How Grieving Over Trees And Facing My Addiction Gave Me New Life

The challenging death and rebirth cycle was at the center of 2020 for many of us. Can we grow from it?

Bryan Winchell
Mar 1 · 9 min read

These trees were three of my best friends in 2020.

No matter which way I was blown by my life or tossed by the stormy seas of social media, these trees were there for me.

Standing tall, their limbs stretching over the bike path not far from my house in central Japan, shading me on hot summer days, soothing me when my soul most needed it, I could count on them.

They were there.

And then…

One day in late November 2020 they weren’t.

On what felt like the worst possible day for it to happen, the trees were gone.

Looking North in spring 2020: The trees on the left, stretching across the bike path. (Photo: Author)

I was a drug addict. And had been for many years. I didn’t want to write that sentence just now in mid-February 2021; I wanted to deny framing myself that way. But on that day, November 23, 2020, I finally faced it.

About 30 minutes before I arrived at those trees, I’d dumped a full can of alcohol into a bathroom sink, looked in the mirror and said, “You can be a both/and maybe person about a lot of things but not this. No more, Bryan.”

It didn’t feel good to say that. In that moment, it just made me angry, resentful of a world — a world that sometimes feels too cruel — for taking away my pain relief. Fuck you, world.

It wasn’t just booze I abused but over-the-counter cold medicine, which included both pseudoephedrine and caffeine to lift me up and dihydrocodeine to mellow me out.

I’d quit several times since spring 2019 but this time felt different, like I was truly committing. There were two reasons. First, the concoction wasn’t even working as it used to. But the deeper reason was I knew I wasn’t going to last much longer. Perhaps physically I wasn’t going to die any time soon — but I was dying inside, losing my spirit, my will to live.

Ironically, I’d been taking this combination of booze and pills to fuel my long bike rides. I told myself that I was keeping in great shape — my strong thigh muscles proved it — yet a bum knee had immobilized me in early October and it was then I realized that I’d turned the biking into yet another addiction.

Still, those rides were feeding my soul, were keeping me invested with living and one of the main reasons was sharing space with those trees. Seeing them standing there, changing with the seasons yet remaining firmly in their place, gave me both a feeling of inner strength and embodiment. They told me that I could persevere.

And then they were gone.

The day I found my trees had been removed and the three workers who removed them. (Photo: Author)

Three clueless workers chatted next to a crane and a generator that drowned the sound of my tear-filled, raging voice. I yelled down at them, aware that they likely couldn’t hear me and even if they could, they were Japanese and I was speaking in English so it didn’t matter.

But it did. I had to say something. These trees were my friends — living, grand, ancient creatures — and these men were standing next to their lifeless stumps as though they’d never lived at all.

Even if all the men could hear was the pain in my voice, that was enough. Someone had to speak for the trees, so why not the guy who’d written a novel about his love for them?

“Hey, fuckfaces! Why’d you kill them? Why? WHY!?!”

The men kept on talking, didn’t — couldn’t? — hear me.

“What the fuck, 2020, what the fuck!” I said, tears now coming. I didn’t care if the men looked up and saw a middle-aged man making a fool of himself, didn’t care if they did what Japanese sometimes do and defaulted into simply dismissing the crazy foreigner. It didn’t matter. None of it did.

The trees were gone and it felt like I’d lost another part of myself — that grounded, permanent part — when I needed it most to be there.

Another tree just a bit further down the bike path. As of February 21, 2021, it’s still there. (Photo: Author)

I wasn’t completely unprepared for their loss. About one week before, I was approaching them and had had an intuition which I didn’t allow to fully form — but it was something along the lines of “those trees won’t be there forever.”

But why, I asked myself as I stared down at the stumps, why today? Of all days, why now?

That morning I’d taken a lot of those cold pills so I was buzzing in a bad way, feeling I could understand that lyric Chris Cornell once sang, “I can’t get any lower, still I feel I’m sinking.” Though it was a beautiful fall day, I didn’t feel like biking, didn’t feel like doing anything, but I had too much energy and angst to go back home. So I kept on going, listening to my FEELS playlist on my iPhone because I wanted to connect to my heart, to feel beyond the angst.

That didn’t work. All I felt was disconnection.

Still, I kept going — nothing else to do — and as I did, I felt a small opening in the skies of my clouded mind — yes, I could do this, I could agree to say NO to this one thing, quit the fucking substances, and see what happened. It was worth a try.

And then, just as I was beginning to settle into that, I came to my favorite part of the bike path, a strand of bamboo trees on my left and, soon, my trees would be there on the right. Yes, the sky seemed brighter than usual, maybe things were looking up but…

No.

The sky was brighter because, well you know why. My trees were gone.

What was left of the trees on that November day. (Photo: Author)

Eventually, I yelled loud enough that the workmen looked up. As soon as they did, I felt embarrassed, but still I said something about them being tree killers before hopping on my bike and leaving the scene of the crime.

The thing is those three aren’t the only trees that have been cut down along this particular bike trail or along many of the bike trails in my area in the past year and a half. Along this one trail, hundreds, if not thousands, have been razed for what I was told by a kind old Japanese man who had a sad look in his eye as he watched this destruction was to “make the river run more smoothly.”

Just some of the trees that have been removed near the Tone River bike path. (Photo: Author)

I’ve not looked into just how correct he was — I didn’t have reason to doubt him — but when I see how far from the river the trees have been cut, well, I have to wonder.

I also wonder why it matters. The point is the trees are gone. And I feel like a part of me disappears, too, with every tree that is cut down and then laid on top of each other like some sort of sick tribute to mass graves.

As I biked away, feeling a bit of satisfaction the work crew had heard me but also a bit ashamed at my behavior, I asked the Universe what, if any, lesson it was trying to teach me.

A few minutes later, I began to perceive an answer.

Looking North in winter 2021: The trees are gone, but life remains. (Photo: Author)

2020 was a year of great loss all over the world. I don’t know anyone who got out of it unscathed. Whether the loss was the death of a loved one, the termination of a job, or an opportunity missed, there’s never been a year in my life where the loss was so widespread and felt on so many levels.

Putting things into that grand context, losing some trees on a bike path in Japan seems pretty minor. Yet it’s not, for there’s no quantifying the subjective experience, is there? No way — or reason — to measure my loss versus yours. Loss is loss.

However, there are times when loss — such as shaking a bad habit like an addiction — equals gain. In that moment, though, we may not feel it as such, because familiar patterns are easy to rely on, they become a comfort even if they no longer serve us.

So there I was, all of these thoughts stirring around my head like a sickly stew. Could I make something out of the depths of this sadness?

Suddenly, I remembered a scene from my novel. In it, a character visits an old-growth forest that was near and dear to him but had been cut down. It had been over a year since he’d been there because he didn’t want to experience it in its death, not after it had been so full of life.

But one day he musters the courage to follow an intuition he has to go to the forest. After spending some time in it, dealing with his anger and sadness about the lack of conscience that inspires humans to raze whole forests, he starts to see it: there’s still life there, small shoots sprouting from stumps, spiders, ants and beetles scampering on the bark, and he understands: Nature cannot be killed so easily.

As I looked around me on that November afternoon, I could see areas where trees had once stood, but I could also see trees still standing, perhaps trees I’d never appreciated before in my anticipation for meeting my three friends. Yes, we humans have done — and continue to do — much damage to our environment, and yes we need to do more to bring awareness to this so we can become stewards of Nature not “masters” of it, using and abusing it for our ends.

But death is not the end — the seasons should teach us this — there is rebirth and new life that comes out of the end of cycles. This is true no matter if the things that died were healthy things like those three trees or unhealthy ones like my substance addiction. Yes, as I began to look around me, I could see how many trees still exist, waiting for me to appreciate them, how the sun is still shining and the river still flowing.

It dawned on me that the death and rebirth cycle was both a large theme of my 2020 experience and one of the large themes for the collective, too. Death and rebirth is one of the most challenging cycles, but it is a cycle. Death isn’t the end. So with that in mind, here in early 2021, the questions I’m asking myself and that I’d like to leave you with are these:

After all of this loss and death, what will you create now? Can you find within you something new, something healthy, something to serve humanity, which you can bring forth into the world?

New pals for 2021 in a park near my house. (Photo: Author)

Thanks for reading! You can support me simply by sharing my stuff, by linking to me on Twitter, by checking out my old blog, by listening to my podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast, or by reading my 2015 novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” You can also find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4).

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

Everything Begins With An Idea

Bryan Winchell

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A Serious Fool who writes about: Personal/collective growth, politics, love of Nature/Humanity, Japan, podcasting, humor, and being a hippie in Service to Life.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

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