Addiction doesn’t just hurt the addict, it hurts the entire family. In this story, the daughter of an addict shares how she survived by learning to let go, stop enabling, and start living.
For the child of an addict, one of the most harrowing points in the life is the moment you realize who your parent really is. You may read that sentence and perhaps think of the moment when you looked at your parents and saw that they have feelings, struggles, and lives of their own. The moment that I’m talking about is different. You look into your mother’s face and you don’t see her, you don’t have that funny little epiphany where you “finally realize” what she’s been going through… you see something else in her eyes. Something you yourself can’t identify because it seems out of place while you’re standing in a grocery store or showing her your homework. You see a distraction... a hunger. One day you finally place it. You’ve seen their addiction. Their addiction looks past you; it looks through you, and it scares you. You try to hide from it, pretend it’s not there. And you pray for their recovery. You pray that one day you look into their eyes and just see them. You don’t see the demon that’s latched itself to their back. Sadly, it’s not always the addict’s recovery we get to see - sometimes it’s our own.
“Many people think of an addict as someone who grew up in a broken home, or who is a criminal, or who was just plain stupid. My mother was none of those things.”
I found out my mother was an addict when I was around 14 years old. I accepted that she was an addict around 16 years old. I fully realized what that acceptance meant around 18 years old, and finally my mother died of a drug overdose when I was 22 years old. She didn’t have the resources or the desire to beat her demons but many people do. She suffered from her addiction for most of her life. But there were times when things were good and she was better. Times where I looked into her eyes and just saw her. Those are the times I cherish most and those are the times that help me to live my life every day. In those moments of clarity, I knew what hope was and I clung to it.
Many people think of an addict as someone who grew up in a broken home, or who is a criminal, or who was just plain stupid. My mother was none of those things. She was born in 1957 to Jewish parents and she grew up in Brooklyn. Often, when I would ask her about her childhood she would tell me she always felt like she never fit in anywhere and thought of herself as a black sheep. Not surprisingly, she grew up to be an artist. She would paint, sculpt, draw and crochet. She was quiet and liked to be surrounded by nature. She married a man from Spain at the tender age of 20 and had 3 children within 4 years. When I asked her if she had loved him, she told me that he was an alcoholic and had a raging temper, but that she always thought she should’ve stayed with him. She told me she had gotten married because she thought that’s what her parents wanted. During that marriage, she told me, was the only time in her life where she didn’t worry about money. It sounds awful but when she said that I understood why she wished she had stayed. My entire life growing up was one giant anxiety attack worrying about where our next meal would come from or how we would get to a doctor’s appointment. Maybe she shouldn’t have left him. My three older siblings would’ve had their mother and she never would’ve met my father and become addicted to drugs.
The details of how my mother met my own father are fuzzy to this day. From what I’ve gathered, they met at a reggae club. My father was performing and my mother loved reggae. He was fresh off the boat from Jamaica and she was fresh from the 30 minute ride on the 2 train. They fell in something (not sure it was love. I don’t have many memories of my father so I can’t be sure). Whatever it was, it was strong because she had 4 kids with him (myself included) and he introduced her to all his friends, his culture, and heroin. Though my mother would only use heroin for a short time, she would sell all her belongings, become homeless, and lose custody of her children within a span of 6 months. She left heroin behind by transferring her addiction to methadone. Though Methadone is supposed to help wean people off of heroin, for her it just became her replacement. She would need it to function for the rest of her adult life.
“I learned that if the house was messy, it would be a bad day.”
Once my mother regained custody of us, she sobered up and we didn’t see my father anymore. The years passed and we welcomed a little sister to our lives but her father ended up leaving too. We were all too young to know why. We moved away from our childhood home and we were oblivious to most of the events around us, but we were happy kids. We loved books and playing make believe. My mother shared so much of herself with us. Her love of Stephen King novels and movies, Bigfoot, and aliens. She loved going to graveyards and placing paper over the oldest tombs and shading so we could see how long ago they had been etched. We visited beautiful old mansions and museums and did art projects on holidays. She cooked matzoh ball soup, and matzah brie, and chicken and rice. She told us to “Go shit in the ocean” in Yiddish and would also swear in Spanish, a leftover habit from her first marriage. We laughed and talked and sang songs, but every once in a while she’d be “sleepy.” None of us knew it was because of the pills she would take. We thought that every so often she’d be overworked so she would just get extremely drowsy. We would come home from school and she’d be falling asleep at the kitchen counter, the house exactly as we had left it. I learned that if the house was messy, it would be a bad day.
“I told her that if she loved us she would stop. And she told me she couldn’t. This is when I learned what addiction was.”
I became a neat freak. I cleaned and I yelled at everyone. I had severe anger issues. My siblings would watch more and more TV and read more and more books to drown it all out. Half of us excelled in school because we preferred it to being home. The other half never went to school. We kept on living. And then one day something happened. I asked my mother why she was always falling asleep, or spilling her coffee, or swerving when we drove. And she told me. She told me she took pills because sometimes things were too hard and they helped her deal with all of it because she didn’t have any help from my father. I told her that if she loved us she would stop. And she told me she couldn’t. This is when I learned what addiction was.
