Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

chippedhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Erica S. Brath

I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.

“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.

“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.

I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.

“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.

Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.

But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.

But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.

The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.

Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?

•••

I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.

Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.

I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.

We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.

“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”

His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.

“I need to move back north.”

He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.

“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”

It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.

It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.

•••

I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.

And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.

In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.

“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”

And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.

Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.

When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.

He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.

•••

I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.

Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.

“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.

I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.

So it was a shock when they rejected me.

“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”

“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”

My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.

“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”

As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.

It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.

It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.

But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?

I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.

With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?

I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?

“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.

•••

ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.

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The Ex-Husband in My Basement

basement
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stephanie Rosenfeld

“You would have hated me if you’d known me back then,” my husband would say, telling me stories of his drug-using days, and I’d agree: You’re lucky I didn’t meet that guy—I wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

But that wasn’t the guy I’d met. Luciano’s past was behind him: He was five years clean and proud of his sobriety. Like many former drug users, he was working in the field of substance-use and addiction, using his experiences to help people. He was magnetic and funny and interesting and full of life. We fell in love, became a couple, then a family. We’d sit at the dinner table, planning our future together. We’d both suffered setbacks in our pasts and failed to jump onto conventional paths, but together, we were going to create something good. We were counting on being late-bloomers.

Over time, though, our marriage began to fray, as Luciano’s undiagnosed, then misdiagnosed bi-polar disorder got worse, exacerbated by the international travel that had become a bigger part of his job. Our life together became a cycle of stressful overseas phone calls, resentful homecomings, deferred fixes. Still, at the end of every day, we’d sit down over dinner and talk about art, and writing, and drug policy, and sexual politics, and stupid things people did that pissed us off, and our cats, and TV shows, and a hundred other things. Even on the worst days, we could make our way back to each other this way.

Finally, though, things reached the breaking point, and we decided: Our marriage was important to us and we needed to find a way to save it. We made a plan to figure out how we were going to do that, as soon as he came home from an extended work trip to Thailand.

When he returned, though, something wasn’t right. One day, sitting across from him at the dinner table, I noticed that his tongue was twisting upside down in his mouth when he talked. Also, his mood was strangely amped up, but without the usual underlay of good spirits. There’d been other signs, too: While he was in Thailand, I’d started to notice that his emails were being sent at odd times of day—three-thirty, four, five in the morning, his time. On the phone, small things would trigger a full-blown rage—he’d end up bellowing and ranting, hanging up, calling back, hanging up again. And when he did return, the jet lag this time seemed intractable; after a week home, he was still sleeping till three or four in the afternoon.

A dedicated observer of my husband’s micro-moods, I suspected it had something to do with substances—he was relying increasingly on a mix of prescribed sleep aids, anti-anxiety medication, and anti-depressants to cobble himself together, especially when he traveled. I questioned him about his dosages, asked if he’d taken anything over the counter, maybe done something recreationally—some weird street drug—in Thailand. My inquiries were met with a blast-furnace rage and an unprecedented physical assault—he threw a portable hard-drive across the room at me, hitting me in the head. Later, I rooted through his briefcase and found a meth pipe and a lighter—arrogantly just there, not even hidden—in the open inside pocket.

When I confronted him, he told me it was no big deal: He was only using meth occasionally. And besides, the danger of meth was over-hyped by the media. It was basically no different than Adderall—which he had a prescription for. He liked meth—it helped him work, made him focused, and gave him energy. Besides, his history had proven than he could kick any drug, so addiction wouldn’t be a problem.

I argued with him. It really didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

He argued back, then abruptly changed tacks. He’d stop doing it, if it really upset me so much. I was so relieved, I almost forgot to think about the fact that the decision to do such a risky thing, and to lie about it, was completely and bafflingly outside the bounds of the way we conducted our marriage. The old Luciano might have done that but not the guy I’d chosen to be with.

Still uneasy, I looked in his bag again the next day. I found a lighter in the same pocket I’d cleaned out the day before. I took it. The next day, there was another one. I confronted Luciano again. Why was he carrying around lighters if he wasn’t using meth? He erupted in rage. How dare I go through his bag?

I mounted a bigger search, found bags of meth in his bathroom, in coat pockets, in the little space in the wall next to the basement crawl space.

We played this cat-and-mouse game for about a month. My heart would break every time I found another stash. Each time I’d confront him, he’d alternately admit, deny, or downplay the problem.

“Yes, Stephanie! I’m addicted!” he’d roar one day; “No, I’m not addicted!” the next. “My only ‘problem’ with meth is that you don’t want me to do it!” he screamed at me, one day. Every day was going to be his last day using.

•••

I lived these days in a state of constant, adrenalized emergency. I spent my work hours poring over online articles and forums and videos about methamphetamine, researching rehabs and treatment models, trying to figure out at what point I was going to have to kick him out, looking at ads for one-bedroom rentals in our area, making up budgets for how we’d support two households till we got him through this emergency and he could move back home.

The friends who knew what was going on didn’t understand why I didn’t kick him out. But I didn’t experience the decision as simple. A hallmark of Luciano’s bipolar illness was that life for him was a constant string of emergencies, and I was acclimated to the dysfunction. Reacting to and compensating for Luciano’s emergencies had become like an endurance sport for me. Though I was furious at him, and terrified, in this crisis as in all the others, I’d be the strong, sane one, the one who’d hold things together until we figured out what to do.

The other reason I didn’t kick him out was, simply, that he lied. He lied long and hard and deep, and up one side and down the other, and every which way from Sunday; and it took me too long to understand that I didn’t have the right information and was making bad decisions because of that.

•••

I went to a few Al Anon meetings, but I didn’t like their one-size-fits-all message about “detaching.” I didn’t feel it applied to me; I wasn’t ready to give up on Luciano. We’d only just started down this road. We might possibly still turn back without too much damage.

I started going to Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings, instead. The people were nice to me there, thanked me for coming. They told me it was good to be reminded—in the form of my presence—of the cost of their actions, the collateral damage. Everyone told me how sorry they were—which alarmed me. One guy took me aside and said, “However bad it is now, six months from now, you’ll be looking back, thinking these were the good old days.” Uniformly, people said that going to jail was the only thing that forced them to stop using.

A month later, Luciano moved out so that he could do meth full-time, unharassed by me. By “moved out” I mean: One day, in the middle of a rage, he sprang from his yelling-chair, as I had named it, thundered down to his room and threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed his computer, and slammed out the door. Six hours later, he called to tell me he wasn’t coming home. When I asked where he was, he said he was staying at “a cheap motel in the neighborhood.” I actually spent hours, that night, walking the streets of our residential neighborhood in the dark, panicking and in tears, looking for a cheap motel or rooming house that I knew wasn’t there. The memory of that’s a little scary.

•••

The next year and a half unfolded just the way you hear about. Luciano lived across town in a seedy hotel—I didn’t know where. He stopped paying our joint bills and the mortgage, defaulted on his credit cards, ruined his eighty-five-year-old father’s credit, lost his health insurance, life insurance, car, job. He spent his retirement funds on meth. Ashamed, he stopped talking to our daughter. When I found out about the infidelity, boggling in scope—lots of sex with strangers, exchanged for money and drugs—it was just another item to put on the list.

•••

I have a blank spot in my brain where the “higher power” thing is supposed to go. Consciousness is my only god. I used to believe that by being strong and present and brave, using communication and the power of my own brain as my only tools, I could hold the people I love close to me, figure out how to fix anything; protect my family and make it last. Having a bi-polar mate definitely gave that belief a workout. The awesome force of a meth addiction did it in completely.

•••

Eventually, with the assurance to myself that I had done everything I could, everything I was willing to, I accepted the fact that I had no power to make things turn out differently, and I began to let go.

I spent eight hundred days alone, grieving, writing a new book. I took comfort in the company of my dog. I wondered if you could actually die from crying. I’d wake up every morning and go to the mirror to see if my hair had turned gray overnight.

The part that killed me the most was the empty space across from me at the dinner table each night. I’d cry as I ate, sometimes, feeling the magnitude of my loss, thinking I would never heal.

•••

When people who I haven’t seen in a while ask how I’m doing, I say, “It’s been a hard couple of years.” I tell them about my new book, what my daughter’s been up to. “We lost Luciano to meth use, unfortunately,” I say, to those who don’t know. If they look alarmed, I add, “He’s still alive. Just, not with us anymore.” To the people I can’t lie to, I say, “Actually, he’s living in my basement.”

In a culmination of his run of terrible decision-making, Luciano moved to Cambodia, where he finally reached the end: He was living on the streets, out of money; he’d pawned his phone and computer; lost everything but his passport and the clothes he was wearing. One of his few remaining friends bought him a ticket back to the States, where he landed penniless and homeless in Berkeley—scarier than the streets of Phnom Penh, he said—and decided he wanted to live. His father bought him a train ticket to New Jersey.

He asked if he could come home for a few days on the way. Just to see me.

Not home anymore, I told him. But I said yes.

It had been a year and a half since we’d seen each other. Among other things, meth had ended our marriage without discussion. My story of what had happened was this: He’d become a meth addict, and meth had destroyed our life together, and that was tragic and stupid. If he had any different way of telling it, I wanted to know.

When he arrived, it quickly became evident that he was completely out of his mind—ranting, raving, paranoid, psychotic. He wasn’t using meth, anymore, but it hardly mattered. He was in a hole so deep it was hard to imagine how he could possibly climb out. I listened to his delusional plan to live with his parents, stay clean, find work in the City—nothing under seventy-thousand, an executive directorship, he was thinking. I watched as he rummaged through the storage room for Plan B—his tent and sleeping bag—and I changed the terms of my offer. I told him he could stay in my basement for a month, two if he needed, that he could share my food, and—if it was what he wanted—I’d help him not to die.

He’s been here for over a year. I laid down conditions, helped him think through some steps. He reconnected with a generous ex-colleague who got him access to good free mental health care at the drug treatment center where Luciano used to send his clients. After many months of looking, he finally got a job: low-paying, part-time—he was ecstatic. With his first paycheck, he bought me an enormous TV to show his gratitude, carried it home on the bus—then carried it back when I told him maybe he wasn’t thinking completely clearly, yet.

