Dedicated to a Warrior of Fun

By Karen Collazo          

Losing my faith happened slowly. It started when I was five years old and I couldn’t find an adult to give me a straight answer when I asked: “What happens when we die?” I was told there was this ethereal place where we are reunited with our family, under the love and light of God. My innocent mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of such a place, especially because during this time we had very little family in the states. We were a small family—just four of us living in Miami. My extended family lived in Cuba and New Jersey. Who were these people that we would join in heaven? How will I know who they are?

As a teenager, I was exposed to the cruel practices and unethical treatment of animals around the world, for the purposes of: testing beauty products, creating coveted and expensive articles of clothing, entertaining and feeding the population and selling prized items like ivory on the black market. I questioned God, wondering why a power so great could let such horrible things happen at the hands of children made in his own image. And what was the point of all this meanness?

As I got older, I studied other religions in hopes that I would find the one that spoke to me. Having grown up in a house with a Jewish father and a spiritual mother, we had zero traditions we practiced. We only celebrated the National holidays. If the banks were closed, we were eating lechon from a caja china, around a table made up of random friends and one-off 3rd and 4th cousins. I was never baptized and I was spared the dreadful tiny wedding dress and church procession that most of my Catholic and Christian friends were subjected to for communion. I was desperate to identify with something and was drawn to eastern religions like Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But growing up in a predominantly Hispanic city, with limited resources, there was little in the way of being able to practice anything but the common religions available in the West.

I even tried my hand at Wiccan and Pagan paths. I remember being so moved by the concept that mother earth was the center of all spiritual energy. The moon and the sun were Gods. Your successes and happiness rested in the hands of your relationship with nature. One day, I was so upset after a heated argument with my mother—about getting a tattoo behind her back (with a fake id) that I picked up a Wiccan practice and spells book. I read that one way to get rid of negative energy was to sweep the floor and push the pain and hurt out onto the street. There I was, all of sixteen years old, sweeping around the house, while muttering under my breath all my arguments for why I had the right to do what I wanted to my own body. My mother was pleased, thinking that I was making up for “hurting her” by getting my Sun tattoo on my right shoulder. But I was in fact trying to clean our house of the tension.

The incident that pushed me over the edge and led me to completing turning my back on spirituality and faith was, of course, the death of my mother. Not only could I not understand why this would happen to her and to us, but the advice I received during her battle and afterwards, just did not sit well with me. As a spiritual person, my mother depended heavily on mediums, santos and advice from “the other side.” When she was frail, hallowed and sinking into the hospital bed we setup in her bedroom, the spiritual guides in our family assured us that everything was going to be okay. But it wasn’t. After eight months, several rounds of chemo and radiation and a gastric bypass, my mother let out her last breath at the hospice wing of Mercy Hospital. I felt duped. If in fact one knew the outcome, why not provide the facts as they are to better prepare those seeking comfort? Was this a question of free will versus determination?

My mother was a country girl, from Las Tunas, Cuba. She grew up dirt poor, wore shoes two sizes too small and fell in love with a man that had very big ambitions. In the end, she succeeded in getting a college degree (the first in her family), leaving a communist country, raising two healthy daughters, owned her home and travelled the world. She battled major depression her whole life by keeping busy. But when she was on a high note, she enjoyed living to the fullest. Always the life of the party, her infectious laugh could paint a smile on anyone’s face. She had just started a new diet and had lost some weight, giving her a new sense of confidence. My father had quit the business and was making an honest living, and had even quit smoking cigarettes after 45 years of going through one pack of Marlboro Reds a day. Both daughters were in college… By all accounts, life was good. So, why?

There were a lot of comforting words handed out by friends and family like business cards at a networking event. “She’s resting now.” “She’s in a better place.” “She’s watching over you.” “She’s reunited with her father.” But, I truly believed there was no such place or cause. I felt empty. Life had no purpose, but to make the most of what you had because you never know… This catapulted me into a drug-fueled lifestyle that I would later pay dearly to walk away from.

When five years later, my father died of the same type of rare stomach cancer that was not traceable to anyone in our family’s lineage, I completely and utterly let go of the sliver of belief that sat way down deep at the bottom of my heart. With my hands in the air, I surrendered to the spiritual void that I would live with, until recently. Sure he smoked cigarettes and ate mostly red meat, but there were cases of healthy, holistic individuals dying of the same disease. What had my sister and I done to deserve being orphaned in our late teens/early twenties? With no answers, I turned to drugs with more fervor than before.

