By Jenny Gardiner.
We were expecting my mother for a visit, her first in many years. She was on the overnight train from Atlanta. My daughter had a starring role in her high school play, and mom was coming to see it. I’d arrived around dawn at the farmers market that morning to stock up on food for a busy weekend of houseguests before heading to the train station, when my pocket buzzed — a text from my brother that read: It’ll be the difference between Ambien and Ambien PM whether mom gets off at your stop. Good luck.
I wasn’t hip to the world of sleep meds, but I was well aware that my mother had succumbed by then to a severe addiction to all sorts of other legal drugs. The ask-your-doctor-if-this-is-right-for-you drugs. Years back, while a chipper Nancy Reagan was blithely advising us to “just say no”, her husband’s deregulation-of-everything was ushering in an era of direct-to-consumer campaigns by Big Pharma urging us all to say “yes” to the “good” drugs. The legal ones. Eventually my mom heeded their bad advice.
My mother was a smart woman, with more academic degrees under her belt than your average tenured professor. An educator, a lawyer, a reformed alcoholic, she should have known better. She hadn’t had a drink in over twenty-five years; she wore her sobriety like a badge of honor, with good reason. She’d reinvented herself after years of drinking and a marriage gone bad, picked herself up, earned a law degree (top of her class), and remade her life. She’d succeeded beyond her wildest dreams in her private law practice, focusing too much of it, in hindsight, on what seemed like a sure-bet: real estate. She lived in a beach community during the glory days of the industry, and her hard work as a highly sought-after settlement attorney had paid off, with a beautifully-appointed home on the sound and a spectacular view of the ocean.
But the stress of running her own business, the long hours, the late nights and round-the-clock demands took their toll with constant and debilitating migraines that could ultimately only be relieved by regular shots of Darvon. Soon Darvon was teaming up with stronger opioids, as the real estate industry collapsed while mom was in the midst of adding an addition to her office and building another building for a new branch office, leaving her underwater on massive commercial loans before she could even occupy the buildings upon completion. To top it off, a dear childhood friend died suddenly, leaving my mother facing her mortality in a most un-sober of ways. As she lost her life’s work and everything she owned, broke and homeless, the opioids were joined by sleeping pills and anxiety meds, with anti-depressants fast on the heels of that.
Back then, a local beach physician’s assistant — the type who ought only to be tasked with writing prescriptions for antibiotics when you get strep throat while on vacation — was my mom’s dealer, gladly writing scripts galore on demand. Soon mom learned to get crafty, hitting up a host of medical specialists for more when supplies ran low. She knew there was no cross-referencing going on, no oversight, and she was living in a world where too many medical professionals gladly dispensed powerful, mind-altering meds like candy tossed out at a Fourth of July parade.
We soon started getting calls from her enabling husband, warning us of all sorts of medical woes. Mom was being hospitalized for X, Y and Z, she’ll be dead by morning if you don’t do something. What, pray tell? Many of her hospitalizations were likely a result of a host of potentially deadly side effects from the freakish cocktail of drugs with which she was poisoning her body. She was basically addicted to legal heroin, minus the shame of dirty needles and backstreet dealers: ask your doctor if this drug is right for you.
I couldn’t stomach the growing drama, the impending doom, the expectation or need for me to try to help someone who didn’t want to be helped. Our confrontations, calls and emails suggesting there was a problem had already been met with hideous defensive responses. Besides, growing up with alcoholic parents left me with little taste for confronting anyone’s addiction problems.
My good-hearted husband offered to go in my stead (my brothers, too, having zero interest in addressing the problem), to stage an intervention. He drove all night, with the plan to arrive by dawn before mom started popping pills and losing her daily grip on reality. By then she’d taken to stumbling, slurring her words, having car accidents, being hospitalized for all sorts of derivative ailments traceable to meds and stress. She attributed it all to a series of ongoing strokes, despite no medical evidence supporting her contentions. Addicts are nothing if not good liars.
My husband’s arrival was indeed a surprise, and her reaction to his attempts to get her to confront the problem aroused a caged-tiger-encounters-a-small-mammal response. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and fight she did, lashing out at us all for being despicable, hateful, selfish, cruel, vile, arrogant, pompous. And those were the kind words. A few years down the road, she would renounce every aspect of my life with her, from infancy onward, accusing me of being a horrid, selfish and hateful a daughter for my entire life. But that day, when my husband brought the physician’s assistant into the conversation, the hotly defensive professional only teamed up with mom, and eventually my husband gave up and drove home. Denial is a powerful sedative for most addicts, and hers ensured she’d be macerating in her pretty pills for years to come, if she lived that long.
