Bamboozled: In search of joy in a world gone mad
‘So why didn’t you just stop?’ is a question South African journalist, author of the memoirs Smacked, Hooked and Crashed hears often – to which she says, ‘Because I didn’t want to. Because the craving to get high was as huge as a killer whale, far greater than the desire to mother … Love no longer resided within me. Only Fear’. Read an excerpt from her latest book.
“How could you have left your children for drugs? What kind of mother turns her back on the flesh and blood she has birthed?” These are the fundamental questions that have plagued my soul ever since I got clean. Having been graced with the opportunity to mother little puppy boy, I am finally able to start trying to untangle the remorse, confront my guilt and be honest with myself about that dark time. Perhaps I can finally, finally forgive myself? For years I have tried to explain to others how, after my mother-in-law took our two boys away and my husband was sent to a five-star rehab back in early 1999, my heroin- and crack-addicted heart was so shattered that I believed I had no other option but to go on a major drug mission to drown my sorrows and satiate my cravings. This is partly true.
The thing is, I could have chosen the other path. I could have confronted the debris of my life back then and stopped, just as my husband did. I could have begged to go to rehab. Just as Amy didn’t. But like that tortured blues girl, I also screamed, “No, no, no!” And so I am forced to finally admit the deeper truth: I needed to leave them. And not only did I need to, I wanted to. There, I’ve said it, in all its bleak cruelty.
From the very outset, I was tortured by the concept of motherhood. I grew up acutely aware of my own mother’s disconnect as a parent. I watched her grind her life away, heaving, sighing, muttering and snarling under the burden of it. Drinking the nights away to try to forget it. From a young age, I observed how her needs, desires and dreams, had been snuffed out by us, her four vampire children who had sapped and sucked from her body and her mind. As a teenager, I made a vow to myself that pregnancy was something I would never allow. Having children was not part of my life plan. As I grew older, I became increasingly repelled by the notion and was ridiculously fastidious when it came to contraception. And then, bang. A broken condom. A Catholic husband. A two-blue-lines pregnancy test. Every fibre in my being resisted.
The nine-month first pregnancy played out against a sinister background: two parents in deep drug addiction. To appease the guilt, I tried to go to rehab. I relapsed three hours after checking myself out of the clinic. And then suddenly, within weeks, now back in the tentacles of addiction, that soccer ball in my tummy became a real-life baby that I tried to embrace, to cradle, only to discover that my arms were as unreceptive as dead, broken twigs.
Once he was born, my anxiety trebled, quadrupled. It had no bounds. I had none of that inborn “motherly instinct” all other mothers seemed to have. It took every ounce of strength just to move my darkly depressed body, to attend to his needs. A cry would send me into a spiral. What did he want? What was he saying? Was he sick-hungry-sad-wet-soiled, hungry-sick-wetsoiled? I had no clue, no fucking clue at all. My husband took over. I watched from the sidelines – a mute, uninvited spectator. The shame within grew like terrible weeds.
By the time our second son arrived, less than two years later, I was truly frozen. As I held that second positive pregnancy test in my trembling hand, I felt gravely ill. The nausea that engulfed me was an even deeper terror than the first. Because this time, I could see the entire movie playing out, frame by gritty frame. There could be no denial that our second son would be born to parents who were both using heroin and crack. This reality upped my dread to such an extent that my only solution was to think of ways to top myself. But how could I end my existence when I was the host to this embryo embedded in me, which depended on me for its very survival? I was faced with what appeared at every juncture to be an insoluble conundrum. I would have to wait the pregnancy out before choosing my own ending. Nine months dragged by. I clearly remember, after going through labour and finally birthing our new son, staring out of the window like Plath in “Tulips”, her famous “hospital” poem. She speaks of how she didn’t want any flowers. How she only wanted to lie with her hands turned up and “be utterly empty”. I stared into nothing, wondering whether I would succeed by jumping off the Klerksdorp hospital’s single-storey building to splat on the pavement. I suspected that, at best, I may break a leg or two. By now my shameful failure was irreversible. There was absolutely no evidence to suggest that I had been able to take care of our first son. And now there were two. I did not jump. Instead, I dragged myself back to the Klerksdorp heroin horror house. I would only realise years later that one of the main reasons it was so hard to kill myself during that time was because, by becoming a mother, my self had already been obliterated. The Me BM (Before Mothering) had been sucked away. There was simply nothing left to assassinate.
So why didn’t you just stop?
It is a question I hear often. And I have tried to answer it many times.
The only riposte that feels true is this: Because I didn’t want to. Because the craving to get high was as huge as a killer whale, far greater than the desire to mother … Love no longer resided within me. Only Fear.
When my boys were taken from me and I went on my suicide mission to Hillbrow, back in the winter of 1999, for a moment in time what I felt, as I discarded the shackles of motherhood like an unwanted chainmail cloak, was freedom. I skipped down the yellow bricks of Soper and Abel roads. Like mad Dorothy, I raved through drug hotels in a dervish of gluttony. After years of being constricted, it was as if all that crippling anxiety had finally lifted. It was just me now.
In my hunger for oblivion, I tried to smoke away all that guilt and buried rage that throbbed within like septic episiotomy stitches. I sucked on pipes laden with crack just as a newborn devours its mother. I was finally untethered. The freedom of being childless, severed from the umbilical cord of anxiety, gave wings to my Doc Martens. And so I got high. Deep down, I had been wanting to leave for a long time, trapped in my junkie marriage, playing fake housey-house, and trying to act the part of “mother” but failing dismally. The irrefutable evidence of my collapse was laid out on The Last Supper table for all his family to see. And when I finally crashed, when I finally got sober, all that latent shame I’d been shoving down a crack pipe came roaring in. If feelings could kill, I would be dead today. DM/ ML
Bamboozled: In search of joy in a world gone mad by Melinda Ferguson retails for R320.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations