by Barbara Sherf
On a recent Tuesday morning the headlines on the front page of the Inquirer rang out “Comic genius is found dead” and “Chef comes clean on addictions.” While many probably read the Robin Williams piece to the end, I wonder how many read the quote toward the end piece on Zahav owner/chef Michael Solomonov’s decision to go public regarding his heroin and crack cocaine addiction after six years of recovery.
Solomonov’s words haunted me all day. “I feel like you can have a greater impact if you tell your story before you die,” he said.
For those who read my recent essay in the Local (“Joining ‘Big Girls Club’? Be careful what you wish for,” July 24 issue), I felt the need to come clean about my own past — my journey as a drug-addicted teenage runaway. Talking about my troubled teen years with a trusted therapist was one thing, but writing and sharing this chapter of my life publicly was (and is) a milestone.
At the pivotal age of 13, my mother and father announced that we were moving from our twin home and familiar neighbors and friends in Northeast Philadelphia to Bucks County. In retrospect, I went through the five stages of dealing with loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. My parents came up with several arguments to back up their case; the suburban single family home had an additional bedroom; the schools were better, and there was less crime and drugs. In my mind, the only one they got right was the extra bedroom; the other three never panned out.
Leaving the old neighborhood and my best friend, Donna Fitzgerald, and our classmates from my Catholic grade school was devastating. Switching to an enormous public school in 8th grade was simply unbearable. While kids can be cruel, teenagers can be ruthless.
Karen, my older sister, got to finish her senior year at Archbishop Ryan High School, so my sister Patrice, (nicknamed “Tree”) and I palled around together for lack of any friends. My younger brother got a dog out of the deal. Mom went to work full-time as a bank teller to help with the mortgage and the purchase of a second car so dad could drive to his overnight shift at the Evening Bulletin.
In the process of building the home, the garage was deleted, and a ground floor bedroom, which Tree and I shared, was put in its place. Her popularity soared as she discovered boys, booze, drugs and late night partying. After Dad had gone off to work and everyone else was asleep upstairs, Tree would stack pillows under her bedspread and sneak out our bedroom window and party into the wee hours. In time, she started bringing me along on these nightly excursions. We now had joined a club of our own, and while there were no membership fees, the price we paid was enormous.
As our popularity rose, our grades fell, and within a year Tree had dropped out of school, and I had dropped out of sports. Mom, the disciplinarian, insisted that Tree get her GED and a full-time job, which she did, at a pill packaging plant, of all places. It was a recipe for disaster.
Tree would come home high as a jet plane and share uppers, downers and everything in between with her new “friends” and me.
By my junior year in high school, my parents’ marriage had come undone, although for financial reasons they remained under the same roof. My father and brother moved into the downstairs bedroom, and the four women in the family were upstairs and on top of each other at every turn. My mother “ran away” for a week, taking a cruise with her girlfriends to figure out her next move.
Things were so peaceful while she was away that Tree and her friend, Deanna, decided they wanted to run away before mom — and all of her rules — returned. Knowing that a bad report card was en route and high myself, I decided to join them. Bad move.
We each packed what would fit into our school backpacks, brought babysitting money and snacks, and hitchhiked our way to South Carolina (it was 1978, and I was 16), getting rides with a cadre of folks, from the Christian family who prayed for our souls to a series of truckers. Our last driver, Steve, offered us his double-wide trailer in South Carolina while he headed farther down the coast to deliver his load of goods.
Road-weary and with no clean clothes or clear plan, we took him up on the offer and parked ourselves at his mobile home where we slept, watched TV, ate junk food and rationed out the rest of our drug stash.
We stole food from the Piggly Wiggly food store and sparingly spent the babysitting money. About a month into this excursion and after the drugs ran out, the lifestyle got really, really old. While others were scheduling their Sweet Sixteen parties, I was trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.
Tree pulled the trigger first. She made it clear that she didn’t want to go back to bucolic Bucks County, so she set out on her own toward California, where she continued the lifestyle — solo — for more than a year before she was busted. Deanna somehow made it back home before me. Steve was driving me home in his beat-up orange compact car, and I was grateful that Steve would be a witness if my mother killed me, which was my biggest fear.
Instead, she confessed that she had not been paying attention to the family and that she understood our need to get away from the craziness in our household, which is why she went on the cruise. She thanked Steve profusely for bringing me home relatively unscathed. While I did not lose my virginity during the journey, I came close. We had been away for one month, and I had missed the first few weeks of school.
After some pleasantries, Steve wasn’t ready to walk away. He said he was willing to wait until I was “of age” and that he was in love with me and wanted to marry me. He was at least 15 years older than I, and my mother simply laughed out loud. Initially I thought it rude, but eventually I joined her, laughing at the half-baked proposal.
My mother had lost one daughter to drugs; she was not about to lose the other to an over-the-road trucker, no matter how nice he was. Back in school I was matched with a good guidance counselor, joined both the student newspaper and the video club, paid attention to my grades and vowed to do something more with however many days I had left on the planet. I had been given a second chance and was determined to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round of my life.
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf is the founder of Capture Life Stories. She can be reached at 215-990-9317 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.