My mother told me she was going into a drug treatment program “soon.” Her “soon” could mean a few things: a day from now, months from now — or never. So I always take it with a grain of salt.
I’m lying. I didn’t believe her one bit.
My mother has been battling crack and heroin addiction since before I was born. Speaking of my birth, I always trip out every time I hear her tell the story about meeting my dad for the first time.
“I’m gonna fuck the shit out of that lor ass boy, just watch.”
“Yeah, him,” my mother replied to her homegirl, pointing to a short, wide-nosed boy walking past her home.
Needless to say, my mother kept her word and did “fuck the shit out that lor ass boy.” During a doctor visit months later, she found out she was pregnant.
My mother was excited about having a baby and stepping into adulthood. Although she was now eating for two, she maintained bad habits: inhaling greasy burgers and Tastykakes, smoking fugs, ripping and running the streets, stuffing her nostrils with heroin and kissing crack pipes.
For nine months, I fought for nutrients and oxygen in a drug-swaddled placenta, and by the grace of God, I made it. Before I was even aware of my own existence, my body was a reflection of the brazen pain that the world awards its children. My grandmother gave up her good-paying job at a bank, and turned our house into a day care business so she could support a newborn she knew my mother couldn’t afford.
We were living in East Baltimore in a neighborhood that us natives call “Down Da Hill.” If you stared into the eyes of the crack and heroin epidemic, you’d get a front-row look at my neighborhood.
As early as age 5, I knew what “gettin’ high” meant: smoking crack or snorting and shooting heroin. I knew that my mother and most of her friends got high.
The chaos of the drug war was in the open air – it demanded every ounce of space it took up. Addicts roaming the streets, nodding, singing, laughing, dancing or all of the above. Police chases were heavy. Grocery store employees with droopy mouths pointing me to the wrong aisles for toilet paper; I knew they were high.
I would go into my room to cut something good on TV, just to find out there’s no DVD player, DVDs or television to watch, because my mother or one of her friends stole it for a fix. I would go into my closet and shoes and clothes were missing, stolen.
Drug addicts took up space even in their absence – routine stories of people dying from overdoses. “You heard [inserts name] OD’d yesterday?” They took up space in people’s mouths. There was a certain kind of language reserved for them. Junkies, bums, crackheads, addicts, thieves, yuck, eww, to name a few.
It was common for children walking the streets with their parents to point to toothless and belligerent fiends: “What’s wrong with them?” Some adults would shoot back, “They’re sick.” The adults who did break it down normally said cliché stuff like “Drugs are bad.”
By age 8, I knew that my mother could fight. Arguments between her friends or physical altercations in the streets that ended up with her smacking grown men and women. Even when I didn’t see it firsthand, her bruised knuckles and blood-splattered shirts told the story.
By age 10, I couldn’t count how many stolen Gameboys my grandmother had to replace, or the amount of money taken out of my plastic Tootsie Roll bank.
By middle school, my grandmother would call my cell: “Your mother got locked up, again.” One particular time I was walking home from school when I received that news. I slammed my bedroom door and buried my face into my pillow, crying, attempting to drown out my grandmother’s voice.
“It’s gonna be OK.”
“She gonna come out of prison and be all clean again, just like last time.”
“She’s sick, Koni.”
“I think she really hit rock bottom this time.”
I had absolute faith in my grandmother’s words. Whatever she said was sacred. She instilled this belief in me that things always get better with time.
A new hope would be born
By high school, the words “rock bottom” ain’t mean shit to me. And all that sacred talk I used to believe was over. This was around the time my mother had her fifth child, and I started to accept the fact that there wasn’t a baby on this planet who she’d get off the drugs for. I just charged it to the game.
“Koni, I swear I’m not getting high. I’m just tryna get some food,” my mother said, wearing the complete uniform.
She asked me for $20, so I gave her $50. The extra money was to buy me some peace, so she wouldn’t ask me again so soon. And so I wouldn’t have to look in her face and see where the world failed her.
