Born into Addiction and Withdrawal
Editor’s note from Glenn Holsten:
A few months ago, Lauren Dicair submitted an essay about her life to OC87 Recovery Diaries. I was stunned by her story — it contained tremendously sad details of a traumatic childhood that was followed by years of wrestling with mental health issues. I was also impressed by her resilience — the writer who had weathered so many emotional and physical storms was able to tell her story with quiet determination and thoughtful reflection.
When Lauren and I first spoke by phone, she informed me that the essay was a condensed version of stories from her memoir, which she is currently writing. She spoke beautifully her reasons for — and challenges of — writing a memoir. I was struck by her resolve to discover meaning in her life, to heal herself, and to help others. By sharing her story, she wants to prevent another person from experiencing the isolation and pain that marked her childhood. The video interview excerpts that accompany this post include much of what was discussed in that phone conversation, in hopes of providing a window into Lauren’s writing process, and an effort to share the issues and questions that someone writing a memoir must address when undertaking such an effort.
We’ve decided to publish the story in three parts — which gives Lauren the space to include important details about each chapter of her life. Part one is about her childhood, part two takes us from her college years through young adulthood, and part three brings us to the present day, to a better place and time in Lauren’s life. Happy endings? No such thing. But there are moments of understanding and growth — and besides, she’s only 31 years old and has much more living to do.
Please consider the following an advanced peek at the memoir of Lauren Dicair, a licensed clinical social worker who has the courage to face life’s most difficult moments head on, in hopes of finding light and reason in the darkness. We are extremely proud to present this version of her journey.
INTRODUCTION BY LAUREN DICAIR
In conversations with co-workers, acquaintances, and even “close” friends and family members, many people living with stories of addiction and mental illness work overtime to put their best mask forward due to shame and cultural stigma around these experiences. This in turn creates a self-perpetuating feeling of isolation that can cause the person to spiral and drown in their misery. Isolation can be fatal. This is why I have chosen to out myself as a child of parents with addiction and a person with mental illness — to help eradicate our cultural theme of isolation.
Having grown up with fairy-tale stories, our society relishes in “happy endings,” making it difficult to sit with the life-long struggle that is addiction and mental illness. For those of us lucky enough to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel, our success stories are not about being cured but rather, finding a state of being that is acceptable and manageable.
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We were a white, middle-class, Jewish family who lived in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia. When I came out of the womb and began having withdrawal seizures, it rendered their most seasoned physicians at our Main Line hospital incompetent. They had to transport me to a local urban hospital for treatment.
For several weeks, I struggled to stay alive as I was pumped with Methadone and Phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medication used to help slowly ween me off the Seconals, Tuinals, Nembutals and god knows what else that had tumbled down my umbilical cord. According to my father,
“You almost died, Lauren.”
But eventually, I pulled through and was sent home with my parents who had managed to fly under the hospital social workers’ radar.
My parents are junkies. They were introduced to each other by a mutual, drug dealer friend and within their first year as a married couple, had conjointly built up a rap sheet of various felonies and misdemeanors ranging from simple assault to burglary.
Fast forward five years and there I was, standing in the middle of our living room, the blinds permanently closed, leaving the whole first floor obscured and isolated from the rest of the world. With my father at work, I was left in the care of my stay-at-home mother. The majority of the time she was nodding off in her armchair. Whenever I would ask her if we could play or go to the park, she offered her stock phrase in a deeply drugged, monotone voice,
“Lauren, I am not in the moooood.”
One day I found her sitting in her armchair as usual, but something was different about how she looked. Her eyes were closed and she was partially slumped over in her seat.
“Mommy?” I asked with more urgency.
Still no response.
I tugged at her arm, which just made her slump over even more.
I stood there watching her, waiting for any signs of life. I looked closely to see if she was breathing, but her mouth was clamped shut and her chest was completely still.
I knew that I had to get her help. I decided not to leave her in her chair because at that age I believed that being sick meant needing to be in one’s bed. And so that is exactly what I set out to do — get mommy to her bed.
My mother was a heavy-set woman. I once heard her say,
“Downers blow you up, that’s what happened to Elvis.”
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I started tugging and continued tugging hard on her arm with both of my delicate, young hands, eventually getting her body to thump to the floor. I then used all of my strength in my arms and legs to roll her over onto her back. I positioned myself behind her head, curled my fingers around her wrists and began to slowly, very slowly, drag her towards the stairs that were just behind her armchair. One step at a time, I climbed up the stairs backwards, sliding her over each stair, a couple of inches at a time. About halfway up, I sat on a stair to rest, leaving her to lay vertically over several stairs, her body still lifeless with her head turned to the side. I began to sob. And I didn’t sob because I was scared. I knew that my mother wasn’t dead. I sobbed because I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I sobbed because all of the adults in my life had decided to turn a blind eye, leaving me alone to fend for myself and my suicidal, junkie mother.
I was eventually able to get her to her bedroom, but she was too heavy to lift onto the bed so I just let her body slump over the side. I then picked up the phone and dialed my father’s number at work. A phone number that will forever stay locked in my memory.
