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Ignoring the Obvious

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Baby Bird and Momma, Google images, 2019

Parents know by the sound of their baby’s cry when it’s time to feed him. You know his every whim – without words. I guess the ability to understand that kind of non-verbal communication and the ability to detect even infinitesimal changes in electrical frequencies and in our babies’ cries is innate. Some modeling does occur for each generation, but our bodies respond to changes in patterns naturally.

For example, we can go years without so much as a speed bump – and then, it seems it all hits at once – and it takes you a while to charge, and sometimes wade, through the muck and the mire to the other side of a personal hell. But we can do it.

I’ve always been driven, but since the death of my son, I’ve learned to slow down, almost to the pace of a tortoise on quaaludes, and so time passes painstaking and slow, and sometimes life can seem very long, especially when you’re hurting. I used to race through life without taking time to just be. I’m sure many of you can relate to the life-altering effects from death. I used to laugh – A LOT – now I am in my head most of the time. I was a Type A personality (who remembers that categorization from — back in the 80s?)?

For people who are driven, I think, the processes of grief can be challenges they present to themselves. The processes butt against our need for control — and grief is unpredictable at best.  I’m driven, always have been. I have always striven for precision in everything. I’m a get to the point and do it quickly, please kinda gal. Thinking like that doesn’t always bode well when you’re grieving. You can’t package grief up in a prettily wrapped box and hand it to God and say, “Okay here. I’m done now.”

But some of us are true neat freaks in the hypothetical sense, so we grab onto order when we can in a desperate attempt to funnel our frenetic selves into the appearance of cohesion, e.g. we look okay – often even when we are not.

Death is a shock to the entire being and, although I didn’t realize it in the beginning, treading that river of feigned normalcy with a 500 lb. weight on your shoulders, is necessary, and it is making you stronger. I know I am different in ways, some of which need careful and immediate attention. In other ways, I’m transforming into a person who truly knows there is life after loss.

I wanted grief to be tidy and efficient. I wanted to jump back on that racetrack and come in first as often as I could. But I couldn’t get my legs to move. The world went on without me and when I was ready to come back, I had to rewrite the woman I was, but using more gentle adjectives, and verbs that were kinder to my mind, body and soul.

Many times, I do have to remind myself it’s okay to stop to weep for my broken heart; it is.

I know I write in the first person, but I can tell you only my experience, and I hope it helps some of you. I also want to encourage you to allow your pain to feed a passion that will help you find purpose in your lives again.

Tomorrow is the 22nd; the month will not matter until January, but the number is significant to me. The 22nd was the day my son died; 5:55 p.m. was the time. My mind has been distracted with homework for grad school – literally only homework or running small errands and trying to get some sleep. I am tired, but—I am driven, so I will keep my eye on the prize and stay in the race, and for me, there’s just no good time to fall apart – anymore. Please don’t think I’ve achieved victory over grief; I haven’t.

I have meltdowns, but I schedule them in between classes, so to speak. This practice works for me.  I don’t need to schedule the meltdowns often, but I do schedule them, because I believe it’s healthy for me.

I wasn’t stoic in the early days, nearly four years ago. I was, for all intents and purposes, a wreck, a shell, a sobbing mess on the floor. To not disclose that little tidbit would be dishonest, and trust does not happen through dishonesty.

Our heart, the metaphorical one, is a spiritual muscle, one that needs to be worked, and we must never have a passive relationship with it. Grief is the same way. Grief is the clay you hold in your hands to shape into something amazing. I hope you do.

My son needed me tonight. No, I’m not crazy. But I heard his hungry cry just as assuredly as if it was mother and son time all those years ago. My heart told me tomorrow is another month I’ve not seen my beautiful boy. My heart told me it was time to sit with my son’s memory and hold something that belonged to him, hold it close to my heart. I could almost hear his heart beating.

I haven’t scheduled a session in a very long time – and to be frank, I don’t have time to do so any time soon, but I acknowledge the sucker punch and I rise to meet the day anyhow.

I’ve always had a high threshold for pain.

