When I left the emergency room, I felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment as if I had failed a test life had provided for me. As a woman and a mother, I am supposed to be able to handle anything and everything life throws at me. Wash the bowls for the morning cereal, make sure there are available clean socks, sign that permission slip, pack one lunch from home, one likes pasta with red sauce, one pasta with butter. Make sure the bus pass has enough money, dial in the conference call at exactly 11 am, clean the catbox before the senior cat shits on the floor, give the dog his medicine, and OH! Deal with the deaths of those around me without missing a beat. The rubber band that has held my life tightly together for years was beginning to snap back.
A text breezes past my screen.
“Tracey- are you dialing in this call?’ - Abe.
“I am actually at the hospital right now…” why do I need an excuse to say I can’t take on anymore. I feel a smug justification- look- I am finally seen. I have to be creating my high drama to get the rest I need. It’s only going to cost me six hours in a paper nightgown, a bunch of explanations, and an undisclosed co pay. Fuck.
I slip my sunglasses back over my eyes. Things have got to change. There are no more tears. Tears have turned into nightmares where I wake up in a cold sweat. Tears only fall when animals are rescued from precarious situations. Except now I am in need of a lifeline. There are days when I walk from my office to the store I have to remind myself with every step that breathing is automatic. I won’t pass out. I won’t pass out.
Today I reached in the sink. I pulled out the slimy food that had been lingering there for a week. No one clapped for me, AA style. No one said “you are doing a great job”. No one explained to me that when you give up heroin eventually you are going to have to clean out the disgusting food that accumulated at the bottom of the sink even if you are exhausted by the accumulated pain of twenty one years of being present in your life.You are just going to have to dial this one in and function in battery saver mode. Save your energy for the bigger trials to come.
It didn’t take long for the bottle to finally get uncorked. On a routine day, at a routine moment, I was walking my best friend to a hair appointment. I don’t remember exactly what he said, I just remember how I felt. When I turned the corner for the next block, an overwheleming wave of sadness overtook me in a way I had not felt since the death of my mother. I started crying in public, in transit, on a sunny spring afternoon, and I simply could not stop. I started walking up a hill to meet my sponsor at the appointed location when the tears started dripping on my casual friday jeans. I had to make a space for myself in one of those faux marble planters landscape artists use for trees as I sat down on a tiny piece of earth in between house on a busy road. This couldn’t go any farther. I couldn’t go another step.
I began to panic. I am not one for losing control. My whole life is curated around control. Control of my emotions. Control of my children's activities. Control of what I say as to not mix my harm reduction message with any personal characteristics when I am in the public eye. Control of my eating. Control of my time. Control of my narrative. Yet, I had completely lost control. For the first time since I put down drugs and alcohol, I had not idea what was coming next.
It had been a matter of time before it would all start pouring out. There had been many open wounds. The death of my parents. A miscarriage. Watching my buddy, the first friend I made when I came to SF, slowly die from liver failure. Another died of alcoholism. The overdoses. The grief stacked up and stacked up until it finally leaked all over my sweater.
“I don’t know why I can’t stop crying” I said. My friend handed me a dry napkin to dry my rain storm of snot and tears.
She patted me gently on the shoulder.
There are moments when words are not necessary. Words are out of place. There are no words. There is only being present to witness the pain of another human and providing a mirror in which they can see themselves.in that mirror of sadness, I could witness my grief was pulling my well mended life apart at the seams.
The dream I had about you was so vivid.
Daniel was lying next to me in our cheap rent by the night hotel. His face was scruffy. For whatever reason, he would try to grow facial hair that grew in patchy. His cheeks were red. When he was warm, comfortable, or happy his cheeks would get slightly red around the edges. The top of hair hair was hanging down in his face the way that I like it. I liked him with longer bangs. It made him seem less hardened by the world. I didn’t know a ton about him when we hooked up. I just knew I didn’t want to be attached to anyone. My last boyfriend and the boyfriend before that one and the boyfriend before that one had been abusive. They were all disposable really. An interchanging series of tattoos and angry stares. This person was different. More like a best friend than a lover. But I did love him.
We were curled up in a pile. I had on my longjohns with intermittent blood drip stains on the legs. He was wearing a pair of my jeans he had cut off into shorts. I could hear his breathing against his chest. I felt safe. I had spent most of my adult life with an abusive man, on drugs, or both at the same time. Daniel was a gentle person who loved me in this state of inertia.
Here I was, no longer alone with a person who seemed to understand me. I had wanted to get off drugs when I was with Daniel. He seemed to want the same. There was always a thing holding him back. I couldn’t never understand what it must be like to have both of your parents be on heroin. I shot dope with him and his father once. Like a scene out of the Jack Black book- two hobos and a woman on the side of the road in a dusty San Francisco alleyway. Did I have a blanket for his father to use for the night? Your dad doesn’t even have his own blanket. What world is this where the son is called on to take care of his addicted father. Of course. I’ll cling to you a little tighter while we share this cardboard for one.
