The first year Linsey taught second grade, she made friends with several new teachers. We got close enough to Karen and Lynne that they came with us for vacation to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Linsey and I had been married six years. Ashley was a year old, and stayed home with my parents. Why would we bring a one-year-old on a vacation that involved walking around underground for hours looking at dimly lit mineral formations? I just don't get families who would do that voluntarily.
Since it was New Mexico in August, we spent a lot of time at the pool. One afternoon I was feeling frisky and wanted to spend time alone with my hot wife. I invited her to come back to the hotel room and take a “nap” with me. She wouldn't go – she said she felt rude leaving Karen and Lynne at the hotel pool. They knew what was going on and started pushing her playfully in my direction. Go take a “nap” with your husband, they said. We'll stay and read our magazines and swim – you don't have to babysit us. Lynne said “If I had him for a husband, I'd be all over that.” Lynne had poor boundaries, and kind of lost it a few years later. But that's a different story.
Linsey wouldn't budge. She stayed out at the pool with her friends. I went back to the room and masturbated.
Me and Linsey have played out this scenario many times over the years. Too many times to count, unfortunately. You'd think there'd be a limit to how many times I would let myself get excited to sleep with her again. You'd be wrong. No matter how many times she found ways to avoid sex, after the most romantic dates, in the most romantic hotel rooms, we'd “talk it out” and I'd find another way to let myself get aroused by her.
What stands out about the New Mexico day is that it was witnessed by other people. Obviously, not that many people really heard about our sex life. I thought I was imagining our problems but this made the rejection more real, and more humiliating. And I think most importantly, my feelings began to be colored by anger in addition to the familiar shame and disappointment. Because, what was that thing coming out of Lynne's mouth? I'd made sense of me and Linsey's sexual desert by reasoning that I was unlovable. If Linsey responded to my caresses as if my fingers were sand paper, there had to be something wrong with my “caressing technique.” But Lynne's inappropriate comment just hung in the air, “I'd be all over that” juxtaposed against Linsey acting disgusted about the prospect of spending time with me.
Whatever. I feel really fucked up inside when I write that stuff because it dislodges all kinds of searing pain from the dark places I've carefully buried it. But stuff's coming up lately, whether I like it or not. Like when I saw Karen at a dinner party recently. I had completely forgotten about the trip we'd taken ten years ago. Strangely enough, we were talking about taking Ashley to the caves this summer. I think now that she's eleven she would enjoy it.
Then boom. Karen. Carlsbad Caverns. Hotel. It all fell on top of me, like a sequence in a movie with black and white flashback photography and lots of echo-y sounds. Karen started telling old stories about our trip. It didn't matter because I didn't hear much after that.
I took Karen aside during all the goodbyes later. I asked “Do you remember that day” and she interrupted with “Yes” before I finished the question. Karen has been a sweet friend over the years. She's close enough to talk to so we traded a few memories. I told her that trip had been a beginning of sorts. Of many things.
Of marriage counselors and therapists. Of drinking some, then drinking more, then using, and doing whatever it took to turn off the pain. Of figuring out that Linsey had been sexually abused as a child. Of figuring out that I was an addict, no matter what was going on around me or who I was married to.
As we started unwrapping all the shit and looked for healing in therapy and books and in recovery I thought it was the beginning of the end. That we would get better, and that next time Linsey would come back to the room with me and we'd make love. But it's just never that simple. It's just not.
There is a flood of wet noses sniffing and furry paws jumping and happy tongues kissing inside my front door and when you crack it open, there's a cascade of licky-barky happiness that spills out all over the place. So it's only natural that I've developed an adrenaline-tinged Pavlovian anticipation to that first door-opening moment. Tonight I had an anti-climactic surprise when what I found instead was inky blackness, until my eyes slowly adjusted and the tiny flames of candles began floating in the dark around me. My living room was there after all, recast in sensual flickery light.
James had declared it a no-electricity night. Well, kind of. It was really just a no-light-bulbs night, with laptops and even TV allowed, which was fine by me. So it was kind of like Little House on the Prairie except that Linsey was Facebooking and I was blogging, but hey, at least Ashley's math homework was done by candle light. She complained about it the whole time.
And it was magic.
You know, that line you cross when stuff around you stops being just “interesting” or “beautiful” and adjectives become irrelevant. Because magic can't be condensed to words. Even poetry is an echo of the thing itself, creating new magic in its place.
