Friday, September 28, 2018

Here's why being the only Black person at Brave Magic this weekend turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life

As I write this blog, my memoir book-proposal is out there in the world getting busy.

Busy being rejected that is, by several different (well-researched) literary agents.  The few that take the time to respond to me, all basically say the same thing:

I’m sorry, I can’t sell you.  No one knows who you are.

So instead of being defeated, I’ve decided to look at these words as a call to action.  I’ve been advised to build what is called an “author’s platform” (an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach - I.e. “likes, comments and followers”).  In order to make this happen I’m starting to do more of what I see other authors doing to boost their platforms.  The long (and exhausting) list I’ve put together includes but is not limited to:

Blogging (✔️)
Podcasts (I start my podcast class next week)
Storytelling (I just WON my first Story Slam at the LA Moth this Tuesday – after taking a storytelling class. HOORAY!).
Taking writing class after writing class (✔️ I just signed up for another one last night)
Cranking out an insane amount of article-submissions to various outlets (trying)
Reading the insane number of articles published by these outlets, getting familiar with editors and other authors (again, trying)
Being an active member of a writer’s group (✔️)
And last but certainly not least, NETWORKING, which includes: Going to RETREATS.

So, to this end, I registered for a retreat headlined by best-selling powerhouse authors (and besties), Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed (Eat Pray Love and Wild, respectively). When I signed up, four other women from my online writers’ group (there are seven of us total) had also signed up.  I had never before met any one of these women in person (we've been meeting for years via video conferencing). 

I arrive last Thursday after flying into San Jose’s airport, picking up my hybrid from Hertz and driving up the windy, narrow roads to 1440 Multiversity, which rests at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  I am so mesmerized by the scenery that I actually forget to be nervous about being in this unfamiliar situation (my first writer’s retreat, my first time meeting the other ladies face-to-face and first solo trip for any reason in over a decade). However, my stomach begins to churn the moment  I take my place at the back of the 200 + person check in line. 

Only my stomach isn’t churning because of the length of the line, it is churning because I am the only Black person in it. 

Craning my neck to look as far down the line as possible, all I see are natural blond ponytails and top-buns, whose wearers look like they were born holding a yoga mat in one hand and a mason jar in the other. 

I do see a few silver-haired White women. I see three or four brown women (Middle Eastern, Indian or Pakistani?) and five Asian women (one I meet tells me that she is Korean American).  I find out later that there are 11 men in attendance also.

But there are no Black attendees.

There are 600 people here in total.

I’ve been the only one before.  I was the only Black student in class many times when I was little, I was the only Black parent (many times) when my kids were little and I’m often the only Black person in my recovery meetings.  But I didn’t know that this (my first-ever retreat) would be so massively big.  And it hadn’t even vaguely occurred to me that out of 600 people, I could be the only Black one.  Frankly, I am more than just shocked, I am actually deeply saddened.

While I continue to stand in line, it begins to feel as though some of the women are now craning their necks to look back at me. Ignoring the stares, I try to picture how any of these yoga mat-carriers would feel if they’d arrived at a retreat where absolutely every one of the 600 attendees (and all of the facility staff-members) were Black.  

They’d probably slip away nervously and call someone, right? Or maybe they'd turn around and head back to the airport without saying a word to anyone.

I feel irrational tears pressing against the backs of my eyes.

Really?! How is it that an event this big, in twenty fricken eighteen can be so incredibly homogenous? How is that I can be the only one - STILL - AGAIN at age 54?!

I think about getting back in my car and driving down that crazy mountain road back to the airport.  I am pretty sure that no one would blame me if I did. 

Enter the women from my writers group.

Gripping my car keys in my left hand so hard that my palm hurts, I use my right to send a group text, telling them that I’ve arrived and say that I’ll be “easy to spot."  Moments later, Stephanie appears (she lives in Portland) and then Dana (who lives in Charlottesville).  They are both so happy to see me that it relieves a bit of my self-consciousness. Soon we are in the dining hall.  We’ve now been joined by Amy (she lives in Oakland) and Riva who lives in Toronto.  

