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A Series of Bad Ideas

The itch of restlessness is no stranger to me. Before drugs played a role in my life, I often scratched this itch by putting into play some really bad ideas. My earliest memory of feeling this way was preschool. Ohio heat stuck to my skin through my corduroys as I sailed through the air on the swings, bored. I could never get high enough. I remember singing Joan Jett, “I saw him standing there by the record machine. I knew he must have been about seventeen.” The song waltzed through my veins to my heart and just as I belted out seventeen, it dawned on me that I was in love with Michael Grand and I needed to make him fall for me.

I jumped off the swing like an Olympic gymnast and tore through the playground to find him. I spotted him climbing on top of the monkey bars, conveniently alone. The minute Michael turned to me and I saw those Teddy Graham colored eyes, my confidence evaporated. It wasn’t going to be as simple as I had hoped. Perhaps I would need to impress him before I dropped the L word. I bent down to undo and redo my Velcro shoes. The sun squinted my eyes as I climbed up the red caged bars.

When I got to the top, I dropped through the bars, hanging upside down like a trapeze artist. This was forbidden of course, but I’ve never been one for rules. After thirty seconds or so, I reached up and grabbed the bars, loosened my legs, and dropped to the pavement. I nailed the landing. Surely my talent would be the ticket to his heart.

“I want to do that. Is it hard?” His voice was as lovely as his perfect tiny teeth. This question presented me an opportunity to secure our fate. If we broke the rules together our rebel love affair would ignite.

“Come on. I’ll help you,” I said, tucking my blond hair shyly behind my ear. Standing beneath him I reached my arms up and grabbed one hand at a time as he lowered himself. He was even more beautiful upside down. Goosebumps rose to my skin and the entire playground took on a soft hue. I swear I could hear the wedding song. This would explain why I didn’t hear him when he said, “Don’t let go,” something I would remember hours later. My intention in letting go of his soft hands was to allow him the full experience of hanging upside down on the red caged monkey bars.

I remember the fear in his eyes as he dropped head first onto the concrete. This was the eighties after all, when schools weren’t hip to paving playgrounds with kid safe soft stuff. Blood painted the ground as my Michael screamed in agony. I remember running to the monitor. Forced to stand back, I watched as the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. Our short love faded as fast as the sirens speeding him to the hospital. Michael returned to school a few days later, his head partially shaved, exposing a row of many stitches. Things were never the same between us.

The disease of addiction or alcoholism is a disease of wanting more. While my drug of choice was heroin or at times meth, when I drank, I drank like an alcoholic. I remember the first time I got drunk. I was 18 and though I had experimented with weed and acid, I didn’t know much about alcohol. My friend had just moved into her first apartment with her boyfriend. To celebrate, they invited over a few friends. When her boyfriend asked what I wanted him to buy me to drink, I had no idea what to say, especially since I thought beer tasted like feet. “Jose Cuervo,” I said, even though I didn’t know what it was. So when he returned with the tequila, I had no idea of its strength. My friend got out two shot glasses and handed me one. This confused me. It didn’t seem like enough alcohol to me. That’s when I got the idea that if we were going to drink out of such small glasses, we should do it every ten minutes.

I pulled my pager out of my purse to keep time. The first shot disgusted me, but I finish what I start. The second warmed my entire body. After the third I realized that ten minutes between drinks is entirely too long. I switched my schedule to every five minutes. That is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next day in a Dead Kennedys’ shirt that said, “Too drunk to fuck,” my hair soaking wet. Apparently I had puked on myself and all over the new carpet after I did a seductive dance on the coffee table to a NOFX song. Luckily my friend showered me, dressed me, and put me to bed.

In my life I have impulsively executed a series of bad ideas. If someone were to ask my best friend Kelly what idea of mine was the worst, she would say, “The fire baton.” By the second year of college I had forced myself to acquire a taste for beer. It was a Friday night and I had invited around twenty people to my apartment for a small gathering. I was on my sixth or seventh Corona when someone asked me if I remembered twirling baton in ninth grade. I quickly ran into the spare room to get my baton as proof that I remembered those three short months. I don’t know who it was that asked me if I could still twirl, but without hesitation, I performed the high school fight song. Everyone clapped. I sat down to drink more beer, a bit bored with the evening, the baton still in my hand. It was then that I realized I had never fulfilled my baton destiny. It had to be done right then. I went to my kitchen and found dish rags that I wrapped around the ends of the baton with rubber bands. I grabbed some sort of aerosol and led the party outside. I remember a single second of glory as I tossed the baton into the air, flames magnificent, the catch perfect. However, I hadn’t taken into consideration that rubber bands will melt and break or that I should have pulled up my hair. Thankfully, except for a patch of my hair, no one was injured.

