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Friday, February 5, 2021

I Wish I'd Let Him Know How Proud I Was of Him

My huge grief over having my son die of addiction overshadowed most other thoughts for the first couple of years after his overdose death in 2016. But more recently, I've been reflecting on Kyle's life and what he achieved--and what he didn't live long enough or become brave enough to ever achieve

Jamie and Kyle the year before he died.
He would be so incredibly proud of her.

I often think of how proud Kyle would be of his little sister, who was two years younger than him but is now two years older than he ever lived to be. Jamie fights for justice in every single thing she does: in her work choices, her group memberships, her spending, her gift-giving (she gets me a gift to a bail-fund gift for mothers in prison for Mother's Day every year), her living choices, and her volunteer time. Kyle was always proud of her for all she was achieving. He was proud of both of us, actually, when  we marched for justice, even though I don't think he took part in any marches after the anti-war one I took him to when he was 11. But I remember in 2014 when I posted on Facebook that I was taking part in a march for Ferguson, he was so excited to tell people his mom had gone all the way to Ferguson to stand up for racial justice. (He was definitely disappointed when I explained I was just marching for Ferguson, in Springfield, MA, not in Ferguson.)

Anyway, the point of this post when I started it was to share that I get sad sometimes thinking that Kyle was too caught up in his addiction at the end of his life to participate in any way in politics or activism. I was proud of him at earlier periods of his life when he stood up for social justice; I know he took pride in the work he did for City Year. But sometimes it seemed to me that he'd done nothing but use drugs and try to recover for the last couple of years of his life. 

Then the other day this post he put on Facebook in the last year of his life popped up in my memories. He was in the fourth month of a six-month inpatient rehab program that gradually increased his freedoms until he was supposed to be ready to go out to live on his own. So when he wrote this, he was  in the middle of his longest sober period since his daughter's birth two years earlier. This must have been his first job as he transitioned toward self-sufficiency from that rehab. I might not agree with how he practiced ally-ship here, but I’m proud that he did *something* instead of nothing. This is my "share" of his post, which starts with my recalling how he fought against homophobia as a child: 

Reading through this and the comments that followed made me wish I had expressed more clearly how proud I was of him for standing up for what was right. He was a short guy (under 5'7" I think, though his driver's license claimed 5'8") and he was definitely not a fighter; probably it took a lot of courage for him to say what he did to those guys. And yet, my response was to tell him that I wanted him to think about how he could have done more or done it better. 

Losing a child gives you a lifetime to review one's regrets. I've gotten much better at forgiving myself for the mistakes I made, knowing that every mother makes mistakes -- but that doesn't mean I don't still wish I had done better. So I share this blog in the hopes that if you still have alive children, you can learn from my mistakes. Tell your kids what a great job they're doing. Full Stop. (Jamie, I hope you see  this and know I'm talking to you, too.)

See everyone next week: I'm publishing a post every Tuesday and Friday now. PLEASE subscribe if you haven't already. 

#allyship #anti-racism #grief #regret


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

We Couldn't Do Better Until We Knew Better

I felt guilty after sharing yesterday’s happy news. 

Besides the guilt I always feel when I admit I’m doing well and feeling happy even though my son is still dead, I also felt guilt over how cluelessly spoiled I sounded. 

Kyle worked at Local Burger when
he was in recovery in Amherst. I still
choke up every time I walk in there.

I boasted yesterday about how proud of myself I was for making time to read more books and write more poems and post more blogs. I didn’t mention my underlying anxiety that there is still so much that needs fixing in our country that to take half a day to work on a poem (which I now often do) feels like not just an enormous luxury but possibly a way of burying my head in the sand. 

