Four Months Clean, and Struggling

Cc photo by Katy Silberger flickr-3503359255-original

Photo by Katy Silberg – Creative Common

I’m so proud of my son. Last night I took him out for dinner and he ordered a beer. When it came, he told the waiter he had changed his mind, and ordered a coke instead. I was so relieved. So was he. We were both relieved that he’d the strength to do that. On such a bad night.

His new girlfriend had just left him.

He came home from work that night and all her stuff was gone. Out of the blue. It was a blow, and he was crushed. They’d been living together with her three-year old son, mostly in motels. But they were looking for an apartment to rent together. She’d sounded so happy the week before when they were visiting us. Her little son, who is such a doll, was calling me “grandma.” I was helping her look for apartments to rent. We had become friends. Then this.

They may be getting back together. He doesn’t know yet, but they are talking.

I hope they don’t. This is the second time she’s left suddenly like that with no explanation, no warning. She doesn’t use drugs or drink, but I think she may have mental issues. She’s very vague about her past. We really know nothing about her. When he met her, she was staying at a homeless shelter. It sounded like she was running away from a bad relationship, someone who had been abusing her. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think she may be someone who is looking for love, and running away from it at the same time.

I feel for her, and for her little son. But I worry about mine. I think he needs to let her go this time. Not try to get her back.

My heart has been aching all day for him.

On top of this, his daughter turns two years old next week and her mother won’t let him see her. She won’t even tell him where they are living. They keep in touch by phone, and he’s trying to stay in her good graces so she won’t sever that contact. But he’s worried. He thinks she using heroin again. She talks crazy sometimes. She berates him for not being in his daughter’s life.

He says, “How can I be, you won’t tell me where you are living!”

She says, “I wouldn’t let that stop me, if I was in your place.” It makes no sense!

He pays child support, but she wants money on the side, and he wires it to her! I tell him he shouldn’t. But he’s afraid if he doesn’t, she’ll disappear for good and he’ll never see his daughter again. At least she sends him photos once in a while.

I tell him he should call Child Supportive Services. But he wants to wait until he has a place to live so if it comes to that he’ll be able to get custody of his daughter. It’s all so complicated.

Just a week ago I was planning this post–how wonderful everything was: four months clean, looking for an apartment with the woman he’s falling in love with, a sweet little boy in his life, being a dad to him. He was happy, hopeful. So much to celebrate, it seemed.

Still, there’s one thing to celebrate: Despite all he’s been struggling with these last few months, he’s stayed clean. That alone is well worth celebrating.

Lighting Candles of Hope

Candles by Andrew Smithson Creative CommonsI created this blog earlier this year at a low point in my life. I’d given up believing my son would survive his addiction. I did not expect him to live much longer. I had lost hope.

When you lose hope, you lose everything.

But in reaching out to others, I found the support I needed to regain that lost hope. I found others struggling just as hard as I was–those who struggled with loved ones still deep in addiction, those whose loved ones had struggled and survived, and those whose loved ones had struggled and lost.

Many I found  here, readers of my blog who left comments and messages of support and understanding, who shared their stories, and their loved ones’ stories. They gave me the strength and encouragement I needed to keep fighting and keep hoping.

Many were recovering and recovered addicts, and they were especially dear to me because I heard my son’s voice in their stories, their struggles, and their triumphs.

Many I found in the movement called “The Addict’s Mom” (TAM), an organization whose members are the mothers of addicts who, like me, are struggling with the terror of addiction and how it tears families apart. I feel such a kinship with these women. They are my sisters-in-arms.

September is National Recovery Month, And TAM is launching a “Lights of Hope” Campaign.  They ask everyone on September 1 to light three candles:

  • One for an addict currently using
  • One for an addict in recovery
  • One for an addict who is gone but forever loved and remembered

I hope you will join me in lighting these candles of hope. For all the moms and their loved ones.

Thank you.

To learn more about TAM and other events planned in September, visit their website at http://addictsmom.com/

Celebrating 90 Days Strong Amid Trials & Tribulation

athlete 450px-JacobyhaieMy son celebrated ninety days clean this week.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of him, especially when the past several weeks have been so rough. Not only had he been picked up on an old warrant, survived ten days in jail, and suffered through methadone withdrawals, but when he was released, he found out he’d lost his housing, his job, and the friendship and trust of his sponsor.

He couldn’t understand it. He hadn’t relapsed. He hadn’t done anything wrong. But here he was jobless and homeless again, and without the support of the sponsor he’d so depended upon. Why was this happening?

