My son has a Dr. Seuss book called I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today. My dead brother’s ex-girlfriend has a single monkey on her back called heroin. Her story might be called “I’m Trying to Lick a Monkey in 28 Days.” Gail* is in a 28-day detox program. Detoxification. For an addict this means getting clean, quitting the alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or even aspirins they think they can’t live without.
“Aspirins?” I ask Gail incredulously the first time I visit her. She nods her head to indicate a small pale woman sitting in a chair across from us in the TV room.
“She takes Excedrin P.M.’s,” Gail says quietly, lighting her cigarette as she shares this secret with me.
I eye the woman for a second or two before I turn back toward Gail. “Excedrin P.M.’s–you can get high off those?”
Gail grins, “Well, she was taking 80 a day. You should see her, she goes crazy every time she sees an aspirin commercial on TV.”
The center itself is an old motel with indoor-outdoor carpeting. Men in the program are in separate quarters, on the other end of the building. Both sides overlook a parking lot that surrounds the building. Next to the lot there’s a field covered with weeds and garbage, and beyond that an old Italian restaurant. It’s not too hard to imagine why the motel went out of business. Except for the restaurant the neighborhood doesn’t have much to offer.
In the TV room, only the television is new. There are old chairs along the walls, a beat-up refrigerator, a small, shaky bookcase with nothing but old novels–Ordinary People, Ragtime–and historical romances.
There’s also a table with a couple of pots of decaffeinated coffee, along with two bubbling juice machines like the kind you’d see in those old-time Greek restaurants. Gail tells me the juice is nasty. There are two TV rooms in the center–one for smokers and the other for nonsmokers. Everyone here, it seems to me, smokes–the patients, their counselors, and most of the visitors; the other TV room is always empty. Gail, who has been in other detox centers, tells me that this one is pretty nice–others are filthy, with peeling paint, mice, and roaches.
I’ve never been in a detox center before. Though my brother was in and out of detox centers repeatedly, I never visited him.
Bob died almost ten years ago and it occurs to me that I may be visiting Gail now out of guilt over not having kept in touch with her since then. I found out that she was in detox when word filtered down through the family grapevine that she had really hit bottom. She’s been in two major car accidents–in the last one she almost lost an arm and the paramedics had to use the Jaws of Life to get her out. She doesn’t have a job or a place to live. Plus, she’s a heroin addict.
The cramped apartment is littered with everything from toys to empty Styrofoam cups, McDonald’s hamburger wrappers, comic books, and piles of dirty clothes. I move some socks and a mess of yellowish T-shirts to clear a place to sit on the couch. The glass top on the coffee table in front of me is full of cigarette ashes and fingerprints and dozens of rings where someone set down a cup of coffee or a glass of pop. I study the rings instead of looking at my brother.
Bob is sitting close by in the tiny kitchen emptying powder at the table, stirring, mixing–his concentration is intense, steady. He could use this mental power to become an artist, an architect, or even a good bowler. Instead he uses it to mix his fix. He’s a junkie.
He’s not paying any attention to me. Why would he anyway? I’m just his kid sister. I’ve been around for years–14 or 15 now–and he can pay attention to me anytime. Anytime but now. Now he’s got to shoot up. He’s got to get high, and get it all taken care of before his girlfriend comes home from work and catches him.
He says she’d be pissed to find him doing this, would probably throw him out. And he doesn’t have anywhere else to go just yet because he only got out of jail this morning. He split up with Gail long before, so he can’t go back to her. My mother hasn’t even seen him because she couldn’t get off work. When you clean offices in downtown Chicago you know better than to fool around with your job–there’s someone right in back of you who’ll take it. Since my mother’s husband died she’s supported us by working nearly around the clock–at night she cleans offices, during the day she works as a seamstress in a laundry, and on the weekend she waitresses.
Bob worked occasionally, mostly in the steel mills. And when he could he’d help my mother out with some money. On Fridays he’d come home with a giant bag of candy bars for me, which he’d pick up at the tavern on his way home after work.
He never stayed at any of these mill jobs for too long. He’d rather shoot pool and drink beer with his friends. Or get high. Eventually he figured he could do better by selling drugs. I don’t know how long that lasted, but I know he wasn’t very good at it because he ended up in prison for selling heroin to an undercover narcotics agent.
Through the dirty glass of the coffee table, beyond the pop-coffee-beer rings I see an Etch a Sketch on the floor that must belong to his girlfriend’s kid. I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. I had one when I was seven or eight and Bob, who was ten years older, used to sit me on his lap and we’d draw on it together, each of us taking one knob. He was the only one who played with me. My other brother was 12 years older and already into job and school and my mother worked all the time and I never knew my father.
