A memoir about marriage, methamphetamine & mental illness

By Stephanie Rosenfeld & Luciano Colonna

Chapter 5 – That Last Part Was Heavy


I’m worried that this memoir makes it sound like the entire story of our marriage was about Luciano’s bi-polar disorder and drug addiction — it wasn’t. What I think happened was that the stress, chaos, and pain caused by his untreated and mounting mental illness accrued to the point that by the end, it crowded everything else out; and the good part, which had taken place mostly in the beginning, felt small and faraway in the distance.

Our dinner table was the most interesting place we both knew. At the end of every day, we’d sit down by candlelight and talk about art, and writing, and books, and the news, and drug policy, and sexual politics, and stupid things people did that pissed us off, and Callie, and her dad (“our ex,” as we called him), and our cats, and TV, and a hundred other things. Even later on, when things got really difficult, at the end of every day, we were almost always able to make our way back to each other this way. It was what I’d tell people — the short answer, anyway — especially toward the end, when everybody’s main question was, basically: Why is it so hard for you to let go? Because, through all of the trauma, for the fifteen years we were together, we always had something to talk about — we were always interesting to each other. I still don’t know if there’s something messed up about me, that I valued this so much, at the expense of other things, like peace, and calm, and safety.

Also, I know now that I got something out of Luciano’s condition — and though I was aware of it, then, I’m aware of it in a much different way, now. I liked the mania. More than that: It benefited me. Because of Luciano’s particular type of bipolar disorder, his mania was entirely believable — and there wasn’t a big, visible downside. He didn’t stay awake for days on end, go out on sex benders or spending sprees, become delusional or psychotic. There wouldn’t be a huge crash into depression at the end. Instead, he would just blaze with energy and ideas, talk a lot. The energy was infectious, and because he’s smart, his ideas were interesting, high-quality, often right-on. He had the quality of being just a little bit at the forefront in his thinking: He could usually foresee pretty accurately how the whole picture of something — a cultural trend, a political battle, a policy development, a new technology — was going unfold. Aside from making him an annoying person to watch a TV show or movie with, it’s a pretty awesome quality.

The thing about the mania — unlike the rage — was: It wasn’t just craziness. It wasn’t just a collection of symptoms that appeared and discharged themselves and didn’t add up to anything. It was who Luciano was, in concentrated form. And I believed in that person — mania and all.

When I met Luciano, I was working as a pastry chef in a local restaurant. I hadn’t been a writer for all that long — only about five years: Before that I’d been a visual artist — but the horrendous misogynistic environment I’d encountered as an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had drummed any desire to participate in that world out of me, and I’d made the switch over to writing without planning to. I just started writing stories, one day, and was surprised at the ease with which my creative concerns transferred themselves — as if maybe I should have been writing all along.

Also, I liked the way I could write alone in my house, without any guys walking through my work space to make unsolicited, patronizing comments; or suggest I switch to a house-painting brush or turn my small drawings into life-sized installations, so people could walk through them, because that would be really interesting. I also liked that I could target my audience, speak to people who actually wanted to read work like mine and not just dismiss it because they couldn’t place it within, or in relation to, the tradition they were a part of. Since graduate art school had been such an infuriating and soul-crushing experience, there was no way I was going to repeat it by going to graduate writing school to get credentials to enable myself to teach. So, to acquire a “portable” skill that I could do while also writing, I had gone to culinary school.

Luciano was a great mate to have, as a writer. He was my biggest fan, my cheerleader; he was always supportive. My confidence and optimism about my writing always needed a lot of bolstering: Should I continue? Was it worth the uncertainty? Was my work good enough? Did we have enough money for me to take just one more month to finish this project? Etcetera. Luciano’s answer to all of those was Yes. When his enthusiasm was eventually seconded by agents and editors and I began to have things published, he was nothing but happy for me. Amazingly, also, he didn’t resent me for having pursued the path, when he hadn’t — I think he might even have been relieved to have had the excuse to abandon his novel about the young prostitute whose menstrual blood tasted like mangoes. And he protected my time for me — he was happy to spend as much time alone with Callie as I’d relinquish; he was always encouraging me to get back to my study, to work fewer hours at whatever restaurant job I had, always urging me to let him support us so that I could write.

There was another way in which being with Luciano worked for me: Being with someone so gregarious and social, who filled up all the airspace, made it easy for me to hide in plain sight — which, it turns out, is my preferred perch in a relationship, and maybe in life. This has to do with being a writer: It’s partly about how much time I like and need to spend in my own head, and also partly shame-based. I hate to talk about myself, and have a particular fear of conversations that lead to the question What do you do? Every time I listen to myself try to answer that — no matter what I say — I want to hit myself in the face with a hammer. Writing pains me, humbles me, regularly humiliates me — and draws me back to it, every single day.