I did do some things last month to help advance the cause of social justice in my own small way, and though it felt wrong to toot my horn by mentioning these things yesterday, today it feels more wrong that I didn’t mention them. So toot toot, here goes: 

  • My wife and I stood vigil one Saturday for Black Lives Matter, 
  • I paid for and attended a two-hour workshop put on by Still Kickin on how to be more anti-racist in my everyday life, 
  • I follow all the smart people of color I can find on social media to help me make better sense of the world (go, Joy Reid!) 
  • I attended poetry workshops that mostly featured writers of color. I am always doing all I can to expand my perspective. 
  • I am reading several books right now by and about people of color, including 
    • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, 
    • Trevor Noah’s tragi-comic autobiography, Born a Crime, about growing up mixed-race in a country that imprisoned people for interracial relationships, 
    • and a gorgeously written but dense and long novel A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Mayumba, a story of a girl’s coming of age in Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule

But what is the point of my listing these steps beyond giving you some excellent book recommendations? It’s still not enough, and I know it. 

And yet…

Guilt is not productive, so while I can't help feeling it, I can remind myself none of us has time for wallowing in that mess. I cannot fix everything; I can only affect what is within my reach. 

My goals this year as my book comes out must be laser focused if I am to have any impact. So this year I am focusing on reaching as many parents and addicts and allies as I can with the message I wish I’d heard while my son was still alive: medication-assisted treatment saves lives and should not be stigmatized. 

I feel sickened that as a society we are only reaching this conclusion now that it’s our white children dying in droves. When Black people were addicted to crack or overdosing on heroin, no one showed them any compassion; they were demonized and criminalized. Now that it’s our kids, we white parents are suddenly advocating for more treatment, recognizing addiction as a brain disorder. How convenient. Suddenly we want the whole world to understand that our children are (or were) incredible human beings brimming with potential, so much more than their addictions. 

I wish I had been able to see the humanity in other addicts, whom I viewed as immoral failures, before addiction killed my child. This is a shame I can only live with by turning it  into action. 

Just as I must forgive myself for the terrible misunderstandings I had about addiction when my son was still alive, I also must accept that I failed to recognize how racism was impacting  addiction treatment before my son was an addict. I hope that by seeing me admit this, other white people can think about admitting it, too. 

We were all part of the problem until the problem came for our kids. We couldn't do better 'til we knew better. But now that we do know better, we are morally obligated to act.  

Meanwhile, medical treatment is still what will save lives, so just because we were slow to figure this out doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting now for equitable,life-saving treatment for everyone. I am committed to keep mentioning how poorly we white people behaved when this was someone else’s problem. I wish I could go back in time and fix what we did (and, you know, save my son's life while I’m back there), but since I can’t, I vow to keep my awareness of our history top of mind as I look for ways to move us all forward in this fight. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this with someone if you think it can help open a conversation.  

#grief #guilt #addiction #anti-racism

Monday, February 1, 2021

My Goals Have Been So Good for Me, I'm Making More!

I just ended my best month ever since the death of my son. (I suppose every superlative will always have to be qualified now with a "before-or-after-my-son's-death" extension, because I am two different people in those divided worlds.)

But let me not get maudlin; I am here to share a reason to celebrate. It’s been four years and four
months since my son died, and last month – despite an attempted mob-coup and the choke hold of our national anxiety as we awaited the Biden-Harris inauguration--was the best month I’ve had since Kyle’s death. I felt productive and fully present, as if I were firing on all cylinders for the first time since my loss. I feel happy. It turns out keeping one's promises to oneself feels really good.

I had set out at the beginning of 2021 to live more “a life of the mind,” to waste less time scrolling and acquiring things and to spend more time reading, writing and reflecting. I also knew I needed to start planning the launch of my book (a poetry collection about the loss of my son to addiction and overdose), which goes into pre-sales with Finishing Line Press on March 29th. 

"I've done it!" I said to my wife yesterday in triumph. "I had an incredible life of the mind this month!" 

"Really?" she replied. "Are you sure? You don't feel you have to spend too much time cooking?"

Which just shows you how kind and encouraging of my goals she is.

(Don't tell her, but I have actual fun, often listening to an audiobook, as I prepare our dinners. Who ever dreamed I would be able to eat food that tasted this good every day? Who even knew there *was* food that tasted this good? And how awesome that I know how to create it and am privileged to be able to afford it. As someone who felt I was giving my kids a balanced meal when I heated up a bag of frozen peas to serve with boxed mac and cheese, I'm really proud of myself for the fresh, healthy mix of meats and veggies I whip into meals now.) 

