Browsing Tag

addiction

Addiction, Grief, Guest Posts

What I Wanted To Say

November 22, 2019
need

By Lennlee Keep

We needed to start doing the things that separate days from one another. I knew my son Dashiell and I should probably start eating again. We only pretended to sleep. We acted like we knew what day of the week it was. It had been 10 days since my ex-husband Josh had been found dead in his apartment in Austin, Texas. It had hit us like a bomb that had not stopped exploding.

Dash and I flew from our new home in Berkeley to Austin to deal with the business of his father’s death. Dash said goodbye by contributing to his dad’s eulogy and letting a balloon go at the memorial. I let Josh go by packing his clothes and photographs and books, throwing away bottles, and solving the 1,000 problems he had left behind. In the process I tore myself to pieces like I was destroying evidence.

When it was all finished Dash and I returned to our new life in California. It was a daily struggle to mask the fact that I was raw and collapsing. But I had to function and carve a routine out of a loose collection of hours and dust.

I had to register my son for the new middle school he was starting the next morning.

***

I walked into the school office. A paper sign with the word REGISTRATION was taped next to an open door. A tall, thin, woman sat typing at her desk. I assumed she was in charge. She looked bored and regal. The entire room was lit only by a lamp on her desk. I felt like I was hiring a gumshoe to do some dirty work instead of getting my 6th

grader into the right math class. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, so I walked in and stood in front of her.

“Hi, I need to register my son for school.” I was trying to come across as friendly and competent but my voice sounded forced and tight. That, combined with my exhausted but smiling face just made me look crazy.

“I need your letter,” she said while staring intently at her screen. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.

“I don’t have a letter. Wait, um, I don’t think I do.” I nervously flipped through the pages in my hands. I had papers. Would papers work? I didn’t remember getting any letter. But I didn’t remember a lot of things.

She looked up me for the first time. “I need the letter we sent you about your school assignment.” She said this like she had said it to a hundred other stupid, irritating, letterless parents before me.

“I am sorry,” I said, “but I have no idea where the letter is. My son’s father died unexpectedly ten days ago and we just got back from his funeral. We moved here two weeks ago. Everything is a mess. Can you help me?”

“The letter was sent two weeks ago,” she said. She really punched that two weeks as if to drive home that this was something that could have been dealt with long before tragedy struck. Dead dad or no, I should have my letter. She rolled her eyes and pushed a copy of someone else’s letter across her desk to me.

I studied the letter and then said in a voice that sounded less feeble, “I will go look for it right now. I think I can find it.”

What I wanted to say was, I haven’t slept more than nine hours in five days.

***

I went home and looked everywhere. In the mess of our move tax returns were buried under towels and yo-yo’s, garbage cans stood empty next to boxes that overflowed with trash, but I found the letter. Small wins like this made me feel like the tide was turning, like this straw could still be spun into gold. It was a trick that I kept falling for.

I went back to the office and handed over the letter. I felt accomplished because I had done this one, right thing for my son. All of his other needs seemed immense and impossible but I could do this. He was twelve, he was starting a new school two days after his fathers memorial. He was anxiety and tears in skinny jeans and a sweatshirt. I could barely save myself and I had no idea how to handle him or help. I couldn’t reach him and I couldn’t honestly say I was trying. A good mother would be holding and reassuring her broken child, spending every waking moment trying to heal this deep wound. I hid in my room and stared at walls. Registering him for school proved I was still his mother. I had found the letter and he would have a school and that was proof that I could do something.

The admin took the letter from my hand and continued punishing her keyboard.

Shaking her head she said, “Nope. He’s been dropped from our rolls. You were supposed to register him last week.” She seemed disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me. “You need to go to the district and get your new assignment.”

This school and its proximity to the house and to the only kid Dash knew in the Bay Area was what I had built our entire move upon. Without this school every single thing would unravel.

My eyes welled with tears that didn’t roll down my cheeks. Sometimes crying feels good. This felt stupid and not grown up. I sucked them back into my eyes where they stayed and burned.

“Look,” I said, “I know your job is hard and it’s the first day of school and you are swamped, but is there anything you can do?”

What I wanted to say was, It’s really hard for me to deal with people right now. I spend a lot of time standing in the shower, talking to the tiles, practicing how to have interactions like this one so I don’t freak people out or start crying. How am I doing?

But instead I pleaded with her and again told her my story. My son’s father had died. I would have been here to register Dash for school, but his dad had died. And he was dead. I tried to pour words all over the problem to make her understand.

“I can’t help you,” she said. “You need to go to downtown to the district office and get a pink piece of paper.”

What I wanted to say was, It took him years to die overnight. He was an alcoholic. Drank himself to death at 47. I mean we don’t know for sure if it was alcohol poisoning, we won’t know that until we get the toxicology back. Toxicology! I know, right? I have a homicide detective assigned to me and everything. Her name is Denise and she came to his memorial. Isn’t that nice? I had to call the Medical Examiner and their hold music is awful. I don’t know how to live the next hour let alone the rest of my life ha ha ha ha.

I wanted to tell her all of it, just bleed it out all over her stupid tappy keyboard.

I wanted to say, Last night, instead of sleeping, I spent two hours screaming into different pillows and recording the sound on my phone. I was trying to find the one that muffled my sobs the best. Bed pillows were just too fluffy. A red felt accent pillow from the couch was the one that absorbed the most sound. I had to do this because my son asked me if I could please stop crying because it made him “uncomfortable.”

But I couldn’t say that. Because normal people don’t say things like that or do things like that. We don’t gut ourselves in front of strangers to show them what we had for lunch. We don’t do it because it’s shocking and gross but also because no one really cares what we had for lunch anyway.

All those words stayed trapped in my head and I only squeaked out a small “please.”

She resumed her typing. “I can’t help you. You need to go to the district and get a pink piece of paper.”

I wanted to say, I don’t think I want to die, but I am not sure I want to live either. How do I figure out if I want to live or die? Is there a Buzzfeed quiz or something because I can say with zero emotion that from here it looks like a toss up.

Instead I said, “Is there nothing else you can do for me?”

She turned her attention back to her screen and said, “Not without the pink piece of paper.”

I got into my filthy car to go downtown. It barely had any gas and my phone was almost dead. But driving to the school district office felt normal and that was rare. I thought if I did normal things that life would fall back into place. I would walk into a store and buy something and think, OK, this is a thing I did before what I am doing now. Look! I went to the grocery store and bought blueberries and detergent. Because I do things like this and this is what everything used to feel like.

And I would get home and discover that I had bought dishwasher pods instead of the laundry pods I needed and I would drop my head against the counter and sob and collapse under the notion that this will never stop. That these failures will be permanent and excruciating. From here on out I will get it all wrong and until the grave, I will have sparkling dishes and filthy socks.

***

As I drove to the district office I kept thinking that if Josh’s death had lost us the school the domino effect on my life was endless. I hadn’t registered Dash because I wasn’t here because Josh died. His drinking had laid waste to countless evenings, holidays, and birthdays, and our marriage. His dead hands reached out and threw cheap white wine into my face and all over my plan and our new life. Death by definition should stop you in your tracks. Josh was SUPPOSED TO NOT BE DEAD. He wasn’t supposed to be lying in a metal drawer waiting for the coroner to release his body. He was supposed to have gotten sober.

His death had ripped the tourniquet off the fury I had held back for years. Every word I could never shout at him bled from me in rivers. In my head, I beat him with words of rage, pummeled him to a pulp with my hate. But every once and a while the light of a sweet memory swept the darkness away. I remembered every flower he ever bought me. I repeated the Dorothy Parker poem that I had recited on the corner of Chattanooga and Church Street in San Francisco on the night that we met. I replayed the scene over and over. He kneels down on the ground and kisses my hand and says, “That’s for knowing who Dorothy Parker is.” I wanted to tell him I am sorry that I got mad and stayed that way. And I wanted to scream and scream because it was us and it was our story and important and how could it just not matter now?