So, I was grateful for the interference that Luciano’s love of the limelight provided, socially; and also for the space his self-absorption provided me when we were alone together. I could listen to him chatter while also thinking my own thoughts; and it was a nice contrast to other relationships I’d been in — from the ex-boyfriend who’d actually cried, once, because I’d had a different opinion than he did about a movie and who’d been deeply disturbed that I wouldn’t let him read aloud to me every night in bed; to the ex-husband who was perfectly fine with sitting next to each other companionably in the car for four hours on a road trip without talking.

Also, along with being a writer came periodic panic and depression and self-doubt attacks that, frankly, were no fun to be around, no matter how hard I tried to fake it through; and my own version of self-absorption, in evidence in these paragraphs — it’s part of the job description. I consider myself lucky to have found someone who was okay with all of that, in a partner. I probably wouldn’t have been. When it came to my writing-life, Luciano was always much more generous to me than I was to myself.

There’s one aspect of all of this that I’ve come to question, though — most often in the middle of the night, when I lie awake and can’t keep myself from peering at the flimsy scaffolding of my optimism about the present, my hopes for the future — kicking its shaky supports, rattling its joints; when I castigate myself for stupid life choices — committing to such an uncertain, regularly demoralizing and non-remunerative career being the biggest one. And I wonder: Should I have listened, less, to Luciano? Was believing the supportive words of a person with mania a mistake? Because I believed in him, so much, I believed in his belief in me. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Oh: There was something else, too:

We moved to Utah in 1998. Neither of us had a job, there, yet. In Massachusetts, a reporter from the Daily Hampshire Gazette had messed up, and the paper had printed some off-the-record comments I’d made about my past drug use during an interview with him about needle exchange. I sued them for $7,500 and we used the money I received from the settlement to rent a U-Haul to carry us and our things, and to pull our small car, to a house we had rented in the Avenues district of Salt Lake City.

I think Stephanie was surprised when I agreed to the move so easily. I didn’t really care: I would have moved anywhere to be with Stephanie and Callie. And while my first choices would have been New York or Bangkok or Paris, settling on Salt Lake City was perfectly OK with me.

The drive to Utah in a rented U-Haul was hands-down one of the most awful experiences of my life. Our friend Bill helped us load the truck and put our car on a dolly to pull behind it.

“When you go through the Jersey barriers, just look straight ahead and whatever you do, don’t stop. And don’t drive into anything you can’t pull forward out of,” were Bill’s parting words of advice. (A dolly’s different than a trailer — the car’s back wheels on the ground make it almost impossible for someone not trained in truck-driving to back up; according to Bill, if we got in that situation, we were going to have to unhitch the whole thing to extricate ourselves.) When we failed at this, and called Bill from the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Wyoming, where our rig was boxed in to a deceptive dead-end we’d accidentally pulled into, all Bill said was, “Oh, man! I told you not to do that. I can’t help you: You’re off my radar, now.”

We fought the whole way — screaming fights. The drive was terrifying, the Interstate in summer, basically, a two-thousand-mile construction zone. Entering each narrow, concrete sluice of Jersey barriers, I’d fight an almost overwhelming urge to close my eyes and put it all in the hands of a God I didn’t believe in. We’d also equipped ourselves with the worst book-on-tape ever. I’d told Luciano to go to the bookstore and just pick the longest one — something popular, not too heavy. He’d come back with a “forensic mystery” made of sentences so bad, the tape never got more than five to six consecutive minutes of play before the one of us in the passenger seat would punch it off in fury, saying I CAN’T LISTEN TO THIS SHIT ANYMORE! or the one of us driving would scream, “CAN YOU TURN THAT FUCKING THING OFF?!!” as we hit yet another corridor of Jersey barrier, our knuckles whitening on the wheel.

Before we moved to Salt Lake City, Stephanie and I took a trip there to visit her friends and check things out. The city appeared too nice for my blood upon first look: The airport was small and only 15 minutes from downtown; there were mountain bike trails in the city and the whole place was surrounded with ski resorts and snowcapped mountains. The people were very nice and exceedingly polite and overwhelming blonde. I felt very out of place while there and I found myself smoking more than usual.

One night after dinner, Stephanie’s friends were driving us around and showing us some of the sights, when Steve, the husband of the couple, asked if I wanted to see the “sleazy” part of Salt Lake City.

