Finding my happy place

Today I stopped by and picked up some plants for my garden.  It is early July and a couple of the flower pots on my deck need a lift.  As I wondered through the garden center, a woman asked me a question about one of the plants.  We shared a few comments.  On the way out to my car, she was right behind me and as she passed with her cart of flowers, she said, “Now, I get to go to my happy place.”  I smiled. Yes, that is exactly how I feel when I purchase plants or garden supplies.  I’m about to go to my happy place.  Despite the fact that it is brutally hot and my lower back is bothering me and I have more garden projects than I can possibly complete before the end of the summer, I seek it out with great anticipation and enthusiasm.  I put on my raggedy clothes and an old floppy hat and slip on shoes that are falling apart.  I drag out all my tools; you never know what you will need, and I usually get filthy dirty and wet (sometimes the hose has a mind of its own).

I have often thought that I could never be a fisherman. Standing in one place hour after hour and casting over and over would drive me bonkers.  The fishermen generally seek out cold and drizzling weather because that is when the fish are biting.  I hate cold and drizzling weather. They start really early in the morning or late in the evening. They are often alone and they like it that way. Many are of an age where I’m certain they suffer the usual aches and pains of arthritis; pains that intensify in the cold damp weather, standing in waders in ice cold water. But the point is, it doesn’t matter to them; they are in their happy place.

So it has dawned on me  that our happy place isn’t about being physically comfortable. It isn’t about doing something that is easy or convenient.  It isn’t passive either; we are not in our happy place watching TV. It isn’t something we do for a living; it’s not our job. We don’t get paid to do it. It’s not a part of our resume unless it is mentioned in that space for hobbies or interests and we decide to list it. My husband is in his happy place when he is cooking.  He spends time thinking about the meal he wants to prepare, reading recipes, planning what he will need, going to the market, chopping and dicing and seasoning the ingredients.  He makes a considerable mess. Often he is trying something new, an experiment in flavors one might say.  I have no doubt he is in his happy place.  He gets excited just thinking about what he is going to make and he works hard.

As family members of a person suffering from addiction, we learn that we need to take care of ourselves.  We are not really clear about the concept because most of us have spent our lives focused on taking care of someone else. We tend not to raise our hands and ask, “What the heck does that mean?”  We are polite and timid; afraid to admit that we have never thought of taking care of ourselves. Are we talking about personal hygiene? No.  Are we talking about going our for dinner and a movie?  Maybe. Are we talking about going on a vacation? Possibly.  But I really think we are talking about finding our happy place.  When I am in the garden, I think of nothing else.  I work hard.  I can’t wait to get started and I always linger when I should be finishing up.  I don’t think about how I look or what I say because I don’t say anything.  I am, for the most part, alone. I don’t listen to music or talk radio. I share my happy place with my friends who have also found their happy place in the garden.  We discuss plans, plant sales, tips and problems.  We discuss roses and pests and soil amendments. We take garden tours through each other’s yards.  “I’m going to divide these iris at the end of the summer.  Do you want some?” I imagine fishermen do the same.

Our happy place takes us somewhere; somewhere away from our problems, our bills, our errands, our family.  We are not doing it to gain recognition.  We won’t get a certificate or a degree.  And somehow we know we are there when we are there.  Here are my telltale signs:  I get excited when I go to a garden center or when I see a beautiful garden. In the grocery line my eyes seek out the Home and Garden or Sunset magazine covers, not the People or US magazine covers. When I go on walks I observe and critique the landscapes and gardens I see along the way.  I get ideas. While sometimes I receive compliments on my garden, I know I would garden even if no one else ever saw my yard.

It doesn’t mean that I am never happy doing anything else.  I can enjoy lying on the couch and watching a good movie or going out for a nice dinner.  But those things don’t sustain me. They don’t give me purpose or inner satisfaction.  For me, taking care of myself means spending time in my happy place.  It is not an escape nor is it a means of avoidance.  It is a place where I spend time with myself. I experience a type of limbo where I am not identified as a mother, a nurse, a wife, a daughter, a sibling. Nor am I a gardener or a landscaper; I am simply gardening. I observe and touch and feed and water. I listen to the sounds of the birds, the squirrels, distant voices of neighbors and sometimes machinery. And when I leave that happy place and return to all else that is my life, I am refreshed.  I have taken care of myself.