I studied music composition with a brilliant and difficult man who did his best teaching after three Grand Marniers in any bar seedy enough to overlook California's indoor smoking ban. I remember a late night bullshit session that focused on who (or what) we were, “we” meaning composers – Is a composer/musician an entertainer? An artist? Do we provoke or soothe? Create or reflect? Used car salesman, expert craftsman, misunderstood bohemian... it was all up for grabs. My professor said that he knew one thing, and that's for sure, that we are shamans.
When you need the magic, you go to the shaman. When they want to raise their hands and cry because their God is so real and so close, they come to me. That's what they pay me for. If every choir octavo was neatly filed, and every note was correctly played, and every volunteer was sufficiently motivated, but there was no magic, I'd be emptying my desk right about now.
So I give the magic because that's what I was trained to do, and I'm pretty good at it if I do say so myself, but I want some back and that's where the problem is. There are shortcuts to get there, but oh there's a price to pay, and I felt entitled enough that I didn't really care who paid it.
I know I'm not supposed to say it but the drugs and the porn, they had the magic. And it was immediate and dependable, and I can't even begin to describe the places I've been and the shit I've seen when I let them take the wheel. You don't find that kind of magic in the real world, at least not in this life.
But you know the story – it all comes crashing down, and there's the screaming and the crying and that knot in your stomach because if you'd just stopped yesterday, none of this would have happened. But you never do stop, because just-one-more-time is all the magic you need and then you'll be good, I promise promise promise.
I'm ready to find the magic in real life now. I know it's there because if it's not, why the hell did I choose to be a composer/musician? I could have done something useful, like build stuff, or fix stuff, or haul stuff around. Instead I chose to pour my life into something that logically has no purpose. And I never even doubt for a second that it was the right decision, because if I had every material thing I ever needed, but there was no magic, then it's not even worth getting out of bed in the morning.
Today I met with some program friends and talked about my triggers. This is very difficult, but I think might be one of the missing pieces. I'll have this conversation out of the way next time and I can just say "that thing happened" when I make the call, which should make it a little easier to pick up the phone.
My wife caught me using tonight. It was the same as I've done in the past - taking the stuff before I go to bed, then faking sleep while I float in the glow of the hallucinations. We were both awake around 3:30 and she could tell so she asked. I told her the truth.
This last time was supposed to be the real one, the sobriety that lasted so we could put our marriage back together. I messed that up.
I don't want to lose my family. I love Linsey and the kids so much it's like they're a part of me.
Linsey said that I need to move out and go to my mom's house tomorrow and that she wouldn't change her mind this time. That's okay with me. I feel awful and I don't want to have to see the look on her face every day when our eyes meet. It breaks my heart and I can't stand that I'm hurting her again.
I've heard a lot of people talking about hitting bottom lately. My addictions have had way too few consequences so maybe being away from my family will be the bottom for me. I know it's so much worse for most people so I feel stupid even saying that.
I am sleeping on the couch for the rest of the night. Tomorrow will be a hard day. It will be good to be sober again. I need to do the right things this time. It's possible to be sober I, just haven't committed yet.
This blog needs to be about sex. But, like my life, it has constantly been sidetracked by my addiction.
I live with an emotional abuse and incest survivor. This fact colors every single day of my life. It taints and poisons the most basic and honest of my human impulses – love, affection, intimacy. I need to be growing in patience and love for my wife, learning how to meet her needs and open her heart. I need to be nurturing a place where she can redefine sensuality, in her own time, with someone who loves and cherishes her. This can't happen when she can't trust me.
Shortly after therapy uncovered my wife's abuse, I bought the book Ghosts in the Bedroom, subtitled “A Guide for the Partners of Incest Survivors.” I was desperately looking for help for ME, the guy who felt like a rapist every time he tried to make love to the woman he adored. Instead, one of the first things I read was that most survivors marry people with serious core issues like addiction. The author didn't know me, but he already knew I was an alcoholic.
I was frustrated and angry. I wanted to get to the part that told me how to FIX my wife so she would have sex with me. Instead, I read that our situation could not improve until I took care of my own core issues. I had to deal with my alcoholism before we could learn intimacy.
Here's why this made me mad: because I believed that my drinking problem was her fault. The reason I drank myself to sleep every night on the living room couch was that she was doing her avoidance thing: falling asleep in the kids' rooms, getting a stomach ache, suddenly remembering unfinished paperwork, getting stuck on the phone with a friend. (Her demons were remarkably creative.)