Things went on normally for a few years. Every few months mom would be sleepy for a day or maybe a week, but by this time we knew, if we could hide her in her room, we could pretend things were normal. I could clean up and cook food and my siblings could read or watch TV or write and in those moments nothing was wrong. One day though, we came home and she was crying. This wasn’t that abnormal if we’re being honest, but this time it seemed different. We gathered around her and asked her what was wrong. It was my worst fear come to life. My mother had cancer.
My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have both of her breasts removed. This was the beginning of the end for her. She began chemo and it took a heavy toll on her. They told her she would have to have a hysterectomy because she carried a gene which would double her chances of getting certain kinds of cancer. During this time, mom would be sleepy more and more. I saw her in the most physical pain of her life, and it reflected on her emotionally. I watched her and felt so much empathy and so much anger. The woman I had placed all my trust in was failing me and this time I couldn’t even blame her. This is when I finally accepted her addiction as part of who she was.
My mother overcame cancer, but she was weak, and worn out and depressed because she lost her breasts and her hair. We moved after I graduated high school and she was scared because we had lived in our old house for so long. I was scared the move would kill her. She survived again but things were never the same. She loved our new house but it was far from stores and she had trouble walking. She had her license revoked a few years prior. She wasn’t near her friends, she couldn’t work anywhere, and she had become agoraphobic. I am an actress and a performer and she used to come watch my shows but she became too drained and anxious if she had to leave the house for long.
“The anxiety, the sadness, everything became too much.”
The day finally came when I had to leave for good and I have never felt a bigger weight lifted to this day. College called me and I thrived. When I would come back to visit, the weight would return. The anxiety, the sadness, everything became too much. I was working and sending all my money homes so my family could survive. I felt better knowing I could care for her and help my siblings. I didn’t realize until after she died that all my money was probably going to the wrong things. We lived in this precarious way for a while but the final straw was when I came home for Christmas in 2014.
I was so excited and I had missed everyone so much. When I came home, things were bad. She was falling asleep everywhere, slurring words, crying, dropping things, the house was in a shambles. Something in me broke, the same way it broke a few years earlier when I told her to stop using if she loved us. Whether it was because it was Christmas or because I just couldn’t take it anymore, I will never truly know. I screamed, I cried, and I begged her to let me put her in rehab. She looked at me with those bright warm blue eyes, now grown out of focus and half covered by sleepy eyelids and she told me “I am not going to rehab Ruby, I will never stop.” And with that I left her sitting there and went to sleep. I saw her the next day and apologized and hugged her and told her I loved her more than anything. It was about a month later that I got the phone call from my older brother: “Mom’s not breathing.”
The rest is history. She passed away in her favorite rocking chair and the autopsy report said accidental overdose and that the combination of drugs she took proved to be lethal. That’s one thing that always stuck with me. I had seen my mother take 20 unknown pills and she told me she felt nothing. But that day at that moment, the combination proved to be lethal. She was 57 years old.
“…the love we give is not always in the form of hugs and kisses.”
So why tell this sad tale? To provoke sympathy? To inform people about addiction? This question is easily answered if you look to the teller of the tale. I am here. I am alive and I am not my mother’s addiction. Years ago, I gave my mother an ultimatum: your children or your drugs. But I learned that you can’t control someone who has an addiction. You can’t tell them to choose. You will always end up hurt because the addiction speaks louder than you. When they are in that clouded weak state, it is all they can hear. The only things you can do to help in someone’s recovery is offer your love. And the love we give is not always in the form of hugs and kisses.
True love can be tough. True love can be denying your mother’s request for money at 7 am. True love can be cutting the person off completely. The hardest part about not enabling an addict is that they may still hurt themselves in the end. If I hadn’t been so enabling, would she have still overdosed? I believe so. Which is why I am telling my side of things. I lived the nightmare we all dream of. And I am here to say that you will survive, but to tell you that keeping yourself as your number one priority and loving yourself is the key to it all.
“We will spend the rest of our lives in our own recovery.”
Because I loved myself, I was able to be strong and to be present for my family when my mother passed. All seven of my siblings are healthy, kind, emotional, intelligent, well rounded people. To live with someone who was addicted to the extent of our mother is a true feat for anyone and we are living proof that it is possible. We all dealt with the side effects of living in a toxic environment with a woman we loved dearly. We have all been subject to anxiety, depression, and anger and yet we are still here. Our mental states had been pushed to the breaking point, and yes, we all dealt with it differently but we all survived and are healing. We will spend the rest of our lives in our own recovery. Our mother was a tortured but beautiful soul and she taught us to be empathetic, kind, loving human beings. When you stripped away all her vices, there was that some young artistic girl from brooklyn who loved animals and couldn’t stand to see anyone in pain. We don’t use our life as a crutch but rather as a springboard to bigger and better things. And that is the best recovery I can think of.