In 1982, Donna George is no longer a California free spirit; she's a hardcore heroin addict, incapable of mothering her two young daughters. When she's arrested for prescription forgery, she must choose between jail and Sunflower House, a mysterious long-term rehab that local addicts speak of with dread.
Donna fears the confrontational program, but nothing else has worked. To make it through Sunflower House and get her children back, she will have to fight for her life. She has to allow Staff to break down her walls, so that she might become reachable.
In STARFISH, Donna writes unflinchingly of her journey to recovery. She reveals how she abandoned her children in the pursuit of drugs, and shows how tough love broke through her denial. An intimate, gritty, and inspiring story.
"A courageous, literary gift to the reader that provides an extraordinary look into pain, forgiveness and ultimately the kind of redemption that lifts the soul and saves us all from losing our compassion."
-Stacey Remick-Simkins, English Department,
George Mason University
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Donna M. George
Abbott PressCopyright © 2012 Donna M. George
All right reserved.
Chapter One1982, Santa Cruz, California
I blew smoke into the wind while Roger reeled his Corvette along the cliffs. He was tall and blond, and would have been handsome if his bones didn't threaten to jump out of his skin.
"Remember, if anything feels wrong, get out of there," he was saying. "Whatever you do, don't argue with the pharmacist."
"I know." I'd heard it all before. The ocean flew past choppy and lonely. I thought of Layla and Tammy, and how we used to run in the waves.
Roger squeezed my knee, his eyes glittering feverishly. His pupils were enormous, overpowering the blue around them. I knew mine were the same. I wished we were high, when our pupils were little pinpricks that protected us. But now they were sickly black holes that let in everything, especially pain.
"It's been a while since we tried this pharmacy," I said. "It should be okay."
"Just remember, it's a felony."
The word flew right over my head. I didn't consider myself a criminal. I was an artist, a child of the universe.
"I hope this works," I said. We needed these pills. When we couldn't get heroin, we took loads—a specific combination of Doriden and codeine that created a heroin-like high. But this day we had hustled in vain, and now we were righteously sick.
Getting well was our daily mission. We haunted emergency rooms, faking headaches and backaches. We lifted prescription pads from doctors' offices, and forged their signatures. We phoned dentists in their beds, claiming to be patients. Sometimes Roger phoned pharmacies and pretended to be a doctor, which always impressed me.
On this day I carried a prescription written out for a fictitious person. Of our small group of conspirators, I was usually the one who wrote the scrips. I never thought of them as evidence that could be used against me. I just thought I was talented.
It was raining, and I was already putting on my innocent act as we pulled into the parking lot. I had dressed carefully in my least-dirty jeans, and long sleeves to hide my tracks. With my flip-flops and sun-bleached hair, I looked like half the people in Santa Cruz.
"I'll wait here," Roger said. He always sent me inside because he already had a felony on his record.
I went to the rear of the store and presented my prescription to the pharmacist. She took one look at it, and her mouth hardened.
"I need some I.D," she said.
I rifled through my purse. "I must have left it in the car."
"I can't fill this without I.D."
I was supposed to leave at this point. But the cravings were clawing at my insides.
"It's raining," I said. "Please." All she had to do was fill the prescription. I mean, we were going to pay for it. We weren't stealing it.
I kept arguing until a blue uniform loomed on my right. I bolted towards the nearest aisle, but another cop blocked my way, and the mirror overhead was filling up with blue.
They handcuffed me outside in a glare of rain and red lights, while people gawked from under their umbrellas. This had to be a terrible mistake. I wasn't a criminal. I should be able to get drugs from a doctor, like in England. I heard myself sobbing.
Somewhere in the parking lot, Roger watched from his ratty old Corvette.
At the Santa Cruz County Jail, I bypassed the women in orange hanging out by the television, and went straight to my bunk. I couldn't believe I was here again. Two weeks earlier I'd been busted in another pharmacy. I asked myself for the hundredth time why I was trapped in this hell. I'd tried everything to get clean.
Last year I had checked myself into a ninety-day program in San Jose. "This time will be different, honest," I promised Layla and Tammy as we stuffed jeans into my backpack. They were tanned and barefoot, hair blond from the California sun.
"I can't wait, Mommy." Little Tammy still believed in me. But Layla, two years older, was silent as she folded my T-shirts.
"What about you, Layla? Aren't you excited?"
"Yes, Mom." Her lower lip trembled, making me feel defensive.
"I'll be my old self again, you'll see," I said, and left them with our friend Carol. Roger drove me over Highway 17.