I began the journey of recovery, only to find it much more complex than I'd anticipated. My addiction was “cunning, baffling, powerful.” And it was permanent. I would either be actively working to beat it, or painfully succumbing to it, for the rest of my life. I also learned that it was not Linsey's fault. She could not stop it nor could she cure it. My addiction was, and is, mine.
I never really read beyond chapter three, titled “My Core Issues.” I had a book about supporting an incest survivor, a book that was supposed to help me be the kind of husband who could love her through her hurts and rebuild her understanding of intimacy. But I got hung up on the chapter about MY problems, MY addiction.
And that's what my life feels like. I am angry and disappointed in my marriage. My sexuality and my adoration of my wife feel like heavy, frustrating liabilities. And our progress as a healing couple is repeatedly trashed by my slips.
You might find it really arrogant for me to be complaining. I know I've been the bastard that keeps fucking up. I'd like to stop now. I'd like to allow the books and marriage therapy to work in our lives. There is no shortcut to get there, just a daily choice to stay sober.
They're cleaning out my grandparents' house – the rooms are full of boxes and the walls are bare. Grandma's a collector, of things beautiful or sentimental or remotely useful, so there's a lot to go through. The depression generation, or “The Greatest Generation”, according to Grandpa and Tom Brokaw, tends to save things that I would throw away. But they can only fit so much into their new “home”, an assisted living rental, so most of their stuff has to go.
Mom found a flower pot I made for Grandma in the fifth grade. Money was tight that year, so we bought a rainbow set of permanent markers and several white plastic pots, and did the homemade gift thing. We sat on the red brick porch of my childhood home and colored the pots together. To this day, I still get a little zing of excitement when I see a brand new pack of red and yellow and green Sharpies, like a kid opening a new box of Crayolas. Mom doesn't remember making the flower pots at all. She was me – parent of a ten-year-old, broke and overwhelmed, making the best out of what she had.
My Ashley is in the fifth grade, and I see her becoming a little person, moving out of my shadow and into her own world. At her age, I was organizing my desk and books and Star Wars collection, building my own little organized kingdom. I was winning piano competitions, composing music, getting straight A's, and making flower pots. I had my own clock radio and I set the alarm early so I could look handsome for school in my gray corduroy pants and button-up shirts. Like Ashley's, my world was full of possibilities. Like Ashley, I thought I was hot stuff. I knew I could accomplish anything.
I accomplished something this month. I directed a musical. Into this task I poured everything I know about arranging music, staging transitions, working with artistic people (not easy), scheduling rehearsals, audio and lighting and video projection, publicity. It was my magnum opus, so far, and it turned out absolutely incredible. We drew the highest attendance our church has ever seen for a single event, and everyone seemed thrilled. What I was most proud of was this: a few people who have never really connected found their place to shine, and truly became a part of our church family. That's what it's all about. That's why I work at a church – it's more about the people than the art.
Then I took a week off, and instead of going back to all the recovery meetings I'd been missing, I slept and tuned out. So halfway through the week I used, which shouldn't really be any surprise. I spent a month ignoring my sobriety, suppressing my anger and resentments until the show was over. What did I expect? If you've been reading me for a while, you might be sick of my broken record life story, but not as tired of it as Linsey. She asked me what I would do different this time, and I didn't know what to tell her but this: I have to keep doing the right things, even after the first couple of weeks. I can stay sober when I'm go to meetings and pray, when I do my step work and my reading. I can't when I don't. I'm grateful to be back.
I relapsed. I was prescribed Vicodin for a back injury and I thought I could handle it. I was proud that I told my wife immediately about the prescription, gave her the bottle and let her dole out the pills. But I started banking them, saving them up and taking handfuls at the end of the day so I could get a little rush.
Years ago we volunteered with a foster child, a tough one who stayed in the highest security group homes. They'd give him his little cup of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics and then check under his tongue to make sure he'd swallowed, rather than pulling the pills back out and selling them on the group home black market. If I ever have an injury severe enough to justify something more than ibuprofen, I guess that's what I would need.
During my Vicodin time, me and Linsey had a huge fight, and I went on to a couple nights of porn and dextromethorphan, and that's all I really want to say about that. If you've read my blog before, you know I've struggled to find “long term sobriety”, but I'll keep trying.
There's been so many other blog-worthy things going on, but I've been avoiding this place because, well, you know – just didn't feel like saying “relapse” again. So now that it's out of the way...