What We Say, Says it All

I’m at a parent support group. We begin our meeting by going around the room and ‘checking in.’  Check-in can be a brief update or it can include introducing ourselves and our history to any guests or new members joining the group.  It generally goes something like this, “I’m Nancy, the mother of a heroin addict. My daughter is 24 years old, living on the streets and I haven’t heard from her in over a year.  She began using around age 14.  We sent her to numerous treatment programs and at one point she stayed sober for 13 months….”  The next person does essentially the same thing.  Over time we all know each other’s stories and even the name, age, drug of choice, history of use and relapse of every adult child. I notice that each participant frames their introduction around the addict in their life.

What strikes me is this: when a parent doesn’t say enough about his or her addicted child, the group doesn’t hesitate to jump in. Someone asks “Is Sam still in jail?” Someone else chimes in, “When is his next court date?” The entire group is focused on the addict even though this is supposed to be a parent support group. What we do say about ourselves tends to be on the vague side and far less than what we say about our addict; “I’m doing OK. I’m trying to take care of myself. I’m feeling better,” etc.  A common question we ask when we greet one another is, “How is <name of addict>  doing?”  rather than “How are you doing?” I hate to say this, but sometimes it seems like these inquiries are really about satisfying a morbid curiosity especially if the last inquiry brought up something dramatic (e.g. an overdose or an arrest). I’ve asked these same questions too.

As we go around the room, I drift off to contemplate conversations between parents of adult children who are not addicts.  Many conversations between parents of grown children focus on the grown child and not on the lives of the two people having the conversation. The majority of these conversations begin with the ‘listener’ making an inquiry such as ‘How is your daughter doing?’ The listener nods his or her head, asks appropriate questions and interjects things like, isn’t that wonderful. Most of what is said is positive and brings a bit of a puffed chest to the parent or grandparent who is responding to the inquiry. “Charlie just finished graduate school. Susan was promoted in her job. Andrea is expecting a baby this summer.” I’ve never heard someone say something like “Timothy is a couch potato who has put on 30 extra pounds and is still out of work.” As soon as one party finishes describing the feats or accomplishments of his or her offspring, the listening party will be ready to do the same. Its a bit of a dance.

How are these interactions similar or dissimilar? In both cases the conversation often begins with an inquiry about a third party; the adult children.  The information shared tends to focus on facts: Tommy graduated from medical school; James got arrested; Karen overdosed last Friday. The listening party doesn’t actually know the adult child or only knows them from a distance (e.g. I met your son once while he was in rehab with my daughter or I remember your granddaughter because she went to high school with my granddaughter). The inquiries serve an underlying purpose; In the case of parents discussing the accomplishments of their adult children, there is a sense of pride and taking some indirect credit for the accomplishments or their offspring. In the case of the parents discussing the woes of their addicted children, there is a subtle competition to attract the most sympathy; a bit like being Queen for a Day, an old TV program where people actually competed by telling their terrible predicament and the audience deciding which contestant had the most compelling story based on an applause meter. The person whose story invoked the most sympathy was rewarded with assistance and prizes.  Hey, it was a really popular show in the 50s!

The person making the inquiry may also have an unwitting agenda. Asking someone about their grown children can be an invitation to be asked about your own grown children. On the other hand, it can also be a kindness that allows someone an opportunity to gloat a bit; especially true when you inquire about grandchildren.  If I were asked to paraphrase the message, I might say ‘listen to how well my offspring are doing and what does that say about me!”  A few years ago I took my 86 year old mother to Jackson Wyoming for a 4 day weekend.  We had a fabulous time.  My sister informed me that one of the best things about our trip was the ‘telling’ after it was over!  My mother shared every detail with her bridge partners; message: “I have a wonderful daughter who cares about me and takes me to fabulous places like Jackson, Wyoming!”

