“Mom!” Reese was leaning out the wide open passenger window yelling into the dark. “Mom! Where are you?!” His 11-year-old voice cracking through the sobs. “Mooommmm!!”
Mike drove slowly down the long wooded driveway, navigating slowly through the fog and muck that crisscrossed the thin dirt road at every turn. At the end, he turned around and came back trying to keep his search thorough. I kept quiet and held my place laying in the dirt about 10 feet off the road in an overgrown field. Steadfast and sick with the idea that I wasn’t going back until I found something else to drink.
Reese, my oldest, had flown from his father’s house in Colorado to spend the summer out East with us. We thought it might be good for me. We thought having him out here might help break the downward spiral I was losing time with. We thought maybe things would go back, you know, more or less to normal…or at least what normal had been before my currently raging relapse.
That night had been rough. Alcohol making depression worse, as I had continued to consume throughout the day my thoughts had turned to self-harm and I was in full destruction mode when I managed to run out of alcohol late into the evening. No problem, my sodden mind thought, I would just have to find a way to the grocery store about a mile down the main road.
Nevermind that it was 10 at night and my child was already asleep in the spare room we had made up to be his. Nevermind that I would have to walk because I had recently, voluntarily, had an alcolock installed in my car as yet another attempt to thwart my using. I would have to sneak out, undercover without Mike knowing since he would undoubtedly try to stop me which would cause a huge fuss and wake up Reese. Being a superhero in my own drunken mind however, I didn’t see an issue with this plan.
Me, not being the subtle drunk that my own mind likes to make me think I am, of course, made noise and set off alarms that alerted Mike that something was afoot. I didn’t get very far out the door before he realized I was gone and quickly raised the troops. He, Reese, and the dogs were all in the car before I had gotten fifty feet from the house.
This is how I wound up laying in a muddy field under the cover of night hiding from my family while my baby cried for his mama.
I don’t think that scene playing out in my mind is anything I will ever forget.
Prior to that summer, Reese had seen me drunk many times but I had reached my first sobering point before he hit an age where he would remember any of the early stuff. I prided myself at least a little that I hadn’t scarred him with any of that directly. I loved that I had been able to sober up in time to actually be a mother worth having to him…Until I relapsed when he was 10. So, while this was nothing new to him, my drunken shenanigans, it was all entirely new.
My heart broke hearing him call for me through those tear-streaked cheeks and yet, at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to stop what I was doing and go to him. My child needed me and I just couldn’t bring myself to put his needs above my own, above the desperate persistent call of the alcohol.
I never made it to the store again that night. Instead, I passed out in that field where I lay hiding, waiting for my family to go away so I could give in to the only thing that mattered right then. I’m pretty sure I came to a few hours later and just went back home.
We wound up sending Reese back to his father early that summer and it would be at least another 2 years before he would come back out to visit. For all the times of drunkenness that he had so blessedly been able to keep from his memory due to his young age, he now had this.
“How much money do we have?” I demanded.
He pulled our shared funds from his pocket and counted it. “Six dollars and some odd change. We can use it to get you a bottle of MadDog in a few hours when the corner mart opens.”
“No,” I shook my head, “Thats not good enough. We need to go to 3rd Street. You can get a coffee and I can get a beer or something. There’s at least enough for that.”
“Yeah, but thats everything we have.”
“I don’t care. We will figure the rest out after.” I started walking away, up the rocky path that wove through the narrow space between the James River and the outer wall of Hollywood Cemetary. I didn’t need to turn back to know he was following me. He knew that if he didn’t I would just go find another bottle of mouthwash to drink and then it would be anyone’s call when he would see me again. Hell, I was hoping he wouldn’t follow me.
We trudged up 2nd Street tucked deep into our jackets against the biting wind that was no longer blocked by the surrounding trees, past the war memorial, and across the highway overpass, until we reached the 3rd Street Diner. It was a cozy little 24-hour place that generally employed those trying to better themselves, recovering addicts, single mothers, and a few people fresh out of jail. They were also no strangers to the down-trodden, the homeless, those coming in off the street seeking shelter from any variety of storm. Also, a popular place for the many college kids of Richmond to hang out, between classes and/or between hangovers.
We sat and ordered, with the young waitress treating us no different than anyone else even though our clothes and lack of cleanliness made our situation obvious. Looking around I noticed there were only two other occupied tables, one closer to the front door with a single older man reading a newspaper, and one to my back between me and the bathroom.
I got up to use the bathroom while Grimm waited for our drinks. At the table behind me sat 3 guys happily chatting away as they ate and drank. Forks clinking on emptying plates, they seemed like they were finishing up. In the tiny bathroom I fixed my matted hair as best I could and washed my face with their dollar store paper towels. When I came out a few minutes later they were indeed standing to put on their jackets and I noticed that while one of them had just a water the other two had been drinking beer. Not only had they been drinking something with alcohol in it but it looked like one of the beers left on the table was still at least half full!
