Tag Archives: Recovery

“Life”—a Revised Edition

Milton-Bradley's "Life" board game

Milton-Bradley’s “Life” board game: plastic cars and “people”-pegs and a straightforward, pre-plotted Road of Life

My sister and I used to play the Milton-Bradley board game Life, moving a plastic car along the predetermined path (adding pink or blue pegs to represent spouse and kids), and marking the “mileposts” of American living by paying or collecting money for various events. I suppose this game is intended to represent how life is “supposed” to proceed—go to college, get a job, marry, buy a house, buy insurance, buy stocks, get a dog, get a promotion, fix your roof, pay off student loans, pay property taxes, pay income taxes, pay for kids’ education… And eventually retire—either to the Poor Farm or to the Millionaires’ Estates…

In retrospect, it’s not a very interesting game. A player’s individual outcome depends entirely on the spin of the wheel (and the specific “events” on which the plastic car lands), rather than resulting from any choices or actions on the player’s part. What is interesting about this game (again, in retrospect) is the picture it paints of American assumptions—specifically, the events that are expected to compose a Life. (That, and the fact that a player’s success is ultimately measured in money.)

Life at 30: this pair of "pegs" in my back seat, and the rest of life looking pretty predictable...

Life at 30: this pair of “pegs” in my back seat, and the road ahead looking pretty predictable… Ha!

I didn’t question those expectations as a kid counting board-game squares with a game-piece populated by pink-and-blue pegs, and still wasn’t questioning them when I turned thirty. After all, I seemed to be squarely set on that standardized and circumscribed track—complete with husband, house, and a pair of “pegs” (one pink, one blue) in the back seat of my minivan… But this week (my 40th birthday!) I find myself reflecting on the unexpected twists my life has taken in the course of the last decade.

Ten years ago I probably imagined I could write my life-story, at least in its outlines, all the way to the end without waiting to live it. I didn’t foresee any drastic deviations from the proscribed path, and that vision didn’t vary much from the Milton-Bradley version. But God, in his infinite wisdom and humor, had other ideas. (As my A.A. Sponsor says: “If you want to make God laugh… Make PLANS!”) Instead of the conventional course I had calculated, my map of the last decade consists of curves and curlicues, spirals and swivels, U-turns and dead ends and leaps of Faith… I have definitely departed from the predestined path of the presumptive game-board.

winding road sign

so much for the straightforward road!

I’ve been entertaining myself today by imagining a game-board re-write to reflect the reality of my thirties. It’s altogether a richer journey than my designs of a decade ago, but not at all what I’d imagined… Here’s what some of the squares would say in a “Kana” edition of Life

[We begin at Thirty, with stay-home-Motherhood and two small children…]

  • You hit your limit on watching Sesame Street and decide to get back in the (outside-the-home) workforce. Take a full-time job teaching English and science for the state-sponsored online high school.
  • Spend a week aboard a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, earning your sailboat Skipper’s Papers. Charter a sailboat Christmas week in the British Virgin Islands with two small sailors-in-training.
  • Defend your Master’s Thesis in Creative Writing and publish some poetry. Discover that you prefer writing nonfiction! (Although your Master’s program doesn’t offer a “nonfiction” emphasis, this bit of self-knowledge will come in handy down the road, with the invention of the Blog!)
  • Move into an administrative job as Curriculum Director for Idaho’s online high school.  Fly around the country giving presentations, publish academic articles, co-author a book chapter, and establish a national reputation in your field.
  • Move out of your house and your marriage and reimagine yourself as a Single Mom.
  • barefoot at the helm... trying to take control of a new life

    barefoot at the helm… trying to take control of a new life

    Take your first-ever solo vacation: another live-aboard sailing week to earn advanced sailing certifications.

  • Buy a house of your own, to be christened “The Gingerbread House” by your kids. Demonstrate to your kids (and to yourself) that you can mow your own lawn, change your own flat tire, and generally Take Care of Things by yourself.
  • As Taking Care of Things takes its toll, your alcoholic tendencies get increasingly out of hand. You get sent home from work and suspended, pending a review by the Board of Directors after a month of outpatient rehab treatment.
  • Having been given a generous second chance at the job, you blow it almost immediately and get sent home again, this time with a termination letter.
  • Go to jail for Driving Under the Influence. (Do not pass “Go,” definitely do not collect $200. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card.) Embark on a year with suspended license (get to know the public bus routes!) and brace yourself for two years of Probation and peeing-in-cups.
  • a gingerbread house on Rehab-Eve

    a gingerbread house on Rehab-Eve

    Two days before Christmas, call your ex and ask him to take the kids so you can check yourself into an inpatient rehab center. Spend the evening building a gingerbread house with your kids and then drop them off with their Christmas presents. The artificial Christmas tree will never make it out of the box.

