Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Many families have traditions.

Some families have a tradition of service to their country. Some have a tradition of becoming medical doctors. Some run the same restaurant for generations, passing their secret recipes down from parent to child. For that matter, a family tradition can be something as simple as watching the same movie together over the holidays, year after year.

My family’s tradition is drug abuse.

It probably began with my grandfather, though I’m sure he never would have admitted it. By his account, he was completely clean throughout his entire life, save for nicotine, alcohol, and “that time the kids made brownies for us.” However, the years he served in the Air Force happen to overlap with the years when amphetamine stockpiles from World War II were flooding military bases in Europe, and what they called “flyer’s chocolate” was still preserved in the institutional memories of air crews. Grandpa was stationed in the right places, at the right times, doing the right long-haul jobs, and some of his Air Force stories sure sound like they were inspired by meth rage.

I have no proof, of course. In any event, if he was on amphetamines, he kept it under wraps with a skill that would never be replicated among his children. So, either way, good on him.

The first of the kids to get into drugs was the youngest one, my Uncle Wilkins, whose drug of choice was cocaine. (Do note that I've changed these names, to protect my family members from  getting what they deserve.) The next to become an addict was the next youngest, Uncle Hunter, who was more of a heroine man. Then came my mom, whose drug of choice was meth. And finally the youngest, Uncle Curley, decided to emulate his big brother and get hooked on cocaine. It's kind of heartwarming, in a way.

I was next in line and all set to take up the torch. My plan was to try to get into heroine, but also apply to crystal meth as a backup drug, and marijuana as a safety. But when I took a hard look at my mother and uncles—all of them either abject failures or thriving used car salesmen—I decided that I would rather burn to death.

So the drug habit skipped me and went right on to Hunter’s son, Toby D, without missing a beat. His preference is pot. They say that marijuana's a gateway drug, but if Toby D is any indication, it's actually a barrier to furtherabuse, because it makes you too lazy to go out and get any real drugs.

The point is, they all have their individual, personalized vices. But one thing they can always agree on are pain pills. In fact, they have quite a little pill-share program going on. Even my grandmother gets in on the act, using her knee surgeries as an excuse, while she downs a handful of oxys with red wine.

The sharing program works like this: whenever one family member gets hurt and needs narcotic pain medication, the prescription is shared with everyone. Because in my family? When the pill train pulls into the station, everybody rides. It's sort of like communism, except this version reads, "from each according to how unethical their doctor is, to each according to whether they're going out tonight."

Even I was seduced by the program, handing out my painkillers by the handful after I had dental surgery. In my defense, I was fourteen and too dumb to figure out the game. I was just like, “Boy, I didn’t know you guys had so many painful medical issues. Here, let me give you all the pills in this bottle, and I can get the prescription refilled if someone drives me to the pharmacy.”

Six hands went up immediately.

Lisa Simpson, Enabler
Unfortunately, this tradition of pill sharing has created some… shall we say, perverse incentives. Not to steal from each other, mind you. Despite my family's low moral character, the pill sharing program is actually quite civil. The perverse incentives I'm referring to are all about inflicting injury on your loved ones.

Now, I’m not saying that they intentionally wound each other, just so they’ll be prescribed pills. They’re not really smart enough to come up with that scam. But you can't escape the fact that, whenever anyone in my family gets hurt, everyone is rewarded with narcotics. Think of what that would do to a lab rat, let alone a human being.

I’m convinced that this feedback mechanism has become a kind of operant conditioning. Deep in their simian brains, a connection has been formed between criminal negligence and criminal narcotic use. This has resulted in a noticeable uptick in ladders falling over, sharp objects handed blade-first, doors slammed on legs and arms, and wet floors left undried.

“Oh woops, I think I ran over Hunter’s foot with the car again. Someone better call 911. Hey, why am I salivating all of a sudden?”

Sometimes, though, there were long dry spells between woundings. In those times, it fell to my mother to set things right with the universe. Like a Cro-Magnon setting out with a spear and a stone knife, trekking the wilds to bring home meat during times of famine, she would pull out the yellow pages and go hunting for doctors. When she spotted a good prospect, she would stalk the hapless medico through multiple visits, each time getting a prescription for a progressively stronger, non-narcotic painkiller.

Just like the hunters of yore, patience was essential. If she went for the kill too soon, by asking for something by name or eschewing treatments for her supposed condition, the quarry would flush and run. Only after weeks of putting on a brave face and reporting that, “these pills do nothing at all, I’m still in pain here, doc,” would it be time to spring the ambush. She would go in wearing the same brave face, but then break out the waterworks during the examination. In a display that would make a Vaudevillian blush, she’d confess her desperation, her desire to try anything to stop the pain, no matter the risk.

Sometimes the prescription pad would come out, and sometimes it wouldn’t. If it didn’t, she judged it best to let the prey go. No sense following it over stream and field, trying to pick up a cold trail again. Oh, but if she hit, then she'd come home triumphantly shaking a bottle of pills, and everyone's ears would perk up at the sound.

She may not have had smarts. She may not have had talent. She may not have had a job.

But when it came to upholding the family tradition?

My mom was second to none.

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