***

In the district building several parents waited in the hallway for a change of school, word of a new teacher or a last minute immunization record. I was told to go in the office and get a number. The woman behind the counter looked up. “What do you need?”

I said, “My son’s father died unexpectedly, so we missed registration at our assigned school last week. I need to get back into that school.” I thought throwing “unexpectedly” in there would make her understand that this wasn’t cancer or a heart attack. There was no final, sweet handholding, morphine-dripping, hospital-jello-eating goodbye. This was a hunting knife splitting a sheet. It was an upending.

She stared at me blankly.

“I guess I need a number?” I said. As she walked across the room to the pile of numbers on her desk, I thought: ‘Take a number, any number!’

How about 0.0? That’s what he blew on the Breathalyzer in my kitchen before he was allowed to take Dash to dinner. It was the last time I saw him alive.

How about 12? Dashiell’s age when I sat him down on a Saturday morning to tell him his dad had died.

Or take 13, the number of years we were married.

Or 20, the number of years we were together.

“Here,” she said as she pushed a card across the counter. “Number 21.”

21! Our shared birthdate. Him April 21st; me November 21st. 21 was our lucky number.

***

A young woman walked through the fifteen seated parents checking numbers, following up with their issues. “You need this form. I need your ID.”

Finally, she called, “Number 21?”

I raised my hand.

“What do you need?”

What did I need? I needed for this to matter to someone other than me and if I had to burn the world to gain some camaraderie in my misery, so be it. My friendly voice was gone, replaced by a serious tone, that was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Yes. You can help me. My 12-year old son’s father died last week and we missed registration because we were burying him. I was told we were dropped from the school we were assigned to, but that if I want to get in, I need a pink piece of paper. Can you give me the pink paper? I need to get my son back into the school we were assigned to. I need to talk to someone who can give me the pink paper.”

The other parents in the hallway turned to look. I officially had the worst problem in the room, and unless they were willing to produce a corpse themselves, I was the victor.

The woman said, “I am so sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I said, “Thank you” and fidgeted with the useless papers in my hands.

What I wanted to say, to the other parents who were so uncomfortable looking at me, was, If you think that makes you squirm, you have no idea the tidal wave I am holding back. I’m not very good at impressions, but Josh’s father made the strangest animal noise when I called him in London to tell him his son had died. Parents aren’t supposed to ever hear things like that and I am definitely not the person to say them. I want to show you a map of the stars I stare at every night while I scream into the red pillow. I am the woman who cries on BART every day. Can you please give me recipes for food that won’t turn into sand in my mouth? I have forgotten a lot of things, but I will always remember what it felt like scrubbing my ex’s dried brown blood out of the stone white sink in his apartment. I demand an apology and I am deeply sorry. He can never forgive me, but can my son? Can you? If you can’t grant me me absolution, then just give me a fucking break.

Instead I stared at my hands. Almost as if on cue, everyone turned away and resumed their conversations.

I felt bad about telling people what happened to him and to us, almost embarrassed. Like it’s attention seeking. “Look at me and my sadness! Feel for me!”

She returned with the pink paper, and said, “I am so sorry he passed. Please accept my condolences.”

I think “passed” is a weird euphemism for death. As if death swings by and picks you up in some quiet luxury sedan and ferries you away from this world. Driving away, you pass your life and your family. You pass. But death isn’t a smooth ride and a leather interior. Death is a stick shift with a bad transmission. Death has teeth and purpose and every intention of sticking as close to you as it can for as long as it can. Death picks up its passenger, but it also takes everyone who loved that person and ties them tightly to the bumper, like cans on a newlyweds car. Sure they will eventually fall off, but brother, it’s gonna take a lot of miles.

Josh’s death had separated him from us, but not us from him, and now that we were back in California I realized that this feeling was not going anywhere. Registering Dash for 6th grade, opening the mail, talking to people he knew. It was all part of the same. They were all part of this thing. His death would keep stirring up the past and I had every confidence it was set to devour the future. Because death stays. Death rides the clutch.

Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller and mother of a teenager. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, ESME and The Fix. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about grief and dying more than most people are comfortable with. She is much funnier than all of the above might lead you to believe. This piece was originally published in the Southeast Review.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Eating/Food, emotions, Guest Posts

Noise

November 17, 2019
eat

By Judy Harper

My daughter had her 15th birthday party at our house a few months ago. Eight teenage girls converged at our home and had the 2019 version of the classic sleepover: they scrolled through Instagram, watched YouTube videos, listened to Billie Eilish, ate a lot of junk food, talked about their crushes, giggled, and stayed up really late. The next morning, I tip-toed past the mass of girls sleeping in my living room, and went into the kitchen to dutifully make the breakfast my daughter had asked for: bacon and chocolate croissants. The young women ate their breakfast and the sleepover wrapped up at 10:30 a.m., with a mountain of blankets, wrapping paper, and leftovers for me to clean up. Oh, those leftovers. Pizza, croissants, bacon, cupcakes, chips…

Do you know how this story goes? What do you do with the leftovers? Do you throw away the slightly stale chips? What about the pizza? I do, eventually, end up throwing away the pizza, but not after I spend the majority of the day binge eating leftovers. I eat a chocolate croissant, a chocolate-covered donut, and five pieces of bacon at 11:30 a.m. About an hour later, I have a piece of pepperoni pizza, and at 2:00 p.m., I have four more pieces of pizza: two pepperoni and two cheese (I don’t eat the crust, though, you know, because I’m watching my carbs). Then, I drink two diet Cokes and sit down, stunned and dazed, in a sweaty stupor. The next day, I will throw away the pizza and the chips, but not yet. On this day, I just sit there, trying to pretend like it’s OK that I ate this because tomorrow will be different.

Do you do this, too, or is it just me?

That night, I sleep fitfully, having to get up to drink water and eat handfuls of Tums. When I do sleep, it is fitful and shallow. The next morning, I wake up, groan, get on the scale, and groan again. This number that I hate is staring at me, judging me, and this body that I hate and treat with such contempt is there, on full display, the symbol of my neglect and addictive tendencies. I want to cry, or scream, or punch something, but I don’t let it out. I never let it out. Instead, I start to scheme about how not to end up here again, ever, while also trying to forget all that I ate the day before. It’s a complicated dance requiring careful and exacting footwork that has to be performed in a specific sequence, and, usually, it works. It involves frantic, non-stop thinking, scores of internet searches, dozens of podcasts, trips to the library and, of course, Amazon purchases. It involves promises and lists and the constant, thrumming noise of trying to tune out of the pain and into something more comfortable.

I try to forget the pizza, the donut, the sweating, the Tums, and I focus on what I’m going to do to make sure this never happens again. The fixation on the image of the perfect life I’m going to start living just as soon as I’m done showering and getting dressed keeps me somewhat occupied as do the internet searches and lists of things I need to do and buy in order to finally become better, to finally become the perfect woman, like the one I see on-line who runs her own blog, makes her own soap, raises five children, runs half marathons in under two hours, and works on her PhD in psychology in her spare time. I want to be perfectly reconstructed into the woman I heard interviewed on NPR, the one who overcame horrific traumas and a severe learning disability to triumphantly publish her first novel and find herself short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The options and variations of who I want to become are endless; I can be the athletic intellectual, the intellectual comedian, or the quirky eco-warrior. The images dance in my head and for a while, I’m drawn into the creation of the woman I will soon become.

When I used to drink, this part of the morning took much longer…the frantic and desperate attempts to piece together what I’d done the night before, and often, no matter how hard I tried, not being able to remember. Those mornings were far darker and more torturous than the post food-binge mornings, but the action is the same: trying to twist time and memory into something other than what they are. Trying to find the space inside my soul where there is respite, coming up empty, and then replacing that respite or self-forgiveness with stuff…mental exercises, frantic writing of to-do lists, texting friends in search of validation, reading blogs, searching for new gyms, and reading about diet programs, and so on.

