Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lilly's Letter

Lilly had a crush on me in high school. She thought I was innocent and wholesome – good father/husband material – which I was. Her friend Linsey also liked me, but promised to stay away for Lilly's sake.

Linsey honored her promise by sticking her tongue down my throat and her hand in my pants. I guess she was excited by the lure of something she couldn't have. She's still like this today. She's most interested in fucking when I give up, stop trying or caring, and decide to become a kindly and celibate monk. Then she's on fire.

A few years later, Lilly was the Maid of Honor in our wedding. Yeah, it was a little strange. She went on to become Linsey's confidant when I would disappear down the rabbit hole of drugs and porn. Knowing that Lilly knows all my shit makes me uncomfortable around her, but I'm happy Linsey has her as a friend.

Lilly sent me an email a couple of days ago, opening up about her own food addiction and her fears of hurting the man she's in love with. Writing her back this afternoon was a good experience for me:

Hi Lilly-

What a sweet and honest letter this is. I'm honored you would share so much with me. All I've really known is that you've struggled with food. There's been times when I screw up and Linsey heads off to see you, and I feel so ashamed, and Linsey just tells me that you understand me better than I think.

As hard as it's been for me at times, I really do support your loyalty to Linsey. God knows she needs somebody she can talk to about me, and you and her friend Claire are pretty much all she has (outside of her support groups.) Your friendship and support have helped her to stick around and work things out, and for that I'm very thankful.

I definitely do understand the way that addiction is there every single day. I get angry sometimes when I hear people share that God has taken away the desires they used to fight. I just sit there and think, "it must be nice..." But then when I'm honest with myself and look at the big picture, I realize God has taken away much of the constant drives that used to plague me all the time. I guess I offer that to give you hope - with enough time and work, I think any addiction does become easier.

As far as how it affects your boyfriend, I don't think the answers are as easy. I can tell you that what I wanted (prayed for, begged for, cried for) was to be healed from all this crap, to be fixed. I wanted to be able to go to my pastor and say, "I used to have this problem..." I wanted to be able to completely remove the pain and discomfort that my issues have brought into my family.

But I think I'm learning it doesn't work that way. I finally figured out that I had to go to my pastor and say, "I have this problem, now, still, ... and I'm working on it, every day." I had to find the strength to tell Linsey, "I have this problem, I will always have this problem, and because I love you, I want to work on it so we can have a marriage."

And I had to ask for her help. Things didn't really get better for me until she was willing to accept that she couldn't bring home a prescription for codeine and keep it in our medicine cabinet. I've sat through so many family support groups and heard spouses that were angry they couldn't keep alcohol in the house anymore. And this is what it comes down to for me: Real recovery isn't saying "I will have enough willpower to walk past the liquor cabinet every day and ignore it." Real recovery IS having the courage to say: "will you help me by moving the liquor somewhere else?"

I guess I'm just trying to share what I've had to learn, over and over and over, the hard way - that the more isolated I am, the more control the addictions have over me. Of course much of my openness is with recovery friends and groups. But it's unavoidable that some of it has to happen with Linsey. You mentioned the times when you fudge the truth with your boyfriend. Boy does that sound familiar. I still struggle with this, and I know that it wouldn't really be productive for Linsey to hear every little thing that I share with my groups, or therapists, or whoever else helps me out. But the key is, I can't protect her from it completely. I wish so much that she didn't have to look at it, to see this ugly shameful part of me. But the only way to kill the beast (or at least keep it out of my yard) is to have a certain amount of transparency with her. And to let her see how helpless I am against all this without the help of God and recovery people.

I am also sad that a distance has grown between us. But I can live with you being angry at me sometimes. I'm angry at me sometimes. I don't know where you are in terms of recovery "stuff" – you know, groups and books and steps. But I can tell you that for me, trying to fight by myself was an exercise in frustration and disappointment. As busy and exhausted as Linsey and I are, I just started back into a weekly step-study group, because I need other people to stay sober. I hope that it makes you happy to know that your letter, and the time I've spent reading and answering it, were just what I needed right now. You helped me today, and I am grateful for that and for your friendship.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fate of Our Fathers

Tonight I cuddled with James on our hammock under a spider-man blanket. On a clear night you can see a few stars from my back yard; tonight there was a cloud cover reflecting the lights of the city. In years past, I spent many nights on that hammock. I was high, smoking cigarettes and imagining the aliens who lived on planets circling the stars above me. A few times I woke up Ashley so she could join me. She thought I was being a good dad, and begged me later to wake her up more often for midnight snuggles.

I've been researching videos for our Father's Day service. I found this one that struck me with its honesty. It begins by recognizing dads who balance work and family – pretty standard fare. What touched me was that it goes on to honor dads who try not to repeat their fathers' mistakes, and dads whose fathers were absent completely. I began to think of the men in my church, and the messes and heartache they struggle to leave behind.

