In Wisconsin, up north isn’t so much a direction or a place as it is a perspective.  For me, it comes into focus when I reach the pine trees that are so tall, you can see for miles through their bare trunks to a background of blue water.  No matter where you are, this is the view.  And it is clearest, I learned, at camp.

On day one of our vacation, we visited the camp that Swenny holds so close.  Listening to his stories while standing on site made me feel a part.  I circled the pines that towered over cabins where he slept, I said with him the mealtime graces posted on the wall of the lodge and searched  for the names of trip mates burned alongside his on oars hung in a boathouse containing  nearly 100 years of memories.

And then my phone rang.  An old friend of my mother’s called to invite us to dinner.  He said he’d pick us up on our pier at 4 o’clock sharp with libations on deck for a cocktail cruise beforehand.  I confirmed details, thanked him and then stopped in my tracks.  What will Swenny do?  I set off to find him and delivered the news…we’re having dinner tomorrow night, preceded by a floating cocktail hour.  I delivered it as an apology, of which Swenny would have none.

“Stop feeling sorry for me,” he said.  “This is a good thing.”

Camp really is a special place.  It’s where Swenny grew up, and I woke up.  For nearly ten years,  I tried to manage every step of his recovery.  Despite the many mistakes made, I carried on…and on.  It became the answer to every question that started with why.

In the past month, he has come further than I was ever able to imagine.  Along with the medallion he received at the close of his intensive outpatient therapy, responsibility for his sobriety was pressed into his palm.

Sensing now that Swenny needs space to navigate for himself, I find myself wondering where that leaves me.  If he’s ready to move forward from a life defined by drinking to something far more enriching, am I?

Walking with him – sober and at peace – along the shores of camp, I realized that maybe it’s time to focus on me.  Smooth out my edges, spend time with friends, re-engage in a few favorite things, achieve at work and cultivate our marriage.  In allowing my role as the spouse of a troubled alcoholic to consume me, I also let it smother me.  And us.  It’s time to grow again.

From Boy to Man

On one of Swenny’s and my first dates, we stayed up talking until sunrise.  The topic of our conversation?  Camp.  Swenny attended a camp steeped in tradition.  His grandfather served for a time as the medical director, his mother was a camper, as were his aunt and uncles, his brothers and all of his cousins.  At one family wedding, gifts were placed in a canoe.  As a person whose camp experience included pom pons, I was intrigued.

On Sunday, we leave for a long overdue vacation which will be spent near camp in a particularly beautiful area of northern Wisconsin.  I have only visited once while passing through years ago as we prepared to send our own children.  They loved their experiences, but they don’t measure even close to that of their father.  When he left camp, a part of him remained.

The top of Swenny’s dresser is bare except for three pictures.  One  is of him and his friends at our wedding, and another is from the wedding of a close friend.  The third sits alone.  It is of him high above the tree line on a mountain out west, taken during an outpost trip from camp.  He looks on top of the world.  It was taken just two years before his struggle with alcohol began.

For years, I have wanted to take this trip.  And as it happens, the timing is perfect.  Swenny arrived home from therapy on Tuesday night with the news that Saturday will be his last day.  It seems sudden to me, and I could tell from his reaction, it seems sudden to him, too.  He is at ease with sobriety when surrounded by people who are helping to direct his recovery.  His lets down his guard without consequence because others are looking out for him.  With the news of his impending graduation, the dynamic in our home changed from hopeful optimism to tempered expectation.

But he has made progress in a short period of time.  We were able to talk honestly in the presence of our son about our concerns for a relapse and his ability to pursue sobriety without the support of the group he has quickly come to love.  Eventually, I found myself convinced that he can do this.  I hope over the next week, he can convince himself.

As Swenny retraces his steps along the paths and rivers of a camp that took him from adolescent to adult, I will watch from the shadows of the tall pines for clues about what he still holds close from his summers spent there.  And in the days, weeks and months ahead, I’ll draw from that to remind him that the person he was then remains within him today.  And for that person, the best is yet to come.


Without Shame

Last week, Swenny returned home from group therapy and told me about the topic central to their discussion – the stigma of addiction.  For years, Swenny and I fed into this with our own shame surrounding his alcoholism.  We didn’t tell anyone, until one day when I decided to tell everyone.  In an effort to remove “anonymous” from our story, I told family, friends, trusted coworkers and our kids.  The hardest part wasn’t the information being shared, but how quickly many chose to change the subject without barely acknowledging the distress in which we found ourselves.  Those who stayed for a longer conversation have remained close and today make up our small but very special circle of friends.

