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When Mom Is an Addict, the Show Must Go On

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It’s mid-July and the thermostat in my teaching trailer reads 85 degrees. Everything I am wearing — skirt, summer camp T-shirt, faded red espadrilles hiding unpainted toenails — is sticking to me and I haven’t even started teaching yet. I need to make a playlist. One that says, “I’m the cool new music teacher.” I lean over to open iTunes and the pain strikes like lightning down my spine.

I sit.

I stand.

I pace.

My lower back is branded by the pain.

Finally, I lie on the floor, skirt between my knees. Fuck. No one told me withdrawal would hurt like this. Then, like a generator after a blackout, self-loathing kicks in.

I deserve this. All of it. Only someone as fucked up as me would stop taking two super-sized doses of stimulants and benzodiazepines 24 hours before starting a new job.

I try to back out of the corner where shame meets pain. I try to tell myself it was either quit the pills or spend the rest of my life on and off the couch Googling how many Xanax it would it take to kill me, paying by the minute to rage-sob to an internet therapist, while eating entire pizzas before hiding the box. I try… but it doesn’t work.

I want to walk out. I want to get in my car and drive until the tread burns off my tires, but I can’t. I can’t. This is my 4-year-old son’s first summer camp and he is high-pitch-squeal excited to meet new friends and swim every day and ride ponies and sing songs and, and, and… Luxuries I cannot afford without the steep teacher’s discount. Plus, I am desperate for the money.

I reach over and grab my purse. I search every pocket, every corner, every fold of every crumpled receipt, everywhere for one last pill. When I don’t find one, I pull at the ends of my hair until I’m left with a fistful of strands.

A line of first graders files in. The show must go on.

I put on a happy face. We all sweat through the name game and warm-ups. Perhaps it’s adrenaline. I don’t know. But, I’m holding myself together and beginning to think I can do this. When I tell them it’s time to play freeze dance, they cheer like the audience in an Oprah Winfrey giveaway show.

“Call Me Maybe” starts and I am reveling in a sea of smiles and nods and uninhibited joy, when like a rickety carousel, the room starts to spin. An old fan in the corner, blades caked in dust, is blowing on me and it feels like someone is combing my skin with a rake.

I need to sit down.

I sit.

My back is set afire again.

I stand.

“Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad. I missed you so bad. I missed you so, so bad…” Jepson’s voice is a mosquito in my ear.

I have to get out of here.

I drag-walk down the hall to the tiny kitchen leaving 30 children to dance unsupervised. I open the freezer and lift up my shirt and put my whole torso in as far as I can and rest my head on a box of popsicles, my breasts on a stack of Lean Cuisines.


The first time I took Dexedrine was shortly after I adopted my son. Because my job didn’t provide parental leave to adoptive parents, I had to return to work two weeks after he was born. The tiny capsule transported me from barely surviving to feeling like I was, for the first time in my life, the heroine — standing atop a mountain, hands on hips, cape waving — able to conquer the blinding fatigue caused by sleep deprivation and rise to the challenge of mothering my child in a way that would show the world that I deserved the gift my son’s birthmother gave me.

Dexedrine had only one less-than-ideal side effect, which was that when I actually had a free minute to sleep, all I could do was lay there obsessing:

Maybe if I label every nook and cranny of the laundry closet I won’t have to waste precious seconds looking for the perfect burp cloth.

I wonder if one of those plastic flossing picks could be the thing that finally gets all the baby vomit out of the car locks?

Am I a horrible mother for choosing formula over buying breastmilk off the internet?

Then I discovered Xanax, which soothed my busy mind like a song, and not some Carly Rae Jepson verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus bullshit. No, Xanax was a symphony by Mozart played by a philharmonic of angels conducted by a god I didn’t think I believed in but was now willing to consider.

Soon I needed more and more (and more) Dexedrine and Xanax. And I got them. At any cost. I told myself it was “just to get me through the hardest times of motherhood,” which eight years later haven’t gotten any easier, just difficult in different ways.


I went back to the classroom and somehow made it through the day. And even though the trailer continued to feel like we were singing and dancing on the sun, my back regularly reminded me not to sit and my hair-trigger mood swings kept us all on edge, I made it through the summer without taking another pill.

Sharing this is my way of trying to make sense of addiction. But, I’m not sure I have. I still struggle to find answers, like scraping along a roll of tape to find where it begins. I never taught at that camp again, but five years later I am still on the mailing list. I could unsubscribe with the click of a button, but I haven’t. Perhaps I never will.

Join Mental Health America during Mental Health Month in increasing awareness of risky behaviors and potential ties to mental health conditions. Download the complete toolkit, featuring facts sheets with infographics, social media images, and more here#riskybusiness #MHM2017.

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Thinkstock photo via betyarlaca

Originally published: May 20, 2017
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