My mom is a drug counselor, but not just any kind of drug counselor. She doesn’t work with potheads and alcoholics, or spend her time at a lovely rehabilitation unit housed in a hospital, but made to look “homey” with quilts and prints of ocean waves. Instead Mom counsels people who are, in the common parlance of rehabs, “dual diagnosis.” These are people who have a serious mental health issue, like schizophrenia, and a serious drug addiction, like methamphetamines or heroin, at the same time. She spends her working days at a halfway house, with people whose teeth have rotted to the gums, who have lost all manner of basic jobs and families, who have been prostitutes and drug runners and have done a number of terrible, dehumanizing things in order to maintain their high.
That paragraph, to be entirely accurate, should be in the past tense, because my mom was a drug counselor for a bunch of high risk, dual diagnosis drug addicts. And then she was laid off when the economy tanked, the halfway house losing $50,000 a month in grants and funding. But this isn’t a story about the lack of adequate funding for drug programs for those who are too mentally ill to maintain a job, or about the fact that such programs help communities lower crime and domestic violence rates, or that the first casualties in a recession are those on the bottom of the economic totem pole. This is a story about my mom’s need to provide counseling and advice and guidance. And when she can’t provide it to the people who really need it—meth heads who also hear voices—she provides it to the people who needed her almost as much as those drug addicts: her kids.
Witness this scene, circa two weeks ago. The setting is Bakersfield, California, where my mom lives. The kids and I are visiting, and we’ve decided to drive to Lake Isabella for the day. My mom climbs into the passenger seat of the car, buckles her seatbelt, checks the buckle not once, but twice—twice!—and then says, “You know, the highway can be kind of hard to drive.”
“I know Mom,” I say. It’s true that Isabella sits at the end of a serpentine two-lane highway, high above Bakersfield. It can be a treacherous drive because the highway is narrow, and hemmed, on one side, with the Kern River, and on the other, with walls of rock that, on occasion, fall into the roadway. But I also know this, having lived in Bakersfield for years.
“So,” she continues, “sometimes people who live here drive that road a lot. And they like to drive fast. And so if someone comes up behind you and wants to get by, you need to look for a place to get off the road.”
“And that is called a ‘turn out.’”
I put my head in my hands. Luckily, we were at a stoplight, so I didn’t have to wreck the car.
My mom has done this in some fashion for as long as I can remember. Years ago, as my mom and my aunts were planning some family gathering, my mom said to my aunt Merri, “You know what we can do? We can brain storm ideas for the party.” Then she added, “‘Brain storm’ means that we all sit down and write any idea, and no idea is bad!”
Merri said, “I know what brain storm means, Lisa.” Merri, it should be noted, graduated from Reed College, where, presumably, no one had to take a remedial class on how to brain storm. My aunt was annoyed, but my brothers and I laughed. Take that, Aunt Merri, we thought. We grew up hearing a constant narrative of explanations and reasons, and it’s high time some of the misery was spread around. But no explanation can compare to Mom’s use of the cautionary tale.
Last month, the kids and I bedded down in Gardiner, Montana, readying to spend the following day in Yellowstone National Park. We’d never been there, so we were excited to see the hot springs and Old Faithful and the bison and elk. On the phone with my mom, I relayed the route we planned to take, what we would stop at.
My mom was quiet for a moment, and then she said, voice lowered in that dead-serious tone, “Heather, you have to be sure not to let the kids go into the geysers.”
Into the geysers. Into the geysers.
“Mom,” I said. I stopped there because language was escaping me. How would you even get into a geyser? How, for the love of all that is holy?
“The geysers are very hot,” she said. “And so are the hot springs.”
“I gathered that, from the fact the word ‘hot’ is in the title,” I said.
“You have to make sure they stay on the boardwalks.”
“They will have signs saying where you can walk and where you can’t*. And so they have to pay attention to those.”
In her hands, the simplest of adventures, the safest, the most mundane, can become potential, life-threatening excursions. “Have you thought about getting a dog,” she asked before we embarked on the road trip, “or pepper spray?” Or, “you know, wasp stings can sometimes be fatal;” “bats carry rabies and you should never be around them;” “tampons cause toxic shock syndrome.” In her view, the world is a place where potential death awaits around every corner, and where you have to be on your guard at all moments.
Her worry has always rubbed off on us kids, though, my brothers and I, which generally means we have overactive imaginations for disaster, and have to check ourselves regularly. I called my brother David during the swine flu outbreak just so we could channel Mom for a few minutes. Which made me think, fleetingly, that we were on the brink of some real life version of The Stand. The only way to counter-act the cautionary tales and constant advice is to remind her that you are, in fact, not a heroin addict who hears Jesus and that you do, in fact, know that geysers are hot and that bad things can befall anyone.
“Mom!” I shouted into the phone. “I know the geysers are hot! I know to follow the signs! How the hell do you think the kids managed to survive this long? I know how to keep them out of danger!”
“I just wanted to make sure you knew what was safe,” she said. And she did. She genuinely shows her affection and love through constant reminders of the world’s danger and apathy towards individual people. Her warnings were like the grown-up versions of “look both ways in the crosswalk.”I felt, for a moment, a twinge of guilt.
Then she said, “You do know that you should never feed a wild bear, right? Heather? Don’t feed any bears!"
*The following day, while the kids posed for a photo in front of Mammoth Hot Springs (on the boardwalk, following all rules. And wearing sunscreen, even.), a little boy tried to climb the fence. His mother immediately saw him and yelled, in an English accent, “Rufus! What are you doing?” while she ran over to grab him. “We talked about this,” she said. “You can get scalded! Do you want to get scalded!” My kids looked at Rufus and the mother, and then Chloe said, “that kid needs Grandma Lisa.” “And stat,” I said.