Bare List on Stories that Need to be Told

The police officer greets me in the driveway, his cruiser parked neatly on the side. There was no urgency to get here, no life hanging in the balance. He’d probably taken an extra few seconds to reverse and pull forward, delaying the inevitable scene awaiting him inside the peaceful villa on the lakefront. Outside, the sun was setting over the water, nothing disturbing the scene but an elderly couple chain smoking in the driveway waiting on him and me.

By the time I arrived, he’d seen the corpse we’d all come to mourn, but his face showed no sign of the horror. Maybe he was masking it for me, maybe he’d been called to so many of these by now that decomposition had become routine. The scent of menthol hit my nostrils shortly after we clasped hands and I searched his perfectly stoic face for the Vicks Vape O Rub I knew would be under his nose if he’d been called to a death scene before. There it was, shining ever so slightly beneath his nostrils. The tool used my law enforcement to drown out the stench of a long dead body.

This scene replays itself in my mind as I shower. While my family sleeps, I navigate this memory from years ago. I want to push it away, to start what will be a long day, but it hovers at the edge of my mind, begging me to join it there in the past. To come all the way into the scene. It’s a feeling I suppose mostly reserved for detective novels, where the hero gives himself over to the memory and by doing so remembers the single detail that breaks the case wide open, but this is no novel. This was no murder. This was a death a long time coming. One I’d raged against, and despite it’s inevitability, never truly expected, but not one of foul play. The only mystery of this day was exactly how long I’d spent calling the phone of a dead person.

Ten days it had been since I had spoken to my father. He’d called to apologize for sleeping through the family Thanksgiving. It was a phone call he’d made for three years running. The day my stepmother died, my father fell into a bottle and never fully came out. He tried, valiantly for the first six months or so. Fought for me and the son I was raising on my own when this misadventure began. He’d even gone to rehab once, but left early to climb right back into the bottle and after he’d only peak his head out in small bursts. Long enough to cuss me then give me a drunken apology weeks later. The last time we’d spoken was one of those times. The last words I ever said to him were “I love you,” but not in that beautiful way that you can hold to your heart, but an angry, passive aggressive “I love you” meant as much to evoke guilt as convey emotion. I wasn’t always good at this. I had my shining moments and massive failures. Our last conversation went to the failure pile.

I stood there, in the driveway, begging to go inside, but friends and a very kind police officer holding me back. It was bad, I knew, but I wanted to see him. I don’t know why. I know it would have been vile and I’m thankful this force of friends blocked my own yearnings, but honestly, he’d survived so much I honestly couldn’t even believe he was gone. Dozens of doctors had looked me in the eye and tried to prepare me for losing him, but each time he pulled through, miraculously no worse for the ware. If I recounted them all to you now, you wouldn’t believe me. They’re too far fetched. The time he drank so damn much he passed out in his car (where he stored his booze) with the door wide open in near zero weather in the middle of January. A neighbor found him. His BAC was so high they thought he’d drank antifreeze and his body temperature so low they had to bring in a special machine to take it because the thermometer wasn’t calibrated to go below 89 degrees. The combination saved his life. With more alcohol than actual blood in his body, his blood didn’t freeze and his body temperature being so low slowed the metabolism of the liquor. If he survived that, there had to be purpose didn’t there? That’s just one story, and honestly it’s not even the craziest of them. If he wasn’t supposed to live, why hadn’t that killed him?

I tried to push those thoughts from my mind as I stood in the driveway. They were the childish thoughts of a little girl afraid of losing her daddy. I was standing here now as a brave woman and mother of two, one who lost his favorite grandfather long before this day and another that would never meet him. There was no time for thoughts of what could have been. We were living in what was. Honestly, I was living in an answered prayer. Only days before, I’d been listening to David Sedaris on This American Life talking about how the “recluses keep the funeral industry in business”. It would have been a hilarious story if my father was not a recluse. The images flooded my brain and despite my three month old sleeping soundly in his carseat in the back, I screamed “Dear Lord please make him better or let him go home!” I should have known the answer I would receive. My knees bled from praying for his recovery to no avail. There was only one possible outcome.

