In February, standing in an elementary school cafeteria under a ceiling full of tissue paper and cellophane jellyfish, I decided I had to tell my nine-year-old son that I had once been a heroin addict. I watched the crowd of kids do The Dab in unison to the DJ’s loud dance music. They all looked so much older on the dance floor, so different from the huddle of children squatting over a pile of Legos that they had been just last year. It might take me months to work up to it, but I had to tell him.
Next to me, my friend watched her son bend and twist next to mine. She told me about her impending divorce, holding her baby girl who squealed with the music.
“I think he’s struggling,” she said, watching her son. She looked gaunt and anxious. I wondered how much weight she’d lost. She shifted the baby to her other hip. “I just want my kids to be okay despite our stupid adult crap.”
I suggested therapy. I told her that it had helped tremendously after my own divorce and the last few years of dealing with a stepmother my child called mean.
I watched my boy trying to catch on to the moves his friends were doing.
Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you / I drink too much and that’s an issue / But I’m okay.
All the kids’ arms went up in the air and he followed, a beat behind.
So, baby, pull me closer / in the back seat of your Rover / that I know you can’t afford.
The kids moved their hands in a half circle, pretending to palm a steering wheel. My son watched this, looked back at me, and shrugged.
“I can send you the name and number of our child psychologist,” I told my friend.
On the dance floor, the girls in my son’s third grade class pummeled him with balloons, circling him and abandoning their dance steps.
So baby, pull me closer / we ain’t ever getting older / we ain’t ever getting older
On Facebook, a news video popped up in my feed of a ten-year-old Syrian boy who had his legs blown off. When the smoke cleared, the image of his ragged thighs said that not every worry is equal. For instance, I may worry that my son’s stepmother will force him to eat pistachios again without believing in his need for an EpiPen but he would still have both legs. The boy in the video miraculously screamed, “Papa” and his father made sounds I’ve never heard a human being make before, while he scooped up what was left of his child’s body.
Four years ago, a writer friend’s twenty-three-year old son died. Let’s call him Angel. He was an active addict. He’d been living in a halfway house in Stamford, where I was supposed to pay him a visit because I had personal addiction experience to bring with my care package. Then, he disappeared. When he was arrested on an old warrant, his mother was relieved because at least she knew where he was and that he was alive. But then he hung himself in a holding cell at the Hartford police station.
I have not mentioned my own son to this friend in four years. She told me in an email that she knew I did this to spare her pain and that the thoughtfulness made her cry and feel guilty at the same time. I wouldn’t believe how thoughtless people could be, she said. She had another friend who often emailed her photos of her little boy with the subject line, “This will cheer you up.” Sometimes seeing pictures of this seven-year-old boy in rain boots, on the beach, holding flowers out to the camera, made my friend climb back in bed for days.
I have not told this friend that my son’s therapist from four years ago often said to me on bad days, “But your child is not Angel.”
Had I been a person without an addiction history, I might have been prescribed Xanax and gone about my life. Instead, I was left to carry the fear to its worst possible conclusion in my imagination over and over again.
Yesterday, I saw a very informative video of a little girl demonstrating how to break zip ties binding her wrists with just the laces in her shoes. She was tiny, maybe eight years old or so. But she freed herself easily, with very little effort.
Should I show my son this video? Will he ever have a reason to need this information?
When my boy was three, I taught him that if someone should try to take him, if anyone picked him up and started to carry him off, he should not scream the word “help” but should instead scream, “This is not my parent!” I taught him to look for a mother with children should he become lost and find himself without me in a crowd.
Preparing to tell him means thinking about it a lot. He’ll be ten on his next birthday. I am about to try to publish writing that spells it out. If I don’t tell him myself, he could hear it from someone else.
My son likes to tell people that his first word was “book”. I’m a writer. I love that this was his first meaningful word. What if his first word had been “no”? And what if I was the kind of mother who would tell the story of his first word being “no” to get others to laugh at his defiant quality, some inherent naughtiness already present when he was a baby? Could this have changed who he is, how he sees himself?
There is evidence that addiction can be hereditary. When he knows my history, will he grow up and tell a new story about himself, feel an obligation to live out that which he sees as his fate? We want to protect our children from everything, even sometimes ourselves.
I’ve been preparing to tell him. I have a video that a therapist friend sent me about addiction being a faulty coping skill as a result of trauma or neglect being imprinted on the addict in the past. I read a book about how recovering parents can talk to their children about their addiction.
I see myself sitting next to him, maybe on our front steps.
Here. Come sit with me. Let’s share a tangerine. Let me tell you how sad I used to be and all the ways I tried to disappear and how it almost worked.
