New Spring

New Spring

By Norman Fox 07/08/15

A former addict finds redemption in photography.

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Norman Fox

I had been sober for one year, a very long year but one that was very rewarding in many ways. And while staying sober each day was no longer a struggle, the years ahead still worried me. I wanted to never drink or use drugs again and my fear was that this would happen if I ever stopped doing the work that my sponsor had laid out.

Three years earlier everything in my life had come crashing to a halt. 

The privilege of being a stay-at-home dad who was busy every day raising his own two children while caring for dozens of foster kids was abruptly revoked. 

The beautiful family home and its gardens were gone. The waterfront property on the wild ocean coastline of B.C., the boat, the cars, and more importantly, the large community of wonderful neighbors and friends – all of this vanished when I returned home after a six-week stay in an alcohol treatment center. Instead of all that, I came home to locked doors, court affidavits, forced separation from my children, and homelessness.

I found myself without income or belongings and my home-based career was over. Nearly all of my friends chose to politely bow out of a conflict that was as shocking to them as it was to us. My partner’s anger at my betrayal of her trust expressed itself in expensive and hurtful legal vengeance by which I was utterly and completely defeated, losing on all fronts.

Norman Fox

Eventually, I found a dilapidated old house that was soon to be demolished, directly across the street from our children’s school. It was often without power and heat and had overgrown lawns and broken windows. It was the “eyesore” in our middle-class neighborhood but it was close enough to my kids’ school that I was able to wave to them through their classroom windows, watch them play at recess and once in a while (when there was money) I had them come over for lunch. I would buy a tin of tomato soup and visit shelters to find donated bread, or a can of tuna, and set a small table for them pretending that the cupboards were full and that the fridge actually worked.

Convincing the kids (and myself) that Dad was okay and that everything would soon be fine and back to normal was a charade I could keep up for those 30 minutes or so, but as soon as I was alone the bleak sadness and shock of what had happened to our lives would completely crush me again. There was an unforgiving sense of guilt and so much anger at my lack of control and the dishonesty that had robbed me of everything in life that I had once held so dear.

In that old house, I would wake up on a narrow old mattress on the floor of a tiny dirty room with a half-century old wallpaper slowly peeling itself away from empty walls and I would convince myself that today things were bound to change. I would find a job; I might settle with my wife’s lawyers; I might find a cigarette or a hot meal. I filled those days by going to meeting after meeting, eventually returning home at midnight to cry myself to sleep again, staring at those empty walls paralyzed with disbelief. And I would wake the next morning and convince myself all over again that today was going to be the day.

After a year and a half of this, my wife, her lawyers, and mine all agreed that I should sell her my shares in our family business and apply the cash to paying off accumulated family loans and legal fees. With what was leftover, I made a down payment on a home of my own, and it truly felt like success. I could have the children with me more often, and a small income that came from the home made life livable again. But the following year, the fear and guilt caught up with me once more and I drank again. This time I became addicted to crack cocaine and within weeks I was trapped in the alleys and shadows of our downtown eastside drug world. Two years later, the police were following me home from the crack shacks. I had to sell my home at a complete loss and I had hit another bottom; one that was deeper than anything I could have imagined.

Norman Fox

One evening though, after months of random smatterings of applause for “coming back,” I heard a man talk about recovery in a way that sounded different. He inspired me and I went through the steps with him and I stayed sober!

Just after the one-year mark, I was now renting a room in the same house that I had once owned. I had a bit of furniture, an old laptop and my most prized possession: my camera. And I had two goals: One was certainly to remain sober; the other was to learn everything I could about photography and become the very best at it that I could be. I wanted this to be my success story!

All of my time over the next two years was spent either helping other alcoholics or studying the techniques and concepts of the great photographers. Every day, I wandered the same downtown areas where I had once been a drug addict, this time, though, carrying a camera around my neck. My thoughts moved between the spiritual principles of recovery—brotherly love, justice and integrity, and, most important, honesty—and the ways of a camera—practice planning composition, finding balance between negative and positive, and paying attention to depth of field.

