Nonfiction | June 01, 2003
What remains finally of the early afternoon in November 2001 when I was told that my daughter was shooting heroin? Before: girls’ voices tumbling down the stairs, the thrum of the washing machine, an irritation at being interrupted, curiosity about who was in my house. And after: the still, gray light in the unlit kitchen, pink, thread-like scars (vestiges of a recent car accident) bisecting the outermost eyebrow of each girl—Vanessa’s left and Jenna’s right—and a nauseating vertigo. Renée’s two best friends, notorious at the high school for their flamboyant lesbian relationship, sat across from me at the kitchen table, all angular bodies, pierced faces, dreadlocks and assorted tattoos, talking awkwardly and breathlessly in disjointed snippets. They looked at each other, gestured with their hands and finished each other’s sentences. Jenna was the one who blurted out, almost apologetically, “Renée’s in trouble; she’s shooting heroin.”
* * *
The weight of those words hovered between us. The girls had whisked Renée out of school that morning in order to confront her about what they already knew. The three of them drove first to Jenna’s mother’s house. Renée had belligerently denied everything before locking herself in the bathroom. When she emerged fifteen minutes later, her antagonism had vanished. She indifferently showed them the tracks on her arms and said, “Whatever.” That had been a half-hour earlier, and now here they were. I was their last resort.
If you met Renée, even during this time when she was shooting heroin into the delicate blue veins of her forearm, it would take you minutes or less to discern her sweetness and her warmth. You would see close-set brown eyes, flawless skin and thick, dark hair, and you would notice an absence of the defiant posturing adopted by some of her peers. There was no way you would think heroin addict. She was neither listless nor rude nor in-your-face rebellious, not outwardly angry or depressed. She was a senior in high school, kind and polite; the second-oldest of four. If pushed to label her, I would have called her the easy child, quiet and undemanding. Her older brother, Will, was going to college in Boston; Grace, five years younger, had just started middle school; and Mike was in fourth grade.
That summer Renée and Will and their friends had been going to raves, all-night dance parties in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Lewiston, Maine, and the fact that no alcohol was served and the buildings patrolled by police officers, while definitely comforting, overshadowed another fact—that nearly everyone at these raves was doing Ecstasy, a synthetic psychoactive drug with amphetamine-like properties. Ecstasy makes it easy to dance all night, makes the user happy and empathetic. They were all doing X—Will, Renée and their friends—but they hid it well. The discovery the previous winter of some pot and a couple of pipes in Renée’s room had been mildly shocking given that she had shown no previous signs of rebellion and was especially vigilant about her own fitness (until the year before she had been a disciplined gymnast, working out three and four hours a day, four days a week; she was also an enthusiastic convert to vegetarianism). But she insisted that she’d only smoked a couple of times, and we had no reason to disbelieve her.
One of the things I tell myself in an attempt to grasp how I could have been so ignorant of the extent of my daughter’s drug use is that, being a naturally quiet girl, Renée was good at keeping up appearances and hiding what she was feeling. Since elementary school she had been, for lack of a better word, agreeable, whether because she was genetically predisposed to be that way or because it helped her cope in an often chaotic household. She has told me since that she was painfully shy in middle school and had few friends there, but shy was not a word that would have occurred to a spectator watching her on a gym floor. The only clue to her unhappiness was the daily naps she took after school until it was time for gymnastics. After gymnastics it was homework and bed. She had never answered my “How was your day?” with much more than “Good” and had rarely offered anything beyond glimpses into her school life.
She attended kindergarten through high school in Hamilton, Massachusetts, the larger half of a two-town community commonly referred to as Hamilton /Wenham, part of Boston’s posh North Shore. With a population of around seven thousand, Hamilton is rumored to have more horses than people; indeed, the U.S. Equestrian Team is here, as is Ledyard Farms and Myopia Hunt Club, both sites for horse trials. Myopia still has fox hunts; a dozen foxhounds are followed by riders in elegant red hunting jackets, beige riding pants and black hats. Polo games each Sunday afternoon at three; old New England money; and school system good enough to feed a steady stream to Harvard, Brown, BU and Wellesley are just a few attractions of this town in which it is nearly impossible to buy a house for under $400,000. My husband grew up in Hamilton and I in Wenham. Our families were firmly in the upper middle class: our fathers were professors at a conservative Protestant seminary; our mothers were faculty wives and homemakers. And although our family may not be considered typical of Hamilton (I am a ceramic artist, drive a used car and am afraid of horses), we too belong to its upper middle class.
Jenna and Vanessa cradled their pierced faces in their gaudy, nail-bitten hands and collapsed into soft sobbing. They were still sitting at my kitchen table when I left.