I didn’t much mind not having anyone else. Bob wasn’t serious like everybody else in the family. He was childlike long after he should’ve grown up at least a little. Summer afternoons we’d sit together on the front porch for hours talking and giggling together, sometimes laughing until we cried.
I hated it when he had to go back to school in the fall. He went to a Catholic grammar school, Saint Columba, right down the block from where we lived in Hegewisch. My earliest memories are of waiting in our fenced yard for him to come home after school. He’d turn the corner down the street smiling and pulling his necktie off as he went.
He wrote me letters promising me that when he got out of prison he was going straight. I believed him. I always believed everything he told me.
I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know really what to do, so I pick up the Etch a Sketch and start fooling with it. One of the knobs is sticky and the front of it, the screen, is all dirty. My Etch a Sketch was always clean.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see Bob tying an ugly flesh-colored piece of plastic tubing around his arm. One end he grabs with his hand and the other end he pulls tight with his teeth. Though I’ve never seen him shoot up before, I know exactly what he’s doing. I’ve heard my mother and older brother talk about him and his drug problem many nights after they think I’ve fallen asleep.
I’m scared. I don’t know what to do–who to call. My mother at work? She’d go crazy, I know. Besides, downtown Chicago might just as well be light years from this cheap apartment in Calumet City. My other brother? He’s probably not even home. Besides, ever since Bob went to jail he pretty much doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. They’d probably end up fighting.
I set the Etch a Sketch down and look at Bob. He’s got his arm stretched straight out in front of him, the syringe in his other hand. I stand up. He eyes me for a split second, then readies the needle.
He looks up at me impatiently, not saying anything.
“I thought you told me that you weren’t going to do that anymore.” The words sound vain and helpless; I realize I must sound a lot like my mother–a hopeless echo.
He smiles at me. “Come on. Be cool, would you?” Before I can say anything else, he carefully slides the needle in under his skin and finishes quickly. He sighs and crumples back in the chair, closing his eyes. It’s like I’m not even there.
“Bob?” I’m afraid he might die right there in front of me.
He doesn’t answer. I just sit back down on the couch and watch him breathing. I wish I were anywhere but in some dirty apartment watching my brother breathe and hoping his breath doesn’t stop.
Before visiting anyone at the detox center, you have to sit through an hour-long therapy session. It’s supposed to help family members learn how to deal with the addicts once they’re off the program. Attendance here is absolutely mandatory before every single visit, for every single visitor.
“I don’t get it,” I say to Gail when she tells me about this. We’re on the phone.
“I think they had a problem with drug dealers coming up here, trying to sell stuff to people in the program. A drug dealer isn’t going to sit through some program like that, so it keeps ’em away.”
“I’ll bet it keeps a lot of the usual visitors away, too,” I say.
She laughs. “Yeah.”
The sessions turn out to be fascinating. Every one is on a different topic. Each week, the other visitors and I learn about some new facet of drug and alcohol addiction. The counselors promote AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and do their best to try and explain to all of us what to expect from the addict after the program is completed.
I can’t help but notice that plenty of the visitors nod out during the lectures. Many look surly and bored with it all. I figure they’re probably friends. The ones who stay alert are the older men and women, mostly women. I figure most of them are mothers.
More than a few of them remind me of my mother, weary around the edges, yet with a spark of hope in their eyes as they listen raptly to the speaker. Over the years, when everyone else has given up on the junkie, when friends and other family members refuse to come to the rescue anymore, one person usually remains loyal–the mother. I know this because it’s what happened in my own family.
The last few years Bob was alive, my mother was always driving him to some detox center or hospital. Those are the final memories I have of my brother: a guy who was always trying to go straight, always trying to live on a promise.
“Every family member plays a role,” the counselor tells us visitors: Hero, Enabler, Placater, Mascot, Lost Child.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that my mother was an Enabler, my oldest brother was a Placater, and I was a Lost Child. The roles are so familiar, it’s like slipping on an old sweater. How did this detox center counselor know my size? Growing up, I’d felt like I had nothing in common with any of the other kids I went to school with or with anyone else. I always felt alone. When the session is over I wonder what else that counselor might know about me.
After my first visit to the detox center I’m totally exhausted. Just sitting there with Gail in the smoky TV room listening to her talk tires me out. Some of the other women (a few are kids, only 18 or so) in the room join in on our conversations periodically.
Gail has become friends with most of them. She says at night, when the counselors aren’t around, they end up talking about what it used to be like getting high and how damn much they miss it–even though they know it was hell.
