Group Ghost Buster

Groups exist: running clubs and bird watching clubs, weight watcher groups and book groups. People join because of a common interest or to encourage each other in a common pursuit. But did you know that some people willingly join groups they do not want to belong to?! My husband and I belong to one. We joined a support group for those who have a family member suffering from the disease of addiction. We joined because “life had become unmanageable” and changing the behavior of our child was not possible. Instead we learned that we, like the others, are powerless. The common thread that binds us is pain.

Most Sundays a new face appears. We sit in a circle and each member gives an update on their addict; they are “doing well or back at rehab, homeless or paying rent.” We also share personally; we are “questioning our decisions, learning to not overreact, tired but hopeful.”

Why do we do this? There are therapists, on-line forums and self help books. There is also denial. Why meet to discuss the difficult?

I am not sure. But people tend to join when they are in crisis. The first step in the door is often a desperate one. They come for advice on what to do about a “missing family member high on alcohol and cocaine” or a loved ones positive tox screen for “benzos, fentanyl, crack and amphetamines.” We listen. We nod. There is a lot of nodding. There are no solutions. Instead we offer gentle suggestions or a new way of looking at the problem. It is strangely comforting to realize our ugly experience may be helpful to another – at a minimum by making them feel less alienated. A magical sort of alchemy happens when both hurt parties end up feeling a bit better.

When it is my turn I get to speak aloud the fears that have been echoing endlessly in my head all week. I liken this to opening up my closet door and calling out the ghost. Group Ghost Buster! My three-day headache dissolved after I shared one week. Why did the ibuprofen not work? I do not know.

You know what else helps? Getting lost in looking at my fellow group members.* I like looking at their shoes, their hands, their eyes, their hat choices. One wore pajamas two weeks ago! Some bring dogs. Some bring knitting. Others sit confidently. Some curl up a bit. I find it comforting to get lost in the visuals of our collectivity. Who knew this would be our reality? It’s akin to being dropped onto a strange new planet and having to assess your new mates. My husband’s verdict is that “he has never been in a room with more kindness and empathy.” I think he may be right. One member recently checked in with me via email. He signed off “you are loved.” (I cried then, and I am crying now.)

Ultimately, being in a group like this makes small talk impossible. Instead you must reach down to a deeper level to share the stuff that keeps us all afloat. I guess I should have nicknamed us Group Soul Buster. I encourage you to join one if you are in need.

*We now meet virtually. But I look forward to our in-person gatherings: for the shoes…and the hugs.

Public Service Announcement: Pressed Pills.

Pressed pills are counterfeit pills. And they are everywhere. If you are unfamiliar with them than you and I had something in common. We have all read about cash-only pill mills run by pain clinics. And individual crimes committed by those feeding an addiction: raided medicine cabinets, falsified prescriptions, doctor-shopping and faked injuries. But prescription pills no longer need to be hunted down because counterfeit ones can be delivered right to you. It’s an incredibly lucrative business. Consider that in the first seven months of 2020 the Minnesota DEA confiscated 46,000 counterfeit pills. That computes to 80K pills a year – in Minnesota – hardly a state known for its drug activity! If we were to use that same number and conservatively apply it to all 50 states, 4 million pills would have been confiscated. 4 million. Keep in mind that the police can’t find them all. Odds are there are upwards of 20 million illegal pills flooding our streets every year.

And most of us know nothing about it.

So what is a pressed, or counterfeit pill? They are pharmaceutical imposters made by drug dealers instead of lab technicians. They look exactly like the real thing in color, size, shape and feel. They even mimic the imprint code found on authentic medications. They look so real police are routinely fooled; unless you are transporting buckets of them in the backseat of your truck you are going to get by just fine – even if pulled over and asked to turn your pockets inside out.