Asking someone about the status of their addicted child can also have a hidden agenda. It can be an effort to simply catch up; e.g. “the last I heard your son was in jail, is he still there?”  But in all honesty, it can also be a means of satisfying an itching curiosity; better known as gossip. Example, one week a mother reported that she hadn’t heard from her newly recovered daughter in 4 days;  the support group is dying to know if the daughter relapsed. Sometimes a parent reveals something about their addict such as “my son was arrested last night.” Instead of asking the mother how she is doing,  the group besieges her with questions asking for more and more detail; e,g, “what are the charges, is it a felony, are you going to bail him out, have you gotten a lawyer?” Whew!

So here is what I think. When we talk about others, we reveal a lot about ourselves. Perhaps a better way of saying this is ‘everything we say, reflects on us far more than it reflects on the topic of conversation especially when that topic is someone else.’  When a father tells you his son has been accepted to an elite university, he is telling you that he values that acceptance; he puts a lot of weight on where someone goes to school; and he takes some credit for his son’s acceptance to that school. The listener can assume that the father/son relationship has been greatly influenced by this value. The listener has gained insight into the father, not the son.

When the parent of an adult child focuses his or her conversation on the adult child’s addiction or behavior or troubles, it tells the listener that the parent continues to take responsibility for what is going on in their adult child’s life. It tells the listener that the parent is controlled by fear and devotes considerable time anticipating pitfalls. It says that the parent has not separated his or her self from their grown child. It also tells the listener that the parent is reluctant to confront their own personal issues, to look inward rather than outward. Again, the listener gains a lot of insight into the parent, not the addicted adult child.

In both scenarios the focus can divert the participants from making a meaningful connection. One of the things that addicts often confront is their need for drama in their lives.  So I’m beginning to wonder if the family members are not vulnerable to the same need. Chasing the scoop diverts us from ourselves and allows us to sidestep the real reason we are here, to work on ourselves.

Oh, it’s my turn to introduce myself. I say my name, that I am a mother of an addict, that I write a blog about addiction and that I am feeling pretty good today. Within two seconds, someone in the group asks, “What about your son?” Someone else asks “Is he still in jail?” and another person asks “How is he doing?”

I rest my case.

It is Dearness Only……….

My husband and I were gone for ten days, traveling back east to visit old friends and family, to attend a conference in honor of a colleague, to see a 4 month old great nephew for the first time and so on.  When we got home, there were many things we needed to get done.  The mail was piled high, there were loads of laundry and unread emails to beat the band.  But unfortunately, we were coming down with the flu.  Yes, we got our flu shots but we got the flu anyway.   Instead  of doing all the things we needed to do, we went to bed with fevers and coughs and an overwhelming fatigue.  Personally, I always find it hard to return from a trip and get everything back in order; the flu really added to my miseries.  But that is life; things don’t always go as planned. Lying in bed allowed me to reflect on our trip.  Between bouts of uncontrolled coughing, I thought about our many encounters with old friends and distant family members who are not in contact with our daily lives. I thought about the inevitable question that confronted us, “How is your son?”

We are never quite sure how to respond.  Those asking haven’t seen our son in many years, perhaps when he was a teenager or even a child.  In general, they don’t know him, they only know of him. It is natural to ask.  I do it all the time. Sometimes they don’t know about his history of addiction or they have some vague notion that he struggled through his adolescence. On our trip there were some people who asked about him and others who didn’t ask.  I do not interpret this as indifference but, rather, I see it as sensitivity. It seems some people noticed that we hadn’t brought him up and they sensed that it might be best not to ask.  I was honest with one distant but long time friend who is currently taking care of her elderly frail husband.  She was helping me take our luggage up to her guest room. We were alone.  She looked into my eyes and asked me how our son was doing.  I said, “he’s in jail.”  She nodded and said. “I won’t ask any more,”  and she didn’t. I appreciated her quick and firm response. I know it’s hard not to ask for details.

In general when people ask someone about their grown children, they are asking what do they do for a living, where do they work, are they married, where do they live, do they have children. Often times the respondent throws in other tidbits such as “my daughter just ran a marathon or my son was recently promoted or they bought their first home.”  And usually you can’t help but notice their faces beaming a bit as they reveal their pride in the achievements of their offspring.  I get it. I would do the same. We ask, not because we are really that interested in the grown children of our friends, but we ask because we want to provide our friends an opportunity to enjoy telling us, to puff up a bit and to relish the accomplishments of their children. It’s almost a courtesy as much as an inquiry.