I guess that’s what keeps pulling me in: The mystery of my Schrodinger’s Father who was simultaneously alive and dead as I desperately called to hear his voice. Sometimes angry, sometimes at the height of depression. Many times, I thought about driving out there myself. It was only six miles from my front door to his, but I knew I couldn’t. My family wouldn’t let me. My uncle on more than once occasion drove all the way from Pennsylvania to save me that six mile drive in the hope of saving me from that sight. We’d all had so much taken from us, I couldn’t bring myself to take that, too. So, instead, I called. Incessantly, annoyingly until it got to be so much that I was going to head out the door but a family friend, my father’s best friends and my second parents, jumped in the car at the mere thought I would do it. “He’s gone,” she said when she called minutes later. Her husband had bared my burden, that final sight.

How long had I rung his phone, unknowingly begging a corpse to answer. “At least one day but not more than three,” the Medical Examiner would tell me a few weeks later. The same medical examiner who wrote “chronic alcohol abuse” as the cause of death on my father’s death certificate. The sentence is as burned into my eyes as the question is burned into my soul.

Why it bothers me so much that I don’t know when I lost him, I couldn’t tell you. When the anniversary of his death approaches, it burns me that we’re remembering the day we found him, not the day we lost him. I try to picture his final moments. Was he scared, as he was so many times when we thought we were staring down the barrel of the end? Did he need me there? Did he want me there? I don’t know. I never will. But, I like to imagine when these episodes take hold that he was asleep, which is probably true. He was on the bed, laid out like someone sleeping, at least that’s what I’m told.

I imagine that his soul awoke for the first time in months, maybe even years, and he saw an angel waiting for him. Confused, he looked down at his lifeless body, beaten and broken from the numerous trials this world put on him. “Not yet,” he might say to the angel. “Not yet. I’m happy to see you and I’m ready to go, but I can’t just yet. I’ve got to apologize to my daughter and grandson. I’ve got to let them know…” and then maybe my stepmom comes stepping out from behind the angel, arms outstretched, healed of the cancer that riddled her body. “I’m so sorry,” he’d say, breaking into tears. “I know,” she replies, “they know, or they will someday. There’s nothing more you can do for them here honey, it’s time to go home. She can do this.” And with that, he let’s go. Knowing that while I sucked at this whole thing sometimes, I loved him, and while we might all be a little beaten, we’re not broken. Our love was tested, pushed to the brink, but never broken. The man that lived beneath the alcohol was never forgotten, his love surviving still today, his light shining in the face of his grandchildren. Addiction stole a lot from us, but it will never steal that.

This was a very emotional post written because I couldn’t keep the words inside. Please excuse any typos as I am pushing publish before I chicken out of doing it. I don’t know why I feel like I have to let this into the world, but I do and if I try to read it again I will back out. If you have stories of addiction, please feel free to share them here. I spent too long hiding from it and lying about it to be silent about it now. I’m not embarrassed of my dad’s addiction. I never talked about it because it embarrassed him, but it shouldn’t have. It is a very real mental disorder that is ABSOLUTE HELL on the sufferer and the people that love them. He may have lost, but I am damn proud that for at least a little while he tried, and while I’m still sometimes very angry that I feel like his story was stolen from him, I am IMMENSELY proud of the husband, father, and grandfather that he was and the love that he put into this world. 

Bare List on Getting By

My Garmin vibrates triumphantly to alert me that I have reached my step goal for the day. “At least I accomplished something,” I mutter to the watch, annoyed with it’s artificial happiness. I’ve been in a funk for nearing five days. Not a bad one. I’m not drowning in the throes of depression or near lifeless of exhaustion, but I am tired, almost to the point of numb, but never numb because my brain won’t let me feel that. No, if my brain can’t find any of the more defined emotions (joy, contentedness, anger, sadness) then it will default to guilt and shame. It’s a war I’ve waged inside myself for years. Its weapons platitudes. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else,” I chide myself as I put away dishes mechanically. “Yes, but choose wisely how you spend this time because it costs a day of your life,” I fire back after I’ve conceded in sitting down for a moment.

