You’re not yet seven. You don’t want to die, not exactly, but you do think of sinking to the bottom of the Bay you live on, much like your friend Bobby’s Han Solo when it breaks free of his Millennium Falcon, dropping between the slats of the dock.
Hans Solo disappears into the darkened green water. Instinctively you glance over your shoulders, back to the party, to check if the grown-ups saw. They didn’t, how could they? You’re at least one hundred feet away, at the edge of the dock, in the gathering night. But you both live with alcoholics and addicts, and you know, deep in your bones, without being able to articulate it, that the world is not logical. Nothing makes sense, of that you can be sure.
To be clear, you don’t obsess over the act of dying. You don’t have a detailed plan. Neither does your mom. When she talks about it, on those days, when the sorrow is so heavy she can barely get out of bed, she states, like an indisputable truth,
“It would be nice to die.”
She doesn’t want to kill herself. She only wants to escape, and she can’t figure out any other way.
Escape sounds appealing. You’re young and already stretched tight with anxiety from the chaos and the possibility of pain. No one ever hits you, not really, not with a closed fist, not hard enough to break anything. Instead, your still-forming boundaries are crossed, regularly, with moves meant to break more than bones: ones meant to break your soul. Careful, deniable and sometimes barely detectable actions that teach you, before you even know how to speak, that your body is not your own.
Escape appears fantastical. You know that this family, your family is not safe. But you don’t yet know that other families are safe, that safety exists.
“Every family is dysfunctional.”
You believe the truth of your mother’s statement, and the implication that your family was only “dysfunctional,” until you co-create a family of your own. You’re not perfect, but your kids don’t imagine their own funerals and how everyone, “will be really sorry then.” And even if they did imagine it, they don’t imagine it like a fairytale, like a happy ending, the elegant mourners gathered, heads bowed, saying things like,
“She was such a wonderful kid. I never told her I loved her. I’ll never ever forgive myself.”
“I shouldn’t have called her a little bitch and thrown her Rubik’s cube at a window when I couldn’t solve it. I scared her and I never meant to scare her.”
“I shouldn’t have poured a beer over her head and laughed and laughed when she cried. Honestly, I should have laughed at her less. It wasn’t funny. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
You are ten. You are at your brother Michael’s funeral, dead at twenty-six from a hiking accident. The assorted mourners; your parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends follow your mom’s lead. She is New Age, weird and some people (your father, your brothers, almost every man you know) whisper audibly that she is “crazy,” so instead of a traditional funeral you celebrate his life in a park, hold hands in a circle and scatter his ashes around his Little League Baseball Diamond.
No casket, no suits, no palpable tinge of mourning.
It is August in Southern California, and the smog smudged sky is predictably sunny. You wear a pastel sundress, hold your mother’s hand and sob uncontrollably. Your mom squeezes your hand, holds you, tries her best to comfort you. Later that night, when you balk at your cousin’s plan to sneak out her window to meet boys and drink beers, she informs you,
“God, you’ve been sad long enough. Get over it.”
At the service, the family reminisces, each person telling a story about him. The stories are, without exception, tinged with humor. Michael chuckled, cracked jokes, and expertly kept the focus off himself. He hid in his room buried in mess and baseball minutiae, quietly wrestling his own desire to escape by any means necessary. So much goes unspoken: the abuse he too suffered at the hands of your eldest brother, the relief that he hadn’t been suicidal for years and that the family could reliably believe that this was an accident.
When Michael went off to college, he made friends and excavated pieces of himself. He appeared to uncover what you always loved about him. His brilliance, his unflagging kindness, his ability to hunker down until the worst was over and of course, his gift of laughter.
When a young person dies it always feels tragic. A life cut short. So much promise, all the cliches feel true and poignant.
But with Michael’s death, you’re hit harder than that, knocked on your ass. You’d watched him escape through success. And then, he died.
You listen to their stories, their laughter. The funny things Michael did. His obsession with baseball, with statistics.
“What a nerd. I wonder if he ever even talked to a girl.”
“He probably died a virgin.”
“Probably. What a fucking waste!”
They say it “lovingly,” because in your family, nothing is worse than being awkward, drawing attention to your weakness. Charm and good looks rule. Don’t color outside the lines, stay beautiful, stay thin and please make it look effortless.
There was no contrition, no regret for how they treated him. No mention of the last time you were all together, the teasing, the verbal jabs, that ended, for the first time, in Michael fighting back, throwing your eldest brother against a wall, spitting out the words,
“I’m going to be a lawyer, I’m going to be rich and what are you going to have? Nothing. Nothing. You’re a criminal, a fucking criminal. You’re gonna beg me to hire you as my chauffeur.”
Oh, how you wanted that dream to come true. You could almost feel the plush interior, the A/C blasting on your faces, the upper hand finally yours.
Instead, Michael dies. And no one mentions this story at his funeral. No one mentions his rage. How he was bullied, abused, both physically and emotionally. Instead, more cliches, the erasing kind,
“He’s in a better place.”
“God must have needed another angel.”
And now, death no longer looks like escape, at least not the kind you’re looking for, not anymore.
Escape masquerades as success. Accomplishments and “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Your way out is money, the more, the better. If Michael can’t hire your abusers as chauffeurs, you can. You’ll own them. You will relish the feel of their necks under your boot. It’s time they begged you for mercy.
But how? You’re eleven and twelve and not a precocious child genius or budding movie star, so your money cannot be made today, though you beg your mom to let you pursue modeling and acting. It is the only way you can imagine for someone your age to make bank. And she replies,
“You can become an actress when you’re eighteen, not now. It’s not the right place for children.”
She’s not wrong but this house is not the right place for children either and yet, here you are day after day. You content yourself, not for the first time, with compromise. You commit yourself to gymnastics. To school. To perfection. The constant pressure to prove yourself is the fire under you. It keeps you hot, almost boiling, it keeps you moving.
And then the unexpected happens, you and your mom move, leaving your father and brothers behind. You hit the road for Colorado with the one person who’s always believed you and all those men are, for the first time, in your rearview. It’s just the two of you. You feel the safest you have in your life. No one throws anything. Or moves crates of drugs through your house. Or gets drunk, or in fact, drinks alcohol at all.
Have you escaped? At the age of fourteen, are you free?
The answer is a resounding no. Even though you meditate daily, even hourly, on forgiveness, on letting go and moving on using The Course in Miracles as a guide, you are decidedly bound, first by your family and more insidiously by your thoughts.
“Why are you so angry?” Your father always wondered. Your brothers too.
“Such a spoiled little brat.” Would explain it to them sometimes.
And you endeavor to make that explanation work for you.
“I have so much, why can’t I be happy? What is wrong with me?
Escape feels like rage, filling your body without warning.
You cannot run enough miles to make it disappear though you try, the Rocky Mountains keeping your company, the pound of your feet on the trail reminding you of your choices. There is always running.
You like to run to the verge of collapse. It’s ideal if your clothes are soaked with sweat. You love trail running, your shoes crunching under you. Navigating pine trees, boulders, whatever nature throws at you: deer, squirrels and one time a baby bear that freezes you in place as its mother beckons her cub with a growl of impatience.
You imagine that you can outrun anyone, in any terrain. This feels essential.
Escape is escape, but you are clever enough to call it by other names.
Knowledge. Information and facts, to fashion walls between you and the pain.
Creativity. Burying yourself in characters you play or lives you invent with words.
Denial. The kind you feed to yourself on a slow, toxic drip.
“Maybe it wasn’t that bad.”
“Other people have it worse, stop complaining,”
“Your brothers don’t even care about you. Stop being so self-centered. You are nothing, an afterthought, of little consequence.”
If you could, you would whisper in her ear, at seventeen, at twenty- two, “Believe yourself.”
But you can’t do that, she has to find her own way.
Escape is hope. Believing in clean slates and hoping that the past can be wiped away and leave no discernible mark.