I am not ashamed to talk about my son but I know how uncomfortable it can make people when I tell them the truth. He has a drug problem.  He struggles. He is in a recovery program or he has relapsed. He is looking for work or just lost his job.  He is on probation.  He is in jail. No, he isn’t married.  No, he doesn’t have children. When he is not in jail,  he is living at home. At times I have to say we haven’t heard from him in awhile. Here is what I want to say. My son is an addict. He is currently in jail. Don’t feel sorry for him and don’t feel sorry for us.  He  is reading and loving all of Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. He has grown a big beard because the razors that are provided are so awful that it was, as far as he was concerned, his only option.  He is studying geography because he feels it is a good goal to learn all the countries and major world landmarks and oceans and rivers and capitals and why not?  He doesn’t have much else to do right now.  I would mention that he is the current ping-pong champion at the Oxbow jail. I would reveal that I love his phone calls because we talk about Sir Conan Doyle or politics or the latest findings related to treatment of addiction. I might say that he has lost weight because the food is so bad and that he tells me not to worry because he actually needed to drop a few pounds anyway.  I would let them know that he still makes me laugh and writes me letters filled with love and gratitude. I could mention that he feels discouraged and lonely at times. I would not tell them that he has cried in the shower so no one would see him crying or that at times he feels lonely and discouraged.  I would tell them that he is still kind and funny and loves animals. I would tell them that we miss him every day.

And if they were to ask me if I could have things be different than they are, they might be surprised by my answer.  They would probably expect me to say that I wished he were not in jail, were not an addict, and would never relapse again.  But they would be wrong.  If I could change one thing and only one thing it would be this: my son would like himself, truly like himself, in fact, love himself.  He would like himself as much as other people like him.  And because he liked himself, he would be less likely to be filled with shame and self-doubt; less likely to tear himself down and be filled with despair; less likely to engage in self destructive behavior; more likely to have healthy relationships; less likely to have panic attacks that are almost unbearable. And it wouldn’t matter what kind of job he has or car he drives or cell phone. It wouldn’t matter where he lives or how buff he is or how pretty a girlfriend he has.  None of those things would matter because they only matter when you don’t like yourself.  It wouldn’t matter if he got married or didn’t, owned a house or didn’t, lived in Salt Lake City or New York or rural Nevada.  It wouldn’t matter if he was a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or didn’t give a hoot for politics. It wouldn’t matter if he had dogs or cats or no pets at all.  Because what matters, what has always mattered in the past and will matter in the future, is how we engage with everything around us, how we embrace life and respond to life. What matters is our relationship with life itself.  Is our glass half empty or is it half full?  Can we bite into a fresh peach and feel that it can’t get much better?  Can we laugh till we almost pee?  Can we spontaneously stop our car and jump out to look at a full moon?  Can we cry?  Can we be moved? Can we be human?

My son told me that when he gets out he is going to go up into the mountains. He is going to hike and sleep outside in a sleeping bag. He is going to bring something delicious to eat and a good book.  He is anticipating the smell of the air, being absolutely alone, and looking at a star filled sky.  He is going to listen to the sounds of nature. He has never been a camping or hiking kind of guy but sitting in jail for several months has changed him. That is now what he longs for.

In his pamphlet, Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly, It is dearness only that gives everything its value…”  He was, of course,  talking about our country’s fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I believe that my son is finding value where he never found it before.  And so am I.

Fear of Death

There is death and then there is fear of death.   In my mind, these are two very different things.  Death itself is final while fear of death is never ending.  In death, we must, by definition, continue to live without the person we have lost. But fear of death prevents us from living; instead we become paralyzed by our fears. Death, once confirmed, does not provide us with the illusion that we can undo it. But fear of death hoodwinks us into thinking we can intervene; we can manipulate the future and outsmart death.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While we cannot undo death, we do have an opportunity to break the fear of death cycle.

