Coming Clean

By

Gracie often tells the story of almost swallowing a small toy and coughing it up before she choked. “Don’t tell my mom I told you. She said not to tell,” Gracie adds. “I could have died. Have you ever almost died, Dad?”

I tell her no, which is basically the truth.

We’re on the way to meet her mom and the social worker at the indoor mini-golf place in Cranberry. It’s January, pothole season in Pittsburgh, and traffic is backed up on the boulevard. Gracie hasn’t seen her mom since she overdosed, over six months ago.

“It’s good my mom didn’t die, at least,” she says. “I’m glad she’s okay.”

Gracie is eight, old enough to sit in the front seat now. She puts on KISS 96.1, and we listen to mildly suggestive tween pop. When she asks what the lyrics mean, I say I don’t know.

“Drugs make people do stupid things,” I say.

Gracie turns her attention to a game on her iPod.

The opioid public service announcement/advertisement for Greenbriar Treatment Center comes on the radio. They play the spot in regular rotation now. Opioids are a public talking point and the cause of a national health crisis. The soothing, concerned voice never says “heroin.” It focuses on the pills the kids in the suburbs eat, not the dope laced with fentanyl killing people in the city. The local rehab facility gets a plug at the end. The crisis is branded and packaged for public consumption, a lie.

“Dad, what’s opioids?”

“They’re like heroin.”

“Don’t say that word.”

“Heroin?”

“Yeah. Don’t say it, it makes me sad.”

“She’s trying to get better,” I say.

 

Gracie has always had a kind of fascination with death. When she was four, her mom bought her hamsters. They lived in a plastic container with a wheel and a water bottle and a few other pieces of molded plastic placed in their living quarters, ostensibly for exercise and recreation. Gracie loved feeding the hamsters and watching them burrow in the wood chips. When I picked Gracie up from Jane’s on our agreed-upon days, Gracie talked nonstop about Hammy and Sammy. She’d created inner lives for them. One mostly hid in the corner, and the other spun around in the wheel all day. Instead of buying two female hamsters, Jane had bought a male and a female, and soon the hamsters had babies. The parents ate the babies, then the bigger parent ate the smaller one. I’m not sure if it was the mother or father.

We told Gracie that we gave the baby hamsters away and set the dead parent free, returned it to nature to live in the wild. Jane and I worked together on this lie, but Gracie already knew the truth.

“They’re dead. Grandma told me,” she said. Then the questions: “What happens when you die? Is there hamster heaven? Why did they eat the babies?”

I assured her there was hamster heaven, dodging the greater philosophical questions about the afterlife and why hamsters eat their young.

 

Later that year, when spring came, a robin fell out of its nest in Gracie’s great-grandmother’s back yard. Gracie saw the wounded bird, and she and her mother tried to nurse it back to health. Gracie named the bird Violet. When Violet died, her mom buried it and told Gracie it flew away. For a while, when Gracie heard birds singing or saw them perched on the phone lines, she would say, “There’s Violet. I miss you, Violet,” in a wistful voice.

Six years after the fact, she still asks me if I remember her pet bird. I tell her I do. I say I bet she flew south for the winter to Florida, and stayed there because it’s warm and sunny.

 

The summer after the dead bird, Jane’s grandfather died. Nurses gave him morphine and OxyContin to help with the pain while he’d been in hospice care at the house, where Jane was staying with Gracie. Our last agreement split custody evenly, but I was allowed to request a drug test with twenty-four hours’ notice if I was ever suspicious. Jane was keeping it together, or at least able to put up pretenses since her first relapse two years earlier. She’d been through out-patient up in Wexford. She was passing random drug tests. I drove her to “doctor’s appointments,” hoping that if Gracie remembered this period of her life, if she put it all together, she’d understand that I was trying to help her mother, that I wasn’t trying to pry them apart, and that, when I finally did, it was for her own safety. I don’t know if this is the same as actually wanting to help, or just wanting the credit.

“Do you think Grampa is with Hammy? Is hamster heaven with regular heaven?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they are probably together in heaven. They’re happy.” I started to think religious people were on to something. Can’t answer your kid’s question about existential dread? Just say “heaven.”

