Growing Up Chaotic

Hope and Guidance with a Modern KICK on How to Survive Growing up Chaotic


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No Matter Where I Go, Mom Is There

Photo Courtesy of Inspirational Powers

Photo Courtesy of Inspirational Powers

One of the earliest memories I have of my mother involves her hanging me upside down. While I hung there, twitching in mid air, my shoulder-length hair tickled the creases between my biceps and forearms. My mother’s hands were wrapped firmly around my anklebones, crushing the delicate band of lace that trimmed my pink socks. Initially the only thing I could see were her knees, each one bending quickly in my face as she marched over to the open window in our living room and swung my entire body over its paint-chipped frame. In a chaotic instant, I was dangling parallel to the bricks on the front of our three-story building above a beer distributor. Below, on the gum-speckled slab of sidewalk, was my nanny. Just as she was reaching up for me, screaming in a wild panic, I was reaching down for her; it was as if we were two amateur trapeze artists setting up to perform what would hopefully be a successful catch. Mom was plastered, maniacal and severely detached from reality. To this day I have no idea what a puny six-year old kid could have possibly done that triggered that level of insanity.

I’m the youngest of three and rumor has it that Mom started boozing while she was pregnant with me. In all my memories, she is loaded, hung-over and dangerously unpredictable. That’s not to say that she didn’t try, on random occasions, to show up and be a mother. For my seventh birthday, her plan was to throw a showstopper party featuring a kick-ass candy buffet that would have made Willy Wonka jealous. Every kid in a five-block radius was invited and as each one arrived, the pile of presents in the living room swelled at a mind-blowing rate. I have no idea when things started to unravel but before I knew it, Mom was wasted and hollering about a “Birthday for a spoiled rotten bitch.” The party ended abruptly and all that was left, hanging next to the barely touched kick-ass candy buffet, was a plastic poster of a grinning, bucked-tooth donkey missing his tail.

I know that addiction casts its darkest shadow on the relationships it destroys. Having to cut my mom completely out of my life as a result of her intense 30-year obsession with alcohol was something that I decided to do, at the age of 12, for both my physical safety and mental wellbeing. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Recently, watching a mother and daughter sit next to me at Starbucks, hugging mugs of frothy, white cappuccinos while sliding a summer fruit salad back and forth to each other, I was riddled with envy. Their conversation was simple—even downright drab—but watching them in that moment, and watching other mothers with their daughters in similarly mundane situations, stirs a longing in my bones that over the years I’ve tried to ignore. But it’s always there.

I didn’t believe it when I first heard it from my oldest brother that Mom had finally kicked her habit. “What do you mean she’s sober?” I asked. “For how long, exactly? Are we talking eight minutes or eight years?” Several decades had past since we’d last spoken. I didn’t even know her phone number. Shit, I didn’t even know how tall she was or if her eyes were blue or green. But I got her number, took a deep breath and gave her a call. Our conversation was littered with awkward silences; in between those pauses, she nervously babbled about how she didn’t really believe it was me and how she was convinced that someone had stolen my identity. While she rambled, I picked apart every word and inspected every syllable that fell from her mouth. I was drunk hunting, listening for the slightest indication of intoxication, my finger resting on the “end call” button on my phone. But I detected nothing. Before we said goodbye, she announced, “I’ve been sober for 10 years.” I clenched my fist, squeezed my eyes tight and tossed back a forced “I’m happy to hear that.” That was two years ago this November.

The windows in my living room today are white with wood framing. The paint on the ledges and around the edges of the molding is chipped and the gray slab of sidewalk below is studded with black gum. I no longer live in Philadelphia with my mother, in a brick building three stories above the beer distributor. I live in London above a coffee shop with my husband and my cheese and my ice cream-loving calico swirled kitty. I’m safe. But there are memories of my mother and her addiction that casually show up, uninvited, when I least expect them to, no matter where or how far I go.

[This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat]


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When I Moved In With Addiction

Photo Courtesy of sportsmasher.com

Photo Courtesy of sportsmasher.com

I first met Jen while working as a cocktail waitress at a cigar and scotch lounge on the corner of 62nd and 1st in Manhattan.  Every Friday and Saturday night she held down the bar while I, squeezed into a black dress that was two sizes too small, delivered 22-year-old scotches, Cosmopolitans and Hispaniola cigars to a high-powered crowd of men in suits and women in stilettos.

Jen, who barely cleared five feet in heels, was a scrappy whirlwind of a girl that lived life at a manic pace. Her voice was raspy and dry like rocks baking in the desert and when she got mad, her entire body vibrated and her skin blazed a bluish red. Outside of work, she invested both her time and money on all things booze-related. For someone who was so small in stature, she could suck down pint glasses full of vodka and Red Bull and then pound Heinekens like a chain smoker and barely catch a buzz. I asked her once, while we were out, where she put it all and she reacted as if my question was the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “Duh, you dope,” she said. “I’m fuckin Irish.”

I quickly learned that Jen what was what you would call an “angry drunk” whose intensity level rivaled that of the Incredible Hulk the more intoxicated she became. One night her younger brother drove into the city from Yonkers to hang out and when he couldn’t parallel park his car, Jen—who was up to her eyeballs in liquor—pushed the driver’s side door open and yanked him out by his shoulders onto the street. She was screaming at him with both fists clenched and raised high over her head. I remember how taut the muscles in her neck looked and how helpless and small her brother seemed pinned with his back up against the car.

As someone that grew up surrounded by raging, violent alcoholics, I should have known better than to get mixed up with Jen. After years of camping out in the self help aisle at Barnes and Noble, melting into books about codependency and healing my inner child, I was well versed in the dangers of seeking out relationships that mirrored the dysfunctional, abusive and crazy-making scenarios that reminded me of home. Thanks to my father, I had became adept at seeking out emotionally unavailable men so I had been chiseling away at that one for quite some time. But it had never occurred to me that those same toxic patterns—the ones that emotionally fit me like a glove—could also appear in my non-romantic relationships.

I knew that Jen was a raging alcoholic. I knew chaos ruled her life. I knew that she was capable of physical violence and I knew, unequivocally, that I was making a huge mistake when I agreed to move in with her. But I did it anyway.

We had only been roommates for a week when she came in at 6 am with a rowdy crew whose cigarette smoke soiled the fresh set of Downy-scented sheets I had dressed my bed with the night before. Our place was sparsely furnished so there was plenty of room for their loud and drunken voices to bounce and echo off of the walls and slam abruptly in my ears. Each time a fresh bottle of beer was snapped open, I heard its thin cap rattle around the kitchen floor with a hollow ting. I lay in bed grinding my teeth together so hard that my jaw ached and obsessing over what I would say to her later that day. But she gave me a “Don’t you fuckin dare” look which sent shards of fear up my spine when I attempted to voice my concerns about 6 am parties and drunk people slobbering on our kitchen counter. I lost my nerve.

Although Jen never put her hands on me, the threat of physical violence was palpable at all times. I progressed quickly from walking on eggshells to living on eggshells. If she was in a good mood, drunk or sober, then I was in a good mood. If I felt that her mood was even the slightest bit off, then I organized my life around making her happy. I scrubbed the toilet, took out the trash and filled the fridge with all of the foods that she preferred—hoping that something, anything, would quell her smoldering fire. But nothing changed. The parties still raged, bottle caps were still strewn all over the floor and I was still, according to Jen, a mooching, loner bitch.

I woke up one morning and found a carefully folded three-page letter sitting on the kitchen counter with my name scribbled next to a bouquet of bubbled hearts. In it Jen gushed about how I was the smartest, most creative person she ever met and how she hoped that no matter what happened we would be friends forever. I was so confused. Which version of Jen wrote this letter? Was it the drunk one or the sober and hung over one? For weeks, she’d acted like I didn’t even exist and now we were BFFs? There was something about our relationship that turned the acid in my stomach thick and felt uncomfortably familiar. It wasn’t until I was sitting there with her letter in my hands that I finally made the connection—I was repeating a dysfunctional family pattern through my relationship with Jen and it was my responsibility to do something about it.

In the days that followed, I performed an intense personal inventory. Regardless of how Jen treated me, I was still the one that had decided to move in with her and I was the only one that could take control of leaving. When I broke the news to her that I would be moving out at the end of the month, Jen took it about as well as I expected her to—which is to say not well at all. Suddenly I was being accused of doing all sorts of crazy things, including stealing the kitchen spoons. Really, kitchen spoons? I could understand if they had platinum handles or something but really, spoons from Target?

