The Detective Work of Codependency

In Depth
The Detective Work of Codependency

Below is an excerpt from Nina Renata Aron’s Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls, a memoir about addiction, love, and codependency.

I was particularly keen to leave home for California. My parents were in the middle of a divorce and had both taken up with new partners. For my father, who was living in a small, yellowed apartment with a mattress on the floor and one fork, it was a revolving cast of local moms. For my mother, it was Jim, a much younger man she met through work and with whom she seemed suddenly, shockingly in love. My younger sister, Anya, frequently enveloped by pot smoke in her bedroom, still pulled straight As. She came and went from friends’ houses and field hockey practices with her thick athletic braid reaching almost to her waist, seeming, with her long legs and unsettling type-A aptitude for everything, somehow both apart from and already above any family drama. My older sister, Lucia, had graduated from drug-fueled weekend raves to cocaine to full-blown heroin addiction, and I carried her secrets around like a backpack full of body parts, guilty, angry, and exhausted.

At home as a young teenager, I learned the detective work of codependency, nurturing along with my fear-crazed parents the delusion that if we could just put our hands on the evidence, we could somehow stop my sister, save her, find out the truth. It had been this way for a few years. Go in there and see if you find anything, my mother whispered conspiratorially whenever Lucia was out or distracted, and I’d slip into my sister’s bedroom, sweaty and stealthy as special forces, to root around in her belongings and retrieve some proof that things were how we thought they were, that we were not insane. No, we were right. I’d return minutes later with her needle exchange ID card, bottles of pills, bits of folded up aluminum foil from the bottom of her purse, tiny plastic bags imprinted with skulls, bearing the ghostly residue of white powder. I dropped these like a loyal dog and was awarded the treat of my mother’s love. Much as I came to resent it, I felt most alive and most treasured when I was called upon to do this important work, to be my mother’s partner in crime-solving. I always rose to meet the challenge of trying to figure out and control my sister’s life, of invading her privacy. It felt like a righteous pursuit, a battle of light over darkness, good against evil. Backed into a corner by heroin, we felt we had no choice. Tracking my sister’s movements was what we must do or else we would lose her. Her survival became a kind of crooked victory we audaciously believed we’d engineered.

Lucia had always seemed too big for our town. She had a certain star quality, even as a child. She loved performing and the excitement of all its preceding necessities: rehearsing, yes—that she did with Fosse-like focus—but also corralling and orchestrating others’ energies, gathering an audience, dimming the lights, and pulling back a bedsheet curtain. A born ringleader, she made programs for our living-room plays, menus for our kitchen-table café, and once the show began, she never broke character. Can I get you anything else or are you ready for the bill? she’d asked our parents earnestly as she cleared plates from our pretend restaurant while Anya and I stood tittering in the wings. Perhaps you’d like to meet the chefs? They’re sisters, you know.

While our grandmother napped one day, Lucia convinced us to put on her clothes and perform a bizarre funerary-style ritual at her bedside, walking in one by one to lay jewelry and other household offerings on her sleeping body. She directed Anya and me in silence, waving us toward the bed and nodding as we placed a comb and a bracelet on Nanny’s gently rising and falling bosom. Lucia took pride in forcing solemnity over a room, holding us as if under a spell. In the backyard, atop the picnic table, wearing jelly bracelets up to the elbow and one lace glove, she commandeered an army of cousins and neighbors, directing lip sync performances of Madonna and Debbie Gibson. Once, she pretended she was a scientist and locked Anya in our dog’s crate to study her. When Anya complained of hunger, Lucia slipped bites of a bagel through the bars. Let her out! I protested. But I like it, said Anya from inside the cage. In a way, Anya was better matched to Lucia’s intensity than I was. A string bean with a wild, tangled mane of mysteriously blond hair, she had seemed to be in possession of an excess of ardor from the very beginning of life. It emerged as a tantrum or through her drillbit kisses, moments when she glommed on to me and wouldn’t let go, or in the form of frantic dancing. For a time, around five or six years old, she carried a cassette player around the house. After a sleepover once, she barged in and woke up my friend and me with a 6:00 a.m. rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket, A Tasket.”

My sisters liked a spectacle, and it could be thrilling to be their assistant, apprentice, understudy. Lucia especially made you want to go along with her. I wasn’t shy, exactly, but I drew no power from being the center of attention. I retreated with a book when their games grew most elaborate. When my sisters belted out show tunes, harmonizing perfectly at ages seven and twelve, I didn’t know where my weaker voice fit. It often got lost in the middle. You be the boy, Lucia would say, you can’t be Cosette, you’re Jean Valjean.

Naturally, the older we got, the more dangerous the spectacle. We started going to punk rock shows at City Gardens in Trenton, and I watched her abandon herself to the sweaty throng, get tossed around by the undulations of the crowd or whipped about by a mosh pit. It was the same fearlessness and surrender as when she swam in the ocean. She once laughed while confiding in me that she’d been tripping on acid in math class that day, and the carefree sound of the laughter terrified me: Was it a confession or a provocation? Didn’t she know it would frighten me? I realized that she was often stoned while driving us to and from school in our mom’s old silver Saab, but I didn’t want to get her in trouble, so I asked if she would teach me to drive. It was only a couple miles anyway, and I was almost fifteen.

Lucia was glamorous. She became best friends with an equally glamorous British girl whose parent was a visiting professor at Princeton, and the pair seemed to have more fun than anyone else in school. They watched episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and dyed their hair the same colors as Patsy and Edina. They bought cigarettes from a hesher at school who carried a guitar case filled with cartons of them, and smoked where the cool kids did, in the area we called Varsity Smoking. One spring, Lucia contracted mono and stayed home for a month, tanning on the roof and listening to Saint Etienne on a boom box.

The only time our parents ever left us alone overnight, Lucia threw a party in the backyard. It was summer, and they’d driven upstate to collect Anya from her first sleepaway camp. At the impromptu party, where guests multiplied like swarming insects—so many people I’d never seen before, where had they come from?—my boyfriend and I walked through the smoky mob, then retreated upstairs to observe the debauchery from a bedroom window.

You’ll take care of the house and be responsible, right, my darlings? my mother had said that morning. How convincingly Lucia had nodded, tilting her head to question the question itself. Why yes, of course, Mother, she’d said, in a posh English accent. Now I could see her in a lawn chair below, holding court from her perch on a skater’s lap.

You’re Lucia’s sister? a boy asked me as I stood by my locker not long after that party, his face full of all that that meant to him. What did it mean—that I was cool? Easy? That now we had a party house?

Yeah, I answered.

He just raised his eyebrows and smiled.

For all the uncertainty, the fear, that Lucia introduced, she was also brilliant, glittering with an enviable knowingness, and when it came to getting something done or getting the grade, she always pulled it off at the last minute. She made things look easy. Often at night, with the whole household winding down, she was just sitting down at the dining room table to plow through the day’s homework, which she was smart enough to do in fifteen minutes. Once, we awoke in the morning to find that she’d baked two large trays of perfect madeleines in the night. What is this? I asked. For French class, she answered nonchalantly. I have to make some presentation. For college, she had her heart set on going to Tisch, the competitive drama school at NYU. Before her audition, she stayed up all night learning Ophelia’s monologue from Hamlet—O my Lord, my Lord, I have been so affrighted! she exclaimed in the kitchen as I packed my lunch—and was, of course, accepted. The deeper into addiction she got, the less common these moments were, but Lucia never completely lost this magic. It’s part of what kept hope alive in our family.

Reprinted from GOOD MORNING, DESTROYER OF MEN’S SOULS: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love Copyright © 2020 by Nina Renata Aron. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 21.

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