This post was originally published on June 6, 2014.
Our housekeeper was named Carla. I knew not to bother her too much, because her sons were on drugs.
Carla would spend the afternoon by the phone and it would ring and ring, all the time. She’d scream, beg, plead, cry and slam the receiver down, only to pick it up a minute later. I had to be quiet about it.
Sometimes I was the one who picked up, heard a man in his 20s asking if Carla was there. And I’d say, yes, hold on.
I don’t know who told me about which drugs Carla’s sons were on, but it didn’t matter. Drugs in Milan, during the 80s, meant heroin. And heroin meant bucarsi, shooting up. I wasn’t allowed to play in the Piazza Vetra park, downtown Milan’s premium dealing spot, where the ground was covered with needles and spoons and people were reeling around the drinking fountains. (It was close to my grade school, so any field trip that would require us to even cross that park caused major outrage in PTA meetings.) Heroin was the reason anything bad happened—our house being robbed; my mother’s purse being snatched by someone on a bike, only for the shoulder strap to cling to the bike’s handle, and my mother to be dragged all over our street. It took weeks for the black, purple and yellow bruises to fade,. The police would say, “Eh, junkies” and call it a day.
As for Carla’s sons, one got clean after being allowed to join a comunità terapeutica (therapeutic community)—supervised group homes so prevalent at the time. (So much so, the word comunità still holds that single meaning regardless of context.) He later died from HIV complications. The other one couldn’t handle group homes, and he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic—last I heard, he was living in yet another comunità, this time for mentally compromised adults.
The lesson I got out of my childhood was avoid heroin, everything else will sort itself out. It was a popular lesson.
I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning in 2002—I woke up with no recollection of the previous night; I dozed off, only to realize I’d been dropped in the hospital’s drunk tank. (Lots of people there. Old, young, mostly men.) I spoke to a doctor for five minutes, asking her if I had been raped. She said I hadn’t; she let me walk. No one thought a 25-year-old woman drinking herself to a near-comatose stupor had any underlying mental issues, nor that she showed any symptom of a physical addiction.
When I crawled over to AA three years later, I babbled about being a binge drinker. I was back in Milan, and a handful of meetings were available around town, albeit scarcely populated ones—I never entered a room with more than 10 people present.
As I spoke, I’m pretty sure someone mouthed, What’s a binger? No idea where I’d picked the definition from. Maybe I’d read about Britney Spears.
There’s no word for binging in the Italian language. The closest we come is abbuffarsi, but it carries too strong of a food-related connotation. There’s no word for rehab, either. We talk about disintossicarsi—detox. When it comes to the recovery process, we got nothing.
Perhaps because there’s not much of a recovery scene.
During the 80s, heroin was framed as a full-blown social alarm—an entire country’s disease, demanding treatment. Vincenzo Muccioli became a star: a half guru, half Military Dad-type who ran a giant comunità, San Patrignano, he preached a special brand of tough love—everyone knew he’d chain addicts who wouldn’t comply—so I knew shooting up would make my mom cry and get me sent to Sampa. Scary stuff.
(In 1994, Muccioli was found guilty of being an accessory to murder for his role in covering up a guest’s disappearance from San Patrignano: the man had been beaten to death by Muccioli’s associates. Several witnesses spoke up about Sampa as a culture of systematic physical and sexual abuse, but no one went to trial for being part of a culture.)
As the years went on, the plight of Italian addicts took on a life of its own. Ecstasy, Ketamine and Datura became the latest social alarms, with thousands of poorly researched op-eds raving about Kids Today and the Crazy Drugs They Take. But our nameless disease keeps up with the times. On one hand, everything can, and will, be used as the springboard for a fresh wave of public hysteria, from tween girls guzzling alcopops to the latest gaping wound in our national pride, compulsive gambling; on the other hand, nothing apart from heroin is ever considered truly addictive. Low-grade cocaine might be the single item to survive the lira/Euro switch and the current economical crisis; if anything, its street price went down in the past 10 years, with previously unpopular variations such as crack gaining traction as well. But heroin is still the only substance deemed worthy of a solution on both the chemical and the behavioral front, whereas alcoholism and pharmaceutical abuse are considered vizi, moral faults, and the possibility of being treated only comes into play if you’re facing jail time for breaking the law while intoxicated; you beat someone up, you had another DUI. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll be forced to talk to social services, you’ll get referred to meetings.
And being in recovery will become the biggest taboo. Something never to mention.
When I decided to clean up, I didn’t know where to start looking. Comunità never appealed to me. And was there a comunità for…what? Drinking? A bit of blow? Snorting crushed sleeping pills? Come on.
Plus, they were so going to make me do work. Dig holes in the ground and whatnot. (I always pictured therapeutic group homes as a whole lot of hole-digging, with somebody screaming in the background.)
Going to rehab—now, that sounded appealing. Something lady singers did.
A psych ward sounded lovely as well, but, as I’d found out, they were going to turn me away unless I really tried to kill myself. (Chugging wine and sedatives while watching Alice in Wonderland wouldn’t be considered a suicide attempt. It just made me wheezy.) I landed on AA because of the tiny foreign thrill it gave me; there I met women who had struggled with bulimia as well as alcoholism, so maybe they knew about binging, under a different name.
To this day, Italian private facilities don’t advertise their rehab services—with the exception of Narconon affiliates, which are raising their media profile. (True to national form, nobody talks about Narconon—personal reports can only be found on anti-Scientology website Xenu.com-it.) Drug abuse is usually a footnote in the mental health section. The same applies to Le Betulle (Birch Trees), a clinic I spotted by the side of the road whenever we drove up to Switzerland to visit my extended family.
I called them, a year before quitting; they seemed nice, but they were charging 2.000 Euros a week. I hung up. There was no way I was paying that much money without knowing in detail what they were going to do to me. They said something about blood tests, but I wasn’t going to fork over that kind of money for some tests and a Spongebob band-aid.
Rich people skipped Italy altogether. Millionaires’ kids would be shipped off to Arizona, to Malibu. A friend’s cousin was doing heroin in college; they sent him to France, for some chemical treatment which left his depression intact. Searching for locally available solutions would have been The Worst in the eyes of his middle-class family. He would have been reported to social services; going to SERT (Servizi Pubblici per le Tossicodipendenze, counseling-office-slash-methadone-clinic combos) meant people would know. His parents would rather go into debt than risk anybody talking about it.
Back in the 90s, radio and TV host Rosario Fiorello—perhaps our most beloved entertainer—was addicted to cocaine; right after he got clean, Fiorello went public about himself having followed a classic Italian rehab method, i.e. kicking it Trainspotting style (get a friend to lock you in an empty room and guard the door for, like, a month), and he credited producer Maurizio Costanzo as the friend in question. Nowadays, his recovery is the lone topic he won’t revisit. He’ll admit he was “a slave to cocaine”; he won’t say how he got free. And if he doesn’t talk, why should anyone without his popularity have something to fall back on?
A babysitter I had when I was four was on heroin. My parents told me about her, much later down the line. She was a troubled girl, they said; they had no idea she was una drogata, they said.
I remember her standing over the bathroom sink, telling me to chop off my Barbie doll’s hair. She’s smiling.
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