Not until my car was idling in front of his office building did I call my husband on my cell phone. He pushed through the glass doors, the distraught look on his face at odds with his starched white shirt. In the car we argued tensely about what to do. I wanted to discuss; he wanted to act. He jumped out and began to pace around the parking lot, dialing numbers on his cell phone. Bill is the director of operations in a semiconductor firm, used to taking charge, paid to get things done. The first person he called was an undercover drug enforcement officer whose wife had been a karate student of his (Bill has a black belt). Visions of violence and SWAT teams and police cars compelled me to grab for his cell phone. We knew where she was—Jenna had dropped her off at her boyfriend’s house. I used my own cell phone to call a therapist I knew. What should we do? She was shocked but calm, and her advice was reasonable: get Renée out of there immediately; she’s not safe.
Renée’s boyfriend’s grandmother answered Bill’s knock, and I sat in the car praying that Renée would come out, that she was alive. Minutes passed. The boyfriend’s mother came home, presumably from work, and waved to me through the car window. We had not yet met—Renée had only been seeing her son for a month or so—and I greeted her with a tight smile. She had a genuinely open and friendly face, reached in to shake my hand. That ordinary gesture within the surreal situation was the first of a multitude of civilities and good manners offered by all sorts of people, first in the hospital and detox facilities and later by friends and family, that could appear either meaningless or miraculous. Meaningless was how this one seemed just then.
When Renée finally appeared in the doorway she stood blinking in the daylight, even though it was overcast, looking younger than her seventeen years. Her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail; she was wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, no makeup. She got into the car, a mildly curious but blank look on her face, and Bill put the car into drive. No one spoke. I finally turned around in my seat and told her about Jenna’s and Vanessa’s visit. She didn’t look surprised. I assumed she was high, although she wasn’t acting high or strange, only passive. Later she would confirm that she had been expecting us, had known her friends would go to me. We parked briefly in the parking lot of Patton Park (named for General Patton’s tank, which sits in the middle), not knowing where to go or what to do, unwilling to go home just yet to the other children. Renée, bewildered, confessed to being scared but relieved and seemed to genuinely want help. Almost as an afterthought, she told us that she was bulimic (“since we’re being so honest,” she said). After some phone calls to some substance abuse facilities and a couple of therapists, we drove to Beverly Hospital’s Emergency Room—detox facilities, we’d already learned, only accepted patients admitted from a hospital.
After the doctor on call examined her, we were left alone. Minutes ticked into endless hours as we sat in the small room off Emergency, waiting for a social worker, waiting for the social worker to talk to the insurance company, waiting for the social worker to find Renée a bed in a detox facility, waiting for the ambulance to arrive to take her to Somerville Hospital. Renée sat hunched over on the high table, feeling sicker by the hour. How severe the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are depends on how much has been used over how long a period of time. Renée had been using for about six weeks, shooting for two of those—four to six bags a day, enough to experience extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms but not enough to be violently ill. For two days Renée suffered from muscle aches and spasms, stomach cramps, joint pain, constipation, vomiting, hot and cold flashes and itchy skin. Far worse, though, were the emotional effects of withdrawal—her staggering sense of hopelessness and shame.
Over the next twelve hours, the chronology of Renée’s uneven but unmistakable path to heroin emerged piece by piece through her repeated answers to the questions put to her by nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. She didn’t care whether Bill or I were in the room while she was questioned, so we stayed with her. Secret swallows of wine at home, six-packs of beer acquired by someone’s older brother and over-the-counter, “all natural” diet pills preceded the first time she smoked pot, the summer after eighth grade, nearly three years before I caught her with it. By eleventh grade she had discovered X and Special K, favorites for the raves. Also that year, she and her friends would snort crushed Adderall (prescribed to many of her friends for ADD) and coke in the high school girls’ bathroom. She snorted heroin for the first time one late summer night in the woods with her friend Lauren, just before starting her senior year. Afterward Lauren had thrown up and sworn never to do it again, while Renée wondered how long she would have to wait until next time. After a month of snorting she began to shoot with a boy who was able to score the heroin and who would become her boyfriend.
* * *
The psychoactive constituent in diacetylmorphine, or heroin, is morphine, produced by the body when it metabolizes heroin. The morphine molecule has a chemical structure similar to endogenous amino acid chains, or peptides, called endorphins, which are released from the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain. While morphine molecules are chemically different from peptides, they have a structural similarity to endorphins and so are able to lock onto endorphin-receptor sites on the nerve endings in the brain, causing the euphoria and tranquilizing effect of heroin. Any resulting ill effects (constipation, trouble urinating, lowered blood pressure and itchy skin are just a few) are insufficient deterrents to heroin’s grip. As soon as the body experiences this amazing sense of well-being, it wants more, and as the brain adapts to the artificial opiate, a tolerance develops and increasing amounts of heroin are needed to achieve the same high. In fact, the euphoria experienced the first couple of times becomes harder and harder to come by. In her book, how to stop time, heroin from A to Z, Ann Marlowe, a former heroin addict, describes addiction as “a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time.” If the opiate is stopped, an imbalance occurs so that heroin becomes necessary not only to get high but also to keep from getting violently ill. Moreover, the presence of the opiate on the endorphin receptors inhibits the production of natural endorphins. Once the morphine molecules have locked onto the receptor sites, it can be years before the body’s own endorphins can adequately do their job—in other words, once you experience that artificial rush, there’s no going back, not for a long time. Ordinary pleasures don’t cut it.