You meet a boy. You like him. He likes you back. He is a decent person and loves you. You are both scarred from loss. You see yourselves in each other and are not repelled, and so you pull one another closer, instead of pushing away. This feels both so unlike you and perfectly natural.
You don’t want to change each other. You are besotted with each other. When you get a virulent case of food poisoning a couple of months in, he holds your hair and drives you to the ER. He doesn’t take advantage of your weakness. He is not disgusted by your need. Instead, he moves into the space made available by the chink in your armor and stays. And the biggest miracle of all, you let him.
You build a life together. You are reminded as you stack brick upon brick of your new reality of all the times you were told, “No man will ever love you. Not ever.”
As the months of your life together become years, you consider that they might have been wrong.
Being a mother floods you with feelings, looking at their chubby little cheeks, their undisputable innocence. You want more than anything to keep them safe. Whole. Unbroken.
You never say it out loud but the truth of it drums in your ears, you cannot leave your child alone with your father, with your brothers, with your cousins. Not once. Not ever.
And yet, in the wee hours as you nurse your child to sleep, drunk from exhaustion, hormones and that bewitching baby smell you tell yourself, “Maybe those things didn’t happen to me. No one could really do those things to a child like this. Maybe I’m making it up. Please. Please, let that be it.”
You look at their faces, those faces, and choose to believe a lie.
Escape feels like more denial.
Like a box, tightly taped shut, on the top shelf of your closet.
You hold your children close. Bury yourself in their needs and safety. You are content. You are happy even, being this anonymous woman of no consequence, being your boys’ mom. You fit in. You are no longer beaten down, but fertile and flourishing.
Funny thing is, when a letter from your first abuser appears unexpectedly, your carefully constructed happiness evaporates. Rage, your old friend, rushes in to provide you succor. First off, you want to blow up the mailbox that delivered his letter to you. And then him. And because of your hard-won maturity you do not fantasize about murdering him, you only wish him dead.
You scream when you’re out hiking (no more running for your knees), “This motherfucker. How dare he? Doesn’t he know better?”
He does. But he doesn’t care. He never did.
You’re so tired of being on the run emotionally. You hacked him out of your life, but you are still at his mercy. Your boot was meant to be on his neck, so why are you the one who can’t breathe?
You go to a recovery meeting. You try to enter through the front door. It’s locked. You consider walking back to your car and crying there. Instead, you circle the building and realize everyone is entering through the back, like they have something to hide.
You barely notice, but yes, the crappy folding chairs are assembled in a shape reminiscent of an oval. You take a seat and try to breathe with mixed results. You weep and rage, you use every last second of your three minutes. You are not one of those newcomers, quietly observing, unsure if they belong. You don’t care if you belong, you want someone to listen. You want someone, anyone, to understand how much you hurt.
You beg anyone who might be listening.
“Please, please make the pain stop.”
You keep coming back. You hear your story through the words of others. One of your superpowers, your compassion, grows and morphs. You begin to do the most revolutionary of actions: manifest compassion for yourself.
You listen to The Gifts in a meeting and one line outlines a way forward,
“With dignity we will stand for ourselves, but not against our fellows.”
You can love yourself even if it feels like most of your family never has. You’re not in charge of how they feel about you. Your life is yours.
Sitting in rooms surrounded by people “you may not like” but you will love, witnessing their transformations, you realize that together, you are alchemizing your trauma.
Escape is acceptance. You are here. Every time you tell your truth, you crack open a little more and the cracks do, in fact, let the light in. Sometimes when you meet someone new you recognize those fissures and welcome each other into your hearts. You have a rich network of friends who value your vulnerability and honesty.
You live life each day, not forever doom casting the future. You start to believe that, just maybe, the other shoe isn’t going to drop, at least not right now. You learn to set boundaries, to realize that you have value even if you are not grinding yourself down to dust.
You matter. Your voice, that you lift above your lifelong habit of self-loathing, means something.
You are not only a warrior. You are not just your trauma. You are not only a survivor.
You are more than the sum of your parts. You are more than unbroken or whole.
And, now, you finally understand.
There is no escape. Not from yourself. And you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen
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.