Reinstating Empathy

By Sherrie Cassel

Some days I feel an overarching sadness; it shrouds me and I just can’t shake it. I have gotten to the point where I just ride it out. I’m making friends with those things over which I have no control. We don’t get what we want all the time; and after the death of our loved one, our time becomes what Umberto Eco has termed a hyperreality. During this time dealing well or not dealing well with the death of our loved one is a task of supreme magnitude.

My coping mechanisms are funny-odd. I hope as you begin to heal, you’ll begin to see the things that are getting you through right now, whatever they may be. If there is ever a chance to start over as a result of self-examination, it happens after the mind-blowing  loss of someone you deeply love.

You know the way you felt and all the metaphors you used to express your pain — from the first days to even now and ever-after – in hopes someone would or will get it — I mean really get it. I know I speak in terms of losing my son as the primary and ultimate experience of loss — for me. There has been and there will never be a greater pain for me … and the gash runs deep.

The thing is, I have lived my grief for many years now. But I have been remiss in the throes of unrelenting parental grief in acknowledging others’ pain – please accept my apology. People have other relationships – and their pain is no less intense than mine.

There was a woman who told me something I was finally emotionally ready to hear. After she told me a story, my sensitivity to others and to their pain was resurrected. “You see, you’re not the only one who has been through a terrible loss,” she said. She is correct. I was always an empathic person, by socialization, not a genetic trait. But after the loss of my son, I lost that empathy, or at the very least, I buried it to review at a later time.

I’m sure many of you can relate. There was a temporary bitterness that made me blind to others’ pain. I am so fortunate I have friends and even my dysfunctional family who loved me through it, who listened, who held me as I wept, who prayed for me, and who helped in some of the most lovingly practical ways.

I threw away all the sympathy cards – no regrets. I don’t want to memorialize the day he died. I want to celebrate the way he lived – before he got sick. How many of you are still waiting to feel better? I want you to know, regardless of the relationship that was lost to you — pain is pain and after a terrible loss, your pain is all-consuming — but navigable.

I don’t know what it’s like to lose a spouse – but as much as I love mine, I know there’d be another round of unmerciful grief. I know there will be; and that makes our time together evermore precious. I am fortunate to have never lost a sibling or anyone with whom I was close before I lost my son. But death touches our lives eventually, and it rocks your world.

I know people who have lost limbs, ideals, and life-long paradigms – all of which thrust them into the grief process. I am not an expert on grief from the clinical perspective. I know only that grief is something I share with every person on this globe. We all grieve – perhaps grief is the binding stuff of true community – in that one place where we all speak one language. Perhaps.

All I know for sure is the path to healing is very long – and if I may use the jargon of addiction medicine, there are relapses, when we tap back into our pain, sometimes even months or years after the day we realized we were actually going to be okay. The relapse just happens, and if there are triggers, sometimes we have no idea what they are.

I have a deep longing at certain times of the day. I can lapse and relapse into sobs when I hear the first three notes of a song I love. I, with great intensity, miss the silly times when we couldn’t breathe from laughing so heartily, when we talked about serious world events and when I plumbed the depth of his beautifully complicated mind.  I just miss him and there are times when the bandage is ripped clean off and the gash is still there, deep and aching. Do they ever heal completely? I wish I could tell you they do. I think I’m healing, but then I have days like the past week when I stare deeply into the wound and it aches as if I just incurred it.

I know you all have words with which you can define and encapsulate your pain. Share them. Sometimes we isolate ourselves because it’s too much to participate fully in life. Old dusty coping mechanisms that don’t always assist us in the healing process are sometimes fully reinvigorated, and we become silent, or bitter, or we are so unrelentingly sad nothing will comfort us, or maybe sometimes — we just go away.

I’ve directed many configurations of grief on life’s stage using the infinitely many coping mechanisms one can employ. Sometimes we just need to rest in them for a bit, not unlike a diver acclimating to the depths of the ocean. When pain is all-encompassing and reason cannot invoke the person who has gotten you through, it seems as if there is no end – and in that state of mind, empathy is nearly impossible — for yourself, and so, for others too.