* * *
At four the following morning, after signing her in to Somerville Hospital’s locked adolescent unit, I sat in my living room in the dim light of the dawn and drank two glasses of wine before it was time for coffee. It was Grace’s birthday; there was a birthday party planned for that evening. After Grace and Mike got on the bus, I kept an appointment in Boston made months before with a photographer who was to shoot some of my work for an upcoming studio show. Mark is a friend; his son is a friend of Renée’s. Standing in his cavernous studio overlooking Boston Harbor, I answered his sincere “How have you been?” with a resolute “Fine.” I could not reconcile the fact of where Renée was at that moment with the Renée I knew. My frequent trips to the bathroom for cold-water splashes to my burning eyes, I believe, went unnoticed. We worked together: I adjusted angles, lights; he took six shots per piece and obsessed over color. That evening Grace opened the birthday presents Renée and I had shopped for and that Renée had wrapped two days earlier. Unbelievably, we pulled it off: Grace’s friends came, we took them to Laser Quest, then out for pizza and back home for birthday cake. The party was a success.
* * *
When Bill picked Renée up from Somerville Hospital three days later, Renée walked into her bedroom, the room she’d shared with her sister for thirteen years, threw down her backpack and burst into tears. Grace and I had cleaned it, picked up the dirty clothes, vacuumed and made the beds. Renée said it looked as though a dead girl lived there.
For the next two months, Renée’s emotions were jagged and exposed. She had lost any promise of escape through drugs and was forced to face the way she felt, which was more often than not sad, depressed and angry. She started back to school the following week and began a regimen of activities devised to keep her busy and begin to take the place of her old life: yoga, tennis, walks, voice lessons.
Everyone we talked to—the substance-abuse professionals, the social workers at Somerville Hospital, people we’d known for years who came forward to offer their own stories of addiction and recovery—was unanimous in stressing the importance of support in the form of either NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA, so Bill and Renée became connoisseurs of meetings, eventually shunning the NA meetings (the people more hard-core, a large percentage of relapses) and finding three or four AA groups (a women’s, a youth’s) in which she felt comfortable. Even though she was finishing up her senior year in high school, her life revolved around the meetings, and she would sometimes go twice a day. She found a sponsor who began to lead her through the twelve steps, and eventually she felt comfortable enough to participate in the meetings and form some tentative friendships. She saw a therapist in town twice a week, and we kept her under close supervision. She obviously couldn’t have any contact with her “boyfriend,” the one she’d been shooting up with, and couldn’t go out with her friends, although some of them were allowed to come to the house. She was honest at this time about who was “safe” and who wasn’t, sincere in her desire to stay sober. She did all of this voluntarily, but she spent hours in her room, listening to music, writing in her journal, doing sit-ups, talking to friends on the phone, crying.
* * *
For her brother Will’s twentieth birthday Renée wrote him a poem, which was painfully honest and self-revelatory:
Will, you are always the coolest one,
that’s just who you’ve always been.
I used to figure if I could be more like you,
then maybe I’d have some friends.
You will always argue for what you believe,
and fight for the freedom that then you receive.
Whereas I’d just run off and cry in my room,
or if I got my way I’d transform it to gloom.
You are the funny one, just chillin’ but smart,
You never had the dark thing that lurked in my heart.
I wanted to be like you, not give a fuck what they say,
and still be rad like you in all of your ways.
Sometimes I still even wanna dress like you,
the way that Mike should probably do.
I thought, “to just be one of the guys” but then I said “dam!”
they suck bad as girls and it’s just because you’re the man.
You always could talk to all the hot kids,
and really just not give a shit,
Because if they were asses you could,
beat them down with your sarcasm and wit.
You eat what you want and never get fat
you’re funny but not raunchy and rude.
You’ve got good self esteem and confidence,
but no “holier than thou” attitude.
You’re the good kid, yet rebellious and free,
You’re happy and mostly good natured too.
The few cool guys I meet that don’t totally suck
usually remind me of you.
They say and I believe in most cases it’s true,
that boys mature slower than girls.
But I’m pretty sure that unlike you, when I’m twenty,
I’ll still be in my own little world.
Happy Twentieth Birthday!
ps. make up a tune for it ‘n I’ll sing it
She stood up and recited this at the family birthday party we gave for Will, and the entire room—Bill and I, her brothers and sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins—was pretty much reduced to tears.
