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Memories of My Mother and Her Addiction, in Six Parts

A reflection on the damage opioids can do

Erika Anne Sauter
Dec 21, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Paul Schutzer/the LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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My mother died as an opioid addict at the age of 53. I don’t know when her addiction really began, but I’ve come to realize that she self-medicated to escape. I have a vague vision of her at one time being the mother I needed her to be, but I’m unsure if it’s a true memory or something I conjured up to ease our history.

The truth is I never knew who my mother was as a person. Our relationship while I was growing up was empty, and she was an empty shell. I don’t remember any fun times or happy moments, but six memories I have of her and her addiction stand out.

One

She had certain traits I could never forget. She threw up a lot, and when she was finished, she’d take a swig straight from the Pepto-Bismol bottle. I can still hear the way she would sob and the shrill of her yelling at my father to stop beating us, her voice usually coming from her bed because she rarely felt well.

These details represent the core of who my mother was. She had been a victim of child abuse herself, and the severe, untreated depression she experienced shut me and my siblings out of her world. Opioids temporarily fixed things for her while we were left without a mother.

“Get dressed,” she whispered. My father was coming and once he saw what I’d done, there’d be fire and fury. This is the only memory I have of her trying to protect me from him.

She would come out of her room for doctor’s appointments, though. She was always going to the doctor, riddled with health ailments. That was her claim for getting opioids; she swore she was in unbearable pain. Since experiencing my own battle with depression, I now believe she may have been in emotional pain that presented physically. Back then, though, what I remember is how excited I felt when it was time to go to the doctor. It meant that I got to see her outside of her bedroom. I got to have my mom for a time — wearing jeans and smelling like aerosol hairspray.

And when we came home, she would cross the threshold of our front doorway and immediately retreat back to her bedroom.

Two

I think I was six or seven years old at the time of this memory. My mother was desperately trying to get me to go to sleep. She told me the “Bad Girl’s Home” was on their way to pick me up and that the only way they wouldn’t take me is if I was asleep when they arrived.

I faked sleeping, and the “Bad Girl’s Home” people never showed up. I waited until the lights went out in the front room, indicating my parents had gone to bed, and then I used crayons to color a giant television on my bedroom wall. We lived in poverty, and I wanted to watch cartoons at home like I did when my brother and I would go to our grandparents’ house. We lived like royalty when we visited them. Since I didn’t have a TV, I drew one.

I must have fallen asleep eventually because I woke to my mother leaning over me. “Get dressed,” she whispered. She knew my father, the monster, was coming and that once he saw what I’d done, there’d be fire and fury.

This is the only memory I have of her trying to protect me from him. That was the day he crushed me underneath my dresser in a fit of rage.

Three

One dress that my mother wore is sharp in my memories. It was baby blue, knee length, and tailored at the waist with a button top. I picture her in it, paper-thin and gaunt with her long, bleach-blond hair highlighting the bone structure of her face and the flatness of her chest. That dress always struck me as if it were magic. I pretended I had the same dress and that when I spun around, the dress and I twirled with grace, like a princess. I also pretended it had protective powers like a force field.

My mother seemed beautiful to me. I’m not sure if it’s because I was too young to acknowledge how opioids were slowly chipping away at her or because it’s human nature for a daughter to worship her mother. When I looked at her, I imagined a sparkle in her glazed-over eyes. My mind placed the sparkle there so I could see her as the person I wanted her to be instead of seeing her as a person of her actions.

I wished she’d take us and leave him. … Instead, she got high.

But from one memory to the next, my mother ages greatly. The blue dress eventually vanished from our lives. I don’t recall ever once witnessing her eat; Pepto-Bismol was the only sustenance I saw her consume, the staple of her diet for as far back as I can remember. She cut off all of her hair and stopped wearing makeup. My father would belittle and berate her, saying, “You disgust me,” “You’re ugly,” “You’re useless,” “You’re stupid.”

While his anger grew more rampant, my mother’s addiction grew worse — and I grew up. My father physically attacked me and my brother, pounding out all of his anger through his fists, and she allowed it to happen to us. I hoped she’d fight back. I prayed she’d protect us. I wished she’d take us and leave him. But she didn’t do any of those things. Instead, she got high.

Four

Looking back now with what few memories I have, I can see my mother’s depression deepening as the years went on.

It was when I had my own children that she made an effort to be present in my life. She mailed gifts to my children on a regular basis. She called me once a week. Once, she flew from Florida, where she was living with my father, to Arizona to go camping with us. It is a gift to have this one and only memory of her in the great outdoors. Admittedly, though, I felt bitter. I wondered why she couldn’t have made that level of effort when I was a child.

The reconnection with my mother had sparked a few years earlier at my grandmother’s funeral. Before that, she and I hadn’t spoken for almost a decade. The first time I saw her again, I asked her the same question I’d been asking her my entire life: “Why do you stay with him?”

“I love him,” she told me.

Five

When I found out my mother died, a feeling rushed over me, but it wasn’t the anger I’d felt toward her or the hurt from my childhood I’d carried my entire life. It was relief for her — relief that she was no longer suffering. I was grateful her misery was over and she could be at peace.

It was Super Bowl Sunday in 2003. The manager of the bar where I was working at the time called me into the back office to tell me someone had called and left a message that my mother passed away. A fever had caused a stroke, the stroke caused a heart attack, and the heart attack killed her. I went back out to the front to clear tables. The owner approached me and told me to leave my shift and take all the time I needed before returning to work. I declined and assured him I was fine. I didn’t need any time. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel loss. There was no lingering absence or void. It just was.

Although my mother is gone, opioid addiction is still very much alive in my family.

Years later, I found out my father was homeless and living in an airport. After my mother died, he’d had her body cremated and kept her remains in a van he owned and lived in. When the van quit running, he abandoned it. Eventually, the police impounded it.

That’s how my mother’s life story ends: in an abandoned van on an impound lot. The man she had loved too much to leave, the man she stayed with no matter what harm it brought to her and her children ultimately treated her the same in death as he had in life. I had no choice but to accept it, just as I did when I was a child. The damage was already done.

Six

I’ve spent a good part of my adult life blaming my mother for many things — specifically, her opioid abuse, her toleration of my father’s abuse, and my growing up neglected and abandoned by her. It was roughly a decade ago when I realized both my parents experienced severe mental illness. At the time, I was able to let go but not forgive. They could have gotten help just as I’ve sought help throughout my adult life, but they didn’t.

Although my mother is gone, opioid addiction is still very much alive in my family. It’s taken living through three generations of addicts for me to figure out that I’m not her victim. I was a causality of her substance abuse.

I often think of my mother, and each time I visualize her in my mind, she’s wearing that blue dress. It’s how I’ll always remember her.

Newspaper reporter in Eastern Iowa. The views expressed are mine alone.

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