I’ve seen my mother go into rehab, complete the program and come home and get acclimated to society again and again. If it wasn’t rehab centers that got my mother clean, then it was her jail and prison stays. The joy me and my grandmother would share was unmatched — we knew it would force her to quit using.
Throwing away her clothes felt like a joyous ritual. We trashed it all. The parts that would forever plague our brain; the parts we didn’t want to remember. Scuffed sneakers. Stretched-out dingy jeans. Purses filled with burnt glass tubes stuffed with steel wool. Empty pill capsules and cut-up straws. We knew she wouldn’t fit the clothes when she came home, and these items held a certain kind of energy.
This process was parallel to the burning phoenix. She would come back to us clean, the bird that rises from the aftermath of fire from its own ashes. A new hope would be born.
My mother is clean
We get the call that mommy’s coming home. I run down the street and tell the news.
“Ya’ll need a ride to pick her up?” Aunt Pam said. “You know she likes to get picked up earlier than later.”
It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother told me why. She has stories about women who would get released from correctional facilities at night, and while either waiting for rides or trying to find one, would get accused of prostitution and end up right back in the cell on false charges.
We all skirt off in Aunt Pam’s minivan and shoot up 295 towards Jessup Correctional Facility. We find her in some baggy blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt and a mile-long smile. She stays in the house with us until she gets approved for some government funding that will give her affordable housing.
The next few months are some of my closest moments to happiness. I text friends and post on social media about how happy I am because my mother is clean. How I believe this is the final time, I know it. Grandma knows it too. My father calls from prison and I’m excited to tell him, “She doing good for real. She gained all her weight back and everything.”
The happiness doesn’t stop at me and my grandmother. Facebook friends share pictures of my mother: “Look at her glowing.” “That’s my girl!!” People on the street stop us if we’re together, walking to a corner store for cigarettes or to North East Market. “Oh my God, Mo, you look so good! " “That’s your son!? Girl that is not no damn Koni. He got so big, and he so handsome.” I smirk and nod my head in agreement. I give handshakes and fist bumps.
Months seem like 3-5 business days, especially when things turn for the worst. And things always turn for the worst when your drug-free mother starts hanging around the same ol’ people, which means she’s doing the same ol’ shit.
We watch her weight deflate. She scolds us for trashing her old clothes. She goes missing for days at a time, while ignoring me and my grandmother’s calls. Known drug dealers and friends knock on our front door, because she borrowed money that she had no intentions of paying back. The streets whisper: “Damn, man… I really thought that Mo was done foreal this time.” We all did.
There ain’t no rock bottom
It hasn’t even been a year yet. But that’s not new to me, because it has never been a year fully clean. This is where history repeats itself. No need to get to the bottom of why she’s hanging with them again.
My depression kicks in. Shouldn’t have bet my bottom dollar. This is the moment I dread. When I distance myself from friends and family because I don’t know how to process my emotions. This ain’t no rock bottom.
I’ve been trying to believe in my grandmother and God, but this is where the phoenix ends up crawling back into its ashes. Hope dies.
Unprovoked, my mother starts saying shit like “You know Peaches started getting high again!? I can’t believe her. She was looking so good!.” “Koni, why they up on Jefferson street talkin’ bout some ‘Mo gettin’ high.’ They is crazy.” Literally saying anything to keep the smoke off herself.
My grandmother calls; we have a regular convo. She pauses, then asks, “You think Mo gettin’ high again?”
I want to say, “Duhhh!” Instead, I simply respond, “Come on now, Grandma, what you think?”
Then things around the house come up missing. Not just socks or spoons or magazines. Things like my grandmother’s bank card. And the missing bank card comes with things like $500 overdrafts from ATM swipes. My grandmother calls her bank and reports it for fraud. If side-eyes had a voice, it would be the skeptical representative on the other end of the line, because this isn’t the first fraud she’s reported.