But here’s the bigger problem: they are not what they purport to be. Pressed Adderall is comprised of methamphetamine, crack and speed; Xanax of ammonia, rat poison and fentanyl and Ecstasy of ketamine, bath salts and morphine. They may not be what you were originally shopping for, but they will get you high; and in doing so flood your bloodstream with highly addictive, highly deadly, substances.

How are they made? With a simple $500 investment on a pill press and pill mold. Equipment that is easily found on the internet. The profit on such an investment is six figures.* It’s no wonder it’s a burgeoning underground marketplace.

It’s seriously depressing. It is so monumentally hard to get ahead of the illegal drug trade. When one door closes (cutting back on the over prescribing of legal meds) another one opens.

I think back to a party I attended in 1984 at Vanderbilt University. I was a freshman experiencing my first frat party. It was wild. The music was blasting and the rooms pulsated with purple light. A few men wove their way through the crowd carrying large silver trays littered with pills. Pills of every color and size – free for the taking. I stuck to my beer. But plenty of others picked from the tray.

Here too one can get seriously depressed contemplating the ever widening scope of the problem. Yes, those pills pose a danger to those actively seeking them, but also to those who do not.

Richard Salter of Omaha’s DEA agency warns, “Please educate your high school and college-age kids on the extreme dangers of counterfeit medications, too often the overdose victims are young and are not prior drug abusers. They went to a party and someone offered them a pill to relax them – then they died. Too many American parents have had to bury their children as a result of drug overdose.” **

And so you have it: today’s public service announcement.

*March 2019 NABP, NADDI, and PSM
** DEA, Press Releases 8/12/20

*March 2019 NABP, NADDI, and PSM
** DEA, Press Releases 8/12/20

Summer Porch

I have come to my summer porch to take in the late afternoon sun.
The old porch is hexagonal and has two squeaky wooden doors, two ripped screens and a weathered mahogany floor.

In one corner I spy a robust little pile of mouse droppings. They betray a foolishly circuitous trail; a rodent’s version of the Hansel and Gretel tale.

Under the small wrought iron table I find two soft grey feathers. Feathers like those from the breast of a grey catbird. They lie discarded, side by side.  I can’t help but hope that she didn’t struggle too long before finding her way back through the opening in the ripped screen.

Around the old iron table sit four bright yellow chairs – one of which has a long black hair entwined tightly around a securing strut.  Was it yanked from the head of the person because they rose too quickly? How long has it been there?  Why do I not remember having a visitor with such long black hair?

And as I write this an electric green dragon fly encircles my big toe.
I want him to light down on my blue painted toenail. My mind silently chants “do it, do it, do it.”  He chooses not to heed my psychic call.

So now I turn my gaze to the hummingbird feeder. I have filled it with sweet sugar water in just the right enticing ratio. But no one has visited yet this year.  I used to have a visitor. He would frequently hover just inches from my face. We would study each other. The sound of his frantic wings would fill my ears and I would worry about the short distance between his beak and my eyes.  But it was always thrilling.

I googled Mr. Hummingbird’s repeat visits. It had to mean something, right? What I learned was that Native Americans believed a hummingbird was sent as a reminder to live in the moment.

I can see now that I have both missed moments and tried to control moments. And I am still doing both. I came here not to witness mid-summer beauty, but to distract myself from my preoccupation with wishing for another’s wellness. The nagging truth is that a wish, no matter how badly one wants it, does not create reality.

How can such a lovely thing, a wish, be also such a sobering thing?

As I write this I realize I have not learned a thing.  I flex my painted toes and scan the yard.  I am still waiting for that little green hummingbird to visit me again.

In Need of a Love Revolution.