On moving day, I loaded my last box of goods into the moving van and headed back upstairs to hand over my keys. When I stepped into the apartment, Jen was waiting there for me, her body vibrating and her face a particularly hot shade of bluish red. In her right hand she was clenching a tub of cottage cheese. She stomped over to one of the kitchen drawers, slammed it open and spit out, “Where the fuck are all the spoons?” I shook my head in disbelief and replied, “Really?” Jen snapped the drawer closed, turned sharply and stomped off to her bedroom. In the past I would have made it my mission to remedy the situation but this time I tried something different. I raced down to the bodega on the corner and bought a huge pack of crappy plastic spoons. They were all white and each had a sharp nub of plastic at the bottom of the handle where they had once been connected. I smacked them down on the kitchen counter right next to my keys, turned sharply on my heels and smiled quietly as the apartment door clicked and locked behind me.

[This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat]


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Weed Man, Beer Man, Meth Man and Me

Photo Courtesy of MSN

Photo Courtesy of MSN

One benefit of growing up in a house that can best be described as chaotic is that your family provides an enormous amount of material to cover in your writing. Another is that sometimes news stories that may cause others to simply chuckle or shake their heads will actually bring you back to a family incident.

For me, this happened when I came across a story about “Weed Man” and “Beer Man” getting into a scuffle in Times Square. My memory? The night a few years ago when I found out that my brother had gotten shot.

It was about 2 am when I got off the subway at 163rd and Amsterdam and felt my cell phone buzzing in my coat pocket. My first thought was, “Shit! What did I leave at the restaurant this time? It better not be my keys.” I frantically punched in my pass code and heard the following message:

“Um…Dawn, can you call me back when you get this? It’s about your brother. He’s okay, I mean he is alive, but you need to call me back.”

My mind went fuzzy and I spaced out for a few seconds. When I came to, it hit me that I just got one of “those” phone calls—the kind that wake you up out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night and cause your heart to bum rush your throat. It’s the kind of call that friends and family members of addicts dread.

When I got inside my building, I returned the call.

“Hello? What’s going on?”

“Well, your brother is alive so don’t worry about that, but he is in the hospital right now. He’s been shot.”

“Wait, what…what do you mean? Where?”

“In the stomach.”

I sunk down into the steps of my hallway and stared blankly ahead. The details of my brother’s latest incident stacked at my feet like wood for a smoldering fire.

The story, apparently, was that he’d sold meth to a guy that was short on cash. When Meth Man failed to satisfy his end of the deal, my brother attempted to collect the debt with his fists and Meth Man’s response included a pistol and six silver bullets. While five of them aborted the mission, one of them—all it takes is one—cut right through my brother’s stomach and exploded in his intestines.

Not only was my brother on the wrong end of the gun that night he was also consistently on the wrong end of life. And as his sister, I felt like I often had no choice but to be right there with him. Despite the fact that I’d always been pretty straight-laced and normal, I’d gotten fairly accustomed to my life resembling an episode of Cops now and again.

Now, Weed Man and Beer Man’s episode wasn’t as serious as the one my brother had with Meth Man. Apparently, Weed Man (who’s earned his name by carrying a sign that reads “Help! I Need Money for Weed”) had a falling out with “Beer Man” (whose sign reads “I Need Beer”) which first got sloppy after Weed Man spat in Beer Man’s face. What started out as an argument over their respective territories quickly escalated into a fist-jabbing and face-stabbing horror.

Of course my brother would surely have chosen a pen in the face over a bullet in the gut but my family story and this news one about the wacky folks in Times Square are similar in that they each focus on two addicts who seem willing to do whatever’s necessary to keep their habits alive.  Obviously a pistol packs a heavier punch than a pen or a fist but if they are being employed for a similar reason, then really what’s the difference?

You see, it doesn’t matter if what an addict or alcoholic wants in their cup is vodka or beer. It makes no difference if what they’re after is marijuana or just a fun night out with their new friend “Molly.” If an addict has reached the point where “by any means necessary” is being employed, anything can happen—and usually will.

Amazingly, my brother’s now sober but perhaps more amazingly, I’ve learned that I do actually have a choice about whether or not I have to be right there alongside the addicts in my family when they’re circling the bottom of the drain. In other words, I’ve discovered a way to put my “Savior Woman” sign down.