The housing problem was especially difficult. The shelter where he’d been staying had promised to help him financially secure permanent housing, but now that was gone. His sponsor was angry that he had returned to the methadone clinic, instead of using his time in jail to get off it completely. And without a job, he didn’t have the means to live at all.

The one bright spot in all this was that a woman who had befriended him before going into jail was still there when he got out, still believing in him, and wanting to help. And during those first few difficult weeks they became closer, became a couple.

I was wary of this at first. Everything I had read and come to believe said that recovering addicts should not become involved in relationships until they had a year or more of sobriety behind them. I could not see this ending well, for her, or for him.

But I seriously wonder now if he would be celebrating 90 days clean if she hadn’t been there to help him through those last few difficult weeks. While it seemed that everyone else had given up on him and pulled the rug out from beneath his feet, she stayed and gave him steady encouragement.

More than that, she helped him through what has been a huge relapse trigger—the kind of devouring  loneliness that eats you alive. Over and over again, he has told me, the loneliness is the worst thing. The thing that gets him every time. That is so unbearable only a needle in his arm gives him release.

So, as unwise as a new relationship may be this early in his recovery, I am grateful to her, and happy for him.

His housing situation is still marginal. He sleeps in cars, or motel rooms when he has money, or at campsites. But his sponsor has returned, and he’s working again. He’s going to meetings, and he’s testing clean. And he and his new friend are looking for a place together.

I still don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t know if their relationship will last. I don’t know what it might do to him if it doesn’t.

But this is the way it is. This is what he has to work with on his road to recovery. We never know what challenges or gifts life will drop at our feet. We just have to make the most of what we are given.

So I’m hopeful. And so is my son. We’re both extremely grateful, and reassured, that after being severely tested, he’s still 90 days strong.

On Loving an Addicted Child

Mother and children Lange-MigrantMother02

Migrant Mother (1936) by Dorothea Lang

I found this poem on a Facebook site for mothers of addicted children. It spoke to me and I wanted to share it with you. Many thanks to Jacqui for allowing me to do so.

Untangling the Knots of Addiction – Two Steps Forward, One Back

Knots of addiction Naga182 public domainYou’d think once someone decided, “I’m done with addiction! I’m turning my life around,” it would be all uphill from there. Because that’s the biggie. All of us mothers and lovers of addicts are waiting for that golden moment, when the sun breaks through the darkness, scatters the clouds, and shines down upon us.

But it’s usually not like that. For every two steps forward on the road to recovery, there’s one (or more!) step backward, as our loved one begins to untangle himself from all the knots caused by a life of addiction. It’s not just a matter of giving up his substance of choice and staying clean and sober. It’s that, which is hard enough, and so much more.

It’s about trying to create a new life out of the rubble of the old. A life spent in and out of jails and rehab and living on the streets leaves a trail of destruction behind you, as well as a tangle of legal problems, a pile of debt, bad credit, failing health, and broken relationships. Often you lack a car or a home or a job. And you lack the decent clothes and resume and character references needed to smooth the way toward getting what you lack.

Often there’s outstanding warrants, court fines, and back child support payments to take care of. There’s a mouthful of decay, a diseased liver, and undiagnosed mental issues to deal with. And years of bad habits to undo.

Worst of all is the lack of self-confidence and self-esteem needed to move forward when so much is weighing you down, or dragging you backward.

It takes tremendous courage, willpower, faith, humility and plain old-fashioned guts and grit to even wrap one’s mind around all this, let alone force yourself to walk out on that dance-floor and begin all the contorted moves needed to unravel those tangles. Especially while everyone you know and love, and many who hate you, stand by and wait and watch.

Two days after I wrote my last post about my son’s 60 days clean, he was picked up on an outstanding warrant from a neighboring county and jailed. This time was especially hard because he was taking high daily doses of methadone from the clinic, and withdrawals from that are the worst.

On the other hand, this warrant had been an axe hanging over his head ready to drop. And now he could finally take care of it and put it behind him. And he did. He spent 10 days in jail and then was released back into his Prop 36 program, with the promise to transfer his case to this county. A huge relief.

He managed to hang on to his old job too while he was gone, but he lost his spot in the shelter where he was staying. He’s living in a friend’s van now and saving up to get his own place.

All’s well that ends well, so they say, and this ended better than we’d hoped.

But it’s a reminder that he’s still untangling himself from the mess he created while deep into addiction. And we must all be patient as he slow-dances his way free.

Sixty Days Clean: Perseverance on a Long & Winding Road

Big Sur winding trailMy son and I were texting each other yesterday and his ended with this:

PS – I got 60 days clean today. xxoo

Sixty days clean. A postscript.

So many emotions swirling around in my mind: joy, pride, tenderness, hope, fear.

We’ve been here before so many times. Two months, Three months. Four months. Each time I think: This is the beginning of forever. The dragon is finally slain.

Only it wasn’t.

So. Sixty days. Not very long when we consider all that is past and all that is to come.

Still, I feel hopeful, thankful, blessed. There’s much to celebrate, regardless of the outcome. Sixty-five days ago I had thought I had lost him forever.

So in that spirit I am celebrating what feels, emotionally, like a huge milestone. Even though rationally, I know this is only the tiniest beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong journey.

And I remind myself:

“Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
― Oliver Goldsmith

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”
― Margaret Thatcher

“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”
― James A. Michener

Perseverance (and faith) is what we need to sustain us on our long journeys.

Given that, I’ve choreographed some thoughts to encourage us on the long and winding road.

A Speech on Perseverance (and Faith) Told in Quotations

“I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.”
― Jeanette WintersonWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

“I was taught to strive not because there were any guarantees of success but because the act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”
― Madeleine AlbrightMadam Secretary: A Memoir

“The doing of something productive regardless of the outcome is an act of faith. The doing of a small something when a large something is too much for us is perhaps especially an act of faith. Faith means going forward by whatever means we can.”
― Julia CameronFinding Water: The Art of Perseverance

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
― L. Frank BaumThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
― Nelson Mandela

“We’re all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”
― Isak Dinesen

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
― A.A. MilneWinnie-the-Pooh

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
― Winston Churchill

“Sure I am this day . . .  that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.”
― Winston Churchill

“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.”
― John Quincy Adams

“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

 

It Could Be Worse: 74 Years Plus Two Life Sentences

JugendstrafvollzugAddiction has destroyed so many lives and families. Whenever I think of how difficult the road to recovery is for my son, and we start to despair, I remind myself and him:

It could be worse. At least he still has this opportunity. Some don’t.

The son of a family friend whose downfall was drugs is now serving 74 years plus two life sentences in federal prison. He spends most of his time in the SHU (Special Holding Unit). If you know anything about the penal system, or have been watching the series “Orange is the New Black,” you know this is the worse place to be incarcerated, reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, in virtual isolation. It destroys minds and bodies. The fact that he has been living there for years is almost unbelievable.

When I knew him he was just a skinny little boy with big brown eyes and a shy sweet smile, a few years younger than my son. I didn’t know him well, but saw him from time to time until his parents divorced and he went to live with his mother and step-dad.

The next time I saw him he was standing on our doorstep at 3 AM in the morning. He wouldn’t tell us what was wrong, but wanted to know if he could come inside and call his father. We were surprised to see him, but of course let him in.

While we were waiting for his father to arrive, we sat on the couch and I made small talk. He was 18 years old, but looked like 14, still skinny, still with the big eyes and shy smile.  It was obvious he was in trouble, but we didn’t pressure him to give us details. He seemed like a sweet kid, and I hoped that whatever the trouble was, he would be okay.

We learned later that day what had happened. Just before arriving on our doorstep, he had shot his mother and step-dad in a dispute over drugs. Apparently his parents were peddling drugs from their home, supplying their son and using him to distribute the goods. Their son was hopped up on meth and when they had a falling out and wouldn’t give him what they owed him, in an angry fit, he grabbed their gun and shot them.  His mother died, the step-dad was paralyzed and would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair.

Somehow he remembered that we lived close by and came to our house to hide out and to wait for his father to come help him.

His lawyer didn’t want to defame the victims, so the fact that his mother and step-dad were drug dealers who had encouraged and benefited from their son’s drug use was never revealed to the jury. He was sentenced to 74 years in prison.

Not long after he was sent away, he wrote to me and we began exchanging letters. I’m not sure why he sought me out. We didn’t really know each other. But perhaps our brief conversation on the couch that night, my kindness to him, made an impression.

At first I enjoyed his letters. He was very articulate and intelligent. He was doing a lot of reading in prison and clearly enjoying what he was learning. But then the letters began to change. He had been drafted into Aryan Nation Brotherhood, was reading all their literature, and was being brainwashed by it. Now his letters were full of white supremacist propaganda.