“Yeah, either that, or we talk about ordering a pizza from that restaurant across the parking lot,” Gail says. “At night with the windows open, you can really smell it.” Only problem is, none of them have any money for pizza. What little they have they tend to spend on cigarettes, candy, deodorant–necessities.
Everyone there has a story. Most of the stories center on drinking too much beer or wine, or getting busted, or having a boyfriend who cheats on them, or parents who are always on their case.
I’m amazed at how many problems these women have. My life is like a sunny day in the park compared to theirs. I hear about so many rapes, beatings, overdoses, car accidents, fires, suicides, and murders that it’s hard to believe I’m only listening to a half dozen women and not a hundred. There is enough misfortune there in that small TV room to fill a good-sized town.
When Bob died it was just after spring break. I was a senior in college and I had just got back from a trip to California. I was planning to move there after graduation, to escape our grimy little town. But after he died, I didn’t go.
Gail will be 41 years old on Saturday, so when I come to visit I bring her a birthday card along with the rest of the stuff she’s asked for–Mounds candy bars, Marlboro Lights, deodorant, shampoo, a writing tablet, and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. She didn’t ask for the book but I give it to her anyway because the last time I visited she told me that the counselors push thinking positive. I figure it can’t hurt.
She looks fragile today, as if an ill-timed word or comment might shatter what little self-esteem or composure she has left.
“I’m too old to be doin’ this kind of stuff anymore,” she tells me as we sit down and she gratefully takes a cigarette from the pack I’ve brought. She’s right. At least compared to the others I’ve seen here at the center. She is the oldest one there. She wants to go to a halfway house, get a job, and live a normal life.
“When I was in my 20s I said I’d quit when I was 35, but before you know it you’re 40, and here I am,” she says almost philosophically, proud that she’s managed to survive this long. If there is any sadness in her voice, I don’t detect it.
Every time I visit she asks me about Nicky, her son, because she knows I’ve kept in touch with him. He’s 21. He’s my brother’s son too. Nick lives in California where he’s working full-time and studying at night to be an engineer. Like me, Nick doesn’t drink.
More than once Gail tells me that she’s afraid Nick hates her–even she knows that a kid whose parents are both junkies has maybe one too many strikes against him. She carries a half dozen pictures of him in her wallet and has another one on the little dresser in her room here at the center.
“You know Arlene, I saved that picture your brother drew of Nicky when he was a year old. Remember it?”
I do. My brother had a real talent for drawing. I used to watch him night after night as he spent hours drawing and sketching at the kitchen table.
“Last time I heard from Nicky he told me that he was gonna get engaged. You believe that? He might be gettin’ married. I could be a grandmother. God, I just want to get my act together and live to see my grandchildren.”
There’s a brown-haired girl in faded blue jeans sitting across from us polishing her nails with nail polish the color of blood. Her nails are long and curved and each stroke of the brush is made with such care and precision, you’d think she was getting ready for the prom.
Later on I see another girl come in wearing the same kind of polish. Her nails are long and manicured, too. Their clothes are shabby and out of date, but their hands and nails look glamorous–it’s almost as if they belong to someone else. Gail tells me that they do their nails a lot just to keep busy.
Later she confides in me, “All the kids here either used cocaine or alcohol, but they look down on me like I’m a lowlife just because I shoot up. Do you believe that?”
I don’t know what to say. The logic there does seem a bit odd. She shrugs. “I told ’em a drug’s a drug, that I used to say the same thing they’re saying. I always said I’d never take drugs, too. I hated needles. They can’t see that it’s a gradual thing–that you don’t start out taking heroin. Really, they’re no different than me.”
I only have about ten minutes left before I have to go, and I ask Gail about a guy we both used to know, one of my brother’s friends who was always nice to me.
“Oh, he died,” she answers.
Before long, we’re coming up with lots of people we both knew, mostly my brother’s friends. Most of them are dead now. Gail shakes her head, “Yeah, everyone’s either dead or lame.”
A few died in car accidents, someone was drunk at the wheel; there were more than a few overdoses, along with a shooting, a stabbing, and a suicide. One guy OD’d and his friends left him to die inside the Hegewisch playground I played in as a kid. It’s only after I leave that I realize the people we talked about were mostly in their 20s when they died. Most of them were younger than I am now.
After these visits to Gail I feel hopeful for her. I think she just might make it. And in some small way, I feel like I might even be helping her. There are visiting hours only twice a week, and she never has any other visitors besides me. I’ve begun to look forward to our time together.
