There is a pile of ash in my backyard today.
I should go back and start at the beginning. Which is too far back to really be functionally appropriate. I should go back and start somewhere in the middle, which is really going back a few weeks and moving forward from here in the hopes that there is a future.
We have enough space for short-term guests in our home, though even that is a stretch with four furbabies running around who don’t necessarily get along with each other any better than actual two-legged siblings living in the same house. So, when it came to a call in which my niece told me she’d been kicked out of her transitional housing, post residential treatment graduation, because she’d been making moony-eyes at a boy, it wasn’t a big stretch to say, “We can make space for you until the end of the month.”
We had some rules: keep working your program of sobriety and be looking for employment.
We didn’t care if she dated, who she dated, what she did with the people she dated so long as she followed the first two rules. And if there were relatively minor lapses of sobriety, we took a stand of “progress not perfection.” Really, my beloved took that stand and gave me a rock-steady place to turn when progress was slow.
But, she got herself hired in three days time. It took awhile, given it was a new location for a large chain store that had opened the same day she applied, to get on the books for orientation with the HR people. She did it, though. And she started saving for an apartment. And sure there was instability with the guys she’d gotten kicked out with, but they were both committed to making it work and they were determined to get an apartment together as soon as they both had some degree of job security.
I was busy with my own life, but my beloved and I made as much room for her as we could. After the first slip, we outlined basic household rules – rules which we ourselves hold to – for the healthy functioning of the home. The only unique rule was concerning sobriety. Neither my beloved nor I are addicts. The rules were simple:
- Maintain your job
- Begin saving
- When not working a late shift, help in the kitchen so you can pick up some basic skills
- Attend a meeting or church service one time per week, minimum
- Maintain sobriety (progress, not perfection)
- Adequate health coverage
o Including but not limited to termination or prenatal care (when her douchey boyfriend sabotaged their method of birth control)
o Contraception that could not be sabotaged (after she had a spontaneous abortion)
All of this was predicated on a few simple questions that drive our lives: What outcomes does she want for her life? How can we offer space to sort out the choices facing her? What decisions can and must she make in order to move toward her goals?
That was it. It was pretty simple.
Except she ended up working so many second shifts that she spent her days off sleeping in the room we’d made up for her and her afternoons off with her boyfriend. She spent every weekend with her boyfriend. She said she was attending meetings with him; we didn’t follow her to meetings or stake them out. We were living our own lives. She said she was going to church with him. We didn’t check up on that. We were living our own lives.
We made space for her when we could. We invited her to eat with us. We invited her to engage with us. But she slept through every moment we were home and she spent every other moment with her boyfriend. None of this was a problem, because she is an adult and she has to live with the consequences of her actions. She made her choices. We continued to live our lives.
She told me she had to be work on Saturday at 8:00am and asked for a ride. I told her I would get up early, make breakfast for all three of us, and give her a lift. When my beloved and I got up Saturday morning, she wasn’t home. I made breakfast for two. She showed up, gathered a few things, told me she’d been having a rough go of it, that she was going to spend the weekend with her boyfriend, check into a 30 day treatment center on Monday, take a leave of absence from work. I asked if she wanted to eat breakfast with us. She said her boyfriend was in the car, so unless he could come in the house…. (He’s previously been banned from the house because he spoke lightheartedly about his treating his animals cruelly – furbaby safety is one of our top priorities). I told her he was welcome to wait in his car for an hour if she wanted to join us. She left.
Sunday morning I was making breakfast. I was in the middle of everything and the phone rang and I answered and she was on the other end. Could I pick her up? Sure. When and where? She was at a gas station with her boyfriend some 30 miles away. There was a lot of noise in the background. The line went dead. I called back. No answer. I left a voicemail.
The hollandaise curdled. I started over. “Do you want to go to the broiler?” my beloved asked.
“I’m not throwing out four pieces of toast, four slices of ham, and four poached eggs. Breakfast will be cold and you’ll enjoy it anyway?”
“I will enjoy it,” my beloved confirmed.
“That was really a threat more than a question,” and we both laughed.
As we sat down to eat, I was grumpy. Like majorly grumpy. “I know the kid calling in the middle of your breakfast prep didn’t help,” my beloved said.
And that’s the thing. I’ve been working my entire life to first find and then create stability and health in my home life. My entire life. When I grew up and realized that stability and health couldn’t be found, I actively started working to create it. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing. I failed a lot. I would often choose stable over healthy and sort out the details later.
This is why stable and healthy are so important to me: when I know that I’m going to come home at the end of the day to a stable and healthy home life, I have confidence when I leave home at the beginning of the day to dare greatly. I have the confidence to try new things. I have the confidence to experiment and adventure. I have the confidence to fail gloriously and make a mess of things. I know that I am safe in the world because I have a place to land at the end of the day. I have figured out how to create safety within me because I figured out how to create safety around me.
“This is why I don’t allow addicts into my life,” I said in frustration to my beloved. “They bring chaos!”
Chaos is the opposite of stability. Chaos is the thing I can face out in there in the wider world because I have stability inside of me and I have worked hard to build a life of stability inside and around me.
Since the kid told me that she wasn’t going to be coming back to our home and since she had left mountains of dirty laundry behind, I thought I would take my mind off the unsettling phone call in the morning by keeping a bit busy. I decided I would wash up all her laundry and fold it neatly and pack it up. That way, when she was done with her stay in rehab, she wouldn’t have to come back to a mess – she could just come and spend time with us before moving her stuff to her new place. And (BONUS) I wouldn’t have to live with her mess, taking over what was once again my office, for another month.
She told me a couple of times about lapses she’d had. She told me none of them had happened in the house. She asked me not to tell my beloved, and I didn’t. This was a mistake on her part. I would have kicked her out after I discovered the first lapse if it hadn’t been for him. I would have kicked her out after each subsequent lapse if it hadn’t been for him. Without his steady, non-anxious presence, I would have removed the addict from the house. Without the extra stability he offered, I could not have withstood the chaos she had introduced. I have a visceral reaction to it; one he does not have.
I was clearing detritus off of the bookshelves flanking the murphy bed when I saw the burned out tea light. It was a totally generic tea light, no different from the billions of others sold every year. I didn’t even recognize it for what it was. When I was clearing detritus off the desk, I found the small red bag which had held it. The memento. A keepsake. A last reminder of my time in New York City.
That small breach of boundaries was the final straw. I was done. She burned this bridge. There is a pile of ash in my backyard from it. I decided to move everything, as it was, out to the front porch. She could pick it whenever she found the time.
As I was collecting her clothes, her knitting, her books, her colors, her make-up, I found the first empty liquor bottle. As I moved furniture around to get the bedding put away and the chair’s slip-cover on it, and things back where they belonged, I found three more empty liquor bottles. She said she never had a lapse in the house. I have a backpack full of empty liquor bottles that prove otherwise. I dumped everything in the corner of the porch where she had been storing her non-essentials since she moved in.
And that was it. I haven't been this free, happy, or relaxed since her first lapse, stealing narcotic pain meds from me the day after I had surgery. For the first time since then, I'm giggling at home. I wiggle when I hug my beloved. I sigh in relaxation when we sit on the couch. All it took was clearing out the office and having my space again. I didn't even care that we might have to spend a few weeks with chaotic piles of her things on the front porch.
She would have to make plans with my beloved to come and get her things. I just needed enough notice so that I wouldn’t be home when it happened.
We asked when she would be able to pick up her things and return her key. We never got a response.
We changed all of the locks on the house and garage.
While we waited for the locksmith to arrive, I asked my beloved, “When is the last time Lois had her infusion?”
“Oh, it’s been a few days,” he said. “She definitely due.”
She had been acting funny, the way she does when she’s a little dehydrated.
“I’ll get her set up if you can stick her later tonight,” my beloved said, knowing once the bag came out, she would disappear until long after he had left to teach his night class.
My beloved went to the back porch. I heard the cupboard open. I heard the bag rustle. “She took Lois’s needles.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“Yes. She took Lois’s needles.”
“Yes. She took Lois’s needles.”
I checked the bag. I double checked the cupboard. The package of needles is gone. The bag of Lactated Ringer is gone. The IV line is gone.
My beloved was this kid’s biggest advocate. He was going the extra mile, cheering her on, giving her safe space to sort out what she wanted, doing everything he could in the profoundly limited time he had available to offer her skills and tools and resources for figuring out her own life. He was the only reason she had safe space after the first week she was with us.
After her first lapse, she continued to live with us because of his graciousness; because of his compassion; because of his love; because of his vision and hope that things could be different.
The pile of ash in our backyard just doubled in size.