Monday, March 14, 2011

"I'm Stickin' To The Union"

We are a union family. My brother and sister in law both belong to their state's teachers' union and have during their whole careers. Their state is recognized as one of the best-paying states in terms of salaries and benefits. Before some of you start shouting "Then you have to cut them!" I will also say they attract some of the best and brightest teachers in the country. The quality of education in their state is nationally recognized.

I have been, at various times in my life, a member of the actors' union, the restaurant workers' union and also a teachers' union in my state, although it is, alas, a "right to work" state and the union has very little power.

"Right to work" state is a terribly misleading term. It suggests equal access to employment. What it actually means, in practical terms, is that it does everything it can do to squash the unions and make them as powerless as possible. This has had the direct effect of making wages here approximately 20% below the national norm and benefits rare and small.

Of course, corporations love it. They move down here for the cheaper labor and the relaxed approach to environmental regulations. You might surmise that this would lead to increased prosperity for everyone concerned, but it turns out to be everyone except the average working person, who has the same rate of inflation as everyone else in the country but less and less money to meet rising costs. Our rate of poverty is high and growing, as many more have begun to sink economically from the middle and working classes to poverty. This is generally true for most of the south.

Still, the corporations are making out like gangbusters so their CEO's and shareholders are happy campers. And they're the only ones that matter, right? (sarcasm).

I have a bumper sticker that says "The labor movement: The folks who brought you the weekend." In light of the national tension created by the people of the great state of Wisconsin, I may be putting my car at risk for vandalism. A surprising number of average working people here have fallen for the corporate propaganda and actually believe the unions would make their quality of life even worse. They tell people that the unions will take huge amounts of their pay for dues. My dues for the restaurant workers' union were about $5.00 per paycheck. That's a whopping $60 a year! Keep in mind, too, that I was simultaneously getting a higher wage and more benefits than my non-union co-workers.

It's true that labor unions created the concept of the weekend. Before they began organizing in the early part of the 20th century the average factory worker had a six-and-a-half day week, with only Sunday mornings off for church. Workers essentially worked all day, ate dinner, slept and then went to work again. There was no concept of "free time" or "down time" as far as the working class was concerned.

Unions also brought us disability compensation for those injured on the job. Previously a worker who lost a hand or an arm in the machines was just fired for not being able to work up to their employers' expectations. Manual laborers who could no longer work and their families became destitute and homeless.

Unions also brought us health and safety regulations in the workplace, pensions, overtime, sick leave, days off and paid vacation time. They eliminated the practice of child labor. They brought the right to take reasonable grievances to their employers without being fired. These are all things we take for granted today and do not remember those who fought and sometimes died to obtain these rights for us today.

And then, of course, they brought us the right to bargain collectively. This is what the workers in Wisconsin are protesting about so strongly. Public union employees have already agreed to give the governor the cuts in pay and benefits he has asked for. What they want to keep is the right to bargain as a group for wages, benefits, working conditions and to bring verifiable grievances to the table. This is where the only power of public employees exists. Anyone who has tried to negotiate individually with his or her employer can tell you that one is practically powerless to make any significant changes on their own. The power lies with the solidarity of all the workers acting together.

In the old days, at the turn of the 20th century, when workers tried to strike their employers would call out the Pinkertons (a private firm of strong-armed goons) who would attack, maim, shoot and sometimes kill the protesters. Today the power elite is trying to legislate the elimination of the right to strike altogether rather than physically maiming the strikers.

This is in effect what Governor Walker was doing when he hired the private contractor formerly named Blackwater (now it's called Xe I believe) to guard several public buildings after firing the public employees. Blackwater is, of course, famous for rape, drinking shots of vodka from each others' backsides and killing civilians in Iraq.

There are many rights we take for granted today that were purchased with the blood, sweat, tears and sometimes the lives of those who formed the first unions. That does not mean that the unions are now dispensable.

As Governor Walker has shown, the rights of workers established over a century ago can be taken away with the flourish of a pen.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Process of Grieving

It has been one month and three weeks since my husband died. I am still grieving. I have learned, through the deaths of other family members, that one never "gets over" such a catastrophic loss. Instead, you just learn how to live with your loved one's absence. There will always be a hole in one's life which only that individual could fill. That doesn't change with time or tears or remembrances.

