Cocaine stopped my head from telling me that I was crazy and bad. It was pretty good medicine until it stopped working.
It was like being chased by something in the dark. I couldn’t see it, but I knew to be terrified. I was running so fast that I couldn’t get enough air. When the oxygen came, it pierced my lungs and clenched my chest, making it painful to take another breath. At first all that I could think about was moving. Fast. Keeping ahead of whatever it was that was chasing me. I wasn’t thinking about getting away. I wasn’t thinking ahead at all. I was just running and trying to breathe.
Eventually my fear evolved into anxiety. I realized that there was no end in sight. Whatever was after me was not letting up, and I couldn’t maintain the pace. Every cell in my body was on the verge of collapse. I had to stop. I was afraid to stop. I wanted my limbs to give out. I wanted to collapse. All that I knew how to do was to keep running.
I remember that I didn’t sleep that night. Or at least it felt like I didn’t sleep. I fell onto my bed and closed my eyes in the winter-dark early morning, and as soon as I had found quiet, the lights screamed on. When I opened my eyes, Mom and Sharon were standing there in my bedroom.
I was living with a friend named Tiffany then. We had bartended together in the past. The bedroom I stayed in was painted the pale pink that toy manufacturers like to give to the inside of a stuffed bunny’s ear. The carpet was a speckled blue with gray and white, that flat kind of carpet that is almost institutional or designed for the outdoors—with a short, retracted weave braced against impact rather than meant to absorb. Tiffany was redoing the inside of the house room by room, patching walls and repainting. It was surface repair that disregarded, or even disguised, the ancient wiring and rusting pipe in the walls. In the process of redoing and touching up, the structure no longer felt like a house but just spaces divided by walls. Most of the furniture had been removed, including the lights. It was always dark. My room was sparse anyway.
It seemed like I might be dreaming as I blinked into the brightness—Mom pressed to a wall and Sharon leaning on the dresser directly across from my bed. I couldn’t process my bedroom ignited by the overheads, or the hour of the day, or the haziness of my own head. I couldn’t think. I could tell that they were angry. I stayed under the covers, as though the quilt could protect me from whatever they were about to launch my way. Then they started talking.
It was strange because it was usually Sharon who did the talking, but now she stood stiff and silent, watching me as though trying to decide who or what I was. It was Mom who was yelling. She was saying, “What are you doing?” and “How could you do this to me? How could you do this to Sharon?” and “Are you on drugs?” and again “How could you? How could you? How could you?”
I wasn’t fully awake when I screamed back at her. It was a reflex, like a hand jumping away from a hot surface. I sat up and yelled various versions of “Go away” and “Leave me alone” that ended in the repetition of “Shut the fuck up!”
That morning the accosting felt like it had come out of nowhere. It seemed a random attack. In hindsight, I can see the events that brought us all to that moment. I still don’t remember stealing money from my sister a week earlier, although I believe that I did it—cocaine is expensive. I took less than twenty dollars from her wallet while I was visiting and ran out the door while she was checking her laundry. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to be noticed—mostly because she was noticing other things.
Then, a few days later, I’d called Sharon from the parking lot of the emergency room in Suffern. Cocaine was causing horrible problems with my nose. It burned, it bled, and the blood clotted so that I couldn’t breathe. I would take scalding showers just to let some air in. I had sat staring through the glass doors into the emergency room, barely able to breathe, and thought about the doctor examining me. As soon as I let them look at me, they would know that I was on drugs. I stayed in the car, mouth open and puffing steam into the cold winter air before eventually driving away.
Finally, just the night previous to Sharon and Mom appearing in my room, I’d called Mom at two thirty in the morning. She hadn’t answered. I’d left a message on her answering machine. I had been crying so fiercely that I could barely put words together. I’d told her nobody was there for me, nobody understood me, nobody cared about me. I’d told her that I was alone. I’d told her that I knew she loved me. I’d said that I wanted to die.
The truth that I understood later was that I was in a deep depression. I felt sad and alone. So alone. Day after day I had breakdowns. They were constant. I would cry. I would write letters to my sister and Mom. I would pray to God when I went to sleep—“Maybe I don’t have to wake up”—and I didn’t even know if I believed in God. I was too much of a wimp to take my own life. I would look in the Yellow Pages for places where I could get help. I did this every day— the crying, the praying, the searching. Other than finding and doing cocaine, it became my life. It’s hard to explain how truly terrible it was, how empty and worthless I believed I was. I was unbelievably sad. I went through the motions of life, but I wasn’t there. I was a shell, and the real me shrunk away inside, getting smaller and farther away from the surface so that I was barely there. For a while the drugs made things better, then they only distracted me. Eventually they did nothing but clog my nose. I couldn’t go on.
The feeling wasn’t new. I felt this way my whole life. All through my twenties, I had thought that there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t think it was the drugs. I knew that I felt bad about myself. I felt like nobody understood me, and I didn’t fit in anywhere. I always felt so alone. Cocaine stopped my head from telling me that I was crazy and bad. It was pretty good medicine until it stopped working.
