From the Archives: Voices on Addiction: None of This Is Bullshit
This was originally published at The Rumpus on November 17, 2020.
I Was on That Bullshit
June 10, 1998, I decided my father had abandoned me for the last time. My father didn’t attend my high school graduation and as far as I was concerned, he could fuck off forever.
That morning, I sat up front in the first two rows of graduates, a sea of purple caps with gold tassels. When my name was called, I walked across the stage and strained my eyes beyond the seats to find my family. I saw my Jama first, her wheelchair a great marker for finding everyone else. My mother, my sisters, my aunt, my cousins, and my uncle—my father’s brother. No sign of my father.
I went through the rest of the day feeling excited and proud but distracted, my father’s absence a sharp, jagged hangnail that snagged every moment of celebration. Fuck him. Forever.
I ignored my father for three hundred and eighty-seven days.
My Mama Was on That Bullshit
The summer of 1999, my mother asked me to drive my father to his court date. I didn’t want to do it and didn’t know why she was even getting involved, but whatever.
Navigating the afternoon of my father’s court date involved a special brand of mental gymnastics. I would look at and listen to and respond to everything and anything but him. I pulled up to the house my father lived in—a dingy white, wooden four-square house with a large porch that sat back from the street in a neighborhood some called “The Zone,” a shorthand for ‘The Twilight Zone.” I couldn’t help but watch him walk toward the car.
He looked terrible. Thin in the arms and shoulders and face, his stomach distended like he was six months pregnant, his eyes yellow and sunken. As he struggled down the cement steps of the rooming house, I struggled to find sympathy.
My father, looking a fucking mess, was probably just more drunk than I’d ever seen him, coming down off some week-long bender where he hadn’t eaten or drank any water. It had been a year since my graduation no-show, and in that run-down place he chose to live, it was no wonder he looked like shit.
Once we got to the courthouse, my mother asked me to come in with them. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t know why she bothered. My mother is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. The way she carried our family through all my father’s bullshit inspires me to push through when times are tough and has taught me to make sense of things when faced with chaos and uncertainty. That morning, I was confused. My mother had been so invested in finding her own happiness—seeing someone else, buying a new house—yet, here she was, once again, playing supportive wife.
During the hearing, my mother commented on how disoriented my father seemed, her face creased with concern. I shrugged. As my mother listened to my father, I listened to the judge. Apparently, my father had failed to appear for some other court date after a drunk driving arrest a couple months prior. He’d hit a light post and a parked car that had children in it. Because he was a repeat DWI/DUI offender, he was looking at jail time.
I knew it. Same bullshit.
I slid out of the gallery and walked into the hall. Standing firmly in my self-righteousness, I reasoned cutting him off had saved me, I was better for it, even. I wanted my mother to do the same. Be done. Cut the bullshit. I wanted her to be the strong woman I knew her to be. I wanted her to remember who the fuck she was.
My mother, worried and flustered, pushed open the court room door and found me in the hall.
“They’re calling an ambulance for your father. We need to meet him at the hospital.”
Doctors Be on That Bullshit
The doctor stood at the foot of my father’s hospital bed. I stood in the corner. My mother sat bedside. The doctor explained my father’s appearance—the bloated belly, the jaundice—and his demeanor—fatigue, disorientation—pointed to ascites, a common companion to liver disease, or cirrhosis, which affects alcoholics.
“Are you a heavy drinker, Mr. Wilson?” the doctor asked.
My father’s eyes rolled from the doctor to my mother, then to me.
My mother answered for my father. “He’s an alcoholic.”
“Recovered? Trying to quit?” the doctor pressed.
My father closed his eyes. “Trying to quit,” he said.
“I see,” the doctor said. He shook his head and whistled through his thin lips. “You’re going to have to try harder if you want to stick around.”
But then, the doctor looked at me and my mother, his tone changing. He launched into an explanation of alcoholism as a disease, pressing upon my father’s helplessness, his sickness, his need.
I had heard it all before. The Al-Anon and Alateen meetings my mother took me and my sister to as kids explained alcoholism the same way. I remember reading and rereading What’s “Drunk,” Mama?. I remember wishing it had more pictures. I remember wishing the pictures it did have weren’t sadly sketched drawings with squiggly lines and no colors. I remember wishing it didn’t use the word “sick” to mean arguing all the time, sleeping a lot, and breaking promises when I knew sick meant sneezing and coughing and sore throats.
Standing in the corner, I was that little girl again, rereading that same paragraph: “I guess Daddy is sick. He’s always drinking. Something is wrong with Mama, too! Mama is always crying or mad. It’s hard to understand. It mixes me up.” There were no pictures on that page. Only words. Sick, drinking, wrong, mad, cry, bad, wrong, angry.
Is being angry being sick, too?
Am I sick, too?
I looked around the room. My father’s eyes watered with apology. My mother’s jaw was tight with disappointment. The doctor glanced around at the three of us. He was the professional. He was supposed to have some answers. He offered none. Instead, he set a bomb of bullshit blame in the center of the room.
“If your father had been left alone for a few more days, he wouldn’t have made it,” he said holding his clipboard to his chest. Then he left without telling us how to get well.
Blackouts Are That Bullshit
In September 1998, I got blackout drunk for the first time. Even though I drank when sneaking into clubs—my older sister’s ID my passport to adventures in Bacardi Limón and Sprite, vodka-cranberry, and Captain and Coke—I had never blacked out, never drank so much I couldn’t remember the night. But the weekend after my eighteenth birthday, my mother, and the man she was seeing at the time, took me out for what was to be a grown-up evening of Milwaukee night life.
It began with a dinner cruise on the river. My mother, who didn’t know I was already regularly drinking with friends, told the bartender on the Edelweiss boat I was celebrating my twenty-first birthday. Because I was with two parental types, the cute bartender didn’t hesitate to keep my cup overflowing with a variety of cocktails. I don’t remember what we had for dinner or what the night felt like exactly, but I can imagine a cool breeze, the lights of riverfront bars and office buildings reflecting in the ink-black water mirroring the blanket of night overhead. I think there was dancing, the bartender snapping and twirling behind the bar each time I got a refill.
After the dinner cruise, we went to 1000 East, on Milwaukee’s east side. It was here I had Kamikaze shots, the bartender tall with broad shoulders and a small afro. We left the bar, and I remember flowers, a kaleidoscope of colors, red and blue and green and yellow. The window down, the air felt so good, everything felt so good.
My next memory is being carried down the stairs to my room in the basement. After yanking my shirt off and peeling my skirt down my thighs, I collapsed on the bed. The next day, my mother said I had started undressing before her friend left the room. She said he called out to her to come help me as he stumbled out of the room and flipped the light off so he wouldn’t see anything. I spent most of the morning vomiting and trying to cobble together pieces of the night based on what my mother told me. Even though the bartender from the Edelweiss had left a message on the house phone, singing happy birthday with a show-tune flair and telling me how I’m a beautiful person and a dancing queen, I still couldn’t remember his face or his voice or his lips—my mother said he planted several kisses on my cheeks. “Your little gay boyfriend,” she called him, “couldn’t get enough of you!”
I smiled through the telling. I pictured myself—the confident, carefree me I knew I became when I drank—dancing and flirting and throwing my head back in laughter. I told my mother I didn’t remember much that happened that night, but I did remember how I felt. Good.
My mother made a face. “I bet you don’t feel good now,” she said. Her plan had been to make the moment teachable, to get me so drunk I’d get sick, so sick I wouldn’t want to drink again.
She didn’t know I was already drinking, that I had found a friend in the swirling, swaying, swimming delight of intoxication earlier than she could’ve ever imagined. She wanted to know if I’d be drinking like that again. “I know you miserable,” she said, obviously anticipating an answer that might be pledge, a response that might be promise, to never drink like that again.
“I had a blast last night.” I said. Through the blur of music and colors, winks and smiles, new people and places, I knew that at no point in the spin of lights and sounds and touch had I been sad. I knew I hadn’t thought about my promise-breaking father, nor had I felt the guilt of refusing to talk to him or see him. I knew I hadn’t thought about my boyfriend’s confusion when I dumped him for reasons I couldn’t put into words, nor had I acknowledged the increasing demands of caregiving as my grandmother’s stroke recovery stalled. I knew I hadn’t thought about the challenges of my first semester as a college student, all the white students looking at me in class but ignoring me on campus, the anvil of lust and confusion and need that hovered over my head with each visit to the Black Student Union lounge where beautiful, smart, confident women with smoldering molasses skin and their own apartments talked about pledging and midterms and internships while smiling at me and asking me about my major.
That night solidified what I knew to be true. Drinking to forget was a thing. Drinking to feel better worked. And drinking until the night blacked out meant I thought about nothing, feared nothing, needed nothing, and remembered nothing.
Drinking Culture Is That Bullshit
Ignoring my father through the summer of 1998 was easy and forgetting about him and my pain through my first blackout and my first semester of college was a breeze. Focused and determined to be better than my father, to be stronger than my mother, you couldn’t tell me shit.