Wanting to forget something is almost as difficult as trying to remember, but a little less painful, and as my day progresses, I slip into that dark internal abyss of loathing and hatred—why did I eat all that? Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I control myself? Why do I eat until I can’t see straight? Why can’t I do better? Why can’t I be better? Why can’t I be someone else?

This continues for hours. I distract myself and then I have a fleeting thought that I wish I hadn’t thrown the pizza away because a slice or two sounds good. Then, I hate myself for having that thought, and sink back down into the awfulness.

This takes hours, and the ping-ponging between the highs and lows exhausts me. With each thought of the shiny new me that I’m going to forge comes also the crashing thought of a life without the escape of pizza or chocolate or chips or blogs or podcasts or internet searches.

And I am so uncomfortable there, in that swinging back and forth between the highs and the lows, that I grab my notebook and write out “the plan” to turn myself into someone else, someone completely new and different. Anything to get away from my thoughts.

The plan takes shape: I’ll never eat sugar again, goes the familiar refrain. Not one bite. I’ll also never eat anything with artificial sweeteners in it, oh, and of course, I’ll never eat chips or crackers again. Better to just wholesale go 100% Paleo and dedicate my life to eating this way. I’ll clean the whole house, top to bottom, organize every single drawer and cabinet. I’ll clean out my closet. I’ll write my book. I’ll run 5 miles every single day and do yoga, too, becoming that person who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and cheerily goes about her day, non-stop, until 11:00 p.m. I’ll be that perfectly busy living that perfect life. Oh, and I’ll stop chewing my cuticles, too.

The day moves forward smoothly from here; I have now found an escape from my thoughts and I have a plan. I have eggs and avocado for breakfast, but I put milk in my coffee, which isn’t strictly Paleo. It’s OK, I tell myself. I’ll go to Whole Foods today and buy coconut almond creamer. This is the last time I’ll ever do this. I put my earbuds in, turn on a podcast, furiously clean the stove and sweep the kitchen. Then, armed with a list of 25 items that will make my life perfect, I head off to Whole Foods.

I arrive and walk optimistically through the store, filling my cart with things that will save me: pasture-raised eggs, ghee, cabbage, avocados, plantains, tomatoes, and ideas for recipes and images of the way everything will be when my life is perfect flood through my head. I find the coconut almond creamer and put three of them in my cart…if I’m going to change my life, wholly and completely, right now, today, I better be armed with groceries. A thought pops into my head: maybe I should give up caffeine, too, as I am far too reliant on my daily cup. But I manage to shut down the thought.

I move easily past the beer and wine aisle, grateful that the siren call of alcohol no longer plagues me. I turn the corner and see the banner hanging from the ceiling, a picture of a happy, achingly beautiful young mother, next to her cloyingly pretty little girl, and they are smiling at a tray of sponge cake, whipped cream, and beautiful berries. Shit, I remember, my thoughts and spirit sinking, I told my daughter we’d go downtown and go clothes shopping and get ice cream at our favorite place. What am I going to do? Watch her eat the ice cream? Eat some myself? Find a sugar-free, dairy-free variety? Shit.

I turn the final corner in my sojourn toward perfect living and I see the bakery, and the slices of cake and the cookies and chocolate bars. And, in an instant, I put two chocolate bars—one with almonds, one without—in my cart, right next to the cabbage and tomatoes and plantains, and I walk to the register. There is a low-level buzzing in my head, and a voice that just keeps saying “it’s OK. Just this once. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. This doesn’t mean anything.”

I pay, walk to my car, and carefully load in the $158 worth of organic, locally sourced groceries into the trunk. I slip the chocolate bars into the pocket of my sweatshirt and I get in my car. Before I can think or look at myself in the rearview mirror, I start the car and turn up the volume on the podcast I was listening to, and I quickly begin eating one of the chocolate bars. I try to eat one square at a time and savor it, but, of course, I don’t. I can barely taste the chocolate, but it is pulling me out of the feeling of fear I have of the groceries in the trunk and before I’m out of the parking lot, the first bar is done. I’m now waiting to get to a red light so I can rip open the second one, which I devour almost as quickly as the first. As I drive down the street, my teeth aching dully and my head buzzing, I feel a wave of sadness descend over me. I pull into my driveway, and, feeling like a fraud, I unload the groceries and carelessly put them away.

I stand in the kitchen, staring into space. I have worn myself down. I can’t figure out a way to justify the chocolate. It doesn’t make sense. I am not angry at myself anymore nor do I have thoughts of how to fix this, either. I’m just done, spent. An entire morning of bouncing between self-loathing and desperate attempts to pull myself out of it render me exhausted. I spend the rest of the day half-listening to podcasts, walking the dog, skimming through some work, and cobbling together a dinner of leftovers.

I don’t cook anything using the ingredients I bought at Whole Foods; they just remind me of what a failure I am, remind of the chocolate, which then reminds of the pizza, which then reminds me of the time I ate an entire container of French onion dip and a whole bag of potato chips and the roof of my mouth ached for days, which then reminds me of the time I drank so much that I passed out on the couch and spilled a glass of whiskey on the floor, which then reminds me of the time in college when I threw up on the stairs of someone’s house at a party, and so on. These thoughts are so painful that I shut them down the only way I know how, by stuffing them down with food or with podcasts or with Wolf Blitzer sharing 20,000 breaking news stories.

A week later, I find the cabbage that I had planned to braise with onions and tomatoes in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, rotten. I put it in the garbage and see that the tomatoes on the kitchen counter are shriveled, and as I throw them away, I turn on a podcast and turn up the volume.

Have you ever done this? Anything similar to this? Or am I the only one? What is your thing? Is it food? Alcohol? Shopping? Perpetual busy-ness?

Drinking was, by far, the most destructive of my habits, and I’m so glad I quit. But food is also very destructive, and removing alcohol hasn’t cured me of what truly ails me: fear of my self. Not “myself”, but my self…my soul, my inner-most me. I don’t know her, probably never have. I’m afraid of what I might find if I do, and so I avoid her. I fear so terribly that she’s some awful disappointment that I distract myself in every way I can conceive, purposefully blind to the consequences.

Can you relate? I ask because I have a hunch you can. This isn’t about food addiction or alcohol addiction or cell phone addiction…those things are the consequence of the core issue: not knowing ourselves and not having the time or space (or desire) to actually know who we are. The most common manifestation of this is the Instagram moment or the duck-lipped selfie pose, those very falsely manufactured moments intended to show us something real. But of course, they aren’t real. They are fake, and yet we somehow elevate them in our consciousness and create ideas about how our lives are supposed to mirror this ideal.

I’m not writing about anything new here. For years, we’ve known that the internet and especially social media are robbing us of some aspects of real life, and I don’t know if my particular issue of binge-eating angst is because of the internet, per se, but I do know that my disconnectedness from the world around me, from feeling things in the here and now, have been exacerbated by the internet and the need for distractions in general. Or maybe, it’s just that I’m 46 and I’m in the throes of a bout of existential angst.

And yes, while existential angst is certainly a part of this, I also know that my food addiction and my podcast addiction and my addiction to anything that will keep me from a moment of quiet, a moment of reflection, a moment of stillness have gotten far worse in the years since I’ve had a smartphone and access to stories and pictures and interviews with people who live lives that are thousands of times more glamorous than mine at my fingertips. Everyone has a story, a life hack, a “you can do this, too.” You can organize your whole house, build your own compost bin, change your diet, do more core work, run your own business, and thus become just like someone else.

There is nothing wrong with self-improvement. Not one damn thing. But are all these books, podcasts, and blogs really aimed at self-improvement, or do they sell the idea that the way someone is doing something is the way we should all do it? In short, are they selling the idea that the way I am is fundamentally damaged and that if I can change external parts of myself, I’ll be better?

As someone who is, by nature, deeply insecure, deeply neurotic, and very impressionable, I think the answer is yes. I have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the idea that I’m not good enough, but that there is an answer out there for me, that some blogger or self-help author is going to fix me.