[This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat]


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The Jewelry Box Fantasy

Photo Courtesy of Web.MIT.edu

Photo Courtesy of Web.MIT.edu

I heard the garage door slam and felt the heavy clunks of his loosely laced, paint-splattered Timberland boots heading towards the kitchen. My brother had been in the garage off and on for days—drilling, sawing, and sanding away on something and leaving a hypnotic cloud of dust that seeped out from underneath the door. I desperately wanted to know what was happening between the screams of the table saw and the high-pitched tinks of the hammer but I had been given strict instructions (in an older brother stern-yet-loving way) to keep out and mind my own business or else.

I sat upstairs, cross-legged at the dining table, leaning over my social studies book, studying the details of the Louisiana Purchase in earnest. My study partner that afternoon was an icy tall glass of dark brown chocolate milk dressed with a red bendy straw. At the bottom of the glass was a thick, syrupy glob of sauce that provided an extra punch of sweet with each tasty sip.

My brother poked his head in the kitchen and flashed a mischievous smirk in my direction.

“What are you doing, fat head?”

“Studying.”

“Studying what?”

“School stuff.” I was visibly annoyed. “Come on. I need to concentrate.”

He slid into the kitchen and was now standing over my shoulder with both arms wrapped around his back. “I made you something.”

“C’mon,” I pleaded. “I’m serious. Leave me alo—”

I stopped mid sentence, awestruck by the beautifully stained amber jewelry armoire he placed on the table in front of me. It stood no more than 12 inches high and a sturdy 8 inches wide, its right hand side comprised of three perfectly square drawers. Each one had a silver glistening knob shaped like a nonpareil and on the inside there was just enough room to fit three felt ring holders. On the face of the swing-door cabinet fastened on the left, he had carved out a perfectly-shaped heart that was less than an inch high. When I looked through it, I could see the chandelier-like necklace hook pirouetting from the top. It was clear that every brush of sandpaper, every layer of amber stain and every golden hinge had been poured over for hours if not days. I knew that he had done this without ever stepping foot in a woodworking class and, more importantly, right after his most recent stint in rehab.

I filled that box with every tacky plastic piece of vending machine jewelry I owned, along with the assumption that this time, my brother was 100% committed to his sobriety. The jewelry box gesture ignited the fire of a grand fantasy wherein he finished high school and launched a business of his own. I’d decided that the beautiful girl with pillow-soft light brown hair who had moved into our neighborhood right after he left for rehab would eventually become his wife. Together they would pop out three of the most perfect children and every Christmas, we would hoist up crystal flute glasses filled with sparkling apple cider and toast to his triumph over the dark days of addiction. Our lives would be back to normal—no, far better than normal: more like utopic.

Of course, I crashed hard when, just a few short months after gifting me the jewelry box, my brother relapsed and was arrested for selling dope. This was not how my fantasy was supposed to end. I felt horribly jilted; he had broken a promise to me that he never even knew he made.

With the gift of time and a lot of Alanon, I’ve surrendered to how dangerous expectations can be—in general but especially in the world of addiction. It’s one thing to expect my shower to spit out hot water in the morning but it’s quite another for me to map out my brother’s life. His recovery was—and still is—his to figure out and it was ridiculous for me to assume that I, in my infinite pre-teen wisdom, knew how it was supposed to unfold.

Not much has changed with my brother since he gave me the jewelry box some 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the drugs are still present and jail has become his home away from home. I haven’t spoken to him in years and this is a reality that I have no choice but to accept. That’s not to say that I haven’t tried to establish a connection with him. I once sent him a card with a majestic salt-and-pepper striped tabby cat on the cover that looked like the one we grew up with. I wrote him a short note letting him know that I believed in him and that I hadn’t forgotten about him. His response—“You bitch, why didn’t you put money in the card?”—was not at all what I was expecting. Guess I wasn’t the only one living in a fantasy.

[This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat]


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Growing up Chaotic Radio Show – Listen Now! – Jagged Little Edges With Author Lorelie Rozzano

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Lorelie Rozzano

Lorelie Rozzano

My guest, Lorelie Rozzano, exemplifies what Growing Up Chaotic is all about!

In this special episode we will be speaking with her about how she took her own life experiences shackled by the chains of addiction and turned them into a series of compelling fictional novels.

