When your mother is a drug addict you tense at the rattle of Tic Tacs and vitamins. You listen carefully for sentence structure and clarity; you are sensitive to mood shifts. You clear out your medicine cabinets before she visits, and even remove the Valium prescribed for your cat.
When your mother is a drug addict, you don’t want to label her as one. You make excuses to hang up the phone when you hear that slur in her voice. You avoid visits near re-fill time. You remind yourself of all the good things she does for you— of the Halloween costumes she sews even though you’re well past childhood, of the cross-country move she helped finance, of the daily calls to make sure you’re not lonely. You accept this limited relationship.
Vicodin. Percoset. Norco. Soma. Valium. Lorazapam. Xanax. OxyContin.
These are the words you learn when your mother is a drug addict. You learn that benzos make her mean and muscle relaxers make her sleep. You learn how much a pill costs and which ones are in highest demand. You learn to lie to doctors—your pain is always a 10.
When your mother is a drug addict you write in your diary about her. She finds it; she reads it. And when you’re 11 years old you cry together over those words. She reads that you feel unsafe with her, that you’re afraid to spend the weekend alone with her. And because you’re 11 years old, you feel hope; you think that maybe this moment is a turning point. That maybe you’ve made an impression where no one else could. But when the conversation is over, nothing changes.
When your mother is a drug addict you sit in front of your middle school and wait for her blue Camaro after the other kids have left. You are frustrated, upset; you pace and you blink away tears. It begins to rain; you have only a sweatshirt. You want to walk home, but you won’t. You know she needs your forgiveness, so you wait. You wait for hours until your father finds you, says she’s asleep in her car in the driveway. You slump your shoulders and sigh; you’re too tired to get angry.
When your mother is a drug addict you see her stand in the kitchen in a dirty purple tank top and someone else’s white panties. You see her too-thin legs, draped in loose skin, shake while urine runs down them and pools on the linoleum floor. You see her boyfriend clean her like a baby, and your younger brother point and shriek, “Gross!” But at fourteen you pretend you don’t notice, and unwaveringly change channels on the old TV.
When your mother is a drug addict, your brother becomes one, too. He doesn’t finish high school and at twenty-three still sleeps in his childhood bedroom. He won’t visit her without a bribe, and even then he punishes her with insults of liar, of junky, of unfit mother. He doesn’t know he’s angry because they’re the same; she doesn’t know he’s angry her because he blames her.
Your mother knows she is a drug addict. But she tells you there’s nothing she can do, that no one can understand her, and that she could stop if she goddamn felt like it. She doesn’t.
And when your mother is a drug addict, you love her anyway. But you wish you could be nicer. You wish you weren’t tense and irritable around her, and that you didn’t dismiss every word she said. You wish that she could know you, know that there are nights when you’ve sipped too much beer, know that you’ve shared a joint with your friends, and that sometimes you stay in your pajamas for three days straight instead of going to work. But she can’t, because this is what you judge her for—what you are angry with her for. When your mother is a drug addict you can’t share your stories and your vulnerabilities. You can’t be the same as her—you may have her long blonde hair but you’ve dyed yours dark. You aren’t bossy, scattered and slow like she is; you are confident, carefree and fashionably late. You are careful and you are guarded because when your mother is a drug addict, you will always be second; you will always be left standing in the rain.
Katie Regan just received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She’s originally from the Seattle area, where she worked as a community newspaper reporter and freelance writer for several years before beginning graduate school. Since moving to Pittsburgh, Katie has served as an Assistant Editor for the Fourth River literary journal, and as Editorial Assistant at a local environmental magazine publisher. Katie is a nonfiction writer, particularly interested in the personal essay, literary journalism, and nature writing.