It was time to pack up the memories. I had come to Cape Cod for the weekend to box up the family home. After almost twenty years, it was time to sell and time to let go. It was a financial necessity. My husband, Michael, and I had been living in New York City for the last two years and had been renting out our cape house during the summer months.(I will refer to my husband as Michael and to my son as Mike to avoid confusion). Our daughter, Alex, had moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career, and our son, Mike, was attending the University of Vermont. I had woken up feeling just like the gloomy, gray sky outside my windows. Our beautiful home, which was once filled with noise and laughter, now sat quiet and empty before me. I was on edge that morning, feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps it was because I was anxious about the future. I’ve always had a hard time letting go, and selling my family home was extremely painful for me. Trying to delay the emptying of closets and going through generations of belongings, I threw on my boots and rain jacket and headed out to grab a few things at the market.
I still remember where I was, the exact aisle in the grocery store and what sat on the shelves, when my phone rang. “Hey, Mom. I think there’s something wrong with Mike,” Alex said.
“What?” I stopped. There was something about the adult tone she was using that made me very nervous. Frozen in place, I clutched the half-full shopping cart. I was afraid to let go.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m worried. I just told Dad. His roommate called and said he can’t find him. That no one knows where he is.” I couldn’t speak. There was a moment of heavy silence. “We need to find him,” she pleaded.
It was the call I had been afraid of for a long time that I kept secretly hidden in my mind. The dread I kept locked up tight in a vault.
After hanging up I put my head down and walked to the exit. Nothing mattered except getting home and knowing my son was OK—not the shopping cart full of food and not my friend Mary, who saw me in the parking lot. I could hear her calling my name. She was only a few feet from me, but her voice echoed as if it was miles away, unable to penetrate the panic banging around in my head.
As I drove home, my daughter’s words filled the car. I’m worried. We need to find him.
I walked back into the house and noticed that my hands were shaking. As I grabbed my phone to call Mike, my friend Sandy’s name popped up on my phone. As much as I wanted to hear my son’s voice, I was relieved. I wasn’t ready to know the truth.
“Hey. I forgot my laptop at your house and have to come back.” She had been staying with me and had left that morning for Boston.
“Oh, thank God. I need you. Please hurry,” I said. As soon as we hung up, I called Mike. When I got his voicemail, I got angry. “Where the hell are you?” I screamed into the phone, tears streaming down my face. I sent him text messages demanding he call me. Once Sandy arrived, she put her hand on my arm and calmly said, “That’s not going to work. Tell him you are worried about him and just want to make sure he’s OK.” She picked up my phone and handed it to me.
“Tell him you love him.”
I told her there was no way I was doing that. He was being selfish by making everyone worry about him. He was being selfish by causing his sister so much grief. Sandy insisted though, and I sent what I later found out was the most important text I’ve ever sent in my entire life.
“Son, please let me know you are OK. I love you, and I need to know that you’re OK.”
I can remember sitting alone at the Motel 6 in Burlington. That Vermont motel was going to be the end of the road, or so I thought. I arrived there at night and had taken a few pills and done some coke. While I was in bed watching TV, wondering if I would sleep at all, I finally had what I wanted: to be alone.
I woke up to a snowy day. Not a nice, white, fluffy snow but a brown, wet sleet that made everything look dirty. The motel was quiet and gloomy. It felt like a secret hideout for refugees trying to stay under the radar. I could hear critters in the walls and ceiling that had come in to seek warmth and shelter from the cold.
Later that morning I listened to the voice mails and read the texts from my mother saying, “Where the hell are you?” and “Everyone is looking for you! You’re going to rehab!” I loved my mother so very much, but the truth is that selfishness had taken over every aspect of my life. The only thought that crossed my mind was, “Why are they all looking for me? Is this about the kid I put in the hospital, or one of the people I had stolen from?”
Was I dreaming? Would I wake up? The truth was that I was wide awake, hoping it would all end. I did what I had always done before to ease the pain. After a simple phone call came a knock at the door, like clockwork. I spent my last chunk of change, which I had taken from a “friend’s” dresser drawer. “He shouldn’t have left it out,” I told myself. “He basically begged me to take it from him.”
A couple of hours and enough OxyContin to kill a small horse later, I found myself lying in the bathtub waiting for the heart palpitations to kill me. The walls were yellow and peeling, and the ceiling had mustard-colored splotches of mold everywhere. My mind was drifting and a memory of a warm spring day in my junior year of high school flooded my thoughts. I was the boy who scored the winning goal.