I have been searching for years now, and I can’t find the answer, no matter how hard I try. And the harder I look, the less I know. I used to be able to eat a meal without second guessing myself, and now, I can’t. I can’t figure out if eating a banana with breakfast is good for me or not, and an internet search only makes this worse. And if I can’t figure out if bananas are good for me, then how will I ever figure out how to lose weight, get in shape, write that book, be a better person, and so on? If bananas are confusing, then what about life? How will I ever know?

I want to believe that I’m actually fine, just the way I am. I really do. It’s just very hard and overwhelming. I have read about and seen a lot of movement toward body positivity and inclusivity, but even that overwhelms because I don’t want to blog about it, be interviewed about it on the Today show, or post about it on social media. I don’t want to be famous or a vanguard. I don’t want to have the answers. I just want to be who I am, whoever that is, and not feel less than because I don’t run fast or compost or follow a strictly Paleo diet or a strictly vegan diet or write a blog or make my own goat milk lotion.

Or, how about this? I want to go through a day, a whole entire day, without feeling less than anyone else, without needing to drown out the self-doubts with noise. I want to be able to just be, whatever that means, and to not feel so afraid of that, just that.

Judy Harper is a 46-year-old adjunct instructor at a community college. She is married and has a 15-year-old daughter. She lives near the ocean on the central California coast.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Addiction, Guest Posts, Surviving

Everyday Objects

March 1, 2019
heroin

By Elsa Williams

It is the spoon I always hesitate before picking up. It’s mixed in with the rest of the mismatched flat wear in the drawer. But if I need a spoon for one of my daughters, something for applesauce or Ovaltine, I rummage a little longer to find a different one.

The spoon is Oyster Bay, a discontinued pattern popular in the 70s. It looks more or less indistinguishable from the rest of our old, scratched up flat wear. But for me, it has always had a double meaning. A wholesome meaning– cereal, ice cream, coffee – and a secret, forbidden meaning.  Not just “drugs”, but heroin. Not just “doing” heroin, but injecting it.

***

The story starts with a different Oyster Bay spoon. Twenty four years ago, my friend Lila was holding up my roommate’s spoon and giving me a wicked grin.

I had invited Lila and a couple friends over for dinner. And I had asked her to please, please not say anything about drugs. I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of my apartment, or even drawing too much attention to myself. The rule in the flat was that everyone stayed out of each other’s business, but one of my roommates had taken it on himself to forbid me to have any of my junky friends in the house. He was sullen and mean and seemed a little unhinged, and if he decided to make a stink with the landlord, he probably could have gotten me kicked out. But I wasn’t going to ban Lila from my apartment.

Lila had been my closest friend and my lifeline at school, the one person who understood me. When I got back to school that fall and found her consumed by heroin, I felt lost and abandoned. I was trying to find a way for us to still be friends.

I hadn’t understood what a wide zone there was between “experimenting” and full-blown addiction. Lila was chipping, doing heroin without a physical dependency, but that didn’t mean it would have been easy for her to quit. She was in love with heroin; it was the only thing she wanted to talk about.

Lila and our two friends were sitting around the rickety kitchen table while I tried to figure out how to make garlic bread in a toaster oven. Almost everything in the kitchen belonged to one or the other of my roommates, and I hadn’t thought much about the spoons, until Lila picked one up, and announced, “What a marvelous spoon. The bowl is so large. Think of how much it could hold.” Then she put it back down on the table and, vamping it up, leaned down to check how flat the bowl sat.

I winced, and tried not to egg her on.

***

Twenty one years ago, I was painting a picture of that spoon.

Lila had dropped out of school, and I felt unmoored. Lila always seemed to know what to do, even if it was a terrible idea. I decided I would take the same painting class she had. I went to talk to the instructor to see if she would let a biochemistry major like me into her class. I always got better grades in art classes, and they helped keep my GPA up. But I also wanted to do this thing that Lila cared about.

Feeling burned by Lila, the teacher asked me, “You’re not addicted to anything are you?”

I said, “I’m fine,” which wasn’t entirely true. Lila and I had started getting high together two months before she left. Now I was the one who was pining for heroin. It was seeping into everything, including all my painting assignments, a series of still lives that were supposed to be about the breakfast table: a spoon, a coffee cup, a small plate. The spoon was taking over.

I wasn’t a gifted artist like Lila, but unlike her, I showed up to class sober, and I did the work. I spent a lot of time studying the spoon from different angles, trying to capture every curve and reflection. The bowl had a teardrop shape. The handle had a fine line down the center and a little scallop on the bottom, like two very thin fingers had been pressed into the metal and drawn up its length. The handle was thick and solid, but the edge tapered into a thin graceful line around the bowl.

I thought I was being clever, hiding the secret meaning of the spoon, but it was obvious to everyone, including my painting teacher. One painting in particular had started out grey, but a little bit of yellow had turned it poison green. The spoon, bent by its reflection in the mug, dominated the picture.

The instructor sighed when she told me, “You obviously have some things you need to work through,” but she didn’t try to intervene. At the end of the class, she said, “When I first saw you, with your green hair and your leather jacket, I was worried. But you really put in the work.”

I moved out of that apartment before the end of the semester, and, as much as I wanted to take the spoon, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a thief as well as a junky.

***

Twenty years ago, I was scrubbing the back of a different Oyster Bay spoon before my baby brother came over. This spoon belonged to my boyfriend Michael, from a small collection of things his mother had been able to give us for our apartment. I was in graduate school, and we were trying to make a home together, but drugs were taking over. I had been doing heroin off and on for three years, and I was trying very hard to keep everything from spiraling out of control. But I don’t think Michael could imagine himself surviving to 40, to 30, to 25. He would be dead from an overdose within 6 months.

I’d always been protective of my brother, and I didn’t want him to see any of that. I was cleaning the apartment from top to bottom, sweeping up piles of cigarette ash, and pulling orange syringe caps out from between the sofa cushions. And scrubbing the black scorch marks off the back of our spoons. The needle exchange gave out bottle caps to use as disposable cookers, and we should have been using those. But spoons had a certain old school glamour.

When I quit for good, a year after Michael died, I packed the drug spoons away, along with a scant couple boxes of Michael’s things. His mother wanted the flat wear back, and she wanted his leather jacket, and she wanted me to apologize for her son’s death. I was grappling with my own guilt and complicity, but I could not accept her conviction that everything was my fault. I never gave her the apology she needed, but eventually I gave her his leather jacket.

***

Fourteen years ago, I gave the drug spoons to Goodwill. I was sorting through my things, after moving in with the man who is now my husband. I wasn’t sure why I had held onto the spoons. It seemed like a dangerous kind of memento, sure to raise questions if my future mother-in-law found them, so carefully wrapped up with my most precious objects. But I pulled the Oyster Bay spoon out of the Goodwill pile. It was the one spoon that had other meanings: the quiet contemplation of the breakfast table, the careful observation of painting, the accumulation of little things that add up to making a home.

Sobriety has been a process of leaching the drug associations from everyday objects, including the veins in my arms. And I was hoping that even a former piece of drug paraphernalia could find a place in our silverware drawer.

Elsa Williams is a biomedical scientist living in Medford, Massachusetts with her husband and two children. She is working on a memoir about her early 20s and blogs about feminism and harm reduction at worn-smooth.tumblr.com.


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Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Spun

March 2, 2018

By Tessa Torgeson

I wore all black from the tip of my pointed witch’s hat, to my wig, to my boots. Meanwhile my younger sister Tara pranced around wearing her purple floral gown complete with a tiara, sparkly wings, and a light-up wand.

It was Halloween of 1991. The kitschy sounds of “Monster Mash” played as the banshee wind rattled the trees. The bite of a Midwest autumn day made our cheeks rosy and our fingertips white. We brewed apple cider, the warm tang of cinnamon sticks on our tongue.