Taking my father to his court date, seeing him sick, and knowing he almost died threatened to break that focus, that resolve. I didn’t want my father dead. I didn’t hate him as much as I blamed and judged him for being broken, for breaking our family. Recovered but still in custody of the court, I visited him at the hospital. Relief, shame, and guilt wrestled in my belly. In his hospital bed, thin and exhausted, he made promises like always—to be better, to stop drinking.
I wanted to believe him but didn’t know if I could. I wanted to forgive him but feared being hurt again. I shook that shit off though, and I remembered who the fuck I was.
I wouldn’t let myself get hurt again. This was his battle, not mine. He was on his way to jail to do his time, to pay for his recklessness. If my father made a change, great. If he didn’t, it meant he was weak, not me. It meant he was sick, not me.
I was fine. No one and nothing could hurt me.
I am not that little girl or that awkward teenager. I am a grown woman. I keep a bottle of Bacardi Limón in the freezer. I am in college. I am in control. I go to classes where no one speaks to me, but I’m here to learn, not make friends. I study and study but this shit still doesn’t make sense. I keep a bottle of Southern Comfort on top of the fridge. I hang out in the Black Student Union. I keep my crushes to myself. Adding vodka to wine coolers makes them taste better. I spend time with my grandmothers—caregiving for my Jama who never fully recovered from her stroke, loving up on my Granny who’s going to die soon. I mix Peach Schnapps in my orange juice to go with my breakfast. I check in on my sisters, but they’re not like I remember, or maybe it’s me. It’s never about me. Everybody else is changing. Everything is different. I stop mixing my Bacardi with Sprite. I tell my friends stories—entertaining, salacious stories that are a perfect mix of truth and lies. I go on dates like I’m supposed to. Red wine makes me feel sophisticated. I dance until I sweat because it makes me feel free. Rum punch is more refreshing than water. I have sex like I’m supposed to. I drink the last of his drink while he sleeps. I commit to nothing. I ask for nothing. I expect nothing. This makes me cool. This makes me popular. College is so much fun. Life is so much fun. Wray & Nephew warms from the inside out, even in the dead of winter. I don’t need no coat. I don’t need no sleep. I don’t need anyone.
I’m fine. Nothing and no one can hurt me.
Daddy Issues Are That Bullshit
Weeks before my high school graduation, my father said to me, “if your mother’s friend is going, I’m not coming.”
My mother’s “friend,” who had been a regular feature in my life throughout much of high school and had helped with my senior-year expenses no less, told me he wouldn’t come to graduation if it meant my father wouldn’t attend. I told him he shouldn’t have to do that, but he insisted. He didn’t come to graduation but came to the graduation party at the house when it was clear my father would be a no-show.
I tried to make light of it all, my father’s absence at graduation and the party, but it hurt me. I wanted him there. I wanted him to be there for me, to celebrate with me.
But it wasn’t about me, and maybe it never was and never would be.
The first couple times my parents separated, seeing my father was always hit or miss. He would make plans with me and my sister, fun shit like car shows and movie dates, trips to the Lake front or the park—he was still driving then—only to cancel them when he extended the invitation to our mother, and she declined. I remember the punch of those cancellations, right in the center of me, the anger and disappointment, thinking he missed us, he wanted to see us, only to be proved wrong by his drunken call thirty minutes after he was supposed to pick us up, or worse, his no-call/no-show.
Forget all that, though. I’ve dealt with all that. My father’s no-calls/no-shows were in the past. My graduation heartbreak was in the past, my father’s near-death experience was in the past. Ignoring him was childish and weak. I was better than that. Stronger and more in control, I knew how to manage my interactions with my father in a way that wouldn’t get me hurt.
While he served time in Milwaukee County House of Corrections, I wrote him letters—mostly encouraging him to stay positive, reminding him of good times, and sharing a few details about my life. I wrote him two or three times before he finally wrote me back.
April 18, 2000
Just a few lines to let you know that I’m doing fine. I’m sorry that I forgot to answer your letter. But I thought I wrote you last.
I hope that you got the apartment you wanted. I know you will make it out there on your own. Then mom can rent me your room (smile). Tell her that. She will get a kick out of that. I would be with her any way I can.
I am really going to make a big change for myself and you girls. I am really learning the meaning of missing you. I’m sorry for the lost time. I knew we can’t make it up, but we can try to love and trust each other again. Well, kiss everyone for me & put in a few words to mom.
Send me another picture of yourself. That last one of you and your sister was too dark.
I answered the letter, sent more pictures, but after his last reply I didn’t write back again.
June 1, 2000
I hope this letter will find you doing fine. Just a few lines to let you know that I am doing fine.
I was glad to receive your letter. You always make me feel good. Well, I have three more months to go. I hope I will be able to find me a good job, so I can help my family in the future.
I hope that things can be worked out between me & ma. It’s been a long time and I am ready to start being the man I know I can be.
I know you will make it in school. You always find a way. You are very lucky to have a mother like you do. All three of you girls mean the world to me. I know you find it hard to believe at times. But I need and love you very much.
That was a very nice camping trip. Are you sure I didn’t catch a fish? “smile.”
Well, kiss your sister and mama for me. Let them know that I really care. I don’t know about your big sister, but I guess she will come around sooner or lately. I also love her deeply and wish the best for her.
Tell your mother that she is getting a little slow in answering my letters. Tell her to give up some of the pictures, like now.
Something about the letters sounded like a song I’d heard before, reminded me of a book I’d read. Same old promises, same old, “Is your mama coming? Put your mama on the phone.”
I saw what I wanted to see. I saw “I’ll be there for you, if your mama is there for me.”
I refused to be moved, and that is not how you spell my name.
Mommy Issues Are That Bullshit
My mother tells me a story about a dude she knew when she was in her twenties. They called him Harry Hippie and his mission was “to get people wasted.” He wore a military-style coat and came through parties with a fringed satchel bag full of drugs and “equipment.” One time, he brought out a retooled gas mask for smoking weed, something like a wearable bong that engulfed your face in smoke. My mother admits to trying a few things, but she quickly follows with anecdotes about how she “doesn’t like” particular types of highs and how she never got addicted to anything because she’s always had a strong mind.
My mother quit smoking cold turkey every time she got pregnant and quit for good when carrying my younger sister. My mother was especially careful about us never seeing her drunk. I knew my mother drank, but her drinking was different than my father’s. My mother’s drinking was about fun. My mother’s drinking never ostracized or demeaned her. My mother’s drinking never meant destruction. I remember my mother giggly and loving. I remember my mother dancing. When I remember my father’s drinking, I remember terrifying car rides where he would drift in the lane and clip boulevard partitions. I remember him passed out and drooling. I remember him stabbing at furniture and throwing things. I remember him yelling. I remember him leaving.
I know this is selective memory, but it feels entirely true. Where my father’s drinking was about weakness, my mother’s drinking was about strength, about control.
I wanted my drinking to be like my mother’s drinking and not my father’s. The times my drinking led to anger, to sadness, to hurting people and hurting myself, I descended into a shame like I’d never felt. Most times, blackouts hid the most painful parts, but the shame was always the same. Another morning of weak-ass apologies and bottomless guilt. Then, hair of the dog to stop the pounding in my head, to steady the churning in my belly, to make anecdotes of the recklessness, to make fun of the loss of control.
I remember my mother and father arguing once. My father denied saying some hurtful things to my mother, and she pressed him. He finally said if he did say those things, he didn’t remember and didn’t mean it. My mother wouldn’t accept it, didn’t accept it. A drunk mind speaks a sober heart, but most importantly, my mother pointed out that she drinks and had been drunk before, but she can remember what she does and what she says. My mother has always been strong in mind.
I never told my mother how much I drank. I never shared with her how often I blacked out, how often I woke up wrapped in shame. Part of me figured she wouldn’t understand, but mostly, I knew this was my problem and not hers. She was strong, and I was being weak. I had to be stronger in mind.
Therapy Is That Bullshit
Every time I see my therapist, I expect to come out of our session fixed. I talk about my father. I talk about my mother. I talk about myself. She asks questions I have difficulty answering because they push me to think about experiences, my family, and myself in ways that go beyond broken or fixed, weak or strong, good or bad. I answer, “I don’t know” a lot. When I do share something, it feels like whining, like brooding, like bullshit.
I tell her this. That it’s all bullshit.
But she makes me share it anyway, and for the first time in my life, I’m talking about it instead of drinking about it. I’m finding a softness, a stretch and bend, a vulnerability in the narratives and beliefs I thought were as solid and necessary as bones. But there is flesh here. And muscle. And skin. And hearts that need and scream and harm but also give and whisper and comfort. I’m learning my father is more than one thing, my mother is more than one thing, I am more than one thing, we are all more than one thing.
We are flawed and perfect. We are the light after the blackout. We are all doing the best we can, and now have the chance to be better.
Rumpus original art by Isis Davis-Marks.
Author’s note: names have been changed to protect identities.
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.