Ashley Abramson | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3,939 words)
Springtime, just after my parents’ divorce: My dad had moved into a musty one-bedroom set in the corner of a cluster of white, rundown apartment buildings, the exact inverse of the impractical three-story he’d bought us just two years earlier after his promotion to district manager. My mom, who shuffled between jobs frequently, had been front desking at a doctor’s office in the next town over, down the street from the Tastee Freez. Que sera, sera, we would croon, our lips painted white with soft serve, whatever will be, will be. The two of us, singing, on either side of innocence.
The day my mom got busted at a pharmacy called Drug Town, I was 9, almost 10, the same age she was when the river swallowed her twin brother. I, too, would be devoured, inhaled by a force beyond my control. But that day, I was careless, browsing the drugstore’s collection of Easter candy while my mom picked up a prescription, one of the dozens of pills she took for reasons which, to that point, had remained just outside the confines of my life. She wasn’t yet sick enough for me to notice, or maybe she was, and I just hadn’t had a reason to peer beyond my love for her into her world, a place where she could do wrong. Not until that day.
First, two police officers, then me in the drug store’s break room, surrounded by teenage employees just old enough to understand what my mom had done and distract me with knick-knacks from the toy aisle. Still, I heard it from behind the closed door: My mom’s frantic bail phone call to my dad, his irate footsteps minutes later, her excuses in shards, the word “felony.” Que sera, sera. Her life and mine, slowly and suddenly eclipsed by her pills and whatever it took to get them. Whatever will be, will be.
And what, exactly was that day, but a mirror doing its job, reflecting back what had been true all along? On the surface, my mom, being accused again by my dad or someone more powerful than him. Below that, someone who had clearly done something wrong — broken the law — to get the thing she wanted. Another layer beneath that one: A woman who had been betrayed by her body. And at the core, the pain, always radiating, penetrating through, convincing us all that whatever she did wrong was just a glitch, as if her suffering had taken the wrong shape.
I don’t know how we walked out of that drug store as if nothing had happened, or if that’s just how I remember it. I don’t know what came first, my mom’s job at that clinic, or her taste for painkillers. I don’t know how the pharmacist figured out she had forged the prescription, or why my dad came to the rescue when he had resigned responsibility for her with his own signature months earlier. That day, and all the years until she died, my mom’s illness, her pill preference, and her excuses as particular as that year’s trends, had only one visible through line: She was in pain, and she had a way of using the pain to blur her transgressions, a habit of superimposing her wrongs with grief so poignantly you would be remiss not to absolve her. Her greatest ploy was braided beside her deepest truth, convincing me she couldn’t be wrong, because if she had been, so was I for believing she was something — someone — she wasn’t. A decade after she died, I still believe, above all, it was the sadness that took her.
* * *
I remember my mother as gaunt, almost atrophied. Maybe it was her chain smoking or the painkillers that wilted her. Maybe it was the autoimmune disease — the way her body pillaged her eyes, ears, pancreas, ovaries. Or perhaps each one of those was actually a warning sign, a flare her body sent out to signal the rest of us that her grief had become too large for her to carry by herself. Maybe she was just a child all along.
My mother’s illness, and her ensuing addiction, was bookended by a pair of untimely deaths: Her twin brother’s and, thirty-five years later, her own. It started when she was 9. From a psychological perspective, she stopped growing, and really, living, after her brother fell through the ice during a springtime thaw in northern Wisconsin. Flesh of her flesh drowned that day, taking her with him to another womb, someplace dark and cold and deep. Someplace she couldn’t hear anything that wasn’t primal.
The day my mom got busted at a pharmacy called Drug Town, I was 9, almost 10, the same age she was when the river swallowed her twin brother.
Her brother’s death was no one’s fault but that sliver of a season when it looks like winter but it feels like spring. But to my 9-year-old, Catholic-to-the-bone mother, whose life had been absorbed by the responsibility of parenting her four siblings and her alcoholic parents, there had to be a consequence. For everything, absolution. So for years, she blamed herself for his death: Why hadn’t she been there to hold him back from his recklessness? It would be a decade before the poison of self-hatred brimmed out of her mind and into her body.
Trauma theorist Bessel van der Kolk, in The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, hypothesizes that when people experience profound and complex trauma — abuse, neglect, witnessing violence — their brains often behave as if the trauma is still happening, even after it ends. Fascinatingly, brain scans show us that trauma survivors’ brains often make no distinction between past and present. Their grief is the reality that defines them until their minds begin to believe a different story, usually through measures like cognitive behavioral therapy and stable, loving support from friends and family.
