Father-daughter flashback

I watched Oklahoma on TV the other night. It was a time machine that brought me back to 1966 when my father took me to see the play. What I recalled most vividly was Daddy hallucinating while John Raitt belted out a song.

My father had been mentally ill for years, since before I was born. While Raitt sang, Daddy muttered loudly to someone in his head and twitched in his seat, and people around us began to complain. Sounds of sshhhhhh!! and quiet!! surrounded me. I don’t remember what happened, whether we were asked to leave or Daddy settled down and we stayed to the end.

I was 20, in the glow of youth and blooming sexuality and glittering hopes and dreams. And I was mortified. Before Daddy’s meltdown, I had loved the way I dressed and secretly admired myself in the mirror, silk-blend suit and high heels and all. I felt I looked perfect for the Circle Star, then a classy theater venue in the Bay Area.

But I was edgy beneath all the excitement, because my father’s behavior was unpredictable. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

How differently I see that day now, and my father. Back then I was just growing into womanhood, half confident, half painfully self-conscious. I wondered why I couldn’t have a “normal” father I could be proud of, instead of Daddy with his rumpled clothes, nicotine-stained fingers and Thorazine-induced trembling hands. Subconsciously I was angry at him for being an embarrassment, a failure, a constant worry.

He committed suicide a year after we saw Oklahoma, at 50. I’ve survived well enough, had a career, friends, raised my daughter through college, but I really never recovered from the trauma. I drank alcoholically—though functionally—until my daughter was three and have ongoing anxiety disorder. I made many mistakes with my daughter that alienated her. We are now estranged, to my great sadness.

I’ve blamed and punished and judged myself for years. But since remembering Daddy and Oklahoma, I see things in a different light. I’m no longer a 20-year-old with expectations of Daddy, wanting to go to a glamorous play with a suave and handsome father. Now I understand that for some unknown reason Daddy couldn’t help it. He had a profound problem he was unable to overcome. But he did the best he could. He tried so hard to give his little-girl-turning-woman a special gala evening. Having made my own mistakes and unintentionally hurt people I love, I don’t blame Daddy now. And I’m working on not blaming myself. Daddy’s little girl is growing up.

The Power of Laughter

aI was a very tiny toddler, with a great big belly laugh that surprised people. But early on I learned how to push it down, keep it under wraps. It was muted for decades.

When I was three my family—together in those days—went for a day at the beach. Mom stayed up by the boardwalk while my father and older brother and I went down to the water, a long walk away. It was a cold windy day and the waves were huge. For years afterwards Mom would recount how she could barely see us but she could hear my laugh booming over the roaring breakers.

My brother was the one making me laugh. Mike had found a piece of kelp about five feet long and was cracking it like a whip at the waves, yelling “Get back! Get back!” when they started to recede. It was hilarious to me to watch the waves as they seemed to obey my brother’s commands. I laugh even now, thinking of it.

Life hummed along for a few years. I was a happy child, a fierce tomboy, indomitable. Even though I was the shortest girl in my school, I ran like the wind and outraced boys, climbed trees, hit homers in street softball, caught every fly ball in the field, always won at tetherball. 

The magic wore off. Mike got into drugs in his early teens and shot himself up with heroin for decades. One day he was high on  smack and working with heavy machinery, and he lost his right arm. My father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and heavily depressed for 20 years. I formed a belief—I realize this now—that laughter was insensitive and uncaring, with poor Daddy so sick and hopeless. I imagined how it made him feel worse and felt guilty, even though he didn’t live with us anymore. So I suppressed it. But he committed suicide anyway, when he was fifty.  

I started drinking in my mid-twenties. I stopped when my daughter was three and I was forty-one. I damaged relationships and not all of them were restored. Life got a lot better when I sobered up. I kept jobs, I was a safe and responsible parent to my daughter, I was just an overall better person. But I sustained painful losses. At seventy, I’m still working to heal the damaged relationship with my daughter.

I’ve had years of therapy and commitment to a spiritual program. Feelings of running like the wind, whipping the tetherball around the pole, scrambling up trees like a monkey are starting to come back to me: feelings of being exquisitely alive. I’m bouncing back, and so is my belly laugh. It’s a little rusty but still there.