  • Check yourself into Rehab, subject yourself to a strip-search and confiscation of your toiletries (including feminine hygiene products—although why you need to be protected from those is a mystery). Meet the Old Hawai’ian Guy, introduced by the ward-nurse as “the guy who takes care of everybody.” Engage him in a gripe-session about having to ask a male nurse for your “female supplies;” because this is your first-ever conversation with him, he will dub you “The Maxi-Pad Lady.” Spend Christmas day constructing the exact same gingerbread house you just built with your kids, playing badminton in the hospital cafeteria, and singing a karaoke duet (with the Old Guy) of the Beach Boys’ Kokomo. Fall asleep clutching your childhood teddy bear, hating Rehab, and missing your kids.
  • HuakaiKapono

    “Spiritual Journey”

    Check out of Rehab several weeks later with no earthly idea what to do with your life. Offer to rent a room to the Old Hawai’ian, who needs a new place. Begin addressing the “what-next” question as a team. Get your first tattoo: a honu (turtle) with the Hawai’ian words Huaka’i Kapono—a reference to Recovery that translates loosely as “Spiritual Journey.” Realize that you love Ink.

  • After five months of fruitless job-hunting (your impressive resume no longer being worth the paper it’s printed on in the field for which you trained), you beg your parents for a business-start-up loan to open a Hawai’ian BBQ restaurant with your Hawai’ian Guy. Your parents are blessedly willing to believe in you despite yourself, your recent history, and your lack of business background (or, for that matter, kitchen skills; your mother had already given up on you in this regard when she sent you off to college with a cookbook titled “How to Boil an Egg”)…
  • Creativity, Desperation, and Determination seem to make for a workable business plan. Several months after opening, your new restaurant holds a top spot in the BBQ category of UrbanSpoon, and you begin catching up on your bills.
  • Call your Sister and your Guy’s best friend on a Monday night and ask them to meet you at the courthouse before work the next morning. Marry your Hawai’ian with those two cherished witnesses, and then head over to open your restaurant for the day.
  • 4ebcc7d6fc5888b7f96987651cd68f17_zps023309f6Enjoy the restaurant’s success, and family life, for a year before throwing everything away (not “losing it”—throwing it away) by picking up the bottle again. Your house goes into foreclosure, car repossessed, business gone, and (WORST!) you lose your share of custody of your kids.
  • Sober up again, find a trailer to live in, eke a living by freelance writing, and fight your way back to the most important thing: time with your kids. Learn how to blog. Find joy in writing, and in simple things that don’t require money. Practice gratitude. Remember, in this round of Recovery, to continue nurturing your marriage and praying with your husband—things that helped you both to stay Sober before.
  • After a couple years of bartering and scrounging and scraping by, your husband ages enough to cash in his retirement account (from the career he crashed-and-burned through drinking), and that it’s enough to re-open the restaurant. Immerse yourself for a year and a half in a second round of (successful) restauranteuring… And then remember again, just before your 40th birthday, that you love to write, and “dust off” your dormant blog…
Have I learned anything at 40? Maybe to "hang loose" and let God's plans happen

Have I learned anything at 40? Maybe to “hang loose” and let God’s plans happen

I suppose it’s a common enough (if self-indulgent) urge to take stock of your life when you hit a birthday ending with a zero… And I wonder if it’s also common for people to find themselves shaking their heads at the unexpectedness of their path so far. I’m betting it’s far more common than a “Life” boardgame (or a million other cultural and media messages) would have us believe. (And I’m damned sure that “more money” doesn’t constitute an automatic win.)

Sure, some of the events of the last decade are things I hadn’t yet planned at 30, but they at least fit with my ideas about myself (like the career in online teaching & the move to administration). But there are so many more things that I never, never would have believed (at 30) a part of my future. Divorce. Arrest. Career termination. Academic failure. And that “unexpected” category includes the positive twists as well; I would have laughed my ass off at anybody who foretold I’d own a restaurant!

If I’ve become any wiser in the last ten years, it’s a simple matter of acknowledging the Journey. I accept now that God’s plans are better than mine; that even trials and tough spots can contribute to growth and joy; and that (even when I think I have a plan) I truly have no idea what’s in store for me on the road still to come. Today, I’ll focus on today’s segment of the Journey, and whatever it brings. Huaka’i Kapono.