After Jane’s grandfather died there were all those extra pills around, bottles full, and inevitably Jane wound up in an inpatient treatment center, then a halfway house for single mothers. I would take Gracie there after school on Fridays to spend one night a week with her mom. “Mom has new roommates,” I said. “Let me know if anyone is ever not nice to you.”

Jane had moved around so much this wasn’t really a lie, and the omission didn’t really strike me as unethical. I’d been covering for Jane for two years based on the assumption that she was trying to get clean, and that she’d slipped only due to her grandfather’s death, and the unfortunate circumstance of all those pills being around, that she would get her shit together before Gracie figured out something was wrong. As it turned out, Jane had been stealing Gracie’s pee and using it to pass her drug tests.

I can’t imagine how she rationalized this. There must’ve been so many layers of self-deceit that had gone into this effort. And what was going on with the fucking people at the testing place? How did they let this happen? I was appalled, but my anger turned into exhaustion and acceptance. There was no way to prove the bottles of piss I’d found in Jane’s room belonged to Gracie. Even if I could prove it, I still couldn’t get full custody because there was no evidence Gracie was in physical danger. If I called Child Youth Services on Jane, Gracie would be stuck in the system until she turned eighteen. All the lies I’d told to shield her would have been for nothing.

 

Jane was still grieving for her grandfather when her best friend Lisa died of an overdose. Gracie had called her Aunt Lisa. The three of them lived together for a month while Jane was between her grandmother’s and mother’s house. Jane took Gracie to the funeral against my wishes.

“Aunt Lisa had a heart attack,” Gracie told me. “She’s in heaven now.” And then, as if she doubted what she’d just said, she asked, “What happens when we die?”

I told her no one really knows, but maybe it’s heaven and that would be nice. I didn’t want to lie anymore, and this seemed like a more or less honest reply. I took pleasure in challenging her mother’s belief in church and heaven and Jesus.

 

The traffic is still backed up on the boulevard, delaying our arrival at the mini golf course. I worry about being late and looking bad, and then I laugh at that thought, and then I feel bad for laughing at that thought.

“Dad, why do people take opioids?”

“It’s like medicine. It makes you feel better, but then some people take it when they aren’t sick and it makes them feel better, so they want to take it all the time. Eventually it stops making them feel better and they have to keep taking it so they feel normal. It can kill you if you take too much.” My explanation rehashes a lot of the heroin talk we had after the overdose, but I don’t connect those ideas for her out loud.

“Why do you smoke cigarettes, Dad?”

“I don’t know, honey.”

“They can kill you,” she says, still very intrigued by death all these years after the hamsters and the robin and her great-grandfather and Lisa.

“I’ll quit someday,” I say. I don’t know if this is a lie or not. I quit drinking before it killed me, so at least I have a reference point. I’ve been sober for almost thirteen years. But I like smoking, and it’s the only crutch I have.

When Gracie asks me if I’ve ever tried drugs, I say I tried pot once and didn’t like it. When she asks why people drink, I tell her the truth. It’s relaxing. It’s fine for most grownups. I don’t drink because it makes me sick, I say, which is a half-truth, or half of a lie.

 

“I could have died if the infection went into my heart,” Gracie says. Her tone is always very matter of fact when she brings up her hospital stay, another near-death story for the canon.

Gracie was born with a ventricular septal defect, or VSD—a tiny hole in her heart that doctors said would close naturally. We visited the cardiologist once a year, and she always told us there was nothing out of the ordinary.

When Gracie was seven, Jane—who was already five years into her addiction—called and told me Gracie was having night sweats and chest pain. She took Gracie to the hospital. I’d grown so paranoid by this time, I thought Jane was either making up the symptoms, or exaggerating the illness because it gave her a way to prove her worth as a mother. That year, I’d met them at the hospital or urgent care on an almost monthly basis. I figured this was another false alarm.