Mike became clean and sober at forty. For ten years he had a good life, helping other addicts, then died of lung cancer. I don’t have him anymore to tame waves with his kelp whip and make me laugh out loud. But I have Melissa McCarthy impersonating Sean Spicer. That’s close enough.  

Mike’s long road home

mikeMy brother Mike could never remember exactly how he made the biggest mistake of his life. It knocked him off-course and altered his destiny. All he recalls is hitchhiking to L.A. Somehow he missed the mark and ended up 500 miles from there, in Tucson.

Turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a miracle.

Maybe he was just standing on the wrong side of the highway. Chances are he was high and not thinking clearly: Mike was a heroin addict. There were lots of events and long stretches of his life that he couldn’t recall. He was high on smack most of the time for almost 20 years running.

Mike was two years older than me. Our father was mentally ill, and by the time I was born Daddy couldn’t handle a job or any other responsibility. Our mother, only 20 when she married, not realizing Daddy was ill, did the best she could but was not equipped to deal with something like schizophrenia. Who is? Mom’s own mother had been a homemaker and her father worked at the Navy Yard near Seattle and brought home the bacon every single day. Everything seemed picture-perfect, right down to the bridge club and the county fair flower judging and the black metal lunchbox Grandma filled up for Grandpa every workday.

I think Mom expected a life like that, but hers didn’t even come close. There was a deep stigma of shame attached to mental illness back in the 1940s. In order to get help Mom would have had to tell someone about Daddy’s schizophrenia, which for her was not an option. So she had no one to share her burden with. She had only a high school education, and worked at low-paying jobs to support all of us. Life was hard.

Mike started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, stealing cough syrups containing codeine that were sold over-the-counter back then. He soon moved on to stronger stuff. He was first incarcerated when he was 13. We were all eating dinner in our apartment when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. “I’m looking for Michael Torello,” a policeman said, looking down at me from where he stood on our porch. Mike had already gotten up from the table, and he walked out the door and drove away with the policemen. I didn’t see him for six months. He had stolen a car, I later learned. After that he was in trouble constantly.

He started disappearing more often and for longer stretches, incarcerated or just drifting in a drug haze. He broke into people’s houses and stole things to sell, or took money if it was there, to buy his drugs with. Mom never talked about him. There was an unspoken rule not to mention him. I had a lot of grief about him I never expressed, and in my thirties I sought out counseling. Talking to compassionate experts helped. I wish Mom could have done the same, but she never got past the shame of her generation over mental and emotional problems in the family. She suffered in silence.    

When Mike was 20, his right arm got caught in a meat grinder in a pizza parlor, where he was working while high on drugs, most likely heroin. Moments after it got caught in the terrible blades someone tried to turn the grinder off, but the external off button was not working. Someone finally unplugged it. The arm was lost up to the elbow. After a long stay in the hospital Mike went to live with our father, long-divorced from Mom and living with his mother.

After a few months Mike disappeared again. Daddy committed suicide shortly afterward. I lost track of Mike for years.

In my late thirties I was surprised to get a letter from Tucson. It was from Mike. He had tracked me down. “I woke up in a Tucson jail one morning and wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he wrote, “especially since as far as I knew I lived in California, and didn’t remember leaving it on purpose.” When he woke up in the jail he had an eerie feeling that his life was about to change into something he wouldn’t recognize. The feeling was right on.  

Mike was tried and convicted of burglary. Except for the fact that it happened in Arizona instead of California, it seemed like a familiar story in Mike’s life. Need drugs, commit crime, get caught, go to jail.

But this time, a compassionate judge sentenced him to a residential halfway house, Casa Amigo, instead of jail. At Casa there was counseling and job training, basic living skills like cooking and cleaning, virtually nonstop Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and other resources. Not to mention friendship and bonding. Mike needed all those things. 

After Mike and I wrote letters for a few months, I flew to spend a week with him in his little bungalow, in an old barrio of Tucson.

“How in the world did you end up in a city in the Sonoran desert?” I asked him over coffee.