As a parent, the choices I make will directly affect my daughters. In choosing to live a sober life, I know that in order to make a good decision, I must not act out of boredom or restlessness. If I have an idea that I’m not sure is healthy, I ask someone else in recovery. Chances are that if I have to ask someone about it, it’s not something that I should do. My impulsivity has subsided a bit, except when it comes to Skittles or chocolate. I suppose that splurging on candy is a step up from using cleaning spray to assist in igniting dish rags rubber banded to a baton.

The Struggle is Real

“Diet pop, diet pop, diet pop.” All three of my daughters are singing this, not together, exactly. It sounds like that stupid row your boat song that I was forced to sing in kindergarten, where I would start the first line and then someone else would chime in, off tune, and then another person and another and another, until we sounded like a bunch of drunk sailors on helium who had just polished off something gross like Southern Comfort or Mad Dog.

I don’t give my girls pop and I certainly don’t give them anything that contains aspartame. Somehow, they have figured out how strongly I loathe such things, and at some attempt at rebellion, they wait until I go to a meeting so that they can con Aunt Barb into sharing her soda with them.

I already know how it goes. Kathryn, the oldest by a minute, tilts the bottle up, opens her entire throat, and like some second string quarterback with little big man syndrome, takes three gulps and most of the pop is gone. Her twin Evelyn starts screaming that she drank all of it so Aunt Barb reaches in her purse and pulls out another bottle. Within seconds both twins have gone from preschoolers to sorority sisters and their baby sister Gwynnie is pounding her fists in the air, saying, “Chug. Chug. Chug. Chug.” It’s just not a pretty site.

The only thing more disturbing than that image is when I return home past nine and find three disheveled, caffeine high, little girls, running around, kicking objects, and singing the diet pop song. Edith, my sweet pug, is hiding behind a chair and her curlicue of a tail is straightened like a dagger.

This is where anxiety enters, settles on my shoulders like fog upon Loch Ness. Seven thoughts simultaneously ricochet through my head. These kids are never going to sleep. Why is Gwynnie naked? I’ve only been gone ninety minutes and every article that they own is out. Is Kathryn ever going to take off that mermaid dress? Why are there Legos in the fucking bathroom? I would rather live in a post apocalyptic time where all toys are charred. Is it really that wrong to give them Benadryl when they aren’t having allergy issues?

I wade through some Legos, shut the door, and sit on the cool linoleum of the bathroom. This is where I would practice breathing, perhaps say a prayer, but I am interrupted by my ass being soaked in hand soap and toothpaste. Meanwhile, the girls start their own snail pace clean up routine in the living room. Their singing hasn’t halted, but now, I have my own tune. When they scream, “Di-et-pop, di-et-pop,” I whisper to myself, “Hair-o-in, hair-o-in.” Humoring myself is the only coping mechanism I’ve mastered when it comes to handling situations that I find stressful.

For years I thought that I had a drug problem because I really loved drugs. Consequently, I believed that I was a horrible person, that The Ramones “I wanna be sedated” was forever going to be my theme song. Recovery started when I realized that the problem was that drugs were my solution.

Anxiety is irrational. I have no fear of speaking in front of large crowds, but I’d rather take a bullet than call the water company and tell them that a hydrant is leaking in front of my house. I have an MFA in writing, but the thought of filling out kindergarten applications makes my heart race. I’d sooner climb Mount Everest than file my taxes. Simple tasks arrange themselves in my brain like baby cobras and I cover my eyes, crouch down, paralyzed. In the beginning, drugs charmed the snakes, rendered them harmless. It made them dance and who doesn’t love a good salsa?

Some days are heavier than others and not much writing gets done. There are many stories to tell. Some are tender ballads, but many are silent war stories, where people withered away and friends died way too young. I will write them eventually. Today, tucking my litter of little girls into bed and falling asleep next to them, sober, is enough. It’s November, but I can file my taxes tomorrow. While I don’t particularly like snakes, I am learning how to handle them.