As part of the discussion regarding the stigma of addiction, his group watched the documentary “Anonymous People.”  The story of one person in particular – actress and writer Kristen Johnston – inspired him.  She was in the documentary,  sharing her story of addiction and recovery through readings from her book Guts.  Swenny was so lifted by her honesty, I purchased the book and finished it on Saturday, topping it off by watching “Anonymous People.”

By the time the clock struck midnight, it was even more clear to me that addiction is a disease and not a moral weakness or character flaw.  People who suffer from addiction of any form should be heralded for their courage, not expected to navigate their recovery secretly in anonymous recovery groups, or worse, alone.  While I always believed this, I never felt there was anything I could do.  Until now.

I am one voice, and Swenny is another.  Combined with so many others who are seeking sobriety, in recovery, or part of another person’s journey, we can help convince others that there is no room for shame in dealing with chronic conditions like alcoholism.  We can possibly make a difference.  But not if we won’t freely share our story.

For a long time, I have questioned the anonymity central to many 12 step and recovery programs.  Not being a person in recovery myself, though, I didn’t feel it was my place to challenge what works for so many people, wishing in the very least for Swenny to find success through his meetings.  To understand better, I joined Al-Anon but didn’t find it to be a good fit.  Not meaning to take away its value for others, I found that speaking to strangers in church basements didn’t help me.  Telling people who knew me of the challenges I was facing in navigating life as a person who loved an alcoholic did.  It made it real.

And I was lucky because the people I chose to tell expected me to do something about it…find resources, understand implications, and even develop an exit strategy while never losing site of the goal: a sober Swenny followed by long term recovery.

Despite the progress Swenny and I have made, I feel like a fraud.  This blog is anonymous, shared only with those I trust and strangers nice enough to take interest in my words.  Each time I sit down to write, conversations of which I have been a part run through my head.  There is no reason to tell anyone.  It’ll hurt his self esteem.  It’s possibly your fault.  

I’ve convinced myself, though, that I am not shielding our story out of shame.  I’m shielding it to protect Swenny from the realness that comes from sharing.  When he’s ready, I’ll bring him in and help him tell anyone willing to listen.  By then, he’ll be prepared to proudly acknowledge the courage he invoked to achieve sobriety.  He’ll share his story, knowing others will seek his footsteps in order to follow in them.

Until then, I’ll be grateful for my ten followers.  And happy to reveal to you our faces.  This is us.





Nothing New

Years ago, when the seriousness of Swenny’s alcoholism finally struck me, I canceled his birthday dinner on short notice and called his father and my parents to tell them why:   Swenny was an alcoholic and I wasn’t in the mood for company.

When I think back to their responses, it strikes me how different they were.  Helpful in their own way, his father told him to pull it together, my mother told me to look out for myself, and my dad said, “We love him, and we will do anything we can to help him.”

Until this week, I didn’t understand the reason for his full and unwavering support:   He lost his younger brother to drugs.

The memories I have of my uncle are few, but they take place during family gatherings filled with laughter.  It was the 1970s, and he was different from anyone else we knew.  He was carefree, wore his hair long and played with my sister and me like a kid.

One day during my dad’s final years, I visited him in the hospital.  I made small talk to pass the time.  Looking out the window, I said, “You can see all the way to the lake from here.”

His response?  “I can see the building where I identified my brother’s body.”  My grandfather could not do it, so my dad absorbed the pain for both of them.

While I was always keenly aware of the hole left in our family by my uncle’s death, we rarely if ever spoke of it.  I only saw my grandmother and mom cry immediately after the call to our home.  After hearing the news, my dad hung up the phone, turned to us and said, “Donny is dead.”

Perhaps my call years later returned my dad to the day his brother died.  Instead of wondering what he could have done, he was going to do whatever he could.

I know I need to do the same.





Shadow casting

My favorite running route takes me across five bridges, including four that carry me over rivers.  Each day, the water below is different than the day before, and not at all what it will be tomorrow.  When one day it is rushing and spilling over the banks, the next it is still.  It is then when I notice rocks emerging from calm waters.

While Swenny was away at the sober house, many of the messages we exchanged involved lessons learned from water.  Lately on runs, I find myself recalling my favorites, including this one from Norman Maclean:

All things merge into one, and a river runs through it…

Swenny’s and my existence remains centered on a search – at times desperate – for sobriety.  Days, months and years have merged into the life we have built, and a river runs through it.  And that river is alcoholism.

At times it is consuming and we find it a challenge to not get swept away in its unrelenting current.  Sometimes, though, it retreats.  That is when we walk onto its banks for a closer look before it rises again.

Intensive outpatient therapy has presented a bank upon which to explore what lies beneath the alcoholism running through our lives.  While Swenny navigates his recovery by stepping from one rock to another, I find myself still standing on the bank…looking for my rock, reminded that like Maclean,  I am haunted by waters.