“It’s not going to do any good,” my mother tells me. “You’re wasting your time.” But she gives me a carton of cigarettes to take to Gail the next time I visit.
I never tried to help my brother out of his mess. I’m older, stronger now, maybe I can do for Gail what I couldn’t do for him.
The more I visit Gail, the more I think about my brother. I try to put him out of my mind, but when I think about the day he died, it seems like it was just the other day.
I’m upstairs in my bedroom and it’s morning. I have a late class and I’m just putting on my makeup. The phone rings and a moment later, I hear my mother’s screams. She’s babbling incoherently and I know that Bob has died. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know.
We have to go to the Cook County Morgue to identify him. This, I think, upsets my mother more than anything. He died on April 4, but the police haven’t notified her until now, the beginning of June. They tell her they found him on the street.
He was walking along Racine near Wilson with some buddies when he had a seizure. His friends got scared and took off, not bothering to call the police or paramedics. They left him and he died alone. I always wonder how long he laid there and who, if anyone, finally called the ambulance. Probably the police just happened upon him. He might have been lying there on the street for days, I don’t know.
A morgue attendant takes us into a small room with a TV set up on the wall, just like you see in the hospital. He leaves after telling us to watch the TV. We sit there, my Mom and I, watching the screen, not really knowing what to expect. A couple of minutes later the TV flickers on and I see my brother Bob there, lying on a stainless steel table, naked except for a green sheet that covers him from the waist down, not quite making it to his feet.
The camera moves slowly around him. A side view. Another side view, then a shot of his entire body. The camera closes in on his face. He looks grim, bloated, and so much older. He’s 34.
My mother starts sobbing then. I still can’t believe he’s really dead even though I know it’s him. I find it hard to look at the screen after a couple of minutes so I just look down at the mottled tile floor.
I never cried then or at his funeral, and while everyone else in the family wore black, I wore white.
“You’re always looking for that first high–that first time when you felt really great,” Gail tells me when I ask her why she started taking drugs.
“You keep taking more and more of it in order to get that feeling, but you never get it. It’s never as good as the first time. After a while, you start to think there’s no way out. You feel bad. You can’t take care of your kid and you start screwing up all over because you’re always thinking about getting high. Then you feel even worse and down on yourself. So you get high just to forget about all that.”
The counselors at the center say over and over that an addict’s chances for recovery are not good. The odds are better for winning the lottery, one of them tells me. All I hear from the counselors, from the other women, from Gail, is “You have to hit bottom before you change.” Bottom? What’s bottom?
There’s something about that I just can’t understand. Smoking cigarette butts, stealing from friends, trying to sneak some sleep in a buddy’s car or on his back porch because there’s nowhere else to go, drinking Nyquil to get high because there’s nothing better around, rooting through an alley garbage can for something to eat, getting so sick from Methadone that you puke all over yourself, and most of the people you used to get high with are either dead or mangled up from all these accidents that never seem to stop. None of this is the bottom yet.
A junkie can take so much more it’s amazing. They can survive anything life spits out at them, right up until that last second before they die. This I know, because I saw it in my brother.
“Don’t you worry about getting AIDS?” I ask Gail.
“Everyone bleaches their fit now before they get high,” she answers matter-of-factly. “If I have AIDS it’s because of before when we didn’t know anything about it.”
Gail tells me about Antonio, the millionaire junkie she used to get high with. “He was in this building when it caught on fire and exploded. But he lived and got a three-million-dollar settlement–a ton of money. After he got his settlement he moved into a new apartment.” She squashes out another cigarette.
“Antonio was really straight when he moved there–didn’t do any drugs at all. But these guys who lived in the building with him knew he had all this money. They used to go and talk to him because he was so lonely after the fire. After a while they persuaded him to start gettin’ high.”
“See, they had to do these skin grafts on him after he was in the fire. There’s a big hole in his leg where they did the grafts, and he shoots up there in the hole in his leg.” Gail pulls her leg up and crosses it, pointing to a spot in the middle of her calf.
In 1970 my mother bought a brand-new milky white Chevy Impala with a black interior. Even after she had the car for a couple of years it still had that new-car smell because she took such good care of it and hardly ever drove it. She would’ve killed anyone who took it without permission.
“Are you sure this is OK?” I ask Bob as we climb in the Impala.
“Sure I’m sure. Don’t be square, otherwise I won’t take you.”
I don’t say anything more as he settles a can of beer in his lap so he can back the car out of the garage. The minute he pulls away from the house, he laughs and floors it up to the stop sign.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Wherever I tell you,” he says as he gets out of the car. He hurries around the front of the car, opens the door, and pushes me across the seat. “You’re driving–get behind the wheel. Come on, hurry up.”