When Mom woke and heard me crying on her answering machine, she called Sharon. I suppose that they had been putting the pieces together for a while.
Mom has always come to my defense, especially because I suffered as a child—and still deal today—with juvenile diabetes. Anytime I screwed up in school, or seemed to be acting strangely, or did something rude or inconsiderate, she would say, “She probably meant this … ” or “I’m sure that happened because … ” or “Her blood sugar is probably low.” She never wanted to believe anything bad about me. Even while Sharon was becoming convinced that something was wrong, Mom had trouble hearing it. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Sharon but rather that she didn’t want the ugliness spoken out loud, as though acknowledging it would cast it in concrete and set things that way forever.
But my crying on her answering machine had been so hysterical that it had frightened her into action.
That morning, in my bedroom, I was shocked by the reversal of roles. Usually Sharon was angry. Sharon did the talking. Mom was sad and quiet. Mom made excuses for me.
On the drive to my house, Sharon and Mom talked about all of the accounts of my misbehavior. Mom came in pumped up like a boxer after a motivational speech and released all of her fear, concern, anger, and exhaustion as a tirade of accusations that she didn’t give me time to answer. Mom is not confrontational and is not very often pushed to anger, but when she gets angry, she gets mean.
“What’s wrong with you?” Mom yelled, not as question but as indictment: Something was wrong with me. “What are you doing? Why would you do this?”
Years later, when I was responsible for guiding interventions, I recalled that morning. Mom and Sharon did exactly what I warn people against doing. All drug addicts are different and deal with their addictions and the issues that led them to addiction in different ways, but often, when you accuse a drug addict of doing drugs or having a problem, the natural response is fight or flight. If she flees, she may go out and buy more drugs to help deal with the crisis. If she fights, she may return accusations and shift blame so that she can’t hear anything you’re saying. Everything Mom and Sharon did was wrong. Yet it was perfect.
“How could you do this to me? How could you do this to Sharon?” Mom yelled.
“Fuck you!” I yelled as a final push to stop her diatribe. I had never spoken to Mom like that. It is alarming to think that I was even capable of saying that to her. You don’t speak like that to anybody, especially not to your mother.
That’s when Sharon snapped. “How dare you talk to Mommy like that?” she said. “Don’t you curse at her. And she’s been crying the whole way here. You can’t yell at her.”
Then Sharon’s tone changed. She came at me from the side, rather than head-on. She said, “Can’t you see how worried we are? We love you, you know. We want you to be better. We don’t want you to die. We want you to be here. Look at what you’re doing to Mommy. Stop and look at what you’re doing.”
Then I did stop.
Mom had curled into herself, sobs shaking her shoulders and sending tears down her cheeks. I looked at Sharon, who seemed less angry than terrified. Until then, I hadn’t realized what I was doing to my mother and my sister. When you’re in the heat of addiction, when you’re in the death grip of it, you truly feel that you are not hurting anybody but yourself. Addicts often say and believe, “I’m not bothering anybody. I’m not doing anything to anyone, so how can I be hurting them?” But when I looked at Mom, and then at Sharon, I could see how injured they were, and I knew that I’d done it to them. That realization shattered the shell inside my skin that I thought had been protecting me but really had been holding me captive. I shrunk back into the bed, hiding in the covers and crying.
Sharon had broken me out of my prison. Sharon is the reason that I got better. She could always see through my lies and would call me on my nonsense. Since my childhood everybody had assumed that I could not care for myself. They had tiptoed around my feelings. They regarded me as fragile and dependent because my parents were divorced, then because I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. But Sharon never babied me that way. She wouldn’t make excuses for me or accept the excuses I gave her. She expected more. When she spoke to me, she was direct. She said things that were hard to say and hear. She was honest. Because of that, when I was an addict, I was afraid of her.
I knew I wasn’t fooling her that day when I yelled that I wanted her and Mom to leave me alone, told her that I was fine, that they were wrong. Sharon knew me. She saw me, and I was beaten.
“I need help. Please help me,” I cried into my covers. “I can’t stop doing cocaine.”
The reality of what was happening and who I had become was named, and in naming it, it became real. A real thing could be dealt with, understood, and treated. It became undeniable. That was the most terrifying thing of all.
By acknowledging my problem that day, I made it visible, and visibility made it vulnerable. That day reversed my course. My addiction was no longer hunting me but rather being hunted by me. I felt free. It was such a great relief to finally have Sharon and Mom know the truth: I was in trouble. I was crying. Mom was crying. Sharon was crying.
It was probably the worst day that the three of us have ever had. And also the best day. It was both an end and a beginning, and it held the grief and joy of both.
Mom and Sharon sat on my bed beside me and held me. I repeated over and over, “Please help me.” And they did.
Excerpted from In Hindsight: The Story Of How Two Sisters Hurt, Hindered, And Healed Each Other by Sharon Bonanno and Lisa Scott, available at Amazon and elsewhere.