Mo can’t get enough of the Kool-Aid her father makes. He always mixes up the grape flavor for her. She craves it, she feels like she can tolerate her life a little more after drinking it.
Kool-Aid, a drink of childhood, summers, and innocence, but the Kool-Aid Mo’s father made for her took away her childhood. Made of sugary powder, artificial flavoring, and ingredients no one could pronounce, Kool-Aid remains the drink of choice for kids. They drink it in their non-spill cups with crazy-spiral straws, getting jittery from the large amounts of sugar.
She couldn’t see through that deep purple liquid, couldn’t even see what else her father added to it, the deep purple looked as unclear as it made her feel. As an 8 year old, Mo didn’t know what was in it or how her father made it, but she knew she needed it. She needed it to wash everything away and to numb herself.
But the Kool-Aid would help only temporarily, she needs more of it. The amount her father gives her isn’t enough to wash away what he does all the time. He gives it to her every time he comes close, too close. It became like purple gold to her. The more she drinks the Kool-Aid, the less she will have to remember, but she still can’t escape from him.
“I felt everything,” Mo said.
She walks into her boyfriend’s apartment, the yellowing walls and dingy color remind her of her past chain smoking days. She looks toward the kitchen and sees it sitting on the cluttered counter. She surprises herself because she is more excited to visit Mike than she is to see it sitting there. He apologizes for leaving it out, but she doesn’t care. After struggling with it since the age of 8, she doesn’t need it now. From the moment her father gave her that grape Kool-Aid, Mo had depended on it, craved it, ruined her life over it.
That icy cold liquid, a burning after-taste and mind-blurring feeling if she drank enough of it–she doesn’t need any of that now, doesn’t feel sick from not having any, she just needs to see Mike and how proud he is of her. Her emotions run high going back to where she had abused it so often and tears accompany her deep brown eyes wherever they look.
An hour south of Reno, Gardnerville, Nev. reminds Mo of her past days spent in a fog. Her three sons grew up in Gardnerville, as a mother she should remember holidays, birthday parties and graduations, but she doesn’t. The memories of her time there aren’t of a home and a family, she only remembers the dark corners of places she had ordered it in and who she had it with.
Her dependency on it had taken over her mind and wouldn’t allow her to be a mother. Those dark corners of those dingy little places darkened her mind, her life and her ability to be a mother to her children. Even after people she knew died from too much of it, she still returned to those places and those dark corners to have more of it. She couldn’t escape from it in Gardnerville.
“I really don’t want to go back,” she said. “I want to move forward.”
At the age of 12, she knew she had to get away from her father, a 12 year old couldn’t make it on her own. She just has to wait until she turns 15, 16 or 17 like her three sisters did before moving out. Her mother can’t protect her from her father, especially since her mom can’t even protect herself from him.
“He would beat her within an inch of her life,” Mo said.
Lights flashing red and blue, men in uniforms come inside. The police arrive and tell her father to settle down and tell her mom to quit antagonizing him. The police would leave and things would go back to Mo’s horrifying reality. She hated seeing her mother controlled by her father and she hated the control he had over her every time he came near her.
“There was no help,” she said.
She continued to drink the Kool-Aid. She had quickly figured out that if she doesn’t drink it consistently, she gets sick– both physically sick and sick of actually feeling things. She sneaks extra from her father to make sure she has enough to wash away her sickness and the pain of his actions.
Mo’s father is not a father– any man who does that to his child can’t be considered a parent. Fathers take their daughters to the park, drive them home from school everyday and scare off boyfriends. Mo’s father never does any of that.
He forces Mo drink the Kool-Aid so she could get through it, to numb her enough to do what he wanted to her.
“He knew better,” she said. “It just wasn’t right.”
Getting used to her new home, with new responsibilities, new people and new feelings. Coming from living in a house with 15 other women in similar situations as herself, Mo now adjusts to having her own place with her own kitchen, her own bathroom and her own washer and dryer. Across the street, Mo picks out new bedding, new cookware, new decorations and even some new body wash.
“Look at all this,” she said. “I feel so blessed.”
She didn’t originally start the program to stop using it, but she had started it to work on her problems.
“This was the only place I could work on my stuff in a controlled environment,” Mo said.
In this new environment, she finally stopped using it. With other women going through similar struggles, Mo has had a strong support system and has been successful so far.
“86 days is a lot for me,” Mo said.
