A mother writes of her journey of love and loss in this beautiful personal essay about trying to raise children around addiction.
His mother craned up and down the shoreline plucking shells and rocks from the sand. An island of clouds loomed overhead as she made her way to where he sat on the grassy verge. Hands cupped together she showed them to him, as if in communion.
He explained how they had been fractured and formed. Until they were spat out onto the shoreline into the cradle of her palm. She squeezed her hand shut and nodded with a shallow certainty – a gesture of assurance against the mistrust, which permeated our daily lives. I watched her continue her journey along the coastline. Collecting the fractured pieces one-by-one. Steadfast and relentless. As if she was trying to put him back together. To make him whole again.
Her collecting was always a fraught ritual. A year prior, after he had a seizure, she gathered his body from the pavement in much the same way. Years of drug use, followed by a plane trip (and subsequent withdrawal) and his body convulsed against itself with an electric violence that cracked six vertebrate. I can still hear the sound reverberating – shells crunched by a pulsing swell. Time was suspended, yet rushing, as his body spilt from the car onto the sidewalk. Saliva foamed from his mouth and he grunted like a hunted animal. Everything at the periphery fell away – the concrete sky, the brisk air, the soft whirl of bodies leaning in to help. It was as if I was locked in a tunnel. The aura of light at the end framing his mother as she cradled his face. Collecting him together with every inch of her being. Rocking him incessantly, the way one does when clinching life’s border.
Weeks of x-rays, scans, consultations and enough intravenous morphine to get him hooked again and his cracked vertebrate became the sole focus of recovery. The doctors concluded the seizure was a freak event, an anomaly. The idea of drug withdrawal was not an option for them or his family. Drugs were not a part of their world, and they were not a part of ours.
The medical response embodied the mechanics of the disease of addiction – the denial, the oversight, the disbelief that nestled so perfectly into the nooks and crannies of duplicity. It was under these conditions that addiction thrived – a rust slowly corroding the interior – not visible until his body was all but ruined. His systems of deceit were intricate. Rituals woven tightly into our domestic routines, into the home and life we shared. While I used the teaspoon to stir sugar into my black coffee, he used it to purify the powder. I used the car to go to work each morning, and he used it on the pilgrimage to his dealer. I washed myself in the bathroom; he used it to shoot up.
It is still difficult to understand how he could conceal a $250-a-day habit. Then, after that, the continual relapses punctuating his clean periods. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not seeing it, and this still reverberates in judgement from others. Then again, looking back, why would I see it? My feelings of incongruence were overridden by the forecast of life as I had known it, and as I had been taught it should be. Over time, his family and myself were insidiously divided and gently kneaded away from our gut instincts in the direction of conjecture and illusion. Like a piece of writing read one thousand times over, eventually the brain begins to fill in the words. To overlook mistakes that stand in plain sight.
We all stumbled along in the dark as best we could – confused and siloed – focusing on the pieces, failing to see what brooded underneath. There was always a distraction: something or someone to blame, a tangible event we could grasp and attempt to control. For a long time I internalised that blame – if I could not reach him, there must have been a deficit in me. There was a fragile hope in that because at least I held the power to change it. After his seizure the bones became the pieces we all clutched at. The bones were fractured. We told ourselves that once the cracks healed, everything would be fine.
We focussed on the pieces of him because that is what the addiction reduced him to – bones, an eyelash, sweat, a fingerprint. Like a hollow shell, there was an absence of the whole person, a kind of death within life. The border between life and death became translucent. We were caught in the space in-between – between hope and grief, hung harnessed in the air, neither falling, nor climbing. The only tangible thing was the fear of loosing him – it was palpable, always lingering. I saw it in his mother that day at the beach. Fear had burrowed into her bones and nested there. It seeped outward. Guided her every movement.
The grief swelled inside her, as it did in me – but was always muted by illusion, by tiny speckles of hope glimmering in the rubble. There were living shells, whole shells strewn amongst the crumbs. While hope rendered fear tactile, we horded the pieces anyway. I watched her as she slipped them gently into her pockets for safekeeping. They had become frayed cotton nests, those pockets. Textile wombs. He was safe in there, tucked away. There he was close to her again.
I remember collecting seashells with my own mother as a child. “If you hold it up to your ear you can hear the sea,” she’d say. I’d close my eyes tight, fall into sound of the churning echo and wonder how emptiness could be so deafening.
