Voices on Addiction: Katie Calls


Katie calls at noon on Monday.

I’m making breakfast for my two young daughters—their favorite—scrambled eggs and pancakes. They start to fight over the pink plate. Emerson goes for it, quick. Brenner begins to cry. Emerson shifts her attention to the heart-shaped plate. Brenner grabs the pink one.

I debate answering the call—our conversations are never easy. Most times, I have to piece them together, like a puzzle.

The girls start making funny faces at each other. Pancakes and eggs are falling out of their mouths, and they’re laughing hysterically.

I decide to answer. She’s upset, cursing. Her voice rises. She’s driving around the South Hills of Pittsburgh—where we grew up—calling out road names: West Liberty, Hillsdale, Belrose. Lost.

Her phone—which has been broken for six months—drops our call.

This gives me a moment to compose myself.

I’ve gotten better at piecing together these calls—her stories. The Buddhist Lama I’ve been studying with is teaching me how to navigate the anger, the judgment, the fear—hers and mine.

It’s my desire that still gets me, sneaks up on me even.

My desire for her well-being.

My desire for her sobriety.

My desire for her—us, really—to be different than we are.

The phone rings.

I answer. Ask what’s wrong.

She has another court hearing coming up, and she’s scared.

I can tell she’s using. It’s in the tone of her voice, the pace of her sentences, her word choices.

I’ve known for about a month. She’s called almost every day, fluctuating between hopelessness and rage. We usually don’t talk every day—only when she’s lost control of her using, and she’s scared.

Phone call drops.

I start to flip pancakes.

It’s been seven years of chaos—stealing, lying, sneaking, rehab, citations, police reports, crashes, court hearings, and even four months in jail.

The Lama says it doesn’t matter if I like the calls—the chaos—or not. “To be in a relationship with Katie, find something deeper than like or dislike.”

The phone rings.

She says that Child Youth Services unexpectedly stopped by her house—again—to give her another drug test. She has failed six in a row and swears she’s not using.

“They must be false positives”—the PCP, oxycodone, and pot they found in her urine.

I stop cracking the eggs into the bowl. Put the fork down.

PCP is a new one.

The last time she was this forthcoming was five years ago when she was arrested for passing out at a red light with her son in the car. The police found enough heroin to convict her of Intent to Sell.

We were all relieved; we thought some time in jail would sober her up and help her to see how destructive her addiction was—is. I naively hoped on the other side of jail would be a sister, my sister—the one I imagined I could turn to, lean on, laugh with.

Phone call drops.

Quickly, instinctively my fears and judgments race one another to the surface—she’ll die, hurt herself, someone else, end up in prison or institutionalized. And then comes the desire—wishing it, she, us—were different than we are.

Wishing we weren’t talking about her addiction once again. Her custody battle. Her court hearing.

Wishing we were talking instead about being moms, or our marriages, or our dreams.

Wishing we were planning a visit, a holiday, a celebration.

Today, I take a few breaths, look over to see my daughters snuggling on the couch watching Daniel Tiger. It’s the episode where he learns to apologize, even if it was an accident. His teacher sings, “Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then how can I help?”

Watching my daughters, I struggle to remember a time when Katie and I may have been that close. In high school, maybe, when sometimes I’d invite her to sleep over in my room, watching Lifetime movies late into the night. Or the long, extended dinners on Sunday nights, telling jokes and laughing—sometimes—with our mom. Or when she first became a mom and dressed her daughter like a little orange and yellow duck, and we went around the neighborhood trick-or-treating together.

I have to mine these memories, willfully.

Early in Katie’s addiction, soon after our mom died from opioid use, the fear obliterated everything else. It made me desperate. Raging, begging, pleading for her to stop the pain pills. To stop the heroin.

I would spend nights awake, worrying about her and her children. During the day, I’d frantically make phone calls.

I called family members—How can we help? What can we do? What should we do?

I called the hospital she was sent to after she wrecked into a semi-truck, asking her doctor to help me admit her into a rehabilitation center. He said, “Until she goes willingly, there is nothing we can do.”