I'm learning about codependents. I'm beginning to understand my wife, and the way that we work together, two parts of a twisted machine. It occurs to me that I've been frustrated for years when I watch her defend the drug-addled antics of her family. As a card-carrying addict, it is so very obvious to me when somebody is using.
When we met my brother-in-law Jason at a restaurant this weekend, everyone was excited about his birthday except Jason, who was so stoned that he didn't even know it was his birthday. He told us the stories, all true, about his road-rage fist fight (he put a guy in the hospital), the nerve damage, the prescription morphine. His ex, the one that he's sharing the house with until they're evicted, told us he's seeing two different doctors (who don't know about each other) and taking eight pain-related prescriptions.
Jason recently admitted he's an alcoholic, but he's not working any program. He's “trying to stop drinking”, but he's currently going through a separation, losing his kid, losing his house, already lost his job, has uncontrollable rage, and is on eight different painkillers. I love him, my heart breaks for him, I want to be there for him when he's ready to get help, but let's call a spade a spade – he's in active addiction. My wife kept explaining to me at the restaurant that he's just on a strong prescription, and that's what was causing the profuse sweating and inability to make eye contact or complete sentences.
No wonder she's put up with me so long.
I believe any knowledge, any perspective-increasing glimpse, is progress. Have I benefited from Linsey's tendency towards denial? Yes and no. I'm still living at home, I keep getting “second” chances, she's showed me patience while I've continued to work. I am not giving up on me or us, and I've learned from each of my relapses. (Lesson #47: No Vicodin, no matter what.) But I know what Jason needs to hear right now: We love you and we want to help. Let's go to a meeting together. I know what it feels like to be trapped in your world. Not denial. Not justification.
Besides the obvious, this has been a great few months. I've felt joy – real joy – more than I have in a long time. It's like it just bubbles up, out of nowhere. My sponsor says it's because I'm really working the steps and making progress. He says you can't really explain the inner workings of the black box, but when you put good stuff in, good stuff comes out.
I'm addicted to Snus. Stupid little tobacco-ish pouches being pushed by 7-11's for people like me, who want the zing of nicotine without the social stigma of smoking or spitting. Reviews talk about them tasting more like candy than tobacco, but they'll give you mouth cancer all the same. I recently discovered that my (sober) alcoholic cousin shared my interest in the little pouches, so I told him how I like to stuff two or three in my mouth at the same time. After all, the American version contains only 6g of tobacco versus the Swedish 24g.
Pretty clear indication that I need to amp up my efforts. I'm looking for comfort in the wrong places, leaning on chemicals instead of truth, people, program, and my Higher Power. When my cousin quit, cold turkey, a couple of weeks ago I thought I should do the same. I later found myself digging the discarded little tin out of a trash can full of, among other things, dog shit. I thought of Charlie in the first season of “Lost” digging through an airplane toilet where he'd hidden packets of heroin. I also thought of this video by 80's sketch comedy troupe “Kids in the Hall.”
The hardest thing about losing Charlie was handing him over to the receptionist in the pet emergency room. He was cold and unresponsive, wrapped in a towel in my arms, and didn't even look back at me as he was whisked away through a door marked “Employees Only.” I was wet and cold from the rain, but he wasn't. I'd been rubbing his little body in the car, driving with one hand, and telling him, “it's okay little buddy, just stay with me for few more minutes. We're almost to the doctor's.” It was midnight. I never saw him again.
Charlie was a “replacement dog.” Just before Christmas we lost our beagle of eleven years. (I'm still not ready to post about that one.) We rescued Charlie from the pound shortly after. He was a spindly tan chihuahua, with dark eyes and a head too small for his body and ears too big for his head. He lived in our home for only eighteen days. He felt it was his right to sleep on top of my head, so I learned to push him aside and let him burrow into the crook of my neck.
He was sick the last couple of days, and James yelled at him when Charlie threw up in his lap. Charlie ran into my bedroom where I was resting, hopped up next to me crying, and nuzzled under my chin. He'd already been in trouble for his house-training mistakes, and this reprimand was just one too many. Despite the messes, that was a good day.
Wrapped in a white towel, Charlie looked helpless and even smaller than he really was, like some kind of Eastern European war orphan, pale and worn and quiet. The x-rays were inconclusive, but the vet knew something was seriously wrong with his abdomen. He was in excruciating pain. I signed papers and left him overnight for a series of x-rays as barium was passed through his system.