Having worked in a pediatric intensive care unit, I am no stranger to the death of children.  I think we can all agree that the death of a child is, by far, a parent’s greatest fear. We can hardly speak of it without trembling.  I have handed dead infants to mothers to hold for the very last time.  I have watched grown men collapse while sobbing.  I have gently placed dead children’s bodies in the cold drawer in the morgue. I have thought about what these parents will face when they go home; the child’s room, the toys, the photographs and the memories.  I know that their homes will be deadly silent and that no amount of comforting arms will actually be comforting.  I recognize that many will end up divorced, especially if the death is related to an accident. But I also know, with time, they will come to terms with their loss. So you might find it odd when I tell you that death is not always as devastating as fear of death. Let me explain.

In our modern world, I have seen families desperately clinging to life, insisting on every intervention known to medicine in order to keep their child alive.  It doesn’t matter that their child is brain dead or will spend the rest of his life attached to a respirator.  And no one can tell them what’s ahead at the moment they make the decision to do everything known to man to save their child. They can’t see their future, but I can.  I know what happens to families with children who require care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Often the child ends up in a nursing home until they die of one complication or another.  The guilt settles in and families are virtually torn apart.  So here is a question; are we obsessed with saving our children at all costs or are we really obsessed with saving ourselves from loss?

When I attend my parent meetings, I am acutely aware of this fear of death undercurrent in all conversations.  Parents say things like, what if I refuse to provide him with shelter and he freezes to death?  What if I don’t give her a ride to her meetings and she relapses and overdoses and dies?  What if I don’t give him money and he returns to dealing drugs because he can’t get any other kind of work and then he is shot by a ruthless drug dealer who, unlike my child, is a real drug dealer?  The ‘what ifs’ are never ending and I can’t help but admit that they do speak to creative, although morbid, imaginations.  Trying to anticipate every life scenario and projecting every conceivable negative outcome is not only futile but exhausting.  Behind these neurotic mental gymnastics lies an important question.  Is the primary concern that the child continues to be alive or is the primary concern to ascertain that the parent in no way contributed to the death of the child or or is the primary concern that the parent doesn’t suffer the loss of their child?  Is this whole self-defeating circle of irrational thinking really about saving our children or is it about saving ourselves?  Ask yourself this: if you could be guaranteed that your child would live to be 100 years old, would you be OK if they chose to live out their lives as an addict, on the streets, dealing drugs?

Here is a scenario.  Your husband is about to leave for work and you run after him to remind him to pick up something at the grocery store before he returns home.  You chat a bit about what’s for dinner. He leaves and is killed in a horrible car accident 3 blocks from your house.  Do you believe that if only you had not run after him and had that brief conversation, he would have missed being involved in the accident? Are you somehow at fault?  Let’s look at it another way.  What if you had the brief conversation and he had missed the horrible accident?  How much time can anyone spend scrutinizing the moments of their day as to whether or not those moments were the direct cause of actual outcomes?

Death is inevitable. We all die.  Some of us have short lives and some of us have very long lives.  Some of us can anticipate the end because we are ill or quite old but for others, death is unexpected.  Sometimes people cause other people to die and sometimes people save others from dying.  Those who are left behind will suffer; there is no way around that.  Losing a child is thought to be one of the hardest losses because we see our children as an extension of ourselves.  I understand this, but to spend our lives in constant turmoil about the threat of a  premature death is neither healthy nor productive. To spend our time attempting to manipulate and orchestrate their lives in order to avoid the possibility of death is insane.

Sit down and think about death.  How many people in the history of mankind have lost one or more children?  Millions. Fearing death will no more eliminate its possibility than fearing a tornado will alter its path.  If I guaranteed you that your child would die tomorrow, would you want to curl up in a ball and cry uncontrollably or would you want to hold your child and tell him you love him and you’ll miss him and you are so glad that he has been a part of your life? How will you mourn her death, honor her life, and cope with your sadness?   Go to the place you dread and sit there. Instead of thinking about all the ways you can intervene to assure they don’t die, think about how you will face their death. Go into detail.  Plan their funeral.  Write their obituary. Be there, sit there.

