This is a creative nonfiction essay, touching on the secret language that is only shared by two addicts in recovery. The story is of me and my grandmother, and this secret language we shared, as we both also shared the family disease of addiction.
The last time I saw my grandmother face to face was when I was a heroin addict. It was still early in the days of my addiction, when the habit had invaded my life to the point I woke up sick every morning without doing a line. The addiction had not yet completely taken over, and I could still hide it from most of the world.
I traveled by airplane from New Orleans to spend Thanksgiving in North Carolina. During my trip, my mother and I made the long journey to a small town in South Carolina, called Ninety-Six. As a child, I spent many summers there, almost all the holidays, and any time in between for a while. My maternal grandparents lived there, and they had always been a big part of my young life.
My grandparents used to spend their winters at the “Big House”, as they called it, while they spent their summers at their “Lake House.” It sounds really fancy and Southern, but the Big House was not really all that big, although the plot of land it sat on was huge, and the Lake House was a cinder block and concrete concoction that my grandfather built. My father claimed to have helped my grandfather build it, but my grandfather always rolled his light blue eyes when I asked him about that.
The Lake House was a magical place for a child. My brother and I used to swim in the lake all day, every day. My grandfather took us for frequent rides on his pontoon boat, where we explored all corners of the lake. I was always fascinated by the shady little coves that entranced me with a different kind of magic than my grandfather’s waterfront property. My grandmother always cooked a big dinner, and as the sun set my grandfather and I would just lay in the hammock and swing. I thought on that ride back to the Big House about how very many years it had been since I had been to this part of the country. I realized for a just moment how far I really was living from home.
This was the first time I had been back to the Big House since I had become a full-fledged adult, who had long since chosen a path and been cutoff by her parents. By this era, the Lake House had long been sold, and my mother and I traveled to my grandparents because neither was able to stray far from their home, as they had become frail in their old age. I had become frail in my young age, but I still wore a coat of armor that I believed no one could see through.
As nice as it was to see my beloved grandparents after so many years, it was also heartbreaking to me. The familiarity of the scene fit comfortably, and all the pieces seemed to be in the same order I left them…only I had returned a completely different person whose pieces were all broken inside. The guilt took over, invading my mind, as I thought about all the times I had missed out on while I spent my holidays in bars in New Orleans, getting drunk and high.
I made several trips to the bathroom that day, hanging my head in shame as I walked down the darkened hallway that had been so familiar all my life. As the guilt began to invade my brain, my instant reaction was to stuff it back down. My only coping mechanism was to stuff it all back down.
I turned into the little bathroom, searching the wall for the light. As a child, the light was always on in here, just in case one of the kids had to pee. The switch still felt hard to flip, and its old plastic creaked a little before the old yellow light hummed on, revealing the browns and yellows of the room.
I sat down on the toilet, pulling out my red glittery chain wallet, with the evil cat staring back at me. I smiled back at him in all my wickedness, as my fingers felt carefully underneath the small flap on one side to reveal a little aluminum folded square. I looked around the bathroom, as both my paranoia and guilt began to ride high.
I looked down at the old tiles on the floor, as I pictured my tiny little girl feet standing barefoot on them in my faded pink nightgown, stretching up for my toothbrush. I looked over at the sliding glass door on the tub, reaching over to push the screen back and forth, as I watched it pass on its rails and I envisioned my tiny fingers as they ran along the track whenever I was in that bathtub. I looked in that tub made of old porcelain that now felt cold against my skin, and saw myself as a child taking a bath while one of my parents or grandparents came in and out, checking on me. I remembered being sick in there, throwing up, while my grandmother held my hair in the nighttime. I remembered having Bactine sprayed on my sunburn in here, as my grandmother carefully pulled the green and white bottle from the tiny wooden medicine cabinet, while I could barely wait for its cooling relief. I realized how unfamiliar I felt in this place I had known my whole life. I looked down at the foil in my hand, and then at the toilet paper roll, just the same as always; part porcelain and part metal…the two worlds clashing.
I pulled the glass door shut on the tub, and it slid and creaked with age and many years of use. I looked around into this old familiar, realizing that the only thing foreign in here was myself. I opened up the little foil to stuff it all back down. I was no longer a little kid in a bathtub, and for the first time I felt like maybe, just maybe, I could be drowning.
That was the last day I saw her face. I went to the bathroom one last time, knowing I would need a bump to make it through the long car ride back to Charlotte without starting to feel the twinges of dope sickness. The twinges of guilt. It had all begun to eat away at me, although I am sure I did not see it then. My grandmother sat in her chair, on the old porch that had long since been walled in, carpeted and heated.
