praying hard for a happy ending for this family.

On top of those two things, my older son is still stuck in a major depressive episode. I know I recently wrote that I wasn't going to focus on my son and his issues in my blog posts anymore, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention his ongoing struggle.

Pardon my language, but depression is a fucking bitch, and like addiction it's a family disease. When one of your children is battling depression and talks about wanting to die more than they talk about wanting to live, you can't help but be consumed by it. Especially when that child refuses to try so many things that could possibly help them feel better.

Depression is a black hole of despair. When someone is in it, it's so incredibly hard for them to think there could be a way out. So they build walls around themselves and isolate. Deep down inside, they may actually want help, but they firmly believe that nothing will make a difference; so they don't even try. It doesn't matter how much you love and encourage them. The circular thinking--I want help but nothing will help me so why try anything because it won't help?--is maddening to the people who care the most.

Especially parents.

Yesterday my wife and I took one of our cats to the vet for a check-up because the cats in our house have been acting kind of strange for a while. (For what it's worth, our cats fit perfectly into our family. One of them even takes birth control pills for dogs to help him with a chemical imbalance in his brain.) We got to talking with the doctor about changes in our household environment that may be influencing the cats' behavior and mentioned that our son was back living at home and going through a major depression.

When he heard that, the doctor paused for a moment. He then told us that he had lost his oldest son, who also struggled with addiction, to suicide. We had a good conversation about addiction, depression, stigma, and how it all impacts the entire family. He said our cats may be acting weird because our son is home and feeling so low. And because our son is feeling bad, my wife and I are affected, too. ("You're only as happy as your saddest child," the doctor reminded us. Ain't that the truth.) Cats can sense when the humans they love aren't at their best, and that can sometimes lead to some bizarre feline behavior.

I confess: I don't like cleaning up cat pee from the basement floor or the front hallway. But in the grand scheme of things, it's just a minor inconvenience. So I'll keep doing it as long as I have to. Perhaps the cats' stray peeing will stop if my son can somehow find his way back to a happier place. I know he can do it. But until he decides he can do it--and I hope and pray he will eventually get to that point--I will keep the paper towels and disinfectant close at hand.

"I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore." --Anne Lamott

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Eight Years Without Alcohol

Today marks eight years since I decided to quit drinking alcohol.

On September 10, 2008, I decided to give up drinking to be an example for my son, who at the time was in residential treatment for heroin addiction. Even though I never considered myself to be a "full blown" alcoholic, my son's struggle with addiction was a struggle for me, too. Instead of drinking wine because I enjoyed it, I started drinking it to numb the negative feelings I was experiencing. Not a good thing.

Given my family history, which is riddled with alcoholism, I'm pretty sure I would've ended up in a horrible place if the family therapist at my son's rehab hadn't told me:

"Be the change you want to see in your son."

It's clear to me now that even though I originally quit drinking as an act of solidarity, I likely saved my life by doing it.

I'll admit that life without alcohol was a little strange at first, because the society we live in puts so much emphasis on drinking. "Everything's better with alcohol!" is the advertising message that bombards us constantly. But that's just not true. Alcohol is sooooo overrated. And, as I tell a lot of people on the addiction/recovery forums I moderate, being sober is only as dull and boring as you make it. Believe me: My life has been way more fun without alcohol than it ever was with it.

So what's the hardest part about living a sober life? For me, it's dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life without having a beer or a glass (or--ahem--a bottle) of wine to "take the edge off" when things get a little overwhelming. A sober life is life at it's 100 percent, full-strength best...and worst. There are ups and downs and you just have to learn to deal with whatever is thrown at you. Thankfully, I've learned to accept that whether things are really good or really bad, they won't last. Things are constantly changing because life is funny that way.

I used to totally suck at dealing with change. I've gotten a lot better at it, but occasionally it's still really hard for me. For example, the other night--which happened to be my birthday--I was feeling super stressed out. A home repair I spent a couple of hours on that afternoon didn't go exactly how I wanted it to. Coupled with some family issues that have been weighing on me for a few weeks, the stupid home repair thing put my stress level over the top, and I was struggling. Big time.

On a day that was supposed to be chock full of happiness, our awesome neighbors had invited us over for pizza and root beer to celebrate my birthday. But I just couldn't go. I wanted to go. But instead I decided to crawl into bed at 8:00pm and decompress. In the past, I may have had a glass of wine or a beer to calm myself down and then gone on with the evening as planned. But these days I cope with things differently.

And that's okay.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Checks Are in the Mail!

My wife and I finally got all the information we needed to send out the scholarship checks for the winners of this year's My Life As 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. The checks are in the mail! The University of Michigan will be receiving a $1,500 check to apply to Carolyn Robbins's tuition and Arcadia University will be receiving $550 to apply to Katie Walker's tuition. Both of these young women are so incredibly deserving of their prizes.

As good as it makes me feel to have been able to put this contest on for the second consecutive year, the odds of it happening again next year are most likely slim and none. Helping fund college scholarships when you've been without a full-time job for almost three years isn't easy. If something changes, though--i.e., I'm able to find some sort of real job in the next few months--I will definitely consider a third year for the contest. I truly want to keep assisting college students who have been impacted by a sibling's addiction, but I can't afford to go (further) into the red doing it. I guess we'll see what happens.

Thanks again to all the college students who entered the contest; to the judges; and to everyone who took the time to read the amazing essays written by Carolyn and Katie. And special thanks to the 24 generous donors who contributed to the cause. Kathy and I couldn't have done it without you.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rediscovering the Local Library

The library has become my home away from home. Well, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But I have been to the library more times in the last month (twice!) than I had been in the previous couple of years...combined. And I like it.

Being underemployed and working as a freelance writer/addiction forum moderator/social media person/whatever-the-hell-it-is-that-I-do has its challenges. One of the biggest challenges--right after not making nearly enough money--is working from home every single day.

Don't get me wrong. I love my home. My wife and I have lived there for 11 (or is it 12?) years now, and after a lot of family chaos during the first several years we've finally settled in and are quite comfortable in our space. Even so, sitting around the house EVERY SINGLE DAY, whether you're working or chilling, can drive a person a little bit stir crazy. And over the last couple of months that stir craziness has started to eat away at me.

So I've started coming to the local library for a change of scenery. They just remodeled this place and it's pretty nice. Lots of comfy chairs, lots of plug outlets, very fast free WiFi, etc. All the things I need to get my work done. (They have a shitload of books, too.) There aren't any cats, which takes some getting used to. But there are lots of little kids running around, which also takes some getting used to.

All things considered, the change is pleasant. Hearing kids laughing and newspaper pages turning while I sit and write is a nice respite from hearing the air conditioning cycle on and off and being forced to listen to power mowers, edgers, and leaf blowers spew their noise pollution throughout the neighborhood. (Not to mention the sounds of the occasional cat fight.)

If I get bored or need a break from writing, I can even wander off and find reference books on the shelves that have my name in them, which is one of the perks (I guess) of having worked for a publishing company for almost 25 years.

I'm at the library right now, and when I left the house a little while ago, with my little computer bag packed full of my stuff, I actually felt like I was going somewhere. It was almost like I was going to work. Which I was. Kind of. I think.

If you haven't been to your local library in a while, I highly recommend you go. I had forgotten how badass libraries are. Before I leave today, I might do something really crazy. Like check out a book.

P.S. Wait. Libraries don't have snack bars??!??!?!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Crying on the Way Home from Costco

It's been just over a week since I announced some changes to this blog. In a nutshell, I've taken the focus off of my son and will be blogging more about addiction, recovery, mental health, and just life in general. So if you don't abandon this blog entirely, you'll likely end up reading about some of the things I'm passionate about, like cooking, music, or helping others. Or you might get stuck reading about things that happen to me in my everyday life. Like this post about something that happened earlier today.

This morning I decided to go to Costco to pick up a beef brisket flat to smoke sometime over the next few days. My wife and I are having an event at our house on October 7th and I've committed to smoking brisket for the occasion. Since I've only smoked brisket a handful of times since I bought a smoker a couple of years ago, I decided I'd do a practice run. It can't hurt, right? As I told my wife, "I want to do a test run before the actual cook," which sounded very Walter White-ish.

Off to Costco I went, which is always an adventure and a challenge. Trying to get out of that store without spending your entire checking account should be an Olympic event. Could that advertising tagline I see Costco using on Facebook be any more spot-on?

"Go for what you need, leave with what you love."


Despite my best intentions of going to Costco and only buying a beef brisket, I did end up leaving with more than I came for. But not that much more. The only additional items I caved to were a 4-pack box of organic Triscuits (on sale!) and two pairs of Levi's (one for me and one for my wife). I consider that pretty damn good for a Costco run.

On the drive home from Costco I was feeling fine. The sun was shining and I had Matthew Ryan's May Day album blasting on the stereo. I even gave the "homeless" person at the top of the freeway exit ramp a dollar, which I never do. (I use quotation marks around homeless because I don't think the guy is actually homeless; I think panhandling might just be his job. But I could be wrong.)

But as I started traversing the surface streets on the last leg of my ride home, something unexpected happened: I started crying. And this wasn't just an I-feel-sad-so-I'm-gonna-get-a-little-teary-eyed kind of cry. It was a full-on tears-running-down-both-of-my-cheeks-while-I-bawl-like-a-baby cry.

I started crying, out of the blue.

Now I'll be the first one to admit that I cry on a pretty regular basis. Not every other day or anything like that, but at least a few times a month. I find absolutely nothing wrong with crying, or with a man crying (God forbid!). Like Anne Lamott writes, "I cry intermittently, like a summer rain. I don't feel racked by the crying; in fact, it hydrates me."

Crying helps me. It always has. I consider crying to be my body's way of cleansing itself of an overload of emotions. Most of the time those emotions are negative, but I've cried a lot of happy tears, too. Regardless of what I'm feeling, if I'm feeling too much of it, crying always helps. So much so that back when I had an actual job and I was going through some tough times at home, I would book a conference room on occasion just so I could go sit and cry in private. (You've gotta do what you've gotta do.)

There was no particular reason why I started crying on the way home from Costco. I think it was just an accumulation of some very emotional stuff that's been going on in my life for the last few weeks. I was feeling too much, and my body decided it would open the relief valve and let the excess emotion out.

My cry only lasted a minute or two, but damn--it made me feel rejuvenated.

My penchant for crying might be strange for a 54-year-old man. I don't really know, and I don't really care. I'm an emotional person, and I'd rather "cry it out" than keep everything bottled up inside. Lord knows that's not healthy. I also kind of wonder where I picked up my crying gene (is that a thing?), because I never saw my dad cry. Never ever. I can't even imagine my dad crying. That just wouldn't have been manly. Come to think of it, I don't think I witnessed any grown man cry until I was in my mid-20s and saw my mom's father cry when his wife died.

My grandfather was overwhelmed with emotion. He felt too much and he cried to let it out. I'm so glad I got to see that, because it taught me something about life:

There's nothing wrong with crying. No matter who you are.

"Do not apologize for crying. Without this emotion, we are only robots." --Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

Friday, August 5, 2016

Runner-Up Essay: "Two Years" by Katie Walker

This is the second-place essay in the 2016 My Life As 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. Our runner-up this year is Katie Walker of Clay, Michigan. She is a student at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where she is studying political science. Katie will receive $550 to help pay her tuition costs this coming year.

Two Years
By Katie Walker

I don't want you to die thinking that I hate you, but I'm afraid it will happen. I don't want you in my life anymore, but I still love you. I’ll admit, there was a time when I didn't care if you lived or died--at least I told myself so--but I was really angry with you. It felt like you'd ruined everything and I really thought we were going to lose our nephew. Sometimes it's still really difficult not to blame you for Joel's mom leaving--you did have a meth-crazed affair together, after all. You did bring an armed drug dealer into our house who threatened to shoot all of us, including the baby. But, most of the time, I miss you. I miss you, not the addiction. I wonder where you end and where the addiction starts. Are you still the little boy who won the lead in the community play, singing "Reach for the Stars"?

Writing this, I realize it has been two years since I last spoke to you. You've tried to contact me. You still tell Mom to say hello to me. You still tell me you are proud of me through comments on Mom's Facebook page, even though you've gotten nothing in return. I'm sorry I'm still mad. I'm sorry I can't be there for you.

Katie with her brother.
For the last four years, I've watched your addiction consume Mom. That's not your fault, she is free to make her own decisions, but it still hurts to see. In my angrier stages, I couldn't understand why she kept "wasting" Dad's money on you, in and out of rehab every few months, and every few months you'd relapse, bringing some other druggie to my grandmother's house to overdose in her bed, or a band of troublemakers to the party of a friend of mine where they could destroy his house, spray painting the walls and starting fights. Sometimes, I think maybe she is a better person than I am, for never giving up on you, no matter how many reasons you give. I'm not always so sure, though. It took a lot of effort to let go and live my own life, to accept the brother I once had wasn’t there anymore and didn’t seem to want to be. Or is that even true?