It’s a haunting cycle I’m trapped in until the day my brain snaps back into working order and I feel like a human being again. I fight with myself to complete the most menial of tasks then berate myself for not doing enough of them, or doing too many of them. There is no middle ground, no winning. The worst part of it all is that there can’t be. Thanks to years of leafning, therapy, and experimenting, I know that I am the only thing that gets me through this. There are people that can commit to a mental health day, hide from the world, and come out the other side. I am not one of them. I know, I’ve tried. If I allow my brain to swallow me up in this, I will stay swallowed, hiding under the covers with shitty reality television until…I don’t even know. I mean, theoretically, I’m sure I would have to come out sometime, but not in any time that fits with real life.

So, I must muster through. That advice from the General about making the bed? I do that. Every morning. Especially when these depressions hit. It doesn’t change a lot. I’m not suddenly ready to seize the day, but the bed is made and so I can check that off a to-do list. That’s pretty much how I will survive this time: reviewing my accomplishments, meager though they may appear. Bed made. Check. Kids cleaned, fed, and taken to school. Check. Emails read. Check. Dishes clean. Check. And so on it will go for the days that the nothingness tries to engulf me. Whenever the voice creeps in to tell me I am worthless, I will bring out my checklist of accomplishments to let it know that I have provided at least some value unto this life.

“Yeah, but you’re failing at writing,” the voice yells, and it’s not wrong. These times, they make writing more difficult. During these times, I hate everything that I write. Which is why now, I know not to touch my WIPs when I’m like this. You want a hint on how to edit down word counts? Read works when you’re in this dark place. Every word becomes meaningless and misplaced. Scenes that you once loved, that your agent still does, become unreadable. That’s why I know not to touch them during this time unless I absolutely have to. I won’t add value. I will take away beauty because, right now, my ability to see beauty is marred. If I have to touch something because of a deadline, I put my notes from my agent or editor right beside me. In normal times, these notes are a stepping stone to unlock my inspiration. In dark times, they are a script. Stick to the notes. Get this done. Let it be a check and move on. So, I do, and another check is added to my tally.

I do write, because I have to. Because you have to keep the spark alive. Sometimes, I even like what I’ve written when I leave the depression. Occasionally, I write myself into something successful enough to ebb back the waves of self-loathing. Those are rare, but I write anyway, just in case today is that day.

So far, it has not been. I’ve been in this dark place for days. Getting by. Doing what I know must be done for me to keep going. Momentum building. Enough checks in the right order and I will feel better. Like playing a puzzle game, I just have to keep shuffling and stringing together tiny wins until I unlock the good feeling. A step count here, an answered email there. A meeting, a made meal, a homework assist, a game with the kids. Eventually, if I keep plugging in the little wins, I will escape this.

I know this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to rest, some people need medication, some people need more people. We all handle things differently, but right now this works for me. Will it work for everyone? Probably not. Will it undoubtedly work for me forever? I have no idea.

That’s maybe one of the hardest parts of depression or funks or whatever you want to call it is that there is no universal answer. The world throws solution after solution at you expecting what worked for them will work for you, and sometimes it doesn’t. When I get like this, so tired and hurt, so many people urge me just to “rest”. It’s not bad advice. It works for a lot of people. But, it just doesn’t work for me. Maybe because in normal life, I can rest. I don’t get to sleep in often or have days at a time to do nothing, but when I’m feeling good, I can shut down. I can curl up on the couch and watch The Good Place. I can waste thirty minutes playing Myst. We just don’t know what the answer is 100% of the time and it’s one of the most frustrating things about this or any illness really. Maybe it’s the frustration of being a human. The lack of certainties.

I don’t know. All of this has been a giant string leading to I don’t know I guess, which is entirely anticlimactic.