I sat down on the floor next to my grandmother, and I remember holding her hand. Her skin was always so soft. I remembered, as a child, I used to stroke her hands and her arms, just feeling her soft skin, amazed that the veiny lines along her aged hands were just as soft as the rest. I remembered feeling the metal and diamonds of her rings, jutting cold and hard against her soft supple skin. Never did I envision that would be the last time I would touch her soft skin. And I remember my grandmother holding my chin, and looking into my eyes, as she turned my chin slightly towards the sky. Looking back on it all now, I am sure that she knew. I am sure she could see it in my eyes, in the way that only another addict can see the pain.
I left my grandparent’s house that day, well on my way to insulation. The years that followed were a downward spiral, and I did not stay in regular touch with anyone from my family. My addiction to heroin grew into monster, and over time the invasion of the needle began. My soul descended straight to hell, and it took many, many years and a lot of heartache to get out from being suspended in that mire.
I remember talking to my grandmother from my parent’s phone, when I finally got clean. I begged my probation officer to let me leave the state I had been jailed in and was then indentured to. I traveled by train that weekend, spotting the trip in between my weekly two-day stints at the county jail.
I spent a lot of that weekend sitting on the porch swing, crying on one of the most beautiful porches I have seen with its massive brick structure and smooth, big stones, surrounded in greenery and color. I sat there, as the sun went down, listening to my headphones and trying to work my head through this sorrow. That was in the very beginning of my recovery, and everything, both inside and out, was still topsy-turvy.
My mom popped through the glass paned doorway, with the portable phone in her hand. I remember hearing the old familiarity in my grandmother’s voice that evening. Although it was coupled with age and a certain frailness, it was still that same familiar voice I had known all my life. Sometimes, hearing an old familiar voice is one of the most comforting things in the world.
That was the first time I actually talked about addiction with my grandmother. It had been an unspoken thing for a long time, a secret that only my grandma and me shared. That night she edged around the topic, like she always did with tough things. Like a Southern lady is taught to do in order to maintain the expected image, and that image becomes such indoctrination by the time she is close to ninety.
Although my grandmother never came right out and told me about her alcoholic past, I had heard all the stories, just as she had heard all my stories by this time. She never gave any concrete details, and I was just as vague, but we still talked about it. We used the kind of language that is only understood by two addicts in recovery; that kind of understanding that most of the world will never know. She said she was proud of me, and I knew that night that she knew, more than anyone else in my world at that moment, just exactly how hard it had been. She also knew exactly how hard it would still become before I rode the wave all the way through. And for the first time, I realized that she had known all along.
My grandmother died several months after that phone conversation, after she was struck with cancer. By the time they found it, it had spread so rapidly that she had very little time left. I contemplated going to see her in the end, but it was just not financially feasible. Plus, I had obligations to work, and probation, and treatment, and all the new things I had taken on in order to get clean, and begin to move on with my life.
The night after she died, I slept soundly. Most nights, I toss and turn or just stay up reading. I inherited my sleepless nights from my grandmother, as well. But the night I learned of her passing, I slept like a baby and I began to dream.
A dream so vivid left me wondering in the morning if it was real. In the dream, I laid in a small bed that was low to the ground and pushed into a little cubbyhole in a corner. The yellow lights hung over the room, and the bedspread was a handmade quilt, like the kind my grandmother used to make. Instead of her typical color patterns dominated by reds and browns, this quilt was sewn from fabrics of purples and pinks and yellows. I watched myself asleep on this bed at first, until I realized my perspective shifted and I was now lying in that colorful bed.
My grandmother came to this bed, just like she did when I was a child. She sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my hair, pushing it back off my face, like she was drying tears. Her soft hands pushed my hair back and she comforted me again now. She crawled into bed next to me, holding me like she did when I was inconsolable as a small child. She crawled in the bed next to me, like I crawl in bed next to my son today. She told me that she was proud of me, very proud of me. And she asked me to take care of her best friend, my Pop. She lamented over the loss of her best friend. And then, the dream faded as quickly as it began. I woke up, alone in a cold bed with white sheets, still wondering if she had really been there.
I know she had. I felt her presence with me so strongly I could almost smell her perfume, and I realized that sometimes there are certain bonds that are too strong to ever really be broken. She occasionally still whispers to me, on the soft gentle breezes of the wind. Letting me know, from one addict to another, that I am on the right path this time, and more importantly, from one grandmother to her granddaughter, that she is still watching over me.
- Item Tag: Eliza Player