The fans were in greater numbers than usual because it was the second rivalry game between Barnstable and Falmouth. This time we were on Falmouth’s turf. In our first game we absolutely destroyed them and it was a special day since our school had not beaten them in twelve years. They were wounded, ready to do whatever it took to survive. They wanted revenge.
Falmouth fought their hearts out, but so did we. There was no finesse or beauty in this game just raw and scrappy lacrosse. When I was on the field, especially in a game like that, adrenaline took hold of my whole body. My focus was on nothing but my task at hand. I was not nervous, anxious or scared. The final quarter ended in a tie and we moved to sudden death overtime. I took the opening faceoff.
The adrenaline encompassed my body completely. I was swift on the face off and knew that it was flawless. As I carried the ball down to setup into our offense, it was as if time slowed down. I thought about everything I was seeing, as if I were looking at a picture. As I thought about passing the ball around to create a play, I saw Timmy and Josh working together on the crease with their sticks up ready to catch a pass from me to score. The defense had their sticks up hoping to knock down any pass through their area. The goalie was standing in a way that said, “There’s no way any ball is getting in this net.” And that’s when I saw it.
Directly in front of me was the player I took the faceoff against. He was wide eyed and holding his stick out in front of him like a man holding a wooden chair out to keep a lion from coming closer. He was on his heels, and without confidence. At that moment I said to myself, “I’m going to score.” I ran toward him, dodged to my left, and just as he thought he caught up to me, I rolled away from him. As I switched to my right hand I lowered the head of my stick down to the ground ready to pull the trigger.
As soon as I completed my roll, I pushed the ball toward the net while pulling my stick toward the sky. The ball sailed by Timmy and Josh, past the goalie’s head, hit the bottom of the crossbar and found its way into the net. Sticks flew into the air and I was bombarded with praise and excitement. At that moment, I felt like the greatest person alive.
That game ended and so did the praise. No one was giving “poor little me” attention anymore and could only talk about what we were going to do that night. “But what about me? What about that game I just won twenty minutes ago?” These were the thoughts that went through my mind. I went from feeling like a king to making myself out to be a victim. I was on the bus ride back to school with my entire team, and I felt like the only one there. “No one understands me. I just won that game and they don’t care. I don’t need them anyway.”
The sound of a rodent scurrying across the ceiling snapped me back to reality. I was no longer a high school lacrosse player; I was strung out, laying in a bathtub in a Motel 6.
My phone was off because that’s how I made everything else disappear. For some reason I felt an urge to turn it on. “Dude, are you OK? I’m worried about you.” “Hey man, don’t worry about everything; just give me a shout.” Pity? From these people whose trust I had abused and stolen from? I didn’t want pity and concern. I wanted fear and respect. But why? For what? Did I really think I was that tough, even with nothing to my name while rotting in this cheap motel? That’s when I saw it.
“Son, please just let me know you are OK…”
My mother? After all I’d put her through? She’s still there? She’s worried? Then I saw another message.
“Where are you? I love you, and I’m worried about you.”
It was from Bob. After all I’d put one of my best friends through, he still cared enough to set aside the harm I’d done?
It was as if someone somewhere punched me square in the face and poured ice cold water down my back. Sheer surrender shrouded me, and those “to hell with-its” that always led to the next fix suddenly became a good thing. I was scared out of my mind and finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t so tough. I needed my mother. I needed those who cared for me. I needed the people I had forcefully pushed away for so long. I sent my mother a text saying, “Mom, no one can help me.”
I wanted to be a part of a family again and learn to live rather than be constantly waiting. It was then, as I polished off the rest of my pills, that I realized I wanted there to be a tomorrow. It was the first step. But it was sure as hell not going to be the last. That’s when I made the call.
The sound of his voice erased any lingering anger. I felt guilty. I was his mother, and he needed me. “I’m scared, Mom. I’m scared and I need help,” he said.
I closed my eyes and brought my hand to my mouth, trying to stifle the tears, trying to sound strong. “OK, honey. We’re going to get you home. And we’re going to get you help.”
Mike told me he was in some cheap motel a few miles away from his school. As soon as we got off the phone, I called my husband. “Michael, you need to come home. Now.”
