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.

Slowing Returning to Myself

This has been a rough summer (and, here in Georgia, it’s going to feel like summer until October. Ugh). Aside from the oppressive heat, it’s always hard for me to be home with both my children. Well, let me qualify that: it’s hard toward the end, right before they go back to school, when it becomes abundantly clear that the three of us knocking around the same space has become unbearable. It happened last summer, and it will most likely happen next summer, too. It doesn’t make it easier in the moment, though.

My kids went back to school yesterday, and I breathed a giant sigh of relief. They did, too, because I’m sure they’d had enough of my cranky ass. The summer wasn’t all bad, of course, but a few things happened that made it more challenging. First, the air conditioning in my car is pretty much kaput, and we don’t have the money to fix it. So getting the kids into a hot car to go anywhere, even to the store, is a chore. Then our house air conditioning broke, and we don’t have the money to fix that, either. We’re getting by with a window unit and two portable air conditioners. It’s not ideal, but I’m not in danger of suffering a heat stroke.

But things really took a nose dive eight days ago when I began running a fever. Out of the blue, no other symptoms. I wasn’t all that worried that first night; it’s not uncommon for me to run a fever or 24 hours. It’s been that way since I was a kid.

By the third day of feeling miserable, I decided to go to the doctor. She ran my blood work and some other tests, all of which turned up nothing. She decided I had some kind of virus or infection and just needed to wait it out.

Wait it out. With two boys at whom who get along about as well as you can imagine an eleven-year-old getting along with a seven-year-old (which is not very well). Against the backdrop of no central air, no air in my vehicle, the kids fighting about every ten minutes, and running a mysterious fever, I was trying to line things up for a part-time, online teaching job. And keep the house relatively clean, make meals, and not lose my mind.

I felt like I was, for a while, especially this past week. It all came to a head when I was clearing out the kids’ room to make space for bunk beds. I was moving box springs down the stairs–or attempting to–when it slipped, careened down the stairs, and knocked out one of the windows in the downstairs bathroom door.

That was it; something inside me snapped. When I realized not only had I busted out a window, but the box spring was now jammed between the window frame and the wall, I let loose a string of screams and curses so loud my throat hurt after. I finally managed to free the box spring and drag it outside. I apologized to the kids (they were a little freaked out by my meltdown) and then went to the kitchen.

I was so beaten down, exhausted, and defeated…I had no idea what to do. So I drank some water, slowed my breathing, and took a cold shower. I texted my wife and told her I was having a really hard time and begged her to come home immediately after work (which she did).

Self-care is difficult for me under ideal circumstances, but when I feel sick and it hurts to move–and when I know I have no choice but to keep moving–taking time for myself all but vanishes. But my body and mind keep score; if I don’t have enough time alone to decompress, my eyes will pop open at 3:00 AM, and I’ll go downstairs for a few hours, just to have that precious time. It’s not ideal, but it works (especially if I really can’t sleep because of a fever).

GAH! I’m grateful my fever is gone (as of today, last night was rough) and the kids and I have some much needed space from each other. I’m taking it easy today, catching up on the things I didn’t have the strength or interest to do when I was sick: I’m writing a little bit and working on music…and updating this often-neglected blog.

Thanks for reading. Happy sober Friday.

The Devil Gives Advice

I generally publish poems and stories on my creative writing site, but I wanted to share this one here. Being back in therapy and working with a strong sponsor has stirred up a lot of emotions, and I’ve been reliving some of my darker days before I got sober. That’s where this poem comes from.

I believe poems should speak for themselves and rarely should the writer offer his or her insights into its meaning. I’m making an exception with this one…not because it’s particularly complex or hard-to-get, but I want to explain the importance of one line in particular. But first, the poem:


The Devil Gives Advice

“Take it easy,” Lucifer told me.
“Hell wasn’t built in a day.”

Easy for Ol’ Scratch to say,
he hasn’t had to do a dishonest
day’s labor in about two millennia.

“The key is to pace yourself,”
the Lord of Darkness went on.

“At this rate, you’ll die before
you have any kind of fun, and trust
me, you don’t want that to happen.”

And so I slowed my killing pace,
just to humor the Father of Lies.


The line in question is “And so I slowed my killing pace,” and it’s a reference to a line in the Gin Blossoms song “Mrs. Rita.” The line from the song goes:

I’ve been keeping myself busy with my books and with my tapes
And every day’s much better since I’ve slowed my drinking pace
There’s no swimming in the bottle
It’s just someplace we all drown…

If you’re a fan of the Gin Blossoms, you probably know that co-founder, guitarist, and songwriter Doug Hopkins committed sucicide after a long struggle with depression and alcoholism. The Gin Blossoms received a gold disc for “Hey Jealousy” and the album New Miserable Experience eventually went multiplatinum. Hopkins wouldn’t be around to enjoy the band’s success, though.

Long before I got help for my drinking, I would listen to the album and relate to Hopkins’ songs. Take the line from New Miserable Experience opening track, “Lost Horizons”:

Drink enough of anything to make this world look new again
Drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves….

Dear lord, that line pierces my heart.  I get it, and what’s more, I instantly romanticize the whole damn situation. There’s Robert, drunk again, wandering around the gardens and graves. How fitting. How poetic. How messed up.

We’ve lost so many musicians and songwriters to suicide, drugs, depression, and alcohol. I wish Doug Hopkins could have gotten the help he so desperately needed. The same goes for Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Scott Hutchinson…the list goes on.

I was fortunate enough to stop my drinking pace and stop listening to the Devil. Others don’t make it. I hope and pray more and more get help.

That’s it from me. Happy sober Saturday to all.

A Kitten, a Sponsor, and a Beer Glass

Obviously, one of these things seems out of place…or maybe they’re all kind of strange, lumped together as they are. but it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ll start backward, I think.

Teacher Appreciation Week isn’t something I’ve ever been comfortable with, maybe because (until my current job) I haven’t been comfortable in my work environment. I’ve taught at a lot of schools, and I’ve made some positive impacts, but it’s come at a cost. I’m something of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole when it comes to teaching; I’m most at ease with older adults, and yet a lot of my teaching years has been spent with at-risk and struggling public school kids. Increasing pressure from the county school board and administrators to accomplish what (I thought to be) the impossible resulted in me leaving public education, hopefully for good. I simply don’t have it in me any more.

During those tough years, I received a few gifts from students, all of which I’ve kept. My favorite are hand-written cards, but I love coffee mugs, too. I’m teaching adult ed classes now, and I didn’t expect a gift during the first week of this month. But one of my students was kind enough to give me this:

beer glass.jpg
Oy vey.

I burst out laughing, and my students assumed that I just thought the words on the glass were funny. None of them know I’m in recovery. I thanked my student for the gift and took it home to show my family. My wife and kids laughed, too. I like the glass quite a lot. The most exciting thing its seen thus far is water, which will probably remain the case until I buy some root beer. I’m not into mocktails or non-alcoholic beer. I tried out various mixed virgin drinks in early recovery, but they just didn’t do it for me…much like their alcoholic counterparts didn’t when I was drinking. Beer, wine, vodka. I was a pretty basic (and disgustingly cheap) drunk.

Moving on. Last Monday, when my wife was driving the kids to school, they spied what they first thought was a rat trying to drink from a rain puddle in the middle of the road. The creature wasn’t a rat but a tiny, wet kitten.

On the count of three: awwwww….

We have quite a few animals in our house, but of course we have room for an abandoned kitten. We debated over names before finally settling on Miles. The vet thinks he’s about four weeks old. We bottle-fed Miles for most of this week, and now he’s graduated to eating solid food. He still hasn’t mastered the litter box, but at least his poops are small. Our two other cats, both of whom are old and kind of cranky, are giving Miles wide berth. They’ll get used to him after a while. Our dog Charley growls at him, but he’ll come around, too.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve started therapy again. Beth asked how many meetings I was attending, and I told her, “Not many. One every other week, maybe?” She suggested I correct that, and she added that she thought I should get a new sponsor. I haven’t talked to my first (and only) sponsor in a long time. We didn’t have a falling out of anything; I just stopped calling and texting him, and I quit attending the meeting where he went. I felt it was time to move on, but the whole situation felt awkward, like I was breaking up with someone.

Anyway, there’s a guy in my home group whom I respect a great deal. I always like what he has to say, so I asked him to be my sponsor (I’ll call him Dale). Luckily, he agreed. We’ve two times so far, and I gain so much from his wisdom. Dale doesn’t play around, either. Not that my first sponsor did, but he was…easy. Calm. He was exactly what I needed when I was freaking out in early sobriety. Dale’s observations about me–my lack of discipline and sticking to a routine, black and white thinking, my tendency to isolate–are spot on, but the truth is sometimes hard to take. I’m getting the no-nonsense treatment from Beth, too. Tough love, but I need it.

I’m working on trusting myself, something I find incredibly difficult to do. That’s kind of my homework this week. I’m also trying to stick to a schedule that includes dedicated time for writing and creating music. I have such difficulty with routine, especially when it comes to my creativity. I tend to be scatter-shot and start an enormous amount of projects, knowing full well that I won’t finish them. Ugh. Progress, not perfection, I keep telling myself.

So that’s where I am on my 1,232 day of sobriety. I wish all of you a happy, sober Monday.