Life is a love poem. Most days I am sure of it, some days I am not. The days I am not are usually because I am astonished by extraordinary acts of greed. Examples abound. Never in recent history has the wage gap been this large. Agribusinesses poison our topsoil with dizzying amounts of pesticides to increase corn yields – which are then used to sweeten our foods to a sickening degree. All in the name of profits. I can think of a dozen more examples. I am sure you can too. Currently I am dumbstruck by the amount of greed the Sackler family showed manufacturing oxycontin. As the death count mounted they hid money in off-shore accounts, bought doctors, manufactured fake safety studies, and fed illegal pill mills.  Personal fortune in the billions was apparently not enough.  They invested in a pharmaceutical company operating in China and India so that they could addict a whole new continent of unsuspecting consumers (they are using the same marketing tactics).  How has this corporation not been dismantled, their money confiscated, and the orchestrators jailed? I am convinced that someone is profiting somewhere from the injustice.

I am not a rube. I realize profits are the life blood of a healthy corporation. And I am not a socialist. But it seems to me that we have given our golden goose away to the business elite. We have forgotten that our constitution guarantees the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. We can not be healthy or happy if corporate greed continues to control our destiny. And as the Sackler’s have proven time and time again: we may not even be allowed to live.

I think greed is the only human emotion that is untouched by love.  It’s been sixty years since this country had a love revolution.  And I venture to say we are desperately in need of a new one. “Turn on, tune in and drop out” needs to be redefined. Hedonism, navel gazing and blissful ignorance should have ended a long time ago. It’s time for wide eyed collective activism. We need to “turn off (our distracting social/entertainment feeds), tune up and drop in.” Hard.

Maybe you can find yourself in a march against our current gun laws. Or petition to restore our clean waters act. Or question the profit sharing at your workplace.  Maybe just write a check to feed our hungry veterans. Or vote out of office those who are controlled by super pacs. Maybe you will be like Maura Healey, Boston’s Attorney General, and enforce the rule of law. She turned down Purdue’s offer of 600 million lame ass dollars since they will be based on future sales of oxycontin. (Yeah, I know I said lame ass –  it could have been worse).  Maura is holding fast.  She wants the money to come from profits already made. She wants justice for her fellow man now.

The rule of law and capitalism work: but only if we keep our eyes wide open and we play our part.

So choose to do something. And choose something everyday.
My mother once shared that her Buddhist friend claimed it was her “duty to perform three good deeds each day.” Let’s be like that friend.

It’s time to let our love light shine.

Paper Airplanes of Love.

Everything is a love poem.

Someone said this recently.
I think they were joking because their tone was a bit flippant.
But after he said it he let a long pause hang in the air.
And the pause felt like a challenge.

I guess I would like to believe that everything is a love poem.
I admit I embarrass myself. Am I just a silly girl?

Yet there is a whole lot of love tucked into nearly every day: A smile from a stranger, the cat that follows you down the driveway, the extra cheese someone put on your sandwich, the feel of the wind on your cheek, an evening swim, a pink sky, music on the radio, cold ice in a drink, the feel of a warm embrace. Right now my big old red dog is laying down under a tree and sniffing the air. If he catches me looking at him he will feel the need to come stand by me, and in doing so he will have to move his arthritic hips. I look quickly away so he will not struggle. Love, love, and more love.

Of course we can’t dismiss the broken hearts, the divorces, the deaths.
Yet these hurt because they showcase another side of love: the loss of it, the memory of it, the importance of it.

Then there is self love. Contrary to what our media feed may tell us self love is not a day at the spa or a healthy meal delivery from an internet box service. True self love depends upon unconditional love.

The first time I considered the meaning of “unconditional love” was after a text from our family therapist. She implied that I might have been lacking it. She sent it upon the aftermath of my umpteenth midnight run to pick up my screaming daughter from a police lock up. The therapist was wrong. Nothing my child did or said could have made me love her less. I was just not willing to equate loving her with letting her go. I was not willing to “live and let live.”

Sometimes I criticize myself for all the time spent “loving” her – often at the expense of the other members of my family, and my own. (If you think you are hard on yourself ask a mother of an addict how she feels deep down inside.)

I had a fabulous therapist for a year who asked the most ridiculous questions: what kind of wild animal did you see today? what is your love language? But she was also spot on. She brought me back to the love that was all around me (that old dog under the tree, that cheese on my sandwich, that pink sky).

