It was October and the days were getting shorter. I could feel the cool autumn air whispering against my face as I sat shotgun in my Father’s red Thunder Bird, barreling down Derby road. The passenger window was rolled down because my Father was smoking a cigarette while I sang the lyrics to You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon which was playing on the car stereo as we drove up to the parking lot of our apartment. Even to this day, every time I hear that Paul Simon song on the radio it brings me back to those last few moments before my father put the car in park and shut off the ignition. Who’ll be my role-model? Now that my role-model is gone, gone. They were those rare moments of innocence which belong only to childhood. Moments which you can only pay your respects to in adulthood like a grieving relative who mourns what has passed at the foot of a tombstone.
All I remember caring about was climbing the stairs to our apartment and cooking the chicken fingers that we had bought at the grocery store on our way home. Chicken fingers are gourmet when you are six. You can dip them in plum sauce and eat them with your hands. More importantly, my Dad was going to cook them. He did all the cooking, and all the parenting. With my Mother Absent, or barely present, he played both roles, like a terry cloth mother to a rhesus monkey. And like the monkeys in Harry Harlow’s experiments, our bond was strong. Until it wasn’t.
I had been taught to believe that the uniform of a police officer was a sign of protection. I had also been taught to believe that the presence of my Father meant the same. My trust in both were immediately shattered when the officer who had been parked in our drive-way and waiting for our arrival walked up to the drivers side door of the T-Bird and asked my Father to step out of the vehicle before placing him in handcuffs. As my Father protested his arrest my excitement for dinner turned to terror which turned to rage when the child protective services worker who had accompanied the police for the arrest swept me up in her arms. I began to kick and scream for my Father while watching the police man stuff him into the back seat of the cruiser. Scalding tears of rage and sorrow roared down my cheeks as my child’s mind attempted to make sense of what was happening. The noise that suffering makes only sounds more sophisticated as we grow older, the language of abandonment is the universal cry of a child being ripped from it’s mothers arms, whomever that person may happen to be.
Now I was riding shotgun with the female child protective service worker who had been assigned the task of apprehending me that night. I remember the seat-belt being strapped too tightly against my already constricted chest. She offered me McDonalds but I refused to speak. All I wanted was to eat chicken fingers with my Father. It took me a quarter of a century, three separate trips to the Penitentiary and I don’t know how many hours of therapy before I would forgive him for what took place that night. The narcissism of childhood is justifiable, in adulthood I have come to learn that such resentments are about as useful as taking a poison pill and hoping the source of your anger dies. My poison was alcohol, and cocaine, or anything I could get my hands on that would provide me with the comfort and security I longed for as a child.
As an adult I would come to understand that my Father had been arrested for charges which had stemmed from well before my birth. Charges which I will not be discussing here except to say that they led to the eight year penitentiary sentence he received nearly two years later. His punishment was my punishment. We were both arrested that night, the only difference being the conditions of our confinement. He went to the local detention centre to to be processed and await his bail hearing. I went into the custody of children’s aid services and was placed in a foster home.
I know that in my last post I left off with a promise to delve further into Marc Lewis’s The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease. I veered away from the biological side of things here and instead chose to focus on a personal experience of mine that came to the surface when I was reading Natalies Story which appears in chapter three When Craving Comes to Power: Natalies Story.
Natalie is described as an intelligent and unassuming young women whose heroin use landed her in a maximum security prison. I doubt this could have been predicted by her family, friends, or college professors. Like many college kids, Natalie experimented with an assortment of drugs but it wasn’t until she found opiates that the “hum of potential threat” that “had been part of her world for years” was abolished. The threat of failing academically, but more so socially, a “corrosive anxiety about being rejected” a “misty layer of anxiety” which was “always floating just above the surface”. A threat which “opiates took away”. Percocet turned to OxyContin which turned to Dilaudid and the last stop on the cloud of comfort and security was heroin, a cheaper and more intense “shocking river of peace”. First smoking it, finally shooting it intravenously. It didn’t happen over night, just like the middle-class life that she had been enjoying didn’t simply bottom out like a game of shoots and ladders after her first hit of heroin before she landed herself in a prison after a drug possession charge and a failed stint in rehab and another in an outpatient drug program.
In prison she was faced with the dilemma of staring down the walls in front of her or imagining a future that was more palatable than a prison cell. She began to meditate and chose the latter. Introspection opened up the door, literally and figuratively. Eventually, by asking the right questions, she got some answers. Comparatively, she didn’t feel herself to be as wounded as some of the women she served time with, but she came to the conclusion that, though her childhood wasn’t horrific, it also wasn’t happy. She had been depressed, estranged from her biological father and subject to the acrimony of her stepdad, all the while steering, self consciously, through the ambivalence of high school. Heroin brought her comfort and relief from this pain. Until it didn’t. That’s when her recovery began.
In the book Lewis makes a simple but profound statement in respect to Natalie. He says that “Natalie had to find a self before she could find self-control. She needed the time to reflect, to meditate, to remember and mourn her wounded childhood.” Only then could she begin “to form new patterns, new habits, based on a more coherent, more conscious sense of who she was.”
Like Natalie, I’ve got to locate my self. Whether standing in my dead mothers empty apartment with my hands wrapped around one of her empty beer bottles or stranded in that parking lot when the police took my father to prison and all I wanted to do was taste the comfort and security of those chicken fingers. These experiences aren’t easy to remember, and they are even more difficult to mourn. They often leave me feeling as empty as those beer bottles in my mothers apartment and as miserable as my father must have felt when he watched his son fade from view while sitting in the back of a police car. That said, like Natalie, I have got a choice. I can continue to stare down the walls of addiction, literal and figurative, or I can begin to imagine a future that is more promising. The former is familiar. As crazy as it sounds there is a certain amount of comfort and security that I have found in my pain and my suffering. Perhaps this explains why I keep returning to it, like a frightened child looking for his Father. I am not a child anymore, the innocence of childhood can never be recovered. I can, however, pay my respects to it, grieve my losses and move on. Who’ll be my role-model? Now that my role-model is gone, gone. It’s a good question.