“Mommy won’t wake up, you need to come home”.
It turned out that my mother had downed an entire bottle of Tussionex, a narcotic cough syrup that she got from one of her junkie friends.
It didn’t end there. Between her multiple stints in rehab, a 30-day jail sentence and several years of probation, she still got high and attempted suicide a second time by stabbing herself in the belly button with a sharpening rod from the knife block. I remember her standing in the middle of the kitchen, surrounded by a group of paramedics and policemen who were trying to block my view of the gore.
My father was a junkie too, but a functional one. There is a picture of him in one of my baby photo albums, looking into the camera with pinned, glassy eyes. As I got older, I was instantly able to detect when he was high based on this signature gaze and the way that he would pull on his nose to alleviate the “opiate itch.” He was our breadwinner, sometimes holding down two or three jobs, just to make sure that I could stay in the Lower Merion School District — one of the top-ranked in the country. He consistently stressed the importance of me doing well in school and going to college. As a young child, he read to me a lot, including various essays and poems out of his college lit books. When I got older, we often engaged in intellectual dialogue on the Social Sciences. He himself had majored in Psychology while in college but had dropped out, his junkie lifestyle taking precedence. My love for abstract thinking quickly blossomed and school became the ultimate escape from my ravaged home life.
Whereas most children cringe at the thought of their parents getting divorced, I begged my father to leave my mother.
“I know that the mother usually gets custody, but I’ll tell them that I only want to live with you”.
But he would shake his head and tell me that he couldn’t do it. Not only was his co-dependent bond with my mother too strong, but he was also terrified at the thought of losing me. In his previous marriage, my father had a son, and when he divorced his ex, she eventually ran off with their son to another state causing them to become estranged.
“I don’t want to lose you like I lost him.”
And so, I remained in a subculture riddled with life lessons on abusing drugs to cope with pain, on using physical and emotional violence to express one’s anger, on putting one’s selfish desires above the needs of one’s family, on how children should be seen but not heard. Perhaps due to some type of Stockholm Syndrome, I was enthralled with the white-trash hustle that went on around me, including the forbidden visits with my Pop-Pop to his mistress’s house or listening in as he uttered sweet nothings on the phone to his other girlfriends in exotic, far-away places while my grandmother was out fulfilling her gambling addiction. Just as long as I didn’t have to witness anyone nodding off in my presence, I was cool.
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There were always one or two lawsuits in the works for a feigned injury from a fall or a car accident. These schemes ensured that my parents could have continued access to prescription narcotics and money to buy additional supplies off of their circle of dealer friends.
Lamps were thrown, voices were raised, money was stolen, fake prescriptions were written, drugs were dealt, family was assaulted, strangers were assaulted, and I couldn’t identify the Disney princess on the nightgown that my estranged aunt had bought me for my fifth birthday.
I had been brainwashed by my mother into thinking that if I ever revealed our secrets to outsiders, I would be thrown into a foster home where I would be beaten and sexually abused. So I never said a word. Not even to my elementary school counselor who would shrewdly make attempts to probe me over our weekly game of Sorry.
Instead, I was forced to reach out within the bubble. My mother’s father and I had a very tight bond since the day I was born. He visited our house on a near daily basis and would shower me with lots of affection, almost as if he were trying to make up for all of my parents’ emotional neglect. He was a very vivacious man with tons of personality, traits that starkly contrasted to my parents’ ghostly presence. He loved being on the move and I thoroughly looked forward to the times that he would pick me up and drive me around in his 1984 Buick Riviera to temporarily escape at the mall, at the Jersey shore, or out to breakfast. My heart would sink into my stomach as we would turn onto my street to take me home.
But as much as my Pop-Pop loved me and abhorred my mother’s behaviors, he still enabled her and caused me great disappointment with his dismissive responses. I sometimes cried to him about how horrible it was to have to live with her. His response was always the same:
“Think of it as if your mother were physically handicapped. You just have to accept that this is the way she is.”
There were no family vacations or summer camp or visits from other family members. The only people we socialized with were my parents’ junkie friends. Their kids were my playmates. Throughout elementary school, I was too ashamed to invite the outsider kids to my house — my mother either nodded off in front of them or, due to a general lack of boundaries, put on an inappropriate movie for us to watch like Sybil or Reform School Girls.
Like many lost, depressed kids, I went through a goth phase in middle school. My mother encouraged this and bought me a wardrobe of fishnet stockings and knee-high leather boots and even helped me dye my hair various colors. She allowed me to play hooky all throughout 8th grade and I was ordered to attend summer school so that I could be allowed to move on to high school.
High school was a much easier time for me. The typical trials and tribulations of adolescence had nothing on my adult struggles. I found a group of other outcasts to hang out with and continued to stay mum on my home life. After all of these years, it was perfectly natural for me to keep my parents’ secret life on the back-burner.
My father, mother, and Pop-Pop had built an impenetrable fence around our sick world, guaranteeing that no one could enter, no one could leave, and nothing would ever change. Except I did get to leave, at least physically.