The “dark thing” Renée talks about in this poem is what jumps out of the incoherent mélange of “explanations” that have presented themselves to me over the past year. Although she was never what one would have called a sad child, Renée was quiet, thoughtful and creative, making up poems and stories as soon as she learned to read. Yet some days, especially days charged with expectation—Christmas, birthdays, days that should have been filled with excitement and anticipation for her—ended in disappointment and tears. A memory: an evening when Renée was seven or eight; she was sitting on the living room floor looking at a book and I had gone into the kitchen for something. The Cocteau Twins were on the stereo—haunting, unearthly music—and she came tearing into the kitchen and threw her arms around my waist, sobbing that she didn’t want me to die. She could not provide a satisfactory explanation of what had prompted that, but it seemed to have something to do with the music. As she got older, music became essential to her—a realm to get lost in, a vehicle of discovery and escape. Her melancholy lay dormant and unchallenged on ordinary days, eased later by the natural endorphins of strenuous workouts. Yet it was because of gymnastics that Renée took her first illicit drug. Puberty had changed her body; she was no longer as light or lithe as she’d once been. One of the bigger, more developed girls, whose weight made the bars bend and groan, introduced her to an “all natural” diet pill. Renée took these pills for a while and, in conjunction with the new activity of not eating, lost some weight. Before long, losing weight became an end in itself, and the pills became a habit.
Renée had decided she wanted be a gymnast when she was eight or nine. The couple of months of tumbling classes at the Y proved to be too babyish, not serious enough for her, so we enrolled her in a local gymnastics program, where she quickly qualified to be on a team and worked her way up, one level at a time. Gymnastics was Renée’s passion and her identity for almost nine years. She was wiry and strong, mastering complicated routines on the bars and beam and choreographing her own floor routines. As she was promoted into the higher levels, she began to compete, and weekends were often taken up traveling to New Hampshire or Rhode Island for meets. She became an excellent gymnast through endless repetition and tireless practice and was brutal on herself when she failed to achieve high scores during competitions. The summer before her junior year of high school she reached level nine, one level shy of pre-Olympic competition.
Midway through her junior year, Renée quit gymnastics. The majority of even the most dedicated gymnasts give it up sometime during their high school years. It’s tough on the body, and the time required to keep up with conditioning and routines becomes too much for most girls, who are beginning to want a social life. By the time she stopped doing gymnastics, losing a significant source of self-esteem and identity, Renée was already in trouble, hanging out with kids who smoked pot and swallowed diet pills, girls for whom appearance meant everything. Her best friend at this time, a small, sharp-faced girl who tried to mask her plainness with dramatic eye makeup, carefully drawn lips, and flesh-colored Clearasil, had introduced her to pot the summer after eighth grade. Renée hadn’t even liked it. But she had been initiated, and it was no accident that Renée found Ecstasy, touted for its power to live up to its name. She went looking for it. And it was true; her depression was temporarily eradicated by Ecstasy and later heroin, only to resurface within hours, bigger—monstrous.
Later, she told me things. For instance, drugs were what defined her in her sophomore and junior years of high school. They were something she was, in her words, “good at,” something she was known for. They made her not shy and gave her an identity: she, Renée, was the one who tried everything, chasing the high. She estimates that 75 percent of the kids at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School smoked pot and half did X, at least when she was there from 1998 to 2002, but heroin was taboo. She once told me about a brief conversation she’d had with a boy at school, a boy notorious for his daily drug use, starting every morning with a joint, doing X, coke, LSD, Special K, you name it. His reaction when she told him she was shooting heroin? “What do you want to do, fuck up your life?” She laughed and then stopped talking about it.
It was her secret, what made her special. It was shocking to learn from Renée that heroin was the one drug she’d always wanted to try but for a long time couldn’t find. Heroin was considered the best, the most glamorous of all drugs. (The one thing she remembers about DARE is that after learning about the effects of the drugs, everyone wanted to try them). After everything else she’d tried—the pot that made her paranoid, the X and Special K that made her feel insane, the LSD that made her hallucinate, the coke that made her edgy, heroin didn’t make her feel weird or “fucked up” at all, just normal, and really, really good. Ann Marlowe writes about her first time: “And then came a surge of astonishing pleasure in which I could think of nothing but how oddly benign the drug felt. Surely I would know by the feel if it were evil.” Renée describes heroin addiction as “sneaky” and “nonchalant.”
By the time Jenna and Vanessa came to me that afternoon in November of 2001, something had slipped, but it was at the periphery of my vision. As with the baby you have given birth to and cared for and carried around, who is one day taller than you are, without your ever having actually witnessed one single inch of her growth, I did not see big changes in Renée. She had become thinner since quitting gymnastics, perhaps more distracted at home; she had begun to go out more with friends, to movies, out dancing, but unlike many of her friends, who had become rebellious and defiant, going out and getting drunk, getting into trouble and lying about where they were and who they were with, Renée gave every appearance of being in control. It was only later that certain details stood out, evidence of a growing recklessness in her that in retrospect seems obvious. A shoplifting episode that I’d thought was isolated; a couple of warning letters from teachers about missing assignments (this, so out of character); her desperation to get out of the house sometimes; a ridiculous incident I could hardly believe I’d witnessed, when she’d squatted in a back parking lot of Stop and Shop to pee, not caring if anyone saw. And the phone call one evening from a police officer to report that a woman in a car registered to Renée had gotten some gas and taken off without paying the eleven dollars. I was convinced that her car had been stolen until Renée came home (after going back and paying and apologizing to the girl at the pumps) and told me it had nothing to do with money, which she’d had; it was about the thrill—the risk of getting caught, the thrill of getting away with something.
