In my nightmares, my mother is still alive. I spend the whole dream dodging her and trying to convince others—my family, my friends—that she was dead, I swear she was dead, she has been dead, but they each laugh, walk away. The voicemail from Mandy feels like that.
The voicemail is eighty-seven seconds long, and most of it is silence. Only at the very end does she call my name. For a desperate moment I think it is my mother, that somehow I had it all wrong and she has been further wasting away in the dust of Arizona, building herself into the sands. I look out the window and force myself to find one, two, three passersby before I return to my phone. It is late—past dark. The street is quiet, so collecting all three takes some time, which, of course, is the point. I listen again, and now, as the recording calls my name a second time, I know: it is Mandy.
When I call her back, I assume she won’t answer, but she surprises me again. Her words are a still, slow drip, so liquid I can’t grasp onto any of them.
Hey, honey, I say.
Where are you, sweetheart? I say, but she slips from my grasp. She is happy to hear from me. Her voice turns playful and lilting, even as the words themselves say nothing.
I’ll come pick you up; I can help, I say. I am out of practice. This is entirely the wrong thing to say, and she hangs up the phone.
I am left staring at the black box in front of me. The conversation, however brief, has hooked something behind my navel. I feel the old attachment like a series of ribbons tied along trees. I used to receive phone calls like this one, circular and sharp, from my mother as she drowned. She drowned—while I was in college meeting my new roommate, while I took on campus jobs, while I made questionable decisions in poorly lit basements and pretentious declarations about the person I would one day be. She drowned each minute of each day, and sometimes she would pick up the phone to remind me.
I took these phone calls, ducking out of the dining hall or stopping mid-conversation with a friend, and accepted the reminder. I spoke in dulcet tones and I yelled, I clawed at myself and walked directly into her barbs. I did this because I thought it may help her, or me—both or either. In the calls, I bore witness to the carving, the winnowing of her mind, but it was not that that pinned me. It was always what I myself have forgotten in the interim, willed myself around in my day-to-day life. Then, a call, and the knowledge that I am on one side of the shore, and she is drowning—has been drowning, while I sunbathe. And when she calls, when I hear the gurgle in the very absence of words, there’s nothing to do but lower myself further into the sand. Shouting—to her, to others—has never once helped, and when I had offered myself as a flotation device, swam close enough to see the bloat of her very mind, she had refused to grab on. Had simply looked me in the eye and taken a deep breath beneath the water’s edge. This is what it is to love an addict.
And so, one day, nearly a decade ago, I stopped. When I saw her name, I did not pick up, but I didn’t reject the call, either. I’d let it ring all the way out so that she might think I was busy, that my avoidance was not avoidance at all but the casualties of a full, happy, life. Part of this was mercy and part was vengeance. I wanted her to see that there were other things, things I valued more highly, occupying my time.
She left voicemails, jagged and nonsensical and taxing. They all say the same thing: Call me, I miss you / I saw a girl in the pharmacy who reminded me of you—do you still wear that red jacket? / I wish you’d pick up. Sometimes, she is interrupted by a dog jumping onto the couch or running out the door. Invariably, she is drunk. Maybe she is completely and entirely sober, but it is far enough in the murky depths of late-stage alcoholism that her words are shaped by the slurring lispy accent that comes from repeated, self-inflicted brain damage.
Often she is angry, always she is sad. Worse, she makes a joke, followed by a long pause, forgetting that she is leaving a voicemail, that I am not in fact with her, that I have not been with her for some time. Sometimes she will make it most of the way through the message without crying, only to break near the end, pitching her voice higher between breaking breaths.
The weight of what she did not remember, or chose not to remember, tied around my neck for the rest of the day each time I listened. So, I stopped that too. That is how I became a collector. By the time she died, months later, I had seventy-two unheard messages from my mother. Even now, I do not regret stopping. That is not what this story is.
I call Mandy back again. At first she does not pick up. I anticipated this—the hunted avoidance. For a moment, I think I will leave it there. I’m miles away, it’s late. It can be dealt with in the morning—or better yet, not dealt with at all, at least not by me. But ultimately, I resolve to wait a moment and try again. This time I will be more careful; I will rely on my expertise. I will listen to the noises in the background to place where she is. I will make her feel comfortable, form an alliance, before I ask anything of her. I go through my old checklist, remembering what to secure: location, proximity to home, bodily safety, intent to harm (self/others), immediate resources. I tick off these five things, my mental circuit, and add a sixth: her name, Mandy, to remind myself again and again that this woman is not my mother. She is just another person drowning.
When I was a child, Mandy and her daughter rented the house next to ours. Mandy always wore pearl earrings, which drooped on her lobes, and touched up her roots every six weeks. She kept Fresca in the fridge and let her daughter host sleepovers and filmed every one of our choreographed dances on VHS tapes. Before her call tonight, she and I have not spoken in years.
When I call back again, Mandy does pick up. Her voice is still slipping and difficult. I try to ask her about her job to tether her to the present moment, but she is wistful, sentimental, beginning all of her half sentences with Do you remember? I try to indulge her while I search for information. In the background, I think I hear the dinging of a car alerting the driver that a door is open or a passenger is unbuckled. It could just as easily be something else. A microwave, maybe, or a forgotten alarm clock, but the panic prickling my chest redoubles.
Sweetheart, why don’t you tell me where you are? I ask, again. And again, she hangs up.
When my mother died, I was so confounded by the physical absence of her that I tried to fill it with a mass of her words, to build an effigy from whatever scraps of sentiment I could find. For months, I slept in a shirt from the town we spent summers in when I was small. I don’t think the shirt even belonged to her—it seemed, suddenly and sharply, that I had nothing of hers—but the word, the name of the town across my chest each night as I slept, was enough to stave off something I was unwilling to name. I went through every piece of paper I had to find a letter she may have written. There are no letters, no long apologies or glowing sonnets to the young woman I might become. I found nothing from my high school graduation, which she did not attend. I couldn’t even find notes that I’m sure once existed, telling me she was off to the grocery store and would be home shortly—hallmarks of a period of functionality that I had not recognized as a high-water mark until there was no water left to rise.
What I did find were birthday cards. Pastel Hallmark sunsets and wide-eyed cartoon dogs plastered across the front. Greeting card messages are printed on the inside: “Wishing you a joyous year,” “May the road rise to meet you,” “Have a PAWsome birthday.” Underneath, she writes the same thing each time, “>Sky, Mom.” My love for you is greater than the sky, it could carry you to the moon and back again one hundred times. In these two words, I write a new parent—a B-side, just as true but oft neglected. I store myself in the space between these letters, imagine what she may have been like, how she may have loved me if she had access to that sky.
I had the shirt, I had the cards, and I had the voicemails. At the time of her death, I had only listened to a dozen or so. I began to parcel them out, provisions for the shattered heart, only listening when the wave of grief pulled so tightly that swimming to the bottom appeared easier than finding any air at the surface. I would sit on the floor in the corner of my room, make myself as small as possible, and press play. I felt her in the pit of my stomach, saw her in the very backs of my eyes when I looked in the mirror. It was my face slowly shaping to look like hers, it was the trapped and stinging scream in the ends of her voicemails.
Here is where my reality splits: after Mandy hangs up on me the second time, I do not call her back. Instead, I call her daughter. It is like calling myself, years ago. She sounds just the way I once did, receiving calls like this: unsurprised, sad, but also unyielding. She is steel. I feel a two-pronged pride beneath my reawakened grief. She does not want or ask for my pity. She keeps the call short and informs me she will call me back when the matter is settled, which she does, quite quickly. She has called the nonemergency line of the town’s police department. She ordered a wellness check to Mandy’s home, and they have reported back that all is well. Hilarious.
The police would come to my mother’s house, as well, when I was a child. After a while, it seemed we were on the regular rotation. They came for wellness checks, for domestic disturbances, for noise violations. I remember the way they filled the doorframe. I remember the way they placed their hands lightly on their holsters. I remember wishing, wishing, wishing, that they would never come back.
