Selfie with Tim & Kathy
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Those two. Over my shoulder. My origins.
It's problematic when addicts make a human. On the one hand, society looks down upon addicts. On the other hand, it finds declarations of sobriety awkward and off-putting, an affront even.
The first women to smoke in public, suffragettes, were asked to do so by a well-paid marketing executive. He knew that equating smoking with women's emancipation would sell. And boy, did it ever.
My mother was an avid smoker. She died in an alcoholic stupor-coma with ten times the legal limit of ethyl alcohol in her bloodstream. (Ethyl alcohol doesn't have the same nostalgic ring to it as say, a martini. But it's no different.) She was just 53 years old.
Kathy died before social media was born—she went by Kathy, not "mom." I'll spend my life wondering whether another fifteen years might have made the difference for her. Today's sober women have books, online courses, Instagram, YouTube videos, and AA has virtual meetings. Would she have read memoirs like Lit, Dry, Parched, Smashed, or Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher, with whom she shared a mismanaged #bipolar disease? She would have cackled at the humor of @holly and plain spoken honesty of @laura_mckowen, had she anything left from her state checks for an iPhone and Insta account.
I wasn't able to comfortably hang a photograph of Kathy until I was in my forties. The one over my shoulder shows her just a year out of High School. She's a teenager. She's high. I don't have proof of that, I know it. I've stood with my nose this close to the glass and stared into her ginormous pupils, wanting to spit on her mouth-smiling-but-expressionless face.
I wish, wish, wish that she had found a way, that there had been more resources, better friends, doctors with more time and curiosity, that she'd had time to give it another try.
I wish she stuck around long enough for hashtags—the messages in a bottle we toss into the ether-sea, like #mentalhealthmatters and #eatingdisorder and #gratitudejournal and #selfcare and #depressionawareness and to see the sea change: All of us rooting for mental heal awareness, to lessen the stigma, to normalize what is already, actually, normal.
I wish that she could have believed her life had worth, even if she couldn't live with the fact that she had no daughters anymore.
I know that a bright, beautiful woman can be toppled by addiction.
Yet no way will #JaneWalker pay for her funeral.
Cigarettes and alcohol seem feminist, feel tough. Gritty. Yet it is sobriety that is, in fact, the true emancipation. Some of you already know that #wearetheluckiest.
You kind of do everything you can not to become your mother in cases like these, hoping the nurturing of your second family will win out. Of course, that one was steeped in alcoholism, too. Oh hell.
You worry your own decline is inevitable, that where you came from will getcha.
You miss her. You romanticize her.
You stare at her.
One day, you stop waiting, wanting, wishing.
You realize how much you have in common including the wish that she'd made it through.
But you made it. And you hang the photograph of Kathy and your dad-who-is-called-Tim.
You even begin to appreciate the way she rejected the conventional 1950s ways of her own mother, an oven, an apron, and Betty Crocker. (Later she'd learn about the bottles of gin in her mother's closet, after the cirrhosis diagnosis.)
You see that she forged an under-appreciated, unconventional path—jobless artist in the woods. You see that she used art to connect with other humans and lived to the beat of her own drum—on the Ojibwe reservation. You see that the false promise of alcohol drowned out everything else in her sightline, not because she lacked will but because that's the nature of alcohol.
She went out swinging—her pocket-sized Big Book clutched in her hands—even if it was from the bottom of a lake in which she'd long since drowned.
This is why I do this, this trawling. There's treasure down there.