A year ago, my best friend’s 32 year-old sister was diagnosed with colon cancer. This week, she passed away at home, surrounded by friends and family. She was a bright light—a free spirit who sucked the juice out of life like no one I have ever known. Right after college she moved to San Francisco and made a living by managing startups. She traveled the world, became engrossed in spiritual retreats like Burning Man and, as expected, bought into the whole organic/farm-to-table movement. She was curious, spontaneous and beautiful. This loss has affected me in ways I could have never imagined. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with grief and sadness for the loss of a friend, a little sister and the last bit of hope that God would never do this to me, and take my one last surviving family member away from me: my own little sister.

But something much more beautiful has emerged through all the pain: a tiny bud has sprung. It seems to me that our souls are all traveling through space, collecting love and light, evolving—to keep this world turning on its axis. Each life we live is a test. When our energy is first released, we may find ourselves lost. We perhaps fall prey to the seven deadly pecados. Through experience and acceptance we unlearn how to live without transgression. Once we achieve this, as soon as we learn life's purpose, we graduate.

Kristy knew that it was her time to live wild and free. Her purpose on this earth, this time around, was to enjoy what she had earned from past lives. We were so lucky to have been a part of her journey. She knew the answers to the questions that have plagued me all my life. And her parting gift was showing me the path back to faith.

Dear Dad

By Karen Collazo   

It must have been no later than 8am on a Saturday, because the light was breaking behind the warehouses on the east side of the Palmetto. The air was cool and crisp; it was winter in Miami. That morning, Mami woke me and Annette up early, made us café con leche and told us we were going to see you. I don’t recall how she explained why this meeting was taking place in the Mall of The America’s parking lot, but there we were waiting for your white 1989 Bronco to pull in. It had been a few months since we had last seen you, since you had left on your business trip. The visit lasted just a few minutes. You hugged Mami and told us that you missed us and would be home soon. And just like that, we were on the highway on our way back to Hialeah without you. Mami cried all the way home.

This wasn’t unusual growing up. Throughout the years, you popped in-and-out—always living between two places.  But you always made sure your time with us was the most memorable. The three of us, Mami, Annette and me, had grown accustomed to being a family of our own, with you as recurring guest. And while you may have missed unimportant events, like: science projects, trips to the doctor, Saturday morning pancakes and volleyball games, you always tried to make it up to us on our birthdays, during the holidays and on family day. Sundays were our day to pile into Mami’s blue Cadillac and eat lunch at a fancy restaurant as a family. Then you’d spend the rest of the afternoon showering us with gifts as we went shopping around town.

Do you remember that one Sunday when I was eight years old when we went to an upscale seafood restaurant downtown? As we walked up the steps toward the entrance, Annette and Mami leading the way with you and me trailing behind, a man jumped out from the bushes. He snatched Mami’s brown handbag and pushed her down the steps. It was an expensive purse that you had bought her on a recent business trip, which she wore with so much pride. As both she and Annette tumbled down the front steps, you ran after the thief. He dove in head first through the back seat window of a getaway car and sped away, as you ran to our car to get your 9mm Berretta from the glove compartment. I followed you, scared.

You saw me trailing you and yelled at me to go back and help Mami. You stopped in the middle of the street and pointed your gun in the direction of the car that was quickly speeding away. It was too late. They had made a left at the light and were no longer within range. The restaurant hostess had seen everything and called the police. We were escorted inside and statements were taken. After we had all regrouped and credit cards were cancelled, you proudly recounted how fearlessly I had run after the bad guys. But, I wasn’t running after the bad guys, I was running after you.

I was your quintessential daddy’s girl – a Jewish-Cuban princess who got everything and anything she ever wanted. My closet and dressers were filled with the clothes and accessories of a teenage girl’s dream. On my seventh birthday, you came home with Minnie, a Shih-Tzu puppy who would later round out our family and always stand guard when you weren’t around. On my ninth birthday, you lied and told me that you hadn’t bought me anything. I was so hurt. I thought you didn’t love me. I ran crying to my bedroom and crawled into the bottom bunk of the bed I shared with my sister. You followed me into the room and told me that if I was going to be a spoiled brat that the least I could do was cry from the top bunk, which is where I slept. I yelled at you to go away, but you insisted that I move. When finally I climbed the stairs to my bunk, I found a bright pink boom box with a bow on it. You laughed and hugged me and told me that you would never forget my birthday. You were always playing pranks like that. For my 12th birthday, you bought me my first set of pearls. When I turned thirteen, we took a trip to Spain to celebrate. For my quinces, you and Mami threw me a quinceañera party, which you told me cost $30,000. As soon as I was of driving age, you gave me my first new car. And on my 18th birthday, you came home with a platinum Montblanc pen. You said you hoped it would inspire me to write the greatest words ever written.

