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Heroin dreams: There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes

This blog contains numerous links to articles, videos and feature pieces about heroin addiction. They show up green. Those links all take you to material described in the sentence. Some of the links aren’t easy to stomach but neither is the topic. You’ve been warned.

Last night I told a stranger (someone from Craig’s List who doesn’t know my last name; that’s a separate blog post) my dad returned home from serving as a medic in Vietnam and introduced my mom to heroin. He was 23. She was 16. My brother (different dad) was a few months old. I was born less than a year later in 1975.

My dad died before I was two. I don’t know when, except before I was two.

I had heroin dreams last night. I don’t have them often. I had them all the time as kid, and didn’t know what they were until years later. Yay court ordered therapy. In heroin dreams, two scenes play out.

I’m in a dark living room playing marbles with my brother. The marbles are small, lumpy and brightly colored. One of the Uncles comes in, I think his name was John. There were a lot of Uncles. He’s really big and really mean and I cry a lot. I see him hitting my brother and watch as he throws me across the room. He takes the lumpy marbles and leaves.

In the other scenario in heroin dreams my brother is not there; perhaps he’s at school? I see myself walking down the stairs to find my mom resting on the couch. I can hear a conversation replayed somewhere in my conscience (it’s a dream, though, so it just this really weird voice over) and my mom is telling me to “always untie the ribbon” before I take the shot out of her arm if she’s resting. “Pull the shot down and out after you untie the ribbon, JennerMennerPennerz. But only if mommy is resting.”

My mom rested a lot when I was little.


I never understood, growing up, why I hated balloons and shots.  Even after I joined the Marine Corps, if you handed me a syringe during a shot stand down at the battalion aid station, I inevitably passed out.  I give blood but let them know in advance I literally can’t see the needles.  Allow me to talk about nonsensical things and look the other way and you can have all the blood you need.

I digress.  No surprise there.

This morning I woke up with a line repeating in my head. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”  It took me a minute to place it.

A few months ago a friend invited me to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) to see an artist I’d never heard of. She was a Facebook friend and we’d never met in real life. (IRL) Since she was coming to town for the concert, we hadn’t met and I’d never been to DPAC, I readily agreed. She’s awesome IRL, btw.

I listened to John Prine for 90 minutes, captivated. His songs were these incredible, soulful ballads about life and love and loss.  About halfway through the set he played a song that gutted me. It’s the one with the chorus I woke up singing today. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

That night I sat there and listened and tried my damnedest not to make a scene while I quietly wept. The heroin.  The balloons. The needles.  The war. The homecoming. And then all of it smashed around in my head and came out again and it was my friends, our wars, and prescription meds. And heroin.

Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon,
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.
Well, he played his last request,
While the room smelled just like death,
With an overdose hovering in the air.
But life had lost it’s fun,
There was nothing to be done,
But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill,
For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.


They say history repeats itself.  I’m 41 now and a friend’s 24-year-old son overdosed on heroin in February after being raised here in the small, affluent North Carolina town I live in. One of his friends overdosed two months later. They’d both been in a sober living facility when they died. It’s not just here; it’s happening all across the country. So much so that small town mayors are fighting to implement needle sharing programs to stave off the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV and reduce the number of babies born addicted.

<with a wry smile> I once questioned my mom about her decision to shoot heroin; why she chose it over us.  She didn’t choose, she said.  It had a hold on her no matter how hard she fought. Heroin doesn’t give you a choice. She reminded me more than once as an adult “You were only born with trace amounts of heroin in your system; I didn’t shoot a lot. That’s why they didn’t take you from me. They knew I tried to stay clean when I was pregnant.”

I can’t even fathom the hold a drug has on you that leads to those sentences being rational.

Heroin abuse is so prominent it’s hit
Saturday Night Live. Sounds trivial, but if it’s an SNL punchline? It’s a thing. I love the SNL skit for the simple fact it’s being talked about, openly.  Heroin is a problem in mainstream America, not in dimly lit back alleys in big cities. It’s in classrooms and boardrooms, on playgrounds and city streets and suburban sidewalks. We need to talk about it.

Opioids are deadly and they’re undoubtedly a gateway to heroin. It’s cheaper to score heroin on the streets in America than it is to buy a single Oxycontin pill.  When I was in Afghanistan I saw the impact opium (poppy is their cash crop) had on an entire nation. I shudder to think we’re on that path here in the states and turning a collective blind eye because we’re a first world country. They’re regulating opioids now but it’s like shoveling shit to the tide at this point.  I don’t have a call to action here besides pay attention to what’s in your medicine cabinet. I don’t want to debate “disease or criminal activity” either; I just want to see a nation rise up against it.

I’ve been struggling to write about this today but I’m not taking it to bed with me tonight.  I’ve got Sam Stone playing on a loop in the background.  Part of my mind screams “WAKE UP, WE HAVE A PROBLEM!” whether you classify it as a disease or a criminal choice and part of my mind whispers “it’s always been here; it’s been here my whole life.”

It was my brother stealing things for us like snacks and chips and toilet paper from the 7-11 down the street because we had nothing to eat at home. Becoming a ward of the state sometime around my 4th birthday (and my brother’s 5th) but not before Uncle John slashed my mom’s arm open in front of me and my brother who calmly went to the neighbor’s house for help. When the cops came they clapped Uncle John on the back, shook hands and left with him.

Years later I wondered if he’d been one of them.

It was an orphanage and foster care and being separated from my brother that same year. It was the letters from prison with thick segments blacked out with a Magic Marker; screened by the social workers who didn’t think I should read everything my mom wrote. She drew comics on the envelopes and wrote on every line, front and back. My handwriting is exactly like hers, still today.

It was court ordered “weekend visits” to see my mom while she was a guest of the state, billed as part of the reunification process.  It was unauthorized visits when she was on parole and I was in foster care that left me confused and wetting the bed for weeks, even though I was in the fourth grade. #bedwetter   It was her coming for me in a van that same year and being upset because I wouldn’t leave the playground with her. She later told me how she almost kidnapped me that day but she was too busy being pissed I refused to go with her.

She told me once (on an unauthorized visit that I was subsequently grounded for) when I was in elementary school and enduring awkward orthodontics, she’d done drugs to feel better because I didn’t look like the other babies when I was born.  Years later I realized she had the same damn cleft lip and palate I did.  For years I thought I was responsible for… heroin. It was making up stories about my parents at each new school, each new home.

It was choosing an abusive foster mom over my real mom in a custody trial when I was 12 because I already had an understanding of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” She didn’t stay sober that time either and, years later, heroin was my fault because I’d refused to go with her that day. Again.

It was a childhood full of anger and abuse for my brother and I, each in different homes and different states, and tumultuous, erratic relationships with our mom once she was out and sober. [sic] She wasn’t ever really sober thanks to a doctor who accepted Medi-cal and wrote her a prescription for “anything she asked for because your mother is never going to be well, why not let her be comfortable?” but she’d stopped shooting heroin several years before she died in 2010, after my brother and I slept in her hospital room for a week.

We’d established a relationship by then, the three of us. I credit my brother with that. He begged me to accept her for who she was a few years earlier so I’d have a clear conscience when she died. He said “Family is the cards we’re dealt in life; friends are a reflection of who we are. We both have great friends. Just accept she’s mom and she’s just the way she is. She isn’t you. You’re not her.”

All of that was heroin.

She held out her arm once, forced me to look for fresh track marks. It was my 21st birthday and I accused her of being high while we were at Sizzler pretending to be an all American family. I didn’t see fresh track marks. I saw years and years of scarred tracks covered by a prison tattooed pegasus that seemed to be mangled. In my minds eye I now understand: that’s the same arm Uncle John slashed open all those years ago. She always wore long sleeves. She also shot between her toes.

If you’re looking at this photo and thinking, “Holy shit you look just like your mom, Jennie.”  Yeah, I know. I get that a lot. 

FullSizeRender (39)

I was 30 before I realized why I hated balloons. Hated the smell and the texture of the latex; the very sight of them made my skin crawl. Used to stress out when my friends’ sweet kids brought them to me to inflate or fill with water. I just couldn’t hold the balloons.

The marbles in my heroin dreams weren’t marbles. They were water balloons stuffed with black tar heroin. No shit Uncle John was mad when he walked in and we were rolling them around on the floor.

“Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon.”

I don’t have a single memory of my father aside from what my mom told me about him. Her credibility was shot by the time I cared to have conversations with her. After she died and I cleaned out her trailer, I found her journals and letters.  Either her stories were true or she’d read the lies she wrote so often she believed them. Most of it is upstairs in my attic now; I couldn’t bring myself to read it all.

He was tall, she said. And rescued her from an abusive relationship.

He loved her.

And he shared his heroin with her.



Heroin, like so many other drugs, destroys lives and impacts generations. If you need help, reach out. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit the online treatment locators.

7 thoughts on “Heroin dreams: There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes

  • Caitlin Cahalan

    Hi Jennie – I stumbled upon this article via your Twitter handle and just wanted to pop in to say thanks for sharing. It must have been hard to be open about the history with your mom and her addiction, but you’re right – this epidemic is out of control and we need to have conversations if we want to make any progress about it. My father had an alcohol addiction that ultimately led to his death and I spent a lot of years being ashamed to talk about it, but I’m now of the mind that shining a light on dark truths helps others and ultimately helps yourself too. Thanks for being a shining light.

  • This is a formidable piece of writing. The waterworks kicked in…for you, for any child that has to live this reality. We all have our stories and, as they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. You are powerful.

  • Shelly Burgoyne

    Best piece I have ever read on this topic. I really touched me. This is where our country is and we have to find a way out. How is it that we can fight a war for over a decade but this got past us? V/R former combat veteran and former Army Officer.

    • Thanks, Shelly. I think talking about it is going to be the most effective way of shedding light on it… and fighting it. I appreciate your comment. JH

  • I’m so sorry this is your history, your reality. But I’m thankful it’s a platform, and it’s something that ended with you.

    • Look, as long as I’m still allowed to be Aunt Jennie who flies in for random weekend and week long visits and sends odd gifts in the mail? We have nothing to apologize for, Christy! #setshumoraside

      Thanks, Ma’am. (still in my contacts) I’m happy neither Eric nor I became statistics. And we both have AWESOME fRamilies. <3


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