What Charlies Are For

Charlie's bike, guarded by BunnyHopper

Charlie’s bike, and BunnyHopper

Charlie keeps things simple. The rack and saddlebags on his bike can carry what he owns. So far as I can tell, that consists of: a tobacco pouch and plastic cigarette-roller, some T-shirts and socks and a second pair of jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a camouflage coat, several hats and a mismatched pair of gloves, a pool cue that unscrews in the middle, a sleeping bag, a plastic water bottle, a pair of reading glasses, and usually a paperback novel or two. Oh, and a Magic EightBall—except he doesn’t have that any more, because he gave it to me.  (I was lamenting, one slow afternoon, that I wished I had a magic crystal ball to TELL me when we wouldn’t see a customer for three hours, so I could close up and go home for a nap. Charlie held up a finger and dug in his magic saddlebag till he came up with the Magic EightBall. “There you go: you can ask IT.”)

The stuffed rabbit riding his handlebars answers to “BunnyHopper,” sneaks Charlie’s cigarettes, and tends to sass back. (No, Charlie isn’t “crazy”—he’s just brimming with humor!)

Thanksgiving 2013: with Christian, Elena Grace, and our dinner guests

Thanksgiving 2013: with Christian, Elena Grace, and our dinner guests

Last Thanksgiving we didn’t open the restaurant for business, but we did put the restaurant kitchen to use. My husband Keoni—with the help of our sons, Kapena & Christian—cooked dinner, while our daughter Elena Grace pushed together dining room tables and set places for guests. The previous two years, in tight financial straits, we’d gratefully accepted the generosity of other people to put Thanksgiving dinners on our table. (Many thanks to our local food bank, and to our oldest daughter Kulia’s “Operation Gobble Gobble” charity drive!) But now the (laden) tables have turned; with the new restaurant thriving, we’re blessed with food enough to share. In the week ahead of the holiday, we put out word through the neighborhood “homeless network” that anyone lacking Thanksgiving dinner would be welcome to join ours. It wasn’t fancy—paper plates and plastic forks—but everyone left with full stomachs and food in hand, and I was pleased to watch our kids unselfconsciously chatting with the grubby-but-gracious strangers seated next to them at the table… And that’s the day we met Charlie.

With two bucks to his name, Charlie bought flowers for us instead of a beer for himself. Delivered with HUGS!

With two bucks to his name, Charlie bought flowers for us instead of a beer for himself. Delivered with HUGS!

Charlie could usually be found at his favorite hangout—the bench in front of our local grocery store—almost always with a book in hand. (He refuses to “fly a sign,” to borrow the street parlance for roadside-begging, but picks up odd jobs that allow him to put his mechanic’s training to use, and his semi-regular employers know where they can find him.)  On our way into the store to shop we’d stop for hellos (as Christian accurately observed, “Charlie gives the BEST hugs,” rib-crunching in their intensity!) and started bringing paperbacks as we finished them, swapping out for whatever he’d just finished. (It had dawned on us that he can’t qualify for a Library card without a “home address”…)

There’s an unfinished storage-space above the restaurant, which we’d originally intended to convert into a hang-out spot for the kids. When we found a rental home just up the street, though, we abandoned the playroom project, as well as the mattress we’d hauled up the stairs… until one of our kids thought of a better use. On a snowy night with temperatures in the single-digits, Kapena unlocked the upstairs door and went to find Charlie and convince him to get himself out of the weather.

Because  Charlie is adamant about not taking “hand-outs,” we’ve arrived at a working arrangement that doesn’t ding his dignity. He keeps our parking lot clear of trash and weeds,  takes care of our indoor plants (and potted & nursed the tomato plants a friend brought us), unloads several hundred pounds of groceries out of our car every morning, scrapes out the BBQ, and hauls our trash and recycling over to the bins. He’s done mechanical work on our minivan and our son Kawika’s brakes. On occasions when we’ve run out of something mid-day (and the restaurant is too busy for one of us to leave) Charlie is always happy to hop on his bike and do the “emergency” grocery-run. When we’ve showed up at three in the morning to start the smoker for large catering orders, Charlie pops up like a security officer to make sure it’s US and not an intruder.

with Charlie (and the tomato plants he tended all summer) at the back kitchen-door of our restaurant.

With Charlie (and the tomato plants he tended all summer) at the back kitchen-door of our restaurant.

We tease him about the advantages of having “our own personal Charlie” to help out with so many things, and he always responds to my thanks by saying, “Well, Ma’am, that’s what Charlies are FOR.”

When our van threw a belt this summer, Charlie took it on himself to ride his bike around town (in hundred-degree heat) to find the right belt, and came back to report where he’d found it, and for what price. We gave him the forty bucks to cover its purchase, and he pedaled right off again to bring it back, carefully handing over the receipt and counting back the change, and then spent the rest of the hot day with his head under our hood. His latest project (his idea) is working on the paint-job on my old/new Subaru. He floated the idea, with a simple list of what he’d need, and I expressed my delight. “Well. That’s what Charlies are FOR, Ma’am.”

