Hunger and Addiction
I first met Marie ---that’s not her name, but that’s what I’ll call her--- in the parking lot outside the East End office where I worked at the time.
The East End was then a working-class Cincinnati Appalachian neighborhood that stretched for eight miles along the Ohio River. In places, it was only two blocks wide. Many of the homes were in the Ohio River floodplain; others perched on the hillsides just above. Most of the homes were small and most were old, so for a time, they were within the economic reach of working families –the poor and the not-quite poor-- either to rent or buy. The place has now been mostly gentrified in an unseemly collusion between real estate developers and the city. But at the time I met Marie, the neighborhood was still a tough, hard-knuckle place and I had been hired to run a substance abuse outreach office to counsel people like her.
Marie and the man who was then her husband were waiting for me under the big maple tree that erupted from the asphalt of the parking lot. She had an oversize purse under her arm and an over-sized attitude I could see in her stormy brow. I pulled in and introduced myself and within minutes had to break up a fight.
The husband said something and she took offense and around came the purse like David’s sling.
She didn’t connect with the purse, which was a lucky thing, for the purse was large enough and her swing was powerful enough to have brought down any Goliath. She did connect with the curses, which were themselves as deadly as a fistful of desert stones, but I was able to calm the situation and get the two of them into my office.
The husband wasn’t really a Goliath. He was even smaller than I am and he was the one quiet member of an East End family noted for its rowdies and lawbreakers. He spoke so softly that I had to lean forward to hear him and I still have no idea what he said to set that purse swinging.
Marie didn’t have any local family at all. So later, when she had broken off with Short Goliath, she was on her own, without a soul in the world to stand alongside her.
Marie came to me on a referral from Children’s Services, having been accused of child abuse. It is still hard for me to reconcile the image I have of her with the person who was alleged stabbed her children with lit cigarettes, among other failures. She was fierce –I could see that from the first—but I never got the sense she could be cruel. She was born in east Kentucky to a family so abusive she and her sister had to nail their bedroom door shut to keep their uncles out. She was small and pale, with raven-dark hair straight out of a ballad. One of her joys, one of the few joys life had allowed her, was to sing. She had a lovely, Loretta Lynnish country voice. She was so shy I only got to hear her once, but she nearly brought me to tears with it. She had a chance to get custody of her children back if she could stay sober long enough and complete all the programs demanded of her, which included parenting classes, psychiatric appointments, home visits from social workers, AA meetings, substance abuse group, and weekly sessions with me.
Children’s Services had placed the children with Short Goliath’s mother further down Eastern Avenue, in an arrangement I never understood, for this particular grandmother, a short, sharp-tongued bulldog of a woman, was already raising the children of two other of her children who had also been ruled unfit. The ones she wasn’t raising children for were in and out of jail on a regular basis and the grandchildren she was raising were already starting down the same sad path.
So I had to ask: if the grandmother couldn’t raise her own children right, what made Children’s Services think she could do any better with the grandchildren?
But there the children were, in a precarious Mother Hubbard of a house on the hillside between Eastern Avenue and Columbia Parkway, all a-tumble with bicycles and hot wheels and swing sets and children on a hill so steep it seemed a wonder that one or more of them didn’t roll off the hill and into the path of one of the big rigs that aren’t allowed on Columbia Parkway but which barreled down Eastern night and day. Which leads me to another question ---I know I’m meandering fearfully--- If the big eighteen-wheelers are considered unsafe on Columbia Parkway, where there are four lanes and no houses and therefore, no children, why do we send them down child-intensive two-land Eastern, where, every few years we would hear of a semi rolling over one of these expendable East End kids?
But it’s not for me to question either Children’s Services or Traffic Engineering.
The multiple demands of Children’s Services were overwhelming to her at the start, but along with traditional therapy issues, we worked on how to use a planner, how to schedule herself, how to handle daily living and the stress of daily living, and she made steady progress. Aside from her drinking, depression was her biggest therapeutic issue. I recall one session in particular where she seemed really depressed. She had a lot to be depressed about, and she often showed it. She had charged Short Goliath with rape and divorced him. When he was convicted, Short Goliath’s mother, who was just as fierce as Marie, had started to harass her. And there was the issue of the children. So, if anyone had a reason to feel down, it was Marie.
She usually had fight in her, though. If I could help her call up that fight and help her direct it, the depression could lift. But she showed no fight on this particular day. She looked even paler than usual. She could barely raise her voice. None of the usual ways worked.
You could see the lights of the soul growing dim.
Finally, as we talked, I found out what was really going on.
She had been sleeping in the woods, out of fear of Short Goliath and his, and she had not eaten in three days.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is a sort of encyclopedia of human misery, a catalogue of modes of mental suffering, does not have a diagnosis for hunger. In all the trainings I ever attended as a counselor, no one ever spoke of how to recognize starvation. The preparation for most counselors does not include what to do when someone is sleeping in the woods. Almost all of what you learn is useful only for working further up the scale from basic survival. It would not make sense for me to talk with her about her family of origin issues when she was starving in front of me.
In this case, the solution was simple enough. We marched across the hall to the social services agency where they gave her food and hooked her up with temporary housing.
I have never really known hunger.
I’ve known appetite. I’ve felt ready for a meal. And I have occasionally gone too long between meals, so that I’ve felt faint and my words began to slur. But I was diagnosed several years ago with hypoglycemia, which has become for me a medically-sanctioned excuse to always keep food nearby and never to go more than a couple hours without eating. As a gesture toward health-consciousness, I buy power bars rather than candy bars, though they are not, I know, that much better.
But I don’t think I am much different from most in erecting these barriers against ever feeling hunger. In every gas station, convenience store, corner market, and grocery, there are walls of snacks, power bars, candy bars, bags of chips. And where there is no live person to sell these to us, it’s easy enough to find a vending machine.
But to really know hunger –and to be in that state in which hunger knows you—most of us keep that experience at a distance. We see it on television or in the pages of a magazine. A plea for donations drops through the mail slot. A billboard posts an appeal for the local food bank.
But most of us rarely see hunger face to face, as I did that day.
With hunger, real hunger, the lights of the soul grow dim.
After that, Marie and I worked on very specific objectives. Week after week, Marie showed up at my office. Bit by bit, she repaired one or another aspect of her life. I don’t remember anyone who worked so hard and methodically to build up a wrecked life.
I wish I could tell you this story had a happy ending. I lost track of her for until I was called in to testify in a long, grueling court battle that went on for days before and for days after my appearance. At the end, the county took the children after all.
She was pregnant again by then, so maybe she saw some hope.