 

The Best Moment

Whenever I travel, I wish to find a place that I can inhabit for a moment, curl up like a cat, a smudge of a foreign city that resonates in my bones as the truest possible representative of that very place and very time.

I remember this night in Paris. The candlelight, a lopsided table, the wine. My friend and I, exhausted from our previous backpacking days in London, slouched in wooden chairs and tossed bread into our needy mouths.  Americans eat dinner much earlier than the Parisians so Kelli and I were the only ones there, in this tiny restaurant in Montmartre. I love the French. I speak their language to them, they laugh, smile at my attempt, and then speak English to me.

We left the restaurant happy, full, and drunk, linking our arms together and skipping, foolishly, Laverne and Shirley style. The city lights prepared to unveil themselves to us as the sun said its goodbyes in oranges and pinks. On our way back to our hotel I spotted a narrow staircase. We quickly started running up it. Traveling is all about detours. I remember fighting for my breath when I made it to the top after ten minutes or more. Kelli next to me, our hands slid to our knees as we gasped for air and giggled.

We had arrived, accidentally, at Sacre Coeur, a stunning church built upon the highest point in Paris. The sun was setting and the city of love or lights bowed beneath us. Dozens of people lounged across the wide steps preceding the entrance. A man played an Oasis song on guitar, and everyone, I mean everyone, despite their first language, sang along, “I said maybe, you’re going to be the one that saves me. And after all, you’re my wonderwall.” Even the ones who had their heads rested in their lovers’ laps were mouthing the words.

I remember it keenly and with such tenderness. However, my gratitude swells from having observed such universal camaraderie, not from being a part of it. I know the words to the song, but that day, I did not sing along.

In one of his hundreds of letters, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “For me life might well remain solitary. I haven’t perceived those to whom I’ve been most attached other than through a glass, darkly.” Is this an artist/writer thing? A mental illness thing? The answer does not matter. I have gone most of my life seeing and feeling the world without having direct access to it.

Let me tell the truth though it is far from holy. I remember one of the best moments. Less than a month after I graduated college, my gallbladder, sardined with gallstones, forced me to race to the emergency room. It was a cold January in Ohio, I suppose. All Januaries are cold in Ohio. The thing is, I don’t remember the weather. I don’t even remember the pain. What I do remember as exact as the days of my daughters’ births, is the Dilaudid.

A nurse walked in and set a few things down on a silver tray. A loaded syringe. Latex gloves. A very big rubber band that would I would twenty seconds later come to understand as a tourniquet. She tied it around my arm and tugged at it the way my kindergarten teacher did my shoelaces. Then came the two finger tap to scout for a vein. I could feel the cool of the glove as she pressed on a few contenders. Once she found the winner, she removed the cap from the needle and said, “You’ll feel better in a minute, sweetheart. Little pinch.”

She lied about everything. Seven seconds. It took seven seconds for a warmth to infiltrate my body. The room took on a softer hue. It felt better than better, better than perfect. There was no pinch, only release. The glass curtains to the world opened up and I entered, centerstage.

I had no idea that I would chase that feeling for so many years to come.

No, Charlotte, No!

“You wear your heart on your sleeve,” people tell me. The writer in me wishes they would find a more interesting way to say this. The addict in me starts to brainstorm a garden of ways to prove them wrong. Don my bicep in a skull tattoo. Take up MMA fighting. Tell them I went to Emotions Anonymous and they kicked me out. Cancel Disney on Ice and take my toddlers to a Slayer concert. Start using the C word, and I don’t mean cocaine.

The truth is that my heart sits stapled to my forehead.

The earliest memory I have of my overpassionate display of emotion is from first grade. My mom thought it darling to dress me daily in Osh Kosh overalls. I was wearing my lavender ones, my blonde hair in pigtail braids. I remember doing my walk-run to get to the front of the rug for story time. Books, even then, offered refuge from my traffic jam mind.

The current mother in me wants to say that I was sitting criss cross applesauce, but this was 1983. So this particular day, on a particular brown rug, in a pair of suspenders that I didn’t much like, I sat Indian style while Mrs. Snyder neared the end of Charlotte’s Web. The characters in the book seemed like classmates to me. I knew them intimately; and while my heart was scraped a bit by the beginning of the book when Fern could no longer keep Wilbur the pig as a pet, I quickly healed when he settled into farm life with his new friend Charlotte.