“Lorelie Rozzano is dedicated to helping others with their lifelong struggle against addiction.  Rozzano hopes her books become a vehicle to get people thinking and talking about addiction and examining the role it plays in their lives.” Good Reads

Her novel, Jagged Little Edges, is available for purchase on:

AmazonBarnes and Noble, and OmniLit.

Connect with Lorelie on Twitter and Facebook


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Kids in Bars

Photo Credit - Mommypoppins

Photo Credit – Mommypoppins

My husband and I snagged two warm seats at our neighborhood watering hole late on a cloudless Saturday afternoon. Foamy lagers and summer ales flowed at a rapid pace out of several golden taps while Jack and Cokes rested squarely on thick coasters. A cacophony of laughter and sports chatter, the Rolling Stones and piles of steamy chicken wings bombarding the senses. I got up and elbowed my way through the thick crowd in hot pursuit of the bathroom. As I made it to the front of the line, I felt an annoyingly firm tap on my left shoulder. I turned and locked eyes with a little girl who barely cleared my knees and had globs of sauce clinging to the corners of her mouth. She was not who I was expecting and certainly nowhere near tall enough to reach my shoulder.  The situation started making sense, however when her father leaned in and asked, “Do you mind if we jump in front of you? My daughter really has to go.” For a moment I thought that perhaps on my way to the bathroom I took a wrong turn and ended up at Chuck E. Cheese’s. What in the world was this little girl doing in this bar? She appeared absurdly out of place against the back drop of Miller High Life neon signs and the rows of tequila shots that were sitting on a table directly across from where we were standing. Seeing her there sent me back to my childhood, where being dragged to the bar when my mother was loaded happened on a much too regular basis.

The tavern that we frequented would have put even the skeeviest of dive bars to shame. From a block away, the smell of dank, damp beer and stagnant cigarette smoke would violate every open pore on my body. Like Pavlov’s dog, my heart would beat erratically when the soot-covered, windowless black slab of the bar’s entry came into my view.

Once inside, my mother would reach into her pocketbook, as she called it, and fish out a dollar’s worth of quarters. She then propped me up in front of one of those photo hunt erotica/countertop bar game contraptions and, through clenched teeth, would say, “You better just sit here and behave yourself.” I knew that the smallest squeak of objection would have sent her over the edge. So instead of resisting her ridiculousness, I raged inside and pictured throwing every last one of those quarters at the back of her wobbly, drunk head as she made her way over to her group of good time friends.

The bartender was a nicotine-stained toothless wonder who had become accustomed to serving me my usual Shirley Temple. Through a mountain of Maraschino cherries, I looked on in disgust as my mother made a complete ass of herself. In a drunken stupor, mixed within a crowd of other Budweiser enthusiasts, she stumbled around like a baby trying to figure out how to hula hoop—if you can even imagine that. Random expletives bubbled out of her foamy mouth and every one of them was accented with an unwieldy finger swerve. Every so often, one of her drinking buddies would saddle up next to me at the bar and attempt to strike up a conversation. Now for an adult, a drunk person’s slurred speech and bad breath is at the minimum annoying but for a kid sitting on a bar stool whose feet are years away from touching the ground, it’s actually quite terrifying. The enormity of what I felt in those moments—the anger, disgust, embarrassment and shame–was way more than my 75-pound body could handle. And these experiences weren’t the kind of things that I could easily leave at the bar once my mother was ready to go home. I shouldn’t have been there with her—period. She should have known better.

Fast forward 20 years later and there I was, sandwiched between memories from my dysfunctional childhood and this doe-eyed munchkin with globs of red sauce clinging to the corners of her mouth. She did not appear to be in the kind of danger that I had been in as a kid and compared to my mother, her father looked like a saint twice over.  Still, she was standing in a bar with plenty of adults around her that were in desperate need of a few rounds of water. Even if her father wasn’t visibly intoxicated, wasn’t it reckless for him to place her right in the heart of a scene that was too adult for her to understand?  Or was I just overreacting?

In case you’re wondering, I did the right thing and gave up my coveted spot in line to the little girl. But I’m not going to lie. When the father said to me, “My daughter really has to go,” I was so tempted to respond with, “You know I couldn’t agree with you more. She really doesn’t belong here.”

[This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat]