This empty chair was the representation of the fact that my daughter was always with us, a part of the family - at dinner, at events - whether she was present or not. (Seeing a pattern?) She still is, even in death. She's here.
She hated that I would sometimes post things about her mental illness (bipolar type I plus borderline personality disorder), but I needed to get it out. She never understood how hard it was, us being unable to reach her or get through to her. And we never knew which came first, really, the mental illness or the substance abuse. The first time she tried to swallow a bunch of pills was just after she had been sexually attacked outside our apartment in Seattle. We didn't learn about that attack until she was 14. She never told us.
Her reason? "You and Dad always said that if anyone hurt Sean or me, you would go to prison because you'd kill them." She took us at our word, and honestly? I don't know that I wouldn't have done it, because to this day, if I could ever find the person who hurt her, I would lose. my. shit.
Since she died, I occasionally pick up a book by a fellow grieving parent, particularly if they lost their child to addiction. Right now I'm back to reading George McGovern's book about his daughter--Terry: My Daughter's Life and Death Struggle with Alcoholism.
For the record, Stephanie did die of an accidental overdose, but it wasn't much medication. It was just enough so that the Ambien plus the Percocet interacted badly and resulted in her never waking up again. Had she wanted to kill herself, she had plenty of medication to do the job. but her bottles were reasonably full, leading the detectives to believe she didn't mean to hurt herself. She was in recovery at that time, with 90 days of sobriety.
So many things in the first chapter of this book resonate very clearly with me. For example:
Terry may have died before midnight of December 12, but since her body was not discovered until shortly after noon the next day, her death was officially recorded as of December 13. "Death due to hypothermia while in a state of extreme intoxication," according to the coroner's report.
I do not expect ever to read sadder words of finality. They force me to face so many questions about Terry's life and death. What could I have done differently? What if I had been a more concerned and actively involved parent when she was a little girl, or a fragile adolescent? Why wasn't I in closer touch with her in the final months? Knowing that alcoholism is a dangerous, often fatal disease, should I have intervened to have her committed indefinitely to a locked-door long-term-treatment facility?
Earlier in the same chapter, he said, "I fear that we unwittingly added to her sense of abandonment by following the advice to distance ourselves in the last months months of her life when she may have most needed to feel our love and presence ... She also tended to hold me responsible ... 'I understand why they're doing it, but I feel bad about it. I only wish that my dad knew how much I love him.'"
There isn't a parent alive who has lost a child to addiction who hasn't asked themselves questions about whether the common mantra of recovery from codependency is helpful or hurtful. How much damage did we unwittingly do by maintaining distance, leaving our child to figure it out for themselves, or shutting the door in their face?
In the popular series Breaking Bad, which my wife and I binge-watched over the holidays, Jesse Pinkman goes home when he starts to feel unsafe. He tries to assimilate himself back into the family, but his parents are wary. It's sad to watch him going through his childhood things--drawings, toys, and so on--and interacting with his younger brother, who clearly is a child driven to stress by his helicopter parents. He wants so much to have the love and acceptance of his parents. It appears that he might finally be ready to turn his life around. But when a joint is found in the bedroom he shares with his brother, he gets blamed. Later we find out that the joint belongs to his little brother, but his parents automatically jump to the same conclusion that has always been the case -- Jesse has brought drugs into their home.
Naturally, they sit him down at the kitchen table for "The Talk." With stiff upper lips, they tell him he can't come back into their home and pollute it with his drugs. They tell him he has to get out. This despite the fact that his little brother has already said to him, "I'm the favorite? You're all they talk about." They later reclaim the house his aunt left him, putting him permanently in a hurt locker and ensuring that he has to return to a life of crime in order to survive. (His skills only merit him a job dancing on a street corner with an advertising sign, like his friend Badger.) It's sad to watch, and it triggered a lot for me.
How much damage did we do by following the party line for codependents? Is it ever okay to kick your child out because of their behavior? Although it's too late now, I ask myself that question a lot. Yes, it was craziness. When she was in the house, we had to lock things away. Prescription drugs were especially tempting for her. So was money.
But since her death, I've found out how many times she took the hit for something her brother did. We used to think she stole from her father's change jar (which he could fill up pretty quickly back in the day of using cash). Quarters would go missing first. We always blamed her.
My son, though, was the culprit. He said to me, "You guys always thought it was Stephanie, and I let you think that and yell at her. It was me. When the ice cream truck came around, I would raid Dad's change jar for quarters, and I'd go get myself an ice cream. Because ice cream is awesome!" We laughed about that, but in a way, I felt my stomach twist. How many things did I blame her for in error? How many times was I wrong?
It does no good to beat myself up now. She knows the truth, and I know a portion of it. She knows how much we love her--no past tense here. She knows. That is what comforts me when I read these words from another bereaved parent: "Perhaps in God's good time, I shall come to see a redeeming purpose in this death."