Voices on Addiction: Safety in a Blue Light
I’m five, and it’s 1964. My little sister and I are watching Saturday morning cartoons in our suburban California living room. It’s so early that the room is still darkened against the arriving day. The floor to ceiling drapes across the sliding glass door remain closed. The moving images flash colored light around the room and bounce off us. A blue hue permeates. It’s there whenever the television is on. It washes over us, a protective friend for children in need.
Traci, age three, points at the screen and says:
She wears a pink onesie with ducks all over it. I’m wearing Batman pajamas—a birthday gift from my grandmother. The high pile avocado green shag rug is soft and squishy against our butts. We sit up close to the screen like we want to crawl inside it. Without moving our eyes from the television, we pop Cap’n Crunch cereal into our mouths—dry, no milk; we don’t want to spill and get in trouble—from bowls in our laps. Elmer Fudd chases after Bugs, pointing a rifle. Daffy Duck intercedes. The three race each other back and forth across the screen. We giggle and laugh. Not too loudly; we don’t want to wake our mother. She never sleeps well, ever. She’s always sad.
We live in a subdivision in San Luis Obispo, California. All the other homes in the area look like ours. We call it the Newport house because it’s on Newport Street. A four-bedroom, single-story, ranch-style home, it has a front and back yard. It’s a safe, middle-class neighborhood. I walk to school alone. It’s the second residence we’ve live in since our parents divorced. The first one, smaller, is nearby, on a street named Vicente. We call that one the Vicente house. That’s where our parents’ last fights happened. Where we live as a family a final time before the divorce.
My mother’s voice groggily calls into the living room from her bedroom.
“Chuck, turn it down, please. I’m trying to sleep.”
I push up to my knees and turn the knob, so the volume lowers. The “beep-beep” of the Road Runner is now barely audible. We move closer to the screen, as though the blue hue magnetically pulls us toward it.
Television became my escape—my safe place. Safe from what? A ton of scary shit, to a little kid. Would my mother ever stop being sad? Would we ever stop moving from one residence to another, from town to town? Would my father show up for his scheduled visits or ghost us completely, like he’d done so many times before? Would there be enough money to feed and shelter us? Would I ever feel secure?
Twenty years later, television’s artificial blue light from my childhood returned. By then, I was a student in New York City and twenty-five years old. I was out with Carl, a good friend and using buddy, in Manhattan on a cold winter night. Our usual routine was dinner somewhere upscale with cocktails and wine, then barhopping. Booze was our fun, our lubrication, our thrill. Drugs—whatever we could get our hands on—just added to the party. This was the mid-1980s, and cocaine was readily available. That night, we had some. Of course, it wasn’t enough. It was never enough once we started snorting. When we used it all, we wanted more. Without a regular dealer (as alcohol was our usual go-to high), we decided to head to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. We knew we could score there.
My mother worked forty hours a week at the county hospital as a medical transcriber, making just enough to pay the bills. I was only seven years old, but I understood how precarious our situation was. I knew my father wasn’t paying the child support the courts had ordered. Hunched over our round kitchen table, she sat trying to reconcile the figures in her checkbook register, a blank look in her eyes, sad and defeated. I was fully aware that the life I had could vanish: the bed where I slept, the food we ate, the space we lived in, gone—just like dad.
School was a distraction from everything that worried me. Our neighborhood babysitter, Anne, lived across the street. After school, we played with the other daycare kids until our mother returned from work. Anne made us peanut butter, brown sugar, and banana sandwiches for an after-school snack. We sat with our sandwiches in front of the television, watching shows like Dark Shadows, Mister Ed, The Munsters, and The Addams Family—for me, the ultimate escapist television. I happily forgot about my unstable reality. My mother would arrive at just before 5 p.m. to pick us up. The hollows under her eyes were dark with exhaustion. I would worry again about our future.
One Saturday night, my mother threw a party. We spent all day helping clean, floor to ceiling, thorough, the way she liked it. She pulled the nice glasses and tableware from the kitchen cupboards, fancy stuff we never used. Then, she prepared finger food. Fun foods for a kid, like potato chips and onion dip, celery sticks with pimento cream cheese, black olives, deviled eggs, cubed cheese. She set up a bar with beer, wine, and booze. All dressed up in her best clothes—she wore a silk fuchsia-colored blouse, white cotton stirrup pants, mules on her feet. Her hair was done nicely, she had makeup on, she smelled of Jean Naté. She looked happy for a change.
The people who came were staff from the hospital where she worked—other medical personnel, nurses, and doctors. I remember being impressed by how sophisticated and adult they seemed, like the actors in the television shows we watched at night: I Dream of Jeannie or Get Smart. Mythic and bigger than life. Banished to our bedrooms, my sister and I listened in on the muffled laughter coming from the living room. It felt like we were inside of our favorite shows, attending a party that Samantha and Darrin threw on Bewitched. We climbed back out of bed and spied from the hallway.