This whole time, I am constantly aware that I am quite obviously the fly in the proverbial buttermilk.  But even though I'm resisting it, I find myself beginning to feel at ease in the company of these four White women.  I am reminded of my freshman year of high school, basking in the safety of my posse of girls, watching others take notice of our "sister bond" and walk in the other direction with their cafeteria trays to sit at other tables.  I credit this "instant" bond with Stephanie, Amy, Dana, Riva (and Wendy and Kim who couldn't attend) to the fact that we've chosen to share with each other, extremely intimate subjects and events over the years through our writing; pregnancies, babies, prostitution, depression, falling in love, suicide, alcoholism, (me) infertility, divorce (me again), assaults, abuse, prejudice, bullying, breakdowns, etc...

These four women recognize immediately that I am the only Black participant here and know better than to pretend that it isn’t an issue.  They discuss it openly and inquire without agenda how things feel for me.  I am so at home with them in those first few moments that I almost get teary again.

I guess I'll stay for the night at least.

Day two of the retreat I think that I spot a Black person out of the corner of my eye on the other side of the auditorium — then that person is gone — disappeared.

Hold up! Did I just imagine her? 

Later in the afternoon when I actually see her against a far wall, my suspicion is confirmed. 

Oh yes. Definitely a sister.

We nod, acknowledging each other across the room (as is our code). I am relieved, but also in a very strange way, I am almost disappointed.  You see, in just two days time, I have started to relax into my solo minority role (although I am still a bit unsure as how to receive the many women who continue to approach me with strong handshakes and teary eyes -- thanking me for being here).

Huh?? You’re welcome, I guess.

These encounters aside, I’ve discovered that even in the Whitest of White environments, with the help of these four women, I’ve been able (this time) to set aside my painful memories of being the only Black person and have a new experience with it.

The truth is that I've having the time of my life at the Brave Magic retreat. Once again, I've learned something new about the most important person in my life — me.

R-L Riva, Me (obvs), Amy, Stephanie and Dana

Friday, September 7, 2018

You’ll never guess which celebrity I heard crying about having to take a day job, but I can tell you this - it wasn't Geoffrey Owens #realman

 I was in a recovery meeting a few years ago and this pretty famous, two-time award –winning actress was sharing that she was struggling – not with booze, but with her recent fall out of the limelight (and the resulting “broke-ness” that followed).  She was lamenting about having to rely on the kindness of her more prosperous actor friends while waiting for her agents to come up with some role worthy of her status.  She said that she was sickened by the idea that she might have to take some “menial” job until the next great part came along.  She said that she didn’t know if she was cut out to live like “other people” and then she burst into sobs.

I watched her intently while she cried (honestly, I’m sure my mouth was wide open as I was a big fan of hers and had never before seen her in person) wondering, if she was crazy or correct.  Okay, it’s easy to see the truth now in hindsight, but at the time she was incredibly convincing about her plight (hey – she didn’t win those two awards for nothing!).  So convincing that even though I left the meeting unbelievably annoyed that she expressed so much dread about living the way “other people” did (I.e. me), I also thought, “Hmmm - maybe she is making the right choice by sticking to her guns and not “settling” for a day job.  Like maybe there’s some honor in her waiting for that next award-winning part.”

Also maybe there should be some sort of separate recovery meetings for people struggling with the loss of celebrity…

It was around this same time that a kid named Jordyn Owens joined my son’s, Miles and Justin’s basketball team. Besides Miles and Justin, Jordyn was the only other “mixed” kid on the court (and quite the phenomenal point guard). That, coupled with the fact that our boys really got along, made it natural for my ex husband and I to gravitate toward his parents, Geoffrey and Josette.  Many are the time that I would climb past all the other parents on the bleachers (smiling polite “hellos” and “excuse mes”) to sit up next to the Owenses.  They would do the same if we were there first.  It was a nice, unspoken camaraderie, safe and easy.

Josette is a pistol – fun loving and personable (with an enviable head of shining, dark brown hair). Geoffrey is mild-mannered, well spoken and kind -- rarely speaking though, while the ball was in play.  He kept his eyes trained on his son the entire time and his rare outbursts were usually because of a bad call from the ref or a whoop for another coast-to-coast play by Jordyn.  When Geoffrey wasn’t working (acting) both he and Josette were at every practice and game. I was always struck by Geoffrey’s fierce devotion to his family and by their devotion to each other. I was sad when they moved back east in 2010. 

