I moved through the days in a fog of suspicion. My greatest desire was to keep our life as a family – our imagined future as a family – but the web of deceit he had woven was thick. I knew now what easy prey I’d been. Yet when I wavered in my belief he was clean, he convinced me he was: up early with me in the morning, at night, he’d climb into bed and pull me close, his skin against mine a plea to believe in him again. He raked the leaves, cooked meals, made cups of tea and did chores around the house, singing silly songs and joking with Molly. Initially, with his dark secret finally out in the open, he seemed a changed man. Still, I wanted more than theatrics. I had yet to learn how insidiousness a cocaine habit could be but I knew it would not go away by itself. I insisted we go to counseling.
Dr. X’s office was in a large house on a quiet street. We pulled into the gravel driveway. I led the way in and up the carpeted staircase to straight-backed chairs at the top of a landing. We sat side-by-side listening to a woman’s strident rambling audible through the shut door. Our appointment time came and went. Neil looked tense but made funny faces in reaction to the woman’s harping. We’d have to be sure not to talk too loudly when it was our turn. Finally, the door opened and the woman scurried out followed by a bear sized man, as tall as Neil, with a beard and a full head of messy hair. A flannel shirttail hung out of his pants and the last button was undone exposing a patch of his potbelly. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed. We followed him into the room.
“Go on and take a seat. I’ll be right back,” he said. Bird song wafted through the room with a breeze through the open window. We sat in the two chairs he motioned to across from his more comfortable looking armchair. Notebooks and papers lay scattershot around his chair and an unmade bed was on the opposite side of the room. Neil and I looked at each other and cracked up.
“What’s up with the bed?” Neil said to me, laughing nervously.
“Well he looks like he just woke up from a nap,” I answered. We relaxed, taking in the messy room. Finally, Dr. X returned.
“Okay! So what’s up? Hey, do you guys want a cup of tea or coffee or something else to drink?”
Really? I thought. We’re already more than fifteen minutes late and now we’re taking a coffee break? Neil rarely turned down an offer of caffeine, so I answered before he could, “No! We’re fine.” I glared at Neil letting him know he better not disagree.
“You’re not going to want us to get into bed or anything, are you? Or is that in case we bore you and you need a nap?” Neil was already defaulting to his jokester persona. He’d say anything to avoid discussing why we were there.
Dr. X chuckled politely. “Sometimes I do bodywork. You’re feeling kind of edgy, huh?” he asked Neil before settling back in his chair. “So, what can I do for you two? What brings you here?”
Neil looked at me, waiting for me to tell our sorry tale. He hated saying it – refusing to identify himself as an addict. I resisted my compulsion to rescue the awkward silence and kept my mouth shut. I wanted him to own this, to hear him tell the truth. As part of the crazy magical thinking I’d adopted, I waited as if in Neil telling this stranger we’d come to for help, he might be healed.
“I’ve got a problem with cocaine and it’s destroying my family.”
“I’ll bet it is. And you?” Dr. X looked at me.
“Do I do cocaine? No. But I pay for it in more ways than one. Apparently this has been going on for a very long time and I had no idea.” If I were a cartoon character, there would be green bile shooting out of my mouth. I fought back tears as a flash of painful and confusing days and nights that I now knew could account for years, ran through my head.
“Cocaine is intense. It messes with your neurotransmitters.” The doctor launched into a description of the short and long-term effects of the drug then leaned back in his chair and pronounced, “You two are in a mother-child relationship here. Tricia, in taking care of his needs a dynamic is created that makes Neil want to rebel against you.”
“So it’s my fault?” I couldn’t hide my anger in answering him, “Well I don’t want to be his mother. It’s definitely my choice that he’s not taking care of his family.”
Neil sat twisted away from me in his chair, chewing his nails, probably dying for a cigarette – or something else.
“No of course not! But you have to realize that you’re enabling him to continue.”
Enabling. I was beginning to hate that word and all the rest of the catchphrases of addiction. As if any of this could be summed up in a self-help pamphlet. What the hell was I supposed to do? Where were my instructions?
“So, how do we get out of this dynamic? I want a husband, not a son!”
In response he launched into another ramble on theories and brain patterns but offered me no solutions. My eyes glazed over. Okay, enough, I thought, what can we do, how can we fix this? Finally he suggested Neil detox his body including getting a high colonic to flush out his system. Really? I thought, cleaning his asshole is going to get him straight? I almost guffawed. He prescribed anti-psychotic and other prescription drugs and Neil agreed to do it all, happy to end the session and get out of there.
We met with Dr. X a few more times before I figured out that we were wasting time and money. The clincher was the day I called him after secretly counting Neil’s pills and he had taken an alarming number more than the prescribed dosage. He brushed me off saying it was no big deal. I felt like he and Neil had forged a strange alliance and when the two of them talked about cars or tried to one-up each other on jokes, I seethed. “Can we get going here? I’m glad you guys are having a good time but I don’t think this is what we need to be doing right now, do you?”
They looked at me as if to say, “what’s your problem?”
I made appointments for both of us with other therapists who claimed to specialize in addiction. Neil often did not show up and alone with the counselors, I wept and ranted until paying the deductible on these visits became just another stress of a bill I couldn’t afford. Remembering what Dr. X said about my role in Neil’s addiction I decided that at least, I could figure out how to control my behavior.
Focusing on one’s self rather than the addict was a regular theme at the Al-Anon meetings I frequented. Although never a fan of groups, these meetings were free and provided comfort and a chance to talk without shame or embarrassment. I tried to attend a few times a week. Other people’s ordeals were sometimes so frightening, so insane, that mine no longer felt so terrible. Al-Anon literature became my bedtime reading. Slogans that initially seemed trite and set my teeth on edge, soon became my mantras that when mentally repeated, took the edge off a terrible episode. Even the references to God, usually uncomfortable for me in my uncertain faith, provided solace. My favorite became the Serenity prayer. The simple words steered me clear of the gaping abyss of anxiety threatening to swallow me up. Mornings, when worry rushed me like a wave upon waking, I met it with a mental chant: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
From kindergarten to 3rd grade, I’d gone to the neighborhood Catholic school. My siblings and I were required to go to Sunday mass by the school. When we moved away from Saint Gabriel’s Parrish my parents enrolled me in public school and due to a combination of their own ambivalence towards the church and towards us, they stopped monitoring our faith. Even though my parents and siblings stopped going to mass, I continued to rise early on Sundays to go to church by myself. Burdened with the guilt of my imagined mortal sins, I’d leave my still-sleeping apartment and walk alone up the 10 blocks to Saint Margaret’s Church, sliding into a pew with the solitary old people. I knelt, stood, sat and knelt again, praying for my ten-year old soul and for the slumbering souls of my family.
My faith lapse or rather, my epiphany, came after a pre-Easter Sunday confession. When I confessed to the priest behind the dark screen in the musty booth that I’d missed a few Sunday masses, he began yelling at me. “What school do you go to?” he demanded to know and gave me an extra dose of Hail Mary and Our Fathers as penance. Devastated by his admonishments, I shuffled up to the altar, stared at the gloomy statues of blood and mourning could not remember how to say either prayer. Flustered, I stood up, hurried past the other penitents, out of the incense-filled church. Staring at the cracks of the sidewalk for the dozen blocks home, my mortification became anger. Who was that man pretending to be God’s judge? What did he know of my life? By the time I’d taken the elevator up to our floor and opened the door to apartment 7D, I’d rejected all priests. I needed no spiritual intermediary making sure I conformed. I released myself from ever having to attend another boring mass again. Nature would be my church. No men in dresses needed to run interference in my not-yet cobbled connection to God. To this day, I cannot remember the words to the prayers of my penance.
Yet years later, I am comforted by the possibility offered by prayer. My terror of Neil’s addiction and worry about the damage it was doing to our lives, receded behind the dam of my new composure. Al-Anon slogans helped curb my preoccupation with what Neil was up to. I was learning to let go of him and to move forward on my own. But I could not let go of the hope that Neil would catch up.