“I spoke to Alex, and I’m already on my way,” he said. “Mike is in trouble. He wants help. He needs help. He wants to come home.” Michael was at work in New York, and I had the car on Cape Cod. That meant it would be another day and another night that my son would be alone. The idea of him scared and alone in that shithole hotel room was too much to bear.
I called Bob, one of Mike’s best friends. I trusted him and asked if he could go and get Mike. Or at least spend the night there. Bob agreed.
I stood in my living room and stared out the window. I searched the blanket of snow covering the front yard for answers. I imagined what sort of state my son was in. Where he was. How he looked. The helplessness crept into my fingers and toes. It was all I could do to keep from shutting down while waiting for that call from Bob. I needed to know that Mike was safe. I needed to know that he was alive. I was losing it.
Dark and crazy thoughts started creeping into my mind. My faith had been challenged over the past few years and now my thoughts were spinning out of control, heading in a bad direction.
Why was this happening? Addiction wasn’t supposed to happen to families like mine.
I’ve always believed that if I had faith in God then I would be protected from evil.
Because bad things were happening to my family, I felt weak and that my faith was being challenged.
The Greek in me took over. Did this weakness make me vulnerable? I started to wonder if someone had given my family the mati.
Giving someone the mati refers to casting the evil eye (mati being the Greek word for eye). The evil eye is a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, usually given to a person when they are unaware. Many cultures believe that receiving the evil eye will cause misfortune or injury. Talismans created to protect against the evil eye are also frequently called “evil eyes.”
I knew this belief went against the beliefs my religion had taught me. I was desperately searching for answers to something that made no sense to me. Little did I know that I would find out later that my thoughts were not so crazy.
I fell back into my normal routine to pass the time. I cleaned. I organized. Then I called Mike’s roommate and thanked him for calling Alex. “You saved his life,” I said over and over. “You saved my son’s life.”
While I tried to keep it together, Sandy called a few treatment centers around the country to get Mike a room. They were all booked. It would be weeks before anyone could take him. I never stopped to think about the fact that treatment centers were booked. I never stopped to think about how many other families were dealing with substance abuse. I was only focused on our situation. The insurance company was useless. They casually recommended a few local places as if we were tourists looking for a restaurant, and none of them specialized in dealing with young adults.
“He needs a place where he won’t be lumped in with people twice his age,” Sandy insisted. “A place for young adults.”
After making a few calls, Sandy announced that the Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania would take him right away. When I realized that it was located only a few miles away from my aunt and uncle’s home (my godparents), I felt a little more at ease. I wanted to feel something familiar in a very unfamiliar situation. For just a moment, I was relieved. Then she added, “It’s going to cost thirty-five thousand dollars and they need it up front.” I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach.
I thought of my own mother. I had missed her so much since she passed away. She had managed every little aspect of our lives with such ease. She had always fixed everything. I wanted more than anything for her to plop herself down on my couch and tell me how to fix this. I wanted her to tell me how I could regain the control of my family that she never seemed to lose with hers. I needed my mother, and Mike needed me.
The fact that my father was a Greek Orthodox priest would have created an even bigger problem. I would have been petrified to share what was happening with him. Most Greeks don’t talk about things like homosexuality or cancer, let alone addiction. I would have been forced to keep it all quiet because of my father’s position. That would have been deadly. Keeping secrets is exhausting and helps no one. We talk about how close our big Greek families are and how we are always there for each other, but when your father is a priest, you have to be very careful of who you share things with.
I miss my father since he passed away, but I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to worry about my family being judged by his parishioners. He was highly respected as a priest, but what a lot people seemed to overlook was that he was a father, a husband, and a grandfather as well. Although he listened every single day to his congregation’s problems, secrets, and confessions, I think this would have crushed him. And, as I said before, Greeks don’t talk about addiction. At least not the ones I know.
When my husband, Michael, finally got to the cape, he was exhausted. He looked as if it had been weeks since he’d slept, for fear of what would have changed once he woke up. I explained that we needed money to get Mike into the rehab center. He listened quietly, knowing it was too much. We just didn’t have it. We were in the midst of a major financial crisis for the first time in our lives. When the stock market tanked, he had lost his job. He had only recently started working again at a new firm in New York City. I had a successful career selling real estate on Cape Cod for years, but my industry wasn’t spared from the country’s financial crisis either. Our lives were changing rapidly in every way imaginable.
