Tag Archives: poetry

Essay: Recovery Lessons

There is a lot of pain when we are injured, break a bone, or have surgery. This happened to me recently and really shook me up. I slipped on an icy walk in mid-winter and landed on the heel of my left wrist — my guitar fretting hand — breaking the radius bone clean through. Without knowing anything about treatment options and recovery for distal radius fracture, I elected for open reduction internal fixation surgery, where a titanium plate was screwed into the bones.

I was 61 years old with 30 years clean and sober and I had never had general anesthesia before, had never even broken a bone. I worried about feeling pain but also worried about the effects of anesthesia drugs and post-op pain medication. I knew a handful of ex-alcoholics and addicts, maybe a dozen, who became addicted to pain meds and suffered terribly. I was immediately honest with my surgeon and he prescribed what he called a non-opioid (Tramadol) for post-op pain. It’s actually a synthetic opioid and a controlled substance, but the surgery was successful and I took the medication at the lowest possible dose to control the pain for just five days after the surgery. I didn’t crave its effects and managed pretty well after that with over-the-counter meds. There was nothing I could do about the anesthetic (Propofol) I was given for surgery. I wanted to be completely unconscious!

But in the next few weeks, I was weepy and often overcome with anxiety. I don’t think it was the medications (who really knows). It was my mind, for sure — I was terrified of falling again, alone and without help. I had anxiety over asking for help, fear of the future, and, above all, fear of pain. I was not used to that kind of anxiety or its intensity. I could not drive but I had help from friends, ordered groceries delivered, and watched a lot of Netflix.

Before I went back to work I tried to keep my creative mind active. I read a volume of Billy Collins’s sweet, wistful poetry, and wrote short poems almost every day. Most of my writing was about the fracture, and fear, of course. I slowly realized that the lessons I was learning about my wrist fracture I had already learned long ago and somehow forgot. They had applied to the invisible, ravaging injury of the early days of withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, even to the days or months leading up to getting clean, when the broken parts were almost all under the skin and in the mind. Some say in the spirit, as well. There is a lot of pain in recovery, at first.

Lesson number one. It takes time to heal — more time than we think it should and more than we want it to. There is and will be pain as we heal. Even weeks, months, and years later the pain flares when we make a wrong move, even when we make all the right moves. Sometimes it just flares on its own as the sensitive skin, bones — even thoughts — recall the injury. Sometimes it comes as a sudden stab, sometimes it’s a nagging ache.

Addicts are in a big hurry to alter discomfort and avoid it, which is ironic considering that doing the same thing got us the same results. It would be nice if abstinence marked the end of the pain. It would be nice if we never had to move that painful broken limb again. But, no.

I began physical therapy at 6 weeks post-op. I could not stop myself from crying during my first couple of sessions. It was more than pain. The bones were healing perfectly but I was emotional. I was stretching emotional muscles that had stiffened as much as the tendons in my wrist, hand, and fingers. I was afraid. What if I could never play guitar again? What if I had permanent nerve damage, what if the surgeon missed something? I was crying over the present pain but also future fear and past hurt.

Lesson number two. Fear can settle in like a bad roommate who uses our things without asking and leaves a mess for us to clean up. Even in long-term recovery, we may become afraid of making a wrong move, afraid of reactivating the pain. To avoid pain maybe we stop moving altogether and lock ourselves in with the fear, afraid to fail, afraid to fall. And maybe we fear that we’re permanently broken — that we’ll be unable to dance, run, build, carry a child, make art, or play the guitar like we did before.

I had developed complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) from the weeks of immobility in the splints and cast. I had loss of sensation and a lot of swelling in all of my fingers, really the entire hand, but it was worst in my thumb. I could not move or bend it without pain. My first excruciating attempts to pull up my pants, twist a door handle, pick up my cat, and hold my guitar were very much like the early years of recovery when I accomplished sober firsts — first relationships, jobs, financial decisions, hell even driving past the bar — all terribly uncomfortable and requiring faith in myself no matter the outcome.

The CRPS has gotten much, much better but I still don’t know if or when I’ll overcome it. Fifteen weeks after surgery I could play guitar a little and I resumed the writing I was doing before the break, starting with an essay about being stalked by my next-door-neighbor 20 years earlier. It dawned on me that the lessons of pain applied to this kind of post-trauma recovery, too. Victims of stalking know that fear becomes a shadow which follows us into the future, dragging minor harassments, medium trespasses, and major abuses from the past along with it. We become suspicious and hypervigilant, seeing danger everywhere, maybe painting ourselves into a corner with a very broad brush. Even years later, maybe we recoil at the slightest chance of being frightened or hurt again and cling to what resembles a sense of security, even if it isn’t healthy.