I’ll stop here and say that for those of you who may have been consumed this week with the fervor surrounding the Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearings, the anonymous New York Times op-ed or the Nike/Kaepernick ad campaign, there is another great little story going around that also deserves your attention.  It’s about the job shaming of a former Cosby Show actor.  Have you seen it?

Yes, that Geoffrey Owens. 

Mr. Owens was photographed at his former job (Trader Joes) where he bagged groceries for 15 months.  Fox News posted it in an apparent effort to shame him, but this wonderful thing happened instead.  Quite without meaning to, by posting that photo of Geoffrey at work, Fox News launched an honest to goodness, “trending” hashtag hero --  #realman #geoffreyowens #actorswithdayjobs #hero.

When I saw Geoffrey‘s interview on Good Morning America this Tuesday, I was struck again, not just by his devotion to his family, but also by his humility.  It is rare, I think to see anyone in his chosen profession exhibiting that kind of “Zen energy” when his or her identity has been called into question.  I was so proud when I watched how he fielded the questions, handled the attention.  I think I felt like I had something to do with it because I have a personal connection with him and his family ("Hey, hey!  I know that guy!  Our kids used to play basketball together!"). 

It also struck me after watching his segment, how very wrong that famous actress had actually been (obvi).  There was no honor in her living off of her more fortunate friends.  There was no dignity in refusing honest work while she waited for the right part. And there was no humility in voicing her cowardice about the possibility of having to "live like other people."

I just really love that Geoffrey didn’t even know he was trending on Twitter until Robin Roberts told him.  I adore the fact that he was genuinely surprised to find out that Tyler Perry had been watching him trend and offered him a role in his new OWN series.  An offer, which Geoffrey has apparently, now accepted (he'll appear in 10 episodes!).  

That actress by the way, was also in the news again recently (though not for the same reasons as our Mr. Owens, unfortunately).  She is apparently facing some petty burglary charges -- a burglary which took place just a few miles away from where Geoffrey did his first, exclusive interview this past Tuesday.  Her item was minor news for a day or two (while Geoffrey is still a trending topic on Twitter as I write this).  Side note - apparently rapper, Nicki Minaj, was also so inspired by his hashtag story that she announced her intentions (yesterday) to "donate" $25K to him.


Honor verses ego, dignity verses degradation, humility verses humiliation.  So thanks Fox News, for not only highlighting the fact that there are still men and women who are making all the right choices -- but that Geoffrey Owens is one of them.


Friday, August 17, 2018

“Please God let the pills still be there!” And other thoughts I had the week I left rehab

I spent 30 days at The Meadows Treatment center (in Wickenburg Arizona) for a nasty Ambien and alcohol addiction in July and August of 2008.   I met my current boyfriend Scott for the first time an hour after I checked in on July 14.  I just unearthed my "rehab journal" this week (exactly 10-year's later):

August 5, 2008  (94 degrees at 11:00pm)

This place is crazy.  Men and women aren’t even allowed to talk to each other.  Scottie and I keep wondering when they’ll separate us since it feels like all we do is sit together and talk.  His counselor came up to us in the cafeteria today and asked to speak with him in his office; Scottie gave me an “I guess we’re busted” look over his shoulder before he got up to follow him. I hope he’s not in trouble.

August 6, 2008  (110 degrees.)

I miss my kids.  

I am always someone’s mother, someone’s wife, someone’s boss, someone’s friend, someone’s caregiver.  Here in this place, I am just me.  Day after day, from sun-up to sun down, just me.  I don’t know how to do that.  I never learned how to do that.  In my dreams women’s voices call to me -- “Be willing,” they say.

August 8, 2008  (112 degrees at lunch time)

Weekends here are the worst.  Long, hot, boring. I can’t imagine that less than a week from now, I’ll be able to walk into a Starbucks (any Starbucks) and just order a coffee like it’s nothing.  I told Scottie I want us to ride to the airport together (we get out the same day as we both checked in on July 14).  He doesn’t think they’ll let us leave at the same time.  He’s probably right.  Plus, if we leave together, it will be harder for me to pick up my Ambien refill at the CVS in town.  He may not understand that I can handle taking pills now, that all I needed was a break from it so I could finally take them like a normal person.