The program was dreary, as they all seemed to be, and Staff made the mistake of feeling sorry for me. On the third day I found myself on the stairs, arguing with a well-meaning counselor named Jake. I was toting a glass ashtray up to my room, to suffer alone.
"You have to join us for House Meeting," Jake kept saying. "Everyone is waiting."
"I said I'm sick!" I shouted, and hurled the ashtray at the wall, just missing his face.
Staff came running. "You need to call someone to come and get you," they said.
"Please," I said. "I didn't aim it at him. I wouldn't hurt anyone." But they had turned to stone. Then my hard self rose up, and I didn't care. I didn't want to be in that shithole anyway.
Roger cackled as we pulled away. "I knew you couldn't do it."
"Just get me well."
He parked by a shady building and produced a loaded syringe. We tied off, and then nothing mattered. We slumped forward, scratching our noses.
"They ... were ... assholes ..." I said, the words cotton in my mouth.
He mumbled agreement.
"I'm going to ... find ... the right program."
"Knock your lights out." He never talked about quitting, but I had kids.
I talked about quitting all the time. Any day I would do it. Any day now. I moaned in my bunk for forty-eight hours, until a guard came to my cell and barked, "Come on, George!" I followed her through a series of doors. Someone thrust my purse at me.
The last door gave way, and the sun dazzled my eyes. Roger stood before me, grinning. Grinning was good. Grinning meant he was holding. We hurried to his car, and he shook out the white pills.
"I got you out as soon as I could," he said.
"How'd you do it?" I knew he had no money.
He winked. "I went to see Joe."
Every so often I made special visits to Joe in the back room of his pharmacy, in exchange for drugs. I hoped Roger hadn't ruined that for me. But man, he got me out. I leaned back and savored the warmth spreading through me as we sailed past the ocean. Life was good again.
My lawyer was pissed. "I told you to be careful. I told you to stay out of pharmacies."
"I'm a junkie. I can't help it." I hated to disappoint him, even if he was married and unattainable.
He sighed. "Forget probation. This is your second prescription forgery charge. You're going to do time."
"How much time?" This couldn't be happening to me.
"I can get you a year in county. Or you can go to Sunflower House."
"Not there," I said quickly. "Somewhere else."
"The prosecutor won't go for a shorter program. Sunflower House or jail, that's it. You should check in soon, before sentencing."
Check in soon? I strained to hear him through a fog of dope.
He lit a cigarette. "I got a check from Mr. X. Is he good for the rest?"
"Yeah, sure." Mr. X was my sugar daddy in Chicago. I had a couple of them around. I just couldn't go to Sunflower House. The program lasted from twelve to eighteen months, and I couldn't be away from my daughters that long. Besides, everyone said they brainwashed people there. Jail would be shorter, and easier.
My mind churned. I was no good for my daughters anymore, and I wouldn't change if I went to jail. Maybe the program could help me.
On the other hand, I couldn't make it through a hard program. I couldn't even stay clean for a day. I should take the easy way out, and go to jail. If my fate was to die a junkie, oh well.
But a small, distant part of me wanted to live.
Chapter TwoI rounded the corner, and a Victorian house sprang into view. No sign announced what it was, but something set it apart. It was too shiny. The windows sparkled, and the yard was excessively neat and orderly.
Men and women working outside glanced at me as I walked up. They were sweeping the black dirt with brooms, the kind of busywork that prisoners might do. My heart sank. I didn't want to sweep dirt.
A man with honey-colored ringlets greeted me at the door. "Welcome to Sunflower House. I'm Ariel." He seemed sweet. A free spirit gone awry, like me.
He pointed to a highly lacquered wooden bench, and held out a plaque with words engraved on it. "Have a seat, and read this." The first few words leaped out at me:
The Bench is, and should be, a lonely place.
"I need your purse," he said. A man with a spider web tattooed on his cheek appeared, and they emptied my purse on the desk, so anyone could see my pitiful old wallet. I lit a cigarette, embarrassed. Did they really think I would bring drugs here?
The bench was hard under my bones. "They'll make you wait for hours," Maria, the intake counselor, had warned me on the phone. "They'll test you, mija. To see if you're serious. This ain't no game, chica." Of course I was serious. Why did they doubt me?
I glanced around the hall. I'd never been to such a shiny program. The hardwood floors glowed, and the wooden walls gleamed. It looked like the residents did nothing but clean and wax.
A brilliant orange-and-yellow sunflower dominated one wall. Thirty-six name tags dotted the petals to show where everyone was located in the house. I counted the names three times, for something to do.