And loss can be a pain-to-fear trigger: the death of a loved one, divorce, financial insecurity, or homelessness. Maybe we blame others or maybe we blame ourselves. Maybe we lose ourselves. No one is immune from experiencing loss, but the mind of an addict seizes on it as a calamity requiring fight or flight, and looks for control in oblivion or assigning blame — dangerous precedents to relapse. I learned these lessons, too.

But, unexpectedly, maybe we find reserves of strength and endurance we didn’t know we had. This has happened to me several times over the years and I have found it possible not to drink and drug despite my darker-leaning expectations.

Lesson number three. Precisely because we are healing, we can support others in unexpected ways. As we witness the honest vulnerability revealed by others in recovery, we will gain compassion for them and for ourselves. Compassion will make it possible for us to become open to our experience, even to look at the past without staring at it, and to understand ourselves. We will find that we have it in us to see ourselves in others and to help almost anyone.  

Lesson number four. In recovery there is always more to work on, or to work out, to press past, to stretch through, to regain or to accept as gone. There is always more to discover about ourselves and this life. The practice and tools available in many programs of recovery offer a kind of physical and occupational therapy. We heal, we change. This, too — whatever it is — will pass.

 

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white sand beach shoreline

Poem: April

I’ve been writing and reading a lot of poetry over the past 10 weeks as I recover from surgery for a broken wrist. Marie Howe’s What The Living Do prompted this memory of my father’s last days. He died on April 18, 1995, in Vero Beach, FL.

 

April

I have arrived in this vivid spring: oleanders, hot Florida sun,
strong Atlantic breeze and cumulus towers in the blue-blue sky.

The small hospital is a tidy white concrete low-rise in a trimmed landscape
where shadows race and the wide doors open like airlocks.

Inside my father lies in a bed and I sit in a chair in my summer clothes.
Delirious, he says anything he thinks of and leers at my legs

licking his lips until something occurs to him
and he points at the door, looks me in the eye, and says,

Go to my office and get that book. I say, Maybe later.
Go now, he says and smiles like it’s a game.

He thinks he’s at home, not seeing the hospital around him.
What is it about, I ask, dangerously indulging the hallucination.

Go, he says, commanding. I say, I can’t, not right now.
A moment later he says, You’re having a hard time.

He sees me crying and his kindness breaks me in half.
The doctor and an intern enter and look at the two of us

How are you, the doctor asks me, but he can see perfectly well.
Prepare yourself, he says, and I begin.

I prepare by coming and going, abandoning plans for recovery
swapping vigils with my mother and sister

in the ICU that is a glass cage behind more airlocks
sitting with my father as he becomes quiet, struggles to breathe

watching the heart monitor leaping, the sound mercifully turned off
the oxygen mask pressing into the skin around his nose and mouth.

I prepare by taking an afternoon off as if cutting class or calling in sick
because he is unconscious, because I can’t take it, and that is when he dies

as I lie on the beach close to the restless, mumbling Atlantic
in the salty wind that peppers my skin with stinging sand.

3 young girls standing on a hay bale looking in a horse's stall

Poem: Riding Lessons

A writing challenge on the prompt “ritual.”

. . .

Riding Lessons

The boy pulls on each boot as his father watches
he grabs his helmet by the strap
lifts it from the dirt where he dropped it
trudges through the barn’s shadowed maw where the ponies stand in cross-ties
and a thousand girls in jodhpurs adore them.

I prompt him at every step of the ritual tacking-up as he
swipes at the pony’s legs with a brush
broods at its refusal to lift a hoof for the pick
forgets where its bridle, saddle, and the stained pad are stored
although he has been taking lessons all summer.

Here’s what he thinks about riding
and his father’s nostalgia for horses

He drops the saddle on the pony’s back
with the pommel facing backward.

. . .

© 2018 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten

miniature camera

Recent Poems: My Snapshot Life, and remember when…

I’ve been participating in a writing circle with Zee Zahava. She kindly posted one of my dashed-off poems on her blog, PaintedParrott.

Read My Snapshot Life, inspired by the poem “Curriculum Vitae,” by Lisel Meuller.