Sometimes when he has a couple bucks he buys me flowers… And I know he has sometimes made that purchase at the expense of buying himself a beer (the other “treat” in his life–along with his books). We’ve talked a few times about our shared trait of Alcoholism, though I think it makes him uncomfortable because he starts apologizing for drinking, which was never my intent. (In fact, Keoni sometimes prevails on him to accept a couple bucks to buy a beer and drink it “vicariously” for us.)  The thing is that (unlike either of us!) Charlie’s personality doesn’t change when he drinks. He may be less steady on his pins, but he’s never less Charlie.

What I love best about Charlie (in addition to his hugs) is his outlook on living. I’ve known so many people with more stuff and easier situations, who still manage to be displeased with their lot. Charlie, on the other hand… stands by our barbeque with his hands on his hips, looks up at the blue sky, and pronounces: “I love Life!

Reminders of the joy in living, appreciation of simple things… THAT’s what Charlies are for.


Mythbusters Edition: “Depression is Just in Your Head”

Well, okay—Depression IS just in your head, but not in the way people mean when they say something like that. People who make (misguided, misinformed, misanthropic) statements like the above are saying that you just need to change your mind / suck it up / pull yourself up by your bootstraps [side-note: what, exactly, IS a bootstrap?]… And Bingo, there-you-go, just decide NOT to be Depressed. If it were that simple, do you really think there would be anybody still struggling with  Depression? (“You know, I’ve been thinking about what my Outlook on Life should be, and I’ve decided that Depression is a perfect fit for me”... Nope, nobody says that.)

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

Like Addiction, Depression is a matter of Brain Chemistry. To borrow from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (substitute “Depression” for “Alcoholism”—I will personally vouch that this statement applies with equal truth to both): “If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.”  In other words, it’s absurd to believe that anybody would choose to be Depressed (or an Alcoholic, come to that) if the remedy were as simple as Deciding Not To Be. Both illnesses (and they ARE illnesses) are based in brain chemistry—and for one of them, science has presented us with a chemical answer, in the form of prescription antidepressants. (Of course, there are no “pills” yet to reverse Alcoholism, so thank God for A.A.!)

If I seem to have a bee in my bonnet [side-note: did ladies really used to have problems with insects invading their head-gear? why do we use so many phrases based on clothing that’s no longer in use?] on this topic, it’s because it makes me angry to see anti-depressants demonized (or even discouraged, or disapproved of), either in the media at large or in personal or social interactions around us.

tumblr_lumn9tscW71qjywvlo1_500Bottom line: anti-depressants are preserving quality-of-life for millions of people, and saving ACTUAL lives for some of those.  (Depression isn’t the cause of all suicides, true—but I’m here to say that when you feel utterly incapable of dealing with shit, the idea of having all-the-shit-go-away can be appallingly attractive.)

The first time I faced Depression, I really didn’t know that’s what it was. I was not-quite-thirty, and happily situated (I honestly believed) as the stay-home mom of an entertaining three-year-old Hobbit and a new baby (there’s a hint: I knew about Post-Partum Depression, but somehow didn’t imagine it would apply to me)…  At that point in my life, a deeply-ingrained part of my self-image was the idea that I was a person who pressed on (cheerfully! and stubbornly!) even through adversity. I grew up very comfortably middle-class American, with most of my “problems” of the trivial First-World variety, but I HAD dealt (cheerfully! stubbornly!) with a fair bit of real adversity, primarily medical in nature.

Since my diagnosis at 15, I’d been engaged in an epic and ongoing battle for control-of-my-life against my nemesis, Crohn’s Disease. Despite being told that I shouldn’t/couldn’t undertake or finish any number of things (school semesters, student-teaching, having children…) I managed to get those things done. Cheerfully! Stubbornly! More recently, I’d dealt with the three-months-early arrival of my daughter, 12 weeks of shuttling between my toddler at home and my (constantly endangered) infant in the NICU, and then the crushing diagnosis that my daughter was profoundly and irreversibly Deaf. (For a Hearing mom who knew only a smattering of words in what I presumed would be my child’s First Language—American Sign Language—that was a challenge of staggering proportions.)

Then some Miracles happened. Six months out from that diagnosis (confirmed by multiple specialists), my daughter was inexplicably Hearing—and had all those specialists scratching their heads at the “impossibility.” My own Crohn’s Disease at that point had inexplicably been in remission for almost three years (STILL is, in fact—leaving my gastroenterologist scratching his head at the “impossibility”).

Yet it was at that point, with my Life’s Challenges blessedly removed from my shoulders, and my family settling into a happy routine (that didn’t include a dozen doctor-appointments in a week), that Depression hit. And it took me way too long to figure out what was going on and get help for it—because (dammit) I was a person who DEALT WITH SHIT. Cheerfully! Stubbornly!

What stands out in my mind about that time isn’t SADness so much as FROZENness—the utter inability to face or cope with really, really simple stuff.  Perfect example: I can remember obsessing and stressing ALL DAY about the fact that I really needed to empty the dishwasher.  Yet despite my unwarranted levels of anxiety over this existence-of-clean-dishes, I absolutely could not bring myself to DO the sensible thing one would usually do when confronted with an affronting load of clean dishes: namely, to put them away. I just somehow couldn’t deal with that.  All day.

Prozac turned out to be my next miracle. (Though, unlike our family’s other Medical Miracles, this one is entirely explicable through basic brain-chemistry.)  Within a few weeks of seeing my doctor, that darn dishwasher no longer had the power to intimidate me.

Trying to understand why I’d gone into meltdown AFTER things got better (because I tend to over-think stuff!!) I came up with an analogy from my college days at University of Hawai’i. I’d been Scuba-diving once, about 80 feet down, when my air tank blew. I (calmly) banged on my tank to get my dive-buddy’s attention, (calmly) instigated “buddy-breathing” procedure from his air-supply, (calmly) made the ascent at the prescribed rate to avoid the Bends, (calmly) swam the half-mile or so to shore… And then went completely to pieces. I still remember my dive-buddy standing over me in bewilderment, asking “Why are you crying NOW?” And the best I could answer was that I couldn’t go to pieces “out there” (where keeping your head can literally be a matter of life-and-death) but this was something I HAD to go to pieces over… Once it was “safe” to do so.  Looking back, I think there’s SOME truth to this analogy, but I also know better (now) than to discount the biology behind an episode of Depression. The fact that I’d been super-stressed half a year earlier does NOT fully account for the insane amount of power that dishwasher was holding over my mental and emotional life.

In the intervening years, I’ve dealt with a round of Depression far worse than the first one—because the second was exacerbated by alcohol. (Yes, the Biology-major-in-me does know that alcohol is a depressant… But the Alcoholic-in-me was nevertheless senselessly trying to “feel better” by using it, to excess and insanity…)  Once again, Prozac relieved me of one of those illnesses (while A.A. has enabled me to keep the other at bay).  I thank God that I live in a time when both of these solutions are available to me, and I HATE (a word I use sparingly) seeing either of these solutions—or worse, the people who need them—disparaged or denigrated. I’d like to think that there’s somewhat less of a stigma on anti-depressants (and people who take them) than there used to be. Just ten years ago I remember some of my acquaintances expressing shock that I was open about seeking the help of “psych meds.” (Not shocked that I was taking them, I think, so much as shocked that I would admit to it.)  I’d like to think there’s less of that mentality out there now.

During my freelance-writing years, I was hired to write on a lot of crazy topics, but there were a couple where I just couldn’t bring myself to write what was requested. Knowing full well that the client might refuse to pay (and worse, find another writer who WOULD write that stuff) I nevertheless forged ahead with a version I could live with. One of those was a client who wanted me to write about why people should use “natural” remedies instead of “drugs” to deal with Depression. After wrestling with myself, what I actually wrote (and, incidentally, what the client did accept) was a set of articles on natural remedies that might help with Depression IF a person were unable or unwilling to turn to pharmaceuticals, or even in addition to such prescriptions. I wasn’t willing to be responsible for even one person reading that they “shouldn’t” consider prescription anti-depressants.  There’s too much of that out there already.

If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly busting-out-of-nowhere with this topic (breaking an 18-month writing-drought, no less), it’s because I recently realized that my (formerly friendly and utterly inoffensive) mailbox has taken to intimidating me. Last night I MADE myself go out to collect a week’s worth of mail, which had accumulated there while (day after day) I’d been thinking I needed to get the mail, but somehow couldn’t face doing it. This is especially “crazy” given that we don’t even get BILLS at our home address (those all go to the business address), so it’s not even a matter of worrying about what was IN the mail… There’s not going to be anything threatening, or even bothersome (unless you count junk-coupons) in that box, but the task of emptying it seemed to be beyond me. Apparently the mailbox is my new dishwasher.

Happily, at not-quite-forty (birthday in a couple weeks) I understand myself somewhat better than I did at not-quite-thirty… I have an appointment Monday to renew my Prozac!