That fall and winter, I drove her everywhere—to school and back every day (neither one of us trusted her to ride home with friends), to AA meetings, to yoga, to tennis, to voice lessons. She was sober for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. In January she was admitted to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Afterward she was put on codeine for the pain. The surgeon dismissed Renèe’s apprehension about being on a drug, just stared at her and said, “It’s not the same, because you need it.” But it was the same, and even though Renée handed the prescription over to me to dole out—two pills every four hours—she coveted those pills even after the incision had healed.
After months of sessions with a barrage of professionals and a flurry of phone calls between me, her therapist and her psychiatrist, Renée was diagnosed with depression. This shouldn’t have been surprising given that Bill had suffered from depression on and off for years, though he’d never been treated by a doctor. The psychiatrist put her on the antidepressant Celexa, and the change in her was noticeable, happening within weeks. She became interested in colleges, seeking out her guidance counselor to help her with college applications. She found a job working part time at a boutique and began saving up for a car. Everything was going well. For her eighteenth birthday, we gave her a cell phone. Slowly she was regaining our trust and her freedom.
I recall an afternoon when I picked her up from school—as soon as she got in the car she said she had a confession to make, and my heart dropped.
“It’s not what you think, Mom. But I want to be completely honest with you; it’s part of my recovery. I’ve talked to Denise [her therapist] about it, and I am on an honesty kick.”
“Okay, well, fine, go ahead,” I said reluctantly.
“Well, for one thing, I’ve started smoking.”
Okay. Compared to heroin, this was no big deal, I thought. In fact, give me one! But I reminded her that it was she who used to hide my cigarettes when she was five.
“What else?” I said.
“I got my nipples pierced.”
Um, ouch. (This in addition to a number of holes in each ear, including a recent “industrial”—two holes connected by a long metal rod and a pierced tongue, much to the disapproval of our dentist. These piercings seemed to be taking the place of the drugs.)
I just said, “Mmmm. Anything else?” I was asking, but I didn’t really want to know.
“I have a mad crush on a girl.”
Okay. I could deal with that too, especially given the teenaged boys I knew.
“I’m going to be okay.”
At the end of May she graduated from high school. We went shopping for a graduation dress, and I was shocked by the outfits she liked enough to try on: tight blouses (to show off the nipple rings?), short skirts, dangerously high heels. Her interest in clothes and fashion, makeup and hair had flourished since she’d stopped using. She was becoming increasingly outrageous in dress and behavior.
She was forever displaying her tongue stud, enjoying whatever shock value it afforded, including one particularly unsettling trick of hanging a fork from it.
That summer she bought a car with our help, symbol and vehicle of freedom—hers and ours. We no longer had to drive her everywhere, but we saw her less. She was frequently off with friends, or working, and I believed we were staying connected through our cell phones. She drove out to see Lauren at U Mass-Amherst, went to a couple of concerts—Incubus, Rusted Root. She continually reassured us that she was a “straight edge” and that drugs no longer tempted her. She had a new big crush on a blond, sweet-faced hippie girl named Amy, and she and Amy started to sleep out at Singing Beach. Gradually it became unclear whether she was reclaiming her freedom or simply spiraling back out of control. Toward the end of the summer there was a mountain climb, an outing that usually appealed to the whole family. There I suspected, and Bill knew. Renée was lethargic on the climb, blaming it on smoking, but rowdy too, uninhibited in a way that was strange. And during the four-hour drive to the edge of the Green Mountains, Will had had to take over driving her car—we’d taken two cars because we’d brought friends—because she was all over the road. Although she’d always been in great shape, she was last on the climb, complaining, always threatening to go back and wait in the car. From the summit, she practically ran down the mountain, desperate to get home and go out with her friends.
Despite being accepted to the two colleges she’d applied to, she ended up deferring enrollment. She was working full time but had recently been going in late or calling in sick. By mid-September, it was clear something was wrong. At home she was alternately distracted and unfocused, lethargic and prone to napping. One evening she fell asleep while washing the dishes; I came into the kitchen and stood in the doorway and watched her mouth go slack, her heavy lids drop and her hip slump against the sink. I asked her what was going on, confronted her about her behavior and called her therapist with my suspicions. She denied any drug use, explaining earnestly that she was just “mad tired.”
A nasty virus that had swollen her throat almost shut was severe enough to warrant a visit to the Emergency Room and kept her home for a week. One afternoon toward the end of that week, she went out for an hour in her car “to get some air.” She couldn’t hide her desperation, but I didn’t stop her. The following morning, when I knocked on her door, it was locked. She opened the door immediately, as if she’d been standing on the other side, and explained that she was just changing, but her clothes were the same as those I’d seen her in earlier. Bill had left for work, the school bus was pulling away from our driveway carrying Mike and Grace to the middle school and I was on my way out for a run, but something was nagging me. For perhaps the sixth time in the last couple of weeks, I asked, “Are you using?”
She was quiet for a long time.