I watched and read everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with street photography. I really wanted to master the techniques of camera work and I wanted to understand my relationship with a higher power.

So here was my dilemma: one voice was telling me to move in closer on the details and to wait for the “decisive moment.” The other was telling me to “live in the moment.” The walks became my full-time job. An old timer pointed out to me that now I had to find a hobby to pay the bills.

So I became even more resolute that one day I would find a way to earn an income from my images.

Another year went by, it had been raining for six weeks and I had not been taking many pictures at all. Most of my time was spent at local cafés drinking coffee and just waiting for the rainy days to end so that I could get back out there. And this is when my concerns of relapse began to appear.

The classic danger signs for any addict is being hungry, angry, lonely, or bored. For me, add to this: complacency. The sense of being whelmed with problems (and it would only take one or two) almost always leads to feelings of disappointment for me. It brings a lack of confidence and ultimately a resolve to hit the "F*** it switch." I become lazy and convince myself that nothing really matters and I lose track so easily of any goals or plans. This was exactly what was happening. No photo work, meetings were becoming boring, and my interest in any deeper understanding of my relationship with a greater power was diminishing.

Norman Fox

But I woke one Sunday morning and reliably the rain had stopped! The sounds of kids playing outside for the first time in many weeks meant that spring had arrived.

But even so, halfway through that first beautiful day I was still lying on my couch, dozing off-and-on, arguing with myself. How was it, I asked myself, that after so many months of not being able to practice my passion for photography, I could so easily derail myself into squandering such a glorious day by lying on the couch, doing nothing of value? I tried laughing about it and eventually convinced myself that it meant nothing. “Tomorrow's another day,” I told myself.

Near the end of that afternoon there was a brief moment of clarity as I looked back over the last two years.

Suddenly, the techniques of camera work and the spiritual principles of my sobriety all seemed to merge together. I started to see that what I had thought was a journey, was not that at all. I had the truth in my hand. Searching for the right image, the amazing image and the right job and the right relationship was truly the nature of my next relapse. My perspective had changed.

I had to get outside. It was almost seven in the evening when I grabbed my camera and headed for the door. My plan was simple walks around the block, starting with my own alley, take a few shots and return home: Baby steps.

I got as far as the end of my lane when my eyes and my nose caught the first lilac flowers of the year. The purple color was glowing and its perfume hung romantically in the air. “This is the shot,” I thought.

I filled the camera's frame with my neighbors’ beautiful old heritage house and the 1950s' cedar fence.

Suddenly, right there in the middle of the frame was my beautiful tabby cat, Max. He had seen me from the deck, and raced down three sets of stairs, leapt over two fences, and he had landed squarely in the middle of the shot.

An hour later, I was home and at the computer reviewing the images when Max came up on the screen. I laughed and I think I even cried a little. The more I stared at his eyes, the clearer his importance in my life became. I certainly loved the cat and I enjoyed his independence, that he was always around and how he always seemed happy when I returned home (even if it just meant a new dish of food or a combing). But something else was there.

There was a challenging wisdom in his eyes. And pride. His eyes connected us and it was just a remarkable thing. 

Norman Fox

So what had I done to find such a joyful, satisfying picture that, to this day, remains among the most popular of my images with the public and serious photography collectors?

There was no struggle. I hadn’t coaxed the cat out of the house. In fact, he had never before followed me outdoors. I simply pointed my camera and paused just long enough before releasing the button. The focus, the colors and the exposure, even the subject, all fell into play as if it were all meant to be.

Four months later, and after a lot of legwork pedaling my images around town, I had my first show and it was a huge success. I sold nearly all of my prints and quickly moved on to my next.

Today, I am approaching six years of sobriety. My photographs are selling very well: Nothing brings me more satisfaction than sharing the true stories behind each of them. My children and I have a wonderful, loving relationship. Together, we weathered and survived all of that which I thought would be forever lost.

And I found the hobby I needed: working in a homeless shelter in my neighborhood helping the same people I once used drugs with, ran from, and was robbed by.

Norman Fox is a writer and photographer based in Canada.

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