Properly diagnosed and medicated for his bi-polar disease for the first time in his life, and under the care of two good mental healthcare practitioners, he’s a different person. Or else he’s himself—he says he’s not sure. It’s hard for both of us to think about the ways so many things might have been different, if he, if we, had figured it out sooner. With his brain recovering from the damage meth did to it, he can finally think clearly again. He hasn’t raged in over half a year. He is full of regret, and he admits that doing meth was a terrible decision; that meth is a terrible drug and that the damage he did to our family was devastating and real.

And probably lasting. We’re not what we once were, to each other. We’re not a couple, anymore—though we think we’re probably some kind of family.

One night, a few weeks after he came back, we cautiously sat down at the dinner table together again. It was hard at first, but it’s gotten easier, as we’ve worked through some of the most painful pieces. Sometimes, we even laugh. But without a future to plan for, the conversations aren’t like they used to be.

He says I saved his life, and it’s probably true. Crisis averted, it’s probably time, now, to save my own.

•••

STEPHANIE ROSENFELD lives in Salt Lake City, where she writes fiction and works as a non-profit grant writer. She is the author of a collection of short stories, What About the Love Part? and a novel, Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu. Stories of hers have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Missouri Review, Bellingham Review, Northwest Review, Cream City Review, and Other Voices. She recently finished a young adult novel, and is currently at work on a graphic memoir, written in collaboration with her ex-husband, about the effect of his methamphetamine addiction on their family. You can read an excerpt on it here and more here.

Sixteen Days

clouds
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Allie Smith

Standing at the podium, I felt numb with shock. I thought my grief would have subsided a little by now, because three weeks had passed. Three weeks. I had that lost feeling you get when you dream, where you know it can’t be real, but you’re still going through the motions in an altered world. There I was again, in front of a crowd of mourners whose eyes were all focused on me. My palms were wet and my heart raced. I shook, as if pure caffeine were running through my veins, and then in the next moment, I shivered from a cold that only I could feel.

Here, in Pennsylvania, the audience was more familiar to me than it had been at the funeral in Michigan. It was filled with my brother’s closest friends, members of our family, and my children, who sat in the front row. I hadn’t brought them to the Michigan funeral. At the time, they were still in school, and I was in no condition to be a parent. I was doing this all again for them. It was the least I could do; I’d kept them away from their uncle for almost two years.

Edmund had adored my children. Although he didn’t have any of his own, he truly loved kids. He spoiled mine with attention and presents, until he couldn’t anymore. Even after circumstances changed for him, I don’t think that the kids ever really noticed that the gifts and the attention slowed. To them, he was still their loud and gregarious uncle. He remained a steady presence and influence in their lives, until his demons got in the way. Until he didn’t look the same. Until his speech became incoherent. Until their mother made her decision.

In the months prior to his passing, I’d had a feeling that perhaps time was running out. There had been previous hospital stays, and during the last one, doctors suggested nursing care. I had no idea that things had gotten so dire. I called a friend who’s a nurse and she was brutally honest, and I panicked. I was familiar with Edmund’s disease, because it was the same one that had afflicted my parents. It’s the one you get from having a good time. From being the life of the party. From being the person everyone wants to hang out with. That is, until the disease flips the script and no one’s having a good time. And family and friends no longer want to hang out with you. I knew what the outcome would be, although I’d imagined years not weeks. I called my brother and planned a trip. As soon as school got out, the kids and I were headed to Michigan.

During the last few years of my brother’s life, I grew accustomed to late night phone calls. I didn’t enjoy waking to the ringing phone in the middle of the night, but at least I heard his voice and knew where he was. When the calls started, I would wake with fright, instinctively reluctant to pick up the phone, remembering the old adage about bad things happening in the middle of the night. The relief that I felt upon hearing his voice and the he’s okay feeling would soon turn to sadness when I realized that I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.

When the last call came, I wasn’t asleep. It was late, but I’d been restless, tossing and turning, my mind racing over all I had to do in the weeks leading up to the end of school. I jumped out of bed on the first ring, but I also rolled my eyes as I reached for the phone. I assumed he was hoping to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” in, just under the wire. But then I saw Kelly’s number. Kelly, my sweet sister-in-law who never called in the middle of the night. A lump formed in my throat as I answered. Adrenaline started pumping through me because it wasn’t Kelly’s voice that I heard, although her tears echoed in the background and pricked the surface of my skin as an unfamiliar voice said, “This is Lisa, Kelly’s neighbor…”

Almost two years before, I’d made the decision to keep my kids away from my brother on the heels of one of our many heart-to-heart discussions. During Edmund’s last visit we sat at the breakfast bar in my kitchen. He had become a different person and it scared me. He’d lost weight and moved slowly. He looked like a young man, but his gait was labored and wobbly. His speech was hesitant, as if pronouncing each word was difficult. His once bellowing voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper and he was uncharacteristically gentle.

I made my case and used all the clichés you do when you feel helpless. “I’m very worried about you.” “You have to stop.” “I don’t understand.” “You know what can happen.”

He was a master of deflection; he didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to talk about my kids. He told me how much he loved them and that if anything happened to me or my husband, he wanted them. Then he took a slow sip of his poison, claiming it was innocuous because it was beer. I was nauseated as I felt the inevitability of history repeating itself. He was going to lose the battle, just as our parents had. With a shaky voice, I tried to explain the fear I had of having to tell my kids one day that he was dead. He promised me, “No, no, you won’t.” But he didn’t look at me and I did not believe him.

The year and a half that followed was a roller coaster, one that I navigated on the fly. There were rough moments, many of which led to months of radio silence between us. The kids would talk about him, but less frequently. Bear broke his foot and appeared on television with his class. Hunter graduated from elementary school and learned to play the trumpet. Audrey was accepted into the Company Ballet Program and received her First Communion. Camden learned to talk and joined a soccer team. Our life went on, minus Uncle Eggie. It was quieter, for sure, but also drama-free.

But when things deteriorated with Edmund’s condition, I had second thoughts. I changed my mind.

My kids missed the reunion with their uncle by sixteen days. Sixteen days.

I didn’t bring them to the funeral. I just couldn’t. I’d never felt grief like this before. Never. I cried constantly and was so dehydrated that no amount of water could satisfy my thirst. I lost ten pounds in four days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was heartbroken. And angry. And guilt-ridden. I wanted to be alone, and yet people were everywhere. I had to help plan my baby brother’s funeral. There was no way that I would have been able to comfort my children, and I didn’t want them to see me in that condition. I knew that seeing my brother at the funeral would haunt me forever, and I couldn’t risk letting that happen to them.

When I learned that my brother’s friends in Pennsylvania were having a memorial service, I decided to take the children. I wanted them to have an opportunity for closure, although I didn’t know what that would mean.

Edmund was a Marine and a Gulf War veteran. His funeral and memorial service were attended by an honor guard. Watching the Marines fold a flag and ceremoniously give it to his widow wasn’t any easier the second time. As the mournful melody filled the room, my son Hunter sat straighter, filled with pride. Audrey crumbled in tears. Cammy, wide-eyed, stared at the soldiers, not fully comprehending the significance, but watched the ceremony with the awe that only a five-year-old can possess. Barrett, my child with autism, was on a computer in an adjoining room and occasionally made his presence known with giggles.

When I spoke during the service, I felt a stab of pain each time I made eye contact with my children. Hunter had the anguished expression that he gets when tries not cry, but Audrey made no such effort. She was weeping in my Aunt Ginny’s arms. Cammy looked around at me, his siblings and his aunts with profound confusion. As I spoke, I was desperate to connect my kids with Edmund. I reminisced about how each of them reminded me of him in their own ways. Barrett exudes his innate cockiness. Hunter is emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. Audrey possesses his dance moves and the need to be the center of attention. Cammy has his charm and his way with the ladies.

I was so worried about the kids. I wanted them to feel the loss, but not the pain. As I watched their carefree innocence at the reception, I knew they were going to be okay.

I’m not okay. Grief aside, I still have much to resolve. If I could do it all over again, knowing how and when it would end, I would do it so differently. I would answer every phone call, I would visit every chance we had. I would say, “I love you” over and over again. I would accept that it is what it is—sometimes people can’t get better and it’s not their fault. I would make the most of the time we had left with him.

I’m so afraid that my kids won’t remember their uncle. I carry the burden of wondering if this will prove to be even more difficult because of the two years they lost with him. I thought I’d made the right decision for my children, to keep Edmund out of their lives. But was it? Or was it my ego and forty-one years of sibling history that drove my decision?

I have beaten myself up for this, talked it to death, forgiven myself, and then repeated the cycle all over again. I have been down the road of unsaid apologies and good-byes that were too late before.

I can claim that events, unfortunately, played out in the manner that I predicted. I knew that he was going to die from the disease, and I was right. Yet I so wish I hadn’t been right. I honestly, naively, thought it would have taken longer for him to succumb, but his body was done. At forty-one years old. In the immediate aftermath of my brother’s passing I doubted my choices. With the passage of time, I’m not so sure. What would have been the cost to my children if I had? What if he’d collapsed in front of them, or been incoherent? Would they have been scared? Or what if they’d laughed at him, not understanding that he wasn’t trying to be funny? As it is now, they smile when they talk about Edmund, which they do quite a bit. Would that have been the case had they seen him at his worst?

I followed my gut and did what I thought was best for my kids. Maybe I did the right thing, but it still hurts and that’s a pain I’ll have to live with, but at least they won’t.

•••

ALLIE SMITH lives in suburban Atlanta and is a wife and mother of four children, with twins and special needs in the mix. She writes about parenting, autism and the journey of motherhood at www.thelatchkeymom.com. She also writes book reviews for Chick Lit Plus. During the summers, Allie takes epic road trips with her children, exploring the wonders of our country. These adventures are documented in a travel column for My Forsyth magazine.

Not Now, and Maybe Never

bassinet
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Beth Bailey

If my life were a sitcom, or one of those feather-light family dramas paraded out each year with its supposedly new treatment of the same dusty issues, I’d have seen the plot twist coming miles out. My sister’s text message should have said everything. “Are you busy? I have something I need to tell you that I don’t want to text.”