Jane played the concerned mom very well, but this time she was telling the truth. Gracie was diagnosed with endocarditis. When the doctor gave me the prognosis, she said it was because of Gracie’s VSD and random bad luck. Maybe some germs got into a scrape on her hand, maybe she chewed on a pencil. She said there was a less than one percent chance the condition would be fatal, but it kept Gracie in the hospital for a week until they found the right antibiotic.

I spent that week in the children’s hospital with Gracie and her mom. Jane passed the time watching 9/11 conspiracy theories on YouTube and trying to convince me that the Earth was flat and NASA was fake. I felt sorry for her, and then I felt like an asshole for being smug, and then I felt sorry for Gracie. Why was Jane eating up these lies? What comfort did they bring? I’d be sitting in the hospital trying to get Gracie to eat Jell-O and Jane would say, “There’s some interesting ideas out there, Ben. You know you can’t believe everything people tell you.”

She said Jerry Garcia was working for the CIA, still alive, and hiding in Northern California––maybe trying to appeal to my love of the Grateful Dead and the run of Phil Lesh shows we saw during our brief stint as a happy couple, when she, too, was sober and we would sit with the sober tour kids and their yellow balloons during set breaks. We talked about how great it was to enjoy shows without drugs. We danced all night and Jane gave me shit when I held her purse for the encore so she could get close. After the house lights came on at the end of the show, she found her way back to me radiating happiness. “It matches your shoes,” she said. “You have to wear it tomorrow, too.”

I still go to Dead shows and I’m still sober, but I don’t fuck with those kids and the yellow balloons who tell recovering addicts and alcoholics like me that some must die so that others can live.

I thought about my friend Tommy, who’d introduced me to the Dead and Phish in high school, who died in a motel in South Jersey when I had reached six months sober. I was told it was benzodiazepine withdrawal that killed him. That he died trying to get clean. I tell myself that’s how it went down, that it wasn’t an overdose.

I thought about going on tour with friends in my early twenties, looking for a sense of community in line for the nitrous tank in the parking lot after a Phish show in Las Vegas, and how that free-spirited utopia I thought I’d found was a big fucking lie, and how that lie shielded me from the ugly truth rippling under it all—dealers sending underage girls out to push molly, half-spun parents dragging their young children through the lot, junkies overdosing in the backs of pick-up trucks in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, kids selling fake acid to pay for gas to get to the next show, townies sucking on strips of fentanyl patches to come down off uppers. Memories of me lost in a cornfield in Wisconsin at 2 a.m., hallucinating on drugs I couldn’t pronounce, waiting for salvation or someone with Valium. How close had I been to strung out or dead? There was a time when I would’ve done anything put in front of me, but that anything never turned out to be heroin. Maybe it was divine intervention.

All this came flooding back when Jane started in with lecture about how the child murders in Sandy Hook were fake.

“Please,” I said, “not now.”

Maybe these lies were a coping mechanism, or something she picked up in the rooms. I hear shit like this from kids in the program all the time. Nine months off crack and this “awakening” hits them. They can’t wait to tell you all about it. All the false flags, liberal indoctrination. Wake up, sheeple! They’re actors paid by Nancy Pelosi and Obama to play grieving parents. Like they all want to be in on a secret. Or maybe Jane picked it up from her junkie friends who were still fucked up. If these tragedies are fake, if the world is a lie, what’s the difference if you’re strung out?

All the shootings, all the death, all the parents who have to tell themselves something—are my children in heaven? Is there an afterlife? I wonder what I’d tell myself if it were my child. What kind of lie would I need to process that grief?

I went outside for a smoke. I got myself a coffee and one for Jane.

“Why don’t you go home and shower,” I said. “Take a break. If you want, I can stay the night, and you can sleep in your own bed.”

“I could never leave her overnight,” Jane said, a subtle jab at me for choosing to walk home two blocks and sleep in my own bed each night.

Jane took the coffee and told me she’d be back in an hour. After she left, Gracie stirred awake. Her hair was all over the place. She looked tired and sad in her little hospital gown. The bags under her eyes made her seem oddly grown-up.

“How you feeling, kiddo?”

“Okay. I’m okay, Dad.”