I sat down and Grimm looked up from where he was warming his face via the steam wafting up from the coffee his hands were wrapped around. We sat and drank in silence. I couldn’t even focus on the drink I already had because I was too preoccupied with how I was going to also get the leftover beer at the table behind me. I finished my own fast.
“I have to use the bathroom again.” I said, “I’ll be right back.”
Grimm glanced behind me at the now empty table waiting to be bussed. “Don’t do it.”
“Do what?” I asked innocently.
“Don’t touch that beer. I know what you’re thinking and you need to leave it there. I don’t want them to kick us out of here.” He said as sternly as his bristly teddybear face would allow.
“Ugh. I won’t.” I rolled my eyes, turned on my heel, and headed toward the bathroom again. On the way, I grabbed both the semi-drunk beers from the abandoned table. I did not look back at Grimm. In the bathroom, I drank each of them in one gulp trying in vain to block out the taste of backwash and beer. I tossed the empty bottles in the tiny wastebasket as I walked out into the dining area again secretly proud of myself.
“C’mon,” Grimm growled under his breath as he stood, zipping up his coat “I paid and we’re leaving before they check the bathroom and realize that was you.”
“Fine.” I shrugged as I bounced past him out the front door and into the bright winter sun. “What time does the corner store open?”
I let my hand slide across my forehead and down my right cheek, failing to consider how dirty either surface might be. My stringy unwashed hair was starting to form its own adhesive clumps. I looked up from where I sat on the rock at the edge of our small campsite to see Grimm meandering around picking up garbage and moving our few belongings back into the little blue tent he had just cleaned.
“How long has it been?” I asked him, blinking into the morning sunlight which was bright in the chilly late November air.
“How long has it been since what?”
“Since I…you know…met you?” I looked back down at the trampled ground in our immediate vicinity, covered by its carpet of freshly fallen leaves. “Since I, um…became homeless? Its been like 2 weeks, right?”
He glanced back at me with one eyebrow raised, his chubby cheeks sporting about a week’s worth of scruff, before going back to his task at hand. “Two weeks? Becky, it’s been almost a month and a half.”
I didn’t bother to ask the current date. Too much shame had broken the barrier at that point, with that one revelation, for me to work towards gaining any more reality just then. Back to the next, all-important, task at hand: finding my alcohol.
Grimm watched me from the edge of his vision for a few minutes as I scurried around looking for a bottle of mouthwash I could have sworn I had stashed somewhere nearby the night before. He sighed loudly.
“I threw it out.”
“What?” I turned on him and then backing down almost as quickly “Threw what out? I don’t know what you’re talking about…” I lied.
He sighed again. “Your bottle of Listerine…The one you hid under that bush last night. You need to quit drinking but I know you’re not going to do that so you need to at least stop with the mouthwash. I mean, that stuff really will kill you…Try some MadDog or some IrishRose. I’ll even go with you to get it…Just no more mouthwash.”
“Fine,” I grumbled angrily, “Let’s go then.” I stood and wrapped my church-donated coat tighter around myself.
“We can’t go now. Nothing is open yet…It’s Sunday and its only 6 in the morning.”
“What the fuck?! Why did you do that?” My anger at the sudden lack of supply boiled over almost instantly. What right did he have to fuck with my stuff? Why couldn’t anyone just let me manage myself? Didn’t he realize how hard DTs were on me by now? The tsunami of selfish internalized questions that every addict goes through at the thought of not having their next fix crashed down.
I was awash in desperation.
To be continued…
“Wait…Wheres your laptop?” Mike scanned the small, filthy, motel room for my belongings of substance.
I admitted quietly that I didn’t know while keeping my eyes trained on the stained carpet. I didn’t know a lot of things then; like what week it was or how much time had gone by since my father sent the motel money for a short stay in a last ditch effort to keep me off the street. Another blessing I managed to bungle.
Between the bottles of mouthwash and liquor that littered the room, there wasn’t much hope in finding the laptop. I was pretty sure it was no longer in my possession. Same thing with my little tablet. I was fabulous at losing things through my drunken shenanigans. No doubt some asshole, most likely also up to his eyeballs in substances, was very happy with his new electronics now.
I had no idea if I had given these things away, if they had been stolen from me, or if I had just left the door to the room wide open to the whole parking lot while I went out.
Mike was here now because the motel wanted me out. He had driven by and noticed from the bassing highway that both my room and 2 of my car doors were hanging agape at a time when I should have, in all likely circumstances, been at least sleeping off the night before. It was too much though. Once again, I was too much.
He kept asking me questions with building anger and he pawed through what was left of my belongings and the garbage that littered the floor. The whole place stank because sometime in the night, possibly not even the previous night, the toilet had clogged in a big bad way and I had drunkenly reasoned that it was too late at night to bother the clerk about fixing it. Then, being the sloppy mess that I was I would forget it was clogged and use it again. Perpetually making things worse. The cleaning staff was never able to actually come in and clean the room either because I was prepaid and always asleep during their morning rounds.
The week (was it a week?) went by in true blackout form with bits and pieces of memory to play connect the obscure dots with. It was going to be the second rented room I would be ejected from that month. My generous and loving parents would quickly learn that aiding me in this way wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
Mike had been by at least once every day during my stay at that hotel on his way to and from work. He would come and clean up the room a bit while making nice with the hotel staff in order to feel out what I might have done the previous night and any trouble I might have gotten into.
He tells me now that one day he went there and I was missing. I wasn’t answering my phone and, when he finally convinced the desk manager to let him into my room, I was nowhere to be found. He went on to work. He called my phone throughout the day until finally, that evening, someone answered. The receiver said that I was there in the same motel a few rooms down the way. They said I was passed out. They said no, he couldn’t come to get me. No, they would not let him in. No, they would not say who they were. The next time he came to see me I was back in my own room. I don’t remember any of it.
There is a good chance they are the ones who wound up with my laptop.
I guess I’m just happy they didn’t wind up taking anything else from me.
Broken, blended, extended, severed, adopted or bloodless – There is fluidity in family now and the term ‘family unit’ has become an oxymoron. Today, there is really no clear definition of the ‘American family’. With single-parent households, varying family structures and fewer children, the modern family defies categorization. The nuclear structure that was once the norm has become an endangered species.
Non-marital cohabitation and divorce, re-marriage and non-marital re-coupling, separation and death; a child’s living arrangement changes with each adjustment in the relationship status of their parents. Single‐parent families, stepfamilies, foster families, and multigenerational families are everywhere and substance abuse is one of the biggest leading factors leading to breakage.
Among all of the family members who are impacted by an addict’s disease, perhaps no one suffers as much as children. I feel it every day, every time I think about Reese (my 16-year-old son) and the role I have taken in his life as his mother; a title I am often called yet rarely feel I deserve.
Numerous studies prove that parental alcoholism and drug addiction can create poor self-image, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, fear of abandonment and chronic depression in children. They say that the effects of living with an addicted parent can be felt long after childhood and well into adulthood.
Reese’s family structure doesn’t have a name. While checking several boxes on the census form it extends across states and time spanning the continent. I might be his mother by birth and he may call me that to my face but he also refers to his current step-mother, Jess, as his mother and, before that he did the same with his previous step-mother, Angeleen.
Tomorrow we will be traveling down to Virginia Beach. It’s likely to be the only beach trip we are able to do while Reese is here visiting for the month and one of the main reasons for it is so Reese can meet up with his sister, Natalie. Its been a while since they have seen each other.
Natalie is about a year and a half older than Reese and they are not blood-related. Natalie is Angeleen’s oldest daughter and, even though she and Reese spent a good portion of their childhood growing up together, she has lived with her biological father in VA since Angeleen’s untimely substance-related death about 8 years ago. While Angeleen was married to Reese’s father they had 2 other daughters, Reese’s younger half-sisters. He also has 2 older step-sisters now via his new step-mother, Jess. This is not to mention his 2 younger half-brothers he is attached to though me and my cohabitation with their father who I am not married to.
I think about these things and am reminded of all the times growing up when I was asked to draw my family tree. I think about Reese trying to draw his; an impossibility in arborist genetics. It’s exhausting just constructing the mental map in my head.
They are the children of addicts. They are family without the normal ties. Without the blood. From a tree without roots. Yet they are still family.
Thats what they all say anyway. Do this, do that, just wait, it’s a phase…It gets better. Comfort on a shoestring with a frayed aglet and too many breaking points. Flash paper and false hopes. It’s all easy to say when you’re yelling from the edge of the warzone instead of in the trenches with the rest of the battle-worn.
It gets better. The blinders go up again. We see what we want to see and believe the advice of outsiders bleating, bleating…It gets better.
To say it gets better is often to provide false hope. Most people don’t do it intentionally, but more as rote saying of human nature. Above all else provide hope, no matter how unfounded. Its the easiest thing to do and everyone comes away from the interaction snuggly and safe in that temporary bandaid. It may be human nature to provide hope but its more humane to be truthful.
Some things just don’t get better.
They do change, though.
We change. We get stronger. We learn to live with our situations as messy and as ugly as they are. We learn to fix what we can and adapt to what we can’t. We move on. We play the game and learn that lateral moves are still progress. We grow and find that ultimately truth is more constructive than hope in the process of change.
Maybe some of us will never fully be okay, although most is probably closer to that truth.
But we are still here, each day, trying. Learning that life does not get better by chance…It gets better by change.