“I bet this guy’d like me to show him where they sell drugs” he said.

“Well, if you don’t mind, that’d be great,” I agreed. A few minutes later we were at Pioneer Park, an inner city patch of grass with a basketball court without hoops, a tennis court without a net, and a large population of homeless people lying around on the grass. Young Mexican dealers worked its perimeter, pulling balloons of heroin and vials crack out of their mouths for fast sales. People were moving in and out of the shadows like they were part of an epic, illicit game of Kick-the-Can. The park was across the street from a homeless clinic, the homeless shelter, a few SROs, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, the future home of the non-profit organization I would start after moving to Utah— the Harm Reduction Project. The view of the scene from the back seat of Steve’s SUV made me feel better about the idea of moving there.

Abbie Hoffman once said, “Where I live, an expert is someone who talks fast and isn’t from the neighborhood.” And that was my story: As soon all of our boxes were unpacked, our things were put away, and Callie’s dad had brought her out to join us and she was enrolled in her new school, I would become the region’s expert on Harm Reduction.

Once in Salt Lake, I had a three-fold plan for establishing the Harm Reduction Project: 1) I would use my credit card to buy a suit I couldn’t afford; 2) I would meet with anyone interested in meeting with me to discuss harm reduction; and 3) I would raise money.

Salt Lake City was ready. Also, I think that my enthusiasm for the work and potential of others attracts people to me. I easily found support from the Mayor, the Health Department, the Division of Substance Abuse, the Governor and even the LDS church. I found funding, and was soon stealing away the smartest and kindest staff I could find. Together, we built something important — an organization that was part of a network of users, advocates and professionals working together to build a strong and effective harm reduction presence, from providing clean syringes to working in the jails to operating a drop-in center for active drug users.

While they attended to the day-to-day affairs of agency, I focused on policy and fundraising. I was happy. Work was great. I had a wonderful family. And, though I wasn’t breaking the law, there was a frenetic pace to life that kept it interesting and precarious and gave it just the right amount of edge.

I’d tried to prepare Luciano for what Utah was like (I’d spent eight years of my childhood, there) but I don’t think he got it until one of our Mormon neighbors walked over the day we arrived, while we were unpacking the truck, and welcomed us to the neighborhood, saying he appreciated the diversity provided by people like us. We telegraphed our bemusement to each other: Our car wasn’t sporting any liberal bumper stickers; we hadn’t told him much: What he picking up on — our dark hair and olive complexions?

In Utah, Luciano was the kind of person who needed only one name. “LOOCH-ee-aaano!” — in a fake-Italian accent — was the way most people would react, upon learning his name, or would greet him, once they knew him. People would comment on his pony-tail, his all-black clothing; they were impressed by his worldly experiences, his counterculture knowledge; they’d pepper their conversations with “man,” when talking to him; loved that a character out of The Sopranos had appeared in their midst.

It would have annoyed me. But it was attention, so Luciano was okay with it (though he didn’t like it when people called him “Lucky,” or, worse, mistook him for The Fonz)— and it didn’t take very long for him to become known for the work he was doing, as well as for the novelty factor of Being Luciano.

It was exciting, for me, to watch Luciano invent himself in our new home, and to be involved in the effort. A few weeks after we arrived, we were invited to the neighbor’s for dinner, and in the kind of chance encounter that isn’t all that unusual in Salt Lake City, which is in some ways a small town, Luciano met a guy who worked at the Fourth Street Clinic, a local non-profit organization serving homeless people, and Luciano’s Salt Lake City harm reduction career was born.

As for me, I had a fantastic third story room to write in, under the eaves of our huge, hundred-year-old rental house. From my desk I could look west across the valley to the Oquirrh mountains (until Utah’s third richest man built a hotel that blocked the view); and I couldn’t hear the sound of anything happening on the two floors below me. It was there that I wrote my first novel. For a period of about five years, it felt like we were approximating the life of “normal” people — settling into careers, becoming better and more successful in our areas of expertise, getting on our feet financially, making friends, building a life. And in doing so, I think we both started to believe that maybe we’d end up with something we both wished for, but couldn’t quite imagine how to attain: A future we might be happy in, a partnership that would grow stronger, a family that would last — a final destination.

This Is Your Marriage On Drugs is a memoir about marriage, methamphetamine and mental illness. A collaboration between Luciano Colonna and Stephanie Rosenfeld, please visit www.stephanierosenfeld.com to view additional short stories, essays and novel excerpts by Stephanie.

%d bloggers like this: