By Alicia Rahema Mooltrey | Photo by Jessica Rodriguez
My grandmother stood staring blankly at us, “She does drugs, you know she does drugs right?” My sister and I looked at each other and laughed, “Drugs Nana, really? She drinks yeah, marijuana maybe, but not real drugs, come on. ” We shrugged it off, went about our way and forgot about it - until I found it. A pipe. I held it. Examined it. Tried to see if I had mistaken it for something else, but I wasn’t mistaken. My heart fell into my stomach while my grandmother’s words echoed through my head.
I’ve never really said that my mother suffered from drug addiction. When asked about my mother’s problems I’d skirt around the topic and replace the phrase “drug addiction” with “mental health issues” or “life troubles”. Being vague kept me safe from my memories, let the details fade from my mind. But while watching the movie Moonlight, memories began to flood back. I was triggered by watching the scenes of the mother’s concern for her son fade into an urge to escape and the son’s hope tumble into shame. And there it was; my own shame staring at me through the silver screen. I stayed quiet not wanting to alert my date to my discomfort, hoping he could not read my mind. I went home and cried for hours, unable to sleep, struggling to process. I was washed with all the pain I thought I’d forgotten - gotten rid of. I realized then that I hadn’t actually healed from my experiences but had only become keen in avoiding them.
Growing up in my part of the city, substance abuse was all around. As a child I didn't have a name for it, I just caught glimpses of the thin nameless, shadows, roaming back and forth through the streets of our housing project at night. As I grew older the shadows began to come out in the day; dancing, mumbling, shifting, stretching, always looking for something. My friends and I would laugh at these strange things - these people that we saw every day but didn’t know. We gave them nicknames and gawked at their every move. This was all we ever saw, never the actual drug use, just the jittering bodies up and down, up and down all day long. Occasionally one would tell us not to be like them, to stay in school. I was always surprised when this happened. It seemed weird that they would tell us to better ourselves when it appeared clear that they had no intention of changing themselves.
I wasn’t too concerned with them until I found out that one of them was my good friend’s mother. Then, I stopped laughing. I averted my eyes when I saw her mother strolling wildly down the street. I held my breath every time she’d pass by while we all sat in the park. My friend never spoke about it. Maybe it was easier to pretend that nothing was happening. I stayed silent too. Never prying, just watching. I had no idea that soon my feet would be dragging in the same shoes.
My mother was the strongest woman I knew. She worked constantly to give us what we needed by working overnight and on weekends. She trudged through each day to take care of her five children - but then I noticed a change. Her short lapses of stressful drinking became longer. My soul singing on a Sunday mother became a recluse. I expected her to bounce back the way she always had. But the drinking didn’t slow and she began to disappear for hours on end. I remained optimistic. “She’ll come out of this, she always does.” I thought to myself, not knowing that the peaks and valleys were reaching a final low. I never could’ve anticipated what would ensue for the next few years. Nights out became days gone, loving gestures turned into irritation and annoyance. She confused our concern with judgment, “I’ve gotten myself through worse things, gotten myself through life this long, how dare you try to tell me what to do!” It seemed she couldn’t see the spiral or rather didn’t want to - couldn’t handle the idea that she was becoming one of the people she looked down upon.
My grandmother’s words echoed over and over and over. How oblivious could I have been? How didn’t I notice? I fell into a basin of shame, embarrassment, hurt, stress and broken heartedness while watching my mother become someone I barely knew; her enamoring persona now an erratic set of movements and unsuspecting outbursts. I was losing myself, constantly in a state of panic and worry for her and my siblings, never knowing when the next hospital run, arrest or community brawl would occur. We tugged back and forth, me fighting for the old her, her telling me she was tired of fighting.
I was consumed by confusion and anger, and as in the film Moonlight, I was especially angry with the people that claimed they loved me and participated in my mother’s drug abuse. I plead with neighbors, family members and local drug dealers asking them not sell to her; for our sake if not hers. Some folks conceded and others hit me with, “She’s just going to find it somewhere else anyway.” This truth enraged me; there was always more to be found, always someone ready to tempt the soul tattered wayfarers.
And she tried. She went to detox and rehab just to come home and say there were more drugs in those places than on the street. I cried pondering on such a broken system. I cried wondering why wasn’t I enough to change her. I wallowed in pain for a long time, but after being left with the responsibility of raising 3 of my siblings at the age of 23, I began to see how easily one could fall over the edge with little support.
It’s insurmountably difficult to raise any number of children on your own and she had five. Given her race, socioeconomic status, along with a family history of mental health issues, the odds were stacked against her. I realized that her substance abuse wasn’t about me. It was a response to the alienation she felt, her despair in never truly getting ahead no matter how hard she worked; the resounding pain and disappointment that weighed on every part of her insides, the hollow loneliness that settled in her bones.
Though my mother's spiral was tragic, I learned no less from this segment of her life than others. I've learned that self-care and healing are essential for maintaining sanity in life. That you should reach out for support even if you are not sure you will receive it. That caring for yourself is not an option, it's an absolute necessity. That if we are all trying to be the supermen and superwomen society wants us to be without addressing the kryptonite in our lives we are bound to hit the cement.
And she met her end this way. No recovery like the film. No happy ending. We were left to sort out the events on our own. I sought to heal through writing - sharing. It was the gift my mother gave me at a young age to process my feelings. It’s what I run to when I am confused and need to sort things out. When writing my dark spots are illuminated, my understanding deepened. I can listen to the wisdom in my memories. I can speak, I can learn, I can apologize - I can forgive.
Alicia-Rahema Mooltrey is an educator, social worker, community organizer, and facilitator in Boston, Massachusetts. Mooltrey is the creator of Kill Your Fears With Self Care, an organization that supports self care as a key element to effective social justice work. Mooltrey worked on Anna Deavere Smith’s play Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education as a facilitator engaging audience members in discussions about the School to Prison Pipeline. Mooltrey is also featured in Gaining Ground a documentary that exhibits the power of community voice. Mooltrey is the recipient of an Unsung Heroes award from The Philanthropic Foundation for her work with youth in Boston. Mooltrey also teaches high school English and encourages self-love and community activism throughout her curriculum. Learn more at www.killyourfears.org