Voices On Addiction: Speaking Ill of the Dead
1989 Dettingen, Germany
It’s a late summer afternoon, the sky blush and gold. The heat has left my cheeks flushed and my hair sweaty. I find my younger brother on the steps in front of our house. “Mom and Dad are fighting!” he warns me. My stomach drops, but I square my little shoulders and push open the heavy front door. My parents are in the dining room screaming at each other, breathing hard. There is a hole in the wall, which has been punctured by my mother’s beer bottle. My father has ripped a piece of wood siding off the wall. They don’t break eye contact when I come in, circling each other like animals, waiting to pounce. “What’s going on?” I ask. My voice is steady, firm, parental.
My father’s voice, hoarse from screaming, rings in my ears. “I’m going to kill your mother if she doesn’t divorce me.”
I don’t cry. I don’t run away. Calmly, without letting my parents out of sight, I go to the kitchen and pour them each a glass of sparkling water, then ask them to sit down. Through the heavy-bottomed glasses, the air bubbles sparkle over the scratched wooden table.
My parents never speak of this incident again, but the hole remains in the wall, the siding leaned up against it. We are not a family that fixes things.
I believe this is how all grown-ups fight. I believe it’s normal for 7-year-olds to calm their parents. I crack jokes, do chores, and give hugs and pep talks, because they need affirmation, affection, unconditional love, and forgiveness—even if that forgiveness is never preceded by an apology.
Our house was full of music and books, and alcohol and rage. I breathed in the dysfunction with the ever-present cigarette smoke. Marlboro Reds clouded the air, leaving a perpetual grey film settling on our skin, coating our insides, and dusting every surface. To this day, the smell of cigarettes envelops me in a familiar unease.
Magical thinking kept me safe, kept everything from exploding, collapsing, and crashing down around me. Kept the rage out of my parents’ eyes. Kept the animals pacing in their cages.
Kept me alive.
2014, Belgrade, Montana
The thud startles me out of a deep sleep. Rob stirs awake next to me. “What was that?” I whisper, my eyes wide open in the dark. My brain runs through the catalog of harmless middle-of-the-night noises: the ice maker refilling, the heater kicking on, the bathroom pipe clanging. It’s none of those.
Rob jumps out of bed in one quick and silent movement and grabs the baseball bat in the corner. I watch his outline slip through the door, ready to swing. I look around for something to use as a weapon. Before I find anything, Rob tiptoes back into the room, dragging the bat by his side. “It’s your mom. She’s in the kitchen eating donuts.”
My blind mother, the dangerous home invader, dragged her oxygen tank upstairs in search of a midnight snack. She came to visit us even though her doctor had strongly advised against it. Her COPD-weakened lungs might collapse on the plane, he warned. She might die.
My mom risked injury and death to see us, and she reminded me of that fact every chance she got.
I wasn’t spending enough time with her because I had to work. The kids were more interested in their hobbies and friends. The room she stayed in wasn’t big enough, the air too stale, the bed uncomfortable, the lack of windows depressing. A glorified closet. The visit dragged on for six long weeks.
Our relationship had always been complicated. When I was growing up, my mom frequently hosted raucous parties with her girlfriends in our backyard, debating labor unions and feminism. They had bushy armpits, laughed loudly, and didn’t wear bras. They were the opposite of Spiesser, which roughly translates to being a square or goody two shoes, working-class people who always cut their grass short and swept the sidewalk on Saturdays. Just like my mom’s parents. In contrast, our backyard was a jungle, and our sidewalk alive with weeds. My mom’s disdain for conformity meant creativity was encouraged. The stranger, the better. My mother bought me art supplies and drove me to painting and dance classes, let me rearrange my room, paint my walls, refinish my floors, allowed me to dye my hair any color, and never complained about my weird outfit choices, which generally consisted of tie-dye shirts and overalls.
My mom’s contempt for authority meant rebellion was encouraged, too. In elementary school, I watched a documentary about Gandhi to school me in the art of peaceful protest. She talked to me about white supremacy, civil disobedience, capitalism, and patriarchy. She supported me in attending anti-war protests in high school. She let me read any of her books, no matter how adult the topic was. I had no curfew.