“I just remember hitchhiking, and everything else is blacked out until I woke up in jail,” he told me. “I asked a guy in the cell and he told me I was in Tucson.”

Mike didn’t know how he got there, but he knew Tucson was the right place for him to end up. From his first day in the halfway house, when he was forty, until he died ten years later he was clean and sober. He had been addicted to one drug or another continuously for nearly twenty-five years.

Mike was a high school dropout, but he completed two years of community college and then earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona. Job hunting afterwards, he had a lot of anxiety about the felonies he had to disclose on job applications, which would scare off employers. But someone at the Arizona Highway Department read between the lines of his resume and saw his amazing turnaround after so many years of drug abuse and crime. The department gave him a chance, and he was a civil engineer there until he died.

He met his girlfriend Susan in Narcotics Anonymous. She and Mike lived together, with their formerly stray neighborhood cat Petey, until Mike’s death.

Mike had no self-pity over his missing arm. He was grateful he still had his elbow joint. “It gives me a lot more functionality,” he told me. He drove, ironed, cooked, bowled, did everything else people with two arms do.

He didn’t even feel sorry for himself over his rapidly spreading lung cancer. I learned it was already late stage when I arrived. He was thin and gaunt and fragile-looking. His cheeks were hollow. But he was peaceful and calm. Happy.  

My last night there, Mike and I talked and talked until the mountains in the window and the moon hanging over them disappeared, and a faint salmon glow lit the sky. “The last ten years have been fuller than I ever dreamed life could be,” he told me. He had remained in NA and sponsored and mentored many newcomers. He was loved and respected by his extended family of recovering addicts throughout Tucson. He and Susan had a loving relationship. Petey was a joy. “I have no regrets,” he said. Not even about dying.

We never saw each other after that visit. He died soon after I got back to San Jose. His memorial was held in the halfway house, where his healing had begun. Mike’s many friends gathered from all over Tucson and shared their stories about him, and their love and respect for him. Afterwards his ashes were scattered in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains east of Tucson. Mike wanted to be in the winds near his beloved home where he had found peace and meaning, and service to his fellow addicts, in his last years. It was there that he finally got treatment instead of punishment, and found healing, friendship, work and love.

I never dreamed that one day I would call Mike my teacher, but he was. He taught me that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, even from one with as vicious a grip as heroin, and even if the addiction has lasted decades. It’s never too late to find love and adopt a cat and make a home and go to school, even after a life of crime and incarceration. It’s never too late for a miracle.  

This is my year to keep it real.


new-years-day-1021360_640

The thrill, the exhilaration, the excitement of bringing in the new year doesn’t happen for me on New Year’s Eve. It happens in the morning, when I wake up on New Year’s Day. No, “it” is not that. I know what you’re thinking, you naughty blog reader.

This year my husband and I went to Monterey for New Year’s, as we have for the past ten years. They have First Night, an “alcohol-free-family-friendly” street event. There are little puppet shows, a guy with ten parrots that pose with kids while parents shoot pictures for free, a juggler, a clown, and other gentle activities and entertainment. What might be the world’s smallest parade, at twilight, features people on stilts dressed as the moon and planets and stars, young dancers from local dance schools, a troupe of middle-aged belly dancers, a small paper-lion dance…. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Food booths and a few small bands are scattered around the town and stores and restaurants are open until midnight. Every year we eat at the same Greek restaurant, Epsilon, and every year the menu is exactly the same. I always have the dolmades and Frank has the chicken kabob. 

It wasn’t what you’d call a rousing evening. But when I woke up in the morning on New Year’s Day, I absolutely quivered with excitement and anticipation. Like I always do. I quiver because I remember where my car is! It’s in the hotel parking garage. I even know the space number every year. I’ve been waking up sober since 1984, when I awoke on New Year’s Day sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’d been drinking alcoholically for twenty years. I also had what is called in alcoholic circles a Moment of Clarity. I woke up knowing without a doubt that if I didn’t stop drinking I would lose my family, my friends, and myself. The very next night I went to a county alcoholism treatment center near our house and have been sober ever since. I enrolled in their treatment program and in another venerated organization they recommended (go ahead, guess!). I have thirty-one years of sobriety.