A Christmas gathering a year earlier had led to her husband enlisting my college freshman son to quite literally carry my blacked-out mother from the car into the house, prompting my son to say it reminded him of when he helped a severely drunken friend get to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. It was the first time my kids were acutely confronted with my mother’s dirty secret, and it pained me. I’d tried to cloak them from it; having grown up under the storm cloud of her previous addiction, I didn’t want them to see it, let alone feel it. But expose them, it did, and it aroused in me an anger and resentment I struggled to release.
Which brings me to her weekend visit. Amazingly mom got off at the appointed train stop. The weekend with her was stressful. It was a role reversal from my growing-up years: she was like an under-aged, teenaged me, trying to pretend there wasn’t alcohol on my breath in front of my parents after a late-night party (though back in my day, my folks were both too trashed themselves to ever notice). She slept, lots. Narcotics will do that to you. She slurred, she stumbled a bit, all while feigning complete normalcy. She knew we knew, but she didn’t want to let on, and she didn’t want us to confront her, which of course we weren’t going to do during our daughter’s special weekend. Her constant weapon was the bogus claim that she’d inherited these supposed mini-strokes from her beloved Gram (leaving me to wonder if her grandmother had merely been an addict as well).
When we put her on the train Sunday night, it was as if I’d ushered out the last straggler at a raucous party and had to press my back to the door to keep him from returning. I was emotionally exhausted, watching helplessly as my mother self-destructed yet again, with no tools in my arsenal to help counter it.
The next morning, I was returning from a pre-dawn exercise class when the phone rang. I expected it was my daughter, who’d had a soccer team overnight at the school gym.
“Will you accept a collect call from the Rowan County Jail?” The operator asked me.
The operator repeated the question while in the background I could hear someone who sounded vaguely like my mother yelling in Foster Brooks’ best lush imitation. (For the uninitiated, Brooks was a Rat Pack-era comedian whose business in trade was making jokes of radically alcoholic behavior.)
I accepted, and my mother came on the phone, incoherent, having no clue where she was or why she was in jail. Bizarrely, she was holding onto her own flavor of dignity with an unjustifiable certainty that she’d done nothing wrong. Her paranoia-ometer was on overload, as she insisted everyone at that point was out to get her and only she was in the right.
I tried to ascertain where she was. It sounded like the operator had said something like Rowing County, which was nowhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where I live. My mother was certain she was in Lynchburg, which would have been the next stop after she’d boarded the train; I knew that was impossible, some ten hours afterwards. I grabbed my laptop and started Googling away, trying to glean where the hell my mother was. Ultimately I learned it was Rowan County, Salisbury, North Carolina, nearly five hours from me, and lord knows how far along the Amtrak line.
As is the case with jail cell calls, she wasn’t given a lot of time, and I wasn’t making heads or tails of her dilemma, and in the meantime she was slurring at me while at the same time screaming at her jailer. I heard her pounding the bars, dragging something — her knuckles? — along them. It could have been a bad episode of Gunsmoke, with the bad guys tossed in the clink and raising a ruckus.
Finally we got hold of someone who explained to us that my mother had become loud and aggressive against her seatmate on the train. Evidently mom, in her passed-out-drug-induced-mommy’s-little-helper state had sprawled herself across two seats. When the train began to fill up, inevitably a passenger requested to sit in her assigned seat. At which point my once-gracious, kind, and unbigoted mother proceeded to hurl some truly ugly epithets, telling this woman to get her fat black ass off of the seat. Or some such thing. We never did get the entire story. It was the Ambien equivalent of someone eating two dozen hamburger buns after taking the drug. Mom had no clue what she’d said or done and insisted she’d not.
When the train stopped in the next town, the sheriff was called in, and she was forcibly removed from the train. An 88-pound, five-foot, two-inch sprite of a woman, 70 years-old in a color-coordinated Talbot’s outfit, hauled off by burly cops for disturbing the peace. In the middle of the night on an Amtrak train bound for Atlanta. Leaving us, and no doubt the sheriff, and half the train to wonder: what 70-year old, classy, educated, smart-as-hell woman would ever find herself thrown in the slammer at 3 a.m. for erratic behavior on a train?
My family handles stress with snark. And this was no exception, as we dubbed this event the Gramma in the Slamma episode. My husband and I had to drop everything, miss the memorial service for a friend’s young daughter who’d recently died from leukemia, in order to drive the five hours each way to spring my mother from the pokey. Needless to say I was angry. We struggled with whether to do this, or to let her flounder, let her hit rock bottom (yet again). But as best we could determine, she still hadn’t at least been officially charged with any crime, and we wanted to avoid her racking up legal bills. Thanks to the real estate bubble, mom was bankrupt, and none of us had the money to subsidize that futile pursuit. Besides, who, truly, could let your pathetically sad, void-of-any-grip-on-reality mother flounder in a prison, a victim of an addiction over which she clearly had no control?
When my mother picked up the phone that morning in her cell, she sounded straight out of Central Casting, the drunk dragging the tin cup against the metal bars of the jail. She was yelling and screaming and behaving in a way that would certainly lead to an actual arrest without our intervention, as until then, we’d eventually learn from the sheriff she was “like Otis the town drunk [from the Andy Griffith Show] who always got thrown in the drunk tank for his own good”. Plus, we knew the meds she actually needed to take for her heart had been confiscated. The fact was, she needed someone to save her from further self-destruction at this point.
Her husband, ostensibly waiting at the train station for her imminent arrival, wasn’t responding to phone calls; I’d had the great misfortune of being the only sucker to pick up the phone that morning, so it fell on me to deal with it.
When one of my brothers finally got hold of her husband, he was told to head north to retrieve my mom as soon as possible. Only problem was he was driving nearly five hours from the opposite direction, with no cell phone, no means of communication, and we didn’t even know what his car looked like.
When we finally sprung my mother, she was indignant. How could anyone dare to arrest her? She was irrational, stomping around indignantly while spewing vulgarities, and expected our full support in her furor at her captors. We could only tell her not to say another word about it, because nothing good would come of it. This, unfortunately, ignited further rage in her, as we attempted to get some food in her body. In her stoner princess-and-the-pea mode, we knew she’d not touched the prison gruel, and had even rejected dinner at our house the previous evening before her ill-fated departure, so no doubt blood sugar issues were on the horizon too. We pulled into a fast food restaurant just off the highway. The plan was to watch out the window until we saw what we could only assume was her husband’s car exiting the interstate. We couldn’t even extract from my mother exactly what his car looked like — the make, the model, nothing. We were going on vague information: it was a light colored sedan. You can only imagine how many light colored cars exit off of a major highway on a given afternoon.
While we tried to persuade her to eat, she grew more enraged that she was unable to enlist our empathy for her plight. I implored with gritted-teeth that she needed to stop, that we would not discuss the situation. This sent her into a heated frenzy, and she ran from the restaurant into the parking lot, and as far as we knew, was heading for the busy highway junction. Her impulsively committing suicide did not seem far-fetched, so I raced after her and with force pulled her back, attempting to calm her down, but she was implacable, an irate, irrational, mental case of a mother, throwing a grandiose petulant toddler-style temper tantrum, alternately stomping, shrieking, pouting, thrashing, and flailing in the cracked-asphalt parking lot of the Honeybaked Ham Company.
Finally, I snapped. I unleashed a Plinian eruption, a pyroclastic flow of fury, unable to hold down my own rage any longer, screaming till I was hoarse, attempting to force my crazed, drugged-out (and in a state of involuntary drug withdrawal, no doubt) parent to get her miserable butt in our mini-van, all the while trying to scout for her husbands mystery mobile, desperate to pawn her off on him. As I screamed, she went ballistic and returned the honors, spewing the most hurtful words she could think to say to me, telling me how fat and shameful I was, what a loathsome and detestable daughter I was, then screaming to my husband things about our then-troubled relationship that I’d long ago disclosed to her in the utmost of confidence.
It shocked me, this tirade from such a stranger I’d known my whole life. This woman who would betray her only daughter rather than admit her addiction. The animalistic look of sheer fear and terror in her eyes remains seared in my mind to this day. It was like trying to round up a feral wildcat, and the lacerations from her figurative claws caused permanent damage to our already tenuous relationship.
The next day I received a succession of hateful emails from my mother in which she reminded me yet again me how vile I was, how ashamed I should be about my weight, wondering how I could look at myself naked in the mirror without being repulsed. And she said that me and my know-it-all husband should go to hell for what we did. Clearly saving her ass didn’t rank up there in her world of high merits. It was the last I would hear from her for a while. Over the course of the next few weeks she alienated my three brothers as well, leaving in her wake a host of disbelieving children and grandchildren who witnessed frightening displays of insanity from this woman who, when sober, was bright, friendly, funny, gentle, and normal. This, after many years of all of us attempting to address with our mother in a rational way our suspicions of her issues with drugs, all the while wondering if she was lying, telling the truth, dying, drug-addicted, suicidal, mentally ill, or perhaps someone was slowly poisoning her (because how else could we explain this bizarre transformation?). Who knew? We had but our imaginations to go by, in the face of her resounding denial and no hard-core proof.
About a month later, my younger brother got yet another SOS call in the middle of the night from my mothers husband. Once again, she’d face-planted as she staggered, stoned, to the bathroom (she’d done this repeatedly over the past few years). He assured my brother that mom had suffered “yet another stroke”. While he took her to the ER, my brother went to their home and collected up 33 — count ’em! 33! — bottles of pills she’d been prescribed in a brief, four-month period, almost all scripts for pain, depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. He handed them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to the ER doctor, saying, “here’s your mini-stroke.”
Because she was broke, her choice of rehab didn’t stretch to the upscale, Betty Ford Clinic variety, but rather an indigent psychiatric ward in Atlanta. It was, from all accounts, a harrowing experience, her version of Scared Straight (that iconic prison fear-mongering television special from the 70’s). And it worked, albeit not without a lot of obstinacy on her part, and frightening lapses that led to seizures and a host of other problems. Prescription drug dependency does not mean a cold turkey shut-off of the valve, but rather a gradual wean, which can cause it’s own host of freakish side effects, and physical harm.
Eventually, about a year after her imprisonment, my mother came around. For the first time in as long as I could remember, she was becoming that person I vaguely knew from somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. My experience with addicts is once they’ve sobered up, for their own coping necessity, they move forward and expect others to do so as well. Or perhaps it’s simply because they cannot fathom the scar tissue they’ve left behind. But scarring indeed, coupled with the feeling that I couldn’t undertake opening myself up to trust this person again, meant that the last few years of her life — likely her best, ironically — were those in which I couldn’t bring myself enjoy our relationship. For me, it was too late. I wasn’t able to expose “me” to my mother, to simply welcome her back in a pique of unconditional love like in some Hallmark Hall of Fame special. I wish that I could, truly I do. I wish I could have given her that gift. And I’d like to believe I was working my way in that direction, reconciling myself with the giant grey area that was my mother, accepting that the good came with the bad. That she did the best she could with the limited tools with which she had to deal. That she could have been this monster, this frightening, vexing, manipulative, cruel and destructive monster, and also be my kind, thoughtful and loving mom. I’d only recently resolved, despite myself, to try in some awkward way to convey this to her when we were to gather for her 75th birthday, but she died a week before I could get the chance. A heart attack I don’t doubt was facilitated by the years of bodily abuse, not the least of which were the regular Darvon shots for her migraines, a drug since removed from the marketplace due to its tendency to cause heart irregularities.
My therapist (surprise!) has tried to assuage my unresolved feelings by reminding me that now that my mother has passed, I no longer have to worry about her relapsing, her manipulating us all with her painful behavior. I am “safe” from that now. Only sadly I am left with some bizarre lingering guilt that I didn’t just embrace the new, old mom, the drug-free one, the one I would have preferred to have had as my regular mom throughout the course of my life. There were times during the worst of it when I thought it would be better for her to be dead, so I would no longer deal with the emotional abuse cast upon us by her abuse. But now that she is gone, I realize that her addiction will continue to haunt me long after it no longer haunts her.
Jenny Gardiner is a Kindle #1 bestselling author, has published through traditional New York houses as well as self-published digitally in many genres, including commercial women’s fiction, humor, romantic comedy, memoir, and essays. She has had a column in her city’s paper, the Charlottesville Daily Progress, for over a decade. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Ladies Home Journal, and on NPR. She started out her career as a publicist for a US Senator, which is where she honed her fiction-writing skills. You can find out more or contact her at jennygardiner.net.