Anyway, over the month of January:
  • I read and listened to lots of books – the best of which were Machines Like Me by Ian MacEwen,
    for which I am leading a Forbes book group on Feb. 8th, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  
  • I wrote lots of pages of poetry, essays and journal entries. If you would like to see my favorite poem I wrote over the past month, please subscribe or send me an email. (I can't share poems on my blog or they're considered published, but if you promise not to share, I can send one to you.) 
  • I signed up to take a five-week short-story course that started the last week of January, and as a result read a Raymond Carver short story, "Cathedral," for the first time. (What a pleasure.)
  • I attended multiple workshops and poetry presentations, some of them breathtakingly good, including hours spent live-listening to Jane Hirshfield, Jo Harjo, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Natasha Threthewey read their work.
  • I watched an energetic workshop by John Sibley Williams on submitting poems that inspired me to send out a dozen submissions last week, which made the encouraging rejection letter I just received today a little less hard to take. (And now, the workshop taught me, I should send out two more submissions in response: one back at the rejector with new poems, and one to send the rejected poems somewhere else.) I highly recommend this workshop, which you can see here.
  • I received an acceptance of a poem about my boobs that I’ve been trying to get published for years! Now it’s going into Logic86’s journal about the service industry, which comes out next month. You can check out their website here.
  • I kept twice-weekly writing dates with two writing friends, giving me about 10 hours a week of scheduled writing time with witnesses, and I launched a new monthly writing date with another friend.
  • I agreed to write two poetry reviews, volunteered to host a Florence Poets Society event on April 28th for all of the members with new books out, got myself scheduled to be the featured reader at a Straw Dog Writer’s event on Sept. 7th, and have been invited to be the opening act for one of the members' book launches on May 26th.
  • I submitted an application to be a featured poetry reader in Phosphorescence, a new Emily Dickinson monthly series launching this year -- and I found out I'm having an interview published with Kenyon Review in their online "Poetry Today" column. (!!)
  • Renee and I decided to run for local town government positions, and we sent away for the paperwork we need to gather signatures. I’m running for library trustee and Renee is running for select board.
  • I started tracking daily goals and habits in a bullet journal, which I used about half the time.  A good start.
  • I played lots of bridge with my mother (and some on my own and with Larry). And although I’m apparently still a really terrible player (based on my coming in near last most of the time no matter who is my partner), I must be learning something! (Right?)
  • I had online game nights with friends and family, arts and crafts and nature time with Jamie (below, who took me on several adventures in January), and 
    some family dinners where we played new games. Renee beat my ass at Scrabble (and more importantly, sweetly agreed to play Scrabble with me though I don’t think she loves the game). 
  • I had therapy every week to help me keep working on setting better boundaries. Better boundaries mean more time for this life of the mind I’m building. Boundaries are easier to keep when they help me reach concrete goals. 
  • I have begun working on an article about post-traumatic growth, which I just learned is not a concept familiar to all PTSD sufferers, which seems a shame
Not everything was about the mind last month. I also took care of my body:
  • I continued to do Yoga with Adriene every single day, which is keeping my body mostly pain-free. (As I said to the doctor at my annual physical last month, “If I’d known how great the return on investment would be on just 20 to 30 minutes of yoga a day, I would have started doing this years ago.” )
  • I flossed most days and recovered from losing a tooth. Those two items are connected. I wish I’d done more of the former to prevent the latter.
  • I started using a daily tincture that is working on my winter sadness like a miracle.
I’m also excited by what I did not do:
  • I did not use Buy Nothing at all (nor did I miss it), though I did enlist my wife to get rid of a few surplus items. Renee is invested in my getting rid of things, so I knew she’d be willing to help them find a new home. However, I’m pretty sure I am not increasing her fondness for the use of the Buy Nothing Facebook page, which is fine.
Now I have a confession: my meta-awareness of how I was spending my time this month helped reveal  one more area in which I am still a bit of a hoarder of free things: I have a frightening number of library books checked out, on hold, downloaded or in stacks all over my house. The audiobooks and ebooks are OK, because they disappear when their time runs out (leaving me half done with several books I have to keep taking out again.) But the number of library books in my house is out of control. I cannot possibly return all of them on time and still get them read. So… I have made the decision not to take out any more library books until every one of these is read. I know this may sound like a small goal to many of you (and will result in an anxiety-provoking number of late fees wracking up, though I know they’ll all be wiped out when the books go back), but I have been hoarding library books all my life (since early childhood), always feeling the need to take home great big stacks of every book I see that I could possibly want to read… and if I can learn to take out just one or two at a time, that will be an accomplishment.  

