In 6th grade we lived in a one-bedroom apartment alongside the off-ramp of a highway (our building was once hit by a semi truck). Ours was the only residence on a block with a car dealership, liquor store, and mini-stripmall. If I remember correctly, we were living on combined alimony and child support from my dad, which came to about $650/month, in addition to a tiny income my step-dad was making by picking items for a thrift store a few hours a week. Many of our household items came from this store.
My resourceful stepdad, Jay, built a wall of shelves to separate the living room from the dining room and create a 2nd bedroom. My younger sister and I shared the regular bedroom, but we had no privacy since everyone had to go through our room to get to the bathroom and go through my parents’ room to get to the kitchen (though it was certainly better than the 18 ft trailer we lived in the summer prior when I would wake up to my parents having sex).
Our front yard was a concrete rectangle between the two one-story buildings of five apartments each that made up the complex. The ends were contained by waist high metal fences with a gate. When our parents forced us outside for hours at a time so that they could sniff crank up their noses and smoke pot with their friends, my sister and I would bring a cassette player out to the porch and play Madonna or the radio and make up dance routines.
It was the year I started public school after attending a Christian private school since kindergarten. The only music I had heard up until this point were church hymns and Neil Diamond, the one secular singer my mom refused to give up for my dad’s conservative Christianity. As a musically inclined child I quickly fell in love with pop music and the icons coming up at the time – Whitney Houston, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I had a secret dream of joining the drill team at junior high the following year. I was trying my best to choreograph routines, but while I had a good sense of rhythm I was not at all inclined towards choreographed movement. I never worked up the courage to try out. Even if I’d had, we couldn’t have afforded the uniform or any other costs that inevitably come with extracurricular activities.
Sixth grade was also the first year that I had to manage going to school while living in poverty with addicts.
My most vivid memory of this apartment is the night that my parents simultaneously got drunk and high on crank and then fought, which had become our new normal. But on this particular night, Jay, in his ridiculous inebriation, pissed in the refrigerator, which set my mom on a record rampage. The fight ended with Jay on the roof of the apartment building, hooting and hollering like a monkey, and waving a 2×4 around while the police forced him down (were any of us able to look our neighbors in the eye after that?). During another substance fueled argument Jay pushed over the wall of shelves he’d built onto the floor and many sentimental items of my mother’s were broken. He never hit my mom (he was gentle and adoring when not inebriated), but he did take his overwhelming frustration with her out on property. We went through several phones that year.
My other vivid memory is the night my mom was so high that I had to hold her up and walk her to her bed. I was only 11 years old and already our roles were reversed. Little did I know that we would repeat a version of this scene nearly 30 years later, on Christmas night in my own home with my own children, when she was delirious with sleeping pills and pain medication. She knocked over the tree, breaking ornaments, and she pushed the shower door out of it’s frame because she couldn’t walk straight. I had to babysit her for the rest of the night to keep her contained on the couch so she wouldn’t take even more medication and so the rest of the family could sleep in peace. Eight months later she would die in her bed, alone, of an accidental overdose due to those same medications.
My step-dad was a good man, but he was also a maintenance alcoholic since age 17. He drank a case of beer a day simply to maintain during our more peaceful years. He came from an abusive home and then he was sent to Vietnam, which he never spoke about in detail. Like many men of his generation he was emotionally broken and he self medicated with alcohol, along with different drugs at different times over the course of his life. He left my mom for a woman that offered him heroin. He was a tramp before and after he lived with us. He was incapable of a normal life.
My mom, however, was not a typical addict. She could pick something up and then put it down with ease. But she kept picking things up. She believed she needed something outside of herself to save her from her pain. Men. Jesus. Alcohol. Sex and a codependent relationship with an alcoholic. Crank. Jesus. Alcohol. Jesus. Pain pills. Fentanyl patches. And then she died of a medication overdose. She never found peace with herself. Pain eventually overshadowed everything she put her heart into. And while I can blame the medical industry for her death (a future essay), I know that this habit of escaping her pain – pain that included living with the horror of Morgellon’s her last year – played a part in the end.
When I write stories like this, the ones based in memories that hurt, I think about the girl who lived through all of this. At the time it all seemed normal, but now I am utterly amazed by my own resilience. I am proud that beginning at 14 I did everything I knew how to make my life better. I never allowed culture’s story about me or my circumstances to determine my story. And eventually I learned how to create my own safety, as well as how to be safe for my people to be with (because family violence is inherited).
There is a cultural story about a woman having it all, but that story doesn’t apply to me. After having grown up in poverty with addict parents and the repeated traumas that led to Complex PTSD, having it all looks like having a safe home, a healthy partnership, and the financial stability to support a beautiful little life. That’s it. Anything more is a cherry on top of the sundae that is my life today.
Image: I am dancing at my 6th grade graduation in a dress I made myself because we couldn’t afford a fancy dress from a department store and my mom was an excellent seamstress.