When Daniel had a raging case of Hepatitis, I had to give him enough dope to get him to go to the hospital. “I can’t be sick in that place, Tracey”. People like us know the hospital won’t give you more than 30mg of methadone. I’ve seen more than one person walking around the Tenderloin with their IV lines attached, trying to get the sick off. I went to see Daniel at his bedside. I never went to the public hospital. That’s where people like us went to die. But I went to see him. I pulled myself into his hospital bed, hoping to get some rest with him before the nurses kicked me out. He pushed my hair back and said he would see me soon. I loved him. I really did.
I wanted to get sober. Daniel did not. Or he could not. I’m not sure which it was. This was a wedge in our relationship. I couldn’t keep shooting up between my toes, spending two hours looking for a vein. He said it was killing us. I tried methadone but he encouraged me not to go. Why bother. I was throwing up at the train station after missing my dose. He moved me so I missed puking on my shoes. what killed us was the fact I couldn’t go on one more step. There were no more moves for me. Another woman with drugs came along. It could have been anyone really. I had checked out from life.
We had always said one day we would get clean and get back together. I waited. I watched. Three times over the course of 18 months you said this was the time. The first time I ran into on the street. I was doing outreach for my agency. When you leaned in to hug and kiss me, I could smell the alcohol on your breath. I knew and you knew what would be next. That’s just how we are. No calls for six more months.
I was alone then but I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t waiting at the window to see if you walked by. My sober living was right in the heart of the neighborhood where I had spent so much of my time using. For the first year, people would ask me where you were or if I had seen you. I was alone. No man to be following behind. No sandwich to share. No bags of dope to split (mostly) down the middle. I was alone for the first time in my adult life. No relationship of convenience directing my daily activities. I missed you though. I waited until eventually I didn’t. I hoped until I gave up. I never stopped hoping you would change your life. I just stopped hoping that the person you would change your life for would be me.
A few more calls from jail. “I am trying to get in a program”. Okay, I believe you. I have no choice.I also have to move on with my life. I saw the stars over my head one night in between the clouds. I wished you were looking at them with me. You have another girlfriend now- she’s a not me. I know. I saw you watching a chess game on market street. We talked for an hour. You were “sober” nearly five months. The two of us were chubby and healthy.
When I hugged him goodbye, l felt good about this parting. There had been a connection but I hadn’t fully let down my guard. I had been through this before. I had started moving on with my life. He had a lady friend. Maybe this would work for him. But I had nagging doubts.
When he relapsed, he took a string of people with him. That could have been me. One nearly died, I heard about them landing in the hospital. I don’t know why I didn’t walk away with him that day on the street. By the fourth time, I just wanted to see if it stuck.
There was the night I saw him on Polk street. The police stopped us, just like old times. They thought *I* was using. They asked if they could search me. I was on my way to a 12 step convention. Do you want to go. They wrapped him in a sheet with well wishes that said “keep coming back”. You started picking at yourself so bad in the bathroom, I ended up leaving you there. When we prayed for the person to come in the rooms, it was always you.
There would be many more years of cryptic messages from Daniel. He was hospitalized with a brain infection. He was in a rehab facility. “How are you Trace…” I get a call at my desk at work. “How can I get into rehab?” Can I do this thing for girlfriend number five. How am I. Will this ever stop.
In 2011, I sent him this message:
“Daniel, I am sorry that you are so sick. Using sucks and it tears a person apart. I hope that you can feel better soon. I had some weird dreams about you a few months back. i was hoping you were going to come by and see my at my work. Maybe when I go back in late May. I am caught up with the family life. I have a great situation going but I don't forget where I came from. I just had 13 years clean in feb. I definitely will always care for you and wish you recovery”
My family was complete now. My life was complete now. Yet, there is always this little piece that felt like it was missing. The living loss of a person I cared about so much eats away at me.
“Tracey- are you on this call?” It’s a social worker from a hospital asking if I know a facility that can take Daniel. I don’t know of a place- isn’t that your job? I am angry. I am angry at the whole fucking thing. I am angry that I am the only stable person that he knows. I am angry that I don’t know of a place- he has been to pretty much every treatment facility in this city multiple times with no real success. Mostly, I am sad that I cannot do anything. I am sad that I have nothing I am able to cotribute. I feel guilty that my life has turned out so differently. He’s in a wheelchair now. Or a cane. I am confused as I try to pump breastmilk at my desk for my son.
Daniel curled up in a ball, dying on the streets.
Like Daniel was wrapped in the sheet that cold night, I’ve been wrapped in a cocoon of sadness. There has been no time for me to grieve. When am I allowed to have a breakdown? In the twenty minutes before the kids get home from school and after I got home from work? In the ten minutes between meetings at work? In the thirty minutes I spend scrolling my phone on the train, hoping I don’t see a person that will engage me in a conversation. When is it I can schedule my breakdown? There is no convenient time to grieve. There is no set time I can block off to process all the things that have passed. And the pain just festers like the abscesses that used to cover my legs. I can cover the scars but the dull ache is just below the surface.
How deep can you bury a hurt? How long can you defer sadness.You can battle this one privately or I can let it go. I can let the dishes pile up, I can step over the dirty laundry. I can wear the same dirty shorts with crusted yogurt stains to bed for two weeks. Or I can live. At this point, all I can do is live.
Katie brings home her report card.
“Look mommy…” she hands me the honor roll award.
I squeeze my baby tight. They were all somebody’s babies.