My thoughts often go to the day of his death. We know he died of heart failure, and that he had a damaged heart to begin with. His ejection fraction was a very low 25 and his doctors say it is unusual for a person to live much beyond 50 with that condition. We also know he had a lot of prescription drugs in his system at the time of his death, and that he was severely depressed. We have not yet received the results of his autopsy, but in any case it will probably say he died of heart failure. A drug overdose can also stop one's heart. We will probably never know whether it was a natural death, an accidental one, or a suicide.

He had mentioned suicide to me several times and I always thought I would never be able to live with that if he did commit it. I thought I would blame myself for his death, and always wonder if I could have prevented it. As it turns out, with the support of a number of people, I do not blame myself. I believe I did the very best I could for him, and finally, it was his choice. He had the right to make his own decisions.

The fact is, he was dying slowly, piece by piece. One part of his body would go awry, and then another, and then another. He became obsessed with his own death. I personally believe life is eternal and tried to share that conviction with him, but he was in doubt. I also tried to steer his thoughts away from death, knowing that what we think has a lot to do with what happens to us, and believed that his fixation would bring him to an end even sooner. As it turns out he didn't hear me.

I sometimes think God in His mercy decided to end his mental and physical anguish and brought him home at last. He seemed unusually calm and peaceful the day he died. The thought brings fresh tears. Then I wonder if he did commit suicide, and realize that while I do not agree with his choice I can understand fully how and why he could reach that point and can forgive him. His was a tortured soul at the end of his life.

I continue to live in the same place we shared together. I have donated most of his clothes to a mission for homeless men (I think he would fully approve of that.) Other than that, I have left most of his belongings just the way they were when he died. Some I gave to family members who requested them. When I am ready I will decide what to do with the rest. In an odd sort of way they comfort me, and I do not want to change anything. Sometimes I still wake up thinking he is there. This will probably go on for awhile more.

For now, the thing I wish most for both of us is peace. I do not know exactly what happens when one dies, though I think it is probable that we go through a period of probation, where we examine our lives. I do not know if he is at peace yet or not, though I pray that he will find it. I do not want my loneliness and tears to keep him from going on the spiritual journey that is meant for him. For me, it will probably be some time before I will reach that state, but I have confidence that I will, eventually, arrive there.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The End Of Our Journey Together

In April I wrote about my life with an addict. In one part I misspoke. I wrote that I had divorced my husband. In fact I was only thinking of leaving him; in the end I chose to stay. I have not posted for almost a year because I have been so busy coping with this disease in one way or another that I have not had the energy or desire to write.

I did continue to attend Alanon meetings, as I last wrote. The meetings in my area, at least, are open to the families and friends of addicts as well as alcoholics, and about half of the people in my home group are in this situation.

The first thing I learned was that alcoholism/addiction are diseases. The addict may begin by using the using the substance recreationally only on occasion. Some people can remain at this level for many years. For many others, however, there is a reaction that causes them to crave the substance physically, makes them unable to stop after one drink, and prevents them from functioning well without it. Many alcoholics, for instance, have told me they have become addicted after only a few bouts of drinking, while other people can drink moderately for years and never become alcoholics. Actual alcoholics or addicts may insist that stopping the drug of choice is only a question of will power and that they can do that anytime they like. They are either kidding themselves or outright lying.

Understanding that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing changed my attitude somewhat. I became more understanding and compassionate toward my husband. My reactions of rage at his behavior subsided and I was more able to deal with his illness objectively.

I had learned that the only cure for most alcoholics/addicts is to admit to themselves and others that they are powerless over their drug of choice. This may take a very long time. Many lose jobs, homes, families, friends, even become street people and lose fingers or toes due to frostbite before they reach this point. AA calls this point "hitting bottom." It is only after the addict reaches this bottom do they become ready to concede that they are powerless over their drug of choice and their lives have become unmanageable. They must reach this point before they are ready to be helped. This is called Step 1 of the 12 steps of AA.

Step 2 is very difficult for a lot of people. It says "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Neither AA nor Alanon define what that power is. It can be God, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, nature, the universe or any other deity of choice. I know one atheist who decided that the "group conscience" of AA was a power greater than himself.

There are ten more steps of this spiritual program, the goal -- for those in Alanon --is to "achieve serenity."