What is it about crisis that wakes all my demons? Driving home in the early morning hours was an exercise in choosing to stay on the narrow path. The streetlights and the rain colluded to excite my senses and I felt those familiar tingles of the illicit in that forbidden hour. It is good to know that ultimately I chose not to add the sickening lost-ness of relapse into the unavoidable chaos of that night.
I was deep in a confusing dream or nightmare when the phone woke me up at 4:30. Charlie had “coded” three times, and did I want to continue with life saving measures? “Well, yeah, I guess” was all I could come up with. What do you say to that? Ten minutes later I was finally off of hold. The vet, who had been mostly positive and very competent, was now hoarse and breathy. Charlie's heart had started, but his brain was probably gone. It was time to let go.
I spoke with a friend in recovery the day before Charlie died. We discovered a mutual secret: that during the rocky chapters of our marriage, when affection was running dry, our dogs helped fill in the gap. Sometimes meetings and books and phone calls just can't measure up to that warm furry snuggle, to hearing another soul breathing in the darkness. If you're not a dog person, I'm sorry if that's weird for you, that's just the way it is.
Charlie died of a a perforated bowel. Despite his penchant for chewing, there was nothing detectable in his intestines, and I was told it was probably from a defect that existed before we even adopted him. All I heard was this: there wasn't much else we could have done. It was just his time. He was a gift and a joy. Thanks, my little friend. I really do miss you.
Linsey got mad when I told her. I think I need to be home tomorrow. I promise we'll find another day to go to the snow. I could have just kept my mouth shut – been a good dad, a good husband. We were driving home from the office Christmas party, where I'd been a good employee and a good pastor, so why quit now?
On the other hand, a couple of days ago I was melting into the couch, summoning just enough energy to operate the mouse so I could play Chuzzle on PopCap.com. (Don't worry, I'm not getting any endor$ement kickback.) Pretty much being a sloth, you know? And Linsey's buzzing around the house, doing laundry and bills and dishes, and she says, “I'm glad you're listening to your body.” Which means “I'm glad you're relaxing.” And she was serious! At least I think she was...sometimes our conversations sound like that episode of The Simpsons:
Disaffected youth #1: Here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool. Disaffected youth #2: Are you being sarcastic, dude? Disaffected youth #1: I don't even know anymore.
We did find another day to go to the snow. It's become a tradition: We drive to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and ride it up the mountain for a few hours of snow and breathtaking nighttime views of the surrounding desert. No mountain driving, no snow chains, and a chocolate shake from Bakers Drive-Thru on the way home. (Again, no endorsement kickback, just an attempt at local color.) Every year I tell James not to worry because they've fixed the cables and none of the aerial trams have fallen out of the sky for at least a month. He always says, “You're lying, dad. You're just making that up.” But I know that somewhere deep inside, I've made him just a teeny, tiny bit nervous, and this is the fun of being a dad, right?
So I followed through on my promise to reschedule the family snow day, which makes me feel even better about “listening to my body” the first time around, and insisting on down time. I relapsed during Christmas of 2008, because I did the good pastor/dad/husband thing until I was dead inside, resentful of everyone and everything. I'm committed to taking care of myself during these times that I tend to blow it – namely Christmas, Easter and vacation. After the snow thing Linsey just asked me to try and tell her earlier next time, so she wouldn't feel so disappointed. I'll try. But sometimes you don't know you're wiped out until you're in the middle of things.
Which is, I guess, what happened here on my blog. I just needed a break, and I took it. A heart-felt thank you to all of you who checked in on me and made sure I was okay. I am, I think. I'm sober, doing things one day at a time, trying my best to balance crazy-Christmas-program-times with chuzzle-on-the-couch times. And I'm grateful for both.
I wish I only had to introduce you to ME: dad, husband, songwriter, pastor. That’s the guy I see in the mirror. I love my kids, I’m good at fixing things, I love to read or chase my dogs around the house. But I lose track of myself sometimes when I’m hurting. That’s when my addict comes around, the bastard who would throw it all away for a moment alone with his drugs and his porn. He cuts me with a razor and he steals things just for the rush. He’s even tried to kill me. But there’s a huge difference between us, and I’ll tell you what it is: He’s a coward. And I’m not. I won’t let him have my kids, my beautiful wife, my job or my home. And since he hates exposure, I’m going to tell you all about him. I’m Eli, and I’m an addict.