“You have forty-five minutes until afternoon group. Find the gifts with the right ages on them and wrap them up.”
The large living room of the women’s recovery house was trying really hard to look like a cheerful place that day. One of the counselors had put some Christmas carols on the boom box, and a few decorations had been pinned to the walls. But nothing could remove the gray smoke of regret that hung over the room, unacknowledged but present in every corner.
It was 2008, and I was sitting on an old couch with one baby in each arm and two more in rocking seats nearby on the floor. With my feet, I’d give their seats a prod now and then in the hopes that the rocking would help keep them asleep. I wanted to let their moms have free hands for as long as possible, so they could get some presents wrapped.
Wrapping the presents with their own hands was the only personal input they were going to get into their older children’s holidays this year. The gifts themselves had just been delivered, courtesy of Toys for Tots, and they lay in a pile in the middle of the floor beside a few rolls of wrapping paper, two pairs of scissors, and two rolls of Scotch tape.
These women weren’t going to see their kids on Christmas; the children would be spending it with relatives or with foster families. If not for the donated toys they would have nothing to give their kids at all; as it was, they had a random toy selected for the approximate age and gender. So they wrapped them up, and wrote messages on them, and the living room was chaotic with crumpled paper and displaced frustrations as they argued about who was due the scissors or tape next.
As I sat with the babies, I had one of my many moments of feeling like an impostor. I wasn’t a resident–at the time, I’d never been to rehab–but I already knew enough about my developing addiction to realize that I wasn’t really different from these women. These women, so universally demonized by society for apparently choosing their addictive behavior over their children, were like me and I was like them. I was only luckier. So far.
I’m glad I had at least that much self-honesty at the time; of course, I would later identify far more closely when it was my turn to write my daughter letters from rehab. Various fortunate circumstances in my life gave me more options for treatment and a better environment when I got out, but good fortune is all it was. Many women I met got started on drugs at a very young age, and were trying to do parenting and recovery in an atmosphere of poverty, abuse and violence.
That night, at home, I thought about the expressions on the women’s faces as they looked at what they were “giving” their kids. Grateful as I was for the existence of the donations, it seemed so sad that they couldn’t express any individuality in what they sent. My job involved running a group there that discussed parenting issues, and I wondered whether I could get away with having them do a project making special cards or something. Then I had an idea.
After getting permission from my supervisor, I called my mother-in-law, who makes beads and often has some extras lying around. She was happy to help, so at the group I brought out many kinds of beads, wire, earring posts…everything needed to make inexpensive jewelry. I even managed some masculine-looking letter beads to make name bracelets for boys.
In general, I’m not much of an organizer. But I was glad that, for once, I took some initiative and made this happen. It pleased me to see them choosing colors they thought their kids would like; it didn’t by any means negate the pain of where they were but it was one choice they got to make. And if by chance they used extra time at the end to make a pair of earrings for themselves or a friend…well, I’ll never tell.
Years later, I’m approaching these holidays feeling sad that I don’t have money to give my daughter nice gifts. May I never forget that being able to give her anything I picked out is a privilege that recovery brings…and one that relapse can take away.