Hell (06.28.2006)

School’s my happy place,” she says with a touch of sadness.

I am sitting with Lauren Shaw, a Junior year student from Cleveland High School, Ohio. She volunteers at the local soup kitchen for a dual-purpose — She can get a bowl of food herself. A fresh good warm-cooked meal, not the crackers and soda she gets for dinner at home on days when the kitchen is closed.

But the other purpose is more portent. She wants to get out of the house. Not for the usual typical teenager reasons — They took my iPhone away, or they didn’t let me play games on the console. Lauren wants to get out of her house because of reasons that I barely start to understand as I sit and talk to her during our off hours.

“I don’t know where my mamaw is these days”, she says.

Lauren’s mother is a drug addict, a statistic, a number, a haze in the addiction-filled world of Cleveland, Ohio. Here in downtown Cleveland, a mix of verdant farmland and old mill towns on the edge of Ohio where everyone appears to know someone who has struggled with dependency, hundreds of people have died of an overdose in 2006. At her school, she tells me four kids lost parents to drugs, and a fifth to a drug-related homicide.

I meet Lauren after some days when I visit the kitchen again. Her mother, back home after three weeks of who knows where, says she’s done with heroin, ready for rehab, and wants to be part of her daughter’s life. But Lauren has heard all of this before and doesn’t believe a single word.

Lauren’s trust was broken long ago, after years of watching her mother cycle in and out of addiction and rehab. And now this latest discovery:

“I found a needle in her purse the other day,” says Lauren, seated at her station table peeling onions with brisk ferocity, her head lowered. “And Mamaw found two more in the dryer.”

She takes a pause, and then tells me about the fitful tumble of excuses from her mom: she doesn’t know why the needles were there; they were only syringes, actually, and not needles; she was keeping them for a friend.

Lauren rolls her eyes at me and sighs.

“It’s almost like you want me to be using it,” she says her mother pleaded tearfully, in a voice that children more often use with their parents.

“Everything I do is never going to be good enough, so what’s the point.”, she had said.

As a bunch of us sit and peel a big bag of onions on one Saturday evening, one of our most disliked tasks, we joke with each other as to who will peel the onions and who will take up the potatoes. We go for rock-paper scissors to settle our differences and I end up being laden with the onions. While we peel, harrowing stories of living amid addiction spill out in halting conversations, stories that they have never told but want to take flight eagerly, as long as they have a sympathetic ear.

One recent afternoon, Christian Johnson, a lanky 18-year-old who plans to join the army after he graduates from high school, tells me about his mom who went to rehab when he was 11, but she relapsed last year on meth and heroin. She now lives in another city several hours away.

“Mom has said that even us kids are not a good enough reason to stay clean,” Christian said. One of his sisters was born addicted to crack, he said, and a brother was born addicted to Oxycontin.

“I’ve seen what drugs can do to a family and it’s not worth it to me,” he says as he looks at me with eyes so blank, they scare me a bit. What will he grow up into? He is already swimming against a current so strong, I know at some point it will just drown him. A few lucky ones will get out of this cycle, but most of them will just be here, churning endlessly in this cycle because this is the only world, they have been in. This is the only world they know.

Amid the tumult, many teens said they faulted themselves for not saving their parents from addiction. Others said they were made to feel guilty.

“Mom told me all the time that it’s my fault she’s using,”

Celeste, a senior year student perks up without any ado as we are talking, sharing stories.

A cheerleader and member of her school math team, Celeste has endured her share of emotional hardships. There was Halloween last year when her mother overdosed at home while she was out trick-or-treating.

“It took four doses of Narcan to revive her”, she says matter of factly. Her cheerleading coach sitting on my left confirms it.

“My biggest fear,” Celeste says as she suddenly stops peeling and looks up at me with eyes slightly misty, “is I’m going to get home and she’ll be dead.” I pat her shoulder, an empty gesture. She could easily have been my daughter, or yours.

As the kitchen winds down late in the evening, the teenagers start to scatter out. Some get rides back home with the staff who know them well while the others just start walking. I offer to ride Lauren and Christian home. They both live in the same neighborhood which is not too far away from the soup kitchen.

As I get in, Christian holds the door open for Lauren and then climbs up next to me.

“He is very protective of me”, Lauren laughs as he turns beet red.

“It’s a nice car you have mister”, he says, changing the subject quickly.

Days later when it’s the long weekend for Independence Day, I meet Nikki Clarke, Lauren’s mother. Lauren introduces her to me one weekend as we are working in the kitchen. It’s a holiday weekend and we are going to be running a bit slack. Without the background, I would not have known Nikki as an ex-addict. Her arms seem clean except for a couple of rough spots that have crusted over, a sign of old drug usage.

Nikki sits with me during the break as the teen’s horse around later in the day.

“Thank you for talking to Lauren. She can’t stop talking good things about you enough”, she says. I swat away the conversation and we instead end up talking about her. Lauren joins us wiping her hands on her red apron. She sits next to her mother and puts her head on her shoulders as Nikki gently runs her fingers through her hair. It’s as if this is just another regular happy family.

Not too long ago, Lauren lived in a middle-class neighborhood with her half-sister, Lilly, her stepfather, and her mom. They sat down most evenings for dinners cooked by her mother, who worked then as a hospice nurse.

“We always had everything we wanted, and they made sure of that,” says Lauren, who dreams of becoming a nurse someday.

With Lauren sitting right there, Nikki tells me of how she was secretly stealing bags of morphine and other painkillers from hospice patients who had died. Her plan, she said, was to sell them around town just to make some money. That changed one day when, feeling overwhelmed at work, she began “dabbling in pills.”

Drug use wasn’t new to her. As a teenager, Ms. Clarke said she had snorted cocaine with her parents. One day, after hospice officials discovered she was overprescribing narcotics, she was given a drug test, which she failed, and was promptly fired. She entered outpatient rehab and stayed clean for a while.

But after losing an appeal to regain her nursing license during Lauren’s freshman year of high school, Ms. Clarke said she lost her resolve. Distraught, she tracked down one of her sisters, who introduced her to heroin.

“I went straight to the needle,” she says looking up at me and then at the ground. She can’t look us in the eye or seem to bear the burden of her indiscretions — especially not in front of her daughter.

At first, Ms. Clarke left no trace of her drug use. But drug usage is hard to keep laden behind curtains. Soon stray pills started showing up tucked into sofa cushions and syringes were rattling at the back of drawers. Then one day, Lauren, who had grown suspicious, came from school and peeked through a porch window as she watched with horror while her mother wrapped her arm with a rubber strap and pierced her skin with a needle.

“I cried and cried that night”, she says.

It’s not the drug usage she tells me later when her mother isn’t around that got her that night. It was the loss of the only adult figure she had in her life that filled her with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Her mother was her best friend, her only rock and she saw it crumble — right in front of her eyes.

“I promised myself that I would never touch drugs in my life, but at the same time I wondered what it would feel like to take them and not feel the pain anymore”. Her words are honest and crackle with an intelligence that is way beyond her years.

As her mother surrendered to the drugs, Lauren said their home was filled up with filthy dishes, dog feces, and strangers who came over to shoot up. She said she pleaded with her mom to go to rehab, but she was far too gone.

“I’d be crying, begging her to stop, but she was too out of it to care. There are times I still see the mom I used to know. Other times I’m like, where did she go and when will she come back?”.

I look at her face. There is no anguish there. Just pure innocence and the acceptance of things as they are. She has never known anything different for a while now.

The addiction got so bad, and her mother’s nodding in and out of consciousness so frequently, that Lauren became too embarrassed to invite friends over. For a while, they survived on money sent by Lauren’s stepfather, who worked out of state for months at a time. In his absence, her mother began a relationship with another drug user, and more and more of the money went to buy drugs, they said.

In the summer of 2005, the family moved to a shabbier house. The girls spent many nights at home alone, sustaining themselves on cans of ravioli and frozen dinners.

“Sometimes I’d have to go without eating,” Lauren said, “so my sister could eat.”

One evening, after we have talked through a lot, she hesitantly tells me about the night when she was sexually assaulted.

“He wasn’t someone I knew.”, she says as if that was a consolation.

We are driving home from the kitchen that evening and the sun has almost begun to set on the horizon. Her hands are neatly folded on her lap and you can see nothing wrong with that picture until you saw her knuckles — white from the excessive force with which she clasps them together, trying to remember and forget that night — both at the same time.

“He just forced me down in my bed as I was sleeping while my mother lay in the other room knocked out. I held onto Mr. Doodles until he finally slapped me and threw it to the floor”. Mr. Doodles, she tells me later, was her soft toy bunny, the only constant companion in a life filled with people who drifted in and out.

“It hurt so much after he left. I cried all night, but I pulled myself up and went to school the next day. I didn’t want my teachers asking questions…. or my friends…”, her voice trails away interspersed with the evening Cleveland traffic.

I am wondering if there is a legal obligation for me to report this. She is after all a minor.

“I’ll deny this if you ever tell anyone OK?”, she seems to read my mind. She is looking out of the car window, but that evening as the Honda civic passed by under the streetlamps, I see her face, those eyes laden with sadness — The loss of innocence when you barely begin to comprehend what is ahead in life.

As we reach her place, I come out on the other side to open her door and make sure she gets home safely. It’s a rough neighborhood and safety is a relative term bartered away with tangibles.

“You are like the elder brother that I never had”, she stands outside her apartment, looks up at me, and smiles.

“Maybe someday one will show up. You never know”.

We both laugh.

“More than half the members of Cleveland High’s softball team have a close family member who uses drugs, and many live with their grandparents or a neighbor”, says Mr. Jackson, the softball coach, who often provides breakfast before weekend games. He is a full-time trust fund lawyer and a legal advisor for Ohio state college.

For years, Lauren’s love for her mother, along with her stepfather’s support, has so far helped contain the anxiety wrought by the disorder of her home life, and Mr. Jackson marvels at the girl’s inner strength and her ability to focus on the field.

But these days, with her family absent and no one to drive her to games, he says, the stress has taken a toll.

In some ways, Lauren said she has given up on a happy ending. She talks about going to college in Virginia, where she can escape the vortex of love and fury she feels toward her mother. A vortex that threatens to consume her.

“She’s at a breaking point. Her emotions are just out of whack.”, the coach says.

Through it all, Lauren has managed to maintain A’s and B’s — and a 3.8-grade point average — while playing center on her school’s basketball team. In softball, she ranks as one of her team’s top hitters.

“School’s my happy place,” she says without any prompt one day. The smile on her plump freckled face is just enchanting.

The world is treacherous, and we think we save some part of ourselves safe from other people. We are always better than they might imagine, the list of our hidden virtues and depths thick and cross-referenced. We always have some secret that would hurt them if only they knew. But who else knows this self? Who can corroborate our stories?

I think of my childhood and those hands that held me when I was not yet ready to walk. Those nameless trust scholarships, those small envelopes, and checks moved me an inch further. Where would I have been without them, I wonder.

I want to be good. I really do. I want to believe in the absurdity of my expectations, but I can’t help but think the good part of me disappeared that evening she told me about the loss of her innocence. We cherish our heavens and we dread the fires of hell someday when we are done here, and I can’t help but wonder if both are just here, right in these moments. I wonder what kind of person would do that to another human being.

So, the truth, for now, is this: We have no good self or a bad self, we are what other people see, all of them, only worse. And the things we promise ourselves and the curses we whisper at one another are not enough to keep us for our whole lives.

I don’t have an answer as I walk by the pond across my apartment and wait up to see the feather white geese fly away. My days at the soup kitchen are coming to an end. I am headed to India next week and I will not be coming here once my family is back from vacation.

You are like the elder brother that I never had” — I remember her words and they just refuse to go away. The tone resonated inside me for days and I could think of doing only one thing worth doing — To change the trajectory of one life, only if I could. I had asked her how she carries on — School, sports, grades, taking care of her younger sister all with still that freckled smile on her face.

“You make it mean something. That’s all you can do.”, she had said.

As I stand there by the pond, I finally make a decision. It’s 2006 and the market has been doing decently well. I run some numbers and run them again. There can be no half ways about this. There was human life at stake here. Even more, was someone’s confidence in me if I decided to do this.

I dial Mr. Jackson. The deep baritone voice on the other line makes me stop for just a second.

“I would like to come by and talk about setting a small anonymous college trust fund this week”.

“Aren’t your daughters a bit younger for that?”, he says.

He seems slightly surprised.

“It’s not for them Mr. Jackson.”

“Not just yet”.

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Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.

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Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.

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