I dashed through driving rain toward the detox and rehab center, a grocery store bouquet of gerbera daisies shoved under my arm. In the lobby, I approached the receptionist’s desk with a too-bright smile.
“Hello,” I said, shrugging out of my coat. “I’m here to see my mother.” It was May 12, 2019: Mother’s Day.
A week earlier, my phone buzzed as my husband and I waited on the tarmac at Denver International Airport, bound for a much-anticipated island vacation.
“Ignore it,” Andy said when he saw my mom’s name on my phone screen. But I couldn’t.
“Hi Mom,” I said, turning my eyes toward the ceiling as if I might find serenity among the call buttons and task lighting.
“I’m not good, Krissy,” she squeaked, and I felt a familiar emptiness in my chest where compassion used to live. Calls from my mother ranged from panicked requests for money, to tearful apologies for being a burden, to stream-of-consciousness monologues about growing up in 1950s Philadelphia. They were rarely two-way conversations, and it was never good news.
As the plane began to taxi, she told me she was feeling bad, at her wit’s end, she said, and I murmured calming words as the flight attendant shot me a warning look. The truth was, I felt nothing but resentment. Raising my own two kids was hard enough; I shouldn’t have to mother my mother, too.
“It’s gonna be OK, Mom. I have to go. I’ll call Jessie.” I hung up and texted my sister. “Just talked to Mom. Shit show as usual. I think she’s ready for rehab.”
Our mother wasn’t always like this. In the ’90s she was funny and vivacious, the queen of Sparrow Lane. She organized all the block parties in our New Jersey neighborhood, hosted all the pre-prom photo ops, and turned Led Zeppelin up loud when she vacuumed. When she and my dad got home late after nights out, she would tiptoe into my room and place reverent kisses on both my cheeks, smelling like Calvin Klein’s Obsession and chardonnay. “My girl,” she would whisper as I feigned sleep. My mom.
When I was a teenager, she got sick. Mysterious nerve pain and “brain fog” kept her in bed, and the block parties and nights out stopped. The doctors diagnosed Lyme disease, but none of the expensive treatments they tried seemed to work. Then they prescribed Oxycontin. While life moved forward for me ― I went to college, moved to Colorado, got married and had kids ― it slowed to a crawl for my mother.
My parents kept searching for a cure, but as the doctor visits increased and their savings dwindled, there was only one constant in her life: oxy. It took me too long to realize that her remedy had become the central problem, and by then the mother I knew was long gone. I started sending money home instead of visiting and avoided her phone calls; when I said “I love you” it felt like a lie.
Back on the plane, I turned my phone off and slid into vacation mode ― compartmentalization comes easy when you’ve been doing it most of your life. For a week, I sunbathed, drank margaritas, swam in the ocean, and took beach selfies with my friends. When I got home, I called my sister. “How’s mom?”
“In rehab,” she said. “You should probably come home.” A few days later, I was back at the airport, headed for Hanson House.
The receptionist pushed a clipboard toward me. “Sign in, and please remove your shoelaces. Oh, and you can’t bring those in,” she said, reaching for the flowers. I handed them over, trying to work out how someone might use a daisy as a weapon. A young woman sitting nearby smiled at me, and I noticed she was wearing slip-on shoes. Not her first rodeo, I thought.
The receptionist signaled that I could go upstairs, eyeballing me one more time like I might have a coiled length of piano wire hidden up my sleeve. On the second floor, a smiling young man in scrubs greeted me. “You Helen’s daughter?” I nodded. “She’s a sweetheart, your mom,” he said as he led me down the hall, and I was surprised by a sudden sluice of tears.
The lounge was busy, filled with patients and family members murmuring to each other and drinking from plastic water cups. My mom emerged a moment later in a peach sweatshirt, looking frail. “My girl,” she said, squeezing me tight, and I rested my chin on the top of her head while we hugged. She paraded me around the room like we were at a country club luncheon, introducing me to the other patients, then led me to two empty chairs in the corner. “See him?” she said, gesturing toward a diminutive old man across the room. “He peed into a Tupperware container this morning, right here in the TV room. It’s like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in here!”
“Yeah,” I said. “And you’re one of the cuckoos.”
We made small talk for a few minutes, and then my mom looked at me intently with damp, clear eyes. “I’m scared,” she said, “and I need help.” The hollowness I typically felt at her appeals was gone; instead, her unvarnished plea filled me with hope and resolve, like a stranded climber who had finally found a tiny toehold. This I can work with, I thought. I hugged her and told her it was going to be OK, willing it to be true.
The next day, my sister and I went to her apartment armed with bleach, face masks and rubber gloves. We hauled 27 bags of trash to the dump (including hundreds of pill bottles), made her bed with fresh sheets, and opened the blinds to let in the sunlight. “Spring cleaning?” one of her neighbors called from his balcony. “Extreme edition,” I replied.
After leaving the rehab and detox center a week later, my mom started outpatient rehab and Narcotics Anonymous. She called me a month or so into her sobriety, wonder coloring her voice, and said, “Did you know you could deposit a check by taking a picture?”
I suppressed a giggle, and my mom started to laugh. “I know, Mom,” I teased, as our laughter grew. “Just wait till you hear about the internet!”
It has been three years since my mom “woke up,” as she calls it, and now we spend a lot of time giggling on the phone. She works as a teacher’s aide for a local elementary school and babysits my niece and nephews a few times per week. She still loves Zeppelin but has expanded her vacuuming soundtrack to include Lizzo and Bruno Mars.
Despite everything, my mom’s sweetness, humor and genuine goodness remain intact, like someone dusted off a VHS tape of her from 1995 and pressed play. That is nothing short of magical, but I don’t kid myself that any of us got out unscathed. “Addiction is a family disease,” my therapist reminds me, and for me, the most persistent symptoms are shame and regret. My mother cut my grapes in half and hand-made my Halloween costumes ― why was I so quick to abandon her, instead of fight for her? I cringe when I remember how cold I was. Addiction turned us both into people I didn’t recognize, and the injustice of it all spins me in circles. For years, I blamed my mother, but now I know she was a victim too ― we all were.
Fortunately, my mom got help before it was too late. Countless families just like ours got caught up in the opioid tsunami of the 1990s, and since 1999, almost a million people have died from overdoses. I can curse Purdue Pharma and the irresponsible doctors who treated my mom, or rail against her unresolved trauma and my own ignorance and neglect ― and I do. But my mom turns 70 in a few weeks, and I don’t want to waste more time.
This Mother’s Day we’ll be far away from that rehab center: Jessie and I are planning a trip for our mom to Miami to celebrate her birthday, the first mother-daughter trip we’ve ever taken together. The other day I hand-painted a card for her and wrote “Happy Birthday, Mom!” in my best calligraphy. I wrapped it in silvery vellum and sealed the turquoise envelope with a wax stamp. It should arrive any day now, and I keep checking my phone, excited for her to receive it. “Oh, Krissy!” I know she’ll exclaim when she calls. “How did I get so lucky?” I feel the same way.
Kristin Fasy is a Denver-based freelance writer and the director of a nonprofit that supports youth and families in foster care. She is working on a book about addiction. You can find her on Twitter at @kristinfasy.