While I typed that I was free, I thought of the plethora of things that could have happened. Had she or her boyfriend had another relapse? Did she lose her cat again? Was she going to ask for money to tide her over for the next month? Had I accidentally divulged one of her numerous secrets to our parents?

I didn’t have time to consider other possibilities because the phone was already ringing.

“Hey, how are you? What’s up?” This was me, anxiously trying to gauge the urgency of the situation.

“Sissy, I’m pregnant.”

When people get news like this, they make a big, sweeping statement, something like, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” I used to think that those types of declarations were overwrought, but suddenly, I could commiserate. My head was reeling. I had to sit down and remind myself to breathe as I underwent a series of indescribable and permanent emotional transmutations.

My five-years-younger sister, a recovering addict with just months left in her several-year course of study in beauty school, was pregnant. The father was working on his own recovery. “He was scared,” my sister admitted when she described her boyfriend’s reaction to finding out he was soon going to be a father. “But then he wrote down this list of things he wanted to do for the baby. It was so cute.”

For the next few minutes, my sister paraded out a very thorough overview of how she came to discover she was pregnant. First, she said, she felt tired. “I didn’t even want to put on my makeup,” she said. The same day, all the other girls at beauty school told her that she looked like shit.

“I knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I told my boyfriend, and he said I was just being silly. He said, ‘You always think you’re pregnant.’ He and I got in a big fight about whether we could afford a pregnancy test. I walked out after the fight and went straight to the store. I spent the last two dollars in my account on some crappy store-brand tests. When I took the first one, there were two lines—faint, but pink. I tried again two days later. They were darker that time. I told Mom, and she said to wait, but I explained to her, you don’t get a false positive. It’s rare. Over the weekend, we went to the free clinic and they said I was definitely pregnant.”

“But … are you happy?” I wondered aloud.

“Yeah. I know it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but…”

•••

I had been dying to have this very conversation with my friends and family for what seems like forever. I have wanted to have a baby since the day after I married my husband. We will celebrate our two-year anniversary in six months. In times of old, we would already have one baby. Our second would be cooking in my stretch-marked, vertical-lined belly. I would exclaim with fervor about how often I felt my babies kick, and I’d lament to anyone who would listen about my morning sickness, the aches in my back. I would wax poetic about the knowledge that a life was growing inside of me. This was supposed to be my time in the sun.

Instead, my sister was pregnant at twenty-two. My sister who had been kicked off my dad’s car insurance for having too many speeding tickets and at-fault accidents to remain insurable. My sister who has to rely on a healthy—no, corpulent—injection of funds from my parents to make ends meet every month. My sister who has relapsed several times already, and who doesn’t yet have a year of sobriety under her belt. My sister was going to experience the unbridled joy of parenthood, albeit on a shoestring budget.

I went to the refrigerator and wrenched the cap from a bottle of beer. I walked briskly into the next room, leaned over our mahogany wine rack, and grabbed the first bottle of white I saw. Without ceremony, I threw it in the freezer of our new gourmet refrigerator.

•••

My grandmother had her first child nine months to the day after she was married. She’s Catholic, and whenever we talk, she chides me about not going to mass enough. Several weeks ago, I called her to chat. “You can call during the day?” she asked, incredulous. I explained that my new job was something I did from home, and that I was just a volunteer. “I see,” she said in disgust. I told her about how I was starting to ready one of our spare upstairs rooms for a nursery. I could hear her suck in her breath. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” She spat the last bit like an accusation.

I cringed. At twenty-seven, didn’t I have the right to be pregnant? “No, Grandma. I just wanted to get the space ready for when we are.”

“Good,” she said, clearly relieved. “You’re not ready.”

I reminded her about the proximity of my dad’s birth to her marriage date, but it made no difference. For a reason I’m not privy to, she doesn’t think we should be having kids.

My husband and I own a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house with over an acre of sprawling lawn and mature woods. My husband works as an electrical engineer and I stay home, spending my time curating a startup Etsy shop, funneling my anger and passion into often half-baked writing endeavors, and cooking in our granite and stainless-steel kitchen. Admittedly, I am a terrible cleaner. My husband does all the vacuuming and the only mopping that actually cleans our oak floors. I tend to just spread around the dog hair and dust.

What about any of that made me an unsuitable candidate for parenthood? I wasn’t sure.

It took me weeks after that conversation to realize all over again that I was prepared for my eventual expedition into parenthood. More than half my planning is already done, for heaven’s sake. I know that I want to breastfeed, and which kind of bathtub insert I want for my children. I know that I want to give birth in a hospital where there are birthing tubs, and that I’d like to forego having an epidural, if I can handle it. I know exactly how many prenatal visits our health insurance will cover, and even when I’d like to conceive so that I’m not heavy with child in the hot summer months. Especially, I know that once I am pregnant, my life will change forever, and in ways even I cannot premeditate.

Immediately I sense that my sister is blithely unaware of the intricacies of what she will be undertaking. My first hint is that she doesn’t understand the three-months rule—that most women don’t tell people they’re pregnant until they’re three months along, as that is considered the point after which a spontaneous miscarriage is least likely.

“I’m twenty-two, though,” she says. “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll probably be fine.”

Just throw another dagger, I want to say. But I don’t. Instead, I play the role of the good older sister. I try my hardest to be supportive of her difficult decision and not to let her see how much I am personally and selfishly hurting.

I also fill the rest of my familial duty by peppering her with questions about things she has yet to consider. Has she thought about the price of child care? What happens if the baby’s father doesn’t stick around? Has she considered adoption? I tell her she really ought to keep it in the back of her mind, just in case.

•••

Even as I mention adoption to my sister, I understand how it must sound. My sister and I are both adopted. We are the most different people you can possibly imagine, and that’s because we have vastly different genetic makeups, which I believe contained the hard-wiring for the people we would become.

When we were growing up, my sister refused to accept our parents as her parents. She felt separate from them, and she wanted desperately to be reunited with her birth mother. She was certain that when she did meet her birth mother, she would have the life she always dreamed of: love and unicorns and rainbow glitter skies. Of course, the rest of us knew it wouldn’t have worked that way, but we all loved my sister too much to explain the meaning of “closed adoption.” By the time she was five, my sister’s adoption became the banner she marched into emotionally-devastating battles; her birthday the scene of many a tragic lamentation and outburst rather than a day of joy.

I never felt the way my sister did. I understood what “closed” meant, and I loved my parents. Still, every good drama needs a plot twist, and mine arrived when I was twenty, when I finally learned that my adoption had always been incredibly different than my sister’s.

When my birth mother released me to my parents, she sent along a short letter, which was to be given to me on my eighteenth birthday. My parents gave me this letter two years late. The paper was blue and white, the words written in a lovely round script. “To the baby girl I gave up for adoption,” it read. “If I loved you a little, I would have kept you for myself. But I love you a lot, so I am giving you up.” According to my birth mother’s letter, on reaching adulthood, I could petition Catholic Charities to find her identity. I was astonished. Growing up thinking that I’d never know my birth parents, I hadn’t considered the whole world of possibilities that I now knew could be waiting for me. The prospect was a lot to take in.

“Your sister can’t know,” my parents reminded me, over and over again. “She would be devastated.”

Years later, as I was preparing to marry and move out of my home state, I finally petitioned Catholic Charities. In a matter of weeks, I was united with both sides of my birth family. From the outset, I was startled and pleasantly overwhelmed by the outpouring of excitement and love from the people whose genes I carry. It was, and still is, a fairy tale. Even in fairy tales, however, there is scar tissue underlying all that sparkling joy.

A great deal of sadness permeates my birth family—children tragically lost, relationships strained by lies and secrets kept—but one of the most poignant and untold stories revolves around my birth mother. At twenty years old and between colleges, she had made a hard decision for herself when she found herself pregnant with me. She knew that she couldn’t be the kind of parent she thought I deserved, and she didn’t want me to spend my life shuffling between various family members while she eked out a living.

In the years that passed after my adoption, though, the separation weighed on her. She listened extra hard when strangers spoke of their adopted children, and she looked closely at passing girls or young women who seemed close to my age. Every year on the birthday that we share, she and her husband would take a drive past the hospital where I was born. I can’t imagine how she handled the seven years between my eighteenth birthday and the year we finally met.

Even my newfound relatives bring up my birth mother’s sadness. As only family can, they paint their speculation and concern with a brush that manages to be both coarse and fine.

The only people who really matter in this are my birth mother and myself, and we have rested on the light assertion that we found each other at just the right time, when we were both finally ready.

“You wouldn’t have liked the person I was before,” I told her once, and I truly meant it. I didn’t even like that person.

•••

There is so much baggage inherently tangled up in adoption that I have misgivings recommending it to my sister. But more than that, I have firsthand knowledge of a slew of things that give me deep concerns about my sister’s soon-to-be motherhood.

When we were growing up, my sister was always the difficult one. The chores I took on at age seven, for instance, were not inherited by my sister at the same age. I saw injustice in this, but it was explained away easily. “It’s too much of a fight to get her to set the table, honey,” my mom would say in her most exasperated voice. “Could you please just do it?” And with that, I would be off doing two children’s worth of chores while my sister screamed and cried and gnashed her teeth about things as simple as turning off the television or copying out a list of twenty spelling words.

As she got older, my sister’s issues only escalated. She was bipolar and dyslexic, with a wicked case of ADHD. She was also a serial perfectionist; if a paper my sister wrote or a homework assignment she finished wasn’t clean and error-free, she wouldn’t hand it in. That was only applicable in the classes she liked. In the others, like math, she simply didn’t pay attention. Not surprisingly, her grades were abysmal.

Other issues kept cropping up with increased frequency. My sister chopped off all her hair á là Britney Spears in one of her bipolar depressions, and shortly thereafter, she threatened suicide. Next, she started to lie about where she was on weekend evenings with friends, and on several occasions, I watched in awe as my younger sister was carted home drunk or high. Once, she ran away from home for almost two weeks. While she was gone, neither of my parents would call the police to report her as a runaway; they were too worried that they might give her a police record.

