I recall sitting in the backseat of the car, looking out the side window for cops, while our dad weaved wildly through traffic with a style of driving I’d coined controlled recklessness, a term he loved. My little sister, beside me, had been charged with the view from her window. My older brother sat shotgun, his responsibilities to the front. As if training a circus act, my father would also drill us with mental math questions on these drives, difficult problems that demanded we keep a constant tally. ‘What’s 1,000 minus 315 times 4 divided by 10?’ is an example of an easier one. I was the best at these exercises, better than my older brother even, which always made me feel confident participating. My sister, just six or so, was the shyest of us three, and today, she was given a challenging problem for her age. Something like: ‘Five times five?’
She didn’t know.
‘What’s five times three?’ he asked, making it easier.
Whether she was afraid of getting it wrong or intimidated by having been put on the spot, she grew anxious. ‘I don’t remember,’ my sister said.
I tried mouthing the answer to her.
‘Eyes to the window,’ my father said. ‘What’s five times two?’ he then asked her.
‘Five times two?’ he fired back. We were too young then to realize that his volatility was drug-fueled. ‘You don’t know five times two? It’s the same as five plus five. Five plus five, what’s five plus five? You must know that.’ Of course, she did. She was in a lose-lose situation, though. If she got the answer right, he’d want to know what took her so long, and if she got it wrong, a likely scenario with such pressure now on her, she would be judged. In the rising intensity of the moment, she was rendered mute. ‘Just give me an answer,’ he roared. ‘Any answer, just give me an answer.’
She began to cry, softly.
My father jerked the car to the shoulder of the road, got out, went to her door, tore it open, and began to scream. He demanded that she answer him. Right or wrong, it didn’t matter. He just wanted her to say something, a number. He yelled at her to try, that in life we must try. She finally said a random, wrong number. He said thank you, closed her door calmly, got back in the driver’s seat. We continued on, quietly recommitting ourselves to the task at hand: to be as alert as gunmen, watching for cops. After all, if he got a speeding ticket, we would be the ones in trouble.
As with most serious and chronic illnesses, the shared experience of having an addict in the family continues to inform the organization of its members long after death or sobriety. My siblings and I have gotten older, started families, careers, moved on, per se, from our childhood, but the foxhole bonds we forged at a young age have proven hardwired and hardwearing. My sister and I both live in New York, and it’s not uncommon for us to be out together when a song from a jukebox or a memory-sparking mannerism causes us to slip into a long reminiscence. Like old war veterans, we rehash details of our past until it’s a challenge to step down off our stools. The facts from our youth are mostly forgotten or distorted or over-told to the point of mundanity. Instead, we discuss what things felt like, with a befuddling almost-nostalgia. How erratic our father was while using, and yet how our feelings of sadness, longing, despair and rejection somehow always transformed into resolve to be more devoted, more obedient, more intuitive of his needs. It was as if without him and the demands he made on us kids, we would be left without purpose, or, worse, the universe would be thrown into chaos – no sun, no center. We might recall, for example, how praise worked beautifully to win his approval. Compliments soothed him, comforted him, and they softened his approach to us, making the work of catering to him joyful, even privileged.
These reminiscences haven’t always ended well, as my sister and I are the most loyal adherents to our foolish family credo: Love Hard, Fight Hard. There was a time when we could say the harshest things to each other, and the next morning, feeling terrible, apologize meekly, as if our sincerity affirmed the fact that we had no control over ourselves the night prior. Beneath it all was the insane assumption that there was no such thing as too far, that we were expansive enough to match malice with equal parts contrition or absolution. A dizzying cycle of conflict and resolution, cruelty and compassion, vitriol and understanding ensued – one that took its origin in the codependent dynamics of our youth, where the warped bonds of our family felt so enlivening and unbreakable that we came to think of them as ideal. With our father, we forgave without apology. We trained ourselves to pay attention to the slightest shifts in his devotion and loyalty. We became hyper-attentive to a man with extremely unpredictable moods and a dangerously low threshold for distress. And to be prepared for anything, we learned with proficiency to put ourselves in the mind of a deranged other. As children, we were paranoid – sensitive, watchful, frightened. As we got older, these attributes began expressing themselves in fits of rage, the inheritance from our father of which my sister and I are most ashamed.
A few years ago, she and I stopped talking, a period of silence that lasted about five months. When we met up again for the first time, there were apologies, as you’d expect, and attempts to understand one another’s perspective. It had been, after all, a difficult and drastic measure in an honest attempt to redefine our dynamic. And in its wake, I’m happy to say, she and I have found ways to break our patterns. We are learning to communicate, to avoid conflict out of care for each other. I think of us now, rather sweetly, like Jain monks, eyes to the ground, minding every step so not to unknowingly disrupt the life going on beneath our feet. It’s attentive, grinding work, but largely positive, and the dominant motifs, like neglect and distrust, that once ruled our relationship have vanished.
An often-unacknowledged truth about families that deal with addiction is that the bonds of trauma can be as challenging to quit as the habit itself. Thus, even in the earliest drafts of One of the Boys, my first novel, I wanted the most compelling moments not to be the dramatic escalations, but the decrescendos that followed: the slowly dissolving allegiances, the heartache of dashed blind hopes, the quiet acquiescence to newer and more absurd abnormalities – all leading to a breaking point when the children in the novel realize the need for self-rule. There, behind a closed door to an apartment shut tight to the world, I imagined that I might relay intimacies that would make readers, though outraged, feel trapped and coerced and confused, occasionally even blindsided by rare affection, as if they themselves were the children of addicts. Though told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old, I hoped that One of the Boys would strike readers as a mature rumination on difficult love.