What people should have worried more about, but didn’t, because no one including me nor Luciano, himself, knew about it, was his bi-polar disorder. The story of Luciano’s meth use is impossible to tell without it — in the same way that trying to live our marriage without understanding and factoring in this powerful, unseen force shaping the narrative of our life together is part of how our story went very wrong.
The first time I got that feeling with Luciano was on an outing, early on. We weren’t even a couple, yet. We were on a bike ride on the hilly, rural roads of Western Massachusetts, and he was in over his head. It’s not my fault that he’d presented himself as an athlete and an avid biker — though I probably should have known by the fact that he was a two-pack-a-day smoker, saiddrive my bike instead of ride it, and skimmed a foot flat down on the ground to corner.
That day — maybe because he was tired and irritated and ego-bruised from pushing his bike up a long, steep hill, dressed all in black in the summer heat, as I pedaled past him and then didn’t take his need for an extended smoking break at the top seriously — he snapped at me, then became broody, then angry, then implacable, and refused to get back on his bike.
This was a scene that would play out many times in our future life together: Luciano would become suddenly angry and hijack the situation, either refusing to move — for example sitting down on the sidewalk of a busy city street — or the opposite: stomping away and disappearing, leaving me high-and-dry wherever. International airports were a favorite place of his to do this. Or unfamiliar cities, or in throngs of people, or, once, in a tiny town in the middle of the desert — though that one backfired on him: In the absence of knowing what else to do, I decided to go for a hike, and found him sitting on a bench in front of the town’s one restaurant, six hours later, sunburned and desolately smoking a cigarette, asking where I’d been for so long. Or he’d refuse to get on an airplane, scuttle a long-planned trip, refuse to get in the car on Thanksgiving Day, threaten actions that would cost us a shitload of money to correct, get loud in places you could get yourself arrested for making a scene.
When I’d look back later, I’d fixate on my decisions in these early days: Why didn’t I trust the feeling that I’d get, sometimes, as I spent more time with Luciano and these incidents began to accrue: That these strange, out-of-proportion rages were much bigger than me — and not something I was supposed to know how to handle?
Instead, I decided that what Luciano had was a “temper problem.” I liked everything else about him: It was just this one thing (though it was a pretty big thing). I thought we’d deal with it. I thought we would be able to communicate our way through it. I thought his love for me — which was real, and big — would drive him to want to change; that he’d start to understand that his rages were damaging and unnecessary; that he’d see how much better our relationship could be, once he started to get them under control. I thought maybe, partly, the rages were a sign of immaturity, because he hadn’t had practice being in a real relationship before. I thought he would grow out of them.
I thought a lot of things. The one thing I didn’t think was that his rage was mental illness — because I’d never seen mental illness before — not up close, not in my own life.
That day in the backwoods of Western Mass, I didn’t understand what I was seeing: My brand new love interest — who purportedly adored me and was lobbying hard to become a permanent fixture in my life — was ranting at me for no reason. I found it mostly odd. Finally, when it had gone on for a while with no sign of abating, I just got on my bike and pedaled away. Yeah, he was a city guy with a terrible sense of direction, he didn’t have any water, and there were a number of long hills between him and home. But the place was more-or-less inhabited, and he was only a couple of miles from home — I figured his legendary ability to survive anything would carry the day. He called me hours later, completely at a loss as to why I’d abandoned him.
I’d subsequently look back a little fondly at that brief time — when I could pedal away and feel no responsibility for what might happen to him, which became less and less possible, the more our lives intertwined.
I always knew that there was something very wrong with me.
I would get in trouble for things like standing on the front steps of our apartment building, singing songs I’d made up: “Oh, some lady called up my mother on the phone! And said there’s only one reason you husband stays with you! It’s because of the BABY! BABY! BAAAAAAABY!!!!” I’d twist rope around my body and through the fencing in front of my house and beg people walking by to untie me, saying my mother had done it. I had an imaginary friend named Charlie who was made up of three small rocks.
One day when I was about eight, my mom took me to Bamberger’s to buy back-to-school clothes. While ringing us up, the saleslady smiled and said, “My, aren’t you a handsome little boy! How are you today?”
“I want to kill myself,” I told her. For which my mother promptly slapped me. I don’t remember if there was an event or series of events that led up to this, but when I was about six years old, I’d begun thinking myself to sleep with thoughts of suicide and martyrdom. I knew about bridges and guillotines. Soon, my storehouse of scenarios expanded: I’d lie in bed imagining being put to death by firing squad, the electric chair, hanging, crucifixion, slitting my wrists, ingesting pills and poison. I’d use these images to soothe myself to sleep almost every night, for most of my life. The longest they were ever gone was while I was using meth, probably because I hardly slept, but they’re back today.
And while I’ve always known there was something wrong with me, there was also something wrong with the people around me. “Bloodier than Jaws!” and “Makes Helter Skelter look like amateur night” read the back cover blurbs ofTo Drop a Dime, a true-crime tell-all paperback written about my family in the mid 70’s. My uncles and cousin were always hiding out at one another’s houses, which made no sense to me. The men in my family only smiled when they were drinking, and the women never seemed to smile. Flowers and birds were not allowed in the house. No hats on the bed. No upside-down bread on the table.
