My sister, who is indisputably the best cook in the family, once whipped up chicken Marsala from only what was already in her fridge. I was impressed by this feat, and by how good it tasted with the wine we had opened earlier that afternoon. So, months later when I stopped at the supermarket on the way home from work, I was pleased to see that some innovative Raley’s employee had gathered together ingredients for several “make it fast” dinners. Chicken Marsala was one. My menu repertoire is sadly repetitive even when I have plenty of spare time, and because I had just returned to work, I didn’t even have that going for me. I was smug checking out at the register, thinking how surprised my husband would be: A new dish on a weeknight! I’m the best! He was always an appreciative eater. We had an old joke that when he came to fix my roof, I fed him, and he stayed.
As it turned out, though, it was he who would surprise me that evening.
I unloaded the grocery bags onto the counter and pulled a bottle of wine out of the fridge. I could hear my husband upstairs and wondered why he hadn’t come down. He must have heard me banging around. I thought maybe he was just out of the shower since I heard drawers opening and closing. I poured a glass of chardonnay. I started to unpack the groceries. He still didn’t come downstairs or even call out “hello.” Foreboding started to creep into the corners of my mind, a knot forming in my belly.
That day in the kitchen with my sister, she had looked through her fridge, calling out the food inside. When she got to mushrooms, she said, “I know! Chicken Marsala! I even have sherry.” I was looking out the sliding glass doors at her late summer lawn. She lived in South Carolina then and it was hot and humid, but the light had started to fade, and I’d almost felt like going out to test the air. I didn’t. It was too comfortable in her air-conditioned house. It had felt good to be fed, to be mothered. She always seemed happy in the kitchen, like she actually enjoyed cooking, while I usually just found it a big bother. As I sat there, I thought of my husband back home in California and hoped he wasn’t just eating frozen pizzas while I was away, that he was taking care of himself.
I left the ingredients half unpacked and went to look around the living room. What was I even looking for? Blinds drawn would be one clue. Sweat rings of beer bottles on the table. All clear. I started up the stairs and heard the creak of the mattress. When I walked into the bedroom, he was in bed, at 7 p.m., and there were other signs as well. A porn DVD case open on the dresser. Mirrors taken from throughout the house propped up against the walls. His cell phone set on a recording stand. He was lying too still, especially since I’d just heard him moving around moments before. Playing possum, we used to call it when I was growing up. But this wasn’t a game. My mouth went dry. I felt the knowledge roil in my gut—after six years of sobriety, he was using meth again. The square of carpet he’d cut and then visibly nailed back into place while I’d been away suddenly shifted into context. Of course. Hadn’t I felt a tremor when I had first seen that? Hadn’t his explanation, that he was fixing a creak in the floorboards, sounded a little too strange?
In addition to being a great cook, my sister is the mother of a son who struggled with addiction, a struggle he eventually lost. When I became aware my husband was an addict, a fact I had been blissfully oblivious to when we married, I turned to her. She consoled, listened, sent books, gave ideas, but pain—like love—pierces the heart’s core. There’s nothing to do but face it and let it rip you apart. My sister had survived the loss of her son, somehow. She had done that. I thought about that many, many times over the months after my husband’s relapse. I can’t imagine any more searing, devastating loss than the death of your own child. But she had borne it. No two persons’ pain is comparable, but I thought more than once, if she could survive that, I can survive this. Somehow, that scale was helpful.
“I know you’re not sleeping.”
I looked at what he had been recording on his phone: his own mini-porn, starring himself, even though he was too high to stand, drool on his face, hands busy, trying, trying to get a rise. I wanted to scream, to throw up, to hit him, to burn the entire fucking house to the ground. How could he do this again? The last time I had come home to find him meth-deranged was right before our son went off to college, the staggering hidden debt of his addiction hitting at the same time as the equally staggering cost of the University of California system. He promised it would never happen again. He promised that every time, and every time I chose to believe him. Every time, I threw myself into the rebuilding. Settling the debts, seeking counseling, trying to trust again and to forgive, forgive, forgive. I knew what I’d find in the drawers I’d heard closing when I was in the kitchen. I knew what was under the piles of clothes on the dresser.
“I know you’re not sleeping.”
He mumbled that he was asleep, that we’d talk in the morning.
I pulled up the blackout blinds and a feeble light slanted across the room. He sat up, eyes not corresponding correctly, pinwheeling, looking toward me but unseeing. For what seemed like the millionth time we went through our tango of accusation and denial, of screaming and tears, of the unanswerable question: Why? It climaxed, as it always did, with me kicking him out of the house. I told myself this was the last time. I always told myself that. But this time, it actually was over. In just nine months, we would be legally divorced.
In the weeks that followed that final incident, when he’d sobered up enough to come over for clothes and personal items, I made him watch the video on his phone. I wanted him to face what he looked like when he was high on meth. He could hardly stomach it. I was tired of being the only witness. I wanted him to feel it like I did, to know that sucker punch to the gut.
That night I’d come home planning to cook a surprise dinner, I’d forgotten the chicken on the counter and had to throw it out the next day. Dumping the raw ingredients of our uncooked meal in the trash made me sob. So much waste.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.
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.