Mom applied special rouge, pastel eyeshadow, and pink lipstick to Tara’s face. Now that Tara was it was my turn to feel like a movie star. Mom applied black lipstick, a hint of mascara, and white face powder to my face. It looked like a hideous mask that I wanted to peel off. I looked sickly; Tara looked ethereal.

The boiling point came when my mom drew a realistic wart on my nose with black eyeliner.  With hot tears running down my face, I stormed down the hall of our split-level house to my bedroom. I slammed the door with all the fury a five-year-old girl could muster and kicked aside the mess of Barbie dolls strewn on the snot-green carpet on Tara’s side of the room. Grabbing an Arthur picture book off the shelf, I grabbed my tattered yellow blanket, and curled into bed. I felt like I had just swallowed a porcupine, spikes of anger and jealousy jabbed me. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Guest Posts

Bottomless

June 5, 2017
drugs

By Sailor Holladay

One of the hardest things I’ve done is high school step aerobics on mushrooms. Where was the sweat coming from, my body, my mouth or somewhere else?

I didn’t know how to come to school not high. The piece of land I lived on, strewn with busses, trailers, and porto-o-potties, was a place for holding rock concerts and outdoor raves, not for supporting me or the other kids living there in succeeding at school. The Valley was full of children doing whippets inside of tents that had lost their poles and men around campfires peaking on LSD while wearing sleeping bags as pants. There was no homework help. Instead we mixed solids and liquids and tried to feel something.
As a kid I was afraid all of the time. Some of the time it was that fear that pulses inside your butt, but most of the time it was the fear of getting caught even if I wasn’t doing anything worth catching. Drugs numb that fear, but then give you a legitimate reason to worry about getting caught.

Going to school and caring about it made my life harder at home. Whenever I tried to tell my parents new found information like grass was green and the sky was blue, they looked at me through the pot smoke with a blank stare, “Everybody knows the grass is blue and the sky is green, Sailor.” The rage that filled me got me out of there, if only physically. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Guest Posts

Angel in the Addict

March 19, 2017
angel

By Jacqueline Evans

I met my first angel in rehab, and she appeared in the form of a heroin addict named Joanie.

She introduced herself to me while I was sitting on the back porch of a brand new women’s sober living facility, searching for my cigarettes in a tattered Jansport backpack filled with dirty clothes. At the time, it was the only possession to my name.

I was 21 and strung out on meth and alcohol and my parents had somehow managed to negotiate with me, the terrorist in their lives, and get me to agree to enter rehab. At 6 feet tall I weighed a little less than 100 pounds. My hair was stringy and falling out, my face was covered in acne, my eyes vacant and lifeless. Addiction appeared to have robbed me of everything, including the ability to love and be loved.

As I rifled through my backpack on that porch, my hand brushed against a familiar plastic baggie. My heart raced, and I looked around to see if anyone was watching as I pulled out an old and previously forgotten bag of weed from the zippered front pocket. I needed relief from the pounding in my head and the fear in my blood, and this was just what I was looking for. I felt the familiar excitement, mixed with something else. A little doubt? Maybe.

I quietly wrestled with my demons while turning the worn plastic baggie over and over in my fingers.

Then a voice came from a figure hunched over at the top of the steps. The sound was coarse and cool, yet still held the softness of a female tone.

“You need to get rid of it or its going to call to you, and you know you won’t be able to stop.”

I turned, startled and surprised that I hadn’t noticed anyone sitting there before. I quickly shoved the weed back into my bag, and casually lit my cigarette.

“Hey.” I said, trying to stay cool even though I was l convinced I had just been busted by a staff member.

I glanced in the direction of the voice, catching a brief sight of its owner. I guessed that she was probably in her mid-fifties, and her face wore the familiar pattern of the many sleepless nights harrowing stories and hardened truths so many of us from the streets can recognize in each other right away.

“Hey back.” She answered quickly. Then she looked me right in the eye.

“You need to get rid of that stuff. If you keep it, it’s going to call to you and then you are going to use it. If you want, we can have a funeral for it in the bathroom and flush it down the toilet. Lets go.”

These words, spoken out loud by an unknown woman and left hanging between us in the still afternoon air, were saturated with the most truth I had heard in a while. They hit me hard. They destroyed all my rationalizations and great ideas about how good it might feel to find quick relief in that plastic bag. I knew I was fucked if I gave in to the drugs one more time.

For reasons I have never been able to explain, I got up and followed this small woman with the hunched shoulders and long greying hair to the tiny bathroom on the first floor of a new house, and flushed the only thing that had ever kept me sane down the toilet. There was no eulogy or flowers, and the finality of it was brutal.

“There,” she said, matter-of-factly, “Its done. Want to go to a meeting with me?”

Before I even had time to mourn the loss of my weed, I again I found myself following my mysterious new roommate to a place I didn’t want to go, simply because with her it felt like there wasn’t any other option. She told me her name was Joanie.

It wasn’t long before Joanie and I went everywhere together, and I moved my belongings into her room in the house and slept in the extra bunk next to hers. I learned that she had been a hope-to-die heroin addict for many years, and like me her odds of survival had been pretty slim. I felt safe with her, and she had a calming effect on me that no one else seemed able to harness. In my unsure world, Joanie became my sanctuary.

I loved going on outings with her, and small everyday activities always seemed more important because of the way Joanie experienced life. If she saw something like fresh flowers displayed at a local farmer’s market, she would demand that we stop to look at and smell every bunch.

“Wooowww,” she would say,  barely above a whisper, as though she didn’t want to shatter the perfection of what she was experiencing with the full volume of her voice. Sometimes it would be followed with, “Aren’t we so lucky?” At the time I didn’t get it. Did I feel “lucky” to be staring at a bunch of flowers at a tiny Farmer’s market in Old Town Torrance? Not really. But watching the little things in life take her breath away was what made hanging out with Joanie so incredible. So I always went with it.

One night we went to a sober dance at an old and run down Alano club and I swear it was the best night of Joanie’s life. She danced with everyone, all night long, with the hugest smile on her face. She appeared to be young again, and I had never seen her happier. When I asked her what was so great about it, she told me she had never gone to dances in high school because she was too busy getting high. This life was her second chance.

“Now I can really dance,” she proclaimed. “Now I am free!”

I began to notice how Joanie embraced everyone without judgement or fear. She would walk into any 12 step meeting in some of the worst areas of Los Angeles and be greeted with a warm hug by the toughest looking addicts in the room. Those that appeared the most menacing were immediately disarmed by her smile, and few were able to resist smiling right back at her. When I was angry at someone (living in a sober house with 14 other women made this almost impossible to avoid), she would always remind me to love them anyway because everyone deserved love, including me. Little by little the walls I had constructed against this idea, walls I didn’t even know existed, began to give way under the strength of Joanie’s love, compassion, and tolerance. Behind these walls is where my whole heart existed.

Joanie took me with her to a large 12 step convention, and at the end of the closing meeting, we stood up and held hands with about 1500 sober alcoholics and drug addicts to say the serenity prayer. The prayer began with its usual, “God, grant me the serenity…” and I felt something rise in my chest along with the sound of everyone’s voice saying the prayer in unison. I opened my eyes to look around the room, and the sight of everyone praying together like that made me shed the most genuine tears I had in a long time. I felt Joanie squeeze my hand, and I looked over to find her looking right at me. Her eyes were shining bright with the knowledge that we were feeling the same thing, and suddenly I got it. Every one of us in that room should have been wiped out by addiction at some point or another. Instead we had survived the impossible and we were really living for the first time ever.

That’s when Joanie’s infectious enthusiasm for life spread right through me and in that moment, all of her love and gratitude and lessons cracked my heart wide open. I finally realized why she had spoken up that day on the porch about the weed. She hadn’t wanted me to miss this. She had wanted me to live.

After 90 days in the program I left and moved in with my dad. Shortly after I moved in with him I began drinking again. I felt I was too young to be sober, and I was determined to drink like a “normal” person. I tried to put my rehab experience behind me, but I began drinking alcoholically almost immediately. Joanie and I spoke on the phone a few times and she expressed concern for my lifestyle, which I dismissed as her being overprotective. Eventually, we lost touch.