It comes with my grandmother obtaining the security video footage of the crook who stole her card, then developing amnesia, like she doesn’t know what her daughter looks like. She says, “That do look like Mo a little bit” when it actually looks like Mo a lot. It comes with my grandmother not pressing charges, because she still has faith and doesn’t want to see her daughter in jail.
This time my mother doesn’t go into a drug treatment program like she claimed, because she ends up going back to prison. Violating probation on drug charges, fighting, stealing, cashing fake checks. It’s always the same shit.
And ultimately, things like faith get snatched. And that’s why this time I didn’t believe it.
“Koni, I think she really hit rock bottom this time.” I learned that even when rocks hit bottom, they sometimes don’t stay there.
‘Where my muva at?’
By the time I laid eyes on a brick of dope for the first time, I didn’t care about what drugs do to anyone, even me. Me, Mel and Binky capped it up and hit the block for a few summers, to put extra change in our pockets.
I lost so many friends and family to killings and prison cells, I just needed to get away from Baltimore. And the best way to escape the city with no money is college.
By the time I was in college, I drank enough liquor to intoxicate an entire village. Suicide was on my brain a lot. I knew I should have slowed down, but I didn’t. I’d think to myself, “What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe I’ll die?” I shrugged my shoulders and kept drinking – all the way up until the night before my graduation.
The same night I talked to my mother, who said she’d see me walk the stage. I put her in contact with three different drivers who were traveling from Baltimore to Richmond, Va. to see me. At the end of the ceremony, I saw more than a dozen of my family and friends clapping, cheering and waiting to take photos.
I smiled from ear to ear: “Where my muva at?” My eyeballs scanned to see if she had ducked off into the crowd somewhere. My grandmother looked at me; her eyes said everything she couldn’t squeeze out of her lips. My mother never showed up. It was my moment of triumph, but I felt like I had been handed a trophy with a huge crack in it.
By age 25, I was a poet, and authored a few books about some of the shit I went through. I could have won an Oscar acting like everything was fine. Like I didn’t care about my mother. Saying things like, “Fuck her. She can do whatever she wants.”
Mood swings. Drinking. Isolating myself from the world for weeks. Church couldn’t save me. Prayer seemed pointless. It leaked into my poetry, but when you’re a poet, that’s just license to be “crazy,” so no one really questioned me.
Nightmares of my mother overdosing and dying like her friends. Nightmares of my grandmother dying from a heart attack or stroke due to stress. Nightmares of my siblings ending up like her, or like me, at my lowest moments. Nightmares of me drowning in my own vodka-infused puke.
I never turn my back
Still, I hold on. Still, I never turn my back on my mother. People make mistakes. Sometimes people make one, learn from it, and never go back. For some it takes 20 mistakes to finally get on the right track. I’d give my mother another 20 chances. Everyone needs grace, especially those of us whose lives have been ruined by the rampant evils of drug addiction and the war on drugs.
The human attention span has decreased over the years. Social media and smartphones are to blame. We are flooded with trends and tragedy – some close to home, some foreign. I believe this constant digestion of other people’s traumas immobilizes our brains, and memories escape at a much greater speed.
Someone in Baltimore can get murdered today, you open up an app on your phone, read a news clipping that details the person’s name and the street corner where they were found deceased. This song of sorrow gets sealed on repeat; for days, weeks, and months, until December 31st stacks all of the departed souls like bills going into a money counter, pulling every individual through, until a total is reached – almost always 300, or higher.
The same happens with those who lose battles with drug addiction. All of these people are more than numbers, victims and talking points on Twitter. These people are storehouses full of love, promise and stories that deserve to be told.
The ax forgets; the tree remembers.
No matter how much time passes, and how deep into the corner the media stuffs our stories, we are still here. Still fighting, still surviving. Still puzzling together pieces of our lives that were broken up and mislabeled as “bad days.”
