Category Archives: childhood

The Share


In my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male sober living program, one of the first things I do when I sit down with a new resident on my caseload is ask for their “story.”    On a slow afternoon I have the opportunity to ask the guys who aren’t on my caseload, the same thing.  They never hesitate to launch right in:

“Well, my father beat the shit out of me from the age of 7 and I started using pills at 10 to numb the pain.”

“Well, when I found my mother murdered….”

“Up until last year I was living under a bridge…”

“My wife overdosed and died while I was sleeping next to her.”

This is their narrative, one they’ve undoubtedly told many times, in AA and NA meetings, intakes at every detox they’ve been to and every time they’ve gone to a new therapist.  The telling is an integral part of their healing, their recovery.

Last week it occurred to me that it didn’t seem fair that they didn’t know MY story.  Many professionals might be outraged by the boundaries this seemingly crosses.  When I worked with inmates I understood why I told very little about myself.  Most therapists would say that if a client asks a question like “Where do you live?” you should deflect it by saying something like, “What would it mean to you if you knew that?” or “We’re here to focus on you not me.”

At another job it was mandatory that we shared our stories through a collage and narrative with the participants of the program.  Yes, we didn’t have to tell EVERYTHING, but to me, and I feel very strongly about this, when you are working so closely with people who lay themselves bare to you, it’s only fair that the playing field is leveled.

I asked permission from my manager first.  He has been in recovery for 15 years and is one of the most dynamic men I have ever met.  When his son was murdered just three years ago, he managed not to relapse, but you can see the pain in his eyes.  The men here, some as young as 24, listen to him with rapt attention when he tells his story.  They’ve heard him share at meetings in the community.  His story is not one to keep inside.

In front of the group of 30 guys, I set the tone of what I wanted to say by letting them know that despite the fact that I am not a recovering addict, that I have experienced pain of my own.  Some in recovery firmly believe that unless you are in recovery you don’t have the tools or experience to be a substance abuse counselor.  I wanted to try to soften that opinion.

I began with, “On New Year’s Eve, 1985, my mother and a man she was involved with committed suicide and were found dead in her bedroom.”

Nothing silences a group of restless men than an opening sentence like that.  I told my “story” for about 25 minutes while the guys just watched me and listened with compassionate writ large on their faces.  Many of them came up to me after and hugged me, others shook my hand and thanked me.  The one who I have had the most prickly relationship with, came into my office and confessed that he was one of those people who thought that unless you were in recovery you shouldn’t be counselor.

When I finished sharing my coworker reiterated his true belief that all of us, despite being addicts or not, have pain that stays with us. As he so simply stated, “You never know where help is going to come from.”

P.S.  I wish I could put my hair in a bun like the woman in the illustration.


The Crumble of My Life


The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

Crawling Back In Time

I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. My siblings are significantly older than I (8yrs, 9yrs and 16yrs respectively) and I was often left to entertain myself within an eerily empty and quiet house. It was this freedom (and boredom), that lead me to explore the nooks, crannies and forbidden places and spaces in the house I lived until I was 13.

Every once in a while I would nose around my parent’s night table drawers, my mother’s a jumble of stuff that for some reason included one of those rubber things that blows wax out of your ears. I would sit on the bed and while using her phone just squeeze the big bulb at the end like an old-fangled stress ball pointing the stream of air on my cheek. There was also a circle of pills of different colors and corresponding numbers that when you twisted the plastic package you could pop the pills out of flimsy foil. I did that when I would use the phone too, having no idea what in the world they were (I now know they were her birth control pills. Oops.)

My father’s top dresser drawer was very neat, some old coins, a tie-clip or two and some money-clipped cash. He didn’t like me being in there so I generally kept out when he was home. Like my daughter does now, I would often watch tv from their bed with my mother, all snuggled up with her while she played with my hair. She liked having me there.

I explored in closets (my mother’s wigs in Lucite boxes, her pocketbooks with chicklets and tic-tacs collected on the bottom), random drawers and cabinets in the dining and living rooms (where I would often found boxes of chocolate intentionally hidden from me because of my adolescent weight problem), and leafed through books that were out in the open like “The Joy of Sex,” “Helter Skelter” and “The Exorcist” (There was a book called “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” that I forever tried to figure out what the hell that meant. I just Googled it— “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” provides a laugh-out-loud humorous look at college life.” I’m sorry I never bothered to read it.)

It was our finished basement that held the most intrigue. The only time anyone REALLY used it was when my father would pen his monthly column for some estate planning journal where under no circumstances could he be disturbed. His desk had little cubby holes and on it a black, metal rotary phone that made such a distinct sound when it was dialed that I have never forgotten it. We were only allowed to make long distance calls from that phone, the line being only one number different from our regular more public number.

There was an off white vinyl white couch that I don’t think anyone ever used and a photographic black and white portrait of each of my parents. What I wouldn’t give to know what happened to those.

Our laundry room served double-duty as my brother’s darkroom, the slats on the door covered with a blackout covering. It was pretty cool in there and I knew better than to ever open the door when my brother was printing his photos. Negatives hung on lines and there was always the smell of photo chemicals seeping out through whatever space hadn’t been fully covered. I had little patience in there, waiting for the timer to say that you could move the picture from one tray to another with tongs.

There was a black metal rickety bookcase that had the full set of Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drews and years of National Geographic. I was most fascinated by an old junior high school health textbook that had colorful illustrations of kids touching toilet tanks and not washing their hands, and my favorite, a little boy sneezing on a girl, with a big X through the spray coming out of his mouth and nose. For whatever reason, I looked at this every time I went down there.

The epicenter of discovery, the Pandora’s Box, the keeper of history and simpler lives lived was the crawlspace, concealed behind hanging clothes in a long, wide closet. I’d crawl under some sort of low-hanging metal awning to the first spot where I could almost stand fully upright. Once there among the piles of boxes and low, open shelves, I would pick the most compelling spot, pick something that would hold my weight, sit down, and begin to explore. I remember my oldest brother’s Lionel trains that weighed a TON and felt resentful that this was never set-up while I was growing up. There was an old microscope with a box of glass slides and other accessories that someone must have used at some point. There were hat boxes and old files. There was a department store shopping bag with love letters from my father to my mother and those are what I remember most.

There were early Valentine’s Day cards from him to her, praising her beauty and the way she made him feel. They were written in his swoopy handwriting that takes a long time to get used to, the sentiments all so genuine. It made me happy that my mother, despite her very tragic life, was loved in this way.

The crawlspace was a peaceful, dusty world unto itself. It was jarring crawling back out of there and climbing the basement stairs back to reality. Life was so innocent down there, a place in time that didn’t include me but gave me a glimpse into a world that did in fact exist in my family, my history, my life