by Lisa Fischer // Photography by Jamison Mosley
For me to explain my story of living with addiction, it starts on day one of my life. I was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a beautiful red-haired mother, Jean, and a witty Jewish siding-salesman father, Frank. In the 1960s, Frank was a peer of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who was also an aluminum siding salesman, the proverbial “tin men.” They traveled the area hawking their goods. My birth came after years of miscarriages for my mother who had my only full-biological sibling 16 years earlier. My arrival wasn’t likely great news for Frank as he recently had been told he had fathered a daughter in Queens, New York, with his mistress.
If you asked me what I remembered of my childhood, I would tell you “drunk and stoned parents along with physical abuse and yelling.” Despite all of this, I acted like a happy child. Why? Because a happy child can keep a parent from using drugs or alcohol. Or so I thought. I didn’t understand at that age that I had absolutely no bearing on their choices.
My parents divorced months after my birth, and my mother, whose “picker” was broken, quickly married another handsome Jew, whom – you – guessed it, sold siding. Drinking wasn’t a problem for Marvin. But pills were. And combined with his bipolar diagnosis (this was the 1960s–it was known as “manic-depressive illness”), it was a lethal combination. They divorced, as well, and since I was so young when they married, I was always told he was my father. Until that day, at age 10, when the truth came out.
My mother and I were living on government assistance in a suburb 20 miles from New York City. It was in the living room of that tiny apartment in Roselle Park, New Jersey, that my mother sat me down to tell me that the man I thought was my father was dead. She told me she had good news and bad news.
“The bad news is Marvin died of pneumonia. The good news is Frank is your father.”
I immediately called Frank to call him “Daddy.” He didn’t care. He was never involved in my life or my siblings’ lives. It wasn’t long after this that my mother told me the truth about Marvin’s death. He hadn’t died of pneumonia but rather an overdose. It was all part of the all-too-common secrecy behind addiction and mental illness. Another secret was the physical abuse. My mother was always telling me she fell or ran into something to explain the black eye or bruises on her body.
Of course, a lot of my parents’ activities spilled into public view for all to see, including me. There was the time Frank passed out face-down in his salad at a restaurant in Manhattan. When the server came by the table, my mother said, “He really likes your Ranch dressing.” My parents taught me to use humor to cope and smooth over awkward situations. My mother also said Frank was very funny–when he wasn’t passed out or hitting her.
This family circus went on in Jersey until my mother, as a welfare recipient, felt she couldn’t provide for me anymore. We moved to New Orleans where she lived many of her young adult years and where she had met my father, who was stationed there in the U.S. Navy in the 1940s. It is also the city where she had been named the first Junior Miss New Orleans as a teenager. We moved down the street from a cousin who had just opened a new restaurant, and my mother went to work–her attempt to try to provide. Of course, another hurdle for alcoholics/addicts is reliability, and she couldn’t hold down a job, even with family. Back to food stamps and government assistance.
Christmas, 1974. We had no money, but we had love and always had laughter. She wrote me a letter telling me how much she loved me and that she had put a bedroom suite for me on lay-a-way. That would be my gift when she had the money to make the payments. That day never came. She overdosed a month after Christmas and just three weeks after my 12th birthday. She was taking painkillers and drinking wine the night of her death. Did she mean to kill herself? A psychiatrist once emphatically told me she didn’t, but she said, “drunks are often sloppy.” My mother likely lost track of how many pills she had taken for a broken toe combined with the bottle of wine she had consumed.
This left me, more or less, an orphan. Remember how well the conversation went with Frank when I told him he was my father? He was just as detached when I told him my mother was dead. He was sorry, but there wasn’t anything he could do. The operative word here is “could.” Alcoholism handicapped him. And at that age, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t coming to rescue me, but now I know it would have been the second worst thing that could have ever happened to me.
My first cousin in southeast Arkansas came to Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, to get me for a few days. I never left. Sherry and Charles Sidney Gibson from Dermott, Arkansas, adopted me and raised me as their own. I changed my last name from Kaplan, my birth last name and Frank’s last name, to Gibson (I kept Kaplan as a middle name) and even named my children for them. My red-haired daughter is named Sidney; my red-haired son, Gibson. I am forever grateful that they made such enormous sacrifices for me.
I married a very healthy man physically, emotionally and spiritually. We are the parents of three children (the third got her name from my husband’s grandmother). I’ll occasionally have a glass of wine in the evenings or a cocktail with friends, and my husband seldom has a drink. There is no substance use at all in our home. I have always heard you either repeat what you saw growing up, or you run in the other direction. I know there is always a chance that second generations will repeat the behaviors they saw when they were raised. I haven’t. I have proper coping mechanisms, a strong husband and a strong Christ-centered faith.
Have I battled mental illness? Yes. In 2000 I was diagnosed with dysthymia, persistent, low-grade depression. When my doctor, the sweet Duong Nguyen, told me my depression was just low grade, I looked up and said incredulously, “You mean this isn’t major depression? I can’t imagine how dark the days are for people with major depression.”
Mine was hidden under thyroid disease, and once my thyroid was corrected (the only medication I take is for my thyroid), the symptoms completely dissipated.
When I was diagnosed with thyroid disease in 2003, my endocrinologist said my mother sounded like she had depression and probably thyroid disease as well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I have a huge heart for both mental illness and addiction. I have seen the ravages of both. My story has a happy ending because the addiction cycle ended with me.