This year was my first from the perspective of having lost my son just 5 months earlier - 5 months to the day we cried over his casket to say our final goodbyes to his physical form. When invited to speak at our local Scotty B Overdose Awareness Day (created by another mother in memory of her beloved son), I didn’t skip a beat as I replied to the full-body goosebump “Yes.” I didn’t know why or even what I’d say, but I knew it was an authentic yes. That morning I reached out to several people asking, “What do I even have to offer? My son didn’t find recovery. My son died. How can I offer inspiration or hope?” I cried. Big tears. Lots of tears. I received their encouragement and gathered my thoughts, pulling together a message intended to raise awareness, to share Nate’s story, what I’ve learned over the past 30 years, what I wish I had known, and an appeal for greater kindness and compassion for all people.
My dear friend, a fellow angel mama, and I started the day at an Overdose Awareness Vigil in a part of the city where the need for compassionate, non-judgmental support and care is immense. We sat in a circle with people in recovery, people in active use, family members, friends, and allies, and people at dire risk. We shared pizza and memories of those lost. We shared what called us to this circle that day. We learned how to use Naloxone to save a life. We learned about Overdose Prevention Centers and the critical need for them, and we shared space, time, and life. It was beautiful. Heart-touching. Heart-wrenching, and heart-opening.
From there over to Scotty B Day where I met and visited with people in the recovery community - some of the most authentic, sensitive, creative, beautiful people in the world. I shared table with my friend, the beautiful writer, Jennifer Collins. In addition to selling my book, I had care bags to give away for those in need, along with Nate’s cards (which have his picture and the messages “I see you. You matter. You are not alone.” and local resource numbers on them) and Never Use Alone cards. I watched as one young man picked up Nate’s card and withered into a gut-punching, disbelieving gasp… “No, no, no… tell me it’s not true…” He had been Nate’s neighbor in supportive housing. “He was doing well…” his confusion voiced as he took in this news. Yeah. He was. Until he wasn’t. Awareness awakening.
After I spoke (you can listen to the talk here), I had the beautiful opportunity to connect with so many open-hearted people. Parents who wanted to know more about the Invitation to Change, who longed for a different way to be with their loved ones. Parents who heard our story and committed to being with their young ones differently - to let them be who they are, whether they are 3, 9, 11, or 15. Parents who had lost kids somewhat guiltily confessing, “I did the whole enabling thing…” because they had gone to their child, supported them, loved them. I offered a reframe: “Sounds like you loved your kid. There is no need to apologize for that. Ever.” Phew. Exhale. No need for shame. You loved your child, as did I. Let’s let the stories go, drop this all-too-common cultural narrative, and begin to heal around this loss. Find our recovery. Other people I met love people in active use, kids who are on the streets, at great risk; these people are doing what they can to love them well, to support them, while also taking care of themselves. There’s room for it all. Awareness. Connection. You’re not alone. One tiny moment at a time…it’s enough.
It was a beautiful, encouraging, uplifting, devastating, heart-opening, heart-wrenching day. I wobbled away from the podium, away from the space, and met up with my husband to celebrate, debrief, and cry. I was wrung out and filled up all at once.
The next day kicked off National Recovery Month. And, I felt myself slide into a valley. It had taken a ton of energy to prepare for Overdose Awareness Day, only a little over a month after Nate’s memorial service. It was time for me to immerse deeply into my own recovery. After putting myself out there, there was a natural reaction to pull back, go within, hunker down, and restore myself. You might have experienced something similar in your own life. Even as I continued to post support and encouragement for the recovery movement, for individual and family recovery, I was heading into a gentle crash and into my next phase of recovery.
Here's what I know about recovery: it begins within and is a deeply personal journey. As my friend, Chris’s shirt says, “Recovery is any Positive Action.” It’s not clear, straightforward, or linear. It is often painful and painstakingly hard. Recovery can only be approached and managed one minute at a time. It requires a leap of faith into the unknown, hoping that the effort will be worth it. Recovery requires letting go of tried-and-true comfort and survival tactics to find new, less certain ways to be. It calls us to look at past pain, to open our hearts to grieve what might have been as we lean into what’s here, and step toward what’s possible.
Recovery calls us inward to reconnect with ourselves – our hearts, our spirits, to touch what’s true and to connect with what’s available to us. Anything that requires a lot of energy, particularly emotional energy, will invite a period of respite and recovery afterwards. Awareness. Can we pay attention to the needs of our body, mind, heart, and spirit and find a way to honor that need?
The first weeks after Overdose Awareness Day were very uncomfortable as I found myself confronting some dark, haunting questions: What if? What if I had seen how desperately Nate was spiraling out of control and had insisted he come to dinner with us the night he dropped off the grid? What if I had invited him to stay with us for the weekend the last time I last saw him, 6 days before he died? Would he still be here? I suspect this is a natural grief response, grasping for what might have been different. Not so much blame, but a desperate wish that I had known and had the chance to make different choices. Recovery calls us to face our shadows in order to move forward, so I met myself there and sunk into the feelings and thoughts that swept through.
After a couple of weeks in intentional recovery mode, I also added retreat into my life, packing up and getting away from home, from Rochester with all its ghosts and ghostly places. First I headed off with my husband, Tom, to hole up in a hotel and sleep, read, and write some overdue cards, while he worked.
Next, we headed off to a massive music festival where we could easily get lost in the crowd in Louisville, Kentucky. We savored an evening with Brandi Carlile (I just love her...sigh). Total anonymity and shared love of a great artist held us in this musical escape.
Then Tom dropped me off at a rustic retreat center in the mountains of western North Carolina for a women’s retreat – my first big social space with mostly unknown women since Nate’s death. I was welcomed with huge hugs from two loving women, soul sisters I’ve known for almost a decade, women who have answered the call to show up for this deep mama loss. I found my way to my remote charming cabin by the creek and settled myself into it for a musty nap, the creek offering its gentle natural white noise. And I bawled. I let my tears soak my pillow. I let my body shake as sobs moved through me. In this quiet space of solitude, I let myself feel the fear of something happening to Tom, and felt the deep awareness of how desperately I need him to be ok, to be safe, to stay alive. How much I need him. Period.
Eventually sleep found me, and after a refreshing rest, I was able to enter retreat tentatively, gingerly, dosing out bits of my current reality as I was able. Giving myself the gift of my own deep attention and care – what did I need? Feel? Want? Following this inquiry, moment by moment, without expectation, without judgment. Allowing space for the bereaved mother, the open-hearted dancer, the tearful singer, the curious writer, and all the bits of me to be present. Allowing the silence to deepen my connection to myself. I let myself be filled up, sharing space and energy with other women, each on her own journey, each in her own space, facing her own longings, fears, awakenings, awareness, and insights as retreat worked on us. It was healing, cathartic, transformative, and I am deeply grateful for it all.
As we cycle through life, when we can allow ourselves to follow Awareness, Recovery, and Retreat, we grow. We evolve. We let go. We connect. We become. The next iteration of who we are in this moment of life emerges. We open to what’s possible. We face hard truths. We heal. And then we do it all over again. Maybe this is all life asks of us.