No Solace in a Secret

I’m not one for secrets. (Don’t worry, if you’ve told me yours I’ll keep it.) But I prefer to not shut troubles away in the dark. Light brings clarity and that’s where, having lived with my share of shadows in the past, I choose to be. Thus, David Sheff’s passage, “The Peril of Anonymity” from his chapter on Alcoholic Anonymous in his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedyresonated with me.

Sheff acknowledges that the proliferation of AA is partly, given the stigma of addiction, because of the promise of anonymity. He agrees privacy should always remain a choice but points out that this very requirement reinforces shame and isolation for the addict. But Sheff makes the point that “The history of other diseases shows dramatically how closely linked openness and health are.” He cites the power of AIDS activists and ACT UP’s Silence = Death slogan in so effectively drawing attention, funding and research to AIDS that an HIV diagnosis became, in a remarkably short time, no longer a death sentence. Until addiction is brought out of the shadows, choices and solutions will continue to elude us. Dangerous failures like “The War on Drugs” will persist.

In Japan in the 1980s, I used to meet doctors at a hospital for English conversation classes. One evening, a young woman doctor choked back tears as she told me she had broken a rule of the Japanese medical profession by telling a patient they had cancer. At least at that time, (I suspect this has changed) it was believed that to tell the patient the truth about their cancer diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence – that knowing their disease would destroy their will to live.  And (this always got me) that they would feel ashamed. Seems archaic, doesn’t it?  But think about it — how is this so different from our attitude toward addiction?

Some will say, “it’s a choice!” To my very core, I know all sides of this debate as does anyone who has lived with an addict. We have all wondered why they do not stop? Why do they risk everything – job, friends, family, their very life – for a drink, a pill, a line?  It’s difficult to understand and accept that it’s not about ‘choice’.

Do you know a family, do you know anyone who has not been affected by alcoholism, by addiction? Tell me readers, that you cannot speak to at least one experience of struggle with this disease first hand or with a loved one? Still, like the unspoken cloud of fear and shame that hovered over cancer not so long ago, secrecy remains sacrosanct by the very groups offering up hope and successful stories of sobriety. I agree with Sheff that it’s time to open up, let the light in and reject, to rail against the stigma. Perhaps fewer will then end like my husband — never finding a way out.

What a Difference a Day Makes…

March 8
March 8

Yesterday morning I shuffled out of the house to walk Tetley, simultaneously grouchy about and awestruck by the beauty of the snow that had fallen overnight. My neighborhood looked like a black-and-white movie

Twenty-four little hours later, I pulled into the driveway after work and caught a glimpse of color in the corner of the garden. I stepped across the now soggy brown lawn and found these. A promise of spring.

March 9
March 9

That’s March, isn’t it?  A crazy month of winds, rains, dramatic light changes, time changes.  The calendar tells us it’s Spring even as we still shiver and our breath lingers like a cloud in the frosty air. Still, we made it through winter – the proof is in the brave croci. We are in for wonderful changes – right? Notice, I hesitate. That’s the way I’ve been recently.

Lately, my old enemy – anxiety – has been lurking around ready to pounce on me at anytime, grabbing my throat and giving me a gut punch. My daughter is a senior in high school and we are waiting for college decisions, financial aid offers. Where will she be accepted? What will I be able to afford? You get the picture.

The uncertainty of major changes, so much being up in the air like this, makes me hold my breath, my chest gets tight. Like any parent, I want my daughter’s life to be perfect – for her to get what she wants – or at the very least, what she needs. And in this case, there is very little I can do to control that. So I have become a worrying, anxious mess. I hate myself like this and my daughter, the picture of calm and acceptance, thinks I’m crazy.

These 24 hours in nature (as always, my favorite teacher) reminds me how fast things can change and how most of the time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it. Depending on how you look at it, this fact can be a comfort or, if you are me, a terror. That’s the key: it’s how you look at it. Any of us who have lived on the planet for any time certainly have experienced both the joys and sorrows of change and how fast things can happen.