Now let it go.  Know that you will survive whatever happens.  Stay in the present. Take a deep breath. Be grateful for this day and this moment. Acknowledge that you have no magical powers. Nothing you do will be the cause of your child’s death in the same way that nothing you do is the cause of your child’s addiction and nothing you do will be the cause of his or her recovery. Whatever happens will happen. I have friends who have lost children.  One lost her two children to separate accidents 6 months apart.  One lost her only baby to H Flu Meningitis.  One lost her son to suicide. One lost her child to drowning. None of us are immune to this possibility.  It is the risk we take when we have children. It is the risk we take when we love. We are vulnerable, yes, but not responsible. Life is responsible.  This is life. We have no more control than all the parents who lost their children to pertussis or influenza or cholera or accidents or murder.

Courage is not the same as fearless.  Courage is about conquering our fears, stepping into our authority and facing them head on. We must not allow our fear of death to paralyze our ability to live life.  Nor can we allow our fear of death to paralyze the freedom of others to live their lives.  We are not the gatekeeper of death; we are the traveler in life.

Family is Forever

I’m returning from a five day visit with my family in Texas.  We gathered together to celebrate my mom’s 90th birthday (and celebrate we did). There was a lot of eating and drinking but even when there isn’t a celebration going on, there is a lot of eating and drinking when we visit Texas.  We begin dinner with cocktails, sip wine through dinner and then sip more wine during the after dinner scrabble games.  My mom orders wine with her lunch; sometimes I do too but only when I have lunch with her.  I don’t think I actually know anyone in Utah who orders wine with lunch.  But I certainly noticed a lot of Texas ladies doing lunch with a glass of wine.  Except for breakfast, alcohol was offered at every meal we ate and there was never any suggestion that we would go out to eat some place that didn’t serve alcohol.  At dinner, there wasn’t one person at our table of eight who was not drinking.  In fact, there wasn’t one person who only had a single drink.

When the airline hostess asks me if I want anything to drink, I say, “Yes, an ice cold ginger ale, please.”  I need a break.  There is a long history of drinking in my family.  I’m certain our Irish-Scottish genes contribute but so do the cultural ‘genes’ that are all around us. Our society has become accustomed to serving and being served alcohol in a large amount of social gatherings: weddings, holiday dinners, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, barbecues, receptions, fund raisers, sporting events, on airplanes, even at funerals.  I’ve been offered wine at a baby shower. Most of these events involve extended family, old friends or both. And when does the recovering addict see his or her extended family and old friends?  Well, just like the rest of us, attending these social events.  But there is a distinction between old friends and family.  Old friendships evolve, change and sometimes disappear but family is forever. So maybe the addict doesn’t go to an old college buddy’s wedding but he or she is likely to go home for Thanksgiving dinner.

This brings to mind something my sister once said to me: “When I was single, my friends were single, when I got married, they were married and, when I got divorced they were divorced.” I think I can translate that observation to addiction: when someone is using and partying, so are their friends; when someone slips into addiction, they gravitate towards friends who are also addicted. When someone embraces recovery, they seek out friends that are sober. That works for ‘friends.’ It doesn’t work for family members.  Uncle Ned and cousin Betty are still in the family.  Bummer.  So when an addict enters a life of sobriety, his or her toughest challenge may not be severing friendships from the past; instead, the challenge may be coping with certain family members, established family traditions and family celebrations.

My son wasn’t able to travel to Texas with us because he is in an inpatient treatment center. But what if that had not been the case?  I can hear myself saying, “You can’t miss your grandmother’s 90th birthday!” How would that have been for him?  How would he have felt sitting at the table and watching everyone drink?  Well, after my trip to Texas, I’m rethinking my attitude towards my family traditions and my family celebrations. My son doesn’t have to come to my mother’s birthday party or to any other family event.  He can set his own boundaries and determine the best way to nurture his sobriety.  No family celebration is worth relapsing. He can engage with the family as he sees fit (letters, telephone calls, Facebook). No more pronouncements that he really needs to come to so and so’s wedding or show up for Thanksgiving dinner. Because unlike finding new friends, he can’t replace us with a new family.  For better or worse, we are his family forever.   As his family, rather than bemoan that he isn’t present at this or that event, we can reach out to him in other ways.  We can support his recovery. I mean, the least we can do, is do no harm.   Julia