And as we put ourselves in the line of fire, regret can begin to consume us; but you see, regret is only placebo; it tricks us into thinking that we’ll never survive the pain. The truth of the matter is, regret is a distraction from a healthy healing process. I know. When I need to allow the dam to burst, I feel better after the flood. Regrets serve no purpose – even though relinquishing them is much more difficult than you can possibly imagine.

Regrets keep you focused on your loss.

One step forward…two steps back…

Talk incessantly about how you feel during this time of grief to anyone with whom you feel safe, with anyone who can truly handle your pain; it’s a fact, not everyone will be able to see you morph into a hot mess.  I went in to hug a friend after my son died, and when I did he tensed up. I stepped back and I knew pretty quickly he was not one with whom I could fall apart. You’ll know when this happens to you. I don’t believe he was insensitive; he just doesn’t handle strong emotion – under any circumstance. For some, that’s just the way they are. I appreciate him for other things –. His heart is pure and pragmatic.

We are healing, maybe not as quickly as we think we should or as we wish we could, but we are healing, even when we think we’re not. Each day we live with our loss, and its accompanying pain is a day we are successively navigating the grief process. Every day we are champions at life.

If you’re in the early days after your loss, just sob and then catch your breath until you can comfortably exhale. Trust me, I sobbed so loudly and of some duration for months; the neighbors must have thought I was mad – in the Poesque sense. Losing someone hurts and that is an understatement.

I saw a meme the other day by Joyce Carol Oates that said something to the effect of in order to write, you must not be afraid to write about taboos. Death is a difficult topic to broach when no one has died; it is much more so when your loved one has.

My heart grieves with you.

The old soft shoe

by Sherrie Cassel

Father and Daughter Dancing – Nicki O’Shea, 2010

Can you grieve for something you never had? I know that sounds counter-intuitive – and I really don’t want to bother with operationalizing my point, but how many of you have wished for something, maybe even a lifelong dream that never happened for you? Or…maybe a relationship you wish had been healthy. Is the feeling we have for that missing thing we never got a longing for — a mere illusion? Wow. That’s deep.

Today is my father’s birthday; he would have been 90. We had a tempestuous relationship — without a single doubt, and were it not for my gently shattered mother I would have never looked on the bright side of anything. Her life while I was growing up was chaotic at best and savage at worst. Somehow though she always managed to see beauty in the world and share it with us. I am grateful for God’s tender mercies.

My husband thinks that if he could have chosen a father (by all accounts he already had a wonderful one), it would be Atticus Finch. I never really had a father type. I was afraid of and angry with men. I never had a father in reality, at least, not in the reality that has a father who is interested in your mind and one who knew his job was to shape you into a person who knew her worth. What would he look like?

Again, I never really had a type, but I would have to say, quite honestly, he would look like my dad, just not the broken version of him. He’d have been unscathed by domestic violence, whole, and a great dad.

I get it.

I grieved the loss of a pipe dream – what proved to be an impossible one due to historical trauma. I miss joy and life fulfillment for my father, and my dear, sweet mother too, herself touched by several generations’ madness.

Because of my mother I can be grateful. Because of my father, I learned to be hungry. He would be nearing 100 today – and so I truly can’t not remember the day.

And as the years have softened my anger, and therapy and education have provided me with answers that satisfy both my emotional and rational mind. And because of understanding, I have found forgiveness, which for me, is tantamount to my need to be angry.

I miss those things I never got to experience with my dad. Certainly I, as do most Americans, think in terms of grabbing those brass rings and killing ourselves for perfection, but perfect people, and here is that deep thinking again, are illusions.

My father wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, either drunk or stone sober, but there were some things he gave me for which I am grateful.

Because he told me I was stupid most of my life, knowledge is a compulsion. Because of knowledge I have been able to understand the dynamics of my father’s deficits. With knowledge comes understanding. With knowledge — comes freedom.

Because I strove for understanding, the last few years of his life, 20 years ago, were sweet and healthy – and maybe, still, even a bit illusory, but I’m so grateful we had moments that were what I had always wished for, but had to wait until I was 39 to have, and I had to set aside a lot to accept the meagre offering of himself a few years before he died.