Meanwhile, from what ought to have been a safe distance away at college, I was slowly going insane. My mouth broke out in stress ulcers from all the phone calls from my parents, who vented their frustrations about my sister to me rather than to one another because they no longer spoke. I acted out in stupid and destructive ways, and I went from having a three-point-something GPA to falling asleep in all my classes and getting my first failing grades.

Most of my antics and issues went unnoticed, though, because things were even worse for my sister. Over the next few years, she turned eighteen and started drinking to incredible excess. That quickly escalated to serious drug use. In her post-high school years, my sister trashed several apartments across the state of Virginia because she was always messed up, and unable to function like a normal young adult. Soon after moving back home from a brief stint at a community college near JMU, my sister got incredibly intoxicated and tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She called a friend to say goodbye, and instead of accepting my sister’s decision, her friend called 911.

When the ambulance came, my sister was furious. At the hospital, a host of nurses fed my sister whatever you give kids who OD on pills, maybe charcoal. Maybe they pumped her stomach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that somehow, they saved her.

My dad called me the next evening to tell me what had happened. I was in DC for two weeks of work training at the time, and when I got the belated news, I felt like my life was falling apart before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. My sister and I may not have ever been close, but I did not want to lose her. She was my sister, my partner in many a silly crime. She was the girl who always woke me up on Christmas morning to tell me how she’d gotten around our parents’ elaborate holiday security barriers. Even though I always begged her not to, she never failed to divulge exactly what Santa had brought each of us the night before.

While my sister was recovering at a psychiatric hospital, I called her several times a day. I remember that it was hard to get her to stay on the phone. She was mad and her fuse was short. The nurses, she said, were mean to her.

Because my sister was legally an adult, she was able to check herself out of the psychiatric hospital and come back home. She was determined to stay sober, she said. That determination lasted a few days. After that, the Facebook statuses about trying to hide her binge drinking from my parents started coming fast and furious. My sister had blocked my parents from being able to see her page, but she hadn’t blocked me, and I had no qualms about playing the narc. Every time that I saw another indicator that my sister was back on the path of killing herself, I called each of my parents at their separate homes to rat her out. They seemed to think it was no big deal, that everything was fine. “You’re not here,” they’d say. “You don’t see her every day.” And as usual, they continued to speak to me and not to one another.

A few days later, I got a phone call at seven on a Saturday morning. My sister was on the other end, slurring her speech and telling me how sorry she was for myriad random things she’d done wrong. We had a long conversation, none of which she remembers. Finally, I managed to get her to tell me that she was at my mom’s house, that she’d been drinking and she’d overdosed on a handful of pills for a second time. I tried to call my mom, but my sister, who had broken approximately her fifteenth cell phone, was using my mom’s cell phone, and my mom was nowhere to be found. After watching my sister stumble around the house and howl at an imaginary maid on Face Time, I called my dad. He eventually called an ambulance and followed my sister to the ER. He stayed there by my sister’s side as she told an unfazed nurse about the astounding variety and extent of her drug use. Over the next few hours, my sister’s hallucinations grew worse. She told my dad in vivid detail about the ghosts in the hospital room with them. She heard them as clear as a bell and spoke with them as if they really were there.

My sister’s next stop was the same psychiatric hospital she’d been in weeks earlier. This time, however, a judge ruled that she could not check herself out. The hospital was still just a stop-gap measure, and an expensive one; my family needed to hastily find a long-term rehabilitation facility that would accept their health insurance. Within days, they found a place in Florida where a spot was open, and my sister was sent there by herself on a plane with a layover in Atlanta. We all bit our nails to the bone while she was en route; it was entirely possible that my sister might try to jump ship midway through her travels. We took our own separate breaths of fresh air when the rehab facility confirmed that my sister was in their care.

When her time at rehab ended, my sister got and stayed clean living in a halfway house in Pensacola. After a time, she tried to go back to community college to make my parents happy. By her twenty-first birthday, which stupidly coincided with the week of my husband’s and my open bar wedding, she almost had a year of sobriety. She handled the wedding so well that several months later, my parents convinced her to move back to Virginia.

At home, the stress of being near all her old, bad-influence friends was too much for my sister. Just weeks into the new arrangement, some stupid kid convinced her to have “just one” drink. Many addicts will tell you that there’s no such thing as “just one drink.” “One is too many, and one hundred isn’t enough,” my sister used to say. The last time I heard her say it was just a few days before she fell off the thirteen-month wagon. It was August, and my mother was supposed to come visit for my birthday. She didn’t know what to do about my sister relapsing, so she thought she’d bring her up for the visit, too. I thought about the boxes of good Virginia wine stashed in the basement, the main floor liquor cabinet, our wine rack. Mostly, I thought about the way my sister was when she drank, and I wanted to scream. Instead, I was quiet, mouse-like: my usual self. Luckily, my husband played the hard-ass. He said that if my sister was back on the sauce, she wasn’t allowed in his house. It was the right decision, but not an easy one even to relay. Days later, my sister was headed back to her Florida halfway house to start over again.

Somewhere in there, I am missing something. Although my sister has been back in Florida now for over a year, she still hasn’t hit a year of sobriety. I don’t know when she slipped in Florida, or how, but I know she has. So, with a rusty track record of staying away from substances, she is expecting a child. And she is thrilled about it.

•••

My sister is taking in all my advice and my anxiety-filled diatribes like a champ. “I want to make this happen,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it’s time for me. I did all the stupid stuff most people do in their twenties, and I did it in my teens. It’s out of my system. I’m excited.”

I can’t imagine being so calm about being responsible for a life, especially when there has been so much uncertainty in one’s own current existence. I am flabbergasted, gob smacked. Mostly, though, I am jealous beyond measure at her grace and composure, her certainty, and the fact that she is going to have a baby, and I am not. She must sense it, even over the phone lines that span the thousand-and-change miles between us.

“You’re not mad, are you?” she asks me. “I mean, you were supposed to be the one having kids…”

“No, I’m not mad. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not like you planned this. It’s not like you wanted to get pregnant to spite me. This has nothing to do with me.”

This is what I ought to say in my role as supporter, mediator, life-saver. It’s not exactly a lie. I just have not yet figured out how to verbalize—or contend with—my disjointed alternate worlds of past, present, and possible future. Not now, and maybe never.

•••

BETH BAILEY lives in rural Michigan, where she is a wife and the proud owner of two fantastic and neurotic dogs. While finishing her first novel, Among the Stones, about love and the war in Afghanistan, Beth writes the occasional personal essay and has started working on a collection of essays about veterans of war. Her work has been published by Words After War. You can follow her on Twitter at BWBailey85.

That Smell

woman in bed
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer James

It happens everywhere, in all kinds of situations; I’ll walk up to someone and smell That Smell. The last time it happened to me was the first day of Advent when all the families with young children gathered in our church parish hall to construct Advent wreaths. The smell wasn’t the first thing I noticed. In fact, when I first arrived with my husband and three children, the room smelled of old wood, fresh coffee, and evergreen boughs: genuine magic in the air. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, waiting for its bright lights and colorful ornaments. There were already some jars of peanut butter and Campbell’s soup under the tree for the food pantry. For me, it was the best of the Christmas season.

Then one of my favorite peeps at church, this young, amazing mom, with two little kids, came up and gave me a hug. I smelled the smell. You know it too, and it’s not armpit odor, or old urine, or greasy hair. It’s the smell of human skin trying to metabolize, to slough off, the stench of alcohol. You also probably know that this smell is not emitted (generally speaking) by some emotionally stable person who spent the previous evening nursing a tepid glass of merlot. Nope. This is the smell of poison, the result of one person consuming too much alcohol for his or her body to take. I know about this smell. I used to smell that way, too.

The first time I noticed my own skin generating alcoholic stench was one sunny December morning when I was teaching preschool. My husband’s company Christmas party had taken place the night before and there was lots of wine and beer. Lots of wine for me. Then, lots of chit chat. Chit-chat with my table mates about abortion. My Catholic tablemates. Whoops. Any grace I’d come to the table with had gone down with the third or fourth glass of wine. The next morning, I woke up nauseated and ashamed. This was a significant occasion for me, this one morning.

It would be very nice if I could tell you that I knew I’d been drinking too much, that I needed to stop or cut down. But no. I realized that I needed to do a much better job of hiding my relationship with alcohol. Otherwise, the jig would be up. And I was nowhere near ready to surrender my favorite thing, so no more drinking excessively in public.

There is a book called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Not surprisingly, she likens her relationship with alcohol to one with a lover. I like the analogy because, like it or not, most of us have loved someone who or something that is bad for us. Sometimes the loved one is a parent, a lover, a boss, a friend. Sometimes a job or food. But no matter how disastrous the relationship is, there’s always a moment, an episode, an element of deep, searing satisfaction to the whole mess. In an abusive relationship, it might be the part when the abuser begs for forgiveness, swears that his victim is kind and generous beyond belief, that he might cease to exist without her. Shit, that’s heady stuff: who among us doesn’t want to hear that? If only the truth in those promises lasted more than an instant. And eventually, alcohol does something cruel to its lovers: it tries to kill us.

For years, I hated alcohol. My mother was an alcoholic. She was one of the kindest, bravest, most loving people I’ve known, but her relationship with alcohol sucked away a lot of that. She was quietly depressed her whole adult life, so far as I could see. She was never violent or cruel, not short tempered or really angry. She was just irreparably sad and the alcohol made it very hard to hide that. I didn’t want that for myself.

Because I was afraid of becoming as sad as my mom, I didn’t use alcohol in many of the glorious ways that so many miserable adolescents do. I didn’t use it to fit in or to grease social skids. I didn’t use it to feel more confident or brave. Nope. I went through high school as a bona fide misfit. I was pudgy (and this is before the so-called obesity epidemic hit America) and as a child, had been raised in a series of small, international communities. It was no big deal for me to have one classmate who spoke three words of English and another who was fluent in three languages. So when my family returned to the U.S. for good when I was fifteen, I had no idea how to navigate The American High School. When most of my peers were exploring chemical solutions to adolescent angst, I didn’t touch the stuff. In retrospect, this may have been a tactical error: I desperately needed some social lubrication.