Just as there was noise in nothingness, so too was there silence in a plethora of sound. We watched him slip away, our lives unwound into chaos, and we did so in silence. I remember sitting in my coffee group in a circle of new mums, baby planted firmly on my lap. Listening to the gossip about the latest home renovation as I ruminated on the drug debt that had just been recalled, pondering whether I could pay for my coffee. The chasm between my private world and the ‘normal’ world was so capacious, so incompatible, it sometimes felt unbearable.
Silence was also a symptom of my obsession to fix him, through which my wants and needs were insidiously drowned out. Over time, I had focussed so hard on him that I began to dissipate. The day I finally convinced him to get help, we sat in a square, sterile room, fluoro lights pressing down and exposing us. As the nurse rattled off options for his detox, I piped up to give my opinion. She held up her hand up defensively. She told me it was not my decision. That I needed to keep out of it.
Her reaction was symptomatic of the biomedical model, which focussed on the body – on his body and what it needed to do to free him from this disease. Yet it was difficult at times to tell when I began and he ended, so driven was I to resurrect life as I thought it should be. Myself, his mother and entire family were also hemmed in, tangled in a net, hauled along the ocean floor by a trawler we could only vaguely sense, but not see or touch. We tried all we could to make him stop. We gave love, compassion, tears, support, money, rehab, medication. We dabbled in anger and silence. In fits of emotion and periods of calmness. In staying and leaving. The disease only seemed to unfurl itself. Creeping steadily like an innocuous vine, stretching and curling and tightening.
And then – the gift of our first child. Surely the love for a baby would stop this sickness. Surely he would be enough. But he wasn’t. Nothing ever was – enough. Our attempts to collect and piece together had been going on so long that the flesh of our fingers began to wear away. Over time, the rocks which were themselves eroded also began eroding. Abrasion upon abrasion. I saw it in his mother – as I saw it in myself. She tried to reassemble him because she loved him. Yes. She loved him like any mother loves their child, with an illumination suffusing the dimmest burrows. But over time addiction wore her love into an obsession. Like the border between life and death, the border between love and self-destruction etched away quietly, covertly.
I had been trying to trace my path by dividing myself and scattering the pieces – a trail of breadcrumbs quickly pecked away by the birds. I always thought this was what it meant to give, what it meant to find your way in love. It is what women are taught they are destined for, it is what we so often become: the martyrs, the saints, the givers. Born on a German farm in the shadow of the war, his mother had been a collector and a giver from birth. Fetching water daily from the well, hording bits and pieces fervently in the face of scarcity, tending to her alcoholic father. She was taught she was the one to hold the pieces together when they crumbled. She embodied it – the way she carried herself along the shoreline, her shoulders hunched, bowing up and down achingly. She had become a stranger to her own pain, a stranger to herself.
There was always that abiding expectation which guided the ebb and flow of all of our relationships – that I was to do the same. He led, I followed. He broke apart, I picked up the pieces. But the birth of our second child altered my path, breaking the cycle of insanity, which had nested in us all. A daughter, placed on my chest – a slippery blushing bundle. There I was, in that tunnel again. Locked in the vision where everything at the edges melted away. I cradled our daughter tight and hard as his mother had cradled his face. Clinching life’s border with a concrete fragility. I wanted to do all I could to keep her here, to keep her whole, but there was so little of me left to muster. Something told me that to be a good mother, I had to be a whole person again.
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Two weeks after arriving back from hospital I fumbled around the house, put all my belongings into a suitcase and drove away, knowing I would never go back. We are a paradox, his mother and I. In my decision to leave, to put myself first, we live out diverging trajectories. Though both paths are fixed in the love of our children. Both require dedication to picking up the pieces. In a way, her actions gave me the insight and freedom to define my own. In the end, we are not so different.
There was a reverberating silence as I drove away, a creeping emptiness. It tightened its grip just as I loosened my own. It was the kind of quiet which floods in at the moment of transition, when you dangle from a sharp bend in the road. It goaded me to go back, insisted I had nothing, and told me I couldn’t do it alone. But I remembered pressing the shell to my ear and hearing the waves inside the hollow cast. It reminded me that emptiness is a terrain, which gives birth to sound. An illusive dark matter, the backdrop to all that is. With this I drove onward, and back to myself.
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