Unconditional self love, however, is a strange concept. We misinterpret it. We think a self improvement regimen is as an act of self love. Or we recite our strengths to feel worthy of it. But self love requires something completely different. It requires accepting that mountain of other, quieter, stuff; our operating quirks, our bias, our mistakes. That mountain grows as we get older. Maybe that is why so many of us address it later in life.

My New Year’s resolution is to take time to sit quietly.   To sit quietly atop my mountain of stuff.  And I am going to write some love poems.  And I am going to let them fly.

Blue Puzzle Pieces.

I was watching a pretty horrible rom-com movie the other night that had one redeeming moment. It was when the female told her heartbroken friend that he was ‘broken apart like a puzzle and needed to search for the blue pieces.’

Now this seemed like pretty bad advice. Putting together a puzzle involves seeking and creating distinct subject matter piles: the farm house, the feathers, the tractor. The blue ‘filler’ pieces, like the sky and the ocean, are chosen last.  (Why would you eschew the obvious for the nebulous?)  Clearly the puzzle comment was a metaphor; but was she actually advising her friend to find himself by looking outside himself?

I thought of my daughter. In recovery she has found success looking outside herself for stability. She has learned that arranging and re-arranging, ruminating and re-assessing the pieces of self is not always productive. Turning her attention to something bigger, something out there – like the sky – can be the best anchor there is.  It becomes an intangible you can neither wrangle with nor second guess.  You can rest in its remote vastness.

She often sends me pictures of the mountains she climbs. And the rivers she runs beside. And I download these photos to my iPhone. I look at them occasionally – they have become my blue pieces.  I feel this is both wrong, and right.

We spend a lot of time as mature adults concentrating on the subject matter of our lives; paying for and tidying the concrete spaces we have built. When we find time to consider the blue pieces – how often do we notice if they are truly our own?

 

Time is Not Golden.

 

Broken things can be mended. Like my coffee mug with the reattached handle. And my old cashmere sweater with the stitched moth holes. Broken things can also just be broken. Like my refrigerator which is currently leaking all over the kitchen floor.

You probably know where this is going. This is a blog about recovery after all.

I like to remind myself that broken things can be fixed. I am sitting at a round oak table that I found in the bowels of an antique store. The owner practically gave it to me when I said I liked the shape of it. I brought it home and stripped it, sanded it, stained and polyurethaned it. It is heavy and beautiful and has the most glorious curled feet. For so many years it sat in the basement of that shop covered in green paint. You couldn’t even see those strong, lovely feet.

But recognizing an objects worth and fixing it are sometimes not enough. The motherboard on my refrigerator has been replaced yet the temperature continues to rise. I defrosted a frozen drain hole and the ice block returned.  I superglued the fraying rubber gasket – it ripped some more.

People can be broken too. But unlike objects, people are not irreparably damaged.  Yes, some may have been born with “operating quirks.” Some continuously fall prey to their own bad choices. And some peoples broken-ness can be blamed on others.

The Japanese term for embracing imperfection is called “wabi sabi.”  I like this philosophy; I find delight in crooked teeth, aging faces, scarred body parts.  Who really wants airbrushed perfection?  But admittedly some things are not just worn, but broken.  The Japanese have a solution for that as well:  kintsugi.  Kintsugi is the practice of using gold joinery to reattach broken pottery. Gold joinery to illuminate imperfection!  The resulting pieces are a work of redemptive art.  Like my round table.  Like the people I have met in recovery.

But how come some people never make it to that redemptive place? I believe it is simply a matter of running out of time. The time needed to be pulled out of that “dark basement,” the time needed to have their broken-ness acknowledged, and the time needed to reassemble themselves.

Today I am thinking of all the lovely people who ran out of time.  When I was little my father would ask me “what kind of wings would you like when you become an angel?… gold, silver or copper?”  (Disclaimer:  my dad never believed in Christianity. He was most likely drawn to the Pre-Raphaelite imagery.)   I always answered copper. I preferred the warm shimmer.  

I know this is a silly wish – but if there is a heaven, I hope that when I arrive the golden wings are reserved for the broken people – the ones who either fixed themselves while on earth or were mercifully repaired when they ascended.  Kintsugi Angels.  

Amuse-Bouche

 

An amuse-bouche is a single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre. You do not order it. Instead it is chef chosen. A single earthy escargot. Tuna tartare wrapped in a crispy beet slice. An heirloom cherry tomato filled with lemon infused goat cheese. You get the idea: a tiny surprise that packs a big punch.

Amuse-bouche: it has a nice ring to it. It’s advantageous to have a fancy pants word in your back pocket for use at corporate back-slapping parties and such. But its use is kind of limited. And it’s a shame to have a good foodie word go stale. What if we applied it in a broader sense?

A successful amuse-bouche is more than a single yummy morsel. It’s a clue to the ‘taste direction’ of the rest of the meal. It’s basically the “divining rod” of the unfolding culinary experience.

What if we asked ourselves what small moment, or amuse-bouche, has predicted our life’s path thus far? It can’t be a moment we were responsible for; like choosing the late train home and inadvertently sitting next to our future spouse. Instead the moment has to have been presented to us. A tiny morsel that, if we were paying attention, forecasted the unfolding of future events.

If you had asked me a few weeks ago what my amuse-bouche had been I could have come up with a half dozen. It might have been how my youngest daughter did not like to be held close when she was an infant. Instead she liked the isolated confines of her car seat. In response I took to putting her in a snuggly every evening and walking up and down the streets of our small town with her firmly affixed to my chest. I figured it was a way to give her the best of both worlds. This small moment now appears a microcosm of our larger struggles; hers to uncomfortably retreat and mine to forcibly show maternal love.

I might also think back to how she wanted to fill her crib with large plastic toys – rocking horses and dump trucks. I would ably assist: You want this one? You want this one? She would grunt and nod and only lay down her head when she was nearly buried alive. For the next twenty years i would become a witness to her unconventional, and frightening, methods to self soothe.

Another “amuse-bouche” could have been her night time ritual. Instead of singing ‘twinkle, twinkle little star’ she would tick off a long list of potential disasters on her tiny little fingers. With her eyebrows stitched tightly together she would recite “house fire,” “tornado,” “molly-dog dying.” When I would ask her to please stop she would insist on continuing because “if she said them out loud they would not happen tomorrow.” It was like watching her conjure up the prop gun at the beginning of a movie. The prop gun that always portends disaster. As adults we know there is no wishing away the bad stuff.

But none of these were my true amuse-bouche moments.

I learned this after hearing a friend speak uncomfortably about her down syndrome sister and the family burden it had created: their father abandoned them and her mother became consumed with her care. This friend smiled recalling how she and her sister would play simple card games over and over and over. She didn’t recognize that her “amuse-bouche” had not been the birth of her sister. The card game was. The words “over and over and over” were the clue – they highlighted what was to become her signature strength: patience and empathy.

Her story was a reminder that our amuse-bouche moments are not the big things. They are not the burgeoning substance use disorders and the undeniable disabilities. They are much quieter, much more subtle. A chef would explain that it is not the oyster itself – but the taste of the brine.

I know now what my amuse-bouche has always been. It was the kindness shown to me by my eldest child when she was just a toddler. I had been lying in my bed, crying. It was nothing more than new parent exhaustion. But she got herself up from her nap and toddled her way down the hall to check on me and with her little hand on my back she gave me tiny pats. And then she offered her pacifier to me.  She was comforting me the only way she knew how.

How could I have nearly forgotten that one amazing moment?

An Augusten Burroughs Kind of Dream.

