Loving But Leaving A Toxic Mother In 'Without You'
Open the cover of Domenica Ruta's new memoir, With or Without You, and you'll find a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut: "You were sick, but now you're well, and there's work to do." His quotation foreshadows the woman at the end of this memoir — the one who emerges after a couple-hundred beautifully written, harrowing pages.
Domenica Ruta, or Nikki, as she goes by in the book, is an addict, alcoholic and occasional drug user, but perhaps the most complicated and toxic part of her addiction is the relationship she has with her mother — a bleached and tattooed brawler who believed it was more important to be interesting than good, who did and occasionally dealt drugs, and who allowed her daughter to stay home from school whenever a good movie was on.
Ruta tells NPR's Rachel Martin that she didn't realize the extent of her mother's drug problem until she was in her teens. "That's when I found out she was doing heroin," Ruta says. "Before that, she'd had this brief period of sobriety in which she was going to Harvard extension school, she had aspirations to maybe become a psychiatrist ... she had big dreams, and she was working really hard, she worked as a manicurist, and so I sort of fell into this dream that my mom and I were both movin' on up."
There was trouble lurking in the background: Ruta's mother had been using, and hanging around with her dealer friends, for years. "But when you live in the jungle, you don't realize that tigers are a strange species," Ruta says. "These were the people in our lives ... and it didn't occur to me to judge them. ... They were the people at the kitchen table, they were people sitting on the porch, they were people smoking cigarettes on our front steps, and I didn't know there was something wrong with that."
But Ruta's mother had big dreams for her daughter, who made good grades in high school. Ruta eventually transferred to an elite boarding school in a much richer town nearby. "It was the most harrowing and wonderful and magical and terrible time in my life," she says of those years just after she left home. "I'll never forget that first night in the dorm. I went to Phillips Academy in Andover, and I got in on a scholarship, and my mother saw to it ... the first night in the dorm, lying in my little twin bed in my little dorm room with the eaves overlooking this beautiful prep school quad, where former presidents once looked out this window, and being just so desperately afraid and sad that my mother wasn't down the hall, but then having this strong sense in my heart that I had to make it work."
As a little girl, growing up in a blue-collar town, Ruta says, she wanted to do things like free Nelson Mandela and change the world, or maybe be a doctor or a lawyer. "Anything that mattered, and I didn't really know what that meant," she recalls. "I didn't have many models or templates that I could follow." But in high school, she began to develop a drinking problem as she dealt with the stresses of her first romantic relationship.
"I felt like, oh, this is how everybody else gets through life," she says. "The things that I find so terrifying are no longer terrifying when I have this drink." Ruta says she spent 14 or 15 years as a high-functioning alcoholic, able to get her work done and survive academically and professionally, "but I needed a couple of drinks beforehand."
Beating her addictions and changing her relationship with her mother were "two separate epiphanies," Ruta says, but one led to the other. She was living in Texas and still a heavy drinker when she decided to cut off contact with her mother. "She was still in my head, of course, and in my heart, but she was no longer this person I talked to on the phone anymore, she was no longer this person I visited, and I shut her out of my life as though she had died, and lived like that for a couple of years." And that, Ruta says, led to a revelation: "She's not the reason I drink. She's not pouring my drinks. I am."
"She would give me Percocets and Oxycontins, and she would put a nickel bag of pot in my Christmas stocking and write, 'Love, Santa' on it, and she would give me drugs — but she hated, she abhorred alcoholism and alcohol. She couldn't drink," Ruta continues. "And it was a great rebellion on my part, and almost an offense to her, that I became an alcoholic."
Cutting off contact with her mother was liberating but terrifying, Ruta says. Her mother bombarded her with weeping, histrionic voice mails, which she dutifully listened to for about six months, until deciding to change her phone number. "And the night after I had my phone number changed, I had this dream," she says. "It was a very Faulknerlike dream, where my mother was dead, and she was wrapped in this brown wool blanket, and I wouldn't touch her ... but I was directing the EMTs to be very careful with her body, loading her into an ambulance, and then I drove this great Mack truck, with this — you know, it was sort of As I Lay Dying, with my mother's dead body behind me, and I felt like I was flying."
Ruta has now been sober for almost four years and hasn't spoken to her mother for almost seven. "I would like to one day," she says, "and I'm working toward that."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Open the cover of Domenica Ruta's new memoir and you find a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut: "You were sick but now you're well and there's work to do." His quotation foreshadows the woman at the end of this memoir - the Domenica Ruta who emerges after a couple hundred beautifully written, harrowing pages. Domenica Ruta - or Nikki as she goes by in the book - is an addict. She's addicted to alcohol, to drugs, but perhaps the most complicated and toxic part of her addiction is the relationship she had with her mother. I spoke with Ruta recently and that's where our conversation began - with her mom and her childhood in Massachusetts.
DOMENICA RUTA: I loved her so much but she was really volatile and she was capable of snapping and, you know, throwing everything inside of our cabinets against the wall, breaking glasses, shrieking, turning over refrigerator. So, you know, and then she was also capable of beautiful moments of tenderness and love and compassion. And so the jump from one to the other was something that was always scary. It's something I just lived with.
MARTIN: When did you start to realize that that wasn't how every other kid lived?
RUTA: I knew things were different but I didn't have any shame or feelings about it until adolescence. And then I started to realize that the house I grew up in is something to be ashamed of. It's something that people will judge me for if I bring them home. Because, you know, there were holes kicked in the door that my mother kicked when she was mad. And people would see that and wonder about it.
MARTIN: When did you know that your mom had a drug problem?
RUTA: Later in high school, she told me she was doing heroin. Before that, she'd had this brief period of sobriety in which she was going to Harvard Extension School, she had aspirations to maybe become a psychiatrist, she was pursuing a bachelor's degree. But in her mind, that bachelor's degree was just a stepping stone to a masters or a doctorate. She had big dreams. And she was working really hard. She worked as a manicurist full-time and she was going to school. And so I sort of fell into this dream that my mom and I are both moving on up. You know, we're both sort of upwardly mobile in our dreams.
MARTIN: But you had had questionable characters in your periphery for a long time. I mean, your mom had been using drugs and hanging out with her dealers for years before that, right?
RUTA: Yeah, but when you live in the jungle, you don't realize that tigers are a strange species. These were the people in our lives. They were my mom's friends but I thought they were my friends too. They were the people at the kitchen table. They were people sitting on the porch. They were people smoking cigarettes on our front steps, and I didn't know that there was something wrong with that.
MARTIN: She had big dreams for herself and for you. She encouraged to apply to some very elite high schools. You did really well in school. You got great grades and she recognized that you had a lot of potential. Can you describe what it was like when you finally left home and went into this other world?
RUTA: It was the most harrowing and magical and wonderful and terrifying time in my life. I'll never forget that first night in the dorm. I went to Phillips Academy in Andover and I got in on scholarship. And the first night in the dorm lying in my little twin bed in my little dorm room with the eaves overlooking this beautiful prep school quad where former presidents once looked out the same window and being just so desperately afraid and sad that my mother wasn't down the hall. But then having this strong sense in my heart that I had to make this work, I had to get through this night. And if I could get through this first night in a dorm room when I was 15, I could make it. It would open up this whole other world for me, and I had no idea what that other world was, but this was the first night and I had to survive this first night.
MARTIN: At what point did you start developing what you write about as a drug habit?
RUTA: That started in high school. That started around this time I first got my very first boyfriend. And I said, sure, I'll have a hit of that joint; sure, I'll have that drink. And I felt free. All the fear evaporated and I felt relief, like, oh, this is how everybody else gets through life. The things that I find so terrifying are no longer terrifying when I have this drink. And so this is how I'm going to do it. And for a good 14, 15 years, I was a high-functioning alcoholic where I could get my work done, I could show up, I could be on time. I could do what I was asked to do by bosses and professors and teachers. But I needed a couple of drinks beforehand.
MARTIN: Eventually, you realize that you do have a problem, that you have to change the way you're living. Did you know at that moment that that meant you had to change the relationship with your mom? Did you think about your addictions in the same way that you thought about your relationship with your mom? Did you see them as linked?
RUTA: No, those epiphanies were very much separate and one led to the other. I cut off contact with my mother while I was living in Texas. She was no longer this person I talked to on the phone anymore. She was no longer this person I visited. And I shut her out of my life, like, as though she had died and lived like that for a couple of years and continued to drink heavily, which then led me to the epiphany she's not the reason I drink. She's not pouring my drinks. I am. She's not...
MARTIN: Because she used to, though? She used to pour a drink...
RUTA: No. She never poured me drink.
MARTIN: She didn't?
RUTA: No, she did not. No. She would give me Percocets and Oxycontins and she would put a nickel bag of pot in my Christmas stocking and write love Santa, you know, on it. And she would give me drugs. But she hated, she abhorred alcoholism and alcohol. She couldn't drink. And, you know, it was a great rebellion on my part and almost an offense to her that I became an alcoholic and not a drug addict.
MARTIN: So, you stop all contact with your mom. You kind of go through this emotional exercise, this psychological exercise, of thinking of her as dead. That must have been excruciating and freeing at the same time.
RUTA: For about six months, I wasn't talking to her but I was still listening to every single one of her voice mail messages. And there were a dozen a day, and they were long and wailing sound installations of her slamming the phone against the countertop, slamming the phone against the table, shrieking, crying, holding the phone up to a radio playing a song we used to love. And I would listen to all of them and I wouldn't respond. And it took me about six months to realize, oh, I could change my phone number and then I don't have to listen to this anymore.
MARTIN: You got sober. How long have you been sober?
RUTA: It'll be, God willing - one day at a time - it'll be four years in March.
RUTA: Thank you.
MARTIN: What's your relationship with your mom like now?
RUTA: We haven't spoken for about seven years, and I would like to one day. And I'm working towards that.
MARTIN: Would you like her to read the book?
RUTA: Yes, I would. I think she'll be proud. I think, you know, if there's anything anyone gets out of this book is that she loved me tremendously. She had a ferocious love for life in general. And as her only daughter, of course, she had a ferocious love for me. It was complicated and imperfect, as most parental love is. And I also think that, above all, when she reads this book she'll be really proud of me for telling our story and for telling my story.
MARTIN: Domenica Ruta. Her new memoir is called "With or Without You." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Domenica, thanks so much for sharing your story with us. We appreciate it.
RUTA: Thank you so much, Rachel.
MARTIN: And if you'd like to read an excerpt from Domenica Ruta's memoir, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.