So there it is, the honest, naked truth about me. My past is not pretty. Among other things, I had lots of missing-car experiences. One New Year’s Eve I was inebriated and a good friend drove me home from a party in my car. The parking lot at my apartment was full (poachers). She parked two blocks away, walked me home, put me to bed and drove away with another friend who had followed us. The next day I was shocked to find someone else’s car in my parking space when I walked out to drive to the grocery store.  Panicked, I called my friend, who reminded me what had happened and told me where she’d parked my car on the street. Thank goodness she was home. In those days there were no cell phones and people only answered the phone when they were at home or work.

Another morning, during the week, I was hung over but determined to go to take an SAT test I had scheduled. When I rushed to my car, it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I rushed back to call the friend I had been out drinking with the night before, and saw her note by the phone that she had driven me home, followed by a friend, and my car was around the corner from my apartment. I found it and raced to the university, where I annoyed the testing staff because I was a tad late and obviously hung over. They grudgingly let me take the test and somehow I passed it.

In my most spectacular misadventure, I woke up in bed in a hospital, unable to remember a single thing about the night before. I learned eventually, from the police, that I had left a popular restaurant located at the edge of an estuary of San Francisco Bay, and driven my car off-road into the water. I somehow got out of the car and swam to shore, which I was told was quite a distance. Several people saw me stumbling around and called the police. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know where my car was that night. Nobody knew, for several days until it was dredged up.

There’s a point to all these stories. I’ll tweak a line by old-time entertainer Sophie Tucker. I’ve been drunk and I’ve been sober. It’s better sober.

By the grace of God, and with recovery programs and a lot of other support available, for the past thirty-one years I always know where my car is. It’s such a good feeling. I would even call it a buzz. I’m particularly grateful for this on the morning after New Year’s Eve, which of course is the biggest drinking night of the year. And to think I didn’t even have one. Yay. It’s great to know I don’t have to ever again go outside to my car and see an empty space or someone else’s car where it should be. After all these years it hasn’t ceased to delight me. But of course the real miracle is that I didn’t injure anyone—or worse—all those years I was driving under the influence.  

I just wish I always knew where my keys are. I’m constantly losing them, and spend half my life searching around the house. I always find them eventually, in the oddest places: my underwear drawer, my tax file folder for 2012, the mini-freezer in the garage. But I’m grateful that I’ve lived long enough to suffer from this touch of dementia. Considering how many times I drove drunk and how many years I abused my mind and body with alcohol, I shouldn’t even be alive. And here I am, blogging away.

Happy New Year from a grateful blogger. 

A favorite American pastime is my dirty little secret.

I’m no stranger to addiction. Over the years I’ve struggled, and overcome, dependence on alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, even sugar, and more. After all those victories, to my dismay I’ve lately acquired a new addiction, one that feels especially shameful and that I am very reluctant to reveal.

I’m going to talk about it anyway, though, because no one knows better than I that keeping addictions secret feeds them. They thrive in darkness and silence. So here goes. It’s Wheel of Fortune.  My husband Frank and I are addicted to America’s most popular game show. Every night except Sunday finds us in front of the TV at 7:30, watching Wheel while we eat. (We’d be there on Sundays too except that it’s not on.) If I solve a word puzzle, I jump up from the table to run around the living room, fist pumping, screaming out the solution. “We’re calling it a day!” I shout, or “Think outside the box of chocolates!” Or Frank and I will express amazement when a contestant solves a puzzle with a mere three letters showing out of a total of 50. Wheel word-puzzle savants are so exciting!

We don’t answer the phone during the program, and if I call someone back later I lie that I couldn’t pull myself away from Nature or The Civil War or some other thought-provoking, worthwhile program on PBS. Hooked on this game show—me of all people, reader of Pulitzer Prize winning fiction, watcher of Masterpiece Theatre.  But I’m an addict. It’s beyond my control. I can’t stop myself. I managed to overcome alcohol – but when it comes to Wheel of Fortune:  I   _m    p_werl_ss.