One year later I learned that Joanie was found dead in a bush from an overdose.

I was devastated, and that night I got piss drunk and screamed and cried about the unfairness of it all. While I slept the ghost of her beautiful voice played over and over again in my dreams, and even the next day I couldn’t forget it.

“Now I can dance, now I am free!”

I didn’t get many details of her death, but for addicts and an alcoholics like us the story was all too familiar; Somewhere along the road Joanie’s demons had called to her, and she had simply given up doing the work it takes to defeat the urge to answer them.

It was 5 years before I finally found recovery again. Today, at nearly 9 years sober, I have a better understanding of what it means to really live free from alcohol and drugs day by day, craving by craving, amongst massive amounts of temptation and fear. Because of Joanie I also know that it is imperative that I do something every day towards my recovery to quiet the voice of addiction that whispers in the background of my big, beautiful sober life.

I sometimes still get angry and sad about the loss of Joanie, and the way that she left this earth. It seems unfair to me that the beautiful soul who carried me through the darkness with her light had to die such an ugly death. I find a little peace in the idea that maybe some people come into our world for brief periods of time in order to give us the transformative lessons that shape the rest of our lives. I think that Joanie really was an angel, sent here to show those who knew her what life is really all about. There has not been one moment in my own life where I have not felt her with me.

I don’t know what purpose writing about Joanie will serve, aside from a selfish need to get the experience in print, to immortalize someone who I sometimes feel is slipping from my memory like even the most important things often do with the inevitable vaporization of time.

I guess the point is that I knew her in the first place. She gave me something that can’t easily be erased, a quality of life that I never forget to try to pass on to someone else. Because of her I often find myself filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what can only be seen as my second chance at life.

She showed me how to stop and smell all the good things, and how to disarm the bad things with a beautiful smile. She showed me how to live sober. She taught me how to love everything. The point is that I wish you would have known her too.

Knowing her made me so lucky.

Jacqueline Evans is a writer, seeker, and sober observer of life living in Hermosa Beach, CA.

 

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Addiction, Guest Posts

Love From A Distance

February 14, 2016

By Gloria Harrison

Sierra comes over infrequently and only calls when she’s in need.

“Hey.”

That’s what her texts say – like they’re a Bat Symbol in the night sky and I’m supposed to fly to them in my cape, fancy grappling hooks at the ready. These are always pleas for help. They may follow up with, “What are you doing?” They may say, “The people I’m staying with need a pack of cigarettes, can you help?” Even when I reply, which I don’t always do, these texts are often sporadic, spaced out over many hours before they get to the point. And always, what they’re actually saying is: Save me.

Save me. Save me.

Sierra is a meth addict. She’s homeless. She has children she can’t take care of and fertility she won’t tend to either. She’s dynamic. She lights up a room – and she darkens one.

Sierra – my orange-haired, blue-eyed cataclysm. My bright and funny daughter.

I’ll admit it: when she’s out of sight, my mind is relieved to be void of her, the way it feels so good to have a splinter removed. I don’t mean just the relief of the actual removal of the splinter, but the way it feels to know there once used to be a searing, throbbing pain in a part of my body that just isn’t there anymore. The relief of emptiness.

Last spring, Sierra’s “hey” text was followed by, “Can my boyfriend and I come over and take a shower? We have been crashing at a friend’s house for the last few days and we don’t trust our stuff alone with them.”

Sure, I said, readying myself.

Sierra showed up before noon and was amped to full volume. She was animated and moved about the living room chattering at me, talking so fast I could barely understand her. “Are you using again?” I asked. She assured me, as usual, she wasn’t.

“I’m just so excited about this offer for a job I got this morning!” she told me. There was always a job offer, yet, curiously, never any jobs. An alarm bell went off.

I told Sierra she and her boyfriend could take a shower and eat if they did my dishes. She agreed and I left for a day of errands. I’d never left her in my house alone, but I figured if she stole from me, it would be the last time. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Alcoholism, Family, Guest Posts

Poker, Dice Games & Racehorses

December 4, 2015

By Amy Gesenhues

As of tomorrow, I will have known my husband exactly 20 years, 19 of which we’ve spent married.

I thought it was so romantic, the two of us barely old enough to file taxes, marrying exactly one-year from the day we met.

Now, I know the most romantic thing about us is that we’ve stayed married.  (So far.)

Last weekend, we found ourselves yelling at each at the edge of our backyard. I walked out to ask when he was going to be finished. The weed-eater he was holding was still running. He had on plastic, see-through goggles and the noise canceling earphones he wears when he mows were around his neck.

“When I’m done,” he yelled to me over the buzz of the weed-eater.

I gave him that look. My head slightly tilted, my hands on my hips, an eye-roll then a stare.

“You’ve been out here three hours.”

I wanted to play tennis later that day and was trying to determine if I needed to feed the kids before I left, or if he could take over dinner duty.

From there the conversation went from zero to 60 in about five seconds – 60 being his utter frustration over my lack of interest in the state of our landscape.

“I’ve been out here all day, and still need to weed the front, and you’re complaining because you want to go play tennis.”

Writing it all down now, I see he had a valid point.

My husband is most fulfilled with a job well-done. He’s a big proponent of prep work, and likes to start his day by listing all the things he plans on accomplishing.

I like to play. The last thing I want to hear first thing in the morning is a list of things I have to do. I have no regrets spending a day drinking coffee, reading, staying in my robe until noon. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Friendship, Guest Posts, Surviving

Black Light

December 3, 2015

Trigger Warning: This essay mentions rape. 

By Joan Wilking

The job was supposed to take just a couple of days; we’d been there four. The inside of the club had already been painted flat black like a chalkboard. We added the dayglow lightning bolts, a moon face, and a rising sun with multi-color rays meant to mind-fuck the drugged and drunk hippies who would soon be whirling dervishes on the dance floor under pulsating black lights. It all looked pretty shabby during the day, but come nighttime – magic. We cleaned up our mess and asked to be paid.

“There’s still the billboard,” the owner said.

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” my roommate said.

She was small but tough. One of her eyes was a little off. More so when she was mad.

“Three hundred bucks,” she said. “That was the deal.”

“Three fifty if you do the billboard.”

“Four hundred,” she said.

“Three seventy-five, then.”

It was 1967. She was the one who got us the job. I didn’t know the guy. He was a friend of a friend who sold her some pot. He wore fitted black shirts and gold chains and had a voice that sounded like he ate nails for breakfast. He walked us outside. The club was in an industrial building on the New Jersey side of the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia, where we lived. The highway was a truck route. Semis and tractor-trailers flew by, spewing exhaust fumes. The billboard looked homemade, the supports were rickety. It was smaller than a real billboard, more of a big rectangular sign. It was July. So hot and humid I started and ended each day soaked in sweat.

The guy said, “I want black with a big fluorescent rainbow and a yellow arrow pointing at the club. No name.” He described the rainbow’s arc with a sweep of his hand and added, “The radio ads will pull the suckers in.”

“How are we supposed to get up there?” I said.

He left and returned with a couple of wooden ladders. We each took a side.

We were just out of college, young and thin with tight tits and asses, which, in our tank tops and short shorts, were much appreciated by passing truckers who catcalled and blasted their air horns throughout the blistering afternoon. By the time we climbed down we were sun burnt and verging on heatstroke. When we stood back to get a look at the billboard I reeled, dizzy from the heat. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Fatherhood, Guest Posts

There’s A Bus Waiting

August 17, 2015

By David Lintvedt

We called him “Satellite Mike”, but I never knew his real name.  I heard that at one time he had a family, house and a good job, but all of that was taken away by alcohol and drugs.  For many years he’d struggled with his addictions, and had been in and out of AA, rehabs and detoxes.  By the time I met him the abuse had left him with brain damage, what we in ‘the rooms’ refer to as a wet brain, which is almost like a perpetual state of drunkenness.  This condition robbed him of his ability to think clearly and this left him unpredictable: it was a little scary, but could be interesting.

I would occasionally give Mike rides to and from meetings…and although this meant that we had to ride with the windows open (as personal hygiene was not high on his list)  I enjoyed talking with him, hearing stories of his drunken adventures, and the fantasies created by his sodden mind.  Yet these talks also left me feeling very sad, as I could see flashes of the man he once was…before the addictions took him away.

Satellite Mike had been trying to find long term sobriety for years, but every time he would get a few weeks or months of clean time together, he would feel better and decide that his problems were not that bad, and he would go on another bender.  Once he told me that he regretted not taking advantage of those opportunities to find sobriety early on, when he still had a chance; but when I knew him, he was so far gone it was hard to tell whether he was drunk or not.

We put up with Mike in the program, understanding that when he disrupted a meeting, or flipped over a table at the diner, it was because his brain was pumping out bad chemicals.  As a reward for accepting Mike, we learned a lot from him as Mike was a true power of example…a warning of what was waiting for us, if we became complacent, or let our guard down…if we ever came to believe we could handle (or even deserve) our next drink or drug.

When he was going to meetings and in treatment, Mike lived in transitional housing provided by a non-profit group called Project Hospitality, whose goal it was to help people who were struggling with addiction. When he was not sticking to his program Mike would just disappear; sometimes he’d be in a hospital, once he was locked up in jail for a short stretch, other times he was just off on a bender, perhaps sleeping in the Ferry Terminal or on the streets of Manhattan.  Eventually however, he would come back to the meetings, looking sheepish, asking for rides, food, cigarettes and forgiveness.  He came back because he knew that there was nowhere else for him to go.

Satellite Mike was living in one of these transitional housing units when he went on his final drunk.  I never learned how much of what happened was due to the amount of drugs and alcohol in his system, and how much was due to the damage already done to his brain…and in the end it really did not matter, the damage was done.

One cool and damp spring night, after being kicked out of a bar, Mike began roaming the streets of Staten Island, yelling at cars, and accosting passersby.  Finally, he got it into his head to play “bull fighter” with city buses, out on Victory Boulevard; he waved his coat like a cape, and was heard yelling “Toro, Toro!”  Several buses missed him, but as he leaped out of the way of one bus, he landed in the path of another bus, going the other way, and he was gone!

In the years since he died, I have often wondered if Mike meant to get hit by the bus that night, if that was the only way he saw to end the misery caused by his damaged brain, and the horror of not being able to drink without pain, while not being able to get sober either.

 

Continue Reading…

Alcoholism, Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

Remnants Of A Mother

April 27, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Janine Canty

When he was brand new  and still fell asleep to the sound of my heartbeat, he had this quilt. It was red and black and green. It had cows on it. It had been hand stitched by a librarian from Texas. He lost his umbilical cord stump on it. It bunched up under his dimpled knees while he learned to crawl. He peed on it and cried into it. Threw up strained bananas on it. I laundered it daily with Dreft in a stainless steel sink. He spilled chocolate milk on it and dragged it through the mud. The way little boys do. He laid on top of it when he had mono. He left fever sweat across a cows face. He kept a corner of it pressed against  his cheek while he watched “Toy Story” and listened to his father slam me into a kitchen wall. I rescued it from the dogs mouth. I wrapped his sturdy little body in it when he ran through the house in nothing but his Scooby Doo underwear. I tucked it around his restless toddler feet at 1 am.

He loved that quilt into pieces while the world around him exploded with noise and cracked plaster.  I packed the pieces away  carefully just after his 5th birthday. They still smelled slightly like his hair and my Charlie perfume. He was our final baby. My last belief in something good. Conceived in a Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom, during a “cops” rerun. Summer rain hitting the windowsill. The dude next door whistling for his rottweiler. Chicken thawing on a kitchen counter. Sometime right before his 7th birthday, he found the pieces of that quilt in the bottom of a drawer. He was having nightmares with only his 14 year old sister to come in the middle of the night to comfort him. She poured his cereal. She washed his clothes. She did everything she could do. Everything in her tiny teenage power, while she sneaked smokes out a  laundry room  window before school. He loved her desperately. Clung to her like heated saran wrap. She didn’t smell like me. Sound like me. She wasn’t his version of a mother. She was what was left. Till he pulled remnants of a mother out of that drawer. Smelling his infant self. My perfume. Our moments together. Story and bath time. Chocolate and canned green beans. His tears and my warm skin. All of it woven into those worn pieces of cloth. He pulled those pieces out of the drawer. Began carrying them around with him. Falling asleep with them. While 40 minutes away I woke up screaming his name. My arms and heart useless entities. Broken, empty, ugly things. He carried the pieces around until they wore away to strings. He carried his dream of a mother until his father came across them. Screaming hot spittle and rage into his face. Calling him a faggot. Breaking his final belief in something good.

***

I signed him away with shaking cold hands and a leaky blue pen. The legal aid lawyer with  the big boobs and popping buttons tried to talk me out of it. “You can have him”, She kept saying, like he was a trinket, a toy. “I don’t want him,” I replied in my court dress and tight pantyhose. “Not if getting him means destroying him.”

I took my frozen-self back out into a different world. The one where I wasn’t a Mom on a daily basis. Living in those early days didn’t mean feeling the sun on my face, or laughing in the shower.  It meant combing my hair and eating food I didn’t want. Standing in line at Wal-Mart and smiling at someone else’s child. Walking to work when all I wanted to do was lay in the dark. With five comforters piled on me.  Sweating and screaming. The kind of screaming that rips the throat and rattles the teeth. I wanted an oblivion. A blank space I could fill with the smells and sounds and feel of my children.  A place where I could be their mother. A place where they never had to see my bruises.  They say grief’s color is blue. This grief wasn’t blue. Blue is calm. This grief was a bright red. Loud and in my face. It was an endless thing with jagged edges. Blood and glass. Coating my soul like cotton candy.

I’m a good mother. I’m a good person. I didn’t deserve this. They didn’t deserve this. I didn’t cause this. The counselor told me to repeat it until I believed it. She said I could even say it in my head. But I said it out loud. I said it until my tongue was numb with it. Until the words didn’t feel like hostile strangers on a Boston subway. Until I could smile at other people’s children and mean it. I repeated the words when I woke up at 4:01 am with my nightgown twisted and stuck to my back with sweat. When I had to turn on every light in the house to chase away the jagged edges of grief.  It takes a lot of work to undo a lie you’ve been sold marinated in cruelty.  A lot of patience to love yourself, when you’re all you have left.

***

They found him this morning. Curled up in his leather jacket. On the cold ground. Beside the swimming pool in the back yard. Next to a pile of brown melting snow. A scowl on his beautiful face. An eight dollar bottle of whiskey clutched to his chest. Next to his scars. Where a surgeon cut into him. Breaking his ribs to insert a metal rod. Trying to protect his heart. The one that had already been broken.

They found him this morning. In a pretty suburban backyard. Three hundred feet from where his father and I began. On a suburban dead end street. Where the bay windows shine and the white curtains from Macy’s hide the unsavory stains. Where the horrible and unspeakable things are things that happen to someone else’s family.

They found him this morning. My little boy. My baby. My final belief in something good. In the fetal position with that damn whiskey. Vomit in the thick hair he inherited from me. Still drunk at 9:46 am on Easter morning.

He was slapped into consciousness  over a plateful of stale cinnamon rolls. His father poured  the last of the whiskey down a bathroom drain and felt like a hero.

He’s going to be 21 on Saturday. Old enough to legally drink himself to death. To ruin his beautiful body and puke away his potential with a little help from Jack Daniel’s.

One older brother dying a slow, dirty death, from pancreatitis. The other believing he can fly. He can be something better. Something prettier, with the help of a little ecstasy and a 21 year old hooker he meets at a Comfort Inn. A sister with a baby of her own and an unemployed husband old enough to be the father she still craves. A mother who still wakes up screaming his name, all their names, on the bad nights. All of us as broken, as worn, as those pieces of my youngest sons quilt. His remnants of a mother.
Janine Canty is a self proclaimed word geek. She has been writing on and off for 39 years. Her work has previously appeared at Sweatpants and Coffee as well as The Manifest Station. She is a semi regular contributor to The Weeklings. She lives in Northern Maine, where she unmasks the world, one essay at a time. She can be found on Facebook. She attended Jen Pastiloff & Emily Rapp’s writing/yoga retreat in Vermont.

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being. Yoga + Writing + Connection. We go deep. Bring an open heart and a sense of humor- that's it! Summer or Fall 2015. It is LIFE CHANGING!

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being. Yoga + Writing + Connection. We go deep. Bring an open heart and a sense of humor- that’s it! Summer or Fall 2015. It is LIFE CHANGING!

Addiction, Binders, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Consequence

April 22, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Chris J. Rice

 

Small bodies stared out a car window, helpless, listening to the drone of a voice, pitiless, and naïve, a horrible combination. Houses never furnished. Refrigerators full of liquor and doggie bags, steak slices, and baked Alaska, toddlers hidden behind beige drapes peeing on white carpet. Babies crying. Shit stains and Martini olives. Poodle yelps. Flash of ocean daylight. And remorse.

My Moody Sister died in a drug-induced coma. Dark hair matted with vomit. Fell asleep on a double bed in a Tulsa motel room beside her abusive boyfriend, and never woke up.

I jumped out of sleep to answer the phone.

“I’m calling to let you know,” my paternal aunt said. “Didn’t want you to hear it from none of them.”

Receiver to chest, I crouched down. Balanced on my heels, and rocked.

“Cancer,” my aunt said. “Had to have been. Just look at her obituary picture. Looks like it to me, like she died of cancer.”

I knew that wasn’t true. Got off the phone quick as I could and searched online for my sister’s obituary, head full of unanswerable questions. When did the drugs and drinking start? Was it because we had no real home? Why did she stay in Mama’s dark orbit so long past youth? Was it the only life she knew, or the only life she could imagine? Frantic and doubting, I searched until there she was in glowing bits, my Moody Sister.

Pixilated otherworldly eyes smiled above a brief paragraph.

She left behind three children, at least eight half siblings and survived by both her parents, was buried in an Ozark cemetery facing old Route 66. Her three children went to live with her last husband. Their names in her obituary were long jingly strings of karmic payback and wishful thinking: combinations of our Mama’s real first name alongside my sister’s absent father’s surname.

She didn’t meet her biological father until she was a grown woman.

Come from a childhood with no fixed address.

Identity, a combination of what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, flawed mosaic of who you are, and who others think you are. Not who you are inherently, but also who and where you came from, and what you were able to make of yourself.

Outcomes.

Origins.

Consequence.

She was Mama’s favorite child and most constant companion, always riding beside her in the front seat of the car as we traveled from town to town. Disregarding its isolation, she accepted the position of best loved, her dark head barely visible to the other kids crammed together in the backseat. When left behind with the rest of us she became inconsolable, running after the car, plopping herself on the sidewalk as Mama sped off. Sat there, cross-legged, head thrown back, mouth wide open and skyward, wailing with all her need, outdoors and out loud, for her Mama to come back home. My peaceful respite, lolling alone on the motel carpet unobserved with a new Nancy Drew, was her full-bodied pain.

The daughter in the front seat never learned to be alone; disconnection terrified her.

I ran away from all my family, especially my Moody Sister, putting real distance between us, and seldom looking back. Her unhappiness was of another order altogether from mine: unquenchable, indulgent, and seductively unhealthy, like too much syrup on an already too sweet dessert.

The last time I saw her, I drew her portrait. Pencils sharpened, I layered colored lines on a flat green page, porous and textured. Watched her bow her head slightly to the left, as she had done so often in our earliest days together, and recorded what I saw and what I knew to be true. Made art of our brutal detachment.

Long black bangs curled across a forehead into downcast blue eyes.

A heart-shaped face held sharp lips painted red.

Absence charged by a presence, deceptive and confounding. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Dear Life., Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear Life: I Am Struggling To Keep From Lashing Out!

January 9, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.

Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email dearlife@jenniferpastiloff.com.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Kelly Thompson, whose previous essay on the site went viral! I am so excited that she is joining the Writing + The Body Retreat (sold out) that I am doing with Lidia Yuknavitch at the end of this month!

Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.

Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you in Vancouver in a couple weeks! My first workshop there! 

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap as there are only 2 spots left. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being. Sep 17-24, 2016.

Dear Life,
As someone who was in a relationship with a woman that has now gone through rehab twice (once for 90 days) and did her own detox once while trying to kill herself I have now been blamed for all her trial and tribulations.

When we reconnected 7 years ago she looked me up while her husband was in the hospital having heart surgery. I didn’t know this was the case due to her telling me she was in town for a medical convention. I met her for a drink and then back to her hotel for champagne and a swim, unbeknownst to me that she was married and her husband was lying in a hospital bed 2 miles away. We continued to talk every night when she was done with work while she sucked down Patron. Finally she told me the whole story and needless to say I was caught off guard. She assured me that they were going to get a divorce and things would be fine (they did divorce).

Over the next few years, as I got to know her, the drinking and pill popping became pretty severe, to the point of numerous blackouts and falls that caused bodily harm. The culmination was her trying to kill herself and being toted out by ambulance. During this time, which included her first stint in rehab I was there to help, support and provide financially. I am sure you can see where this is leading, but I was in love and wanted nothing more than to spend my life with her. Yes, I should have run at the start, but we all make mistakes.

Over the next 4 years as she went through a medical board program we still had our up’s and down’s due to her finding ways to start taking oxycodone to feed her addiction. It got to a point where she went through a week long detox on her own where she disappeared from the world. During this time I tried to get her to see she was about to throw away her medical career, her parental rights with her daughter and our relationship. None of this mattered as she then started drinking on Friday’s thinking she could beat the drug screening test. Well, the combination of pills and alcohol took it’s toll on her physically and mentally, of course she also failed the screening.

To make a long story short, I dropped her off at the airport so she could attend a 90 day rehab in Santa Monica. She told me she loved me and off she went, well that is where it all got crazy. 3 weeks in to the stay I get a text that she wants to leave, but I implored her to stay for her own well being. 2 days later I get a text again that say’s “we are over and that her problems are my fault”. I was stunned and also realized this could not be further from the truth. I amazed that this facility could be hoodwinked by her and would have given this advice. I tried to reach out for an explanation, but never have received any kind of communication since.

I am not looking to get back together, but would have liked closure based on respect. I am struggling to keep from lashing out, so I thought I would write you.

Thanks for your time!

Struggling To Keep From Lashing Out.

1798X611 Continue Reading…

Addiction, courage, Guest Posts, healing

Groundhog Day.

January 4, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

1798X611

By Marika Delan.

I came out of my hole to see the things that hurt me in the light of day.

I was frightened of my shadow and went back inside to hide.

I’ve been here for so long now, it must be that winter has come and gone away.

Punxsutawney Phil came out of his burrow and saw his shadow today.

The forecast is 6 more weeks of winter.

. . .

Vicodin, Oxycodone, Percocet, pick your poison — there was no shortage of top shelf pills for the pain. Just make sure to follow the instructions lest you cause liver failure, or worse, stop breathing and die:

Take one to two tablets every 4-6 hours as needed for pain.

Do not operate heavy machinery. May cause drowsiness (and nausea, epic constipation, anorexia, withdrawal that will make you think you are Leo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, and deep dark soul sucking depression that might explain why people ruin their lives over what doctors are doling out like candy).

Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.

Pick a shelf, pick a drug, my medicine cabinet was full of whatever you could possibly want because there was nothing I wanted less than to take opiate narcotics. I had seen the true meaning of the word painkillers. I had seen them kill more than the pain.

Continue Reading…

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