I did my best in my letters to refute all his arguments and encourage him to stay away from this group. But it was no use. He was fired up and enthusiastic, and he was trying just as hard to convert me. When his language about Jews became increasingly hateful, I knew I could not longer write to him. I mailed him a “Dear John” letter and ended our correspondence. Fortunately, his father and sister and other family members still wrote him, so I don’t imagine he missed my letters.

What I did not know then, nor did he, was that the Aryan Nation was recruiting this impressionable young man with nothing to lose, who desperately needed something to believe in, to be their trained assassin. Or their orders, he murdered an inmate and a guard, earning two life sentences on top of the 74 years.

At that point he realized that he had been used by the Brotherhood and denounced them. Now he was friendless. The other prison gangs already hated him, and those “unaffiliated” feared him, so he was left pretty much alone when he was not being targeted by members of one gang or another. Perhaps that’s why they put him in the SHU. Perhaps that’s why he slashed both his wrists and sliced up and down his arms and legs.

Much to his surprise, and everyone elses, he survived that violent attack upon his own body.

Not long after, his life took an odd ironic twist. For the better.

Resigning himself to life in solitary confinement, he sought to make the most of it. Seeing as how the kosher food served to Jewish inmates was superior to his own, he decided to convert to Judaism. But in order to convince the prison officials the conversion was genuine, he found a distant Jewish relative and began learning as much about the faith as he could. He was fascinated by their long history, their persecution and suffering, and he began studying their sacred texts. His conversion became real.

His father tells us he now wears a yarmulke on his head and his beard nearly reaches his waist. It almost covers up the swastika tattooed across his chest.

I don’t know what this young man’s life would have been like if he hadn’t become involved in drugs. Perhaps he still would have created violent acts. Perhaps he still would have gone to prison.

But I remember him as that sad, shy kid sitting next to me on the couch that night, chewing his fingernails, and looking like all he really needed was a big hug and lots of love to make things right.

I wish he had had a chance to turn his life around.

When I despair of my son’s challenges, I remember: At least it’s not too late for him. We still have hope.

It could be worse.

[POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me after writing this that I have taken one man’s life and a family tragedy and turned it into a life lesson for myself and my son. The lesson I extrapolated from his story was that everything is relative, and that what seems nearly hopeless for addicts trying to recover, comparatively, is not nearly so hopeless as other cases may be. Therefore, we should take heart, we should recognize the opportunities we have to improve our situation, and not be overcome with all that seems to work against our recovery.

That said, this story of this young man, tragic as it is, has its own thread of hope weaving through it. While his life took such a horrible turn and then grew even worse upon entering prison, at some point, he had the clarity of mind to see that he had been used and the courage to denounce those who had used him for evil, and to choose to live a life of loneliness rather than to be part of that group and way of thinking.

Although overcome with the hopelessness that led him to try to end his life, miraculously, he survived. And in an ironic twist of fate he found in the faith and life story of a people he had once reviled a sense of purpose, and a spiritual practice. I don’t know how his story will evolve, but truly his life story has evolved for the good, even in an atmosphere and under conditions that would severely test any of us. And that, in itself, should give us hope.]

A Must Read: “We Don’t Start With Needles in Our Arms”

addiction 402px-Fixer_Junkie_Drogen_Heroin_philipp_von_ostau public domainI came across this post on the blog Renegade Mothering yesterday and had to share it with you:

We Don’t Start With Needles in Our Arms

Here’s one part at the beginning of the post to give you an idea of what’s to come:

Sometimes, when a famous, brilliant actor dies with a needle in his arm, I read the comments from America and I can’t take it. There’s so much ignorance, so much blind condescension based on NOTHING. NOTHING. Opinion. Observation from afar. Some article you read somewhere. An addict you “know.” A drunk you worked with.

The comment that stuck with me like a knife in my brain is this one: “Yeah, addiction isn’t a choice, but shoving a needle in your arm sure as hell is.”

It’s as if people think we start with a needle in our arm. Yeah. Newsflash. WE DON’T.

Alcoholism and addiction are progressive diseases. THEY GET WORSE OVER TIME. We don’t start with a damn needle in our arm. We start drinking beer with friends in high school. We start like you did.

What I loved about this, and think you will too, is the direct, simple, and passionate puncturing of all the myths we deplore about addiction.

But she also goes even further, giving us a deep insight into how addiction works and why it’s so difficult to treat:

By the time I realized I was in trouble, I couldn’t stop.

