In April and May, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Writing Our Lives (WOL) and its creator, Vanessa Martír.
WOL came out of Vanessa’s deep want to see stories like her own out in the world. Vanessa had always been enamored with creative nonfiction, but despite her desperate searching, she couldn’t find many by people who looked like her and came from where she came from: brown and black, poor and working class, educated and not, immigrant and second generation, LGBTQ, and all things marginalized and underrepresented. Vanessa launched WOL in NYC in the winter of 2011, and has since worked with hundreds of writers. She brought the class online in 2017.
We are proud to have Vanessa guest curate these installments of Voices on Addiction.
“Your father’s scan showed significant atrophy of the brain.” The resident paused before she started again. Dressed in blue scrubs and a white coat, she was tall and slender, her curly sandy hair pinned up high away from her face. “He will need to follow up with a neurologist.”
“What does that mean?” I looked at her name tag. Dr. Silver. I bet she’d never had to rush to the hospital with her dad after a drinking accident. I placed my balled fists on my hips, and waited for her to tell me what was wrong with my dad. Why was he so broken? And why did his broken make me feel broken, too?
Twenty-seven, a teacher, married, and mother to a one-year-old, I’d found myself once again at the emergency room. Papi was a longtime, textbook alcoholic, so by that point I had accepted my roles: enabler, hero, lost child, mascot, and scapegoat.
Papi had stumbled home drunk yet again, falling in the middle of the night in his room. It had been years since my parents shared a room. Unable to get up, he dragged himself to the living room. Mami found him on the floor beneath the entertainment center the next morning, and hopped over him as she went to Mass. Only once she was back from Church did Mami call me to help her pick Papi off the floor. I raced over with my husband, Dario. My daughter, Emma, came along in her baby carrier. We pulled Papi off the floor, dressed him, and rushed to the ER. He had fallen on his head, but I worried something was broken elsewhere.
“At his age, atrophy of the brain is to be expected,” Dr. Silver said. “But it’s significant enough to refer him to a neurologist for further tests.”
“What do you think it is?” I interrupted.
“Alzheimer’s. Dementia.” Dr. Silver replied.
“He’s an alcoholic,” I blurted out. “This has been going on my whole life. Since I was a kid.” It was the first time I’d ever said those words to a stranger.
Papi wasn’t a violent drunk. He was more like a happy drunk. He turned quiet and a deep sadness emerged when he was sober. This sadness I learned to associate with Papi as much as the small cans of Budweiser in one hand and shots of Johnny Walker Black in the other. Mami bragged to her friends about how Papi let her run things, turning in all his money to her. She cited evidence like a criminal attorney during closing arguments: Papi didn’t come home a formar escandalo or lay a hand on her, or my sister Clara and me, que Dios libre. As if hitting one of us would be the only grounds to leave Papi.
Mami insisted Papi was never home, as if this further absolved him—and her, too. The clinks of Papi’s typewriter were the only sounds that came out of him on the rare nights he was home. He wrote for El Diario De La Prensa, the largest Spanish newspaper circulated and sold in New York City. Papi also hosted an afternoon talk show on Radio WADO, from our kitchen. Papi spoke about politics, music, and literature; all the while he gave the audience the latest on sports. I wondered: Would Papi’s readers and listeners still admire him if they knew the truth? Forever invited to engagements, press conferences, sport events, and dinners, Papi felt like a stranger when he was home. I wanted him to leave. Mami, Clara, and I had long ago become a braid, and his presence only made me more aware of his absence.
I know some people who say their memories play in their mind like reels, smooth and in sequence. Mine are more like bits of film that flash in quick streaks.
Our names dissipate in the night air, but the desperation in Papi’s voice lingers. That sound would echo throughout my life for years. Lost keys or Papi’s shaky hands made coming into the building impossible. One of us, unable to block out his screams, ran to open the kitchen window facing the street. With a quick flick of the wrist, a ring of keys landed by Papi’s feet, bypassing his open hand. During the time it took him to climb the stairs and enter the apartment, my heart thumped inside my chest as I steadied myself for one of Mami’s rants.
When it came to Papi’s drinking only Mami’s feelings were considered. Clara and I never spoke about it to anyone or even each other, as if not talking about it made it untrue. It worked. Sometimes. Then pretending stops being an option. Like the times Papi walked us to our elementary school with bloodshot eyes, swaying and reeking of trago from the night before. Refusing to let him sleep it off, Mami insisted he walk Clara and me up the block to St. Agatha. My head bent, eyes on the ground, I marched beside him, telling myself stories to distract myself from feeling the heavy ropes weighing down my stomach.