I will not forget the babies like me who got hit in the crossfire of the scramble and coke crash course. The babies who grew up and started selling, or used the same product we damned our parents for. I will not forget those who merely caught second-hand smoke from their environment — everything from children fighting each other to protect their parents’ bad name, to the ones who got wrongfully imprisoned for being a suspected drug dealer, ruining careers and families.
The ax forgets; the tree remembers.
Many moments I find myself lying in bed, listening to the scattered rhythm of my thoughts — thinking about my mother and the grace she deserves. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone needs space and time to grow. If everything in your life is going right, are you truly learning?
My mother went into a drug rehabilitation program in late 2021. Not only did she enter — she finished. She has been clean for months.
She no longer lives in Baltimore, but we still talk consistently. Whether it’s her texting me in the morning “Grand Rising!” knowing that I hate the phrase. Or funny memes because we’ve always talked more like sister and brother, and not mother and son. And every time it feels applicable, I recite some variation of a stanza from my poem “I Will Tell Them” where I reference her life story.
The more that I understand about myself and my relationship to the world, our relationship grows. I understand that people get sacrificed, so others can bask in paradise. I understand that some things are out of our control.
Toni Morrison once said, “The fact is, [the future] is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.”
I was on the phone with my mother for over an hour the other night. We talked about my seven younger siblings, relived stories of our past — good, bad and indifferent. Discussed the lives of people from our neighborhood who recently passed away. Laughed about my grandmother, and many of the reasons why we love her. And during this conversation, she told me that she quit her job, because it didn’t allow her the time and space to “do what she wanna do.”
The victory is the process
I constantly think about my mother’s future. The one she could walk into if she finds a passion and pursues it. The future where she eventually gets to celebrate a full one year of being sober. I’m looking forward to the future where she can just relax and be still, where she truly is in control of her life. The future where she finds the words to tell all of her children that she is sorry. The future where she can have meaningful conversation with her children about who she is, instead of hearing the stories from others. I know my mother has it in her, I can feel it trying to climb out of her when we talk.
Last night I had a realization. I’m in search of some crowning-glory moment in my mother’s life. One that I can be proud of, but she can, too — a shared moment of happiness. It’s kind of selfish when I think about it. Why do I need a moment to define her entire life’s story? Is her journey not enough? Isn’t that where growth is planted and watered before it blooms?
The victory is the process. A person’s “finish line” — whether it’s retirement or death — should not be the thing that defines their entire life, and what they contributed to other’s lives. My emotional stability should not rest with how the story ends, but all the pages that comprise the complete story.
What about all of the times where I struggled, finding myself in unstable relationships and places where I knew I didn’t belong? What about the mistakes that I’ve made, and the people I’ve hurt in the process — both knowing and unknowingly? Do I deserve grace?
The English writer Yrsa Daley-Ward once said: “Just because you do it doesn’t mean you always will. Whether you’re dancing dust or breathing light you’re never exactly the same, twice.”
I texted my mother to tell her I had written a piece about her. “Thanks,” she wrote back. “I love you Dummy. Make sure I get a copy.”
Then she told me about why she moved away from Baltimore and my grandmother. “Basically I left her when I started putting that poison up my nose & that crack on that stem,” she said.
“I’m proud of my got damn self. I have been using for 35 fucking years. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone & that’s what I did. When I was in Baltimore with grandma I was there but I wasn’t there, you feel me? I’m coming along slowly but [surely]. It’s a process and things don’t happen over night.”
At 48 years old, my mother gained the courage to leave the place she’s known all her life, to nurture a better reality for herself. I think this is her way of showing that she’s a fighter. She’s reminding us that mistakes and grace know no boundaries.
As long as my mother keeps trying, I gotta keep giving her chances.
All the troubling moments that led to this and my own relationship with addiction taught me how to give my mother grace. To fully celebrate her wins even if they are temporary.
I don’t know how this story ends. I just know that together, we’re still writing it.
Kondwani Fidel is a Baltimore-based poet and a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.
Watch Kondwani discuss this essay on WJZ