That's right. Not how to control the alcoholic/addict. Not how to manipulate him or her in the direction we think they should go. Rather, we learn to stay sane within an insane environment. Yes, alcoholism/addiction create insanity in both the addicts and their families. We learn to "detach" from the situation and look at it objectively. This doesn't mean we must stop caring. Only that we must stop our own crazy behavior, like screaming, scolding, shaming, becoming verbally or physically abusive, trying to arrange situations to cover up for our family member and/or keep him or her from becoming accountable for their own behavior. These behaviors either give the addict an excuse to use more or make life so comfortable for them they have no desire to change. Rather we learn when and how to speak clearly and calmly when the need to do so arises. This is called "detaching with love."

We learn that many of us are what are called "co-dependents." Whole books have been written on this subject so I will only speak of my own experience. I came from a home where my father was an alcoholic. He was no longer drinking when I was born but the behaviors normally associated with alcoholism were still there. This included erratic bursts of temper followed by remorse, unpredictability, unreliability, untruthfulness and self-justification to name a few. AA calls this being a "dry drunk."

I patterned myself after my mother, who I have decided was a co-dependent. Her whole life was her family. She believed her role was to be a "helpmeet" (as the Bible says) to her husband in all things. She thought her job was to fulfill every single need of every one of us, no matter how impossible that might actually be. If she was unable to live up to her standard of perfection she turned on herself with blame and shame. She could never possibly live up to her own standards so she was always angry with herself.

She was also always angry at my father, though she tried to hide it. If any of us children fell short of her standard of morality or spirituality she became angry with us too. She would come to me, even when I was very young, and unburden herself of all the sorrow she had endured from my father. I was too young to be of any help, of course, and I was just left bewildered as to what I could or should do. My father was actually very good to me, so I loved him almost as much as I loved her and felt torn in my loyalties. I grew up an anxious perfectionist like my mom.

In my relationship with my husband and in my journey in Alanon I began to recognize and begin to correct some of my co-dependent behavior. I consciously decided to stop feeling anxious and guilty whenever my husband indicated that I was not perfect. That's still my immediate reaction, but I'm beginning to recognize and correct it.

I stopped keeping my husband's addiction a secret from his family and mine. I found that his family was perfectly aware of his problem but didn't want to bring it up unless I chose to confide in them. I gained a warm and supportive family group who loved my husband as much as I did and were willing to help in any way.

I learned to stop covering up for my husband's erratic behavior and let him take the consequences of his own actions -- to a point, that is. I wouldn't let him drive when he was high, especially when I was in the car and my safety was at stake. I would make sure he kept his doctor's appointments. I would take charge of our bank account when he was impaired and not let him spend all our money buying foreign drugs on the internet. Anything that negatively impacted me or my own safety, especially, I took charge of.

I found in Alanon a group of non-judgmental, warm and supportive people who I could call anytime, night or day, for help. I received guidance in changing my behavior and encouragement with every little baby step I took.

I hit my "bottom" and began going to Alanon about a year ago when I was forced to admit that everything that I had tried didn't work. His addiction was spiraling out of control and my life was filled with worry and anxiety. I knew I had the option to leave him, and carefully considered it several times, but decided to stay, still hoping he would get to the point of wanting help. I loved him and there is always the possibility of change. Unfortunately, he had a very low bottom.

Not every Alanon story has a happy ending.

On January 3rd my husband died of a combination of a weak heart, an overdose of drugs, and severe depression. It may have been unintended but it was effectively a suicide. I had called 911 several times in the previous six months because of overdoses. Every time he went to the hospital they strongly advised him to enter their substance abuse unit and every time he refused.

I knew one of these times I would call and they wouldn't be able to save him. That is what happened on January 3rd.

His family and friends and I gave him a respectful funeral. We were recognizing all the good things he had done for others and all of his positive qualities. Despite his addiction and other faults he was dearly loved by many and will be missed. There will always be a hole in our lives that he had filled.

I continue to go to Alanon meetings and practice the 12 steps in my daily life. I feared I might become suicidal myself if he were to die; I could have blamed myself for somehow not doing the right things to prevent him. With Alanon's help I have been able to see events clearly and though I am terribly grieved, I do not hate myself for what was ultimately his choice. I continue to receive the warm support and welcome of those who have been through this themselves.

I believe in eternal life and feel comforted to know that my husband is continuing on in his spiritual journey. Though there is probably a period after death when we review our lives here on earth, I do not believe in hell or everlasting punishment. I know he is well and with God and would wish me to be comforted. He did love me, after all.