These are things my son already knows about me: In elementary school, the other kids called me Cindy Mouse because I was timid. I hyperventilated often from trying not to cry. I liked to line up hundreds of my Fisher Price people and then spend whole afternoons moving them one at a time, inch by inch, because it helped me think. I was afraid of balls flying at me, girls whispering behind my back, my mother’s temper. I could not ride a bike until I was nine. Once, at summer camp, I was thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool as a method of instruction, probably because the teenage camp counselors were sick of my anxiety. In college, when I could not stop crying, I went to a hospital for one long winter where they locked me inside to keep me safe.
This is something my son doesn’t know: I was a heroin addict on and off for seven years and thought I’d never stop.
When my son started having meltdowns several times a day and tantrums when he had to go to his father and stepmother’s house, I told him stories about my own meltdowns as a child.
I told him about the time I lost my shit on the school bus because my mother had shoved me out the door in the pouring rain in boots I hated and did not want to wear. Before the bus even left my street, I was hyperventilating in my seat. The bus driver stopped the bus and made my older brother come to the front to sit with me, thinking that would calm me. With everyone staring at me, I could not get control of myself. My son listened to this story, still wiping away his own tears. The next day, as we sat at the table drawing together, he said, “Mom, what was wrong with the boots?”
It is only now that I am thinking of how to tell him about my past that I realize how much danger I was in back then.
When I was twenty-four, I broke my jaw in three places when I fell off the second floor of my loft space because I was drunk. The nurses discharged me with a little kit that held wire cutters and pliers. They told me to carry it with me at all times while my jaw was wired shut in case I got sick. I shoved it in a drawer and forgot about it.
The week I was unwired and could open my mouth again, I suddenly had this vivid image of what it might be like to vomit with your jaw wired firmly shut. For the first time, I realized that a person could die like that and it wouldn’t be a nice way to go. I was so self-destructive and so rarely sober, that I either didn’t care if I died or I was incapable of thinking things through to their likely results.
I spent years trying to kill myself, but now, I want to live forever—long enough to see my child grow into adulthood and not need me anymore. It terrifies me to think of one of us dying right now. I am all that my son has, his only responsible parent. He is sensitive the way I was, and I feel a pressing need to arm him with my understanding and kindness until he is strong enough to handle the cruelty and meanness in this world without inflicting it on himself as a way to try to cope with it.
On the radio, I heard a report about pediatricians who are being trained to treat refugee children. They talked about a five-year-old Syrian boy who was often afraid to go outside and who cowered and hid whenever he heard sirens. His father said that sirens meant bombs to the child and no amount of reassurance from his parents could convince him there were no bombs in America. They could try to feed him the information they thought he needed to alter himself for this new environment but they could not make him believe it. Did they worry that he would stay this way forever? Or were they so happy to know he was no longer in danger of dying in the rubble of a collapsed building that they did not give more than a passing thought to his now unnecessary fear?
I’m not afraid he will love me less. I am not afraid of his judgment. I am afraid of his sorrow. I am afraid of the part of him that feels everything so intensely. He gave half of his book fair money to the only child in his class who had none, even though it was against the rules for the kids to ask for or receive money from classmates for the book fair. How torn he must have been, my boy who likes to follow rules, when faced with the sadness of one boy having nothing, while everyone else bought new things.
Maybe late at night when he can’t sleep, he will struggle to put me in a new costume of someone who is haunted and trying to destroy themselves. The effort will alter something inside of him, some little place that used to be safe from pain but is now cracked open.
The world is inhospitable and can make us want to disappear and knowing this could prepare him enough to save himself. But what if the information about my past works not as a warning but instead as a blueprint?
If the worst thing actually happens, then what? Is surviving trauma a constant settling and readjusting, an effort to accept that which is unacceptable? But how far can that go? Are there things we cannot adjust to? Or do we recalibrate for absolutely everything that can happen to us?
My ten-year-old lost his legs, but he is the same old boy in his hospital bed.
My son became an addict and hung himself in jail, but I have sweet memories.
Bombs destroyed our life but we made it to a new country so it’s okay if my kindergartner lives under his bed.
At the elementary school dance, my son and I waited in line for the photo booth. I paid the five dollars, pulled back the curtain, and sat down inside with my child. A sign said there would be three shots taken with a countdown on the screen before each flash.
Three, two, one and the shock of yellow light washing over us, exposing us, blinding us.
When I held the damp strip of photos in my hand and my kid went back to his friends on the dance floor, I stared at our faces. My son looked like the sweet boy he was at three and four and five. His face was open, his smile joyful, his eyes bright. In each shot, my expression is serious and I lean towards him with my mouth open, as if I am rushing to tell him everything he needs to know about this world. He smiles at the camera, blissfully unaware. This will be the last photograph of us when he does not yet know. The last time he poses with me, unaware of who I was in the years before he came to me with all the wonder and joy I had no right to ever hope for. I look at us in the strip of photos, certain that we will still be able to recognize each other after the telling.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.