Probably, these years of social pariahism helped make my introduction to alcohol so dramatic. Alcoholism is tricky business from a scientific point of view. The current thinking seems to be that some alcoholics are alcoholic from their first sip of alcohol, that their first drink was like a first kiss or something, that the compulsion to drink came with the first rush. Then, there are others who drink themselves into addiction: the folks who start by drinking “a couple“ of drinks a night, and gradually work into “a few” drinks a night, and then somehow start using it to make it through the day as some people use Diet Dr. Pepper or Starbucks. Some people are lucky enough to get some nifty little psychological tic (sometimes not until their thirties or forties) and find that deep breathing and Zoloft are not nearly as effective as a well-timed glass (or tumbler or stadium cup) of Chardonnay. I’ve known people with all these backgrounds. In a way, I am a person with all these backgrounds.

I had a proclivity to anxiety and panic attacks from the start (my psychological tic), started consuming a few drinks about mid-way through college, with little effect. I was waiting for a magical transformation to transpire from the elixir smuggled into dorm fridges via grungy backpacks, and when it didn’t happen, I lost interest. That was probably the point in my drinking experience when I could have stopped. I was well ensconced in the life of a social misfit in college, just as I had been in high school, and I could have muddled through the social challenges unaided by alcohol if I’d been truly aware of how my genetics and experience made me such a likely candidate for alcoholism.

That was the time when I could have stopped. That doesn’t mean I would have. And I remember the night I started drinking with purpose, with an understanding that an alchemy occurred when enough beer was consumed. Some friends from high school had gotten together at someone’s house, the parents conveniently out of town, and rum, beer, god-knows-what beverages running freely. I got drunk. Like, crawling up the stairs, stumbling into things, drunk. And while the hangover hurt like childbirth, I had found some magic in that night: for just a little bit of time, I felt normal. I felt good, even. Pretty, funny, accomplished. Ha.

Alcohol was my first love. It was like a secret passport, giving me license to be a person I never knew I could be. Add beer and I wasn’t afraid of anything. Because I started this chapter of my life in college, I could look to the right and to the left, and always find someone who was drunker than I was. It never occurred to me that I might have a drinking problem: I was having a good time! It wasn’t like I was a diligent student before I discovered alcohol, and drinking didn’t make my schoolwork much worse than it had been previously.

Despite the hangovers and ill-advised hook-ups, I survived college intact. I collected a degree and a boyfriend. The boyfriend, Ed, was an anomaly. Ed was handsome, kind, wise, and funny. He was nice to me. He drank beer right along with me, but I didn’t have to be drunk to be with him. God bless him, he married me. And besides alcohol, Ed was the only thing I’d ever found in my life that made me feel whole.

Shortly after college, my husband and I were struggling professionally and financially, and I was having trouble finding work. I spent a lot of lonely days in our crappy little apartment feeling sorry for myself and watching whatever VHS tapes were available for loan at the local library (my Blockbuster habit was breaking us). I noticed that a beer (or three) around four in the afternoon helped to make the evening more pleasant. And again, alcohol became the only way I knew to feel okay again.

But even alcohol and a kind husband weren’t enough to fix everything that was broken in me. I was a hot mess. By my mid-twenties, I was overcome with weird, irrational fears, and some whiney-flavored depression. I was working at the preschool with young children, whom I loved. I didn’t always love the adults who came with them, however, and frankly, young children in groups bigger than—well, two, being generous—makes me a little panicky. So, I would come home from work at about four and drink a bottle of wine. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the meantime, I was having gruesome nightmares involving faceless vampire-like beings and dead people who inexplicably opened their eyes. I was convinced that I would die very soon. It would be cancer or AIDS that did me in, and I was too petrified to even contemplate going to a doctor to confirm or disprove my insanity. As a result, I would require my poor husband to examine my lumps and bumps and to tell me I wasn’t dying, really. You can imagine that Ed had his hands full. But somehow he managed not to drink a bottle of wine every night. It was a mystery.

Eventually, after one particularly grueling night of drinking and weeping (I had just watched a chick flick about a young woman who died of cancer: surely, I was next), I called a counselor. God bless Eleanor, she talked to me and my inner child, and we all talked about my mom and I actually got better, kind of. Every good alcoholic knows to lie about their alcohol intake unless they’re itching for an intervention, so I never told Eleanor how much I drank. I started taking Prozac and it helped my brain even out some. I wasn’t so worried about dying all the time, and got down to the business of living. I still had wine as an ally, but I was trying to control my drinking now. Only weekends and such.

For me, it wasn’t long before the weekends seeped into Wednesdays and Mondays and who could really blame me for a glass of wine on Tuesday night? A couple of years passed. I left teaching and tried another couple of gigs: travel agent, legal secretary. I settled in as a receptionist at my local veterinary clinic, feeling sorry for myself for my lack of ambition.

By the time I was miserable enough to quit drinking, I was not missing days of work, only occasionally driving drunk, and not closing down the bars. I’d never had a drink in the morning. I’d never cheated on my husband. My life was simply, quietly, a mess. Because alcohol had become the most important part of my life. I loved my husband but only wanted to spend the day with him if the day included alcohol. I loved my newborn nephew but resented the idea of caring for him over a weekend’s time because I knew I’d have to stay relatively sober for the duration.

So I quit. After much consternation and many false starts, some meetings in church basements and coffee shops were involved. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own. I went to meetings because I was more afraid not to. I didn’t find them as comforting as many people do, but at least I was in the company of other people who understood what it was like to love a drink more than anything or anyone else in the world. Eighteen years later, I still don’t drink and still go to meetings.

In my experience (and only mine), the twelve-step programs are kind of like church: you can find a fundamentalist church if that’s what floats your boat. If you’re more of a universalist who doesn’t dig creeds or rituals, you can probably find a worship service to accommodate those preferences. As alcoholics go, I’m more of a universalist. I couldn’t have maintained my sobriety or sanity without good therapy and a lifelong relationship with antidepressants. I don’t like it when people make a list of rules that I have to follow if I want to live. That doesn’t feel like hope to me—more like a threat. Still, those famous twelve guidelines and the people who brought them to me were a part of my salvation because they promoted humility, honesty, and kindness. There aren’t many places you can find those attributes in this life.

I stopped drinking because one morning I understood that I couldn’t have a full life if I kept drinking. One of my friends from work had come to visit me the night before. She was a much more advanced drunk than I was. At least that’s what I told myself. We sat around and drank and drank until we could barely stand. We felt sorry for ourselves together. We watched soap operas and god knows what else. When my husband came home from work that night, I am quite sure that he felt that sickness in his chest that all people who live with alcoholics feel when they open the door and find a stranger inhabiting the body of their loved one. My friend and I slurred our greetings to him, giddy with our chemical wisdom and angst, and then my friend got in her car and drove home. Yep. Just like that.

And when I woke up that next morning, it was with That Smell emanating from my pores. That same smell I get when I hug a person in the parish hall at church, when a bank representative leans in to show me where to sign. I know that the person across from me is suffering, not just from processing toxins through their pores but from trading away little bits of their soul, one glass at a time. There are a lot of us out there. You can tell us by the way our eyes light up when someone pours a drink. The way we joke about needing a drink. All the time.

All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death. When people “die” from alcoholism, it’s often not from cirrhosis or an automobile accident. It can be a fall. Or a fight. It can be a quiet, chemical whisper telling you, “one more pill won’t hurt.” After alcoholism seduces its victims with easy laughter and imaginary confidence, it sets out to spread darkness, like a nasty cancer. You’ll know the darkness when you choose a glass of wine over your child’s cry or a blurred drive home over your personal, legal, and moral safety.

So when I smell That Smell on someone else, I want to hug them. I hope they’ll drink a lot of water and get a nap later in the day. I want them to know that they are not alone, that other people have woken with that same crust on their souls.

For me, kindness made all the difference. I had to understand that I was suffering from a physical, moral, and spiritual disease, and that I had to find a way to live as it was, not as I wished it was. And damn it, life can be a mess sometimes. It can be magical, uncomfortable, frightening, tender, tedious, and exhilarating—sometimes simultaneously—and none of it is in your control. Still, there is a certain freedom in accepting this chaos and in walking through the messiness with your spirit intact.

Weirdly, I found myself enjoying being a sober person. I found that it was okay to be wickedly uncomfortable at social settings, that I didn’t have to punctuate every event, good, bad, or boring, with a drink. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.  But I don’t wake up poisoned anymore, with That Smell on my skin, or in my heart, for that matter.  And that is a reason to celebrate every new morning, whatever the day ahead might hold.

•••

JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. A good story is her favorite thing.

Picking Up

pick-up
By ashleigh290/ Flickr

By Sonya Huber

Stuck in traffic on the Merritt Parkway heading south in Connecticut on a Tuesday morning, I’m staring at the tailgate of a beat-up, black pickup truck in the lane ahead of me. An extension ladder hangs on the struts of a metal support above the truck bed, which is scattered with buckets of tools. The tailgate sports the geometric logo of Narcotics Anonymous and the slogan “Never alone, Never again.”

Traffic unclogs, and the green of a New England morning in July blurs past. Even as my car speeds forward, my mind has been hurled backward into to my former life with the sight of that bumper sticker. No—I never met anyone in a parking lot to pay for drugs. I never shook with the physical ache of withdrawal. I just loved an addict. For a long time.

•••

The addict I loved drove a weathered, blue pickup. When we first locked eyes over coffee, he told me a heartbreaking version of the hard-life stories in own family. I saw a man valiantly struggling to right the legacy of wrongs in the fruits of his family tree. He didn’t say, “Hi, would you like to sleep with someone with a substance abuse problem?”

He took me on adventures: fossil picking near a hidden waterfall, a flea market, a drag race. He wrote me notes and left flowers and cooked dinner. As we ate the chicken he’d cooked and ladled from his own crockpot, he told me I had saved him, and I protested. No, nobody did any saving, I said. But I enjoyed the stories he told in which I was cast as Wonder Woman. The stories in my own head starred me being good enough, so a cape and invisible car gave me a rush. Plus, he was sexy.