By the time I realized I couldn’t stop, I COULDN’T STOP.

And that, my friends, is the piece you’re missing: By the time we realize we’re dying, we’re dying. By the time we begin to suspect a problem, we are in the grip of a deadly disease, a disease that lives in the body and the mind. The body demands more – aches and screams and begs for more; the mind says “You’ll die if you don’t have more. It will be okay this time. Just one more time, Janelle.”

It’s not rational. It doesn’t weigh options. It doesn’t think about kids or home or acting careers or any other fucking thing. It thinks about itself. It tells me “You’re fine, Janelle. One drink won’t hurt.”

How do you change a mind with an insane mind? Tell me, how do you? How do you alter the thoughts of a brain when it’s the brain making the thoughts?

Do you see the problem, folks? There’s where the element of choice gets really, really sticky. MY BRAIN IS MAKING THE CHOICES AND MY BRAIN IS THE PROBLEM. You’re telling me to “choose” different behavior when my brain is the thing that’s hardwired to choose more alcohol.

She doesn’t leave us there, with this sense of hopelessness, because she eventually was able to recover from this sickness, and she tells us how she did it.

I highly recommend you reading the rest of this deeply candid and insightful post on addiction.

And if you are a mother, or thinking about becoming a mother, or simply want to know what it’s like to be a mother, you might want to take a look at her blog on Renegade Mothering.

The Art of War – 30 Days Clean and Counting

Samurai 1024px-Kusunoki_masashige“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” Sun Tzu

I found this quote on another blog about addiction (thank you, Blue) and shared it with my son.

He’s doing well–over 30 days clean and counting–but he’s nervous. And so am I.

He’s had these good stretches before. We know they can dissolve in a minute. They usually don’t last much past 2 or 3 months at most. He’s had longer stretches of doing well, but those have been few and far between during his fifteen years of addiction.

So far he’s doing all the right things, everything he can at this stage to put his life back together.

The methadone he gets daily from a clinic has helped him a lot. Its helped keep him from having the intense, uncontrollable cravings that come not only from his addiction to heroin, but from the depression and despair he feels on his worse days. That make him want to give up.

But the methadone makes him itchy and seem high sometimes. So that’s been a problem when he was looking for work.

Fortunately, he has a great sponsor, a local business man, who’s taken him under his wing, and he’s working for him now. They attend a lot of meeting together, the “hardcore” AA meetings, he tells me, attended old-timers who are serious about their recovery. Not like the NA meetings he’s attended in the past, where so many junkies straight from jail, who aren’t committed end up. (Like himself once.)

He’s living at a small shelter now that doesn’t just house the homeless, but has a program and caseworkers and helps residents transition into traditional housing. If he stays there for three months and remains clean (they test residents), they will help him find an apartment even pay for his first and last months of rent. In the meantime, his case worker supplies him with bus passes and clothes vouchers at local thrift stores, and pays for his monthly phone bill.

He’s created a small community of support at the shelter too. It houses families with young kids he plays with, and older people who grandma him. I met one of the grandmas’ he hangs out with. They meet at a park each afternoon and he walks her back to the shelter to protect her from the young punks who like to give her a hard time.

He’s also signed up for a trial membership in a local gym where he goes daily, working out, lifting weights, swimming and taking yoga classes. Physical exercise has always helped him to stay focused and feel healthy and strong and motivated. And now with his new job he’ll be able to keep it going.

We try to meet once a week to do something fun and “normal,” nothing related to his recovery, but just to enjoy each other’s company. So far we’ve gone to farmers markets and art shows, and shopping for underwear and bathing suits. We top it off with yummy bowls of Cold Stone ice cream.

But he’s nervous. When things are going well he starts to worry. He’s warned his sponsor that he’s due for a relapse soon. It usually cycles in after two or three months of doing well.

That’s why I shared the Sun Tzu quote with him. The enemy is not only the heroin and the addiction it causes, but the fear and depression and despair as well. Its attack can come at any time. He needs to stay alert, to know it’s coming, and to prepare for it.

How does he do this?

By analyzing the why and how and where and when of its attacks. Knowing how it sneaks up, what disguises it wears, what weapons it uses. And being ready for it.

By making himself unassailable on all fronts, no matter how fast, and unexpected, and deadly its attack may be.

That’s what I tell him. And I tell myself that too.

