The feebleness of our condition means that we can make habitual use of nothing in its natural unsophisticated purity. MONTAIGNE, “WE CAN SAVOUR NOTHING PURE”
The phrase “toxic maternal” refers to a mother whose milk delivers poison along with nourishment. If you turn away from the poison, you also turn away from the nourishment. Given that human breast milk now contains literal poisons, from paint thinners to dry-cleaning fluid to toilet deodorizers to rocket fuel to DDT to flame retardants, there is literally no escape. Toxicity is now a question of degree, of acceptable parts per unit. Infants don’t get to choose—they take what they can get, in their scramble to stay alive.
I had never thought much about this dilemma until after I had been working for many years in a bar that was regularly voted “a smoker’s paradise” in an nyc guidebook. I had quit smoking a few months before taking the job, primarily because cigarettes made me feel so completely awful, and now I was spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on an acupuncturist to help me with swollen glands and difficulty breathing as a result of inhaling smoke that wasn’t even mine. (I ended up quitting the job about a month before Mayor Bloomberg’s ban took effect; in my final hours, I secretly allowed myself to be interviewed by the antismoking crusaders, to advance their cause.) Anyone to whom I complained at the time said, wisely, Why don’t you just get a different job? There are hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants and bars in New York City. My therapist—I had taken on yet another choking shift in order to keep seeing her—suggested I help rich kids study for the sat instead, which made me want to sock her. How could I explain? I had already had a hundred restaurant jobs in New York City, and finally I had found one at which I made more in a week than I would have in an entire semester as an adjunct instructor (the other discernible option). I also thought—a larval Karen Silkwood—If they, whoever “they” are, let me work here, it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
But it was that bad. The bills I stashed under my mattress were almost wet with smoke, and stayed that way until rent time. And it’s only now that I see that the job assured me something else I needed: the constant company of alcoholics apparently worse off than I was. I can still see them all: the silent owner who had to be carried into the back of a taxi at dawn after he’d blacked out from Rolling Rocks and shots of Stoli that we’d served him, raking in his Wall Street–derived tips; the punk Swedes who drank shot after shot of jalapeno-pickled vodka dissolved in iced coffee (the Swedeball, we called it); the woman who left her baby in a car seat under the bar one night and forgot about it; the rotted teeth of a successful Foley editor; the man who inexplicably took off his belt after a few Hurricanes and started whipping a fellow diner with it . . . Their example, and the ease with which I deemed myself together by comparison, purchased me a few more years of believing alcohol more precious than toxic to me. “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic. Yet dependence is scorned even in intimate relationships, as though dependence were incompatible with self-reliance rather than the only thing that makes it possible” (Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness).
I learned this scorn from my own mother; perhaps it laced my milk. I therefore have to be on the alert for a tendency to treat other people’s needs as repulsive. Corollary habit: deriving the bulk of my self-worth from a feeling of hyper-competence, an irrational but fervent belief in my near total self-reliance.
You’re a great student because you don’t have any baggage, a teacher once told me, at which moment the subterfuge of my life felt complete….