“I brought Harry Potter.”

“Okay, Dad. You can read to me.”

I read for a while. Gracie had fallen asleep without me realizing it. I stood and pushed Jane’s shit off the bench by the window. I lay down and cried until I ran out of breath. When Jane got back I’d do what did every night: grab some food, go to the late meeting across town, and listen to people tell me God was curing our alcoholism.

 

I thought for sure Jane was going to die, and at times I thought if she did, it would have made my so much life easier. Gracie was young enough that I could have chalked it up to any number of lies. Lies that could’ve lasted all through adolescence. If Jane died, I wouldn’t have had a co-parent who was actively working against me, who at every turn tried to call the police on me for harassment, who started fights in public or tried to keep Gracie out of kindergarten in the city, or showed up eight hours late, begging for more money for clothes or gas or whatever it was.

Intellectually, I know Gracie’s mom loves her and needs help. In practice, I just want my daughter safe. But I’d been in denial about Jane’s drug use. At first trying to convince myself it was lingering postpartum depression, or that she was just flighty and inconsiderate. Showing up eight hours late to drop off Gracie on Easter. Her brain was fried from years of hard living, I told myself, or the car accident and ensuing pain management that led to another relapse when Gracie was two. She’d had five years clean before that.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be right or not. If it was better for me to pretend things were better than they were, or if I really wanted the proof that would get me custody, so I could be the hero. The father who saved his daughter from her junkie mother.

There were some things I couldn’t help, that were kept from me. Jane had overdosed the night she got out of the halfway house. Her sister found her on the bathroom floor and revived her. Gracie was in the city with me when it happened, and no one told me about it until almost a year later. Just like I didn’t find out about the shoplifting, or the possession and paraphernalia charges, or the child endangerment charges that she’d pled to and that landed her on probation. These charges should have given me custody immediately. Her family kept them secret. I probably would have done the same.

I wonder if Gracie will look back and realize that thirty-year-olds don’t just have heart attacks, that leaving needles around the house or falling down all the time is not normal. I can’t imagine Jane told Gracie the truth about why she wasn’t living with her grandmother anymore, or why she didn’t get to see the kids down the street she used to play with. And though I didn’t want to, I kept lying about all of it, creating a narrative of a busy mother who loved her daughter and sometimes moved around for work. I did this for years, after several more relapses, after Jane stole thousands of dollars from her grandmother and was charged with credit card fraud. I couldn’t stop.

I’d been lying on behalf of a liar ever since I found her needles the first time, back when Gracie was almost three. I’d pressed until I got answers, and Jane told me, “I relapsed when you kicked me out. I smoked my sister’s weed in the garage. I went for a while like that but eventually it wasn’t enough. Once you shoot dope, nothing else will do it.” I’m sure it’s a lie, but the timeline checks out. Either way I feel the weight of it, of not being able to nurture my daughter the right way, of not being able to mother, of remaining unmarried and failing at relationships that would bring a strong female role model into our home, a stepmother who’s nothing like her mom, who wouldn’t have to lie to Gracie about anything. I lie because I feel guilty for letting my daughter wind up in this situation. I feel complicit.

 

The day Jane overdosed Gracie and I finally had the heroin talk. Gracie was eight. Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend took Gracie to the playground. Gracie was playing on the jungle gym. Jane went to the car, shot up, and stopped breathing. Micah, the boyfriend, called an ambulance. The police showed up and called me. This was in June of 2015. I’ve had full custody ever since, while Jane gradually gains back parental rights with passed drug tests and mandatory therapy sessions and 12-step meetings.

After this, I couldn’t lie to Gracie anymore. There was too much to try to keep straight.

I explained that her mother was on heroin and that it didn’t make her a bad mom, it just meant she made a mistake, and Gracie would be able to see her more often when she got better. We established that heroin comes from flowers and is usually injected with a needle. Gracie hates shots, and can’t understand why someone would want them.

Back at our apartment, Gracie told me, “I used to see needles sometimes at Grandma’s house. On the bed. Mom made me stay home from school because I touched it. Would I die if I touched it?”

“You could. If there were drugs in the needle or if it was dirty.”

“She made sure I was okay. That’s why I didn’t go to school,” she said. “How could I have died?”

“It would only take a tiny amount if you’re like four years old. You’re so little it would stop your heart.”

“I was way older than that. Like seven.”

“Oh,” I said, and I placed this event with the memories of second grade, her trip to the hospital, her heart. I wasn’t even surprised. “If that ever happens again, tell me, okay? That’s really dangerous and shouldn’t happen. That’s why your mom can’t see you until she’s better.” I didn’t know what to do with my hands since I don’t smoke when Gracie’s in the apartment. I rolled the TV remote over in my palm and went and got Gracie a juice box from the fridge.

I must have had a weird look on my face when I came back into the living room because Gracie asked, “Are you okay, Dad?”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” I said.

“What’s going to happen to my mom?”

“I don’t know.”

In the weeks to come, we’d have the jail talk, the rehab talk, and the court talk. But the heroin talk was enough for one night. We sat there on the couch watched TV until bedtime.

 

When I tell people I’m the primary parent, they know something is wrong with Gracie’s mom without asking. Single mothers get blamed for having children out of wedlock, not picking the right man, and I’m sure Jane bears that blame, all that societal pressure built up and holding her back in ways I can’t imagine. She doesn’t even get to revel in single parenthood the way I do.

The latest court agreement states that Gracie’s mom is only allowed to see her with a social worker present. Jane has to pay her by the hour and for gas, so she can only afford two-hours a week. We meet at the park when it’s nice out, or at Panera Bread if there’s bad weather. I run errands or write at a nearby coffee shop until their time is up. Sometimes I’ll return to find Jane brushing Gracie’s hair in the parking lot. I always hang back and wait when this happens. Jane gets all the knots out that I struggle with so badly. I think about those periods of time when Jane was clean, and how loving and caring of a mother she can be, and it makes all this shit so much worse.

Though life feels more stable now that I’m not covering for Jane, I don’t feel like the hero who saved his daughter from her junkie mom. The time I spend with Gracie often gets reduced to keeping appointments and overcoming logistical nightmares: school, homework, arguing about needing a shower, showering, story time, sleep. When Gracie’s asleep, I try to read and write, or do work for my day job to free up daylight hours to read and write, but often I just veg out and watch Netflix or flip aimlessly through my phone with sports on TV.

I worry about what other parents think. I’m already self-conscious about how poor I am compared to most of them, so I rarely open up about Gracie’s mom. Usually, when I do open up, people are sympathetic, and I end up getting credit just for being a decent human being. I don’t know whether to revel in it, or wish it away. Hero stories are bullshit. There are no myths about standing in the girl’s clothing section at Target for twenty minutes, near tears, because the hero isn’t sure what kind of socks to buy his daughter. About how the hero feels so overwhelmed he leaves empty-handed.

 

We’re pulling up to the mini-golf place, and I can see Jane there in jeans and a leather jacket. She’s with the social worker, who seemed nice when we spoke on the phone. Gracie is excited to see her mom, but she’s also cautious about the new arrangement. I’m more straightforward with her now, and she confides in me.

“Dad, I could tell when mom is high. She sits on the couch and then closes her eyes and falls asleep for one second and then wakes up real quick. She used to do it at Grandma’s.”

“Hopefully she can stop, honey.”

“Dad.”

“Yeah?”

“Does mom know that I know she got in trouble?”

“Not yet.”

“Can you not tell her?”

“Okay, sure. I won’t tell her.”

When we get out of the car, Gracie runs to her mother. Jane kneels and hugs her for the first time in six months. From my spot on the sidewalk Jane seems fine, smiling the way she did when she was clean, when I could still believe it.

***

All names in this essay have been changed.

***

Rumpus original art by Luna Adler.


Ben Gwin is the author of the novel, Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton (Burrow Press). Ben’s fiction has appeared in The Normal School, Gulf Stream, 45th Parallel and others. His work has been anthologized in Voices of the Rust Belt (Picador) and the Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing). He lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter. More from this author →