But invariably my eyes were drawn to the door marked STAFF OFFICE. I knew where to find the power.
Ariel slipped behind a large wooden desk and picked up a clipboard. A slim black man with close-clipped hair joined him. They glanced at me and giggled. A group of residents knelt near them, laughing and massaging thick yellow wax into the floorboards. Other residents pushed brooms up and down the long hallway, stepping around me as if I wasn't there.
After a while Ariel rang a bell, and residents rushed in from all directions, bringing the cool January air with them. Eyes fell on me and quickly looked away, as if it was a crime to acknowledge me.
Fried chicken aroma filled the air, but they brought me a peanut butter sandwich. It shouldn't have mattered, since I hadn't cared about food in years. I turned away and blew smoke rings. They could keep their Sunflower House.
But the shorter, easier programs hadn't worked, and neither had methadone or Narcotics Anonymous. Nothing had worked. Nothing. I dragged on my cigarette, glad for the pills I'd taken that morning. Otherwise I'd be hurting by now.
When the short-term programs failed, I had tried a geographical cure by moving to Hawaii. Never mind all the other fresh starts, this one would be different. The monthly welfare check flew me and the kids to Maui, where the air was fragrant and the ocean warm. My friends said there were no hard drugs on the island. We were all trying to get clean.
I piled my sun-bleached hair on top of my head, jabbed a chopstick through it, and bussed tables at the Sheraton. At night it was a glamorous place. A Hawaiian man with dazzling teeth sang Don Ho songs. Minor celebrities graced the tables.
I haunted local doctors for Valium and Darvon, and went out drinking after work, telling myself I was getting clean. Maui was so beautiful, with the purple sunsets and pink iguanas; anything seemed possible.
Layla and Tammy went boogie boarding every day with a sun-bronzed neighbor, Judy, and her kids. I thought they were happy, with the sun and ocean. I thought their childhood was better than mine. This is working, I told myself, though I woke up with hangovers, and swallowed handfuls of pills.
Then heroin appeared on the island, and I was strung out like a dog. I found myself in bed with my friend's husband, which was against my principles. Every day we nodded out to John & Yoko's Double Fantasy. Layla and Tammy got themselves off to school, and came home to find me barely conscious. I told them I was sorry. It was important to me to apologize. I had always wanted my own parents to apologize for something, anything.
My friends stopped speaking to me, and the heroin ran out. The great detox had failed. I informed the girls that we were returning to Santa Cruz.
"I want to stay with Judy," Layla said out of the blue.
It surprised me more than anyone when I said yes. She would join us later, I said, as if it was just a sleepover. She was twelve, and very self-sufficient. Soon I was flying over the ocean in my usual stupor, Tammy clinging to my side. It didn't register that I was leaving Layla 3,000 miles away.
Back in Santa Cruz, Roger was out of town. I crashed with my junkie friends, while Tammy stayed with her friends from school. I met her downtown to give her food stamps, vaguely aware that she looked too thin.
Every day we talked on the phone, and she told me where she was staying that night. "Have a good time," I'd say, as if things were normal. Across the Pacific, Layla was anxious to join us. "Not yet, honey," I kept saying. "Soon. I promise." I couldn't admit that our life together was falling apart.
One night I was shooting up with strangers in some room, when I realized I hadn't talked to Tammy that day, and didn't know where she was. Guilt sickened me. She's okay, I told myself, she has friends, we'll find each other. But I knew it was not okay. I vowed to go find her, right after the next fix.
A few days later I saw a calendar on somebody's wall, and was shocked to realize that I had missed her tenth birthday. Christmas was in two weeks. I vowed again to go look for her, but she found me first.
"I'm going to Maui tomorrow," she said on the phone. "I'm going to stay with Layla." Somebody's mother had bought her a ticket. I wanted to say, "Don't go. I'll get us a place." But I couldn't.
"You and Layla will be together for Christmas," I said, trying to sound positive. "You can go boogie-boarding every day. I can go to a drug program and get better." My heart was breaking, but I was relieved that she would be taken care of.
We met at the Santa Cruz Bookshop to say goodbye. I got there early to buy them some pretty cards. People always told me how pretty my girls were. I remembered when Brooke Shields filmed a movie at the Cooper House, and the director saw Tammy in the crowd. "That is the most beautiful little girl I've ever seen," he proclaimed. "If she was fourteen she'd be starring in this movie." I remembered how the crowd turned towards her in wonder.