Within 24 hours you may meet – or lose – the love of your life, win the lottery – (I’m waiting…) or lose your fortune, be diagnosed with cancer or given the all-clear. Shit happens and much of it is beyond our control. Better to not get in a tizzy, right? Better to wait and see what life will bring and meanwhile, try to live in the present. Seize the joy of  a blossom or just relax and delight in the peace of a snowy morning  as sick as I may be, of winter. Breathing is so much easier without the vice-grip of anxiety around my throat. And besides, this morning, it smells like spring.

The Next Big Thing ‘Blog Hop’

2012-08-01 22.53.39

Some time ago, the wonderful Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tagged me to participate in an online ‘blog-hop’ or ‘blog-tour’. If this were a relay race, my teammates would be wondering where the hell I was. Well, huffing and puffing, I am finally catching up to answer some questions and pass the torch on to 5 more writers.

The Next Big Thing, as this online ‘blog tour’ is called, is a great way to find out what some of your favorite writers are working on and, discover new ones.

More about the next fab-five writers: Gabi Coatstworth, Lea Sylvestro, Jessica Speart and Linda Urbach,  Jennifer Wilson, later. First,  I must answer the 10 questions…

What is the working title of your book?The Things We Cannot Change: Loving an Addict Until Death

Where did the idea come from for the book?
 I don’t think I ever had an idea as much as a compulsion to write down the sometimes thrilling, often crazy story of my marriage.

What genre does your book fall under?
 Memoir with cross-over into addiction and grieving.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
 I thought about waiting to post until after I scrutinized every actress at tonight’s Oscar awards with this question in mind, but instead, I solicited my daughter’s advice. She suggested Anne Hathaway – who she (sweetly) says I resemble. Maybe once-upon-a-time this was true …but in any case, she would be brilliant, especially in the scenes of misery of which (spoiler alert!) there are a few.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A love story between an American and British humanitarian relief worker launches hopefully in wartime Sarajevo, but turns into a tragedy of addiction and suicide in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
 I’m holding out for the traditional route. I work in a bookstore and would like to see it on the shelves. I have an army of friends and colleagues in the business who could help hand-sell it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
 One year, but I’ve written many drafts since.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. Honestly, there’s not much else on the Barnes & Noble shelves from the point of view of the sober, so I believe there is room for mine.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? I’ve been hosting authors for signings at B&N for years and I’ve learned from them that writing isn’t some kind of crazy alchemy (well, maybe a little) but rather demands discipline and time – so I mustered some of both and got cracking. I wanted my daughter to know that our story is nothing to be ashamed of. She’s read and okayed my manuscript otherwise, I would not put it out there.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I’ve yet to find anyone who has not been affected by a loved-one’s addiction or suicide. Survivors of tragedies find comfort in knowing we are not so alone and that life can get better again. There are also chapters set in exotic places – including Croatia, Italy and Kyoto – for the armchair traveler.

That’s it! Now let me introduce to you…

Gabi Coatsworth, a British-born writer who has spent half her life living in the United States. Gabi has been published in Perspectives, a Connecticut literary journal, and the Rio Grande Review (University of Texas at El Paso), online at and in Mused, an online and print publication. Gabi is a prolific blogger.  She blogs regularly on local items of interest in the Fairfield Patch and The WriteConnexion – a writer’s life in Fairfield County CT. In 2012, she was featured in an anthology of women writers, Tangerine Tango. She is currently working on her first novel.

Jessica Speart is a freelance journalist specializing in wildlife enforcement issues, Jessica Speart has been published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, OMNI, Travel & Leisure, Audubon,and many other publications. She is the author of ten books in the Rachel Porter mystery series. In her eleventh book, Jessica chronicles her real-life sleuthing in the narrative non-fiction thriller WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.