“What?” I whispered.
She handed over her cell phone, her car keys. She was meek and compliant as she dropped a vial of pills, a brown canvas wallet with a zipper and two needles into the Stop and Shop bag I held open. I tied up the bag and called her therapist and pediatrician, left messages. She couldn’t be left alone, but I needed to get out of the house, so I told her to put on her sneakers. Renée and I walked the trails behind our house. We talked about what to do, and we cried and she put her arm around me and held my hand and said she wanted to be like me when she grew up, and then she told me to get rid of that bag. She was plotting and planning, trying to figure out a way to get to it and needed it gone.
At home her stash sat in the middle of the living room floor, where I’d left it. A year and a half earlier, I’d driven to a nearby town, pulled into an unfamiliar shopping plaza, emerged nonchalantly from my car and casually walked over to the trash barrel, depositing a brown paper bag containing a couple of pipes and a Ziploc baggie half-filled with pot. Had it happened a few years earlier, I probably would have smoked it myself. This was different. I locked myself in the bathroom and spilled the contents onto the floor. The wallet was stuffed with tiny plastic squares that looked like cereal or Cracker Jack prizes; there was what appeared to be a devil’s head with horns and a turned-up collar printed on each, and I remember being shocked at this evidence of mass production. Was there a heroin factory somewhere? The tiny squares looked at first like single sheets, but then I noticed that a few of the squares had been torn open, and when I held one of the intact squares up to the window, I could discern a faint line of white. The compartments of the wallet were filled with them; it took a long time to go through each little pocket, the packets were so tiny.
When I’d emptied the wallet, the pile was substantial, maybe thirty, forty squares, or bags as Renée referred to them. I threw a handful into the toilet where they floated momentarily before I flushed them away. Another handful. Another. I was trying to be careful about clogging the toilet but the third handful didn’t go down. The water rose menacingly high, the little squares floating up and down lazily, colliding gently.
I stuffed everything back into the bag and went for the plunger in the downstairs bathroom. I plunged. The paper wasn’t clogging I realized, I was just flushing too fast. There was one more handful to go. As soon as the last of it disappeared I worried about the next time our septic tank would be pumped, worried about George, the septic guy, finding the bags, which were probably not biodegradable. I tossed the wallet and the empty bottle in the wastebasket and flushed the pills and the empty bags. I didn’t know what to do with the needles.
I spent the afternoon dialing and redialing the 800 number on the back of my insurance card, listening to the insurance company’s menu over and over again, in what turned out to be a futile attempt to speak with a person. Renée’s therapist called, and we talked about thirty-day rehab programs; she gave me some names of facilities and numbers to call. I made an appointment with Renée’s pediatrician. Renée stayed on the couch all afternoon, pale and listless and silent. I picked up Grace from cross-country practice. I took Mike to the orthodontist. We ate dinner.
That evening I told Grace and Mike that Renée was having a problem with drugs again (actually, I had never fully explained to Mike, my eleven-year-old—a young eleven-year-old—exactly what had happened the year before, only that his sister was hospitalized because of depression, which was partly true). When Bill got home from work, I pulled him into our bedroom. He’d been telling me for weeks that Renée was doing something—there had been signs, we’d talked about them; but while I uneasily chose to believe the therapist’s reassurances that perhaps Renée was just “burning the candle at both ends,” working too hard during the day and staying up too late at night, Bill, cursed with what I’ve come to believe is an uncanny clairvoyance, had spent every night for a week on the couch unable to sleep. He stared at me with a weary “What-did-I-tell-you?” look.
The next morning, after examining her, the pediatrician came out to the waiting room and hugged me and then pulled me into her office and urged me to get Renée into someplace that day. She might not be safe, she said. “Do you have guns in your house?” she whispered. In a little room around the corner, Renée, hair tangled and head down, was hugging her knees and rocking on the examining table. Dr. Graves got on the phone with Renée’s therapist. After ten minutes she came back and announced their edict: take her over to the Emergency Room and go from there. At home, Renée threw an assortment of clothes and her Contac solution into a backpack, and I slipped in a book, Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, which I had bought for her last time, and which she hadn’t read. Maybe she didn’t relate to Anne, who chronicles her own alcohol and drug abuse and journey toward a peculiar type of spiritual peace with honesty and hilarity. Maybe Anne was too old.
At Beverly Hospital’s Emergency Room, we sat in a small examining room (a different room than last time) for six hours, during which there were only two interruptions: one from a doctor and another four hours later—an interview or “assessment” by a social worker (also different), who proceeded to bustle around and whose job it seemed to be to find out which places took our insurance. I already knew which places, but she did not want to hear it from me. Renée and I watched the woman, fifty-something, dressed not in hospital scrubs but in street clothes, and odd ones at that—turquoise pedal pushers and a flowery blouse, smeared orangey lipstick, open-toed high-heeled sandals, her toenails thick and yellow and gnarly. Renée looked at the woman’s feet, looked at me, looked back at her feet, made a face. Out of nowhere came this moment of connection and conspiracy, a glimmer of my Renée.
Bill had needed to be at work, and it was a relief not to have to deal with him too, his large male presence, his hurt, a palpable depression that he couldn’t hide, that threatened to smother the optimism I needed to get through this. He had stiffened over the last few weeks, his face closing in on itself, set and rigid, protecting himself with a cold and uncompassionate demeanor. His fatalistic questions (“Do you really think rehab is going to work?” “What’s the use?”) infuriated me. Yet I knew that he was suffering, just as I knew what he was thinking: We did everything we were supposed to do. What happened?
* * *
Humberto Fernandez writes in his book, HEROIN, “Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder. It is also a progressive disease. In the same way recovery is progressive.” That is your hope: that recovery is progressive, that the addict moves a step closer to it with each relapse. The most important question, then, is what can the addict learn from his relapses; what are the triggers? For Renèe it was a combination of things. She stopped going to as many AA meetings and then stopped going altogether. Ironic that at about the time she’d gotten her car, no longer had to depend on one of us for rides and could have gone to as many meetings as she liked, she stopped going. Perhaps she had never taken full responsibility for staying sober, depended too much on her family and sober friends to keep her in check, so that almost as soon as we relaxed our grip she started using again. She met some people, people who used, new “friends” with whom she’d started to hang out. She had suffered some disappointments over the summer: her AA sponsor, who was supposed to be supporting her, working with her on her steps, was busy, did not always get back to her; Michael, a tattoo artist she’d been seeing on and off, broke up with her; in August, Jenna and Vanessa left for Europe. Renée hadn’t been interested in going, and I took that as a good sign of her wanting to stay close to home, underestimating the support that those two provided. One night at a party, Renée met a boy who had some OCs—OxyContin, a highly addictive pain reliever—and for reasons it will probably take her years to understand, she took one. A couple of weeks later, she found herself at the apartment of one of her new “friends,” staring at a pile of the little glassine bags like those I’d flushed. There was so much of it, she said, and Juanita said go ahead, it’s free!
* * *
In Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, in a chapter devoted to a discussion of “the forces that impinge on us in childhood,” the author walks us through Eric Turkheimer’s three laws of behavior genetics, a summary of the results of many empirical studies conducted over forty years and in several countries. The laws address those things that influence and direct the development of a child: heredity, family upbringing, childhood experiences. In light of Renèe’s heroin addiction and my accompanying feelings of guilt and failure as a parent, I am attracted to if not wholly convinced by Pinker’s discussion of the third law: “A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.” If genes account for about 50 percent variation (identical-twin studies have shown that “identical twins are 50% similar whether they grow up together or apart”), and growing up in a particular family has little or no effect on intellect and personality (so far, he says, no research contradicts this second law, which is based on the outcome of three different methods of measurement), then to what can the mysterious “substantial portion” be attributed?
Pinker presents Judith Rich Harris’s theory on what he calls the “elusive Mister Jones Factor” (as in Bob Dylan’s “something is happening but we don’t know what it is . . .”). What accounts for the remainder of the variations in behavior, intelligence and personality (after genes and negligible parental influence)? According to Harris, it is the child’s peer group. While Pinker is not convinced that peer groups explain how children develop personalities, he is “convinced that children are socialized—that they acquire values and skills of the culture—in their peer groups, not their families.”
In the context of Pinker’s research, Renée’s situation may be more explainable, if not understandable. While I am not as convinced as he that parents exert so little influence over their children’s development and behavior, in the absence of any dramatic losses or neglect in a childhood—no traumatic deaths, no divorce, no abuse, not even daycare—and given an abundance of physical care—food, affection, security, stimulation (books, playgrounds, other children, art) and love—the question, “Why does a child grow into an addicted adult?” is less mystifying. The genetic piece—depression, tendency toward addiction—may be there, but so are the friends, the peers, the people with whom the child identifies, friends who dabble with drugs, friends who think drugs are cool. Renée’s identity as a drug user was solidified within her group of friends.
That day at the hospital I asked her whether she’d felt guilt or sadness or regret. Her words chilled me: she smiled the broadest smile I’d seen on her face in days, maybe weeks, a beatific smile full of orthodontically corrected, perfectly straight teeth, and said no, not really, because as soon as she shot up, the warmth that was diffused throughout her body, the absolute happiness and well-being she felt, was enough. Her thoughts ran along this line: “Oh yeah, THIS. THIS is no big deal. What was the big DEAL? This is FINE.” And when the high wore off, her only thought was, “More.”