I called her local police station, sharing the make, model, and plates of her car—almost begging them to arrest her if they saw her driving anywhere—with the hopes she’d sober up in jail.

I called Child Youth Services and asked them to take her two children away from her—to give them to her willing sister-in-law—to which they said they couldn’t until something happened.

I called Johnny—a man I’ve never met, who she was living with—to learn which jail she was placed in once she was charged with Intent to Sell.

I called the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to learn how I could reach her in jail.

I was told, “You need to put money on the inmate’s account and then she can call you.”

This morning, I remember what the Lama has been teaching me—to allow other people their own learning, their own cause and effects. To listen with an open heart.

He says, “Don’t misunderstand, you’ll still feel your humanity, but you’ll learn to meet it compassionately and then act skillfully to be of benefit.”

I want to respond from my heart—not my anger, my judgment, my desire.

I don’t want to give up on her. On us.

The phone rings.

She’s more agitated.

Asks what my girls are doing. “Why are they so loud?”

Says she can’t focus.

I tell her they’re around my feet in the kitchen playing with their dolls.

Asks what am I doing. “What’s that noise?”

I breathe and tell her that I’m scrambling eggs.

I don’t ask her if she’s using—this will only anger her, make her defensive. Instead, I ask what would cause a false positive for PCP and oxycodone.

She has no clue.

I deepen my breath. Three long exhalations. I feel my feet on the floor. I can hear the Buddhist Lama in my ear—open to this, too.

I pick up the fork. Start to scramble the eggs and slowly pour them into the pan, listening as they pop and wheeze in the hot butter.

My desire won’t help her. It never helped my mom. It has never helped Katie. It has never helped me. The Lama calls this suffering.

I know this suffering well.

In the next sentence, she says sometimes pot is laced with PCP.

My in.

I ask casually if maybe she and her best friend Leah recently shared a joint.

She says no, but the guys at the vape shop had her try a new flavor, and once she did they laughed and told her it was THC oil.

Phone call drops.

Breathing, I feel into my body—oh yes, desire. Is this what keeps me answering her calls?

My girls start tumbling out the front door with a wagon full of sand toys, bubbles, and jump ropes.

“My shovel!”

“No, My shovel!”

The phone rings. I grab a second shovel.

Katie’s back to talking about the drug test.

I say the THC would explain the PCP and pot, but what of the oxycodone?

Phone drops.

I set my daughters up in the shady part of the sandbox.

I google false positives and oxycodone.

I find a list of drugs—morphine, codeine, oxymorphone. I see the words, but I don’t know what they mean. Like what they do to her, where she gets them from, how many she may have taken.

The phone rings.

She’s infuriated.

She says it—life—is so unfair. Says she doesn’t know what to do.

The Lama teaches allowance.

Allowing—not resisting.

Allowing her addiction and suffering.

Allowing my reactivity and desire.

I must allow this anger, right here on the surface of my eyes, tongue, and fingertips, and remember our sleepovers, our late-night Sunday dinners, her dressing her daughter like a duck.

I think I’m learning to let go of a fantasy and open bravely to this sister, to Katie, exactly as she is. Exactly as we are.

The moments I am able, I’m reminded simply, that I love her—sober or not.

Maybe this is why I keep answering her calls. Maybe this is as genuine and as close as sisters can be.

I breathe, feel the sun, feel the tree, see my girls and finally say, ”You do know what to do. That is your addiction talking. You know the steps you need to take. I’ll be here with you. I’ll move through those steps with you, as much as I can.”

Phone call drops.

Five minutes pass, and she doesn’t call.

I slide my phone into my back pocket and watch my daughters decorate the castle they’ve made for the rolli pollis with found feathers, heart-shaped rocks, and wildflowers. Brenner accidentally knocks over Emerson’s castle. They start to fight.

I remind them of what Daniel Tiger’s teacher said earlier: “Even if it was an accident you say, I’m sorry, how can I help?”

The phone rings.

I say I’m sorry she’s struggling.

I mean this.

I say that I love her and want to help.

I mean this, too.

Phone call drops.


Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


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.

Rebecca Brenner lives in Park City, Utah, and is currently finishing her first memoir, Paper House. More from this author →