I’m going to try again, because while I don’t know why I wrote this, I do know that I felt like it had to be written. So, maybe it’s because while I feel utterly alone and weird right now, I’m not. I know that a lot of people experience this. Maybe it’s not depression exactly, but we all have funks. We all have times that for no reason whatsoever the world doesn’t feel right. We’re not alone or crazy, we’re not failing. We’re just being human. Falling down is OK. You just have to figure out how you get back up. Keep working away at your own personal jigsaw puzzle until you see the big picture. Throw in a therapist here, your general practitioner there. Take a long walk, take a long nap. Disappear for a day, force yourself out for a day. Make a checklist, throw away your checklist. Whatever stands a chance of working, just give it a try.

Speaking of giving it a try, what do you do when this feeling kicks in? When the world is a little darker. How do you survive? Let me know, because while I’ve got a healthy collection of tools in my bag, I’m always looking to add more.

Bare List on The Lie of Loving Your Work

“Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”- Some idiot

This decorates many a reclaimed wood mantle piece, we scream it to high school graduates as they jet off to college, and a plethora of CEO’s cite it in corporate speeches. I’ve endlessly Googled the originator of this idiom to mixed results. Some attribute it to Confuscious, others to Marc Antony, a few to Harvey Mackay, and so on. Why is the original mastermind of this idiom so hard to pinpoint? Because it’s utter bullshit made up as a practical joke against humanity and the originator didn’t want to be associated with it for eternity. 

I hear this “life advice” so often it makes me want to become a scientist exclusively for the goal of building a time machine to go back and smack the thought right out of the knuckle brain’s head before this curse can be laid upon our society, and also kill Hitler and what not, but the curse priority one. It is wrong on basically every level and yet we still dole it out like breath mints at a garlic festival.

Let me tell you, I love what I do. I have a fervent passion for my career and my life, and I work every damn day. Alright, not every damn day, but the vast majority of damn days, I put in work. I wake up early and go to bed let, I grind out words on a page, take calls during carpool, and beg the Lord to put more hours in my day in the hope that one day my “To Do” list can be “Ta Done”.

“Yes, but you love the work so it’s not really working,” claim the ever hopeful souls clinging to the belief that this maxim will some day prove true. I’m gonna go ahead and crush those dreams right now: there is always work. Even if you are living your dream and completely fulfilled with your chosen life course, there will be work. There will be long hours, sleepless nights, and aspects of the job you don’t enjoy. Is it worth it? Yes, absolutely 100% worth it, but it will be work. Being a writer, for example, work. Lots of it. Not just the act of writing itself, which can be painful and grueling, but the edits, queries, promotions, social media building, speaking engagements that go along with it, all work. The synopses! Y’all, it’s more work to condense 80,000 words down to a page or two than it is to write the novel. I would rather write, edit, and query 50,000 manuscripts than write one synopsis, but I have to do it. I have to work.

Does that mean I don’t love what I do? Absolutely not, and that’s the first danger of this idiom is that it makes people believe they must be failing if they’re working. They must not love what they do enough if sometimes their jobs make them want to gouge their eyes out. Really, the inverse is true. The more you love what you do, the more days of your life you will be working. You will find yourself hard at work at 1 a.m. because you believe in your mission. You will work through lunch because on a personal level, you need this work to be completed even more than you need to feed your body. It’s easier to only work when necessary when you don’t care about your job. To leave work there and be free of the stress and fatigue associated with it. When you love what you do, you work harder to make sure you keep doing it.