Those freedoms only went in one direction. I wasn’t allowed to wear pink and owned zero frilly dresses. My mother gave me a hot pink T-shirt for my eighteenth birthday as a joke, and the laughter got stuck in my throat. I realized she still thought she’d done the right thing, using any of my personality traits she deemed too feminine as a cheap punchline. I’d wished for a Barbie for Christmases and birthdays, and instead got a lecture about how Barbies were a tool of the patriarchy, designed to make me feel ugly. Yet, my mother often stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom we shared, complaining about how fat she was when I was easily twenty pounds heavier than her. I smelled the hypocrisy before I could spell the word. Hearing her berate her tiny, anorexic body made me wonder how disgusting she thought I looked.
For all the freedom I had, I yearned for order, stability, and boundaries. I wanted security and safety and a mom who would braid my hair in the mornings. Instead, I got up by myself and left for school before she even woke up. There weren’t many rules, and those that did exist were inconsistently enforced until my mom had had too much and lost it over some small thing. When that happened, she would scream and call me names. She’d drink too much, sleep too much, stay home too much, or go out too much. When I was in high school, many years after our dad had moved back to the States, she left for extended stays at mental health clinics, leaving my brother and me at home alone.
Maintaining a sense of control and stability in our erratic home was impossible. I often escaped to my grandparents’ home, which was a haven of regular mealtimes, cable TV, and country music playing on the radio. I craved the orderly, quiet life my mother despised. My Opa gave me money for good grades, took me swimming every week, and taught me how to mow the lawn. But he didn’t address the fact that my mom drank too much. Nobody held her accountable.
My mother grew up angry about not fitting into the traditional culture of German small-town families. She experienced great pain struggling against the norm, never feeling fully accepted by her parents. And yet, she made sure I knew my choices were similarly disappointing to her. You look boring. You dress boring. Aside from my boring hair and boring clothes, I also had a boring life, relationship, house, and job. She liked a very specific imagined version of me—the rebel, leftist, feminist artist/writer, single mom she herself had been or wanted to be. My boring life was a subversive fuck you to my mother.
After her divorce, she was always broke. There were dead-end jobs and endless bills and always, always depression. She self-medicated with alcohol and men—one-night stands and stalking, cheating, drug-dealing boyfriends. Girlfriends were as close as sisters until some dramatic fight, after which they wouldn’t talk for years. She went blind while I was a senior in high school. Then she was diagnosed with COPD after decades of chain smoking. She became increasingly dependent on everyone around her, spending money she didn’t have on new-age treatments and healers.
Many of these things, of course, are not her fault. And yet, they all added to my mom being mostly about, well, my mom. Addressing problems between the two of us became just another thing she had to deal with when I was supposed to be the salve, not the salt in the wound. After struggling her whole life, I certainly wasn’t supposed to say that her mothering, unfortunately, had not been enough.
My mother often felt judged by me. I rolled my eyes and responded that she was just too sensitive. But she was right. I did judge her. I judged her for being so fragile throughout her entire life that she was unable to take care of me when I was a kid, and that she was the only one of us allowed to fall apart when I was an adult. There wasn’t room for two broken people. So, instead of being vulnerable and open, I became closed off, arrogant, snide, and dismissive.
2017 Dettingen, Germany
Living in the US, I had plenty of excuses not to visit my mother in Germany. Work, kids, money. All of those things were true, but when my brother wheeled my mom through the airport to pick me up on a long-overdue visit, I suddenly understood why I hadn’t been there in three years.
My mom had always been skinny, but now she looked like a broken bird. When I was growing up, she had a short, small, perennially tan frame with a tiny chest, toned arms, and muscular legs. Now, she looked scrawny, unkempt, and perpetually hunched over, unable to straighten her spine, because the muscles in her chest and back had grown too weak from the violent coughing fits that fractured her frail bones.
I was determined to make her look less like she was dying. Since my mom turned blind, it had been my job to pluck and shape her eyebrows. I could fix three years’ worth of unfettered growth, no problem. I suspected that while she didn’t love getting her eyebrow hairs ripped out of her face, she would like having my face close to hers for the better part of an hour.
As soon as we arrived back at my aunt’s house, I got to work. Even though she was considered legally blind, my mom didn’t live in complete darkness. She could still make out some shapes, some features if the light and angles were just right, and the other person’s face nose to nose with her own. Rarely was I patient and comfortable enough to sit mere inches across from my mom’s face while she intensely studied me at strange angles. She reveled in those forty-five minutes I spent plucking her eyebrows.
She never closed her eyes, just kept staring at me the whole time.