On those mornings, Papi stood by the gate watching Clara and I line up in the schoolyard. Two and a half years apart and three grades between us, our classes lined up far from each other, mirroring the distance wedged by our family dysfunction. The Church rectory blocked the morning sun as we waited until our teacher met us and led us into the school building. Unwilling and unable to make friends, I let conversations swirl around me, relieved that the only questions directed my way were about the latest episode of Family Ties or the newest song by Debbie Gibson.
I turned away when Papi called towards me, using his pet name for me: Gorda. Papi looked more abuelo than papi in the crowd of young parents, having had me when he was forty-eight. His clothes, rumpled from the day before, and his short, round body made him look older. I felt hot shame wash over me, and worried I would go to hell for not loving my father enough.
Papi’s eyes always gave him away: his gaze seemed so far away when he wasn’t drunk; hung over his eyes drooped; when he drank too much, his eyes glimmered with a childlike silliness; when he was close to pass-out drunk, his eyes rolled all over his head. Papi never looked like he was in his body—instead, he looked like he wanted out.
Mami worried Papi would one day fall onto the train tracks in one of his drunken stupors. My freshman year, on the second day of December, I woke up to Mami screaming “Sangre!” I sprang out of bed as if I had been electrocuted, convinced Papi had fallen into the tracks and all that was left of him was a bloody heap of mangled limbs. With Clara on my heels, we found Mami bent over Papi, who was sprawled on the recliner, still dressed in the clothes he wore to work the day before. His shoes, coat, and gray scarf were still on. Papi eyes remained closed with his arms folded over the mound that was his belly. A knot had already formed on the side of his head and dry blood crusted over his face. Frantic, Mami shook Papi by the shoulders to awaken him. “Santooooooo,” Mami screamed his name. His eyes fluttered open for a few seconds before they shut again.
Finally awake, Papi peeled off his clothes, revealing his dress shirt covered in blood. Mami pulled him to sit up, forcing him to tell her what had happened. Papi’s words made as much sense as the babble of a toddler. He was unable to explain how he got home, what had happened, and where his wallet was; neither was there an explanation for why his winter coat looked as if it had been dragged on the ground. Clara and I circled around Papi and Mami, listening to his grunts and moans and her frenzied talk, which came in long rants or short bursts. I stared at the wall above Papi. The awards and plaques he’d received throughout his years working at El Diario did not seem to belong to the man in front of me. A pang rang through my chest and settled in my stomach. My eyes drifted to the white space between each plaque. Soon Mami’s voice dimmed, the lump that was Papi disappeared, Clara melted away, and I too began to fade.
Papi ended up going to the ER later that night. Unable to remember any details about the night, we speculated Papi was mugged or had fallen down a flight of subway stairs, and somehow managed to get home. Later, I would understand the words alcohol-induced amnesia, en bloc blackouts, and alcohol poisoning. In those words, I’d find my father and what had happened that December. Papi didn’t go to work for six weeks after that. He spent the days in his brown robe, walking around the apartment like a ghost, showering late at night and watching telenovelas on the television set above the refrigerator until the night sky grew black, then navy, and finally blue. It was then I understood Papi was depressed, and had been for a long time. I thought about how Mami blurted during her wild rants that early on in their marriage Papi threatened to throw himself out a window the mornings after long binges. The window. The alcohol. This was how my father tried to kill the hurt inside of him.
Papi swore off alcohol those six weeks, and stayed sober for a few weeks after he went back to El Diario. Mami hailed this as the miracle she prayed for. The first time Papi showed up drunk after that December, he was stumbling, sloppy, and slurring his words. His voice thick with tears, he babbled about being okay to drink wine and beer, but done with the hard stuff. At the time I thought the lie was for us, but I now know the lie was for him. Somehow, though, I felt like the liar.
Alcoholism, like any disease, has symptoms and stages, and as Papi’s alcoholism progressed so did the accidents. During my college years it was no longer Papi’s screams awakening me, but the flashes of red and blue. Papi too drunk to find his wallet to pay the cab driver and too drunk to respond when the police were called. I recall a chill in the night air, but even the cool temperature could not keep me from burning with shame as I looked to see who would be up this late to witness the spectacle my father had become. I thought about how he looked so at ease giving acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies. I’d watch in awe as he spoke to room full of people, cradling the microphone, arm wrapped around the podium, as if he was born to talk in front of others. Grinning up at him, I noted how others nodded their heads and smiled, his words having reached something inside of them. I questioned what made Papi pick up el trago in the first place. Later I’d realize it didn’t matter why he started drinking, just that he didn’t stop.
The cops agreed to let Papi go with a warning as I rushed to hand over the fare and apologized for his behavior.
“Atrophy of the brain is common with alcoholics.” Dr. Silver’s eyes filled with compassion.
Angered by her pity, I rattled off a list of Papi’s illness and symptoms. “He has neuropathy. His balance is off. He fell the other day on the train, hurt his pinky, and wasn’t even drunk. His hands shake all the time. He loses stuff and forgets a lot of things. Oh, and he has terrible insomnia, since forever. He has nightmares, too. My mother says he is pobre de espiritu, but… I don’t think my father has a poor spirit. I think he’s depressed.” I let the words tumble out of my mouth like my thoughts, all jumbled and out of order.
“I’m sorry…” Dr. Silver said. She looked at me for a long time, as if she was going to tell me something, but then looked away.
My hand to my neck, I rubbed my shoulder. A master now at leaving my body, I told myself panic does not exist in the familiar, only in the unexpected, but that was another lie. The waves of panic morphed into chronic headaches, horrible stomachaches, bouts of asthma, and muscular tension. My pain lived in my body despite my best efforts to ignore it. Desperate for her attention, I refused to let the doctor leave. “A few months ago, he slammed the car door on his forehead. His buddies shoved him in a taxi, blood gushed everywhere.” My legs shook and my teeth chattered. I rubbed my arms. “Look it up. You can find it in his charts. All the trips to the emergency room.”
“They have groups for adult children of alcoholics. Al-Anon,” she said, reaching to touch my arm.
I flinched. “I’m fine.” I shook my head and crossed my arms over my chest. “Really,” I insisted.
“You can look up a local chapter online. In case you change your mind.” She handed me a referral to see a neurologist. “I am sorry,” she looked at me one last time and walked away.
“Me too.” I was sorry. Sorry that it was too late to undo all the broken of my family, and all the broken inside me.
I looked over to Papi. Dario stood beside him, cracking jokes. The two chuckled at Dario’s jokes, and I somehow loved my husband even more for trying to make everyone laugh, especially Papi and especially right now. I looked at Dario’s thick black hair and dark eyebrows, and thought how he was nothing like my father. He was handy, preferred to stay at home, and was what Mami called fuerte de caracter, the opposite of pobre de espiritu. I thought of my baby Emma, at home with Mami, and hated the flair of jealousy that surged through me as the thought flashed through my mind that she would never know a boracho for a father.
I am forty-one now, in therapy for the second time in my life, and I finally feel ready to deal with all my splintered parts. I think about the last time I saw Papi. I poked my head into his room. The smell of Vicks Vapo-Rub rushed to my nose. I watched him sleep from the threshold of the door. His belly was smaller, like the rest of him. I sighed, relieved that he was still alive.
He’s bedridden and lost in the labyrinth of his mind. My heart fills with compassion for him. This time I do not avert my eyes. I note the bed rails, the commode, the stack of adult diapers, and the wheelchair nearby. His old notepads from his years at El Diaro were lined up like the books on my shelves at home; his old press passes still attached to the lanyard hang off the closet knobs like my collection of conference badges hang on a hook in my bedroom; the closet filled with manila envelopes jammed with old clippings of his articles like my own closet at home, crammed with old notebooks, journals, and file folders of writing. In this we are alike, Papi and I. We’ve clung to words like life-saving rafts—except Papi let go.
Sadness invades every inch of me. Instead of pushing it away or fading away, I sit with it. My stomach heaves, my heart squeezes, and my throat closes. Sadness. I feel the sadness from my childhood—Papi too drunk to open the front door of our building, Papi swaying when he walked us to school, waking up to a bloody Papi on a cold December day. Just when I think I am going to be swept away by the grief, I remember sadness is a part of me, not all of me. I wait until the grief washes over me. I know I will be sad for a few days, but it will not last. My espiritu is strong and gentle.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.
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.