Book Showcase: Another Cheesy Family Newsletter by Elizabeth Silva
For years, I have sent out, every holiday season, an uplifting and witty newsletter encapsulating the events of the previous year....births, deaths, marriages, new jobs, home projects, updates on family members, vacations....all with the implication that life was wonderful for the Silva family. What was left out was the bad stuff...the pain of addiction and mental illness, and the struggles of parents grieving for a daughter mired in drug addiction, while raising her three children as their own. This memoir covers two decades of "cheesy family newsletters," each followed by a narrative of the events intentionally left out each year, as well as the backstory: people and experiences of the past that influenced my own emotional health.
The Worst Years
The worst years of my life were the years Kristine was on heroin. How I worked and took care of her precious child without having a complete breakdown, I will never know. Every day, I waited for the phone call or visit from the police, telling me my oldest child – my beautiful first born- was dead. I actually prayed for that call to come soon (I was convinced it would), so we could return to some semblance of a “normal” life. I just wanted to get it over with. I so longed to escape this hell.
Parents have selective observation. We had naively thought, even though Kristine had been involved with a hopeless junkie, she was too smart to get involved in heroin. We knew she drank, smoked pot, dabbled in cocaine, but heroin? To us, it was unthinkable, so we ignored the signs, the main one being that the love of her life had died of a massive opiate overdose. But she was a mom, and she had devoted herself to caring for Nikki and bonded with her. We had insisted, when Nikki was born, that her mother take full responsibility for her child while living in our home… we would not have her “dumped” on us while she lived out her adolescence. And Kristine had taken to motherhood like a stuffed tick on a dog’s tail. She had seen her baby through the midnight feedings, the mountains of diapers, the constant vigilance. She had even potty-trained her by herself. She was working two part-time jobs. While she worked during the week, my mother took care of Nikki, and though Kristine had started college and quit out of disinterest, it looked as if things were going to work out eventually.
When Zeke entered her life, he was jealous of Kristine’s devotion to Nikki, so Kristine’s commitment to her child faded, overshadowed by her bedazzled infatuation with Zeke. We thought when Zeke died, Kristine’s brief flirtation with punk rock and recreational pharmaceuticals was over. But we were deaf and blind, like most parents of addicts are, even though the truth was pounding at the door and tearfully begging us to wake up. Zeke died in late November of 1996, and it was in January of 1997, a month before Nikki turned 3, when we opened that metaphorical door, and that the truth we should have recognized all along rushed in.
One late evening Michelle (her sister) and Sara (her best friend) urgently called me to Michelle’s bedroom while Kristine was out of the house. Michelle was soon to leave for Los Angeles for a few months to go to makeup school, and she wanted me to know, before she left, that Nikki was in danger. Somehow, in her 18-year- old mind, she thought she alone had been protecting Nikki from Kristine’s addiction, and she feared what would happen to her precious niece, if I didn’t know the truth. The moment they told me, a little voice in my head said, “You realize you knew this all along, right?” But the blatant truth was like an explosion in my head. I was panic stricken but stayed calm on the outside and told the girls I wouldn’t reveal my source when I confronted Kristine. So, a couple of hours later, after she returned from getting high with her junkie friends, I went to the room where the three girls had gathered, and demanded that she pull up her sleeves. Her shocked expression seemed suspended for several minutes, but collapsed as the tears began to flow.
The track marks were there. There was no way she could deny it. I made sure to chew her out as well as Sara and Michelle, demanding to know why they hadn’t told me, and gave her no choice but to go to rehab the next day. Then I went to my bedroom, closed the door, and dissolved all over the mattress. I was so distraught, I don’t even remember when I told Matthew or what his reaction was, but it could only have been horror.
Supermom to the Rescue
So that very day my enabling skills kicked into high gear, and my many “If you don’t…then we will…” ultimatums were born. I had made it clear: “If you don’t go straight to rehab, you must move out of the house and leave Nikki with us.” So, the next day, I took our resentful, humiliated daughter to a nearby rehab center for women. Later experience would have told me, “This is not her idea. You cannot make an addict get clean. That desire must originate with addict.” But in my naivete, I thought my threat of taking Nikki from her would supersede her desire for another hit. We were at the center for hours. She went in for an interview while I sat in the waiting room with twisted guts, praying for a miracle. How very, very green I was – almost laughable. She checked in that day and checked herself out the next. And so, the dead-end struggle between us that would last for years began. What I didn’t understand at first was that I could not heal her. I could not make her quit. In the past, I had been her mother. When she had fallen, I had picked her up. When she became depressed as a child, I took her to a doctor who could bring her back to normalcy. In junior high, when she went through a period that seemed to mimic the manias my father had cycled through, I sought out therapy and, reluctantly, hospitalization, to save her from herself. When she became a teen mom, I offered her a home and provided for her and her baby. I taught her how to care for her child. I helped her find jobs. I had been there every time she tripped. She knew she could always fall back on me. I thought I was helping her, but I was really stunting her growth, though legally she was an adult. This time, there was absolutely nothing I could do to take away her gut twisting need for the next hit, though Matthew and I tried, repeatedly.
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