I remember the sound of the door splitting off its hinges as they kicked it down and how the officer squatted in front of me in the exposed room. They had been knocking and knocking and I had been telling my mother to please, open the door, because I so desperately wanted this moment to end. They heard me begging her and kicked down the door. I remember the deep shame, a purpling black, as the officer told me they had heard me. They had thought I was in distress, and they had no choice. I was the reason the door had to be taken down. The officer in front of me touched my knee—a warning? A sympathy? When they left, she was still drunk, she was still angry, and the door stayed down, the lights from the entryway pouring onto the porch. All is well.
There were times before my mother died that I wished her dead—not out of rage, but for the pure simplicity—the very end of the story, some kind of conclusion. This did not stop the tide of grief that swept me away when she did in fact, die. If anything, it simply split the wave, misty currents of dread trickling into streams of guilt and blackened hope. But, as they say, I can wade grief. And I did. What I could not stand—what still strikes me down—was the sheer relief of her absence and the tremendous sadness of knowing, with finality, that she would never become who I wished her to be, who she had once been in her finest moments.
So I will give you another image, if you are still here, listening. A portrait of a sober woman. Blonde hair that caught fire in the sunlight, bright blue eyes. She is washing dishes and singing along to the Bose radio, How sweet it is to be loved by you. She tucks my hair behind my ear and winks. My heart explodes. I feel the reverberations of the blast still, as I write this.
This time, Mandy calls me. Her words are much quicker. There is the force of meaning behind them, but the slur is still perceivable at the edges.
You always took her side, she says, speaking of and against her daughter. Your family never supported me. The way you turned away from me. Honestly, it was shocking. But I would never hold that against you.
Drunks come in many stripes—angry, sad, vengeful, even apologetic—but, they are always martyrs. They may point to your mistakes, but they would never hold them against you.
Do you realize what it could do to my career? If someone saw the police here? Do you realize what it means to have the police come to your house for something like this? I do.
I listen to her wind herself in circles. I do not yell back, I do not argue. Is it easier now, because I am older? Because there are many days in which I have held a mirror to my own mind and accepted what was reflected? Is it easier because there is no reason to step in the traps, as there was with my own mother? Or is it simply that this woman, who I do love, is not my family—that she cannot grate on my blood? We are not tethered, and because of that, I know, having found little success with me today, she will not call back. I am not the avenue she assumed me to be. I have heard women drown before. I know how to stay deaf.
At the same time, I know she has fallen in deeply enough now that what she says of me now, in anger, is her true opinion. She will not wake up, sobered, and remember me as I was when we knew one another well. She will wake up, confronted by her own shame, and, in choosing to look away from it, she will also choose a different perception of me. She will warp, not just these events, but her very image of me, rather than face herself. In this same way, I know my mother may have died truly hating me.
I never chose to get rid of my old phone with the 72 voicemails. I have moved several times. Out of college, back to my father’s home, out again, and to subsequent apartments of my own. I relish each new space, even though it is always very little space, because it is always a location I have created for myself. I send a check off each month, drawing from my own earnings, and I am allowed this stability. I have a queen size bed, on the left side of which I leave unfinished novels, words to pick up and turn over each night, words to stay by my side as I sleep. Less and less frequently do I pale at the face in the mirror or feel that great gravitational blackness within me. Less and less do I realize that I myself am the quicksand, I am sinking and have sunk. Most of the time, I am just fine. It is luck only that allows me to be fine. Luck that allowed me access to mental health professionals that my mother did not have and luck that I came of age in an era that prizes mental well-being. Luck that I have not proven susceptible to the same dark addictions that ruled her life and relationships, and luck that if I do, I live in a world moving away from the ostracization she received. I exist, in my small, happy way, purely by luck.
But it was on just such an occasion, when I felt myself slipping from the grains of myself that I tried again to turn to the slippery sadness of the words of my mother and realized that the phone was gone. Somewhere along the way I had mistakenly thrown it away with some batch of equally irrelevant and weighty items that I wanted to avoid toting from one apartment to the next. And in the same way I had felt those years ago, the shame and the relief mingled uncomfortably because I didn’t have to choose to be rid of her, but she was gone nonetheless. After I cried for the loss of her voice, there was more space in my lungs. My blood moved for the first time to the very tips of my fingers before returning again to my own heart.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.
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.