Socks, Pasta, a Memory of Heroin

IMG_0539This Memorial Day weekend I spent an hour sorting socks. The only detail that makes this chore noteworthy is how long I put it off. Eighteen months? Two years? I don’t remember. Why so long? The short answer is, “My son was hooked on heroin, got arrested, and spent ninety days under house arrest.” Micah was a free man as of January 28, 2013, but when you’re a felon, freedom is relative—no driver’s license, no job, hours in group therapy. You’re free, but your penance is lengthy and leaden.

The clean Micah (for almost a year now) is fantastic. With the drug and its relentless, frantic acquisition gone, he’s growing into the twenty-one-year-old man I figured might be under all the junk. He’s not a roaring maw of rage and narcissism. His wardrobe is now polychromatic. He’s patient, generous, quick-witted, and curious. He’s still a slob, but his Titanic is restored, afloat; I’m not about to rearrange his deck chairs. The future is hopeful.

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a...

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as anybody who witnesses a loved one’s addiction knows, life consists of one emotional butt whipping after another. I pulled the afghan tight under my chin every afternoon and received what Edgar Allan Poe called “sleep, those little slices of death.” He loathed them. I loved napping as a protest against reality.

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Shredded Basement Paneling, a Scar of Micah’s Worst Months

Days and siestas are much improved as of May 29, 2013; still, mixed in with the relief and stability of Micah’s recovery is residual pain from the past. In the way a marathoner’s body needs time to heal after 26.2 miles, my mind and spirit continue to ache now and then from those times Micah smashed objects in his basement bedroom or paced around the house with clenched jaw and trembling fists. I’ve done some reading on PTSD and wonder about myself. (The particulars of Micah’s, wife Kathy’s, and daughter Elena’s experiences are theirs to tell, so I’m not going into them.)

One sign that I’m healing has to do with socks. An hour seems like nothing, but for however-long-it-was I couldn’t gather up sixty scrawny minute’s worth of energy to pair them. Some people get rid of stress by cleaning. Not me! For whatever reason, then, a couple days ago I dumped that basket on the bed and sorted. Since Micah was in the habit of wandering around in stocking feet, most of the pairs were the sickly gray of dirt that doesn’t yield to bleach. Some were salvageable. Nearly all of them needed to be washed again after multiple seasons in the basement—they smelled like a bunk at summer camp. Random artifacts hid between the folds and in the toes.

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The Throw-Aways

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A Few of My Pairs, Emancipated

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Random Items: BBs, a Bracket, Wood, and What-the-Heck?

Part of me wants to be ashamed of putting off such a simple chore, but as today’s slogan goes, “It is what it is.”

As socks piled up during Micah’s fury, non-perishables also accumulated in the Coleman household’s black-hole-of-a pantry. A couple months ago I reached in and discovered that every time I went to the grocery store a pound of pasta rappelled into my shopping cart. I’d basically been shopping unconscious. “In case we’re out,” I must have thought. We’ll be in good shape with angel hair, linguine, egg noodles, and shells for a while.

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Got Starch?

I asked Micah to read this post before publishing it, and he approves. (He did suggest one change. I’d described above the bunk at summer camp as dank, but he reminded me that word doesn’t just describe moldy caves.) Last night he was catching a smoke on the front porch when I told him through the screen door that I was proud of him, of how well he’s doing. “You know, Micah,” I said, “a lot of what I’m writing about now is what’s going on with me.”

He answered with selfless insight: “You had to live through my addition. You ought to be able to write about it.”

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Micah in December of 2012: Six Months Clean and Experiencing House Arrest’s Cabin Fever

Like I said, the future is hopeful. Micah’s earning back his freedom and learning patience and persistence. I’m healing slowly, waking up to all the socks and pasta that have been keeping vigil as I lurch toward normal.

Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani

There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.

So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.

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By Gethsemani Balcony Before Sunrise

This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.

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View from Hermitage Porch, Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania

He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.

“I’m here, Dad.”

He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.

Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.

I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”

For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.

Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.

Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.

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Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1970, the year of his suicide (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.

So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.

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A Gethsemani Siesta

In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.

For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.

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Morning Mist over Monks’ Graves

What I Almost Hurried Past

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James Wright (Credit: Wikipedia)

James Wright’s (1927-1980) poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a must read for every siesta lover on the path of mindfulness. The poem is short, and the title covers a lot. The speaker of the poem beholds the beauty of the moment: “a bronze butterfly”; cowbells “in the distance of the afternoon”; “a field of sunlight between two pines”; “a chicken hawk . . . looking for home.” Wright’s last line at first seems like a non sequitur: “I have wasted my life.”

I thought of James Wright, whose work I love, this weekend as that last line kept sounding in my head: “I have wasted my life.” I haven’t really “wasted my life.” A wealth of blessings surrounds me, and at fifty-one, I’m bold enough to accept that I’m a decent guy. But sitting in the Coleman family breakfast nook yesterday, I had a moment of awareness–shamatha, if you’ve read recent posts–that has graced my whole weekend. And this grace–what C. S. Lewis might call a mildly severe mercy–has made me wonder how much of my life I’ve wasted.

I’m a worrier. Give me a pimple, and I can turn it into a malignant tumor in a skinny minute. Give me a conflict, and I’ll work my stomach into an acidic lather. I’m better now than in years past, but still, as a wise friend says, I’m great at shoveling smoke. How many blessings have I walked mindlessly past because my guts were in a knot over minutia? Is it an exaggeration to say “millions”?