 

I had a strange dream last night.  In this dream I tried to help someone (a confident yoga teacher) find something in a dark basement. I ran after him to help because I knew it would be very dark and very dangerous down there. But he shut the door on me. And I was left behind in a room full of beautiful, happy, healthy people. It was then that I felt the arch of my foot throbbing. Refusing to acknowledge the pain only led to it increasing and traveling to the top of my foot, my ankle and my calf. When it became nearly unbearable I looked down to find swollen blackness had encased my lower leg like burnt elephant skin. I recall thinking, “This is okay. You can handle this by ignoring it some more.” Just then a partygoer with a handy pair of scissors grabbed my leg and started cutting the damaged encasing away. I was semi-terrified but decided to trust them and was surprised to feel no pain as the damaged skin fell away in sheets. I watched as my leg emerged – pale, healthy and pain free.

I think I know what this dream is about.
It’s about opening my eyes to the constant need to close them.
It’s about learning to let others fend for themselves.
It’s about cutting away the things that bring me pain (not to be confused with ignoring things that give me pain!)
It’s about trusting others to help me.
It’s about re-claiming space with the happy, healthy people.

This is the perfect sort of dream for a mom of a child in recovery to have.

It’s funny how our subconscious sends us freaky night time missives and our waking mind attempts to make sense of them. Of course I can read this dream many ways. Possibly I should be more humble – who do I think I am that I can help an athletic male yogi avoid danger? Or maybe I am simply being reminded to run a little less so my foot doesn’t throb in my sleep.

Or possibly my brain is sending me the naughty subliminal message to get in with the type of people who run with scissors.

🙂

Poetry. Addiction. Life.

Poetry. With just a few words it can make the most difficult feelings easily understood. Or it can transform the most mundane activity into a deeply humanistic ritual. I used to think poetry stripped things down to their basic essence but now I think it has the ability to alchemize life.

There is a belief that the creating artist suffers more than the rest of humanity. I do not believe this to be true. I had a Harvard professor (shout out to Vernon Howard!) who once said “one man’s opera is another man’s ball game.” He wasn’t merely being democratic – he was speaking the truth. Every day I am humbled by the breadth of artistic expression.

One artist I deeply admire is the Iranian born poet, Kaveh Akbar. I hesitate to explain what he means to me beyond revealing that he is in recovery and that his words seem to both inform, and include me. Miraculously he incorporates multitudes* in that his everyday language builds an opera of understanding around what it means to suffer, to dream, to survive.

 

RIMROCK – by Kaveh Akbar

Without the benefit of fantasy
I can’t promise I’ll be of any use.

Left to the real world I tend
to swell up like roots in the rain,

tend to get all lost in hymns
and astrology charts. Lately

I’ve been steaming away, thin
as cigarette paper, cleaning up

the squirrels that keep dying in my yard.
Each cascade of fur feels like a little tuft

of my own death. Am I being dramatic?
Mostly I want to be letters—not

their sounds, but their shapes
on a page. It must be exhilarating

to be a symbol for everything at once:
the bone caught in a child’s windpipe,

the venom hiding in a snake’s jaw.
I used to be so afraid of nature.

Peering up at a rush of rimrock
I imagined how unashamed it would be

to crush even me, a tiny stuttering boy
with glasses. I pictured myself

reduced to a warm globe of blood
and yearned to become sturdy in my end-

lessness, to grow heavy and terrible
as molten iron poured down a throat. Still,

I don’t know the rules. If I go looking
for grace and find it, what will grace

yield? Broken ribs, probably, flakes
of rust, an X marked in an atlas which itself

has been lost for ages. Oh, but I do
know what I am: moonstruck, stiff

as wet bamboo. I remember someone
once sang here, once strung together

a garland of near-holy moments.
It’s serious business, this living.

As long as the earth continues
its stony breathing, I will breathe.

When it stops I will shatter back
into gravity. Into quartz.

(*with another shout out to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.)