Doing My Best

The other day, when my wife and I were talking about the fire and the status of repairs (just now starting, three months after the fire), she said I was struggling more with the effects than the rest of my family. I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s true; the kids are still a little sad but they seem happy enough in our rented house and they’re doing well in school. Except for her commute, my wife is fairly content. Our house has been something of an albatross for her, with all the help and repairs it needed…and that was before the fire. Now, the repairs are out of her control except for feedback on replacement materials, and she has a sense of relief.

I don’t feel relief, and I’m trying hard to be content when what I really feel is lost. The fire changed me dramatically, and I haven’t undergone such an emotional shift since getting sober. In many ways, I’m a different person. The following pictures are of the house as it currently stands after asbestos removal.



On the face of things, that’s OK. People change due to choices or events in life; I can’t expect things to stay the same. But I’d grown accustomed to my life pre-fire, and things were going well. I was learning how to tune and repair pianos. We were fixing up the house. We went to Boston, and despite my anxiety and other mental health issues, I was enjoying myself…and less than 48 hours, we were back home, dealing with insurance claims and accepting money from the Red Cross. Talk about emotional whiplash.

In the three months we’ve been displaced, I’ve had a hard time concentrating on anything for long, and my normal interests have waned if not disappeared entirely. I write creatively here and there but not with my previous desire or discipline. I don’t watch shows I used to love. I really don’t want to do anything. I don’t even want to write this, but I’m forcing myself too. And I’m doing it in my phone, which is even stranger (forgive any typos).

I went to the doctor to adjust my medication and she asked the normal mental health questions: had I lost interest in things I normally enjoy? Absolutely, I said, but I know why. It’s situational depression on top of clinical depression and mixed it with social anxiety and mood disorder.

I added another medication to my routine, so we’ll see. It’s only been a few weeks, but it seems to be helping. I think it boosts my other medication in helping keep the worst and darkest thoughts just outside the wall. I can hear them, but I don’t feel them.

In the meantime, I continue teaching online, dealing with insurance and repair people, caring for my kids, and trying to eat better because my blood pressure is up. Writing music helps, and I’ve rekindled my interest in drawing cartoons.

A lot of my cartoons are weird and sad…but not this one.


Things are not awful, but they’re…sad. I’m used to sad. Perhaps I’m grieving for what I lost both materially and emotionally in the fire. Perhaps I’m grieving myself, a being who feels much more lost than anchored.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Daniel Johnston recently, and that helps. I can locate myself in many of his songs. I wish I’d known about him before he died.

That’s all I have for now. As you were, sober folks….


Sobriety Update

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for weeks, and every time I sat down to do it, I just sighed and did something else. The same thing happens when I sit down to write poetry; I just stare at the screen for a minute or two and then move onto something else.

There’s nothing wrong about that, of course. It’s not like anyone’s making me write anything. All the pressure comes from me, as do the nagging thoughts and the sense I should be writing. It’s been that way since I got serious about writing in high school.

Part of this can be explained by my OCD tendencies which were magnified and worsened by my drinking. At first, drinking helped soothed the racing thoughts and compulsions (or, at least, I told myself it did). But then drinking itself making an obsession, one that wrecked my life.

I’m also given to extreme and catastrophic thinking, as well as exaggeration. When I tell my wife, “I haven’t written in a long time,” what that really means is that I haven’t written in a few days…maybe a week at the most. To hear me talk about it, you’d think I hadn’t touched a pen or sat before a keyboard in years. The thing is, days without writing can often feel much, much longer. So there’s some truth to my claim, but realistically, I’m never far from writing. And since I still store ideas, overhear conversations in public and immediately turn them into potential dialogue, and generally still operate from my Writer Self, I know I haven’t lost anything.

It’s okay to take a break, especially now that my family and I are still dealing with the aftermath of the house fire. I go to our house every day to feed and spend time with our outdoor cat and to check on the house, and it hurts to walk through the door. We still don’t have power. Until that’s approved by the powers-that-be, the restoration crew can’t begin work, and we can’t meet with our insurance agent to talk about what we lost and make a plan to go forward.

In the meantime, summer vacation for my children draws to a close, which is always a stressful time. The stress is heightened by our temporary living situation, though the kids love the house (as do our animals). Still, we’re half-an-hour away from everything we know, and that will complicate dropping off an picking up from school.

As I believe I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve had to hit pause on my study of piano tuning, and that’s been hard. I was making good progress, but I haven’t forgotten what I learned. Like so many other things, piano tuning and repair is on hold.

A saving grace for me has been my ability to work from home. I’m able to be with my children, and even though we argue over summer school projects and spending too much time on media, I’m glad they have a parent at home with them…and I’m deeply grateful they’re returning to school. Good heavens, I need a break from them, and they need a break from me.

Another nice thing is that I’ve had time to write more music. More specifically, I’ve indulged myself in an interesting project: writing covers of some of my favorite instrumentals from movies and video games. So far, I’ve composed covers for The Dark Crystal theme and the themes from The Legend of Zelda and Metroid (both Nintendo games I love). I’ve enjoyed working with someone else’s music, and now I’m ready to get back to making my own songs. If you’re curious, you check out my music here.

That’s all from me. Happy sober Friday to you all.

Sober in a Time of Crisis

On June 27th–while my family and I were vacationing in Boston, less than 24 hours into our trip–our pet sitter called and said something was wrong. I felt my hand tighten around my cellphone. I thought about oldest cat whose back legs don’t work properly. She often drags herself from place to place and has to use a training pad because she can’t manage the litter box.

I didn’t expect our pet sitter, a lovely and kind woman named Anna, to say, “The two upper windows of the house are busted out, and there’s water everywhere. I’m going to call the police.”

My wife saw my expression, and I whispered, “Something’s wrong. Hang on. I don’t know much yet.” As I waited for the police to show up, I flashed back to when we evacuated for Hurricane Matthew and we were broken into a robbed. I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the trouble of breaking and entering through the upstairs window; the thieves had entered our downstairs window before when the power was out.

Anna handed her phone to a police officer, who said,”Sir, we responded to a fire here at 3:36 today. The fire crew broke through the windows. Look like it started in the upstairs bedroom. Here, I’ll give you the number for the fire department and they can tell you more.”

I felt sick as I relayed the information to my wife. Our youngest son was watching a Netflix show, and our oldest was watching YouTube. Neither realized yet how drastically our life has changed; I hadn’t realized it either.

My wife and I went immediately into crisis mode, she arranging a flight out the next day and I staying on the phone while Anna and the police officer went through the house.

“Oh my God,” Anna whispered. “I’m in the upstairs hallway. The kids’ bedroom is gone. I’ll send you pictures.”

Helplessly, I watched as image after image of the ruined hallway and bedroom appeared on my phone. With every one, tears pricked my eyes. I saw the tank where our bearded dragon Oscar lived. It was mostly intact, but I knew he was gone. I also knew our gecko, Merlin, hadn’t survived.


Luckily, our dog Charley was staying with Anna, but she couldn’t locate the cats even after searching through the whole house. There was nothing we could do from Boston except tell the kids what happened and start planning our early return.

As my wife continued to work out the details of our return flight, I contacted our insurance, called the Red Cross, and texted my sponsor. The day before, over coffee, he and I talked about my anxiety about flying, anxiety about going to Boston and then New York. It never occurred to me to worry about a fire.

As I dealt with insurance and the Red Cross, I didn’t have to be worried. I focused like I’m rarely able to focus. I held my children and assured them everything would be all right. I told them our cats were just hiding, which I believed, though not one hundred percent.

The next day is a bit of a blur. Instead of seeing the rest of Boston and then going to New York, we landed in Savannah and rushed home to our poor house. We found our youngest cat, Miles, hiding on top of a dresser in the sunroom, looking thoroughly miffed. Babycat, with her bad legs, had crawled under the giant tarp the fireman had left in the living room to catch the water from the ceiling. We all felt relieved with the cats safe. We knew we could repair the house, in time. We were sad to lose the lizards, but we would have been devastated if the cats hadn’t survived.

In short order, the Red Cross set us up in a hotel, and the insurance agent contacted a company to board up the broken windows. Over the next few days, the fire investigator discovered the cause of the fire (faulty power strip in the bedroom) and we moved out essential items. A relocation company found us a three bedroom house that accepts pets, and we moved in. The earliest estimate for repairing the bedroom and the rest of our smoke-damaged house is three months, so we’re here–about twenty-five minutes away from home and my wife’s work–until about October.

It’s been a lot to take in, and I’m just now slowing down enough to process things. I haven’t had but the most fleeting desire to drink, which is fantastic. I haven’t handled this situation perfectly, but I’ve done a hell of lot better than I would have imagined myself dealing with a crisis.

That’s all for now. This is the first I’ve written about the fire, except for a few dark poems. I’m not consistent with this blog, and I doubt I’ll suddenly start writing more, but it’s good to commit this to paper, virtual though it may be.

Thanks for reading. Happy sober Monday.

The (Sober) Times, They Are A Changin’

I’m not the world’s biggest Bob Dylan song, but I like him well enough…and I like “The Times, They Are A Changin'” quite a bit. I’m listening to it now as I type this, as I wait for my next online teaching session to begin.

What a different scenario this is from a year ago, to say nothing for how different it is from four years ago before I got sober. A year ago, I was teaching adults to prepare for the GED test, and I hadn’t yet tried online teaching. I hadn’t the faintest notion that I’d start learning the art and craft of piano tuning. The only thing in my life that’s similar between the two periods (except things like my family, and even that’s changed with the passing of some beloved pets) is that I’m still sober.

But my sobriety is changing, along with my job and interests. On the job front, I’m enjoying teaching English to Chinese clients much more than teaching in a traditional classroom. The only stress associated with my current job is healthy stress, like being prepared to go on camera and making sure I’m animated and encouraging. There’s no paperwork, no grading papers, no fights, no talking back, no faculty meetings, no morning and afternoon duty, and all the things I hated about public school and college-level teaching. And my interests have shifted. I still wrote poetry but not daily, and I’m currently not concerned about publishing. I post poems to my writing blog and on Instagram, and that’s enough. I write music, but I’m no trying to market it. It’s fine to just write a song for myself.

My main focus is learning to tune and repair pianos. I recently disassembled my old spinet piano to make room from a newer piano that’s easier to learn on. I’ve never taken apart anything as complicated as a piano before, and it was a good learning experience. Currently, I have the action of my new piano in my mentor’s shop, where I’m learning repairs. I’ve never used tools in this way before. I always told myself I’m terrible with my hands and can’t repair anything…which is not true. I’ve just never tried before. I’m trying now, and though the learning curve is steep, I’m doing it.

bert under the piano.jpg
praying the piano doesn’t come crashing down on my face

With my new work schedule and making time to tune and work on pianos, I’ve had to be creative with my time management. Oh, I’ve also started exercising again and am making sure to eat better. I’m not on a diet or anything, but I’m much more intentional about what I put in my body. For the last four years, I haven’t paid food or exercise more than a passing thought, but now I am.

A hugely important aspect of my continued recovery is napping. I feel so much better if I can lie down in the middle of the day for 45 minutes. During that time, I sleep for about thirty minutes. That’s enough for me to recharge and tackle the rest of the day and evening, which includes making dinner, overseeing homework, interacting with my children and wife and doing housework. I don’t get a nap every day, and some days I don’t need it…but I’m learning how to listen to my body. If it’s hungry, I feed it (and not just junk, but things like carrots and cranberries and almonds, when my default is chips and cookies). If its tired, I rest. It’s funny and sad how I used to make myself drink even when my body rejected the notion; I overrode my instincts almost every single time. SIGH. At least I’m not doing that any more.

The only recovery tool that doesn’t currently fit into my schedule is AA meetings. I haven’t sworn off AA…but it isn’t a priority right now. I expect it will be again in the future. This idea doesn’t sit well with my sponsor, with whom I haven’t spoken in a few weeks. The other day, he texted me and said, Well, I guess you’ve given up. When I received the text, I was in the middle of replacing hammers on my piano’s action. I put down the screwdriver and sent back, No, I’m just busy.

piano action hammer replacement.jpg
Stop: hammer time.

