Narratives from the Front Lines: The Untold Truths

~ J’s Story

For as long as I can remember, substance abuse has been a deeply integrated part of my life. When I was three years old, my young parents divorced, separating my older brother and I. Our dad got custody of my older brother, and our mom got custody of me. Little did the courts know that my mother had been heavily involved with methamphetamines. I don’t remember a lot of what went on in that time period because I was so little, but I do remember many hungry nights and scrounging for food in the cabinets of wherever we would stay to feed myself. I remember being a lone a lot. I remember many hospital visits because of my out of control asthma and digestive issues. I remember my mom taking turns with my albuterol treatments when we would return from the hospital. I didn’t spend very long with her (a year or two maybe) before my dad ended up getting custody of me as well; after so many hospital visits, it was clear my mother wasn’t capable of properly providing for me. I know I didn’t want to leave my mom at first, but after finally being able to sleep in the same place every night, getting to eat knew tasty foods all the time, finally having warm clothes, my own toys, and actually getting to make friends I could keep, I think I began to miss being with her a little less.

My mom didn’t stay in the picture for very long. My dad remarried to a super sweet woman who didn’t have any children and treated us like we were here own. My mom used to always tell my brother and I that we were stolen from her by my dad and step mom. Which is ironic for two reasons: first, she actually did steal me one time on my birthday because my dad told her she couldn’t have me for the day. Second, after talking to many of my friends who also have a parent that is an addict, I have learned that that is a typical comment made by parental addicts. Anyways, she popped in and out of my life irregularly till I was seven years old. Always making plans with us, keeping us waiting on the front porch for her possible arrival, to never show up. I remember the last time I saw her till I was 16, was when she randomly stopped by to say bye before her “quick” trip to Florida to see some family. I didn’t hear from her again till I was eleven, and she called on Mother’s Day. I’m not sure what age I truly recognized that she was an addict and that she probably wouldn’t play a very active role in my life, but I know I accepted it long before I was consciously aware.

While it was probably good that my birth mom wasn’t very prevalent in my life, just because of the devastation addicts can wreak on the lives of those they touch, it did not stop me from wondering what life would have been like if she wasn’t an addict, and she had been there.

When I was nine, my brother was sent to live in ______ (out of state) with our step-mom’s parents to help with his behavior. At the same time my parents begin to have marital problems and my step-mom was in a car accident in which she received a serious back injury that couldn’t be corrected with surgery. As a result, she began to take hardcore pain medication that caused intense irritability. My dad at this time was heavily abusing alcohol and partying all the time. Due to the marital issues my parents were having, my mom felt the need to keep pace with my dad and began to also heavily drink while simultaneously taking her pain medication. It wasn’t long before they were both abusing pain medication, alcohol, and partying every day and every night.

At nine years old, my parents began to expect me to run the day to day duties in the house hold and to take care of my two younger siblings. I was responsible for the laundry (everyone’s), the dishes, the kitchen, the bedrooms, etc. I was responsible for making dinner for myself and my siblings, and for watching them every day after school. During the summer time I would take care of my siblings, and any other housely duties, from morning to night. If I failed to do any of those, which I often did, I would be severely punished by my step-mom. I remember several incidents’ thinking I wanted to die because I thought the pain would never end. There was a period where my bottom and back were so deeply bruised that my step-mom’s sisters began threatening to have us taken away and making up excuses for me to come stay the night. I remember having to hide fingerprint bruises, and scratches from long fingernails, on my arms from my friends at school. It was hard for me to keep friends just because I was never allowed to hang out with them.

Things gradually got worse before they got better. At one point I was taught how to make margaritas for my step mom and her friend, and would often be told to make them drinks when they were hanging out. The cops were called several times and, where as before we were always told to call the police if we were in danger, we were now expected to have the same level of distrust for the police as our parents did. My grandma (my dad’s mom) ended up moving back to Oregon from Alaska and actually started watching us after school so that she could get us away from the house. She was my saving grace in that period of my life.

When I was 12, a lot of things changed. Needless to say, with the 2008 housing recessions combined with my parents’ substance abuse and extreme partying every night, we ended up losing our house as well as the house my parents were renting out next door. We ended up having to move to rural Oklahoma to live with my step-mom’s parents (where my brother was staying during this period), until my parents were able to get back up on their feet again and get their own place. It took them six years.

I’m sure there are several underlying factors for why it took so long for us to finally move back into our own home. They did have another child and my mom also wasn’t working throughout a large portion of this time because someone had to “watch the kids,” so I’m sure that contributed to the time gap. The real truth was  that she and my dad were still struggling with substances, so she would lay in bed all day and expected the house to be taken care of by both my older brother and I. Even if we did get everything accomplished in our long list of chores and duties every day, the second we would take a break and start to relax, our step-mom would come breathing down our neck to go find something else helpful to do.  Oddly, school was our only reprieve, summer breaks were dreadful.

Things did get somewhat better living with our grandparents, especially with the physical aspects of the abuse. I guess because there were two more adults present in the house to hold them accountable, (especially extremely religious ones), it made it lot more difficult to excuse their own behaviors anymore. Nonetheless, the control aspect never let up and no leniency was ever given. We didn’t get to go hang out with friends, or go to the movies, or go shopping, or even just drive around. We went to school and church every day, unless we had games, and then came right back home. Books were the escape for so long, for both my brother and I. Other people’s lives becoming a better place for our minds to go than our own lives. Eventually that became controlled as well. No books on Sunday (unless it was the bible), no reading at the dining table, no reading unless all the chores were done, no reading if there are guests over, no reading if we are grounded from reading, etc.

I won’t pretend we were perfect children, and that some of the time we didn’t deserve to be grounded and in trouble. We would definitely talk back if we felt like we weren’t being parented but bullied, or if we felt like were weren’t being allowed to experience something because it was just another thing for them to control. Overall though, we were very good. Straight A’s, always got our chores done, didn’t miss our practices, did well on tests, went to all required church activities, tried to follow the rules- but honestly there were just way too many. Thank god I was a rational enough child to know we didn’t deserve what we were going through. Or I would have actually gone mental.

My older brother moved out when he was 17. I was so mad at him for leaving me behind, but honestly I couldn’t have actually blamed him. I did the exact same thing as soon as I turned 18, there was no way I could wait till I graduated. It was the best decision I have made to date.

My parents are very different with the rest of our siblings these days. I’m not sure if it’s because they are both now 100% sober, or if it’s because we were like their trial and error kids and they realized how screwed up they were when neither of the first two kids could even make it to graduation living in the same household. One way or another, it’s difficult to go home and see such a loving, happy family, and remember the childhood that was anything but.