I’ve never written about this.
Most of the people in my life know nothing about it, yet here I am, penning an entire article about the dirty little secret my family adamantly ignores as much as possible.
Whenever we gather, there’s an elephant in the room. I grew up with him.
For the first decade or so of my life I didn’t even know he was there. All I knew was that there was something that kept my mother’s side of the family disjointed and angry. Over the years I managed to catch tiny tidbits of the stories; little pieces of information I was never meant to know, but I learned anyway. I got in trouble quite a few times for being in “grown folks business.”
What I learned was this:
- At some point, my mother and her many siblings were placed in foster care before going to live with her grandmother.
- There were hushed accounts of molestation and incestuous rape that everyone skated around and avoided like the plague.
- My mother and her siblings were subjected to severe abuse, including being locked in a closet, burned, beaten, and left unattended for days at a time.
- My grandmother was addicted to drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
None of these things made sense when I was younger; it wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to really understand.
When I was eleven I met a woman named Queen for the very first time. She was introduced to me by my cousin as ‘auntie Queen’ and I remember feeling uneasy around her whenever she was around, which honestly wasn’t often. Queen dressed strangely- always in at least three layers of clothes. I recall thinking it was so strange that she wore a beat-up old coat in the middle of Florida summers.
I remember my mother being upset that I had been around Queen but not really understanding it. She was so angry; there was furious yelling like I’d never heard before, and my home was hardly a silent one. I remember being told to never be alone with her or another recently introduced member of my extended family- an uncle.
I remember being alone with that uncle. I remember suddenly understanding why I was supposed to stay away from him.
When I was about 14, I was blindsided by a revelation: Queen was not my aunt, she was my grandmother. It made no sense to me, then, but looking back it should have. My mother and I called the same woman grandma- of course she was actually my great-grandmother. Her name was Virginia and she was a powerhouse, the loving and gracious. I miss her dearly at the strangest times.
My mother sat me down just once to explain what happened in her childhood. She told me about the neglect and abuse she and her siblings endured at the hand of their mother, under the influence of drugs and a (then undiagnosed) mental illness. She told me about taking the brunt of it as the oldest in order to protect the younger kids. She terrified me and broke my heart in one go.
Not long after that, my mother left. In the middle of the day, she was shipped off in the back of a police car and immediately Baker Acted. She had written a letter to a friend, confessing that she was on the verge of suicide. She told her friend she would take my brother and I with her, so we wouldn’t suffer without her. Her friend saved our lives by calling the cops before we ever got home from school.
To be honest, I’m not sure what would have happened if she hadn’t.
That began a tumultuous period in my life, filled with powerful emotional pain and confusion as my mother was in and out of mental health hospitals, trying to finally deal with the demons in her past. I remember being so angry; so terrified; so lost. I harbored that anger for a long, long time. To be honest, I still haven’t been able to address it with my mother, even though I am no longer angry. I have abandonment and trust issues, and a gnawing fear for my own mental health because of what happened through my childhood and teenage years.
That’s the saga of Queen. That’s what addiction does- even generations removed.
The damage isn’t limited to my corner of the family. Though my mother has proven strong enough to forgive the woman who never asked for it, most of her brothers and sisters were not able to do so. Three of my mother’s siblings developed substance abuse disorders. One of my aunts- a twin to my uncle- died due to HIV complications after contracting the virus through needle sharing. I ache for her daughter, even though she is older than I am.
Virginia, the woman I will forever call my grandmother, died three years ago. I haven’t seen Queen since the funeral; she’s now living with one of my uncles and his wife.
As far as I know she has been sober for at least a decade now. In a weird way I’m proud of her, yet I feel like she is a stranger. I don’t know if she thinks of me as anything different. I’m not sure I want her to. But I would be lying if I said she didn’t play an important role in my life, even if she was absent of much of it: she is the very reason I lead a sober life.
I’m sure she never imagined her life turning out the way that it did. For my grandmother, my mother, and yes, even for her, I am doing the best I can to make sure I don’t follow her.
Alexandrea Holder is a South Florida native working toward double Master’s degrees in Psychology and English. She finds the psychological aspects of addiction and mental illness fascinating, as both are prevalent in her family’s history. Through her work with Harbor Village Rehabilitation in Miami, FL she has garnered valuable insight and experiences which she applies to her work and personal life. When not researching and spreading addiction awareness, Alexandrea enjoys sparring, artistic pursuits, and admiring puppies online.