As I walked up to the homeless shelter on Maple Street in Nashua, N.H., in the fall of 2016, I was nauseous. I hadn’t used heroin in roughly 30 hours, and I was in the early stages of withdrawal. As I raised my fist to knock on the door, I felt a shiver of anxiety run through me. I didn’t want to be there, but what choice did I have? I steeled myself and knocked quietly.
A kind-faced, larger-than-life woman opened the door. She stood 6-foot-1, with rosy cheeks, blonde hair, and blue eyes. My eyes.
“Hi, mom!” I said.
“Hey, Katydid,” she replied wearily. The nickname my parents had given me was indicative of my behavior as a child. I would scream, long and high-pitched, for anything and everything as a toddler. If I got hurt, if I was sad, or if I didn’t get what I wanted, I would just scream. The grasshopper-like katydid makes a similar noise, and the name stuck well into my adulthood.
My mom stepped back to let me into her office. “I watched that comedian you told me about last night,” she said. “John Mulaney. I loved that bit about Clinton at the end.”
I smiled. I knew my mom better than anyone on the planet, and she knew me just as well. She was my best friend. I couldn’t go more than a few hours without talking to her on any given day.
“What happened to your glasses?” she asked, looking at my face. She knew I couldn’t see a foot in front of me without my glasses, so her concern was justified. I had been waiting for her to notice.
“Well, that’s actually why I came by,” I said. “When I woke up this morning, I put my hand down on them as I sat up and crushed them to bits. The eye shop on Main Street is doing exams and glasses for only a hundred bucks though. Can you believe that?”
“So you need money,” she said flatly.
“I need glasses.”
“Let me see your hands. You said you smashed your glasses with your hand, so let me see.”
“Mom,” I said. The pitch of my voice began to rise. “I smashed the frame, not the lenses. I didn’t get cut.”
“Katie, I’m not giving you cash for dope. Not again, not anymore. Find someone else to con.” She became distant, detached.
“Jesus, mom!” I leaped from my chair to pace the room. “You know what your problem is? You don’t trust anyone! You know how bad my vision is!”
“I don’t trust you because I was you. I know your tricks because I’ve used them all.” She was eight years clean, as if I could forget.
At this point, I had been using opioids for six years, and heroin for three. Every day was the same: I would wake up sick, often with no money and no drugs, try to con or cheat or steal what I needed from anyone or anywhere, get high, and repeat. I hadn’t held down a job in over a year, and I was living in subsidized housing around the corner from the shelter where my mom worked. I had already driven most of my friends out of my life, and all of my relationships were with other addicts. I wanted to use them more than they used me — for money, drug dealer connections, rides, whatever. They were toxic yet symbiotic relationships. My mother was an oasis of calm in that desert of chaos. She never declined a call from me, never turned me away from her door, and was always willing to listen to me without judgment. I was 24, and she was all I had — besides the drugs.
“You know this is your fault, right? That I’m like this? That I’m a junkie?” I said. My mother, the woman who gave me life, had tears in her eyes. I didn’t stop. “Well, if you know so much about this life, mom, then you know I could just go sell myself on the corner to get my next fix. Is that what you want?”
My mom put her hand up to stop me. She got her purse and pulled out a few twenties. She held out the money with a stony expression.
The thing about katydids is that they use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings so they can be safe. They flick open their wings to scare predators. They change to fit their environment so they can survive. When my parents gave me that nickname, they couldn’t have known how fitting it would be later in my life.
Before leaving, I turned to my mother. “I’m sorry.” I was sorry for what I’d said, but more for what I was. The shame of hurting the people I loved was one more reason on an endless list of excuses to keep getting high. I took the money and walked out to my friend’s waiting car as I pulled my unharmed glasses from my purse.
My mom died a few months later, in December 2016. Later the next year, my father passed, and I spiraled dramatically. I found rock bottom, finally, in 2018, and I’ve been clean and sober ever since. That my mother and father never saw me clean is one of my greatest regrets in life.
My life today is amends to them. I rose to the top of my class at Bristol Community College and graduated as valedictorian. My parents both cherished education, and I know I would be making them proud as I enter my junior year of college at Brown University. Being a chameleon was what I felt I had to do to survive active addiction, and today I no longer have to simply survive. I can thrive.
Katherine Haley is a junior at Brown University.