Lea Sylvestro’s subjects range from woodchucks to witches, cancer to colonoscopies, travel, beach walks, birds, and beloved cars. Her essays explore the heart and humor in life’s big and little bits.  She writes from her eighteenth century house in the woods of Easton, where she lives with her husband of thirty-seven years. Lea’s day job is at Eagle Hill, a school for children with learning disabilities, and she still  finds time to be a women’s literacy volunteer in Bridgeport.  Her essays have appeared in newsletters for Save the Sound, The Aspetuck Land Trust, and Citizens for Easton as well as the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, Danbury News Times and Minuteman newspapers.  She has two travel memoirs in progress.

Linda Howard Urbach’s most recent novel is Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Random House). Her first book, Expecting Miracles, was published by Putnam in the U.S (under the name Linda U. Howard) as well as England and France where it won the French Family Book Award. The book later sold to Paramount Pictures. Her second novel, The Money Honey, was also published by Putnam. Linda is the originator of “MoMoirs -The Umbilical Cord Stops Here!” performed by members of the Theatre Artists Workshop. It premiered at the Zipper Theater in NYC. She created and runs www.MoMoirs .com. Writing Workshops For & About Moms and was also an award winning advertising copywriter. (CLIO: “My Girdle’s Killing Me”)

Jennifer Wilson has been writing for 15 years for folks like EsquireNational Geographic TravelerBetter Homes & GardensBudget TravelBon AppetitParentsMidwest LivingIowa Outdoors, the Chicago Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer-PressSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and (the dearly departed) Gourmet and many others. She’s the travel maven for Traditional Home magazine and Midwest expert at AAA Living. Her first book, Running Away to Home, received the Best Nonfiction of 2011 Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Emerging Iowa Author Award in 2012.

How Much Does It Hurt?

I been having thinking about what I wrote in my last post, suggesting that hurricanes are not as terrible as war. It’s the suffering-comparison part that I’ve had second thoughts about.

Over the last few post-storm days, as neighbors share damage notes (mostly just lack of electricity around here), they almost always say, “I really shouldn’t complain, it could be worse.” We feel guilty about complaining when we know our not-so distant neighbors have endured more loss. And while having this perspective can help move us beyond a very low spot, when it hurts, it still hurts.

In a moment of pain, when we stub our toe, all we know is the pain in our toe. It does not help to hear, “at least you are not having a heart attack.” Last Saturday, I brought my daughter to the hospital to make sure her foot was not broken. Throughout our visit she was asked multiple times what her level of pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. She said 6 and an x-ray revealed there is no break. How can they judge an individual’s capacity for pain? Everybody has their own threshold, don’t they?

During some of my darkest hours, I found tremendous comfort in groups like Al-Anon and grieving groups. Hearing other people’s stories, the terribleness of life with their addict, their child — seemed infinitely worse than my struggles with my spouse. And after his suicide, deaths of a partner by accident or heart attack seemed more awful than those of us who’d been living with our mate’s sickness for a long time. We reluctantly admitted that death also brought an element of relief, whereas an unexpected loss of a loved one seemed it must be harder to bear. And maybe these fellow survivors felt the same about my story. That’s the way it seems to work — paying attention to other people’s pain can lift us beyond  our own, inspire compassion and most of all, make us feel like we are not quite as alone.

Regardless of the root or severity, pain still hurts and deserves recognition. And I think, that’s often all we want.

I went through a spell where I felt very sorry for myself and wished my troubles might somehow be visible out in the world.  A few months after my husband’s death, I went for a mammogram and discovered I had breast cancer. The most innocuous, benign cancer one can have — needing only a lumpectomy and radiation. I mostly felt lucky during my weeks of treatment, that things weren’t worse, that I didn’t need chemo.

But there were bad days when I wished everyone could see the psychic pain I was in. I felt ashamed at the time, (and even writing this now) that I briefly wished I had experienced the hair-loss of chemo. I would have hated it of course, because of my vanity and also because sympathy from strangers makes me uncomfortable. Yet there it was — a desire to complain about my lot, to tell my sad story – not as sad as some – but it definitely sucked. At the time, I think I wanted the world to know so I could get cut some extra slack. I wanted extra kindness – because no matter the level of  pain, it helps.

Closing the Door on 2011

2011 was not a very momentous year for me. No significant beginning or ending, no major success or failure. No psychic (or otherwise) wound or scar to mark the passing of these 12 months. Except for a lingering rotten cold I breathe easy, grateful for the undramatic passing of another year. At least for me.

An alarming number of my women friends are closing out their year with fat medical files. Fucking cancer. I think they all have a heightened sense of  ‘Carpe Diem’, although none needed any karmic reminders about seizing the day. Their lives are rich and packed with love, good work and play. As with any disease, there is nothing fair about this one. But the year ends with my friends as victors: treatments done and clear results!

Seeing their battles, this up-close look at mortality, gives me a heightened attentiveness to life, a reminder, and an inclination to take to the rooftops shouting about the importance of maintenance. Consider this that shout. Get those uncomfortable check-ups and make sure they are thorough. (Insist on a trans-vaginal exam to check out your ovaries – a pap test is not enough!)

My friends’ struggles motivated me to finally take care of the medical assignments given to a 50 plus year old. I even got the genetic testing my oncologist had bugged me about for the last 7 years. Joyfully negative on all and good news to pass along to my daughter. I would have dealt with whatever came my way – I’m not sure how – but I would have dealt as my dear friends have this year and as I have before.

Best wishes for a very healthy Year of the Dragon.

Just a Story

The other day I ran into my friend’s mother, L. We’ve known each other so long and we have such a mutual affection, she is also my friend.  L is also a suicide widow — her youngest child was my daughter’s age when her husband killed himself. Her daughter and I became friends just after this happened and I recall the shadow of sadness that hovered over their home. But the other day when L and I stood in the bookstore parking lot chatting, she said: “It was 36 years ago. You know, now when I tell the story, I think ‘isn’t that terribly sad’ as if it were someone else”.  Time has turned an awful tragedy into a story she tells dispassionately.

For most of my life, I compulsively filled pages of my journal. I still have them all and sometimes crack a tattered notebook for a glimpse of what I was seeing and feeling during a certain time and place. But not much. I don’t really need to remember every joy or more likely, angst.  I recall wondering when I was in high school, why I felt the need to write things down, half-believing that if I did not record it, it didn’t really happen. Oh, if that were true! Now, when I think about writing — about N’s suicide, my bout with cancer, M’s premature birth — I realize for me, writing is a kind of alchemy.  As if by focusing on telling it, the once-unbearable loses the power to haunt me. The balm of time gets speeded up, a healing distance is created.  In telling the story, it becomes just a story. And perhaps, also remembrance.

The Woods

I don’t feel my age (just north of fifty) except when it comes time to visit the stable of doctors now assigned to me. Check-ups have gotten more complicated over the last 10 years or so, especially since a slight bout with breast cancer in 2004. Few of us seem to be able to dodge that diagnosis for long anymore thanks to all the intense screening we submit to. And once in this lousy club, regular, thorough scanning means check-ups that were once uneventful are now fraught with anxiety about what might be found this time.

For instance, yesterday I had a mammogram, bone density and ultra-sound.  Tomorrow I will get the news – hopefully a home-free card for one more year. Or maybe it will be a call-back — for another squishing in the machine or worse, a needle biopsy. I hate those. Hate it all – but try to breathe deeply in these waiting days, savoring the preciousness of thinking I am perfectly fine rather than drown in dread.  But the thing about accumulating years is the increased vulnerability to illness, sadness, tragedy. Once in this part of the forest, we never really get to be ‘out of the woods’ again. I try to focus on patches of light through the trees.

PS: All clear!

Dodging a Bullet

Wednesday, I had my ovaries out. For the record, it was a cinch – thanks to the wonders of laprascopic surgery. Pre-surgery, I searched the web for reassurance and didn’t find much. The information I read made me nervous and I began to doubt my decision. Thus, although hesitant, I decided to write about my experience. Perhaps another woman having her ovaries out prophylactically might be comforted.

I dragged my feet about this for years, convinced to be out with them only after seeing one of my dearest friends go through treatment for ovarian cancer this past year. I spent only a few hours in the hospital, leaving slightly bruised and tender but delightfully loopy. The only a bandage on me was a bandaid on my arm where the IV had been. Ferried home by my fellow, I slept. It was lovely to just to sleep – to have that be what was expected of me. And in these days, post surgery, I continue to surrender to this business of healing.  It is tempting to fall into normal activities and I probably should not have sat on a cold metal bench in the wind watching my daughter play field hockey yesterday. It felt grueling, but they lost, so maybe I was also feeling sympathetic.

I won’t be doing any downward-dogs for a few weeks, nor taking marathon walks with Chris, but I did take Tetley out yesterday (he was very gentlemanly). My refrigerator is so laden with good food from my remarkable neighbor-friends that I don’t really need to cook – but can. I can sleep on my back and either side, comfortably. I’ve barely taken any painkillers. In short, I feel really good.

And lucky. I have a beautiful daughter – and in any case, am too old to have more kids. Because I was on Tamoxifen for 5 years, I will mostly be spared crazy, hormone related reactions. I have great insurance. And so far, the word that I remember from the haze of post-op is ‘benign’. My circumstances are excellent. I am grateful to have crossed this silent killer off my list. Thank you to my dear, now healthy friend: it was her fierce battle with this bitch of a disease that Galvanized me into action.

Mother’s Day Without Mothers

My mother became a mother way too young to know what she was getting into. Irish-Catholic and in the 1950s – getting married and having kids (4 in 5 years) was just what you did when you wanted to get away from home. She told my siblings and I (young adults at the time) that if she had it to do over again she would have done grander things than just had children. This was not said in anger but rather announced as a confident declaration of her brilliance (she was) but our existence had thwarted her success. Certainly a strange thing to tell your children. Still, she believed she was a better mother than her own.

I too think my mothering skills surpass my mother’s. For a start, I wanted my daughter more than anything else in the world. Being a mother will alway be the most remarkable thing in my life and I can’t imagine how she would not have felt the same.  Like her, I also wanted to get away from home and did at 17 after my father moved out and my mother’s depression and neediness threatened to smother me. For the rest of her life she ignored suggestions to seek help, instead stoking her bitter anger and sadness with alcohol.  I stayed far away, living in the midwest and overseas where our contact was limited to often maudlin phone calls.

When M was a year old, I moved back with my new family, into an apartment within minutes of my mother.  She doted on her granddaughter, found her brilliant and beautiful, read to her, praised her, delighted in her.  She embraced being a grandmother and with this glimpse of her unconditional love for my daughter, our own relationship began to blossom. Six months later, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and six months after that, she died. It is as a grandmother I miss her today.

Return of the Robins

Robin Red-breasts flitted about on the branches as Tetley and I walked along the wooded stretch this morning and although we are still in a deep-freeze, it feels like we’ve turned a corner. The light lingers longer each day and I turn my face up in grateful ecstasy towards the heat of the sun. Yes, mountains of filthy snow will likely linger for months, but there are swathes of ground visible — packed, frozen earth I can imagine soon turning to mud. Oh, I know it will be close to 2 months before spring really arrives, but these small harbingers and a week without snow have lifted my spirits – believing now, that there are lighter, warmer days not far ahead ahead.

I aspire to live in the present, to remain alert to the moment with all my senses, my heart and mind.  Buddhists, my sculpture teacher – Mike Skop and common sense have all steered me towards this as a core spiritual and creative practice. But what about when life really sucks? I think of my friend simultaneously battling cancer and a broken heart and all I want to do is fast forward her out of her shitty present to brighter days I feel sure are ahead for her. I don’t want her to have to ‘be here now’ – but she is and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. The pain of our loved ones is awful to watch.  As always, I turn to books and remember that during some of my darkest days When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron , (find a beautiful excerpt by clicking here) was like my survival manual.  Reading this piece again, I am reminded to embrace the moment, as dark and cold as it may be — but I still welcome the Robins back to the neighborhood and wish for spring.


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