I miss the Daddy who never existed. I wish the one I did have had started out holding my hand and teaching me to safely walk to the other side of the street – or maybe he did.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Sticks and Stones

By Sherrie Ann Casse

Strange days, indeed. From the inhumanity of political systems to the deaths and injuries of countless many individuals due to gun violence – and the infinitely many social issues we can choose to support or protest – grief runs through them all. Sometimes we lose, and sometimes we lose big. Social ills cause grief through death and destruction.

I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I find it a tad insensitive and even a bit ignorant when someone tells me that “God had a reason for taking your son.” No, I don’t accept that, nor do I accept man’s gross misinterpretation of God. I just don’t.

My faith tradition or religious inclination is a trigger for me. I have felt alone in the universe for nearly all my 57 years. I wasn’t blessed with good upbringing –. We struggled. We suffered. And in the middle of all that chaos was my mother on her knees praying for relief, but it never came. We all grew up and went our separate ways with all the scars and dysfunctions one would expect. I navigate grief with those millstones around my neck.

I had a few aha moments this weekend. I had some triggers – and I had some moments when I was really lonely and longing for understanding and support. I think one can play at being pleasant while one is running out the door toward someone for whom they have no responsibility. Easy people are more fun. Silly, fun-loving people require no work. I do. Grievers do. We’re heavy. We’re intense. We’re desperate for comfort.

I’m not saying anything new, at least, not new to the newly- or well-established griever.

I’d like to bury my grief. I would. I’d like to not feel it. I’d like to be less intense. I’d like to handle my shit better.

I got an old tattoo covered today. The old tattoo represents a symptom of untreated bipolar disorder. One Sunday after church, I was, pardon the pun, hellbent to get a tattoo, and it had to be that day. So, a very nice and shady looking young man, named, uhm, well, he’s named after a well-known 70s cartoon character, with no vision could not understand mine. So, end of story, another waste of money, time, and personal comfort chasing the sun.

I carry my scars and dysfunctions, and I carry my bipolar disorder, too, as I navigate grief. Carrying the parts of my sum while navigating the grief process is an exhausting experience.

Sometimes we think grief is a single process, and I used to think about it in this way too. But as I continue with my education and reading books at a dizzying speed, I am learning so much about grief, and how it is not best served as a singularity.

Grief is as complex as is our brain chemistry – and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all that can be plumbed in our fearfully and wonderfully created brain.

I can’t speak of myself as solely a griever. I am a griever replete with all the things that have made me who I am, cumulatively. Please know you are in grief, but you are not grief.

I want to impress upon others – and remind myself that we carry our grief along with all of the other phenomena we experience – social modeling, relationship modeling, attachment issues, and the swirling soup of brain chemistry that helps or hinders our ability to successively navigate grief.

We have to be patient with ourselves during our grief. We have to take a look at the whole person, all the things that make it easy or difficult to heal from significant losses.

As the Ancient Greeks said, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, know yourself. How best to do that than allowing yourself the unmerciful experience of grief, without enhancements, without shelving it until a more appropriate time, or without racing through life to get away from it?

I had triggers this weekend, so, I got a tattoo, and as the angry music at the studio flowed through the ink gun of the artist, the pain I felt in my heart superseded the pain in my arm. When sadness is at the forefront of your brain – nothing is good. I was numb in between the moments I said, “No, I am going to feel this” – and the energy-depleting suppression of grief.

When grief is allowed to surface and be looked at – everything hurts, but it’s absolutely navigable.

When it becomes necessary for self-examination – I must see the kaleidoscope of beautiful shifts and revolutions of all the processes, of all the muck, the mire, and the mess I am. �

Downsizing

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

This time last year, Ben and I were frantically packing in a maelstrom of chaos; I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Living in a place for a long time, one can collect tons of unnecessary things – TONS. I’m a bibliophile and my library that has traveled and expanded with me for 57 years is quite extensive. Rikki used to tell me, “Momma, you’re not going to live long enough to read all these books. Why do you have so many?” Well, there are lots of reasons; some on their faces are too complex to sum up in a Facebook post. At the end of the day, my son was right. Materiality had become unmanageable. I have since been thinning my shelves, and because it’s so hard for me to surrender my books, I’m glad a friend has given me the opportunity to make sure they get into the hands of people who can benefit from them. Since there is no method to my reading madness, there will be something for everyone. The books are going to the new mental health facility in Fallbrook. I feel really good about giving my babies to this effort.

Rikki had been gone two years and seven months when Ben and I were packing like maniacs, unfocused and beyond stressed out. I had mixed emotions about moving. We could not afford the hundreds of dollars of repairs on deferred maintenance; the city life had become unlivable for me; the memories of my last few conflicted years with Rikki were in that house. We had been stuck for a very long time, and it would take a cataclysmic event – like packing up and moving years of stuff from one place to another – to awaken us to greater possibilities for our lives.

On Sunday, it will be one year that we’ve lived in our Yucca Valley home. I celebrate a year of renewal and yes, sometimes, paralyzing fear of change. I shut down after Rikki’s death in lots of ways. For those of you who knew me prior to Rikki’s death, you’d be shocked to see just how much I’d shut down.

Starting from scratch in a new town has forced me to push myself socially. I was safe in my dilapidating 100-year-old house – a sad reflection of the mess I was emotionally. I have accomplished the one major thing I had put off during the immersion into a time of supreme grief: my bachelor’s degree. I made the decision to go into the master’s program – after nearly a year of tortured decision-making. But for me, the thing I’ve done that feels like a greater accomplishment, is get out and make friends. The women’s Bible study at an evangelical-free church, has been good for me. I’ve met some very real, honest, and compassionate women.

We’re still feeling our way around each other. They’d been together for a long time before I entered the scene– and incorporating a new person into established dynamics takes time. They have succeeded in making me feel welcome, however; and I am grateful for them.

I’ve always made friends easily, but I don’t know, after losing Rikki, I’m just, quite frankly, a different person. I was the mother and he was the child, but I feel unsteady on my feet without him here to hold my hand as I walk into a new world – a world without him.

Everything changes when you lose a child. Topics of discussion and word choices become so carefully strategized, and you learn how to pare yourself away from a conversation with the skill of a surgeon. No one is the wiser as you seamlessly separate yourself from tough topics. Who knew you could be so assertive as you deftly change topics? Everything changes.

Ben has decided to pursue a master’s degree in literature through an online university in Glasgow. This past year he spent marinating in front of his computer and working in his Cowboy Zen rock garden has yielded good fruit for him. We’ll be two students this year in our still new and far less cluttered home.

I’ve rearranged my home office once now and in the next few days, it will take on yet another transformation. I nest before each semester of classes begins. Everything must be aesthetically pleasing and functional. Some things don’t change, I guess.

You see, you can rid yourself of books, clothes with tags still on them, and infernal Big Gulp cups you never meant to collect. You can change locations and furniture placement, but memories follow you wherever you go, and while your perception may change about how and why things happened the way they did, the weight of those memories remains the same. Some life events are just powerfully impactful.

We take our lessons and, best case scenario, we use them to improve ourselves and our world.

From my little desert home, complete with seasons, I celebrate my life, the glorious days and the ones fraught with pain. I have come to some conclusions despite the incessant vacillations in which they have been born. It’s in the interstices between stagnation and bursts of growth where change gains momentum.

I’ve never had a green thumb – but we have nine rose bushes here, and suddenly, I have a sense of parental concern for them. I want to ensure their survival. I want to be responsible for the perpetuation of their beauty. I want to grow with them – through unrelenting heat and bittersweet cold…and the springtime in between.

Artist unnamed, Google search, words: minimalist art

“I’ve got a feeling somebody’s watching me”

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

For me, I scream the loudest in my silent moments. For example, I just spent the weekend in Mexico with my younger brother. I had a lot of down time while there. Other than a neighborhood of barking dogs, including my nephew, there were no distractions. I had the opportunity to feel in a way I don’t always allow myself while at home.

I thought about my son’s sweet demeanor. He was always so kind to strangers and those in need. Once we were grocery shopping, and a wife and her wounded warrior husband were in the dairy aisle. He was in a wheelchair and she, being frustrated and tired, I’m sure, refused to take the cream off the shelf for him. She kept saying, “You can do it yourself.” He pleaded with her to help him and she would not.

My son was so saddened by this that he walked over and took the cream off the shelf for this proud warrior and handed it to him and then walked away. His heart was always with those who were hurt by the people in their lives and hurt by our world.

He had been hurt plenty in his lifetime, including by me, and I certainly, as do all of us who have lost a loved one, have guilt over words said in anger and desperation. When you love someone who is addicted to drugs there are a lot of desperate moments. But…there are loving, tender, funny, and beautiful moments too, as a matter of course.

I have certainly, as Oprah Winfrey says, cried the “ugly cry” before. My face can get pretty puckered and red from sobbing, and even though Rikki will have been gone four years in January, I still have moments of the most visceral pain. I miss him so much – as they say – it hurts.

Over the weekend, I went to bed early, and I wept silently for my loss. I must believe, or else I’d never heal, that my boy is in a heaven beyond my comprehension. What comforts you in your moments of supreme grief?

Modeling is so important, and we all have someone in our lives for whom we are an example. I grieved, in the beginning, solely for myself. I spent time in each stage of the grief cycle, in no particular order, and I was often all over the map. One day I’d be performing optimally in my life, and two days later, I’d be a weeping mess on the floor.

Our grandson lives in northern California and so was not here to see my process from the beginning, but each time he visits us we share a little more of our process together. I cry, sometimes the ugly cry in front of him. I want him to know it’s okay for him to lose it from time to time – and I also want him to know pain lessens in intensity and in frequency. When we love someone and we lose them, IT HURTS, beyond description, and tears are our way of releasing some of the viscerality of our extreme anguish. But anguish is not a place for us to stay.

I spent the first two years lying prostrate on the floor begging God to take away my pain, just as I prayed in the same fashion, for my son to be saved from death, and at the end of the day, I believe he has been. I have decided, in light of my son’s death, that life is too short and too beautiful to not grab hold of all the joy I can muster as I whittle away at my own life, creating, laughing, loving, and living to the best of my ability. I model for my grandson how to grieve in a healthy manner – and I model for him how to live life in celebration of all God has gifted us with.

People do watch us – some with trepidation – fearful of the probability they will, at some point, also lose someone who is closest to them. How do you it? I’m often asked this question. How have you managed to smile again after such a tremendous loss?

The loss is for a lifetime. The pain subsides but still comes up with various triggers. I did not lose my son so I could teach others how to properly grieve, but since I’m here, I may as well. I want others to know, even in their darkest hours, there is more than a pinprick of light to lead us out of what can turn into chronic and complicated grief – if we don’t daily work through the many and vacillating feelings that arise for us.

I tried to never tap into the despair while my son was dying. I held on to hope ‘til his very last breath. I still have brief moments of despair, not hopelessness, but despair, certainly. But I can use the despair I feel from time to time as a catalyst for positive changes in my life.

I want to live in such a way others can ride my coattails to their own happy endings – in spite of those moments of despair. Time is fleeting and when we’re in that place where our pain comes hemorrhaging from our eyes, I pray we find the strength to use it as a springboard to heal and to help others to find their own way to healing too.

I have a grief site with some amazing parents who have lost children, and from this group I have seen healthy grief modeled. I have seen parents, in their own deepest grief, reach out to other parents with words of love, concern and encouragement.

In my private moments I may weep bucketsful, but I am grateful for the opportunity to love others through their times of grief.

We are not, as Donne said, “an island unto [itself]” — .  Every single thing each of us does touches, informs, or inspires others. Taking our experiences and using them for the benefit of others is not out of the realm of possibilities for us. Take your time getting to that place where you are a thriving example to others for how to navigate the grief process.

When the sadness, anger, bitterness, and incessant asking of the question, Why me?, begin to subside, and we find ourselves on the other side of those feelings, it is a perfect opportunity to say, My child, spouse, friend, etc., died, and here is how I get through it…

Legitimate Grief

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I have some of my son’s clothing. Many of his shirts still smell like he did, Axe body wash, Tide, and wine scented cigars. Those scents are conscious and deliberate, unlike when he smelled like Johnson’s baby lotion, Apple juice and pureed carrots.

That comparison stings.

I don’t want to make this page about addiction, but I do want to share insight about grief through different perspectives and, hence, touch on social issues.

For example. In the 2016 Journal of Addiction Medicine, is an estimate of deaths due to opioid addiction at 10,574 per year. This figure does not include those who died slow, tortured deaths.

There has been judgment about my son’s death by people who didn’t know him before he got caught in the neurological web of addiction. Please know, those who are tortured by addiction have minds, hearts, souls, and — feelings.

They are no less worthy of the grief we feel when they pass — as is anyone else.

The medical model of addiction is still a hotly debated topic in our society. Is addiction a choice? At some point does an addict lose his ability to choose? I’m not talking about the behavior borne of substance use. I’m talking about the inability to choose after excessive use of a substance; is using still a choice when the brain and the body believe they will die in withdrawals without it?

Do we judge other types of mental illness as harshly and yet as dismissively as addiction? No, the phenomenon of victim blaming rears its cruel head — especially in deaths that are not considered “natural.”

“He had horrible eating habits.” “Well, he did smoke.” “One less junkie.” Some hurt people hurt people. Some hurt people hurt themselves.

Addiction is a disease that can lead to self-destruction. Addiction is also a disease that does hurt others. People die every day trying to reclaim their lives, trying to save their lives.

Anyone who tells you addicts didn’t “try hard enough” to kick their drug use– is quite frankly — full of shit.

I watched my son suffer. I watched him writhe in pain wishing he could kick his addiction. I watched him lose his mind during a psychotic break when I thought I was going to lose him to drug induced psychosis. I thought he’d have to live in this world and never enjoy it again.

He pulled through that time — and the next day when his mind cleared, he called me and said, “Momma, did any of those things happen?” I said, “No, baby, they didn’t.

His delusions were quite extensive that night. I was bereft as I drove him to the motel for the night.

He chose to go to detox the next day, and then to a 30 day live-in drug rehabilitation facility, where he made some wonderful friends. Some would make it out alive, and some, like my son, didn’t make it.

He was like I am in the way that it didn’t matter where he was, he tried to make the best of it. He’d find something beautiful in everything. Being broken himself, he gravitated to other beautifully broken people. He’d encourage them to hang in there and he’d tell them they would make it.

He was such a positive presence in so many lives, but he had a lot of secrets.

As a matter of fact, I never knew the extent of his self-loathing. He must have been in so much pain. I wish I had been more compassionate instead of frustrated. I wish I would have empowered him rather than hurt him through my own powerlessness.

My son went to detox three times and to rehab twice. I was overjoyed each time he went in. He’d make tremendous progress. He’d work the steps and try, oh my God, how he tried to stay sober. I see that now.

He loved life. He had dreams.

He made this picture during one of his classes offered in rehab. He made fun of the types of things the addiction specialists would plan for them. But, secretly, he loved them.

This picture/collage is so beautiful. He chose colors very deliberately. Gray was his favorite color (now it’s his son’s). Orange is my favorite color. Red is the favorite color of the woman he never stopped loving–in spite of everything. Green for renewal. And black — for the way he felt about himself all the way to the core of his being by way of a broken heart.

When he showed his artwork to me I cried and told him how beautiful it was, each piece. He laughed and said, “Oh Mom, it’s so stupid that they think having us make pretty stuff is going to save us.”

I framed his collage today. It’s hanging in my office above my desk where I can look at it every day. I feel his pain. I feel his presence.

He was my favorite cynic. I had hoped his penchant for cynicism would help him to see how futile drug use was. I had hoped he would see the pointlessness of drugs and “just quit”. I was a fool.

Despite some members of our society’s cruel judgment about who is deserving of deep, sloppy grief and transformation, I love my boy. I miss him. I have photos, videos, text messages, voice mails. I have paintings and collages. I have journals and scraps of paper with his handwriting. I have memories. I just don’t have him, and I grieve my supreme loss as deeply as anyone else.