The doorbell rang, and a man walked in carrying a large glass beaker. A young woman was with him. He held the beaker up over his head, there was clear liquid inside, and he told the crowd: “This is one hundred percent pure alcohol.” The living room, now full of party guests, cheered and whistled. I recognized the container, the round glass bulb with a cylindrical tube spouting upwards, from seeing one on Marcus Welby, MD. Shortly after his arrival, we were scooted off to our rooms a final time. The idea that alcohol was celebrated stuck with me. That, and the raucousness of the party, and my mother’s hangover the next morning. Adults drank booze to have fun even though it made them sick the next day. Whatever it was, I wanted to feel that way.
In the middle of Tompkins Square Park, Carl and I looked around. Trees, snow-covered grassy patches, vacant park benches, pathways that led further into the small-sized city park.
“Fuck, there’s no one here,” Carl said.
It was sometime in the early morning, 3 or 4 a.m., and the park was deserted. Usually, it teemed with dealers offering to sell weed, coke, or harder stuff. The cold had probably driven them inside. Wherever their insides might be—an abandoned building, a subway tunnel, somewhere offering shelter and warmth.
“Should we go into the Avenues?” I suggested, hoping we might continue our hunt.
I was excited and nervous about what we were about to do. Beyond the park, to the east, was the neighborhood everyone called the Avenues, or Alphabet City, a part of New York City known to be gang turf. Despite the neighborhood being highly unsafe for two gay white boys, we moved in that direction—down past Avenues A and B, toward C, walking along East 7th Street. I knew how out of place we looked. We’d had a late dinner at Indochine, a restaurant and bar popular with models and celebrities. We wore designer jeans, leather dress shoes, cashmere sweaters with overcoats bought on sale at Barney’s. Carl had straight, shoulder-length blond hair, and each strand was in its proper place. My also-blonde, straight hair was gelled back. We looked like an ad for Ralph Lauren. By this time of the morning, we were also quite drunk and high.
When I was eight, we left the subdivision because my mother’s wanderlust took over. Her version of the-grass-is-always-greener was the grass might be greener, and we won’t know if we don’t move there. A total decampment to a new spot on the map, a fresh experience, was her antidote to her many demons. She ran away from herself but took us with her. We lived in a single-wide trailer for a year, a tight squeeze for the three of us. We spent a summer living on a commune in Oregon. Next, she shipped us off to our grandparents for part of a school year so she could recover from two back-to-back surgeries. We finally landed at a new property on a street named Pismo (back in San Luis Obispo, where the Newport house was located) when I started junior high school. This one became known as the Pismo house. During this period, chronic pain and ongoing depression began to take their toll on my mother.
Each day, when she returned from work at 5 p.m., she made dinner, we helped wash up, then she spent the rest of the evening in her armchair, a glass of sherry and her Salem menthol cigarettes on the end table. While my sister and I watched the series of the night, shows like Hawaii Five-0, Adam-12, M*A*S*H, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and the Wonderful World of Disney, my mother drank and smoked until she passed out.
Television babysat our family—our thirteen-channel set, reception via a rooftop antenna. In addition to our nighttime viewing as a family, my sister and I watched soap operas after school: Ryan’s Hope, All My Children, As the World Turns. We got lost inside their plots of intrigue and duplicity, hanging on every racy moment until the next episode. Our “shows” helped all three of us get through.
I took my first drink during this time. I was fourteen and in the eighth grade. There was a junior high dance that I went to with the neighbor kids, a boy, Alan, my age, and his younger sister, Cindy. Before we went inside the school’s gymnasium, we stopped by Alan’s locker, where he’d stashed a six-pack of beer. Our lockers lined outdoor walkways, open to the air. We stood in the nighttime chill, laughing and giggling about this exploit. I pulled the tab on a can of Budweiser, and it foamed all over my hand. Following Alan’s lead, I chugged it down fast—we didn’t want to get caught. We tossed the empty cans over a chain-link fence down an ivy-covered hillside. After, I was tipsy, sloshed even, and energized by how we’d pulled it off without getting caught. I was hooked by all of it: the buzz from the alcohol, the camaraderie, and the thrill of defiance. It woke me up. After a childhood of feeling like I didn’t exist, I’d finally found something that made me feel alive.