I can’t believe it. I only have my learner’s permit and no one else will let me drive. Bob let me drive a lot that year–his own beat-up old car and my mother’s perfect Chevy.
At one of the family sessions the counselor tells the group that while it’s crucial to support the recovering addict–within reason–it’s even more important for the addict to learn how to cope with challenges by himself.
A lady in her late 50s with painted toenails and gold sandals asks, “Then is it OK for me to give my son money to get to the AA meetings? He doesn’t have a job or a car and when we called to find out where the AA meetings were, they were far away.”
A knowing look spreads across the counselor’s face. “When it was 30 degrees below zero last winter and your son didn’t have a job or a car, he still made sure that he got his drugs, didn’t he?”
The woman considers this a moment and finally nods.
“If your son used half of that same energy to apply himself to his recovery program he’d have a very successful program,” he says gently. “He has to do this on his own. You’re not responsible if he has a relapse.”
It is Gail’s last day at the center. She’s made friends with another woman in the program and they plan to check into a halfway house in Joliet together. They both know it won’t be easy.
I don’t know when I’ll see Gail again, so I try to get there early.
The family counseling session hasn’t started yet, so I walk over to the TV room to look for her. I spot her sitting by the windows with a man who looks to be in his late 20s. He has bleary eyes and thick dark curly hair. She introduces me to him.
“This is Mike,” she says. When I reach out to shake his hand he seems a little surprised. He takes my hand, but stares at the floor.
I immediately notice the change in Gail’s appearance. She’s dressed up–has on what look like new clothes and some makeup. She even has her hair styled a little differently.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Mike is the guy she broke up with before she entered treatment. She has only mentioned his name to me in passing once or twice.
“I been waiting for hours to see you, you know,” he tells her.
“I been sitting and waiting at that Italian restaurant. I was in there so long, I finally had to order a pizza.”
“Was it good?” she asks, probably remembering all those nights she could smell the aroma of baking pizza but couldn’t have any.
He’s brought her a pile of presents since he missed her birthday: bracelets, earrings, a watch with the face of a cat on it, shirts, black jeans, an Esprit sweater, a black enamel jewelry box, and a ceramic Mickey Mouse car. All of the gifts still have price tags on them.
“Did you see how much some of that stuff cost? Look how much those jeans are,” he says.
“Yeah,” she nods.
“You imagine paying that price for something like that? I can’t believe how stupid people are–” Gail kicks him and he shuts up. But not before I realize that everything he’s brought her is stolen.
Mike sits next to me at the family session, but he sleeps through it all. I wonder if I should say anything to Gail. I can’t help but wish he hadn’t shown up. On the other hand, just because he’s a thief doesn’t mean he’s a drug addict.
Still, I wonder why he’s never visited her before. I ask him as we leave the session and head out to look for Gail.
“I was in the hospital,” he explains.
“Oh, really. Why?”
“I OD’d,” he says simply.
Visiting hours are over in less than an hour and since it’s clear that I’m not going anywhere, Mike tries in front of me to convince Gail to leave with him instead of going to the halfway house. As the minutes tick by, he becomes more adamant, more panicky.
She keeps telling him no, and every time she says it, I feel a twinge of joy at her courage.
Finally she asks him “Why? So I can get high again?”
“No, no. Nobody’s gettin’ high anymore.”
I can tell she doesn’t believe him.
“We got Billy’s house all to ourselves since he’s in jail. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”
Gail asks him who else is there at the house. He names a list of people.
“God, what am I gonna do with them? They’ll just be wantin’ me to go and cop,” she says.
“No, no they won’t,” he lies.
As I get up to leave Gail offers to walk me out to the door. Mike leaps up after us and follows along. When we get to the end of the hall, Gail gives me a hug. Mike just stares at the floor. He hasn’t looked me straight in the eye since I got there.
“Call me if you need anything,” I tell her.
“I will. Thanks for comin’ to see me,” she says, smiling. “And if you talk to Nicky, tell him that I’ll call him as soon as I check into that halfway house. Would you tell him that I’m going to be all right? The crazy kid worries about me.”
As I get in my car a helpless sadness envelops me. It reminds me of the time I watched my brother shoot up after he got out of jail. I try to tell myself that Gail will make it to the halfway house as planned and start making a go of the new life she’s already started here.
A couple of days later when I call the halfway house, Gail’s not there. I find out from the girl she was supposed to drive there with that she left with Mike, and hasn’t been heard from since.
*The story is true. All names except mine and my brother’s have been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.