August 9, 2008  (76 degrees in the cafeteria.  113 outside)

We have to write a goodbye letter to alcohol before we go this week.  I write a poem to myself instead:

When I see your hair all done, I know it wasn’t really fun

When I see your biceps strong, I know you’re trying to prove them wrong

I see nails done, face waxed and clean

And I think about what isn’t seen
You’re worth less.  Give up this life.  You’re not fit to be anyone’s wife

You fooled them all?  Well, you can’t fool me.  Just wait until your children see...

August 10, 2008 (112 degrees, we’re all hiding in the TV room from Craig, the tech)

I literally ache all over my body -- not from withdrawal anymore, but from the pain of missing my children.

August 11, 2008 (a girl almost fainted today while we were waiting for the boys to get out of the pool - coed pool time is forbidden)

They let us use the phones today in the office (air conditioning)!  I booked a town car to pick me up and then called to check on my CVS prescription.  They had me on hold for so long I got scared they had screwed it up.  I was all, “Please God let those pills still be there!”  But they came back on and said they’d be ready for me on Thursday. 

Thursday is my release day. 

Now I know how it feels to get out of prison.

August 12, 2008 (HOT)

I can’t believe it!  They said that Scottie and I could ride to the airport together.  At first he just looked frightened (he keeps telling me he's scared about going home to Utah)  then he smiled and said, "The first thing we should do is hit the nearest Starbucks."  Apparently there isn’t one here in Wickenburg, but there’s one on the way to the Phoenix airport.  I practiced my coffee order in the bathroom mirror this morning, “One Grande Iced Mocha Valencia please."

Maybe coffee will be my new vice.

I’ll have to make some excuse to stop at the CVS.  I’ll be super casual about it.  I’ll just convince him to stay in the car.

August 13, 2008, -- There’s a rainstorm!  (But it’s still over 100 degrees)

My counselor called me into her office and I was worried that she wanted to tell me that there had been a mistake - that I couldn’t leave with Scottie after all.  But instead she told me that she’s concerned about my “issues” (aka pill addiction) returning if I go back to the same environment when I leave here tomorrow.

I was furious. 

I was all, “ENVIRONMENT?!  You mean my house, my HOME where I live with my kids?? And isn’t it a little late for this talk?” 

And f*ck her and her late-ass “cautioning” anyway.  I can’t go another day without my kids.  I haven’t even been able to let myself think about them since they last visited because it hurts too much. Plus, after a whole month clean, I won’t have the same “issues.” I’ll finally be able to take my pills as prescribed (instead of 3 or 4 at a time, every few hours like I was doing). 

Last journal entry:

August 14, 2008 (Not a cloud in insight, 96 degrees)

Well, this is it.  I’m just scribbling this down before the town car picks us up.  My 2 roommates put some contraband chocolates under my pillow last night.  It was the sweetest chocolate that I’ve ever tasted. 

I’m going to see my kids! 

I still haven’t figured out my excuse for stopping at CVS.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m usually great at coming up with excuses...


I was in so much shame and pain when I wrote this.  It feels as though I'm reading the words of someone else.  Someone who wasn't done (with drugs and alcohol). Someone who hadn't yet reached that point of acceptance.

I’ll never forget seeing that Wickenburg CVS out of the car window as we drove toward the airport.  Scottie didn’t really notice how distracted I was -- we were both so nervous.  When we were a few miles out of town, I closed my eyes against the tears and heard the voices of those women from my dream, "Be willing..."

The feel of my kids in my arms, the smell of the watermelon shampoo they used, the look of absolute adoration on their faces when I got home was so painfully sweet that (one day at a time) my insane compulsion to "check-out" was replaced by the humility and surety that I would never be able to take or drink anything like a "normal person" again.  And then there was nothing to do but surrender - and do whatever it took to get well.


Friday, July 27, 2018

Everyone's talking about Demi Lovato's overdose, but maybe you don't have to be so devastated when you hear that someone has relapsed. Here’s why:

I thought that Demi Lovato was really brave to release that song last month about her relapse.  In my world, relapses are usually first revealed privately to one trusted person, then afterward, to a group, in the confidential confines of a 12-step meeting.  

I read Demi's lyrics out loud to Scottie and his daughter, Nora the night the song was released:

“Momma, I am so sorry, I’m not sober anymore/And daddy please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor.  To the ones who never left me we've been down this road before. I'm so sorry I'm not sober anymore…”


When I first got sober, a relapse packed all of the horror and mystery of the boogey man.

“Did you hear about so and so?” We would whisper to one another. “She (or he) seemed like they were doing so 'well.'  Do you know what happened….?"

We “newcomers” (those with less than thirty days sober) would huddle closer together in our meetings, scared of getting picked off in the night by this insidious disease (I picture the hooded grim reaper, complete with sickle) and losing the one thing we had been told that no one could ever take away from us — our sobriety date.

But over and over again, people that I knew -- people who’d taken chips for 30, 60, 90 days sober were back in meetings (usually in tears) standing up to collect a newcomer chip again — some more than once.  


Before I knew anything about recovery, before I’d ever heard of AA, I remember being fascinated with celebrity relapses.  In fact, I kept a file of People Magazine articles about celebrities who re-entered treatment programs for “exhaustion" or — my favorite explanation to be suspicious of — “maintenance," months or years after getting sober.

Maintenance, eh? Right.

It smacked of dishonesty and cover up to me. 

I tried to read between the lines of those articles and get the real story.  I think even then, I was trying to get the secret to preventing my own relapse. Even then, I was so scared of this disease that already had me in its grips, but had not yet consumed me.  If I had this thing (and I did and do), then I wanted to know precisely how, when the time came, to beat it. 

But (not surprisingly) the answers to why people relapse weren’t in those People Magazine articles. In truth, (and in my opinion) there may not be an answer at all. 

I’ll take a 10-year cake in two weeks, if all goes according to plan.  But before I ever got sober, I had many, many, many failed attempts at quitting (for good).  I know all too well the pain of swearing off (publicly and privately) and hating my image in the mirror  because one more time, I'd found myself with a bottle in my hand.  And although I haven’t had to change my sobriety date, I know that the feeling of "picking up" again — for me it was one of desperate defeat, followed immediately by an overwhelming sense of incomprehensible demoralization.  My instinct now, is to do whatever I can to "help" anyone who may be headed for a relapse.  I'm afraid to give them the dignity of their own experience.  I'm afraid, that like so many others, they may not make it back.

But a surprising truth that I've learned over the past few years, is that some of the people I admire the most in recovery have had to change their sobriety dates due to relapse.  Some more than once.  Some several times.  I love these people.  I am extremely grateful for them on a daily basis and know for sure that my life and recovery would not be the same without them.

And isn't it also true that I am "playing God" when I try to "protect" someone I love from the pain and shame of relapse?  And if I'm honest, I'm also trying to protect myself from the pain of potential loss, right?

So now, as I’m leading new women, (wide-eyed and usually shame-filled) through the beginning steps of our program, I try to also remember these admirable men and women who have relapsed and then come "back," willing to go to any lengths for their sobriety.

These new women are (like I was) terrified of relapse.  Each time someone "goes out" (or relapses) they ask, (frantically) "How could this happen?!" But I think what they're really asking is:

"How can I keep this from happening to me?" 

And I usually tell them something along the lines of, "Try not to take it too personally.  Sometimes people just aren't ready.  And there's nothing to be done until they are."

Demi Lovato announced her relapse to the world in June and then this past Tuesday was taken by ambulance (after an apparent heroin overdose) to get medical help.  But ironically (and, again, in my opinion), it is possible that this whole, horrible ordeal may the very thing that helps her the most (and much more sustainably, by the way, than the double dose of Narcan, she no doubt received at the hospital).

I have had to learn this incredibly painful lesson in recovery -- that there is sometimes no better teacher then the humiliation of utter defeat.  Sometimes priorities can shift after one of these lessons, and it can become very clear to the defeated (me) what is truly important (my life, my family, the people I love) and what, albeit painfully, must be left behind (drugs, booze and an extremely self-centered way of living).

So when someone relapses, you don't have to be so quick to assume the absolute worst.  It doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to failure.  It doesn’t mean that they’re not “strong enough”.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that 12-step programs don’t work.  Sometimes a relapse can provide the measure of desperation that is required (for those of us afflicted with this disease) to really look at ourselves and at the impact that we have had on other people. And then possibly, to live a happy, peaceful, useful life —  one day at a time, of course.