 

Here is another from the workshop, from a prompt that starts, “remember when…”

Remember the fallout shelter in the basement?
Remember we thought we were getting a pool?
Remember Dad telling us no, in the living room, with the machines just outside digging up the lawn?
Remember the disappointment?
Remember the fear?
Remember the bomb?
Remember the questions about WHO would be allowed inside?
WHAT would happen above ground?
WHEN the world would end?
Remember the canned food? The cold, clammy, concrete?
The dark? The dim, buzzing electric bulbs?
Remember the generator?
Remember we were not allowed to play in there?
Remember the padlock?
Remember the life-sized poster of Frankenstein that we hung over the door?

 

© 2017 Patti Witten

photo / Patti Witten

 

Riding the Haiku Train

Travel writer and fellow Freevillian, Rachel Dickinson, inspired me to explore the Haiku form with her Daily Haiku posts on Facebook. I think she cross posts them from a WordPress blog called The Daily Haiku. I was immediately hooked.

Here a few of the haiku I have written in the past few weeks, in reverse chronological order, starting with today:


Dec. 6

crows wheel in the wind
blowing snow drifts round the house
hot cat in my lap


Dec 5

a sound of crying
dominoes in migration
snow geese have returned


Nov. 25

menu: crock pot hen
baby peas and bread stuffing
cranberries, of course

Took dinner to the
old folk’s home and watched TV
she gave me a gift


Nov 23

mysterious sky
my changing weather outlook
winter advances


Nov 19, 2010

yes i♥friday
full of promises like an
unfaithful lover

Weekend mini series
Lust, shopping, TV, laundry
Sing Monday Monday

spider web catches
a snowflake and is revealed
otherwise unseen


Nov. 2 2010

I’m nervous today
about the voting results
sugar binge predicted


October 31

rain and snow obscure
the mountain in the distance
northern harrier

Truth Tears and Cash – Part 3

“Refine your skills to support your instincts.”

My third revelation was this: I don’t have to wait for inspiration, genius or even luck to strike me with a song. Like other songwriters I will occasionally (rarely) write a song so swiftly that it passes through me like magic. That’s a wonderful gift, and many say that this is the definition of inspiration. But I learned that a well of inspiration is within me all the time. When I’m gardening, walking the dog, watching TV, driving, or reaching for the popcorn.

First there is the writing, dipping into the well of images and feelings, and then there is the editing, when the honesty of internal critic comes to my aid. In either phase, but especially in the editing, I sometimes have to work past the frustration, just keep writing, and other times I have to walk away and allow the well to refill. I just have to be awake and listening. I have to work at the discipline of “refining my skills to support my instincts,”  something Rosanne said, quoting her friend Linda Ronstadt. It’s an incentive to keep working, keep writing.

Stephen Kellogg and Suzanne Henry at Rosane Cash's workship 1997

Stephen Kellogg was the youngest one in our group. — with Suzanne Jackson Henry. (1997) Photo by Barney Miller?

I learned that persistence pays off. This is hard work and it’s sometimes necessary to leave a trail of bread crumbs on the way in. I will probably have to sacrifice parts of my ego that I’d just as soon keep, like my pride. But it’s worth it!

Here are some of Rosanne’s closing remarks to the group. I’ll try to remember them while I’m gardening, walking the dog, or reaching for the popcorn. And writing songs, of course.

“There’s nothing more sacred to me than songs and songwriters. To cultivate [this] kind of listening helps me to listen to my own life. To listen to the small moments that might otherwise just go right by me. But if I’m listening I’m going to get it, I’m going to get to bring something back to my life. Part of it is about not being alone, connecting with other writers. [Writing is] such a lonely experience sometimes, isolating at the very least and lonely at its worst.”

“Your responsibility is to tell the truth. Not the facts, necessarily. It could be the facts, but it’s basically the truth. That means being a truthful person. You can’t tell the truth in your work if you don’t tell the truth in your life. So I encourage you to be scrupulous in your truth ethic, with yourself — scrupulous. Even when no one’s looking — especially when no one’s looking. Just for yourself. I encourage you to wake up more every day, even if it hurts. But keep waking up, even if your heart breaks a little more every step of the way. Keep waking up. Bring it into poetry for the rest of us because our hearts are breaking a little every step along the way, too, and we need the poetry, desperately. We need the songs.”

© Patti Witten

Truth Tears and Cash – Part 2

“Your responsibility is to tell the truth.”

Rosanne had said this more than once and it really struck me because of a problem with the song I’d chosen to play for the group. I had rewritten How Long ‘Til It’s Over so many times that it had little to do with its original subject: my frustration and sadness over a friend’s mental illness. I wanted to know if it was wrong to abandon the original subject and the feeling tone that inspired it. I suspected the song was now dishonest whereas in its original state it was just too painful. I also wondered if there was too little “furniture” in it, as Rosanne put it, things like the empty coffee cup, the flowers that were stepped on as he walked out the door, the scratch of her wool sweater. On the other hand I knew the song had potential with its memorable hook and singable chorus.

Rosanne's Essence of Songwriting class in 2000. John Leventhal took this. Some of the people in the photo, from left to right: me, Barney Miller, Anne Carley, Denise Moser, Bob Dawson, Patty Ocfemia, Mimi Cross, Rosanne Cash, Barbara Blaisdell, Suzanne Jackson Henry, Steve Kunzman and Reisa Conde.

Rosanne’s Essence of Songwriting class in 2000. John Leventhal took this. Some of the people in the photo, from left to right: me, Barney Miller, Anne Carley, Denise Moser, Bob Dawson, Patty Ocfemia, Mimi Cross, Rosanne Cash, Barbara Blaisdell, Suzanne Jackson Henry, Steve Kunzman and Reisa Conde.

When my turn came my heart raced, my voice fled and I was unable to tear my eyes away from the fingerboard of my guitar!

No one questioned the song’s subject or meaning, but Rosanne pointed out a soft rhyme and a phrase in the first verse that tended toward cliché. She suggested deleting the bridge altogether, not because it was bad but because it was unnecessary. The practical function of a bridge is to build tension in the song so that the chorus following it provides an emotional payoff. Rosanne suggested that when the first verse reprised at the end, I cut it in half and go directly to the final chorus. It would have the same function as a bridge (or a pre-chorus) plus I could save some better lines from the unnecessary bridge and use them to replace the weaker lines in the first verse.

Violà, problems solved. I explained how I had rewritten it many times and asked if it was wrong to abandon the original feeling tone and subject. No, said Rosanne, think of this song as a gift from your friend. Violà, no guilt.

“The feeling tone releases the material.”

In one of several copies of articles Rosanne handed out to us, author V.S. Naipaul is quoted: “There was a moment, almost an hour in which I began to be a writer. Somehow I found the right tone, and the tone released the material, and it all came together, and I could see my way clear.” Finding the right feeling tone might be a way to end a dry period or to dislodge a block, and a way to do that is to mine dreams for material.

When we finished going through each person’s songs we began a free association writing exercise to do just that. Rosanne’s letter had also asked us to jot down a few dreams. The exercise wasn’t going to focus on events or feelings but on a significant object that appeared in the dream: a building, a piece of clothing, an animal, etc. We wrote our objects down on blank paper and quickly wrote words and phrases without stopping, referring to the object whenever we got stuck. “Just write!” Rosanne said,  “Keep writing until you reach a point where you feel ‘Ah-ha!’ Don’t think. Just write.”

Each person described their dream image and their “Ah-ha” moment. Mine was a wedding veil that seemed to be turned inside out, and my “Ah-ha” was in realizing that the veil was not inside out, it was falling away from me. I began to cry as I described it, great wracking, heaving, snorting, noisy sobs — quite embarrasing. I hated doing this but Rosanne said, “It makes us love you more.” Violà, no armor.

I wasn’t the only songwriter to discover emotionally charged territory during this exercise. Before we ended for the day, Rosanne made certain that no one left the room overly distraught. “It’s no wonder this business has it’s share of drug addicts and alcoholics, artists who lose themselves and can’t come back,” she said. “Pat Pattison, poetry and lyric writing teacher at Berklee College of Music, has said that our job as writers is to go where the images are, get one, and show it to our listeners.” Rosanne continued, “But we need to be able to come back safely from frightening or sad territory because, as the Buddhists say, our hearts break a little more with each step along the path.”

Our homework that night was to write at least two verses and a chorus from our dream exercise. I was eager to discover my song. While I was walking back to my room a rhythmic and melodic phrase came to me, giving me something to work from. I used that and several phrases from the free association, completing my dream song, Here Comes the Bride, in about four hours. More than half of that time was spent doggedly searching for it both lyrically and musically, finding the right tone and staying with it. When I played it for the group the following day some people were moved to tears. Rosanne said, “you’ve been given a kind of miracle.”  That’s how I felt, too.

The songs that we wrote from our dreams were amazing!  Stunning, scary, funny, stark and tender, some staying close to the free association images, others veering off in new directions.

Listen to Here Comes the Bride

Go to Part 3

© Patti Witten