Unfortunately for my mother, no one came to the rescue. No one was there to caulk the gaping hole in her heart. There was no love to overshadow the pain, no day-by-day goodness to rebuild her. Up to that point, and for decades after, there was only weight to carry — more often than not, someone else’s. And so the stress hormone cortisol flooded her body until there was no more, culminating in a hormone deficiency called Addison’s Disease, in which the body literally attacks its own organs one by one. The ultimate betrayal.
I see my mother as a woman whose life had been bottlenecked by pain. First, her trauma was unresolved. Then it became stagnant, then rotten, then completely toxic, eventually destroying her body, just like it had her mind. Her sadness grew bigger and she got smaller until she evaporated, bowed down on her bedroom floor beside the queen-sized bed where she spent most of my childhood. That’s the artistry of unresolved trauma: It stunts your growth, and, if you let it, shrinks you down to nothing.
* * *
There are some things you can’t unsee: Your sister’s freckled face as she describes to you what happened that day at the river, whether the water took him slowly or all at once, how shrill or aqueous his voice was as he sunk. A jewel-toned green and purple bruise on your mother’s cheek, the receiving end of her husband’s drunken rage. Your brother’s small coffin by the altar as you made your First Communion at his funeral service, and how you pretended to trip in the aisle so someone, anyone would notice your loss. Your sepia-colored skin and its shadowy scars, the way, when the disease came, your lips began to turn purple, just like you had drowned. Your face in the mirror, a caricature of loss, equal parts innocent and mocking as it reflected the dead back at you.
A body, never wholly yours.
* * *
Every Tuesday during my sophomore year, I sat on my college residence life leader’s sofa for a free therapy session. A long-limbed, golden-haired cross-country runner, she had been studying for a grad degree in counseling, and I was her practice. At first, we talked about my friend who cut herself and overdosed on Tylenol PM, and how it wasn’t my fault, and I didn’t have to fix her. I updated her on my anxiety, which boys from the soccer team I had toyed with that semester, and Jonathan, the 101-year-old man I visited weekly at the nursing home down the street from campus. But most of all, we talked about my family, her bookish fascination with whom seemed out of proportion to all the other subjects we breached.
I heard it from behind the closed door: My mom’s frantic bail phone call to my dad, his irate footsteps minutes later, her excuses in shards, the word ‘felony.’
As I casually divulged my mom’s latest weekend trip to the ER, or how she said she hated me when I found her passed out with a bong on my birthday, she kept her lips pursed and nodded, clenching her mug. “It’s so interesting,” she would say. “You talk about your childhood like you’re reporting the news, like it happened to someone else.” I would look down, embarrassed by my lack of emotion, and change the subject quickly. She was right, but what could I say? I had seen what happened when someone gets too close to their pain. It was like touching fire.
I stood under the umbrella of my mother’s suffering for the eighteen years I lived in her house. But when I hold my childhood up against the opioid epidemic — images of toddlers in the car with their passed-out parents, alarmist headlines and infographics, United States maps with Appalachia colored crimson — it doesn’t line up. I grew up in suburban Wisconsin before the term “opioid crisis” yielded thousands of search results on Google. I chauffeured my dog-sick mother to the hospital, where she went for real, physical pain — usually migraines — and left with a week’s worth of painkillers, before the state of Wisconsin instituted a prescription monitoring program. And most of all, I had no idea my mom was addicted to anything but Newport 100s until I was 20, old enough to peel back who I thought she was, who she wanted me to see, story by story, and glimpse what lurked beneath.
When I reported my childhood, cold and distant, I told what I saw, like reading a cue card: Beyond the emotional outbursts she would slip into like a nightgown, my mother was truly, devastatingly sick. It was woven into the fabric of her life — our lives — just as much as her brown eyes and her tenderness. Her twin illnesses — physical by way of mental, or perhaps the other way around — were not so much a trauma that happened to me as a landscape in which I lived, just as much my home as it was hers. And if a habitat isn’t the most natural thing in the world, what is?
* * *
If you want to know about my childhood, ask me what it’s like to live in the aftershock of someone else’s earthquake. Ask me about the fallout. Ask me what it’s like to swim inside the furious sea of someone’s body, to ride its waves. To be born into a landscape tilled by loss. Ask me what it’s like to be parented from behind a veil and to trade bits of your life for a chance to hold your own mother back from herself. Ask me what it’s like to be loved, then broken, then loved again.
* * *
“I don’t know what went wrong,” my dad recently told me over the phone in a rare and unexpected conversation about my mom’s addiction. “We had it all. She was so beautiful. It was like something snapped.”