“Could you do me a big favor?” she asked. Nope. We’re not doing any of that assisted suicide stuff, I refused in my head. “Can you help me get a new pair of jeans?” she continued. “I hate my ass in these.”
My mom didn’t see me smiling and rolling my eyes as I opened my laptop, thankful it was a pair of Levi’s 501 she wanted, not help killing herself. One could argue there was no point in my blind, fatally ill mother in a wheelchair buying jeans that made her ass look good. Other than the fact that she was blind and dying and wheelchair-bound and still wanted her ass to look good. We ordered a million pairs of outrageously small-sized jeans. When they arrived, my mother modeled them all in the kitchen, dragging her oxygen tube across the floor, and taking breaks to sit on the kitchen bench in her underwear, exhausted from bending over to pull on yet another pair of skintight pants.
At night I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake in the brightly lit, ice-cold bedroom I shared with her. I listened to my mom’s breathing machine, panicking about every rasp and groan, startling with every beep and whirr. So much of the past decade of her life had been impacted by illness, but death had always seemed far off, lurking at the end of a creeping descent. Now and then, we caught a glimpse of it, though—hanging around in the dark corners of night panics, startling us in neon-bright emergency rooms from time to time, watching and waiting.
Then there was a tipping point when she started declining more rapidly. There was a difference in her every time we spoke. Friends and family reported the newest limitation or decrease in quality of life. She stopped telling me every time she had to call an ambulance. She casually mentioned going from receiving oxygen at night to requiring a machine to breathe for her. She failed to tell me that she was wheelchair-bound until I saw her at the airport. The more glaring and obvious death became, the less she mentioned it.
My mother didn’t find peace and closure in facing mortality. She looked the other way. I cried about how little time we had left, and she tried to comfort me, saying, ”everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay yet, it’s not the end yet.” This made me furious. It would not get better. It would not be okay in the end. It would get worse and worse, and then she would die. I sobbed against my mom’s bony shoulder as she held me. She couldn’t cry herself because crying would lead to a terrifying sense of suffocation.
We had waited too long to grieve together.
2018 Bozeman, Montana
I heard my mom take her last independent breaths—rattling groans, hoarse whimpers, more animal than human, her voice deep and brittle. Get me out! Get me out! She howled with the desperation of someone who had waited too long, and now it was too late. I helplessly listened to her on the phone, a million miles away in my own world, my own life, where our relationship only existed through our voices. I sat in my dark kitchen, my body shaking violently, my heart throbbing heavily against my throat. I heard her gasping for air and ordered the doctor to give her oxygen. They already were, and still, she was drowning.
I thought she didn’t want to be intubated and argued with the doctor, who calmly explained that she would die without it. I stared into the darkness of my new house with the high ceilings and big windows that she would’ve loved but would never get to see because she would die that day. The doctor held the phone to her ear in the small, third-rate hospital my mom should never have gone to in the first place. She was supposed to die with all of the lights on, as patchouli enveloped everyone holding vigil around her, with Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” playing in the background.
All she got instead was me scream-crying in her ear: “Mama, do you want to be intubated?” No. ”You will die. Are you sure?” No. I hear the blood rushing in my ears. “Do you want to die right now, Mama?” I hate myself for how callous I sound. How impatient and loud and frightened I am while she’s pushing out strained syllables with the bloody, raw terror of a person begging for their life. I hate her for holding out for a miracle, for putting me in this situation, for not facing the inevitable, for holding on for dear life until it was too late.
I hate myself for being so weak, so selfish. For thinking that this is the worst moment of my life.
She repeats: No. I want to be intubated. The thought crosses my mind that she’s using too many irrelevant words instead of conserving her energy. I finally understand that she either changed her will and didn’t tell me, or changed her mind in the moment. No, she didn’t want to die. Yes, she wanted to be intubated. My last words are not “I love you,” or “You’re going to be okay.” My last words are, “you will be intubated now,” and then someone forces a tube down her throat and I hear no more.
The phone disconnects. My fingers shake so uncontrollably that I repeatedly punch in the wrong numbers to call my family. My teeth chatter so loudly that I can’t form words. Goosebumps prickle on my bare arms and legs, my body rigid and cold. My screaming has woken up Rob, and he leads me back to bed, where he wraps me in veiny, muscled arms, the heat of his chest pulsating against my back. I’m not alone. My last thought before drifting off hours later is that she was. Alone and terrified, surrounded by strangers, her last lucid moments grotesquely distorted by panic.