Because we’re in this together. It’s his fight. I can’t do that for him. But if he falls, then it becomes my fight too. My fight against the disappointment, the depression and despair and fear.

I have to prepare myself too.

“I Paint What I See” – Bearing Witness, One Face at a Time

Marc Clamage - Maxine

“I SEE YOU BUT DO YOU SEE ME?” Maxine by Marc Clamage:

Since my last post on bearing witness, I discovered another blogger who refuses to turn away by painting panhandlers he sees in Boston Harvard Square near his workplace.

Meet artist Marc Clamage.

He writes: “I used to hurry by them, but then I began to stop. Each face tells a story, I realized, and I would try to capture as many as I could through a series of oil paintings.”

Marc Clamage - Rosie and David

“Rosie and David” and pet guinea pig, by Marc Clamage

He’d noticed that there were more than usual, “younger, and more troubled,” and sometimes, even whole families begging on the streets.

Many of the people he encounters were simple passing through, and using panhandling as a way to supplement a low-wage job, or help pay the rent.

Others were homeless, and panhandling was their only source of income. Some were obviously disturbed, showing signs of drug addiction or mental illness. Some were sick, and dying.

Marc Clamage - Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds)

“Newly Engaged, need Motel to Celebrate” Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds) by Marc Clamage

He adds: “I do not ask the panhandlers to ‘pose”’ for me, but to carry on with their business. I pay each person $10, though I wish I could afford more, because they earn that small fee in the hour or two it takes me to paint them.

Over that time, we often get to talking, which has been a privilege and an education.

I’ve seen or heard many human dramas: the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney; squabbles over the best places to work; the mysterious figure everyone calls “The Rabbi,” stuffing $20 bills into cups and disappearing before anyone can see his face.

Marc Clamage - Gary

“Gary, Desert Storm Vet” by Marc Clamage

“I’ve witnessed a few instances of cruelty, but many more of thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I head home, I’m always struck by one thought: There but for the grace of God go the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why we find panhandlers so hard to look at.”

I was deeply touched by Marc’s paintings and by the stories of the people who posed for him. You can view more of his paintings and read the stories on his website “I Paint What I See“, or at his blog.

I also like what he says about how he paints:

“I paint what I see, only what I see, only with it right in front of me, only while I’m looking right at it. I do not work from photographs, or imagination, or memory, or even from sketches. I paint exclusively from life. The essence of representation is that every choice, every brushstroke must be made in direct response to the experience of visual reality.”

Marc Clamage - Whitney

“Whitney”, suffering from cancer, by Marc Clamage

To really “see” someone, the way an artist does, objectively, without judgement, and yet responding to what is seen, the pain, or loneliness, or confusion, or anger; to see and be seen like that, must be freeing, for both the painter, the one painted. And for the viewer as well.

To simply behold what we see–the good and bad and beautiful and ugly–without judgement, but with compassion and humility, is the essence of “bearing witness.” And it must have a healing effect.

Bernie Glassman in “Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace” wrote:

“In my view, we can’t heal ourselves or other people unless we bear witness. In the Zen Peacemaker Order we stress bearing witness to the wholeness of life, to every aspect of the situation that arises. So bearing witness to someone’s kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a child means being every element of the situation: being the young girl, with her fear, terror, hunger, and pain; being the girl’s mother, with her endless nights of grief and guilt; being the mother of the man who killed, torn between love for her son and the horror of his actions; being the families of both the killed and the killer, each with its respective pain, rage, horror, and shame; being the dark, silent cell where the girl was imprisoned; being the police officers who finally, under enormous pressure, caught the man; and being the jail cell holding the convicted man. It means being each and every element of this situation.”

To bear witness in that way must be the hardest, the most healing, and the most humbling thing we could ever do. And the most needed.

Elsewhere, Glassman writes: “When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. . . . Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”

More of Marc’s paintings follow. See if you see what he saw.

Marc Clamage - Colleen

“Colleen” by Marc Clamage. She died of exposure and a drug overdose.

 

Marc Clamage - Gideon

“Gideon” by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - Anthony

“Too Ugly to Prostitute, too Kind to Pimp” – Anthony, by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - maria

“Maria” by Marc Clamage

 

Marc Clamage - Laurel

“Laurel” by Marc Clamage. Here sign says she’s a mother of 4 and a victim of domestic violence. The flip side says, “I’m not a whore, asshole.”

 

Marc Clamage - Carrie

“Carrie” by Marc Clamage. Now clean and sober and off the street.