A memoir about marriage, methamphetamine & mental illness
By Stephanie Rosenfeld & Luciano Colonna
Chapter TEN– THE WOMEN
Luciano handed in his assignment the other day, but now I’m the one who’s not quite ready to move on. I kind of like being the puppet-master. It gives me a tiny, little feeling of power — something I don’t have much of, in my real life. So I thought I’d indulge in a few more thoughts and drawings on the way back to the main story — in which Luciano embarks upon his career in Harm Reduction and a new chapter of our life begins.
First, a topic that I promised in an earlier section to revisit. I’ve been putting it off because it reveals unattractive things about me.
There were always a lot of peripheral women in our lives. Luciano kept big boxes of them in our basement: Hundreds of photos of ecstatic, dancing hippie chicks; stoned, languid housemates; tiny Thai sex workers in lingerie; sultry Euro-babes; postcards with hearts and lips and eyes doodled in their margins; Aerogrammes full of love and longing and recounted heart-bonding experiences. I thought of all the women as ex-girlfriends, but according to Luciano, most weren’t technically exes — they were just friends, acquaintances, and photogenic strangers he’d had sex with, since, as a rule of thumb, he’d had sex with everyone, back then.
When I say hundreds, I’m not exaggerating — it was a little like a hoarder situation. It seemed kind of odd to me that his ex-girlfriend memorabilia made up such a high proportion of his earthly possessions — but he and I were opposites that way. Besides Callie’s baby albums, my photographs fit in a manila envelope; and most were pictures of me and my high school friends — I’d winnowed my ex-boyfriend collection, which was small to begin with, to about one picture each — if they’d been worthy of taking up that much space.
Before I met Luciano, I admit, I was one of those nightmare girlfriends — a tedious detective, always asking for more details about the past relationship dynamics, the real reasons for the break-ups, a detailed timeline of all backsliding, the state of the ex-girlfriends’ current thinking.
I quickly realized, though, that obsessing about Luciano’s exes would be pointless and absurd — there were just too many of them. And besides, except for the time he called Bad Suzanne in the middle of one of our first dates for her salad dressing recipe (bachelors: not a recommended dating move), it’s not like he ever had contact with any of them. (This was way back before cell phones and email were ubiquitous; before social media brought fluxes of exes pouring into every relationship.) Even I could see that I was clearly much more interested in these women than he was. And I pretty much believed him when he said there was nothing to tell. What I needed to do was just take those over-populated boxes in stride, and file them with the rest of Luciano’s past — which, as we’ve mentioned, was so famously behind him.
I also believed him when he told me how lucky he was to have found me, that I was the most important thing in the world to him, that he’d never loved anyone the way he loved me; and that our relationship was it, for him. I know: It makes me wince, now, to think that I hung so much trust on words like that. But I don’t want to beat myself up, here, for entering into my new relationship with self-confidence and an open heart. (Though I can’t guarantee I won’t, in another chapter.) And I certainly enjoyed the status — a new experience, for me — of being adored and primary, the girlfriend without peer.
So, even though from time to time I’d obsess a little (which sounds suspiciously oxymoronic), about all those exes, my heart wasn’t really in it; and for the most part, I was able to put the pictures out of my mind, use the situation as a growth experience.
Though every once in a while — almost always when one of Luciano’s episodes of abuse had laid me low — I’d go down in the basement and take another self-tour through the boxes. I didn’t think of it as snooping, really, since he kept them right there in plain sight in the basement of our family home — which, in good times, seemed mostly like a storage issue, though in bad, could feel like a flagrant act of disrespect.
(Brief public opinion poll: Boxes of ex-girlfriend memorabilia in family basement: Y or N?)
I’m not sure why I did it — what it was I was after, as I sat there on the floor in those moments of emotional decimation, examining the pictures, re-reading the letters and postcards. It felt like I was looking for evidence of something, but what? During those post-abuse episodes of estrangement, Luciano felt so alien to me: Was I wondering even then, as I would much more consciously, later: Who was he, really? One of the things I’d think, as I looked at the smiling girlfriends, as I read the heartfelt words, was: Look how much fun everyone was having. Look how much they’d all loved him. Clearly, he’d never abused any of these women. So, what was wrong with me, that I didn’t warrant the same good treatment?
Moreover, did it follow that the accusations and insults he’d assault me with during his anger episodes were true?: I’d ask him, sometimes, how his other girlfriends had reacted to being treated this way — the point being, We both know this isn’t normal. But he’d always tell me, no: The only problem was me. He’d never had fights with any other girlfriends besides me because I was the only one who had ever acted in such a way as to bring out this rage in him. The only reason we couldn’t be happy together was because I was just too over-sensitive and demanding and damaged and problematic and manipulative and flat-out mean to live.
It took Luciano a long time to admit to me — till we were many years into the baffling cycle of abuse and apology, shame, resentment, and damage — that I wasn’t the first girlfriend he’d “had fits” with. That was how he put it, and I’d half-noted, at the time: It was the same term he used, in his funny-appalling stories of his childhood, to describe his mother’s abusive behavior toward him — painting a picture of a hysterical, ridiculous, cartoon crazy lady, and not someone with the power to inflict any real damage.
It would be many years till I started to unpack the effects of being gas-lighted by Luciano this way when he was in the throes of a bipolar episode. I’d like to say it was almost literally a mind-bending phenomenon, but I’m pretty sure that’s a misrepresentation of the science. Remembering the experience, though, it’s something I still don’t really understand. Why did I stay there, listening, trying to make sense of what was happening? Because I always did, and it wasn’t because I was a masochist.
It was almost like I could feel my brain bifurcating, as I worked to process the two, incompatible things going on — trying to turn his raving into intellectual sense, while it was all going straight into the part of me that experienced it as violence beyond words. I know I keep trying to say this, in different ways. I keep thinking of different ways to draw it, too.
In addition to the women in the boxes, there were the real-life ones, too. In harm reduction, as in a lot of social justice and human services fields, women were a large part of the work. And Luciano’s one of those guys (women know what I mean) who likes the attention and easy path to intimacy that friendship with women confers. From the time he started his first job, Luciano was naturally popular with his new colleagues.
He’d come home from the office with stories, gifts; women were always telling him they’d had the strangest dream about him. One asked him if he’d be a sperm donor. Once, he came home with a hole burned in his shirt: He’d accidently set it on fire, leaning too close to a candle on a co-worker’s desk to help her with something on her computer.
I’d give him mild shit about this stuff — and also tell him, in all seriousness, that he needed to educate himself about sexual harassment and make sure nothing he did crossed any lines or could even be experienced as coming close.
As his career in Harm Reduction grew, so did his circle of colleagues. Some were local, but many were the people he met at the conferences and meetings he’d started going to, across the country and around the world. They were mostly an abstraction to me — a distant cast of characters I’d never met, in a world I didn’t frequent. I didn’t travel with Luciano for work because work travel was on the ever-growing list of things that gave him stress; and the first few times we tried it — basically, mobile tantrums, with me captive in a hotel room with a raging crazy man, or walking the streets of an unfamiliar city alone, emotionally destroyed, trying to tell myself I was a strong woman and could get through anything — were enough for me.
I knew the harm reduction women mostly from the x’s and o’s and other inappropriately intimate things they’d say in their emails, which I’d occasionally snoop into: Hey, Lucky! I miss you! Love you! Thinking of you! Can’t wait to see you! i.e. at the next conference — in Washington, New York, London, Delhi, Prague. One senior collaborator signed her work emails, Kisses. Another bantered with Luciano about all her STDs.
Of course, I’m cherry-picking the things that pissed me off — I know there was a lot of legitimate work going on. But I started to have a problem pretty quickly with what I thought was a wholly inappropriate tone that I knew wasn’t just coming out of nowhere.
I know I shouldn’t have been snooping. (And, sadly, this isn’t the worst of it — there’ll be much more snooping to come.) In my defense, I could say that snooping turned out to be vitally protective to me, in the end — snooping kept me from losing my house, and let me know where all the money was going, and that I needed to get tested for HIV.
But that would just be an after-the-fact justification. At the time I’m talking about, it wasn’t really defensible: I had no real basis besides my own insecurity; a growing curiosity about what Luciano was doing to invite the intimacies; and a lack of trust in these women whom I’d never met, and to whom, I knew, I was also an abstraction.
Of course, like all difficult topics in our life, it couldn’t be talked about. Luciano would get really mad at me when I’d question him about the things I’d seen — the only relevant issue, of course, being my lack of respect for his professional integrity and my spying on him. No matter how I tried to frame it — even if I’d admit that my insecurities and suspicion were bad traits that I didn’t want to harbor, or suggest that we review our marital fidelity policy — which we’d never really felt the need to nail down in the first place — he’d always tell me that my thoughts were bizarre, my suggestions ridiculous and extreme, and I was a problematic person for having them. If I persisted, he’d stage a tantrum.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Once, when he was in a good mood and I’d managed to ask the question just right, he did attempt to illuminate the over-intimacy. The explanation went something like this: Harm reduction was a world of people who’d been through a lot — drug use, and the marginalization and dehumanization that went along with it; and damage and trauma and the loss of friends and family members to overdose — and all of that made them an inordinately close community: a sub-culture, really, bonded by their shared experiences and their drive to help people and change unjust drug policies — and they all just got each other in a way that straight (as in “square”) people like me would never be able to understand.
A lot of the women were particularly vulnerable, he said.
So, you know, you wouldn’t want to upset them by doing something cruel like suggesting they use a professional sign-off in their e-mails — or make them feel weird by using an impersonal closing like, “Best Regards,” instead of Love, Luciano, in your replies.
I’m paraphrasing only the tiniest bit.
In fact, I heard this in stereo, once, on the occasion of a big conference Luciano put on in Salt Lake City , when Luciano and one of his male colleagues thought I was being a big bitch for taking note of the public drunkenness, the disproportionate ratio of older male bosses to young female employees and the perceptible power differential, along with the usual creepy behavior, engendered by that; and for calling them both out about the female conference attendee I’d encountered walking around their shared suite in her underpants that morning (apparently she’d been too drunk for them to call her a cab to get back to her own hotel, so she’d spent the night on their couch) when I came in to bring Luciano a clean shirt.
Wounded birds, Luciano’s cohort had actually said. At least I could tell from Luciano’s look that he was glad the words hadn’t come out of his mouth.
They also both told me I was being mean for focusing on this peripheral stuff, rather than allowing Luciano to enjoy his big moment as the conference organizer. That part’s true: I did do that. Partly because I’d just been through six months of hell, at home, from Luciano’s toxic stress from planning the conference; and also maybe because it was the first time I’d seen the subculture in action, and it was jarring to me to suddenly understand what he’d been doing, out there in Harm Reduction world, and also to get a new understanding of how and why it might be serving Luciano, to keep his two worlds separate.
Maybe I was also starting to realize that the pedestal he put me on — he was always telling me how loudly he proclaimed his adoration for me and Callie, when he was out in the world — might actually be a pretty bogus, self-serving construct: conferring devoted family man status (that classic chick magnet) on him while being of no discernible benefit to me.
Suffice it to say, that was the final death blow to my faltering, big maturity kick; and pretty soon, I just felt about the Harm Reduction women the same way I did about the exes in the boxes: That everybody else was getting the good parts of Luciano, while I just got the stress and meltdowns and insanity at home.
I think there was something else, too, that connected Luciano’s harm reduction world and the boxes in the basement — something bigger than the women.
When Luciano and I met (as I know I’m now repeating ad nauseum), we both believed his past was behind him. And that was good, because I had no real interest in that person or that time — least of all in the drug-using part. To my mind, that chapter of his life was closed, and the Luciano I knew was the real — and the only — Luciano. That other person — the one who’d done all the drugs and taken every risk; who’d lived embedded on the dark side, and embraced its experiences and its dwellers — was just a colorful prelude to the person he’d turned into when he met me. (Incidentally, it would take me a long time to see both the flawed logic and the self-absorption in that thought.)
But the Harm Reduction friends were really interested in that person — and it went beyond entertainment value: In the context of that world, all those experiences made him an expert, an informed source of on-the-ground knowledge, a passionate and effective advocate, an empathic compatriot.
And I know that was really compelling to Luciano. Like anyone, he loved being admired and respected, sought out as an expert, valued as a friend. And I know it was also gratifying for him to be able to start to pull together the fucked-up experiences of his past into something socially valuable and personally redemptive.
Here’s where I attempt a writerly maneuver I’m not actually sure I can pull off.
I want to be able to say that I saw all that, at the time, and that that was the thing making me so uneasy. That I fixated on the women because they were an easy proxy; but, really, I could sense how Luciano’s work in Harm Reduction, and the reinforcement he got, for the person he used to be, was creating a duality between who he was out in the world and who he was at home that he was increasingly — and unsuccessfully — trying to navigate.
Because if I can say that, besides making me look really prescient and astute, maybe it also means that my leeriness about his new friends and colleagues didn’t stem solely from a place of hurt and anger and pettiness and insecurity and self-absorption. Maybe it was because I knew, at some real level, more about the state of Luciano’s mental health than I had conscious awareness of, at that time, and I had an intuitive understanding that something about this work dynamic wasn’t entirely healthy for him.
I mean, it’d be great for the purposes of this story to be able to say that: That I had a premonition, back then, that Luciano’s work in Harm Reduction was setting him up for a big fall — and also great for the part of me that likes stories — especially this one — to have shape and order and accumulating insight, and an internal logic that holds the promise of making at least some kind of sense in the end.
But in truth, I’m not sure I can. All I can say for sure is that his new work life made me uneasy, and that feeling grew as time went on.
When people used to ask me back then if I worried that Luciano’s working in a drug-related field would cause him to relapse, I’d always — and honestly — say no. I’d had an up-close and personal view of Luciano’s relationship with substances for a while, at that point — a few years into our relationships, he became a social drinker and occasional pot-smoker; and neither of those things posed a problem or served as a “gateway” to other drug use. Though I was worried about a lot of things, relapse wasn’t one of them.
If someone asked me the same question now, I’d answer a little differently — though still probably not how you’d expect. I’d say, Maybe. But that I don’t think the drugs part was exactly the problem. I’d say maybe harm reduction itself was the gateway — not because it gave him access to drugs, or put him in situations where people sometimes used drugs or had liberal attitudes toward drug use, but because of the way it set him down a path that led away from the grounding reality of our life, and toward a place he hadn’t planned on revisiting — his past.
The past that was supposed to stay, harmlessly, in those boxes.
Those boxes: all-in-all, I did pretty well at living with them — until I didn’t, anymore. What happened to them is a story for another chapter. Instead, I’ll end this with a random drawing, and I promise Luciano will be back to tell his side of the Harm Reduction story in Chapter 10.