What haunts me the most are the sounds. The crushing, splitting crackle of the body experiencing its death and the futile straining against it. The choking and heaving and reaching for something, anything. There was a thickness to the sounds, grave and fleshy, like I could hold them in my hands. I could hear her cold sweat pooling, drenching the fear. Inescapable dread, like lead on her chest. The panic breathlessly flitted around to find an escape that didn’t exist. Wide-eyed and paralyzed, drowning in air. Prying the mask off her face, pulling at tubes with strangled gasps, invisible white knuckles around her throat.
I wonder if dark edges caved in slowly, blurring and blackening the boundaries, like sinking in a bottomless ocean. Or if the center blazed hot and white, drowning out colors and features, like looking blindly into the searing sun.
What haunts me is my mother calling. Over and over.
Today, Bozeman, Montana
My mother held on to hope. She expected a miracle. And yet, it’s what kept her from the peaceful death she wanted. She refused to accept reality, and so did I. I wasted three long years. I didn’t want to update her will, coordinate hospice care, or discuss her funeral. I was frustrated with my mom for turning two blind eyes toward her mortality while doing the same.
I could not be honest with my mother in life or death because she couldn’t handle the truth. And, also, because I couldn’t handle telling it.
It seems easy for some to leave their families when those relationships are rotten and poisonous. They create their own families, chosen, not assigned. It has never been that easy for me. I feel the pull of blood and name and birthplace and biology. I have always felt stuck in the quicksand of Wanting-Things-To-Be-Different. Even my mom’s death was not enough proof for me that things would never be—could never be—different. The grief over what I wanted and didn’t have, what I wished to be true but could never make true, didn’t die along with my mom’s body.
I continued to wait for her to be the parent I needed when I was a child. I didn’t learn to give these things to myself as an adult, because I didn’t want to. I was angry I had to be something for myself that she should have been. I tried to fill that hole with food, all the while cringing at my predictability and textbook behavior. My daddy issues. My mother wound. All the psychobabble made me gag. So, I tried harder to pretend I was fine.
My father died two years after my mother and didn’t contribute anything to my life for me to miss. I wasn’t sad to lose him. I was sad I never had him in the first place.
My anger and grief are wrapped up in my mother. I’m angry with my mother because she was there to make the mistakes, even though this is unfair. It’s much more difficult to be angry with my absent father. There are fewer actions and words to tie my anger to—just a vast expanse of nothingness, interspersed with the occasional card or visit.
It’s easier to be angry at a presence than an absence. It’s easier to push against the person who is doing things wrong than the person who is doing nothing at all.
The most precious thing I ever received from my dad was a box of old letters I took from his belongings. He had saved every scrap, every card, every scribbled note from my mom, my brother, and me.
Most of my mom’s letters, now drenched in the heady scent of my father’s tobacco, were detailed accounts of how we were doing after the divorce—our developmental milestones, interests, schoolwork, and illnesses. We stayed in Germany while my dad moved back to the States. Letters were their primary way of communicating in the early 90s, before email and cell phones. Expensive long-distance calls were a luxury saved for special occasions.
She asked for his input in parenting decisions and sent him photos. He talked about his low self-esteem and not having had sex for more than a year. I know these were his petty concerns, because, on top of being a single parent to us, my mom’s letters also attempted to encourage and support him. She wrote about being broke, despite having a full-time job as a bookkeeper and working several side jobs to make ends meet. My father dreamed about becoming wealthy and successful while being unemployed and working a pyramid scheme selling health supplements.
In these letters, I saw myself in my mother for the first time. As a single mom in the wake of my own divorce, my account was always overdrawn, forcing me to choose between food and rent. My electricity was shut off. I drove a van without insurance. I didn’t go to the doctor when I was sick. I knew for a fact that in a life marked by precarity and lack, crushed by loneliness and exhaustion, addiction would have felt like both a welcome escape and an insurmountable obstacle.
I read my mother’s words and hear my own voice: I’m so tired. I feel guilty for being tired and not spending enough quality time with the kids. I love them, and they’re driving me crazy. I have no time for myself, and when I do, I’m so drained that all I can manage is watching TV. What I do is all that I am.
I wear her ring on the days when I need to remind myself that what I will do and who I will be that day may not be enough, but my only option is to show up anyway.
I’m still angry. But what I can say is that she mattered and that she tried and that we loved each other.
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.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson