By the time a person reaches a certain age, she has presumably learned a thing or two about social etiquette and polite conversation. Just because someone is wearing a bandanna, it is not acceptable to ask him how chemo is going. An anorexic usually won't laugh if you go, "Hey there, pudgy!" And while chatting up the parish priest after Mass, you should never wink and ask him if his favorite Chinese dish is sum yung gai.
Although my mind still wages a mighty battle with my mouth, I thought I had put my conversational blunders behind me. So I was irritated when my 21-year-old daughter gave me a crash course on what not to say right before the Narcotics Anonymous convention she spoke at last Saturday.
As we stepped off the escalator onto the second floor of a fancy downtown hotel, I was swept into an ecstatic sea of hugging, grinning, loving humanity. It was baffling. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought I was at a Care Bear reunion. I twisted around and said, kind of loudly, "Wow, who knew ex-junkies were so happy?"
"MAAAHHHHMMMMM," she said. My daughter dragged me off to a corner.
"First of all," she said in a low voice, "there is no such thing as an EX-junkie. Once a junkie, always a junkie. It keeps us from getting complacent.
"Secondly," she said. "SEH-CUND-LEEEE, are you listening to me?" She tugged on my arm, because I was leaning in toward the crowd as it surged past me, hugging and being hugged and pretending I was schmoozing with Brangelina and Tomkat. "Do not make junkie jokes or say anything about drugs. Or any kind of substance." (On the way in, I joked I was going to wander around and ask random people where the bar was.)
"All right already, I get it," I said.
"And finally, you absolutely CANNOT speak at my workshop. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, yes, I hear you, now let's get going. Don't the experts on things like this say you should hug 30 times a day for optimum mental health -- or something like that? I think I can easily get in six months' worth here. Maybe I can cut back on my antidepressants."
"It might be better if you just didn't talk at all. Just follow my lead, OK?" She eyed me warily. "Oh, and one other thing. Do not, under any circumstances, ask people what kinds of drugs they did. We don't do that. It doesn't matter."
I stared at her. How had she gone from being a homeless, flea-bitten heroin addict to Emily Post in such a short time?
But, of course, the very things she tells me not to ask about are the first things I want to know when I meet one of her new, clean friends. I'm not being nosy. I'm being human. The mind just goes there. If I ever met an Army Ranger, the first thing I'd want to ask is, "So how many people have you killed?" If I ever met a sex addict ... well, multiple questions in there. But with her friend, I want to know details and specifics, like favorite drug(s): meth or heroin? Crack or prescription drugs? Sniffing, huffing, snorting, smoking?
There were other things I wanted to know: "Did you ever have bugs? Did your family kick you out too? Did you rob them blind to feed your habit, selling everything you could get your hands on for not even a day's worth of dope? Do certain 24-hour convenience-store restrooms bring back memories of the places you got high?"
I don't want to sound glib. My daughter has come so far and I'm terribly proud of her, especially because of her age. I've learned that most kids who become drug users don't get clean until they're much older. That youthful feeling of invincibility works against them: They figure they can handle it.
It takes time, sometimes decades, before a person decides to change. As I looked around, I noticed that the vast majority of people there were adults, some of them elderly adults. There were not a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings.
The workshop on "Youth and Recovery" was for addicts only. I was sorry I couldn't make an earlier session for family members, because I had so many pent-up questions, things I'd had to keep to myself for so long.
"So did you have to tell lies about your kid too? To friends, family, anyone who asked? Did you have to pretend everything was A-OK even though you couldn't get in touch with her and had no idea if she was dead or alive?
"How about holidays, when everyone else was bragging about their kids' scholarships and internships and saying all kinds of proud parent crap and then they asked you about her and the art school scholarship she'd gotten? And you had to make something up about how she'd turned it down because she'd changed her mind and was thinking about business instead?"
It was true, sort of. She and her boyfriend purchased a gun, a necessary piece of equipment if you're starting up a drug-dealing operation. For a short time they sold heroin but unfortunately they were their own best customers, so that didn't work out so well. In fact, they had to sell the gun to buy more dope.
Now that she seems well on her way to staying clean, I just can't seem to shut up. There are so many things I feel like talking about now that I actually can.
At the workshop, my daughter did me proud. With a few minutes left in the meeting, the moderator said, "Anyone else have something to say?"
I was sitting in the back of the room. I raised my hand.
"I would! I'd like to say something," I said.
A bunch of tattooed and pierced faces turned and stared at me. My daughter was giving me the evil eye. The moderator shook her head.
"You're not an addict. I'm sorry, but you can't speak here."
I'd have to wait until next year, but that was OK. My daughter was clean, and we were here. I stood up and headed for the door. All I really wanted was a hug, a great big junkie hug, and I knew just where to get one.