As she described the euphoria, she interrupted herself to say that even as she was talking, experiencing the unpleasant physical symptoms of withdrawal as well as intense feelings of guilt and hopelessness, she was also fantasizing about grabbing my car keys out of my bag and driving to Lowell to score. I nonchalantly took my car keys and put them in my pocket. She smiled a brief and sad smile. She had become increasingly agitated as the wait dragged on, and by the time we could finally leave she was experiencing the sweating and freezing, knees shaking, the clammy, rough skin characteristic of heroin withdrawal. She rubbed her arms vigorously and described the feeling of insects crawling on her skin, a sensation of ice water running through her veins, itchy on the inside. There was only one distraction in the emergency room that Thursday afternoon, a patient admitted to the room across the hall, a man who had been drinking for more than a day and tried to commit suicide. He was alternately incoherent and passed out. The emergency room doctor was condescending, speaking too loudly, as if to a deaf person or a child. It was the way I’d heard some people speak to foreigners, assuming shouting would somehow make them understand. The language of the man on the gurney was one of addiction and despair—clearly not one the doctor had bothered to learn.
The social worker finally found a bed at the psychiatric facility closest to our house, where Renée would stay for the duration of her detox, during which time—four or five days—we would look for an appropriate rehab facility. At Baldpate Psychiatric Hospital, we sat in the car a moment. Renée looked stricken: when she began to cry, the accompanying splotch of red on her lower cheek near her jaw reminded me of when she was five, and I thought, How did we get here?
“Mom, I am so scared.”
“Honey, I know, but this is the right thing. The only thing.”
She nodded and blew her nose, and we hugged, and then we got out and walked to the door and rang, identifying ourselves through the intercom. The nurse who unlocked the door looked at me coldly. At eighteen, Renée was fully capable of checking herself in, but she was still my daughter, afraid and ashamed, and my instinct was to protect her. I remembered why we were here. I hugged her hard and walked back to the car, my heart torn from my body and my head about to explode. In the car, my grief was unleashed: sadness, disappointment, guilt, hopelessness, anger, love. Mostly though, there was relief; she was safe, and I was alone after two days of constant watchfulness.
* * *
At Hazelden Center for Youth and Families, I’ve talked to Mona, Pam, Sharon, Brenda, Julie, Christine and Katie, and they are all incredibly kind and helpful. Hazelden is in Minnesota—(Renée and I joke about the accent: Min-a-SOO-daa)—and is perhaps the best youth rehabilitation facility in the United States specializing in substance abuse. It’s $18,900 for twenty-eight days, but our insurance covers all but $1,000 as long as she qualifies. There is a phone interview with us and then one with Renée while she is still in detox. Renée’s biggest concern is that CD players are not allowed; she’ll be allowed to listen to whatever radio stations are out there, but cannot bring her own music. We are approved for seven days, the maximum amount of time the insurance company will allow at a time, and she will be re-evaluated at the end of each seven-day period. Katie at Hazelden is not concerned; in fact, she is excited, and confident that Renée will qualify for the whole twenty-eight days.
I make a plane reservation for the morning after she is discharged from Baldpate. She is home for one night. I fix her favorite dinner as if we are celebrating something. Maybe we are. Later she and I drive to Stop and Shop for some shampoo and cigarettes and laundry soap. At home I help her pack, and we crowd together on the couch in the blue light of the living room watching a movie.
At the airport, Renée gives me a big long hug, smiles her beautiful smile, and she is for a brief moment my girl, my Renée. I bask in my forgetfulness. The ticket taker, staring at us, remarks on how alike we look. I am taken aback, as always when someone says this, and flattered too, for Renée is beautiful: tall and willowy with dark hair and warm eyes. But we are so different—her gloom, what she calls in her poem “the dark thing that lurks in my heart,” is her bane, her cross to bear. I would trade with her in an instant, take that darkness into my own heart if it were possible. Incredible that we can bear children who grow into people we do not expect, cannot understand.
When Renée was in tenth grade, an acquaintance of hers, a ninth grade boy, committed suicide (he hanged himself it is rumored after a night of Ecstasy). When she was in eleventh grade, the older brother of one of her fellow gymnasts died in an automobile accident. His girlfriend was driving. Drunk. Almost a year ago, during the time Renée was sober, the daughter of an acquaintance died of an overdose. She’d gone to Florida in pursuit of a boy, and when he didn’t return her affection, she went back to where she was staying, took some pills and drank. At the funeral home she looked younger than eighteen with her smeared makeup and a Chinese dress she’d probably never worn in life. Her mother wailed beside the casket. I stood with her father on the porch of the funeral home while he chain-smoked.
“How are you doing, Billy?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m getting used to it, I think.”
None of these tragedies had the effect of derailing Renée from the course she was on. They were casualties that hit close to home yet didn’t touch her enough to change her ways. Whatever it was that drugs offered—relief from depression, escape from a sense of failure, a substitute for a relationship, an attempt to solidify or repair a fragile self-image—they also contained the possibility of narrowing her existence to a single desire. Renée crossed the line into addiction. Was the needle the line, or was it the first toke? How can we know?
We are here, and Renée is leaving. She turns to me, takes my hand and slips one of those cheap plastic beaded bracelets around my wrist. It’s greenish yellow. She is giving it to me as a memento, I guess, something to remind me of her. As if I need a reminder.
“What does it mean?” I ask, expecting her to rattle off something about energy or chakras.
“It means Renée loves you.” She turns away and blows me a kiss. She is smiling, full of a cautious hope. She walks through the gate until she is out of sight.
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