Yesterday (Saturday) morning, before I rushed off on some errand, words of wise wife Kathy slowed me down: “Did you see the flowers out back?” Of course not. So I went out the backdoor for five minutes and looked.

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I have wasted my life. But not wasted it beyond redemption. If I’m lucky, I might still have some great years left during which, like James Wright, I can lie in a hammock, so to speak, and receive the blessings scattered before me like jewels, only more valuable.

Maybe wisdom is settling in. This morning (Sunday) as I was walking to my car, I almost missed these blessings–almost!

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Even as I passed through the church office to the Pastor’s Study, I nearly rushed by flowers again. Michelle, friend and Parish Administrator, had these hearty blossoms in a vase:

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As I stood in the Pastor’s Study, I finally got the hang of it–that is, slowing down enough to give thanks for flowers spotted on the way to getting work done.

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Eight-year-old spindly poinsettias in the south window of the Pastor’s Study.

So what is life? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s what I’m hurrying past on the way to making sure my work gets done.

Churchill’s Black Dog and Pink Silk

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. Deutsch: Winston Churchill, 1940 bis 1945 sowie 1951 bis 1955 Premier des Vereinigten Königreichs und Literaturnobelpreisträger des Jahres 1953. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my recent post on Winston Churchill I listed the contents of his bar during the Boer War: “36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of ten-year old scotch, and 6 bottles of vintage brandy (a drink he believed was essential to a stable diet).” And this was just a warm up for the drinking he’d do throughout his life. If he were alive, I’d ask him, “How did you excel as a world leader during one of your nation’s most agonizing hours while consuming enough liquor to knock out a team of Clydesdales?” Maybe his systemic alcohol reserve never got low enough for a hangover to set in. And beyond his effectiveness, how did he live to celebrate his ninetieth birthday? Little or no exercise, blubber around his middle, a cigar hanging out of his mouth, and more booze than water in his body: he never should have seen sixty.

Bipolar-lives.com’s Sarah Freeman reports that the Prime Minister didn’t drink only for kicks. Alcohol was also a salve for depression, which he called his black dog:

  • “Churchill seemed to be aware that his depression was a medical condition. In 1911 a friend of Churchill’s claimed to have been cured of depression by a doctor. Churchill wrote about this with some excitement in a letter to his wife, Clementine: “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.” However, Churchill was writing at a time before the development of effective medication, when the main medical approach to mood disorders was psychoanalytic. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote a memoir about his famous patient, emphasizing the black dog—it describes plenty of symptoms but no treatment. (Although when Churchill was almost 80, Dr. Moran did prescribe some speed to give Sir Winston enough of a boost to make a final speech in Parliament.)”

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    (Photo Credit: Henrik Jensen)

Freeman goes on to argue that Churchill suffered from manic depression. I quote and summarize her article here at some length:

  • “Combative in personal relationships,” Churchill also clearly fancied his own voice and could happily hold forth for four hours or longer, with some of this time devoted to sarcasm and bluster (as Lady Aster discovered on numerous occasions).
  • The business of state began around 8:00 a.m. when the Prime Minister awoke and concluded anywhere from 2:00 to 4:30 a.m., when he turned in. Sadly for his staff members, who were understandably put out, he expected them to be available at any time during this long haul.
  • “He worked from his four poster bed in the mornings, attended by colleagues and secretaries. One General described being summoned to a meeting a 4 am where Churchill appeared dressed in his bathrobe. He often distressed his staff by meeting with them while dressed in nothing but the pale pink silk underwear that he had personally tailored.  He would even walk around his house completely undressed or insist on conducting meetings from his bathtub.”
  • “At his death [he] left 15 tons of personal papers. Most of his income was derived from his writing, and he wrote countless articles, and 43 book-length works in 72 volumes.”

(I’m still recovering from the image of the portly Prime Minister in pink silk underwear with a stogie in one hand and a whiskey and soda in the other. It’s a wonder one of his aides didn’t snatch the cigar from his boss’s teeth and turn the lit end on his own eyes.”)

The extent of Churchill’s excess and foolishness, claims Freeman, is evidence of Churchill’s manic depression, as is his alcoholism:

“Research has demonstrated very strong links between mania and substance abuse. Studies show that bipolar people are much more likely than depressed people or the population in general to be alcoholic. Further, alcoholics are more likely than members of the general population to be bipolar. Do manic depressives self-medicate this way to gain relief from the irritability, agitation and restlessness of mania?”

The implied answer is, “Of course.” Freeman speculates that his ravenous consumption of not only alcohol, but “cigars, stilton cheese and rich desserts . . . smacks of self-medication and links Winston Churchill and manic depression.”

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Statue of Churchill in a Straitjacket in Norwich, England (Photo Credit: Glen Scott)

In the end I don’t care what mental health tag gets put on Churchill’s toe. What draws me to him is his blessed oblivion in the afternoon and his feat of containing his weaknesses and cobbling together an incredible life. I also admire how aware he was of his own fragility. “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is coming through,” he once told his doctor. “I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” (The original source for this quote is illusive.)

Churchill survived all his obsessions (you live to ninety doing what he did, you’re the winner!), and the black dog died before he did. I like to think those long naps kept him from throwing himself overboard.

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Victory! (Photo Credit: luxuo.com)