He was right, but I didn’t know what to say. From my perspective at 21, my mom was always one of three things: getting sick, sick, or recovering. Her transition from sad and manageably sick to manic and very sick with a side of drug abuse seemed far less abrupt to me because I’d been born into it — born from it. For my dad, who witnessed my mom ascending into the most fruitful time of her life, her descent into an addiction that would tear apart the fabric of our family was far more abrupt and painful. He’d only known her a few more years than I had, but he knew her at her best.
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My parents met through mutual friends at a bar in the mid-eighties. My mom started getting sick in high school, so she never finished. She was well enough, however, to fall in love. When my dad transferred jobs and moved to Atlanta, she surprised him by following him there, only to be jetted back to Wisconsin a few weeks later, because, as my grandmother told me, she became so weak she couldn’t push the vacuum. She was officially diagnosed with Addison’s Disease shortly after, just before she got pregnant with me. Her doctors were surprised that her body, ravaged by this mysterious illness, could sustain a pregnancy, or even conceive at all.
I see my mother as a woman whose life had been bottlenecked by pain. First, her trauma was unresolved. Then it became stagnant, then rotten, then completely toxic, eventually destroying her body, just like it had her mind.
There’s a picture of my mom and dad in my grandparents’ backyard on their wedding day. A navy blue, polka-dotted dress with a doily for a collar hangs on her tiny body and tightens around her disproportionately round middle section, which is eight-months full with me. She looks ripe and expectant, hopeful that the best years of her life are waiting just beyond the threshold, smiling. She was right, to a degree: Her union with my dad and her new identity as a mother would reframe her narrative, but they would also create space for her to fail.
* * *
When I read my mom’s journal weeks after she died, I found evidence of the pain she carried, most of it coupled with regret. She wrote about how her brother’s death destroyed her and about the problems with her marriage. She wrote about how love could heal everything, and how she wanted to reconnect with the God of her childhood. But most poignant was what she wrote about me. I want to give my family better, she wrote in an entry dated 1997, around the time she forged her prescription. Ashley deserves so much more than I can give her. This isn’t the life I envisioned.
In certain slants of light, yes: It would appear my mother failed me. As she struggled to contain her own tremors, I found myself in the shadow of her intensity, disengaged from the childhood she so desperately wanted to give me. The childhood she had missed out on. But on the other hand, she had been failed — her own life shaken by trauma — and I was unfortunate enough to experience the aftershock. Always, I lived in the shadow of her pain. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Before we moved to Iowa for my dad’s job, there were more normal days than not. On these days, she was a walking shopping mall Glamour Shot, always well dressed and put together, but so accessible and compassionate. People were drawn to her. She briefly worked as a real estate agent while I was in elementary school, and I remember how starstruck small-town kids would recognize her in the grocery store from the local ads before movie theater previews. And when my friends came over, she would dress us all up in her old clothes and makeup and take photos of us. When she wasn’t sick, my mother dazzled me.
Her physical and mental illness seemed to progress in equal proportion. The sicker she became, the sadder she was, and the sadder she was, the sicker she got. The hospital circuit started when I was 10. Being around her then was like holding your breath. Any joy we experienced together was outweighed by the knowledge she would soon dissipate, and slowly drift from me as her body failed her. Still, I was ravenous for her.
If you want to know about my childhood, ask me what it’s like to live in the aftershock of someone else’s earthquake. Ask me about the fallout.
Her hospital trips always seemed to happen on a Sunday. Even though it was on the other side of town, at least a few miles farther than St. Elizabeth’s, she always requested the same hospital, and when I was old enough, I always drove her there. She would often stay at least until Wednesday and then come home, having been flushed with IV fluid and an assortment of painkillers, with a new collection of orange pill bottles to adorn our kitchen cabinet. I never really knew why she went or at what point she was well enough to come home, and I never thought to ask. This was just how it was.
My mom’s frequent trips to the emergency room were just as methodical as they were mysterious. When I was in high school, I would wake in the morning to find her gray and wilted on the bathroom floor, her breathy moans for help muted by the neighbor mowing the lawn just outside her bedroom. I would hoist her into the back seat of her car, where she would collapse into the fetal position. And then, we’d do it all again the next week.
The sickness took up so much space in my young life, but it was so constant by that time, I didn’t have a chance to develop resentment. Even then, all of it — the flare-ups, the hospital admissions, the menagerie of pills — seemed so far out of her control. As a mother myself, I know this to be true: Trauma isn’t something you do to your child; it’s something you give, often passively like a bad chromosome, a genetic predisposition. My mom didn’t want to hurt me, disappoint me, or abandon me. She wanted to love me. She gave herself to me the only way she knew how — through the long, winding corridor of a grief beyond her control. The pain she brought me into was only a byproduct. I’m just thankful she gave herself to me at all.