Once, early on, he left me naked on his loft bed for an uncomfortable moment of silence. I heard the tinkering of his drug tools. As the sweat cooled on my body, I knew another love had taken my Wonder Woman status. No—I half-knew she’d been there long before me. No—I had no idea how deep she was into him; she was his origin song, his mother. I pulled on my jeans and ran from his house, and he chased after me. Later, as we walked beneath the oaks that lined my street, he mulled and said, “I should just quit. I’ve thought about it.”

I, for my part, honestly thought quitting was an option, a simple decision.

I weighed and mulled. I sought advice. “He’s great on paper,” said a sympathetic single friend. The dating pool had slimmed out through marriages, hopelessly twisted personalities, and band guys.

Fast forward years of Googling—is he an addict?—and wondering and diagnoses and indecision about whether to leave.

Because…it was just pot.

So of course I didn’t think it was a big deal at all until I got sucked up into a maelstrom and watched as this one life was derailed.

Yes, I have heard about Sanjay Gupta. No, I don’t think pot is a problem for most people, but people get addicted to standing in front of a slot machine. This is not even about pot. This is not an attack on your Saturday night or your aunt’s legal medical marijuana treatment for cancer. This is about a distant cousin: addiction. If you don’t know much about addiction, you are lucky you don’t know much about addiction.

I clung to my coffee cup and my to-do list and my furious ability to work, and almost nobody knew. I amped myself up on work and my checkbook balance and the hope of scraping enough together to make Plan B. And we stayed together.

The sordid scenes left me shaking. I could frame the moments with their fractured details, but each postcard of me crying in the night could be turned over to read the secret message: Wish I Wasn’t Here With Him. Why AM I Still Here? I was still there—with him. For my own complicated reasons involving hope, my own drug of choice.

•••

Then one day he called me, said, I can’t do this any more. The world had crumbled in a friend’s back yard, where the summer light made the undersides of the dense trees look like an inverse x-ray, a web of black with light at the edges. A knot had tied in his soul. He touched some electric edge in himself. He told me on the phone that he got too high—even with all his experience, he had crossed into the raw slippery meat of his own brain.

It was a secret day for him, maybe not a day he celebrates now.

I trembled as I waited for him to come home, scared like the waiting before birth or death: he was choosing us or maybe something different that included me. He saw the outlines of his life as unworkable, which took such guts.

He entered the house with the colors of his face in livid contrast: reds and whites, blacks of the eyes, the mouth. Half of himself had fallen to the inside. He lay on the bed and I was terrified for him. I had longed for this afternoon, had imagined the action in film stills. In the living of it, I was frozen in a strobe light of my uselessness.

More symptoms would come: The creepy crawlies, a splitting headache that triggered his migraines, dizziness and nausea, sweating. Flu-like symptoms and chills. Later, the insomnia and nightmares. Weeks of aggression, blasted thoughts, plunging depression.

We paged through the phone book—tiny letters, thin pages—in a low spot for which there was no 911 to call. This was too common, we learned, and too expensive for 911. I left messages, handed him the phone when I reached the intake nurse. We took turns on hold with cell and home phones, nodding, taking notes, eyeing each other frantically as we heard phrases like “two month waiting list” or “we could call you when we get an opening” or “we don’t take insurance.” All those private places at the outskirts of the city would be too expensive and too slow. The timing of the crisis and the solution seemed incredibly mismatched. What they didn’t say: twenty million people per year in the U.S. needed treatment and could not get it due to cost and lack of beds. We just wanted one.

We found the city option on the cheap: an intake meeting tomorrow and then outpatient meetings during the day and groups at night. He’d stay at home for detox. Work was out of the question. The schedule would keep him contained and safe, with time filled and one place to go. I revered his effort and his guts.

I had hoped for this upheaval, but in practice it a quiet accident, a water leak. No one could know.

One day after he’d gone to group, I sat in the park. I went for a walk where I always walked, but I didn’t even make it to the path. I sat down in a kind of squashed kneel in the outfield of a baseball diamond, my calves alongside my thighs, the way kids sit. I closed my eyes and could not even scream. I felt a glowing heat devouring me, not grief but anger in its purest form. The meteor in my stomach weighed me down, too heavy to even carry. Why be angry?

Dumbfounded, dumbstruck: I had not imagined I’d be shattered at being right. I had guessed that this secret might define our lives, but even more secretly I hoped I was wrong. I hoped this phase would pass without a crisis. This was the birth of the next part of our lives, but dirty, like in a gas station bathroom off an anonymous exit.

A friend put me in her car, and we drove past the outskirts of the city, along a highway to a tourist attraction near the town where she grew up. There was an ice cream stand and a goat pen. You could put a quarter into a red metal machine and twist the knob to get kibble to feed the goats with their angular slotted pupils.

I have those flashes frozen like fresh rescue in my head: a goat clambering up a slanted board to reach his neck over the planks of a fence, his lips straining and flapping to reach nuggets of processed food. My hand on his bony back, the bristly fur. Inside the breezy stand with chained-off looping lines like a carnival ride where I stood. I think I bought a shake, and I think it was strawberry. Even as we rode the highway loop, I knew it would end up with me back at home, empty handed, no comfort to offer. In the end, there were times I had to put stuff in the car and flee, just to get out of the way of the unhinging, unspooling.

•••

The other addicts mocked him in the meetings, planting the seeds of his relapse as they all ground their teeth and raged with red-rimmed eyes. THC can’t make a lab rat’s heart explode. God, how those newly clean, irritable, and strained people in chairs railed at each other, raw as pain without skin, competitive about how close they’d come to the lip of hell. Whose hell was better, stronger, faster. The sickest turn on each other, as they will turn on loved ones, rounding on anyone to shred to distract from their own misery.

His counselor met with him privately and sketched out his damage: because he had used regularly before he was fifteen, he was five times as likely to be an addict as your average smoker. Starting early was kind of a cause, but there was always another factor—everything in his young life—that led to smoking up. Call it the genes, the interaction of the drug in the brain, a crushing narcissism, stresses in the home and beyond—new studies even say that the high itself is not what the brain craves, but that the high comes with a dose of doom that only the drug will lift, and the brain yearns only for relief.

We heard figures I had to look up later to understand, the numbers of people unhappily dependent. It wasn’t cool to worry about pot, his gateway sweetheart, but we were so uncool now. His drug won first prize, four and a half million no-big-deals seeking treatment per annum.

Rehab and recovery brought us to family meetings where we sat in circles, telling secrets. And I got to see him, who he really was behind the chemical screen he’d worn the whole time I’d loved him, and I fell in love twice as hard as the first time. I re-pledged myself to him, then he relapsed. Then again.

•••

I kept going to group meetings for friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts, and I had to pass the gauntlet of alcoholics and addicts who stood near the church basement’s entryway, wreathed in cigarette smoke. They’d nod and say Hey, and I’d ignore them. Or worse, I’d give them the look that equaled death. You demons. You homewreckers, all of you, I thought.

Not so many years ago, I would see a car on the highway with a recovery message on its bumper, and I’d shudder. I’d send out a prayer to that poor sap’s partner, if she hadn’t already left him.

We wore our relationship down to nothing and the drugs won, or I lost. Or I won. Or the battle got played out. After I left, I stayed in the groups because they helped me understand the person I had become. I parked in lots next to cars with bumper stickers saying “Never Alone. Never Again.” I passed through the smoke-wreathed gauntlet of addicts and alcoholics so often that they began to frighten me less. Then I began to go to some of their meetings to hear them speak. I knew their spouses and kids. I began to see in their eyes a humanity that I had lost the ability to see in my former love.

Now he’s still with me in the thousand pop-culture reference to the drug in songs and on t-shirts and in casual conversations. He’s with me when I see any of the thousand references to his drug of choice.

Now I accelerate to pass the black pickup truck and turn my head to the right to catch a look at the driver. I am a practiced eye, even racing on a highway in tandem. I see, despite his sunglasses, a posture of calm and a skin color of health gracing the presence of this stranger up as early as I am on this Tuesday morning. I want to roll down my window and cheer him with a hero’s greeting, but I settle for flashing him a smile.

•••

SONYA HUBER has written two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a writing textbook, The Backwards Research Guide: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program. She’s at work on a book-length essayistic memoir on the topic of substance abuse. More info at www.sonyahuber.com.

Autobiographies

bar stools
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jill Talbot

When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Croft, had us write an autobiography. She told us to add our address at the bottom, then roll it up, and tie it to a red balloon. That way, she said, someone might find it and write back. After lunch, we walked out to the large field by the school with our balloons in hand. At Mrs. Croft’s count of three, we let them go. I can still see those red balloons floating up and away. I watched mine until I could no longer see it in the sky.

•••

Thirty years later, I entered a rehabilitation facility outside Salt Lake City, Utah. We called it The Ridge. After a four-day medical detox that turned most of us into sleeping lumps beneath blankets in dark rooms, our first task was to write our autobiography detailing how we got there. The autobiographies were our way of coming clean, so to speak. They told us that if we didn’t work through whatever instigated our addiction, we’d go right back to the bottle, the pipe, the pills. They called it “cognitive therapy”: Read and Write Your Way to a Sober New You. To most of the people in The Ridge, a writing assignment was punishment, so it came with a privilege: to go outside. This was enough motivation for most, as the only chance we had to step outside was during the two thirty minute breaks we got between meetings that began every day at 7:15 a.m. and lasted until 9:00 p.m. And even then we were supervised.

I had been writing and publishing essays for years and even had a job at a university in the southern part of the state teaching students how to write them, but it wasn’t until I went to The Ridge that I learned to stop hiding behind my own lies.

Since we were separated into groups by counselor, I didn’t get to hear everyone’s autobiographies, so in the evenings, I’d sit on one of the couches in the TV lounge and read the ones I’d missed. It was like being in a workshop, but one in which no one thought about the writing. The words were confessing. The words were admitting. And it made the writing immediate, raw, real. Years later, I’d teach an introductory course in the personal essay to a class of science majors who, until that class, didn’t know the genre existed. Their writing reminded me of those rehab essays—the lack of self-consciousness, the art they had no idea they were creating.

•••

No one in that place but me and one other guy had been to college. I don’t count a college dean because she only lasted two days. Maybe she was too ashamed to stay. Maybe she couldn’t do without her Vicodin. Most of the patients were railroad workers, farmers, or affluent, bored wives. Most had no job at all—the booze or the crystal meth made sure of that. The only patients who read on a regular basis were me and a twenty-two-year-old bartender.

The bartender woke up in the hospital and was told that he had passed out with a gun in his hand, a plan voided by a pint of vodka. Lanky, dark-hair, droopy brown eyes, now he’d be described as James Franco-esque, but then, he was the guy who liked to read. David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, James Frey. He’d finish one, bring it down to my room. The small lounge across from the nurse’s station had a bookcase, loosely filled with mostly self-help and Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and one surprising Joyce Carol Oates, so his girlfriend brought our requested copies twice a week: Cormac McCarthy, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, because we both appreciated irony.

But we were there to write our own stories, detail every last drunk and destruction, the damages that had led us to the same exact spot, even on the same day, when we’d sat on a bench in early December, me drunk, him discharged from the hospital. That day, I’d stepped behind a glass door, then turned back once more in hopes that I could be let out, that it was all someone else’s narrative. He’d been locked up behind a steel door after his shoelaces and the string inside the waistband had been confiscated. His drinking had come on fast, his reluctance toward his intellect its trigger, his final insistence on an artistic portrait of the disgruntled young man, a bottle of vodka, and a gun stolen from behind the bar. He’d woken up angry, embarrassed, feeling like he was living the life he had failed to end.

The last I heard, he went back to the bar for the afternoon shift, hoping, like some guy out of Hemingway story, that it wouldn’t be as hard in the daylight.

•••

One of the meth addicts had become so paranoid he moved into his workshop behind his house. He’d peek through the blinds, watching his wife and two teenage sons as they came and went from the grocery store, school. Then he had watched them move out.

•••

My counselor’s last words to me on the day I checked out: “You don’t have to be Hemingway to be a writer. You don’t have to be drunk or be sad.”

•••

They’d often tell us that the sobriety rate for people leaving rehab was ten percent, so that out of the thirty or so of us in there at any given time, three would stay sober. The rest of us would go back to drinking or drugs, or we would eventually develop some cross addiction. If we had been drinkers, we might turn to pills. Or pills might be replaced by cocaine. Cocaine by booze. It’s a trick addicts play on themselves, they’d say, kicking a habit while forming a new one. They’d also warn that if we kept doing what we had been doing, we’d be dead. Some of us soon, because we had already done so much damage that “one more drink” would be too many.

What I had been doing was drinking Chardonnay, as early as ten in the morning on some days and as late as three in the morning some nights. I had loved a man for years who suddenly left me, who left our daughter, Indie, when she was four and a half months old. He abandoned us. But I abandoned us, too. I drank myself away from Indie, from myself, from the life she and I had together.

•••

A blackjack dealer had worked downtown Las Vegas at the Four Queens during its opening years, her cans of Bud and a Camel as quick as the cards. The doctors said her liver was in pieces, shards, really.

Most of the time, she slept in her room, a vaporizer belching loudly beside her bed at all hours, her door propped open, the room dark even in the day, her frailty a shadow beneath intricate afghans and a green sleeping bag. She wasn’t strong enough to walk, so we took turns bringing her meals on trays or holding her arm as she shuffled to the TV room. Once, someone found her on the smoking patio, her fingers fumbling to light a cigarette. Such futility, no more damage to be done. She was not well enough to attend sessions on schedule, and when she did, her head lolled to the side in sleep, her body bundled in that purple robe. She never wrote her autobiography. Either she couldn’t remember it or it didn’t matter anymore. When the coughs smothered her, we’d all look down at the floor or our notebooks, offering her the only form of privacy possible in a circle of people who saw her as a cautionary tale. At sixty, she looked eighty. Her raspiness, her weightlessness an ugly whisper from a fast life that not one of us envied.

She had been there at the beginning, she said, one of the invisibles shuffling blind under the blinks of the casino lights. “I kept a can of Bud right there at the table,” she told me once. We regretted it for her, all of it.

The last I heard, her husband showed up, belligerent, demanding to know just how long she had been there before taking her home.

•••

Being locked up in the rooms of a rehab facility for twenty-eight days, certain phrases got repeated until they were just noise, a skipping record: “Fake it ’til you make it.” “It works if you work it.” “Work as hard for your recovery as you did for your addiction.” “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” The head counselor’s favorite: “Don’t sympathize. Empathize.” He’d explain, at least once a day, that when people read their autobiographies or shared in a meeting, we were not to feel sorry for the person. We were to understand, to share the experience, to not distance ourselves with pity. The stories we heard were ours. Or they would be if we weren’t careful.

•••

A man checked out. He showed up two days later on the bench by the nurse’s station. He had been badly beaten, or worse. Someone whispered about a liter of whiskey, a night in the ER, but we never got to ask him. They locked him up in the psych ward.

One guy who left The Ridge on the day I arrived hung himself a week later.

For my roommate, it took only two days before a bender ended with a mess of police cars in the front yard of her Park City home. Before The Ridge, she had done two stints at Betty Ford.

One man died within a month. Sober. He died from all the drinking he had already done.

One man disappeared.

I went back to the university where I had been teaching and made it to the end of the spring semester before I drove to the next town, got a hotel room, then spent the rest of the evening at the bar, convinced that if I didn’t drink at home it didn’t count. It wasn’t a cross addiction; it was cross location. It was fucked up.

•••

One of the railroad men had snorted coke on the long runs in the middle of the night. He chewed on plastic flossers during meetings and wore a University of Texas baseball cap backwards, even though he was fifty.

One night, I sat with him alone in the room where we usually played Scattergories. The room had one window, an elongated table, worn plastic chairs, a closet with extra blankets and plastic sheets. He was stuck at Step 1, the autobiography phase, staring for weeks at a blank page and a pen that would not take his disappointment, the guilt. So I sat across from him and asked questions about his ex-wife, the worst nights, their recent phone exchanges, and I wrote it all down. I asked until he had no more answers, so I started writing the questions then pushed the yellow legal pad across the table. I ducked out of the room, leaving him to stare at the vocabulary of his failings.

He claimed to be friends with a famous author, a woman who, according to him, had a framed picture of his chest x-ray prominently displayed in her living room next to a couple of hanging plants. He liked to draw spirals on the pages of my notebook during meetings. Once, during a session on dream analysis, he told about standing in the middle of a diving board. The psychiatrist on staff preferred Jung and told him that the board was an archetypal symbol of both risk and abandon. After we both left, we spoke on the phone once, me in my kitchen in Utah, he on his cell phone on a rail car somewhere across Oregon. The last I heard was his message on my voice mail: “I’m going to die here, but not before I see you first.”

•••

A train track ran adjacent to the hospital. I’d stand on that porch, watching the lights of the passing cars, and think about scaling the wall and hopping one. One night during a smoke break, one of the psychiatrists came out to the patio looking for me. He said he wanted to meet the Ph.D. who drank a gallon of wine every night. “You,” he said, slapping my back, “are a legend.” I said thank you, crushed out my cigarette, and walked back inside.

•••

Every morning after breakfast, we’d line up at the nurses’ station for our meds and blood pressure check. In the afternoon, we’d do it again. The girl who cut herself was on an antipsychotic drug. The hay farmer cussed and called everyone a “yahoo” before they took him off Prozac. After a weekend pass to visit her son at home, my roommate returned sedate and peaceful, nothing like the weeping, neurotic beauty she had been in the three weeks I knew her. Once when she was out of the room, I opened the top drawer of her nightstand and found three pill bottles and a cell phone. Contraband. I kept her secret and allowed the counselors to believe “she finally got it.” One woman was on something that made her so drowsy she couldn’t stay awake during meetings, which was a rule breaker. And the nineteen-year-old who had been sleeping in the backs of cars on the streets of Salt Lake City tried to charm the staff into giving him “something more.” I stepped up to the window and looked down at the tray. The nurse held a white cup with two red capsules. I asked if I could stop taking them. She said she’d bring it up at the staff meeting. “Not a chance,” my counselor told me.

•••

“All of us,” Montaigne wrote, “have within us the entire human condition.” At The Ridge, they called them “autobiographies.” Montaigne called them essais. In other words, attempts. Sit down and write how you got here. Try to figure it out.

•••

I don’t remember if any of the students in Mrs. Croft’s 1977 second grade class ever received a letter from our balloon assignment. The balloons probably ended up popped or wilted, found by a stranger who had no idea that there had been words. Most likely in the panhandle of West Texas, they drifted into the middle of some field where the blades of a tractor shredded them. I kept all the pages I wrote from rehab. The fourteen pages of my autobiography, front and back, the notebook pages framed in spirals, and the pages from the Vietnam Vet.

He had worked the rail yards in Portland for seventeen years. He was heavyset, always in jeans and a shirt that struggled around his middle. When he sat down, he’d pull at it, this way and that, trying to get comfortable. He had gotten sober before and it stuck for thirteen years until he took some “stuff that blew his head off.” He often fell into coughing fits during meetings and had to step outside for a drink of water, which was also against the rules. He’d shuffle back in, apologize, shake his head at his inability to get through an hour without breaking down. He had dropped out of school. Listening to him read was like watching a man dare the frail of a rope bridge.

On one of the last days he was there, he came to the door of the TV lounge and asked if I’d help him with something. We went out to the smoking porch where he pulled out a form and asked me to write down what he told me. He pointed to the four lines provided beneath the section: Addiction History. “Began using alcohol at the age of fifteen. Pot usage. Meth. Went to AA but stopped going to meetings. Thirteen years of sobriety. Relapse. Three years without alcohol. Came to The Ridge.” I pushed the form across the table. He looked at the words as if they were details in a photograph he couldn’t quite make out.

On his last day, he showed me to two chairs in the hallway outside his room. He said he wanted me to have something he had written. His counselor, also a Vietnam Vet, had given him a final writing assignment, one he didn’t have to read aloud. He handed each one to me, in order, and while he sat with his arms folded and his head down, I sat in the chair next to them and read:

What Joe Lovett Like?

Joe Lovett was a yung idao spud. One hell of a grate guy that we called Spud. All he coughed is talk about Betty. He love to smoke pot and drink beer and stair at Bett pitchers. She was a pairty littal thing. He love to cut trees down with his fifty calorber gun. But we all now he didn’t get to go home. He was the first of the three to be shot in the head. I will always remember him like a brother. God Bless him. He was bless of “19” of his life.

What Was Mike Stratton Like?

Mike Stratton was big boy. He look lik he cought cut trees down with two chops. But he was one big tedy bear. We all called he Miky. Miky was from Orchers Washington. He was ok until we got him riped. He cought of hurt any one of us when he was riped and in a rage. I got know Miky for only “26” days. He was number two of three to be shot in the head. In the short time I got to know him I loved him like he was my brother. Now I know whey we were num all the time we were there. We all tried not to think about it. Like Spud Miky was bless with “19 years of life. I will never for get them. They will always be in my hart and in my prairs. God Bless Them.

What Was John Bires Like?

John Bires was a nice guy. He wought have given you any thing. He was from New York. One of those guy that talk funny. He loved to smoke pot. Then he wought eat every thing. You think he talk funny. When he was riped he talked every funnier. I got know him longer than Spud or Miky. For fun we called him JB. Have you ever hered some one from New York called JB. JB loved to play cards. He won a lot of the time. I hated to play cards with him. He always took my money. I got to know JB longer than Spud or Miky. JB was there for two months. JB was three of three to die. JB also was shot in the head. But this time his head landed in my lap. I just sat there with his head bleeding in my lap. I felt like I wasn’t there. I will never foget them. I wil have them always in my hart. May God Bless them all my Brother.

•••

It seems strange to feel inferior to someone’s pain, to the levels of their addiction, but I always I felt as if I hadn’t done near enough to be locked up with the others. I hadn’t lost my daughter. Or my home. Or my job. I hadn’t lived on the streets. Or gone to jail. I didn’t even have a DUI, which seemed to be a prerequisite. Hearing such autobiographies made me feel one of two ways: Either I had no reason to drink, or I hadn’t gone far enough with my drinking. I worried I was destined to return. Maybe it would take two years, or five, and I’d be back in the circle, reading a much more disturbing autobiography than Sunday morning Chardonnay.

•••

Another thing: they always told us we wouldn’t stay in touch. We didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe them. I was wrong. I have no idea where any of those people are—if they’re sober, if they’re alive.

Once we left The Ridge, we were like balloons released into the air.

•••

JILL TALBOT is the author of a memoir, Loaded, as well as the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction . Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Brevity, DIAGRAMHobartThe Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus. She is the 2013–2015 Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.

Lucky Girl

trippywoman
By honeymoon music/ Flickr

By Jessica Handler

I was in my late twenties, on a road trip with friends, when I flopped into a chair at a music club in New Orleans and had a look around. We were lucky; the club was rocking, and we were already in a highly pleased state from visiting the drive-through daiquiri place. When I caught sight of a trampled baggie trapped under a table leg, I leaned down to examine it, making as if to tie my shoe. The bag had either been hidden for safekeeping or fallen from a stoner’s pocket. If it held a few loose joints, I’d take it. If it were pills, I would take them only if I could identify them. This bag held neither. The bag held a jackpot: leathery, grayish chunks of psilocybin mushrooms. Lucky me. Free drugs. The baggie was in my pocket in a flash. Later that night, the mushrooms met orange juice and a blender, and then my body.

This moment in drug history is more than twenty years old, but it’s one in a sequence that composes a kind of mental flip book for me. There are the “first acid trip” pages, which end with a teenaged me supine beneath the comic book spinner rack at my neighborhood pharmacy, whirling the cosmos of Archie and Weird Adventure above my head while belting out a then-current Three Dog Night hit. I like that sequence; it’s funny and poignant, the stuff of memoir. I’m also fond, in a rueful way, of my memory of origami-style birds fashioned from the cut-off corners of magazine pages. The glossy paper made neat packets to hold just enough cocaine for a few pre-party lines. I’m less affectionate toward the next pages in my flipbook: me licking the empty, unfolded paper triangles, searching the creases for remnants of the numbing thrill.

“We’d have a hard time getting you addicted to anything,” my physician mused during a recent checkup. She’d prescribed a short course of something innocuous, and I’d balked. “I’d rather not,” I’d told her. I wasn’t afraid I’d become dependent: I’d already done my obsessive turns with better drugs, and years had passed since I’d licked, swallowed, or pocketed anything that rated as a Class IV narcotic. I was tired of drugs, prescription or otherwise.

“You’re lucky,” she said.

I grew up sneaking peeks at the Physician’s Desk Reference the way other kids steal a look at the Playboy magazines their fathers believe are safely hidden behind the laundry hamper. The PDR’s color pictures of pills were my idea of erotica: pale pinks, blues, and greens, sweetly side by side or blatantly aggressive in grainy blow-ups. Most of the book’s scientific language escaped me, but I welcomed its atmosphere of danger tinged with hope. My father got a new PDR every year, hardbound and heavier than any of the Martindale-Hubbell law books in his office, and nearly as thick as the dictionary in our den.

He believed he needed them. My two younger sisters were terminally ill with separate diseases; their illnesses were moving targets, and every drug might be a door to redemption. On Sunday afternoons, I went with him to the pharmacy (later the location of that first acid trip) to fill sheaves of prescriptions and buy a carton of his unfiltered cigarettes. Sometime between his first and last trip to the drugstore, my father developed an addiction to amphetamines. Eventually, my mother was knocking on the pharmacy’s glass door before business hours, meeting my sisters’ needs for real medication and filling my father’s illegal scrips. She didn’t know then that he’d had them faked, only that she wanted his rages stilled so that she could mother her daughters in moments of peace.

My friend Suzanne theorizes that people our age don’t do recreational drugs because we no longer have the leisure time to recover like we used to. That Captain-Crunch eating, pajama-wearing indolence of the next day—and even the day after—lives in a spot on our personal timelines when no one needed looking after (those mirrors laid across table tops weren’t tools for self-reflection), and grocery-buying and bill-paying were afterthoughts at best. “We’re afraid we’ll run out of luck,” I agreed. “We’re old enough to know we could die.”

Even when I was young, I knew that luck stuck to people in different ways. Even though my father was an addict (who didn’t buy his drugs on the street, and was therefore, a different, better class of user) he was also, for a while, the executive in charge of an alternative sentencing drug treatment center. The basic algorithm at the center: go to state-sponsored hippie rehab, or go to jail. Junkie teenage runaways only a few years older than I was slept in the center’s bunk beds, washed the spaghetti-crusted dinner dishes, and were encouraged to chime in during “rap sessions” led by social workers. On the few occasions I accompanied my father when he dropped by work on a weekend, I made a beeline to a reasonably clean beanbag chair beside a dirty window. The air smelled like musty old house, incense, and dirty socks. I’d bury my face in a book and try not to breathe.

My father excelled at the complicated handshakes the inmates—earnestly called “family”—bestowed upon him. Some of the older boys in the “family” looked dangerously romantic to me, aloof, and thin as pin-joints. I imagined hanging out with them, impressing them with how much I knew about their twin passions, drugs and rock music. I was eleven. I had no idea what we’d actually do or what their lives were like. Hiding behind my paperback copy of The Exorcist, I stole periodic glances at the wall clock, counting the minutes that became hours until my father and I could go home for dinner.

At home, drugs hummed in my sister Sarah’s nebulizer. The motor made our kitchen smell vaguely of plastic while she coughed through the vapor. Drugs had swollen my sister Susie until her face resembled a wheel of white cheese. Drugs were all around me, close as family, distant as adulthood. Two more PDRs came and went before I gathered pills and pot from my father’s bedroom bureau and made friends in high school: gentler, less-broken versions of the unapproachable treatment-center boys.

•••

My flip book didn’t end in New Orleans. Not too terribly long ago, my husband and I stood in the doorway of a coffee bar in Amsterdam, reading the chalkboard menu. We felt awkward; buying pot in the open in order to smoke it in the open seemed utterly wrong. The prices were suspiciously cheap. Turned out they make it up with the lighters. Inquiring puis-je utiliser votre Zippo? of a French twenty-something at the next table got us smoking. My husband, a soft-spoken, deep thinking man, had told me a raft of funny college anecdotes about pot turning him into a deathly silent, withdrawn shell. “I get really quiet,” Mickey said, drawing out the “really.” I’d stopped smoking pot years before we met, and the harder stuff was long gone from my life. My husband and I had never smoked together.

In the coffee bar, I smoked one joint, delighted that they roll them for you. They box them, too, like my Camel cigarettes of yore. I smoked and talked. I got garrulous. I sang along with the stoner video for “Little Green Bag” playing in a loop on the television in the corner. I lit another. I chatted with the folks at the next table. And Mickey grew quiet. Really quiet.

“Honey, are you okay?” I asked, pretty sure that he wasn’t.

Silence.

“Honey, do we need to leave?” I had three entire joints left, neatly rolled, in a cute box. The coffee bar was plastered with signs warning me not to leave the premises with marijuana. Our hotel was plastered with reverse messages: bring any marijuana in, and face imprisonment.

My sweet husband moved his head. Not a nod, but a barely perceptible vertical bob.

“Can you stand up?” I asked. Please be able to stand up, I thought, eyeing the vertiginous spiral staircase to street level. Mickey made that same head-gesture and, as if he were emerging from a puddle of glue, rose to his feet.

Un cadeau, I said to the French kid with the Zippo, pointing to the box with my last three joints. Lucky him.

Step by slow step, my husband and I climbed the metal stairs to street level and walked carefully to our hotel, each snow-dusted cobblestone and trolley track a massive obstacle.

When I told Suzanne that we’re old enough to know we might die, I was thinking back to Amsterdam and my history of fearsome chances: a beloved husband rendered mute in a basement coffee shop four thousand miles from home, a reckless young woman churning dubious flora into a blender, a desperate mother negotiating a momentary balance. And what I see now in that mental flipbook are brushes with danger, and a few very lucky people dancing on the edges of something close to hope.

•••

JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.