Addiction is such a mess. Who are you? What actions were you and what actions were addiction? Who lives in your body now?

It's hard to believe the boy who tried teaching me to skateboard, who inspired me to try out for the theater, who shared such wonderful music with me is still inside of that body. It's hard to see that person when you steal from me and our parents, when you punch holes in walls in drunken rages, when you take advantage of our grandma's hospitality and unconditional love, taking her money and turning her home into your own personal drug house. I'll never forget it, and I don't know if I can forgive it.

I know you will read this and think I'm a monster, a selfish person who abandoned a loved one who needed me. Sometimes, that's how I feel, but I would not give up the life I lead now. I love that, without you poisoning my life, without fearing to come home, I can be there for people who want help, and help myself. Did you know I felt like I had to hide my depression and suicidal thoughts because Mom and Dad were preoccupied with trying to keep you and your girlfriend clean? That was a fun birthday. My 21st. Mom and I were on our way to Red Lobster to chow down on crab legs, as was our ritual. I told her then. I couldn't stop wanting to die. I couldn't stop wanting to escape. No, don't worry. It wasn't just you, but your violent outbursts certainly didn't help. Seeing my hero fall certainly didn't give me hope.

Two months later, I had an escape plan. I wouldn't be trapped in that house with you anymore. I'd get out, by just any means necessary. Even living in a house with no appliances and no heat in the middle of winter. Living with you was terrible. Having no heat was better, for the time being.

Yet, still I tried to be your friend. I remember visiting you a few months later in your three-quarter house. We went to see a concert, and I was excited to have a night of clean fun with you and your friends. I was happy to bring people who you used to love to come see you. Maybe that was a mistake. Old habits die hard, I guess.

I know it's been hard for you. I've watched you go through withdrawal, and lied for you to family friends, hiding what was happening because everything was still so fresh. I've gone to meetings with you. I lived with you for a time during your recovery and I've seen you cycle through stages of determination and depression. I did everything I thought I could to distract you from your symptoms. You taught me guitar; we planned art projects; we did whatever we could do that didn't involve substances. It hurt to find out that you'd been sneaking liquor, beer, and heroin the entire time. I thought we were doing well, but then you kept nodding off. I guess you weren't ready. I needed you to be ready.

Katie and her brother as young siblings.
You know, I took a break from writing this to check on your Facebook page and see what you were doing. You have a new girlfriend. I hope she's good to you, and I hope you're good to her. That would be pretty new for you. You have a big heart, you love hard, but you get nasty when you don't get your way, and that isn't something that is easy to look past. In some ways, even though you're four years older than I am, you're still a child. It's like the addiction took hold and you stopped aging. You're still a 16-year-old boy. I see the mother of your child, also an addict, turning her life around, starting college and doing well, raising your beautiful daughter, and boy, is she doing a great job. That little girl is so smart. Your little girl. She looks so much like you, it hurts.

I know we don't talk, and I know it's my fault, but I hope you know it pleases me that you are proud of me. I'll admit, I try not to hear about you, but when I catch wind of you holding down a job for over a month, I feel pride too. I know what you're going through isn't easy, and it's hard for both of us not to want to be selfish. I'm sorry for being selfish. I think I'll come back to you, one day, when I feel less fragile.

For now, I'm glad I get to live my life for me. I'm glad I can succeed in college without distraction and without worrying about having a safe place to study when I get home. You had me captivated when we were young, and I did everything I could to be just like you, no matter how damaging it was. I miss you, but it's a good thing you have no hold on me anymore. I am my own person.

Still, it'd be a lie to say none of my actions are influenced by you. You taught me to be my own advocate with your unfailingly strong-willed demeanor. I use that now to help myself and others get what they need. Although our political views have gone in drastically different directions, I still owe my courage to you. I still use your strength, bravado, and generosity to help those who need a shoulder, a hand, or a voice. Now, I know I can do these things, and it's a good thing too, because I can't imagine doing any other kind of work. I will always strive to be a servant to the little guy, or a hand for the downtrodden.

I know it will help me find my way back to you.

Katie working at an LGBTQ event.