I was so worried about my husband and how he was feeling or what he was thinking about. We were a team, but unlike me, he didn’t like to talk about feelings and share his issues with anyone else. Michael has always been very private.
He was very close to his brothers, and I would constantly tell him to talk with them about the situation. I wanted him to talk and get his feelings out with someone he trusted, to feel some support. He was the youngest of eight, and I knew his brothers would be there for him to lean on, but he just wouldn’t do it. I imagined he was feeling he’d be judged or that his son would be. I knew that would never be the case, but I couldn’t push him. I had wasted so much time worrying about the same thing with my own family.
I did the only thing I could think of. I called Aunt Sophia and Uncle Nick.
When they arrived at our house, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe I hoped that my mother’s little brother would instill a modicum of the calm I had felt with her. Maybe he would know, like she always did, what to do. As I sat there telling them what was going on, with Michael seemingly miles away on the other end of the couch, I realized I needed to be around family. My aunt Sophia was the closest person I had in my life besides my mother. She is my rock, the strongest woman I know. I have always shared things with her, and she would always guide me without passing judgment. She was my mother’s best friend—I knew she missed her as much as I did.
I remember being with my mother, Aunt Sophia, and all the cousins at the beach in Cape Cod. Our days were filled with swimming lessons and ice blue popsicles, each of us wrapped up in matching beach towels. While the kids spent the entire day in the water, my mother and aunt would sit side by side in their beach chairs, keeping one eye on their children and one on each other. They were always talking and laughing, and now that I’m in my fifties, I get it. It’s the sisterhood.
Aunt Sophia had married my mother’s little brother, and these two amazing women were inseparable.
When I had finished talking, Aunt Sophia got up off the couch, got in her car, and drove away. I thought she was upset. I thought she was disappointed in me and needed to leave before saying something she would regret. She returned with a cashier’s check in hand. Michael and I refused, insisting that we couldn’t take their money. I told my uncle that we appreciated the gesture, but we couldn’t possibly accept. It was too much.
He shook his head. “Remember years ago, when the restaurant was in trouble? You remember who was there to help us out? It was the two of you.” Michael and I looked at each other. Neither of us had remembered. It felt like a lifetime ago. “Well that’s what family does. And now it’s our turn.”
As lost and confused as I felt, their kindness anchored me to hope. I needed them. My son needed them. And they had been right there, ready to stand beside us and willing to do whatever it took to help.
As Michael pulled away for the trip to pick up Mike, I watched the brake lights from our silver Jeep disappear down the quiet residential street. The same road that just yesterday had felt immune to words like “addiction.” My maternal instincts kicked in, and I began packing what I assumed we would need for the trip to Pennsylvania.
I wasn’t sure what bringing-your-kid-to-rehab clothes were, but I was sure we didn’t own them.
Regardless, I tried my best to keep busy, preparing my family for what lay ahead, no matter how badly I wished it would disappear. I started going through my old jewelry boxes trying to find the small evil eye pendants that I’d held on to for all those years, the same ones I had pinned to my babies’ diapers to ward off evil. Perhaps now would be a good time to wear it. Perhaps it was too late.
Soon though, I ran out of things to keep me busy. Michael wouldn’t be back for hours. I stood by the door, sobbing and waiting, wedged between the fear of what would come walking through the door when the Jeep’s light’s would once again appear in the driveway and the selfish desire to pass this whole damn thing off to someone else. Anyone else.
While Michael was driving to pick up Mike, we talked on the phone. He told me how frightened he was. He felt so helpless. Being the positive one, he was encouraged that Mike had decided to get help. At the same time, he was nervous about our son trying to make a run for it on the way home. He said his mind was racing in all different directions. I knew just how he felt.
When we hung up, I was overcome with exhaustion. I slumped down onto the floor. Sensing something was wrong, our bloodhound, Skilo, nuzzled next to me and rubbed her warm, wet snout against my hand while I wept. She stayed right there next to me, soaked from my tears, for what felt like weeks.
Then the door opened.
Skilo and I raised our heads at the familiar squeak of a Cape Cod screen door. Blood filled my body, and I jumped to my feet faster than I had in years, faster than I thought I still could at my age.
I didn’t even want to look at Mike. I just wanted to hold him. That connection we had always shared broke through the hours of angst and trepidation. I squeezed him as hard as I could.