* * *
Visible, a felon: A mother behaving badly, a prodigal wife, an addict, discoloring a daughter’s childhood. On the surface, always taking. Peel back the veil and you will see her there: A child, stealing the bread she needs to make it through the week; a wife, pregnant with sorrow; a mother, laying down her life, in spite of it all.
* * *
When I was in junior high — probably a decade before she died — my mom primed me for her funeral. She wanted to be cremated, and she asked that we scatter half of her ashes on the acreage my family owned up north, burying the rest in the cemetery next to her twin brother. True to her bent toward the saccharine (and her devotion to Lilith Fair), she also requested that I sing Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of The Angels” at the service. A CD version of the real thing was as close as she would get.
From the time I was young, my mother had made a habit of acquainting me with death: The objective reality of death in general, and the subjective inevitability of her own. As much as she sought to numb her suffering, she also treated it like a delicacy; she had looked at pain for so long it became beautiful. So every tragedy we came across was a death lesson. When we passed by racing ambulances, burning vehicles turned upside on the highway, cars swerving away from a mother and her ducklings, she brought me with her to the thin places, where heaven touches earth. My mother lived in this space: One foot planted on earth and another far beyond it, with her brother, with her lost childhood, with everything light.
I remember how she was always fascinated, even obsessed, with the supernatural. When I was a freshman in high school, she put me on the phone with a dog psychic who claimed to communicate with our dead poodle, who recommended I try out for the volleyball team and befriend a girl in my English class. (I did neither.) There were always tarot cards and Buddhist self-help books on tape, and then, a sudden resurgence of the Catholic faith of her childhood. Whether she was trying to reconnect with her lost brother, or find a piece of herself that was missing, or probably both, my mom seemed to crave death. For her, it was not only an ending, but a culmination. It was art. So while disease destroyed her body, she tried her best to watch vigilantly over her soul, and hungered voraciously for anything that would keep it aflame.
I was 1,300 miles away from my mom when she died, having taken a job in Texas after I graduated college. It was the greatest distance that had ever been between us. Just weeks before she died, on the advice of a well-meaning therapist, I cut the cord connecting us and told her not to call me anymore, but it would take years of repeated unlatching myself from her memory for me to feel separate, independent of her influence.
An unfamiliar number lit my phone at ten o’clock in the evening, as I was getting ready to go to bed. “Are you sitting down?” my aunt asked. “Why don’t you get a friend to come over and call me back.” What was the point, I thought. I already knew. I had always known. My mother died a thousand times before the formality of her death: Her life, a thousand little funerals bracing me for that night in November. And then, the decrescendo, a drawer slowly closing, a slow fade away from me, gentle as her touch, soft as her almond skin.
The sickness took up so much space in my young life, but it was so constant by that time, I didn’t have a chance to develop resentment.
I stood there, motherless, in the thinnest place of all, and breathed for what felt like the first time.
* * *
They say everything looks smaller from up high, like when you’re in an airplane. How the cars look like ants from ten, twenty-thousand feet up. From the fifth floor of my apartment building, I watch my 3-year-old son and husband, both in stripes, play baseball in a rectangular lawn across a busy street. From up here, they are small, and all around them I see context: people, trees, a fountain, and beyond that, high-rise buildings. With a fifth-floor view, I can predict by the way my son turns his chin inward after missing the ball that he’s about to erupt into a tantrum. When life zooms out, frame by frame, I can see it for what it is, how big it all is and how small we are, hidden inside of it.
It’s difficult to really love someone without that kind of context. Without the whole story, you see and are forced to judge one tiny part of a person’s existence. It was this way with my mother. Imagine a photograph zoomed in so closely all you can see is darkness, and beyond that, more black. The twenty-one-year section of my mother’s life I lived in was small. In it, she lived out her suffering, and I had no context by which to be her daughter but the dark, cold, deep place I saw at the time.
It wasn’t immediate, but in many ways, the end of my mom’s physical life was the beginning for me. It zoomed her out and gave me perspective: A new framework in which to love her. Without her superimposed on everything — no more manic episodes, no more trips to the hospital, no more lies — I could forgive her. I could let her be both a broken child and an addicted mother, because it didn’t hurt me anymore. Her death disconnected me from her body, but profoundly connected me to her soul. That was the best part all along anyway.
* * *
Ashley Abramson is a mom-writer hybrid from Minneapolis, MN.
Editor: Sari Botton