When she first arrived there, she felt angry. Angry at herself and angry at her whole situation, she remained stubborn and unwilling to work on what she really needed to work on. After a week or two though, she began to let people actually help her with her real struggle.
“Then I started to soften up and opened myself up for learning.”
One in the crowd
Going to high school now, she joins the marching band. Hours of practicing, competition and traveling for shows still don’t offer enough of an escape for her, so she dives deeper and deeper into the dark-purple gold in her cup.
Mo starts to figure out that what her father does to her also happens to other girls in the backwoods town of Chesterton, Ind. Her sisters, her cousins, neighbor girls– none of them talk about it, but Mo knows that she isn’t alone. Yet she still feels hopeless in finding any source of help other than the grape Kool-Aid she needs to survive.
Another girl at her high school looks exactly like her.
“I knew she was my half-sister,” she said.
With it happening all around her, it’s too common to fight it. Nobody cares so nobody helps her. The grape Kool-Aid he mixes for her, it was the only thing that could get her through what he did to her. Mo’s father added more than just sugar to her grape Kool-Aid, he added vodka.
He comes closer to her making her wish she could run away. The vodka oppresses her thoughts, her will to fight back and her ability to call out for help.
“I know he got me drunk every time.”
Seizure prone from drinking, Mo lands in the Intensive Care Unit during one of her multiple trips to the hospital. Her middle son, Bobby, visits her.
“I remember one of the times him introducing me to this girl,” she said. “I don’t know if it was his wife or not. I was pretty out of it.”
Bobby got married in August. Mo didn’t receive an invitation.
“I got his wedding pictures on the Internet, on my Facebook.”
Although drunk most of the time, she still felt the pain, the hurt of not seeing her son get married and the hurt of him not wanting her there. This hurt shows– her sad brown eyes and light wrinkles reveal not her age, but her struggles and her heartbreak.
In November she decided she had to quit drinking. She couldn’t continue her life without being a part of her sons’ lives. She needed to change, she had to get rid of her dependency on alcohol. She had to rid herself of the purple gold she had been hooked on for the past 42 years.
“I just kept telling myself that it wasn’t an option,” Mo said. “But I want a life with my children.”
In January, Mo enrolled in Step2, a rehabilitation program for women and families. She now lives in her new house at Step2’s Lighthouse Campus in Reno, Nev. Mo lives in a single-bedroom cottage, only one of the 25 built for women recovering from substance abuse. With so many women working through situations similar to her own, Mo has a strong support system built in to her new community.
“I’ve never had a neighbor that liked me before,” she said. “Now I have all these girls that are ok with me because they are doing the same thing I’m doing. I was always the drunk, crazy lady next door.”
Step2 includes counseling and groups specified toward different areas the women in the program have struggled with. Attending the domestic violence groups teaches Mo a lot about her father and why he did what he did– control.
“My dad was an abuser,” she said. “He physically abused my mom a lot.”
“He sexually abused me for years.”
Not a son
Now 25 and pregnant with her first baby, Mo couldn’t wait to deliver him. Mothers can’t wait for their babies to arrive so they can hold them, sing them to sleep and watch them grow older.
She wanted him born already.
“I couldn’t wait to have that baby so I could go have that drink.”
She didn’t drink alcohol during her any of her pregnancies, but with her first two pregnancies she smoked weed and she used cocaine three or four times during her third pregnancy.
Her sons grew older and Mo signed over guardianship to her mother.
“I missed her as a kid,” said Bryan Jones, Mo’s oldest son. “But as time went on, hormones kick in and bitterness kicks in.”
Mo returned to live with her sons and her mother soon after spending three years in prison for manufacturing meth.
“There was a point where, I think was 14 or 15, when she was back living at my grandma’s house where I basically one night had to kick her out,” Jones said. “And ever since then, I haven’t really trusted her.”
“I’m her child, but I don’t feel like her son.”
At a young age, her youngest son, John, knew she needed her drink and he didn’t want her to be sick in the morning. He would leave some alcohol in the fridge for her.
“He’d hustle me a beer,” Mo said. “That’s pretty bad when your son would do that for you.”
Moms make sure their sons behave, they constantly nag them about their hygiene and they warn them about girls. Mo’s struggles prevented her from doing any of that for her sons and now she must deal with her regret. She couldn’t be a mom in her state of mind and in addition to consistently drinking, Mo also used needles for drugs.
“I had to instruct my son [John] on the safe use of a needle,” she said. “That’s not a normal conversation a mother has with her son. That’s not the kind of mom I wanted to be.”
Forty-two years after her first sip of vodka in her grape Kool-Aid, Mo’s 5-foot-6-inch frame needs a pint to a liter of vodka and many beers every day to get drunk. As a functioning alcoholic, Mo’s move from bar to bar paralleled her move from job to job. She even takes classes for two or three years at Western Nevada College. College courses are already challenging, but Mo attends them drunk with vodka and beer clouding her mind.
“I couldn’t tell you what I passed, what I didn’t pass, or what the classes were about,” Mo said. “I guess I got some good grades in some of the classes, but I don’t have a clue.”
Mo’s dad had poured vodka into her Kool-Aid to get her drunk so that he could sexually abuse her. She needed that grape Kool-Aid for all the times he raped her, the times he took away her dignity, the times he killed her will to live. He sexually abused her cousins and her sisters too. She suffered under his direct abuse for nearly 8 years of her childhood, but the trauma of his abuse has lasted her whole life and she still tries everyday to escape the memories and scars of his cruelty.
Because of her father’s abuse, alcohol stripped away her childhood and later on it took away her chance to be a mother.
“It was just something I didn’t know how to do,” she said.
Her son Bryan grew up without her most of the time and he doesn’t want to be hurt by her again.
“I hope she does well,” Jones said. “But I feel like the more I invest in it personally, usually the worse off I am.”
Mo wishes she could go back and be a mom and buy her sons instruments, take them to band practice, but it’s too late now.
“I’ve never even had a holiday with my boys,” she said. “Not since they were babies.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a mom.”
Her pain in struggle with substance abuse eliminates her courage to ask her sons about how they feel about her role in their lives. What if they don’t want to let her back into their lives or their hearts? She doesn’t want to hear that, no one does.
“I just can’t handle the hurt,” Mo said as tears well up in her eyes, those eyes that have witnessed too much cruelty. “I know I hurt them a lot.”
Continuing in the program has put her on the road to recovery and she now works on her problems so that one day she can be a part of her sons’ lives.
“I want to be that trusted grandma,” she said. “And right now would they trust me with their kids? No. So that’s one of my goals.”
Since coming to the program, Mo has made an impression on everyone around her. And since the night she moved from living with 15 other women in a treatment home to her own cottage, Mo has spread smiles to everyone at the Lighthouse campus. Everywhere Mo goes on campus, one of the women waves or runs over to her to see how she’s doing. The other women look up to Mo, they respect her and aspire to stay as strong as she does.
Mo’s progress get attention from Diaz Dixon, the CEO of Step2.
“Mo’s done a great job,” Dixon said. “Mo doesn’t get distracted by all the crazy and chaos that goes on around here.”
Dixon sees many women come and go through the program and through the campus, some leave unsuccessful while 63 percent of them are saved from their struggles, yet Mo stands out to him amongst this successful crowd.
“She’s definitely one of the heroes of the program,” he said. “She’ll go wherever she wants to go because she will do well.”
Signed up for summer course at Truckee Mountain Community College, Mo hopes to learn from her classes this time and she has a tutor lined up to help her. She doesn’t know what she wants to do yet, but she wants to continue on her current path. She wants to keep growing and learning.
“I don’t wanna screw this up,” she said. “I’m not doing things half-ass, I’m actually putting effort and some pride into things.”
“I’m really trying hard because I’m learning how to live. I don’t know how to live.”
Growing up with her father put her at a disadvantage as to knowing how regular people live. Now she has the opportunity to enjoy life as it should have been all along. She looks around at all the women and children in her cottage and her sad brown eyes brighten just a little.
“Sitting around watching TV, watching movies with a bunch of kids in the house, cookin’ dinner, a bunch of sober women drinking Kool-Aid.”
Mo and her friends worry about finding sugar to add in their Kool-Aid. Actual Kool-Aid made with a packet with the pitcher-shaped Kool-Aid man on it. The drink of Mo’s childhood no longer numbs her, she no longer drinks Kool-Aid to forget everything, she drinks it because it tastes good.
Real Kool-Aid, the kind without vodka, made of brightly colored powder and tap water– sugar added to taste and mixed thoroughly. When her father made her Kool-Aid, she couldn’t taste it’s sweetness, but she can finally taste it now and all it should have represented in the first place– a real childhood, a good father, finishing college, keeping a job, remembering moments with her children. All the things she couldn’t accomplish before lay ahead of her now.
“I didn’t know what normal was, I still don’t know what normal is,” Mo said. “But I think this is pretty normal.”