My mother rises in a red and blue double helix of flame through my body. I can feel the DNA wires of her inside me, hot, hot, grape-vining up from my big toe to my skull and going back again in a never-ending loop, her blazing colonization.
She made me. When I was one-celled, the power and rhythm of her youth and hope—life—was the force that split me in two, what doubled me over and over until I was a floating zygote in a sac-shaped tissue bag, with nary any skeleton, but with a brain and the all-important beating heart. A little seahorse, a big-headed alien. Deep eyes open, then fluttering closed for the duration like a hatchling bird’s, blue bruises under skin.
I was attached to her by the sturdy rescue rope she had let down to me from the wall of her uterus, the placenta nourishing my still visible circulatory system on her diet of uppers, downers, and roast beef. Second by second I became a fetus. Already I was creating eggs of my own that would make me another set of daughters, and inside those fetal daughters were shaping more eggs to make those girls yet another set of daughters.
Sometimes I believe I want to go back there, not just to my mother’s womb to understand what it was to me, but to the weeks my brain shaped, to the time before I was skeletal, when I was only and significantly a galaxy of cells, a morula of potential. I have a birth anomaly of the nose. Some of the cartilage never formed, but rather huddles inside the tip in a round ball. This is a known defect that can be caused by a mother’s prescription drug use. Or back to the time at the end of the first eight weeks. I want to hear the world from inside my mother. I want to feel what I felt when she swallowed yet another mind-bending drug.
Nobody checked me for drug dependence at birth—they didn’t in the 1950s—but surely I was a junkie. I slid out of my mother way too early at only four pounds. In withdrawal, I was plopped into an incubator until I could learn to properly breathe the world. I couldn’t keep food down.
I soon got to take my faulty pyloric valve home, but my mother had to tape newspapers to the walls in order to feed me, since I projectile vomited. She nourished me, I hurled the milk back out at the wall; she prepped a bottle and I gulped it before spectacularly regurgitating. Surgery was contemplated because starvation caused weight loss.
I remember hunger the way other children remember love.
Imagine being pregnant in 1953. Women could work, but only as teachers, nurses, or secretaries expected to quit as soon as they married. They were paid less, though at the supermarket, they weren’t charged less for food, and they paid the same as men to go to the dentist. Unmarried women were considered spinsters by twenty. TV was slowly working its way into more and more households, and at every commercial break, women could see the things other luckier housewives had: new pink stoves, washing machines, blenders. New brands of detergent and bars of soap. Thinking for yourself had gone right out of fashion. You could be a zombie mama all day long so long as you had the children clean and quiet and dinner on the table at 5 p.m.
When women and mothers tried to kick against the prick, they were labeled hysterics. Hysterics were big. Hysterics were loud. Hysterics shrieked. Hysterics crumpled and wept hot tears. Hysterics believed life had cheated them. Hysterics thought hubby was cheating on them. Perhaps most alarmingly, hysterics nagged. Men loathed nags. My father hung a paddle by the telephone and on it was a poem: For nice young brides, who like to nag; for naughty girls who have a fag; for sweet young kids who now are brats; for smart young wives who soon get fat; for barking dogs and the howling cat; for fighting mates who like to spat… and so on.
Doctors, men who blamed women for not adapting to their intellectually decertified lives, gave them phenobarbital to calm down and sleep, and amphetamines to rev back up. It didn’t matter what the wives thought about all this. Wives didn’t have voices: husbands reported good but not good enough results.
One day when I was barely two, when my stomach valve was fixed, I wandered away from the sandbox. My mother couldn’t find me anywhere and my brother couldn’t say where I’d gone. The whole emergency team of our small town descended to excoriate my mother and save me, but after a day hard at searching, the fire chief removed his hat, swiped his brow, and declared me dead and drowned. He advised that the family should have the pond drained to find my body.
I can imagine my body floating. I’m an infant in bloomers and I float pink ruffles up in the reeds, while above me the red-winged blackbirds shriek.
I did not drown, but the shock of this possibility, the now-public knowledge of my mother’s turpitude, led to the pond being drained—I vividly remember the heavy machinery, their noise and commotion, and the feeling that I was responsible. I had only tried to go back in the house by an unused door and gotten myself stuck behind the screen. My poor mother coped by going on a medication tear; I remember being that toddler poking her to see if she would wake.
We lived on a small acreage, a place whimsically called Merryview Farm, proclaimed as such on a sign my father made and hung till my mother, embarrassed, made him remove it. My father raised horses—hunters, jumpers, and Shetland ponies. This was very much my father’s thing, his entry into “polite society” after an impoverished youth, but my mother had to roll up her shirt sleeves too to make it work.
She was earth, soil, manure, the sliver moons of dirt under her fingernails. She was pitchfork and manure pile. She was the scratchy pink intercom on the counter listening for a mare having birth contractions. She was tenderness to foals. She was the small grooming song she sang to the Shetland ponies. She was the warmest heart I ever knew—when in rare moments I could access it. Once, she woke me at 2 a.m. to carry me in my nightgown through the dew wet night into the barn so I could watch a filly’s birth. Oh, heaven amongst all heavens. Oh, perfection. Oh, melting heart.
When I was five, my father tried to have my mother committed. There must have been a precipitating event. Whatever it was, it was bad enough that he managed to convince her that she needed to be locked away for an indeterminate time, at least three months. I remember her baffled, puzzled agreement—but am I crazy? Have I actually got bats in my belfry?
We children went across town to live with our grandparents. Dad drove Mom across the US border to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and when they arrived, my mother refused to get out of the car, so Dad went on ahead to register her.
He left the keys in the car. Straight away, Mom leaped to the driver’s side and laid rubber, leaving my father stranded ninety kilometers from home, and blasted back to her parents’ house to get us. We kids stood at the top of tall stairs behind our grandparents who insisted that Mom couldn’t have us, that it wasn’t safe. She flew up the stairs in a rage to grab us, and her father, his loyalties by then rotted, pushed her, hard. Her body rolled over and over and splatted onto the tile. Nobody ran to her, but when she pulled herself upright she was livid. She put out her hand and there was no opposition. We slid past the shields of our grandparents and went back home with Mom.
I stole chocolate chips, or baking chocolate, or rhubarb out of the fields which I cooked with sugar in the baby bottle warmer. I ate dog kibble from the yawning bag in the basement. Mom’s punishments for my unseemly hunger were generally privation-based. I was sent to bed without supper, or after just a slice of white bread dunked in water. People don’t stay cross, I’d think to myself upstairs, acutely lonely at being cut off.
Once, my father told my brother and me to strip, then turned us outside onto the porch, locking the door, leaving us naked in a blizzard of sleet needling our skin. I could hear my brother’s teeth knocking. Our mother didn’t come back. My brother fisted the door. Over and over and over and over until I joined him, two naked children pounding for their lives. When my mother shot the lock and pulled wide the door, she gave an embarrassed laugh for their forgetfulness.
At six, stress-triggered, I lost all my hair to my HLA-B27 gene variation and my undiagnosed ankylosing spondylitis. I wore baby bonnets, which targeted me at school.
One time, after I was spanked over my father’s lap, he insisted I sit naked in front of the family.
My mother told me that one evening when she came out of my brother’s bedroom after reading his bedtime story, my father brandished a rifle. She begged for her life, and for our motherless lives, sleeping soundly mere feet away, but he told her she was no good no good no good and refused to put the gun down. Finally she remembered to appeal to his vanity and told him that if he shot her, it would screw up his new white pants.
Yet, yet, there is still more to the family lore about firearms. An older friend, dead now, confided that when she was over at my grandparents’ pool, sunning and drinking, my mother showed up in her Comet with a handgun, and kept the family friend, along with my grandmother and aunt, hostage for several hours.
After a teacher told my class about spontaneous combustion, how it could alight in stacks of newspapers without a spark, I begged my parents to get rid of the stacks of Spectators and Globes which climbed past my head. My teacher had said that in rare cases, spontaneous combustion could also happen to people. Each night I fretted my mother would spontaneously combust, bursting into flame like a Hallowe’en firework, sputtering out in a black starless sky.
The years passed as the years will, with my father moving out to begin an unendingly contentious separation. All our animals were given away, sold, or slaughtered. On Sunday nights instead of roast beef, now we had Salisbury steak instant dinners on TV trays in front of Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show. Now things were a lot more relaxed.
But who am I kidding? Relaxed? With no expectations on her, my mother went to hell. Without a man, she was an ongoing threat to other marriages and despised. I sometimes had to pretend at a friend’s house that I hadn’t just said goodbye to her dad at my own house.
An addict is highly unpredictable.
I never knew which mother I’d find when I reluctantly wandered in: someone suicidal begging me to kill or stop her; someone passed out in her orange overstuffed chair, a cigarette stuck to her bottom lip, unsmoked, ash flagging like a penis; someone grabbing a jug of water to douse yet another chair fire (the gulleys were wide and black); someone full of laughter and “fun,” who binge-shopped women’s couturier fashion she couldn’t pay for or painted the kitchen cabinets brown with yellow sunflowers, who smoked pot and flirted with my brother’s friends.
She arranged her vicious circle each morning. on the leaf of the pine table before she downed them, a pinwheel fourteen inches across—so many uppers to up the downers and so many downers to down the uppers. Yet, one year, she pulled herself together to go to nursing school, where she excelled and graduated before lapsing.
My mother’s addiction deepened and she became—we all became—increasingly isolated. Adults didn’t come to our house. Mom devolved, becoming more and more disheveled, less able to yank herself back from the brink to make sense of a date or a detail.
My mother moved the couch to the lawn and installed a turquoise vinyl waterbed in the living room so she didn’t have to climb stairs to go to bed, or sleep in the room she’d shared with my father. My mother peed in the kitchen sink, in full view of anyone coming to the door. Once, when Englebert Humperdinck was playing on the quadrophonic hifi, she and my kid sister went after each other with knives.
I refused to engage. I cleaned ceaselessly because the new dog shit in the basement, holed up in my room reading, or babysat for twenty-five cents an hour. I was embarrassed to be me. Dragging myself to high school to be stared and pointed at because I was wounded, smart, and beautiful became my new perdition. I was secretly queer and not so secretly non-binary, so putting on makeup and a girdle, a bra and nylons, a menstrual pad and a belt, a skirt and a blouse—that felt like dressing a gorilla in petticoats. At night I bound my breasts to push them back in.
Nothing queer reached our Ontario town, so I fucked boys. I fell in love with dark boys who looked like butch girls—boys who were mean, good-looking, and slavish—while secretly crushing on girls.
Periodically, Mom would lurch to rageful attention, screaming after my first kiss that I was a slut, or one night when I got in a car wreck and didn’t come home at curfew, that I was a whore.
This essay hurts me. Surrendering to my memories hurts me. I keep trying to make my mom the good guy or the bad guy, but life doesn’t parse like that, the way a sentence does.
Subject: Mother. Adjective: Addicted. Verb: Scared. Object: Me.
My addicted mother scared me.
I usually only say about my childhood: It was difficult. Because it’s easier, that shorthand. It’s easier than talking about the price tags of addiction or my anger about a system that created it. My childhood made me a better, tougher person, but it also made me a trauma survivor. When I was a child, derealization was common. “Mom,” I’d say, “I’m having the it’s-not-real feeling again.”
I long to go back to hug my mother and her lost potential. She couldn’t play the game. So what? She was denied life’s goodies—and by that I mean meaningful work, and peer respect—because she was mouthy. How is that fair? How is that merit-based? Give me a person any day who’s grouchily themselves and won’t change night and day around when they get mad. Give me a WYSIWYGer.
All I see when I look back for her—now long dead from complications after a fall—is excess. Her body was the center of my known universe.
The mascara she spit into. The billow of her face powder. The Chanel of Chanel No. 5. The candle of her lipsticks in irresistible tubes. Her nail varnish and the sharp blink of its remover. Her razors. The toilet of the bathroom after her enemas. The dead animal of her makeup on her fur coat collars. The metal of her menses, the round sarcophagi of toilet paper-wrapped pads in the trash. The clean of her Dove soap. The bouquet of bedsheets hanging on the line in the drizzle and sun. The stench of the skunk who lived in our yard. The dizzy of lilacs. The sharp of sweating horses. The eye-water of manure. The sweet of cinnamon buns.
The riddle of whether or not I loved my mother. The puzzle of whether or not she loved me.
We never said.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.