More dangerous than that misconception though, is the insinuation that for work to be worthwhile, you must love what you do. Blatant untruth that sets up many an existential crisis. You do not have to love what you do to find meaning in what you do. You can hate everything about your job if you can find your purpose in it. Putting food on the table, gaining experience in your career field, getting a break to reset your priorities, etc. Example, I bar tended through college. Hated everything about the actual profession. The long hours, the backbreaking work, flirting with drunks for a bigger tip, pretending the same joke was funny the 400th time, being disrespected by people that look down on those in the service industry. The list goes on guys. While bartending is a great profession, it was awful for me. Sixty hours a week was hard to balance with a full course load, I missed all of my school’s sporting events, and I was always at work while my friends were playing, but it was meaningful, and I gave my all to that job. Not only was it a means for me to finance my education, I made great friends, I was exposed to a lot of great connections, and I was in great shape. In my years bartending, it went from a job I had to do, to one I took pride in and even looked forward to because I chose to find meaning in it, and finding that meaning made working worth it, even though I didn’t love what I did.

I worked with a lot of great bartenders who absolutely loved what they did and would not do anything else even if it was offered to them, but you know what they still did? They still worked (see how that came full circle?) Even though they loved their careers, they worked just as hard as I did, and in the beginning, even harder. They inspired me to work harder. From that job that I hated (but also really kind of loved because I made so many great stories and war stories from the service industry are the most fun to tell at parties) I learned the valuable life lesson that no matter how much you love what you do, there will be work.

I see so many fledgling writers, talented people with unique voices and interesting stories, that feel like they’re failing when writing is work. They’ve internalized that misconception that by doing what they love they won’t be working, and so when it’s work they’re ready to give up because they feel like the problem is them, like they must not really love writing (marketing/painting/managing/cooking/mothering) enough.

So, to that end, I propose a new quote:

“Love what you do and you’ll work your forking ass off for the rest of your life, but that will be okay.”

Admittedly, it doesn’t roll off the tongue. I’ll work on it.

 

 

 

Bare List on Addiction

A few days ago, I was scrolling mindlessly through Facebook because procrastination is real and I stumbled upon an update from the Sheriff’s office of the small town in which I was partially raised. Every contact I had from said town had shared the message. It was a warrant notification of a man wanted in association with an attempted armed burglary, and with horror, I realized it was a man that I knew. Well, that’s not accurate. It was a man I had known as a boy. A boy a few years younger than myself. He was one of the underclassmen that hung on the outside fringes of my friend group. A cute, young football player we all lovingly referred to as a little brother. Except he wasn’t. Not anymore at least. The man staring back at me from the WANTED poster looked more like Charles Manson’s insane younger brother than the sweet boy from high school. He bared his teeth in a sinister grin showcasing all of his clearly meth-addled mouth. His hair was unwashed and unkempt. Even his eyes were hollow and vacant, no longer glistening with youth and possibility.

Baffled, I opened the comments to see if this really was the young boy that I had once known. It was, of course, which was heartbreaking in its own right, but more gut-wrenching were the comments. “Hang him!” proclaimed one, “hang him high!” agreed another. “Guess he’s not such a stud anymore,” someone chided. A comment here or there made mention of how sad it was that drugs had stolen his future or of how sweet and kind he had once been and how awful it was that this drug epidemic had claimed another victim, but for the most part, Facebookers gathered to revel in the undoing of one of our own’s humanity.

The scene crushed my soul, not because I had known the boy. We were only passing friends. Truthfully, I haven’t talked to him in over a decade. We weren’t even connected on Facebook. It’s safe to say that had I not seen his mugshot, I would not have thought of him that day or any other. I felt for him, of course, but what upset me even more I guess was that, I wasn’t shocked. While it was jarring to see a name I knew in association with a manhunt, it was not surprising that he turned to a life of drugs. It seems like everyone that I went to school with in that small town either got out or became addicts, and sadly, I’m not exaggerating. Children with straight As and bright futures that stayed within the borders of our small community have almost all been swept up in the free-for-all of opioid and meth use. It’s literally killing the community. I can’t even count on one hand the number of former classmates of mine that have died of drug related causes. Even more than that have had serious injuries and more still have been in trouble with the law.

It’s easy in our society to blame them. To ignore the crushing poverty that kept them out of college despite good grades, to ignore the subpar educational system they’re raised in because it’s hard to find good teachers to live in the poorest county in the state. Hell, it’s easy in my home town to blame them because it’s easier to say “well, they’re just bad people” than to admit the reality that addiction is a disease that know no bounds.

It’s not easy for me, though. I wish that it was. I wish that I could go back to a time where the issue was black and white. I can’t though. I’ve come too far. At this point in my life, I’ve known and loved at least ten addicts that I know of, recognizing that given the percentages, I probably know/love someone that has struggled or is struggling in the shadows. Of all of those people, two are in recovery and have been for a substantial length of time. Two are in the roller coaster of early recovery, three are in jail and the rest are dead. Unfortunately, included in that last group is my father who passed away almost two years ago of what the death certificate listed as “chronic alcohol abuse”.

My father’s addiction changed everything I knew about addiction. My biological mother was also an addict, but she went to rehab and came out the other side clean and sober and has been for well over a decade. I didn’t even know my father was an alcoholic until my stepmother died. He was a highly successful attorney well-loved by countless friends and family, and highly valuable to the community (the big city where I spent most of my life, not the small town). When my stepmother died, though, he did, too. He drowned in drink despite the fact that all he wanted to do was survive. To enjoy his life. To have a damn life. Still, despite every fiber of his being wanting a different ending, despite rehab and therapy and prayers and homeopathic healing and at one point maybe something with an iguana, he succumbed to wet brain and loneliness. Really, it’s too much to even go into now, but suffice it to say that the world’s best father and grandfather became the indomitable alcoholic. I was constantly having to take care of him, rushing to the ER for drunken antics, driving grape juice to him before work but after I dropped my son off at school because he thought he was dying. It was an insane period of time in my life, balancing his addiction with being a single, working mother. It was heartbreaking and infuriating and I have never been so damn mad/sad/defeated in my entire life.

Before my father, if asked about addiction, I would have sad that it was sad, because it is. I was educated and empathetic enough to realize that it was a tragedy and no one ever wanted their life to end in addiction. I knew it was awful, and I was heartbroken every time it claimed another victim, but not like I am now. Not after living through the struggle. I didn’t know the gutwrenching chaos and pain the monster put on. I didn’t know that you could do all of the things, that you could want it SO DAMN BAD and still fail.

That adds a new dimension for me, and while I’m mortified that it took watching my father battle to honestly understand the hell that addicts go through on a daily basis, I get it now. Not just at a “oh it’s shame” level, but at a “this is a goddamn travesty” level. Because NO ONE wanted to end up being an addict.

I’m not saying that my high school friend, or any addict, doesn’t do bad things, and that those things should be overlooked purely because of mental disorder. My father did horrible things in the last few years of his life and we fought constantly, and I was not always the super forgiving, oh-I-understand child. I yelled and screamed and kicked and cussed. When loving his addiction away failed, I tried berating it away, I tried fighting it away, I tried ignoring it away. I tried a lot of things that failed because nothing would work, but still I feel like there’s got to be a better away. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not hanging. I know it’s not laughing and making jokes and peering down from our high horses in judgement, or even pity.

Anyway, I’m not sure why I wrote this, but a voice has been gnawing at my brain to put this into the world and so it has. Maybe it will help you? I hope it does. Maybe I just wanted to give a voice to the darkness, because for a long time I let my dad live in the darkness. I didn’t talk about his addiction a lot when he was alive because he was embarrassed of it, and no matter how angry I was at him, I never wanted to embarrass him. But you know what? I was never embarrassed of him. I’m still not. Sure, he fought the battle and lost. Sure, I’m still angry that my youngest son will never get to meet his grandfather. Of course, I’m still ravaged by the empty chairs at our holiday gatherings. I am many, many things when it comes to my father’s addiction, but embarrassed is not now, and never has been one of them. His own shame wouldn’t let him believe that when he was alive, but maybe someone out there will. Shame is the food addiction lives on, so I’m not feeding it anymore.

If you’ve loved an addict, if your town is one of the thousands losing this battle, if you’re struggling, whatever and want to talk, I’m here. Comment/private message/whatever. Let’s talk.