What a spider! What a best friend! She saved Wilbur’s life over and over. It was the greatest story I had ever heard. Then the author, one Mr. E.B. White, just as life was perfect for the pig spider duo, decided to kill off Charlotte. I felt like someone karate chopped my gut. “What?” I shouted. Mrs. Snyder shushed me. I didn’t hear anything she said after that. Wilbur’s best friend was dead, and if that wasn’t horrible enough, she didn’t die on the farm. She died at the county fair.

I imagine the other students felt a little sad when Charlotte died, but I was the only one that day, when Mrs. Snyder stopped reading, on my knees, six-year-old clenched hands beating the floor, screaming, “No, Charlotte, no!”

I don’t remember being embarrassed by my hysterics that day, but it wasn’t long after that my mom started telling me that I was too sensitive. Her intentions were pure. She didn’t want to see her only child beaten up by the world.

I have trudged through countless years of my life taking quite the ass beating, believing that sensitivity is a character defect. I thought myself weak. My feelings, I thought, were simply too much. In an interview published in The Paris Review, E.B. White said in reference to his childhood, “I lacked for nothing except confidence.” Maybe that’s how writers are born. We are watchers even as children, unsure of what we are seeing or what to make of beautiful and ugly happenings, unsure of ourselves.

I don’t often question how I became a heroin addict. When the time beckons, I will tell the stories. My mom is of no fault in this situation. The disease model, the pictures I’ve seen of the alcoholic brain and the non-alcoholic brain have me convinced that I am wired differently. As a parent, I hope to celebrate my girls’ sensitivity while modeling for them the healthy ways in which to channel it. The lies I told myself growing up, specifically that I was just too much of everything, only fueled my seeking of sedation.

I didn’t write much after I turned from popping pills to sniffing heroin. And then there was the needle, not only the death of my voice, but the near thief of my life.

Emotional sobriety pokes its tender head to the surface long after the needle and bottle are removed. Some days she only shows up in moments, like when my three daughters are criss cross applesauced in front of me and I wipe my eyes after Charlotte dies and continue to the part of the story where Wilbur watches the hundreds of babies crawl from her egg sac, the last masterpiece. While most of the babies venture from the barn, three mousy voiced spiders decide to stay and live with Wilbur. My twin four-year-olds are smiling while my three-year-old asks, “Will they stay with Wilbur forever?” When I tell her yes she says, “That’s my favorite part.”

Dear Self

I am the sliver of you where God lives. Remember that story? The one where those men tried to hide God where no one could find him? They tucked him in nooks of the human race. I know you are reading this and trying to outthink it. You want to say that God lingers in your little pug Edith. That too is true. Let’s not over analyze the situation, Jennifer.

I cringe at being cliche, but this is life and death. More eloquently said, this is the scuffle between paintbrush and trigger.

You ran to those fields in Auvers-sur-Oise, saw where your Vincent took his life. Maybe the easel stood slanted that day. Perhaps he didn’t possess the desired shades of blue. Or his heart ached for Marguerite. The crows swarmed. A revolver swathed in turpentine stained muslin. He pulled it out and placed it against his chest the way you have stuck those needles in your arms.

It was not a matter of choice.

You have been tethered to Vincent for years, romanticized his struggles, but the truth is, you are now three years older than he was when he took his life and you have been taking your own life for years now. You are just as sick as Van Gogh. The difference is that you are a mother to three little girls.

Perhaps initially there was a choice, but in some haze you don’t recall, you tumbled across a line and there you have resided in heroin’s cocoon of delusion. There is an enemy in this story. Your mother thought it was the drugs. You thought it was the world. You rebelled against it. But the villain was never the world. It was and is your very own mind trying to kill you.

Jen, your brain is a lying bitch.

It seeks to tell you that you chose to thieve these recent years from your daughters, but you know better. You must forgive yourself the way you do Gwynnie when she fibs, Kathryn when she bites, or Evelyn when she does that pterodactyl scream that machetes through your ears.

They know not what they do. They are brand new, just as you are on this day.

This is where you take the road Van Gogh couldn’t. This is where Vincent put down the brush. This is where you put down the rig and pick up the pen. Love isn’t in the brain or the heart. It’s lodged like a sparrow in the throat, and for too long, you have been voiceless.

The time is today. Just think of the possibilities. Impasto the world with words again. There are songs to sing, stories to tell.

Let go. Let go. Let go.