Last weekend I broke one of my rules. I returned a phone call when I was angry. When my coworker answered, I was condescending and sarcastic. I hung up the phone and that feeling came back: I am my dad. My dad, who has tantrums at work, until he's not working there anymore. People only put up with this for so long, then he moves on to another job. This tendency to ruin relationships with fits of ego-centric rage feels like a legacy I can't escape, no matter how much therapy I pay for, or how many 12 step groups I join. It suffocates and terrifies me. It feels like fate.

Tonight Linsey read to James from a journal she kept when he was a baby. Unlike the journal for his older sister Ashley, James' journal is sparse and incomplete, reflecting the brokenness of our lives at that time. We were discovering that while one kid had been fun, two kids were exhausting. I laughed when Linsey read aloud what James said after he hid the spanking-spoon: “daddy no pow-pow me!” I cringed when she read about his preschool teacher, the woman I thought would save me from my miserable marriage.

That was an awful time. We moved to a new house and I was overwhelmed at my new job as a church music director, afraid that I would cave in under the pressure of dealing with people. Like my father had when I was a child. We had left our church back then when he yelled and stormed out of a board meeting. I didn't come back until they hired me twenty years later.

I am still here. I have not been fired or shamed, and I've weathered the conflicts with relative grace, because I am not my father, I am me. There is no fate. Instead there are choices – innumerable choices and opportunities to surrender my future to the grace of God.

After I hung up the phone last weekend, I called my coworker back. I ate humble pie and asked her to forgive me for being a jerk. I think she did. I think we're okay.

Tonight I showed my family the Father's Day video and I cried. Because we are an army of broken men who have imperfect or non-existent examples of what it means to be a father. Because we fight to stand on the shoulders of the men who raised us and we curse our own mistakes. Because the man in the video with the abusive father was not me, but my dad, who escaped a legacy of divorce and abuse to give me a stable home filled with love. He wasn't fated to repeat his dad's mistakes. Neither am I.

Tonight I am thankful for my dad, and for who he is today. I'm thankful that even though he had temper problems, he never abused drugs or alcohol, and he never abused me. I'm thankful that I get to be sober for the rest of my years as a father. And I'm thankful that I could talk about electricity and superheroes with my son while we laid in a back yard hammock.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Charlie Brown's Football

Who's the fool, Charlie Brown or Lucy?

My therapist Heidi wants me to stop kicking myself when Lucy pulls the football away. She says we're making progress. That each of us is working through our “stuff” and that I should go ahead and let myself get aroused. That I should jump in, sink or swim, then journal about what happens.

But how many times do you feel sorry for Charlie Brown before you think, why did he believe her again? Why did he run for that football again, only to fall on his ass when Lucy pulled it away?

You codies have to help me here. I hate being on this end of the equation. I'm more comfortable writing about the times when it's me screwing up. Linsey and I like this arrangement. I'm the sick one. I'm introspective and self-critical. I'm good at apologizing.

Linsey's not good at apologizing. She only has two modes: 1) “It's your fault Eli,” and 2) “I don't feel like talking about it.” Our therapist helps with this, if she can shut me up for long enough.

So things seem okay, even good, and I love my Linsey, and I look at her curves and feel her softness and fall in love with her raspy voice. And I tell her I adore her, and help out with the house, and take Ashley to buy boots and to her horseback riding lesson. And it's noisy and busy and there's a bunch of little boys swimming in my pool for the J-man's seventh birthday party, but it's alright. Because we love each other, and we'll have our time tonight.

We'll have our time tonight. I keep checking. Carefully rationing my excitement. Making sure the lane next to me is clear so I can make a quick escape if things slow down too fast. And my neural computer starts to believe it's solved the equation, that I've finally cataloged all the warning signs.

Those warning signs aren't here this time. None of them. She's happy and reciprocally tender. We talk and narrate. We're therapy veterans who know that you have to say what you're feeling, and kill your paranoia with supportive verbal cues.

So Charlie Brown is thinking it's a good day to kick that football. He straightens up the bedroom and turns down the bed. He brushes his teeth and sets the alarm. But when he locks the door, Lucy becomes quiet and withdrawn because she remembers an argument from earlier in the day. She pulls up the ball. And it's too late, because Charlie Brown's already running.

It wasn't some misunderstanding, or some crazy over-reactive trigger, like last time. It was: I know I said things were good and I wanted you, but now I don't, so leave me alone.

So I don't know what to say. I really like this person. I care about her and we have a million things in common, plus there's these kids, and I'm not going to flake on them. And I made vows when we got married. So I'm not going to leave, or cheat, or get high, or stop breathing.

It feels like the only option is to play those tapes in my head again, the ones that tell me: It's gonna be okay - we can be friends but not lovers. I don't get everything I want. Some people have incurable diseases or crushing poverty, I will have a sexless marriage. I will find a way to live with that.

Years of cognitive therapy tells me I'm engaging in “black and white thinking.” At least I've learned to recognize that. And I've learned in recovery that I don't have to do anything stupid. So God, I'm powerless and my life is unmanageable, and I can't fix this.