Carl and I stopped walking when a man appeared from the shadows at the corner of East 7th Street and Avenue B. We waited to see what he would do. The air was electric with possibility, of risk, and the buzz of scoring more blow. He asked us what we were looking for. “Coke,” Carl said before I could answer. He told us to follow him. Outside a building, he had us wait. He stepped down into a basement apartment, reappeared a moment later, and motioned for us to follow. Fear prickled across the top of my head. The way down was dark and dank, the overhead lights off. He pushed a metal door open. My heart plunged into my throat. The craving for more overrode all else.
We entered a filthy one-room studio apartment. It was dark inside—the blue glow of a television the only source of light. I felt disoriented from the alcohol and cocaine already in my system. A disheveled woman sat in a ratty armchair. She held a glass pipe that swirled with white smoke; she passed it to us. Without thinking, I sucked the smoke into my lungs then gave the pipe to Carl. I felt an immediate, fast rush, like a cocaine high but much more potent. I didn’t know it then, but it was crack. I’d never seen nor done it before, but I never passed up free drugs.
Movement or noise drew my attention away to the front of the space. I looked closer, and a child was sitting before the television screen watching cartoons. About eight years old, a boy curled up with a blanket like it was after school, not 4 a.m. At this point, stoned on crack, I was zooming. My euphoric high trumped anything else going on. A child still up at that time of the morning? With a parent who was addicted or a drug dealer? Not my problem. We made our purchase of a half gram of coke and went on our way.
Through my teen years, the television of my childhood kept on providing me with a safe place. Instead of moving to a new city during my sophomore year of high school (when my mother decided to relocate again), I chose to live with my father and stepmother. Once I moved in with them, I quickly learned my stepmother didn’t want me there. I reminded her of what she couldn’t have—her own child—and of my mother, whom she loathed. Most of the time I lived with them through the school year, she hid in their bedroom, ignoring me. With this new level of indifference directed at me, my self-worth plummeted. It was the worst period of my long childhood. I am not worthy of receiving love—that was the message. I am simply not worthy.
After school, while my father and stepmother were at work, I sat alone before the television in their family room watching the afternoon talk shows: Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, and Phil Donahue. The new kid at school, I had few friends. I am not worthy of real friends. These talk show hosts became my friends. Plus, I loved seeing all the Hollywood stars who appeared. It seemed so glamorous and far away. This was when I first started to understand my same-sex attraction. It lurked inside me, unacknowledged, but it was there. I felt it on some level. I wanted to be the dressed-up, coiffed women I watched on TV, and I wanted to be with the handsome, virile men that made frequent appearances. I had no idea what to do with the confusion and worries over my sexuality. There was no one to turn to.
At the end of my sophomore year, I left my father’s house and returned to my mother’s. Under her roof again, with her drinking and depression escalating, I fled to my safe place. To avoid my own budding depression, and my secret gayness. At ages sixteen and seventeen, my television viewing tastes matured. I devoured every minute of Cher, and then The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (after she professionally reunited with her ex-husband). I felt at home with Cher’s personality and talent. Her larger-than-life portrayal offered me an alternate universe to my own. Her choices and her way of living gave me hope. She provided me momentary protection from my own unworthiness. I was worthy in her eyes. I just knew I was. As I was, too, in the eyes of Carol Burnett, another female who gave me hope. Thank god for their entertaining and comedic talents; they helped me make it through my high school years.
Yet, I still felt unworthy.
I am not worthy of a happy childhood.
I am not worthy of a stable home life.
I am not worthy of a mother who isn’t sad all the time.
I am not worthy of a father who loves me.
I am not worthy of love.
I am not worthy of love from a man.
I am not worthy of success.
I am not worthy of fulfillment.
Carl and I continued to use, both together and separately, until one day in the early 1990s, when he ended his life by overdosing on pills. Not even his suicide stopped me. I carried on without him. I found others to party with; some were friends, others, strangers. I continued to drink and use for another ten years. I finally got sober when I was thirty-nine. With sobriety, I learned to no longer regret what had happened to me nor the actions I took. The fifth, eighth, and ninth steps of Alcoholics Anonymous helped me reconcile those parts of my behavior and experience.
During my years of using, I did nothing so shameful as smoking crack and buying cocaine with a child in the room. My shame for this act still runs deep. Maybe I’m wrong about no regrets, after all? If I could undo it, I would. If I could go back in time and help that kid, I would. I wonder what he thought.
What I didn’t know at that time was how that little boy was me. We were one and the same. He was neglected and abandoned in the same way I was. Like him, I had a parent who abused alcohol while the family watched television. We both had parents too damaged and overwhelmed by life to care for us properly. At the same time, the boy’s parents were also me. We were no different, one from the other. I’d become everything that had hurt me.
Like it was for me, TV was that little boy’s safe place, his escape from his fucked-up reality. The memory of him watching cartoons, the blue light illuminating his face when he turned to say hello, will haunt me forever.
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.
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.