by Evelyn Krieger
“Teach us to count our days, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”
The day social services take my friend’s children away, I am packing for a family trip to Maine. I hear Karen’s hysterical voice on the phone. “DSS came with a police officer! They wouldn’t tell me why. Or where they took my kids!”
I try to calm her, gather details. My heart aches as I imagine Karen desperately throwing her kids’ clothing into a garbage bag, Devon and Ashley crying as they’re escorted into the social worker’s car. Karen says there wasn’t even a warning. But I know better.
How can leave her for the week?
“We’re going,” my husband says. I know he feels for Devon and Ashley, but he has grown weary of my friend’s chaos. “It’s out of our hands,” he tells me.
I call DSS to speak with the social worker in charge. Everyone has left for the weekend.
I met Karen through a Moms group. I liked her sense of humor and spunk. Our two dynamo sons hit it off as well. Three years into our friendship, Karen confessed she had an addiction to painkillers. I felt disbelief. I had known about her marital breakup, her financial problems, and her back pain from a car accident, yet I never suspected that she might have a drug problem. What else didn’t I know?
Karen was ashamed by her confession. She cried, saying that she wanted to learn to live without the pills. I harbored no anger, only compassion. I will help you. You can beat this!
Being a disciplined person, I believed I could help my friend overcome her addiction through willpower and motivation. I believed I could help her because that is what I had done most of my life—help and rescue.
I told Karen all the things that made sense to me—that she owed it to her kids, that this was the only life she had, that she could die from an overdose. I call this the Common Sense Cure. It doesn’t work.
Life got busy after I returned to my full-time teaching job, and I saw less of Karen. As the days sped by, my conscience nagged me to call her. When I did, she often sounded groggy. The few times I managed to see Karen, she’d talk nonstop about court battles over child support, eviction threats, and school problems with Devon. I’d offer advice and suggestions. Then she’d disappear for a while, only to pop back into my life, as if she had returned from a long trip.
Months later, in June, Karen called me at work. “This is really a hard call to make,” she began. “I need your help. I thought I could quit on my own. I’ve made the hardest decisions of my life . . . to go into a drug treatment center.” Karen confessed that she had relapsed over the past few months. She was taking dozens of opioids a day. She blamed the stress of being a single mom, the rejection by her siblings, and her chronic physical pain. “If I don’t do this . . . I could die,” she told me.
I commended her bravery. “You’re taking the right step, Karen. I’m behind you.”
What was really behind her phone call, though, was Devon and Ashley. Karen needed to find a place for them to live during the next few months. The caseworker told Karen that her children would go into foster care if she couldn’t find someone to take them.
“Ashley and Devon love you and your kids,” Karen cried. “If there is any way…”
She pushed my rescue button.
I had been looking forward to the summer break with my children, and to writing fiction. Devon and Ashley, as much as I loved them, were a handful. Yet, I couldn’t imagine turning my own three kids over to a stranger. I promised Karen that I’d think about it.
“No matter what happens,” she said, before hanging up, “I want you to know what a terrific friend you’ve been.”
My husband, the voice of reason, said taking the children was not an option, but that they could stay over some weekends. “Besides, maybe caring for her kids would make things too easy on Karen. Knowing Devon and Ashley are in a foster home is a great motivator.”
I had not thought of that.
Karen was not permitted phone calls in the halfway house, so I wrote her almost daily. In her letters to me, I detected the raw, burning voice of a writer.
My dear friend,
I am working so hard. My soul is sweating. There is no place to hide. I am a forty-year-old woman who has no idea how to live the life of a grown-up. I’m digging up buried junk. Wish it were treasures . . .
As we corresponded, I fantasized about Karen’s future. I proposed a “life-makeover” which included spiritual growth, physical health, community, and meaningful employment. In my letters, I encouraged Karen to think about using her culinary talents to make money. I offered to help write an article about her experience with addiction. I investigated acupuncture for her and yoga classes. I encouraged her to learn computer skills. I gave her a reading list of inspirational books.
The problem with these sound ideas, I later realized, was that they were my plans, not Karen’s. In the end, the addict has to want to pull herself up from the hole and choose to rebuild.
I might be able to throw Karen a life raft, but she had to climb aboard.
Karen graduated from the treatment center just before Labor Day. My children made a Welcome Home sign to hang on her door. Karen tearfully thanked me for all my letters and for helping out with Devon and Ashley who would be coming home in two days.
“They’re counting on you, Karen,” I said. “Me, too.”
“I can only promise you today,” she replied. “For today, I am sober. One day at a time.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Karen’s response sounded trite to me. I could not go through this again.
A month later, Karen dropped off Devon and Ashley at my house so she could run errands. Two hours passed. I fed them dinner. “When’s my Mommy coming back?” Devon asked. I invented explanations, while panic swirled inside me. At nine o’clock, Karen arrived at my door, breathless and spewing apologies. Her eyes were glazed and speech slurred. When I confronted her, she tried to cover up by saying she had a reaction to cold medicine.
“I can’t let you drive the kids home, Karen. Follow behind me if you want, but I need to
drive them myself.”
She threw her arms up, and stumbled toward the door. “Have it your way!”
In the backseat of my car, the children were quiet. Then Ashley started crying.
“Ashley, sweetie,” I said. “No matter what happens, I will always be there for you.”
During the following weeks, I became swept up in the drama of Karen’s life. I spent hours on the phone listening and advising about child support battles, eviction threats, sibling squabbles, and Devon’s school problems. DSS was watching Karen carefully and insisted on random drug screens. As long as she stayed clean, the children could live in her home.
Then came the day the police called me. They had found Karen in a parking lot, slumped over the steering wheel. This time the temptation had been cocaine.
Karen spent the next week in a hospital rehab unit. I spoke to her only once. Her tearful apologies now fell upon a tougher exterior. I couldn’t fathom how she could let her children down. Angry words flew from my mouth. This time Karen didn’t rationalize. She blamed herself.
The fact that drug addiction could be more powerful than the maternal instinct left me with little hope. This stunning awareness compelled me to read all I could about the disease. I learned that Karen’s promises and “insights” were typical of drug addicts. They get the words right, but not the actions. I learned how addicts manipulate their friends and family, and how they cleverly cover-up their addiction. I recalled a time Karen had been desperate for cash because her child support was late. Had she used the fifty dollars I loaned her to buy drugs?
Then I remembered our fun girl talks, Karen’s kind gestures over the years, like the framed photograph of us at my son’s birthday party. Now, I looked at the vibrant woman in that picture and wondered if I knew the real Karen, or just the Karen altered by drugs.
I no longer knew how to help Karen, but did that mean I should give up on her?
DSS finally gave up on Karen after a camp counselor reported her acting high when she picked up the kids. As I packed for our Maine vacation, DSS removed the children from their home. Karen stood by helplessly. Devon and Ashley entered foster care, then a group home where I was not permitted to visit them. After weeks of fighting to get her kids back, Karen surrendered, and entered a longterm treatment center.
During her stay, I sent Karen a calendar so she could mark her days and progress. I, too, crossed off the passing days, waiting for my friend’s return. Now the recovery motto, one day at a time, no longer sounds trite. Its wisdom pierces my heart.
Evelyn Krieger is the author of the award-winning YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Lilith, Grown & Flown, Hippocampus, Sunlight Press, Tablet Magazine, Family Circle, and other publications. When not writing, Evelyn works a a private educational consultant. She loves dancing, music, and sunshine but most of all, spending time with her three young adult children.