When we finally pulled away, I looked at his face and broke down all over again. This wasn’t my son. His beautiful eyes had dulled into hollow caverns. I knew in that moment that as much as I wanted to be the solution, it would take more than just a mother’s love to bring my son back.
Wrapping him up in the same quilt that had covered his bed since he was a child, rubbing his back, and making his favorite meal wasn’t going to save his life.
I saw the toll all this had taken on my husband. He wasn’t just tired. He looked scared, a helpless, broken shell of his former self. Though he barely spoke, he looked like I felt. This wasn’t supposed to be our reality. It didn’t make sense. This didn’t happen to people like us.
But there we were, Mike’s face hammering home how real it all was.
As I was nodding out in the motel bed, I heard a few bangs on my door. I opened it. “You look like death,” Bob said as he wrapped his arms around me. I was feeling so frail that his hug was more painful than comforting. Maybe in some way Bob had wanted to hurt me for all that I had put everyone through.
The next morning, before we were to head out of Vermont to meet my father, I asked him if we could grab breakfast. I didn’t even want food at that point. Nausea and chills were already kicking in from lack of dope in my body. My plan was to buy enough time to get loaded one more time before leaving. I knew Bob wouldn’t let me, so I sent a text to the one person who I had not yet robbed. I told him to meet me on the backside of the breakfast place right over the Winooski River with the two sneakers hanging outside. I’d slip into the bathroom and out the window and grab what I needed. That was the plan. Of course, I had no money at the time, so I would have to tell the connect that I would “pay him back.” He never made it on time anyway.
The car ride was a blur to me. I remember having some laughs with Bob and getting serious at times. Ultimately, I ended up passing out for the majority of the ride. I woke up to my father at a train station, where I would continue my journey with him to Cape Cod. I don’t recall how we ended up at certain places or when we’d left them. It all happened so quickly; perhaps I wasn’t even conscious for most of it.
I remember my mother’s face. It was pale and drained, as if she had seen a ghost. I think she hugged and kissed me, or I would assume that she did. I wanted help. I honestly did. I wanted to get clean with all my heart. This mental obsession and physical craving was just too great for me to overcome on my own. I needed my family.
I can’t remember if it was that day or the next, but I did end up getting something to ease the pain. I started walking away from the house. My mother was suspicious and said something to me. I don’t remember her exact words, but again I lied to her. I had to. I wish I hadn’t, but I just did not have the willpower to refrain from getting loaded. I don’t remember where I got the money, or if the person just helped me out for free. But I got just enough of it to ease the pain for the remaining time with my family.
Then, I was in New York City at our apartment. When did we leave Cape Cod? How long were we there? Were we even there? I knew the answer was yes because I still had what I needed to get me through these next couple of days. I was another day closer to Pennsylvania.
Motel 6 in Vermont. A train station in Connecticut. Cape Cod. New York City. Next stop, Pennsylvania, where I would clean up my life. Or maybe where I would be starting it. I didn’t know what to expect next, and I didn’t care. I just remember an overwhelming feeling of joy for some reason. Whether I was actually ready or I was just feeling content from the meds, it didn’t matter. I was going in the same direction, regardless of the reason.
In the moments before we arrived at my great-aunt and great-uncle’s house in Pennsylvania, I remember obsessing about what kind of meds they had stashed around their house. I remember feeling so selfish with these thoughts, but I could not stop them. However, the moment we pulled up and I saw Aunt Seva’s wide, kind eyes, those thoughts were wiped from my mind. I felt as if I didn’t need anything. My aunt Seva and uncle Al are such kind souls that their presence was greater than any relief I could get from a drug. I was so grateful to just be able to have lunch with them at a quaint little Greek diner before I was admitted.
That part of my trip I do remember.
I couldn’t sleep the last night we spent on the cape. We would be leaving for New York City in the morning before going to Pennsylvania. Part of me still doubted Mike’s desire to be helped, and I was afraid that he would run off during the night. So I stayed awake, keeping guard.
In the morning, when we drove back to the apartment in New York, no one spoke. Mike slept in the backseat, just as he had all those years ago as a kid.
The night before leaving for Pennsylvania, Mike wrote a letter to the head of admissions at UVM and left it on the kitchen table. I could feel his fear and desperation. He wasn’t being forced into getting help. He wanted it. I knew I could sleep that night, because I knew he would be there when I woke up.