Also, while I’m confessing my book crimes, I have one borrowed book I haven’t been able to bring myself to return because I keep thinking I’ll finish it; I’m going to send a new copy to the kind lender who must think I am never giving that book back. You know who you are, Britt, and I’m sorry. 

Finally, my added goal for February is to do two blog posts a week. That way they’ll be shorter than this one. If you’re still reading, God bless you. 

How are you all doing on your New Year’s resolutions?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Is That Hope I Feel? (Grief Made Me Dissociative But I Think That's Lifting Now)

I feel like we are all waking slowly from a bad dream this week-- though I also still have the creeped-out feeling that a monster's hand is going to shoot up out of the ground any second, as it doesn’t quite feel like the credits are done rolling yet. Anyone else feeling this way?

I am realizing, from this waking-from-a-nightmare feeling, that I have been in a somewhat dissociative state for the past four years, in part because of Trump’s win but also because my son died four years ago, just six weeks before the 2016 election. The day after the vote, people – no, actually, just women, who suddenly realized how totally devalued they (still) were--were crying in the streets about Trump being our next president, but I was having a very muted reaction to everything except my own grief.

I wasn’t crying about Trump because I still couldn’t have any feelings about anything except my own horrible loss. Still, it made perfect sense to me that others were now crying. I had wondered how the world could be going on as usual when my son had ripped himself out of the known universe. So when most people I knew went into deep grief over Trump being our president, I felt affirmed, as if suddenly everyone had realized with me what a wretched world we lived in.

Before I go on with the point of this post, which is about the protection the dissociative state provided me, I need to tell everyone reading this who is still in early-stage or prolonged-desperate-stage grief: there really is hope; you will not always feel as terrible as you do now. Nothing stays as it is, not the incredible moments nor our most awful ones, even if we feel permanently stuck. You may never feel like you did before your loss, may never be who you were in the land of before, but you will feel better than you do now if you just hang in there. You may even find you like your new self better, as that self will likely be less brash and arrogant having been put through the excruciating humbling we get when a child dies and we are shown we have no control over anything. In time you will stop trying to go back in time and change the past and that alone will give you more peace. Some of you might feel this increased sense of peace faster than four years, some of you might take longer, but that's how long it's taken me, and if I got here, I believe everyone can get here. If you are in the darkest place ever, I promise you it will change one day, just hang on like Rose after she fell off the Titanic and had to stay afloat on that door; I swear  you will eventually feel differently than you do now. (Though if someone is in that water with you, you might want to take turns staying on the door...Just saying, Jack didn't have to die!)

Which brings me back to how I just now feel that I am coming out of a benumbed spell that has been holding me and all my fellow citizens hostage and that has been keeping me slightly disassociative all these years. 

Yesterday my wife and many of my friends cried watching the brilliant inauguration poet  Amanda Garman (pictured here but please watch the video of her reading poem if you haven't). They cried when Kamala Harris smiled, squared her shoulders and lifted her chin at Sonia Sotomayor, something she advises young women to do if they find they are the first of their kind to have achieved a thing. They cried at seeing the little boy who’d been inspired to overcome his stutter by Biden’s example read us a speech during last night’s concert. They cried at JLo's Spanish shout-out and at Lady Gaga's emotional performance. And they cried seeing the list of the first 10 things Biden did with his executive orders. Through all of this, I was totally dry-eyed. I didn’t even feel choked up, not once, no matter how moving each moment was.

I used to be quite a softy, but since my son’s death, the only thing I have cried over is my loss or my increased fear of anything happening to my daughter. Today, though, I feel I might be waking up. (Is this morning in America?) I suddenly feel like it might be safe to come fully back into my body.

When I was in very early-stage grief, I felt like my skin had been torn off and I was being asked to go back to work with my entire body an open, weeping wound. I cried every time I saw anyone. But it didn’t seem like I had any choice, financially, about whether I could stay home any longer, so there I was, back in my office, crying through much of each day. When I had to make my first business trip after my son's death, I scheduled it for the morning after the election, thinking everyone would be in a good mood, celebrating Hillary’s win. I was a fund-raiser for Hampshire College, so my meetings were to ask parents and alums to support the college, and everyone I met with that day seemed in shock. One set of parents I met kept shaking their heads while we were talking, as if each moment they stayed awake that day their disbelief only intensified that this was our new reality. I knew exactly how they felt. Or rather I felt now they had some idea how I felt, as I, too, couldn't believe life without my son was my new reality.

I don’t know when I started to care more about the outside world. I suppose Trump getting into office drove me to care sooner than I might have otherwise. He seemed to be destroying things (civility, civil rights, our alliances, our air and water, immigrants lives) faster than I could keep up and after a year or so I felt like not participating in protests against his behavior was condoning it, so I just acted as if I cared and called senators or wrote letters or did other small things. Eventually, I did those things with more genuine feeling. But even as my ability to feel real outrage over what was happening to our Democracy and Black lives and, say, the Olympic gymnasts’ doctor having molested hundreds of girls, my tear ducts stayed stopped up. I wasn’t consciously choosing not to feel things, but I understand now I just could not fully embody the emotions that came with caring. 

What about children in cages? Surely that made me feel something. It's true, I could not believe how horrifically we were treating our fellow human beings. I was shocked that we were tearing small children from their families and putting them in concrete cells with Mylar blankets, feeding them gruel thinned with water from a hose, providing no one to care for them, and yet calling it a camp. I was pretty sure this was the worst federal thing that had been done in my name since I was born—but I still couldn’t really feel anything about it except anger, which isn't the same as feeling how traumatized and sad those children and parents must be. I did not have the reserves to draw on; it would take a few years for those to build back up.

For at least the first year after my son died, I thought vague things like, “Oh, if I didn’t want to die from the pain of being in the world while my son is dead I might be able to care about [fill in the atrocity]. But I can’t. Too bad.” My mind was preoccupied pretty much every minute with how I could go back in time and fix or change whatever had led to my son's overdose death. Though I slowly accepted that there was no going back, I continued to obsess about what I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome. 

And, as mentioned, Trump’s behavior was so egregious that there were days I didn’t see how I could not at least have a Facebook argument with someone, try to save a cousin or a friend from whatever was happening to exponentially multiply hate among a significant minority of the population. I argued until I saw that no mind could be swayed. At all. No matter how many women came forward to say Trump had raped or assaulted them, including a woman with a credible witness who alleged Trump had raped and threatened to kill her and her family when she was just 13 years old, no matter how many disgusting things he said or did, it seemed no one ever stopped supporting him. Even my feelings about how thoroughly discounted his victims' experiences were did not really seep in. I had a protective bubble around myself. I could feel anger, but the emotions I ought to have felt for the actual victims of his behavior just weren’t accessible to me.

Which brings us to today. I am so heartened by Joe Biden’s immediate actions: just restoring our alliances in the Paris Climate Accord and with the World Health Organization and ending the Muslim ban and halting deportations and signing the Equality Act and ending the immigration policy that requires all Central and South Americans to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum would have been enough to give me real hope. But he’s done at least twice as many things and hasn’t been in office 24 hours yet as I write this. 

Being able to feel genuine hope for my country makes me aware of how cut off I've been from having authentic feelings for anyone outside of  my immediate family and close friends these past four years, First grief and then the fear we've all been steeping in shut me down. I needed time to heal from the trauma of losing my son anyway--plus if ever there were a great four years to dissociate from the horrors of what was happening to my fellow humans, these were they. But I am hopeful I might just be ready to return to the world of feelings now that the odds have increased they can be happy, hopeful ones.

#grief recovery #disssociation