Even though the closest I came to murder was through reading about our notorious crime family in the headlines of the Daily News and the New York Post, there was no shortage of violence in my daily life. Everybody threw things, for example, especially the women — usually knives, because, in the kitchen, that was often the closest object. There were lots of reasons I’d get slapped: Swearing. Chewing with my mouth open. Pointing out the obvious. Saying that there was a mafia. Embarrassing my mother in public. And it wasn’t just my own parents who had license to hit me: I remember one day — it wasn’t comical at the time, though it is, now — being chain-slapped by my uncle, aunt, and mother for different interpretations of the same offense. The grown-ups were violent to each other, too, of course. Husbands and wives beat on each other. The woman threw curses at each other. The men sometimes got murdered, went to prison, or just disappeared.
My mother, like lots of women in the 50’s and 60’s, was on diet pills. She took Obretol, a preparation of amphetamine salts that included methamphetamine and made her volatile, paranoid, jumpy, and gave her intense mood swings. She was always talking to herself. Always yelling at me. She took a tablet with every meal, often skipping the food all together. She cleaned incessantly. Sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing, washing, dusting, polishing, ironing (including my underwear and my socks), picking tiny things up off the floor that only she could see, while muttering curses in Italian.
She insisted on giving me daily baths until I was thirteen and big enough to finally push her off me. She picked out my clothing — polyester slacks and dress shoes, when all the other kids were wearing t-shirts and jeans — and laid out an outfit for me every morning. And since my father often didn’t come home after playing a gig, she’d have me sleep in their bed — which was much more comfortable than the pullout couch for me and less lonely for her. The combination of pills, a jazz-playing, jive-talking, broke husband who was never around, and a kid intent on finding a guillotine at a garage sale took its toll on my mother.
My father, involved in things he doesn’t want mentioned in this story, would school me in lying to my mother to protect his secrets. He’d sit me down and pepper me with questions, interrogation-style — Did you have a good time at the gig? What did you do afterwards? Where did you spend the night? — to ensure I wouldn’t crack under the pressure of my mother’s questioning. I worked hard to do well at this: My father was my hero. In a world full of thugs and squares and men with day jobs, my father was an artist who read books that weren’t best sellers and had taught himself how to speak four languages. He played on records and in night clubs and wore a tuxedo when he went to work. He taught me about history, film, jazz and civil rights; and he also took me to the track to bet on the races, taught me how to play pool and pinball, and would let me skip school so we could drive down to Atlantic City to see the Amazing Diving Horse and check out the freak show.
Though for a long time, I didn’t know what his big secret was, I knew there was something on the other side of the curtain — and I wanted to be a part of it. When I finally got access to his other world, I entered willingly. Now, I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t kept my father’s secrets — if I had chosen to betray him rather than my mother. Certainly things would have turned out differently. But I didn’t. Instead, those lies have grown so big that we don’t talk about them today — even with most of the principals dead or too old understand.
He described the special place between the stove and the refrigerator where he’d go to listen to his mom and dad fight — fights that often included physical violence. The male relatives on Luciano’s mother’s side killed people for a living. The females hit their kids and had fits and fell down on the ground and bit their hands when they were distressed. (They all did it, he said, to my curious inquiry about the hand biting. It’s an Italian thing, I guess.)
When he was little, he and his dad used to lean out the window of their apartment together, watching the people coming home from work.
“Look,” his dad would say, to five-year-old Luciano. “See that guy? I hate to tell you this, but… that’s your real dad. He finally found us — he’s coming to take you back.”
“Really Daddy, really Daddy, really?” little Luciano would say, anxiously.
“Yeah. Your mom’s already packed you a suitcase. You better get going. Now give me a hug.”
“Really, Daddy? No! I don’t want to!”
“Nah, just kidding,” his dad would say. “But see that guy over there?”
Luciano liked to tell about the organ his dad bought him and taught him to play: “It had two keyboards, one on top and one on the bottom, and I’d play and pump the foot pedals and sing, like a little one-man band.”
That was what Luciano had to work with — and what I saw — I thought — was someone resilient, who’d figured out how to play this raw deal of an upbringing if not to advantage, then at least for social acceptance. The nonstop, high-energy banter; the delicious tales of prurience and depravity; the funny, ironic delivery made him popular and entertaining — the grown-up version of the little one-man band — and distracted everyone from the pain and shame inside.
During my sophomore year in college I was committed by my therapist and roommates to the psychiatric ward at Somerville Central Hospital. Only two things about my treatment really stick out today. Number one, I wasn’t allowed to wink — a rule they created especially for me. Number two, no one showed up for family week. There I sat between two empty chairs that had been reserved for my mother and father across from my psychiatrist who kept looking at his watch and then looking at the door.
I ran away from the hospital on November 2, 1976. Not knowing what to do, I sold my Les Paul and bought a one way ticket to Paris. One of the last things my mother said to me on my way out the door was: “What if you go crazy over there? No one will understand you.”
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.