1. After the Telling After the Telling
IN FEBRUARY 2017, STANDING IN an elementary school cafeteria under a ceiling full of tissue paper–and-cellophane jellyfish, I decided I had to tell my nine-year-old son, Atlas, that I had once been a heroin addict.
I watched the crowd of kids do the Dab in unison to the DJ’s loud dance music. They all looked so much older on the dance floor, so different from the huddle of children squatting over a pile of Legos that they had been just last year.
My friend watched her son bend and twist next to mine. She told me about her impending divorce, holding her baby girl, who squealed with the music.
“I think he’s struggling,” she said, watching her son. She looked gaunt and anxious. I wondered how much weight she’d lost. She shifted the baby to her other hip. “I just want my kids to be okay in spite of our stupid adult crap.”
On the dance floor, I watched my boy trying to catch on to the moves his friends were doing. All the kids’ arms went up in the air and he followed, a beat behind.
If I don’t tell him soon, it could become a lie by omission, a distance between us, a secret that might leave him feeling like he doesn’t really know me.
The girls in my son’s third-grade class pummeled him with balloons, circling him and abandoning their dance steps.
It might take me months to work up to it, but I had to tell him.
A few years before, a writer friend’s kind, musical, lovely twenty-three-year-old son had died by suicide after a long struggle with addiction. Because I know my friend was an excellent, empathic, involved mother who did everything she could to save her son, I began to worry about mine. It was as if the threads of our lives suddenly knit together and now the future awaiting my son and me was terrifying.
I have barely mentioned Atlas to this friend in seven years. She has told me how thoughtless people can be. She said one friend would email her photos of her little boy with the subject line, “This will cheer you up.” Sometimes seeing pictures of this other woman’s seven-year-old in rain boots, on the beach, holding flowers out to the camera, sent my friend to her bed for days.
I did not tell my friend that my son’s therapist would say to me, on bad days, “But your child is not her child.”
I carry the possibility of disaster, the worry about what could happen, even as my friend gets up every day in spite of what did happen.
Yesterday, I saw a very informative video of a little girl demonstrating how to break zip ties binding her wrists with just the laces in her shoes. She was tiny, maybe eight years old or so. But she freed herself easily, with very little effort.
Should I show my son this video? Will he ever have a reason to need this information?
When my boy was three, I taught him that if someone should try to take him, if anyone picked him up and started to carry him off, he should not scream the word help but should instead scream, “This is not my parent!” I taught him to look for a mother with children should he become lost and find himself without me in a crowd.
Preparing to tell Atlas means thinking about that future conversation a lot. He’ll be ten on his next birthday. I am about to try to publish a memoir that spells it out. If I don’t tell, he could hear it from someone else.
My son likes to let people know that his first word was book. As a writer, I love that this was his first meaningful word. What if his first word had been no? And what if I was the kind of mother who would tell the story of his first word being no to get others to laugh at his defiant quality, some inherent naughtiness already present when he was a baby? Could this have changed who he is, how he sees himself?
There is evidence that addiction can be hereditary. When he knows my history, will he grow up and tell a new story about himself, feel an obligation to live out that which he sees as his fate? We want to protect our children from everything.
I have a video about addiction being a faulty coping skill, the result of trauma or neglect being imprinted on the addict.
I read a book about how recovering parents can talk to their children about their addiction.
I see myself sitting next to Atlas, maybe on our front steps.
Here. Come sit with me. Let’s share a tangerine. Let me tell you how sad I used to be and all the ways I tried to disappear and how it almost worked.
These are things my son already knows about me: In elementary school, the other kids called me Cindy Mouse because I was timid. I hyperventilated often from trying not to cry. I liked to line up hundreds of my Fisher-Price people and then spend whole afternoons moving them one at a time, inch by inch, because it helped me think. I was afraid of balls flying at me, girls whispering behind my back, my mother’s temper. I could not ride a bike until I was nine. Once, at summer camp, I was thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool as a method of instruction, probably because the teenage camp counselors were sick of my anxiety. In college, when I could not stop crying, I went to a hospital for one long winter where they locked me inside to keep me safe.
What he doesn’t know: I was a heroin addict on and off for seven years in my twenties and thought I’d never stop.
At age five, my son started having meltdowns several times a day and tantrums when he had to go to his father and stepmother’s house. I told him stories about my own meltdowns as a child.
I told him about the time I lost my shit on the school bus because my mother had shoved me out the door in the pouring rain in boots I hated and did not want to wear. Before the bus even left my street, I was hyperventilating in my seat. The bus driver stopped the bus and made my older brother come to the front to sit with me, thinking that would calm me. With everyone staring, I could not get control of myself. My son listened to this story, still wiping away his own tears. The next day, as we sat at the table drawing together, he said, “Mom, what was wrong with the boots?”
It is only now that I am thinking of how to tell him about my past that I realize how much danger I was in back then.
When I was twenty-four, I broke my jaw in three places when I fell off the railing-less second floor of my loft space because I was drunk. The nurses discharged me with a little kit that held wire cutters and pliers. They told me to carry it with me at all times while my jaw was wired shut in case I got sick. I shoved it in a drawer and forgot about it.
The week I was unwired and could open my mouth again, I suddenly had this vivid image of what it might be like to vomit with your jaw wired firmly shut. For the first time, I realized that a person could die like that and it wouldn’t be a nice way to go. I was so self-destructive and so rarely sober that I either didn’t care if I died or I was incapable of thinking things through to their likely conclusions.
I spent years trying to kill myself. Now I want to live forever, at least long enough to see my child grow into adulthood and not need me anymore. In my opinion, I am all that my son has, his only responsible parent. He is sensitive the way I was and I feel a pressing need to arm him with my understanding and kindness until he is strong enough to handle the cruelty and meanness in this world without inflicting it on himself as a way to try to cope with it.
On the radio, I heard a report about pediatricians who are being trained to treat refugee children. They talked about a five-year-old Syrian boy who was afraid to go outside, who cowered and hid whenever he heard sirens. His father said that sirens meant bombs to the child and no amount of reassurance from his parents could convince him there were no bombs in America. They could try to feed him the information they thought he needed to alter himself for this new environment but they could not make him believe it. Did they worry that he would stay this way forever? Or were they so happy to know he was no longer in danger of dying in the rubble of a collapsed building that they did not give more than a passing thought to his now-unnecessary fear?
I’m not afraid my son will love me less. I am not afraid of his judgment. I am afraid of his sorrow. I am afraid of the part of him that feels everything so intensely. He gave half of his book fair money to the only child in class who had none, even though it was against the rules to do so. How torn he must have been, my son who likes to follow rules, when faced with the sadness of one boy having nothing while everyone else bought new things.
Maybe late at night when he can’t sleep, he will struggle to put me in a new costume of someone who is haunted and trying to destroy herself. The effort will alter something inside of him, some little place that used to be safe from pain but is now cracked open.
The world is inhospitable and can make us want to disappear, and knowing this could prepare him enough to save himself. But what if the information about my past works not as a warning but instead as a blueprint?
If the worst thing actually happens, then what? Is surviving trauma a constant settling and readjusting, an effort to accept that which is unacceptable? But how far can that go? Are there things we cannot adjust to? Or do we recalibrate for absolutely everything that can happen to us?
My ten-year-old had no money for the book fair, but he came home with books anyway.
My son became an addict and died far from home, but I have sweet memories.
Bombs destroyed our life but we made it to a new country so it’s okay if my kindergartener lives under his bed.
At the elementary school dance, my son and I waited in line for the photo booth. I paid the five dollars, pulled back the curtain, and sat down inside with my child. A sign said there would be three shots taken with a countdown on the screen before each flash.
Three, two, one, and the shock of yellow light washing over us, exposing us, blinding us.
When I held the damp strip of photos in my hand and my kid went back to his friends on the dance floor, I stared at our faces. My son looked like the sweet boy he was at three and four and five. His face was open, his smile joyful, his eyes bright. In each shot, my expression is serious and I lean toward him with my mouth open, as if I am rushing to tell him everything he needs to know about this world. He smiles at the camera, blissfully oblivious. This will be the last time he poses with me unaware of who I was in the years before he came to me with all the wonder and joy I had no right to ever hope for. I look at us in the strip of photos, certain that we will still be able to recognize each other after the telling.