"I'm sorry I missed your birthday," I said as we stood outside the bookshop, her face so brave in the streetlights. "I'm glad you and Layla will be together. I love you." Somebody's car waited for her at the curb.
"I love you too," she said. We locked eyes, unable to say more. Then she was gone, and I pictured her and Layla splashing in the ocean. Judy would take care of them, I told myself. Now I could go to another program.
But instead I abandoned myself to dope.
By dinnertime my bones ached. The broom-pushers had vanished, and the hall was empty. I was glad when Ariel rang his bell, and residents came running. I almost hoped they would say hello as they moved their tags on the orange sunflower and signed their names in a ledger. They carried pans of pork chops down the hall, and I laughed inside to see junkies in hairnets. But they still wouldn't look at me.
I picked up the wooden plaque and read the last line. "From this solitary place we make the decision to live or die." I saw Tammy at seven years old, or six or five, knocking at the bathroom door. "Mommy, let me in. Mommy, are you okay?" I was sitting on the toilet, stabbing holes in my hands. "Just a minute, honey," I kept saying.
I saw Layla's eyes, the day I left her in Hawaii. "I changed my mind," she said in a panic. "I want to go back with you."
We were leaving for the airport. "It's too late now," I said.
"Donna," someone said. "Donna," Ariel said again, "Staff will see you now. Go to the door and knock." He smiled encouragement. I took one last drag and stabbed out my cigarette. Clutching my purse, smoothing back my hair, I walked to the door marked STAFF OFFICE.
Chapter Three"Come in," commanded a powerful female voice. I opened the door into a spacious room of windows and light. The glossy walls were hung with framed quotations, and an enormous board with name tags. Four hip-looking people sat on chairs.
The black man spoke first. "My name is Martin," he said with an intriguing Boston accent. "I'm the Staff Manager here. This is Kate." He indicated a woman with black eyebrows and shimmering blond hair that fell straight to her waist. She had a frosty, imperious air. "And this is John." John was a bald, buffed Mexican. He glowered at me as he chewed gum. Finally, Martin waved towards a tiny Mexican woman sitting by a window. "This is Maria, the intake counselor." I knew from her name that she was the warm voice on the phone. I turned gratefully towards her, but she smiled an ironic little smile, as if to say, "Don't expect me to save you."
Excerpted from STARFISH by Donna M. George Copyright © 2012 by Donna M. George. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Starfish is a gritty story of Donna, a mother who lost sight of reality in the grip of her serious drug addiction. She lost the things that were most dear to her, her kids and her freedom, in the depths of her disease. Starfish is the story of how a hard-core drug treatment program broke through the walls she’d surrounded herself with and helped her come to terms with her pain. It is a candid look at the lowest point in Donna’s life and her slow and difficult climb back up. Along the way, we see Donna’s life in flashback- her own abusive childhood, her descent into drugs, leaving everything behind in pursuit of “getting well” – the junkie term for getting high. We also meet her friends in the cast of characters going on this 12-18 month journey with her: Renee, a free spirit; David, a flamboyant gay man; Reuben, a hardcore drug dealer; Martin, the charismatic counselor – all of them must make the choice whether to live or die. Starfish draws you in; it is extremely well-written and its dramatic story pulls you along for the ride. In facing her addiction, Donna is shown for the flawed human being that she is and you feel for her. The challenges she faces are great, but ultimately, this is a story of triumph and redemption. The courage she showed in overcoming addiction and getting her kids back is amazing. I couldn’t put it down!
Donna's memoir is a fascinating account of internal fortitude. This book gives an inside view of a truly fragile soul. A soul burdened with the shame, guilt, anger and pain only an abused child can feel and must carry into adulthood. This story of a mother who must choose between her 2 beautiful daughters and her inate dependence on hard drugs. This is a story of a truly gifted child, looking to escape from the broken dreams of her childhood. Searching, as an adult, for the lost freedom a child deserves she enters a culture of Art, Music, Sex and Drugs, escaping to turbulant California. Fearing for the safety of her young daughters and her own life, Donna George tells a gritty, heartfelt recount of her battle to make it the other side where "true" freedom awaits. I loved this book and you will too. You see I love my sister, whose courage and inner-strength shine as an example for all those who face seemingly insurmountable odds and hopeless circumstances. A great read, I couldn't put it down...
I read this as an e-book and had to have the hard copy. It is an amazing story of a woman struggling with the dark side and all it entails. She does not sugar coat her faults and failures. It shows how truly courageous and strong she has become. I could not put it down. If you like a true gut wrenching story this is for you and I highly recommend it!