You can never be too busy for AA, he replied.

“Good grief,” I muttered. Really? I get that it’s my sponsor’s job to kick me in the ass sometimes, but this felt like a Big Book-thumper kind of line (actually, he is kind of a Big Book-thumper). And yet I am. It’s fine, I typed and carried on with my work. And it is fine. I’m a grown man who can make his own decisions, and I don’t permission.

That’s it from my sober neck of the woods. Thanks for reading.

Being Alone vs. Isolating

I’m good at being alone. When I was a kid, I had friends that I played with often, but I always happy (sometimes happiest) when it was just me and a book, or me and my Star Wars figures staging an epic battle, or me and a drawing bad. I didn’t begin to isolate until college, which is also when clinical depression first struck. I didn’t know that at the time time; I thought I was just mopey and moody. I was also determined to be a Poet (yes, with a capital P…I was insufferable) so I thought that depression suited me perfectly. It wasn’t difficult to romanticize my situation, just as it wasn’t difficult to romanticize my drinking. I was just living out my purpose, after all, as a tortured artist. “I’m mercurial,” I’ told people. Actually, I was terribly lonely, was in the nascent stage of addiction, had severe depression, OCD, anxiety, and host of other issues. That didn’t make me different from my peers, mind you, but I thought it did.

ol bert
I’m so deep, man.

Fast forward a few years, and I was an isolation master. My friends didn’t abandon me, but they grew accustomed to being completely unreliable. While I was content enough to drink around people, I really preferred to drink alone. When I heard the George Thorogood song, “I Drink Alone,” I thought, “YES. Thank you.”

My tendency to isolate didn’t prevent me from getting married, having children, or leading a fairly productive life. As time went on, though, I drank more and more, and I removed myself from all social connections…or at least tried to. I still visited family on the holidays and attended some outside-of-work gatherings, but I was always miserable. I wanted to escape those situations…preferably, into a bottle. It wasn’t long because I began packing alcohol to take with me on trips or, excluding that, made sure I drank enough prior to an activity to ensure I’d feel “normal.” Through it all, you couldn’t have convinced me I had a drinking problem. Did I drink to excess sometimes (read: every time)? Of course, but life was stressful! Nothing wrong with a drink or twenty to take the edge off.

It wasn’t until the fog alcohol lifted in early recovery that I even considered that I might have let my social anxiety grow unmanageable, and I might benefit from social connections. Four years later, I still struggle with social connections, but I’m so much better than I was. I don’t the pit of dread in my stomach every time I interact with people. I get it sometimes, but I acknowledge it and keep going.

I’m writing this as I sit in my living room, alone except for my dog and cats (and two lizards), and feeling content. I have some things to do today before I pick up my children from school, and I’ll happily do them solo. Tomorrow night, I’m going to a church dinner; later this week, I’m going to try out a new AA meeting. Today, I’m not isolating…I’m just by myself.

The more acquainted I get with my sober self, to more in-tune I get with whom I truly am. And at my core, I believe, I prefer to be alone a lot of the time. I’m an introvert. I’ve finally arranged my life to accommodate that, and I don’t have to drink. At least, I don’t have to drink today, and that’s enough.

I hope this post finds you well. Happy sober Monday to everyone.

Free-Floating Anxiety Strikes Again

Today was one of those days when, for no apparent reason, anxiety decided to jump around my brain and try to convince me that something horrible was going to happen. There’s no trigger for my free-floating anxiety. Social anxiety is predictable, and I’m learning to manage that pretty well. It’s the out-of-the-blue anxiety that stumps me.

Anxiety: Makin’ Me Feel Like a Winner

The good news is that I don’t deal with anxiety any where near the level I did when I was drinking or even before I got into therapy. In my drinking days, I was wound tight as a clock and alcohol only numbed and masked the problem; it was still lurking. And when drinking no longer worked–except to make me slurring, suicidal wreck–I had anxiety all the time.

Four years into sobriety, I’m glad to report a huge difference in the amount and severity of anxiety (and being med-compliant is certainly helpful). But today, I was standing in my kitchen, having just finished teaching online, and that gnawing sense of dread struck. It whispered vague words of doom and pain. There’s never any specific threat with free-floating anxiety, like, if you go to this social event, you were be miserable and spend the entire time looking for a way out and/or wishing you were a different person. And there was anything hard I was facing. Today, I had planned to meet my piano tuning mentor at her mother’s house and do a little tuning there. I work on my own piano, too, but its old and cranky, and my mentor’s mom’s piano is much easier to work with. We had also planned to meet in her workshop to discuss a plan for my studying.

And we did all that…I sure as hell wasn’t going to let anxiety (social or free-floating or whatever) stand in my way. I focused on my breathing, had a snack, and drove to the pharmacy to refill my medication. And now, sitting here with a cup of coffee, I feel better. Not completely out of the woods, but I’m getting there, despite having a commitment at church tonight that usually rings all my alarm bells. Only a few are ringing. That’s all right.

My therapist says (among many other wise things) to acknowledge the anxiety rather than fight it, which doesn’t work anyway. She’s encouraged me to say something like, “Hey, I get it. You served me well when I was little and things at home were fucked up. But I think we’re okay in this situation. So hang out here and relax. I’ve got this.”

Whew. I do have this. And so do you. Happy sober Wednesday, folks.


Still Here…and Still Sober

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve posted here or written about sobriety…either in this forum or in poetry and fiction. In early sobriety, I wrote extensively, especially in my creative life. For a while, just about every poem and every story character dealt with drinking, using, or recovery. The longer I stayed sober, the less sobriety came up in my work. That’s perfectly fine…in fact, I’m relieved. It felt like I was always going to write about alcohol.


And then, one day, I didn’t. And I didn’t write about it the next day. Addiction and recovery still pops up every now and then, which is fine, but I’m glad it’s no longer present in everything.  I certainly don’t want recovery and addiction writing to be my only forte or biggest calling card. I would feel trapped, and I don’t do well feeling trapped (I tend to try and drink my way out of it).

Speaking of not feeling trapped, I’ve left classroom teaching behind. I still teach, but it’s much different. I teach English online to Chinese students, and I enjoy it. It’s less like teaching and more like encouraging, and I get to use special video effects and be pretty damn silly. Plus, I can do it from the comfort of my sun room-turned-office.

Classroom teaching–whether on the public or college level–had grown tiresome. Well, more than tiresome…it was just awful. I reminded myself that I’ve been teaching in some capacity for nearly twenty years, and it’s perfectly understandable to want to try something new. I’m loathe to say “never again will I step foot inside a physical classroom!” but that’s how I feel. The good news is, I don’t have to. Do I have a master’s degree in literature and oodles of teaching experience? Yes. Has it served me well until now? Yes. Did I, for a series of days, drive into the parking lot of a school where I taught and throw up in the parking lot, have a massive panic attack, and go on Klonopin to make it through the rest of the year? Yes. Do I ever want to even remotely feel that way again?!?! NO!!!

It’s time for something new, so I’m learning how to tune pianos. I bought an online course, got the tools, and started about a month ago. I found a wonderful woman in our church who’s a piano teacher, and she’s agreed to be my mentor. She had to be convinced I was serious at first, and I’m happy to report that she’s convinced. Huzzah!

piano-tuning pal

Piano tuning requires immense patience and the willingness to try and fail and try many, many more times again…like learning any new skill. I’ve been writing poems since I was thirteen, and now at 45, I feel mostly secure about my abilities and voice. I can’t count the hours I spent filling notebooks with shoddy poems or typing up bad stories, just as I can’t tally the number of hours I’ve spent writing songs. Becoming a competent piano tuner will take considerable time, but I’m pleased to report that no piano has ever cursed me, or thrown paper at me, or clung to me and expected me to be a therapist. I haven’t had to send my piano to detention, nor have I had to call its parents. God willing, I’ll never find myself in that position again.

That’s it from my sober neck of the woods. While I don’t feel much like writing anything creative, it feels good to put my thoughts in this blog. Happy sober Sunday to everyone.