Most of my memories of you come attached to the things you bought me. You were the new Bongo Jeans, the Motorola cell phone, the brand new white and pink bedroom set. I was surrounded by you, but you were never there.

I know you tried. You taught me that a girl could do anything a boy could. You hammered in me the importance of going to school and never letting anyone take me for a sucker. If I was home sick and you happened to be in town, you’d take me with you as you ran business errands. I was your little assistant. On these days, I got to see first-hand what it was like to get “things” done.

Like that day we went to visit your cousin, to collect some money he owed you after you helped him get his trucking business started. You asked me to wait in the car while you met him inside his office. You expected things to get ugly and you didn’t want me to see the two of you arguing. I remember it was raining. I sat in your black Pontiac Bonneville, listening to Jose Feliciano. I studied the gun in the glove compartment.

After you collected your payment in full, we went to a small cafeteria in Little Havana for coffee and pastelitos. As you sipped your colada and flirted with the waitress, my eyes lit up when they spotted the Butterfinger candy bars in the glass case beneath the coffee window. I didn’t even have to ask. Seconds later, there were two Butterfingers in my hands–one for me and one for Annette.

These days, I think about how if you only knew what would become of me, you might have changed some of the choices you made. Would you have tried your hand at a noble profession that paid little, but set a good example for your daughters?

When Mami was dying of cancer at Mercy Hospital, five years before you lost your own battle, she looked at me the way one looks at a starving child in Africa, in a Save the Children commercial; it pulls at your heartstrings, but you know deep down there is nothing you can really do to change that kid’s future. The last time she spoke to me, she said, “Can you imagine it? A father provides for his family by trafficking the very thing his daughter later becomes addicted to.” That’s when it all came into sharp focus–when the trips to Puerto Rico, the extravagant parties and the lavish jewelry, car and houses all finally made sense. I had just turned 21.

I am comforted by the fact that while you weren’t physically there for us, or a model citizen, you did love us in your own way. You always protected us, especially from the reality of your career. The only one who truly suffered was Mami, who didn’t always know if you would make it home that night, while Annette and I assumed you always would. We didn’t know any better.

You grew up poor, on the streets of Cuba–bouncing from family to family and sometimes even crashing with friends, after your mother handed you over to her mother so that she could start a new family with her second husband. Later, your grandmother would try to commit suicide in front of you when you were nine years old. You grew up with nothing, but always found a way to survive. Once in America, your ambitions found a fertile underground world where your dreams of being wealthy could finally come true. You put yourself in danger in order to give us what we needed, except you.

Later, when it was your turn to lie in a hospital bed dying of cancer, one of my best friends from middle school came to visit. She walked into that cold and sterile room at Coral Gables Hospital and found you buried underneath a pile of blankets. You were weak and skinny–almost unrecognizable, except for your strong hands. Even as the morphine dosage increased, they continued to mimic the act of lighting a cigarette, which you did several times a day, every day, for 40 years. I fondly remembered how I used to wrap my little hand around one of your big fingers, as we walked along side each other. My friend smiled at you and asked: “Hola Viejo, te acuerdas de mi?” (Hey old man, remember me?).

You smiled graciously, but I knew you didn’t recognize her. It was Mami who drove Grisel and me to gymnastics every day after school in the sixth grade. It was Mami who made us s’mores and popcorn when Grisel slept over. Mami was the one who knew that Grisel’s mom, Elena, called her by her nickname “Cookie” and once borrowed her recipe for natilla pudding with vanilla wafers, because I couldn’t stop raving about it.

In that moment, any anger I may have felt towards you for not being around, melted away. I felt sorry for you. You were once my hero and overnight had become an unfit father. But just then, you turned into a poor old man who was never really able to enjoy the true riches that this life had to offer.

Growing up, it was rare when you were around. On those occasions when you missed my birthday, you would send me a bouquet of one dozen pink roses. It always made me feel like the most loved and most special girl in the world. The card would always read: “Feliz cumpleaños a mi bella hija. De tu papa, que te quiere.” (Happy birthday, to my beautiful daughter. From you father, who loves you.) I would go to school and tell everyone about it feeling so important. Today, I wonder if those flowers ever really came from you or if Mami sent them on your behalf. I have so many questions that I know will go unanswered. Your business associates may know more about you than your family did. They called you “El Ingeniero,” (The Engineer), a nickname you carried proudly. But no matter what you did or didn’t do, after all these years, you were and will always be Papi–the only man to ever send me a bouquet of flowers.

The Precipice

By Karen Collazo

When I hit the “post” button a few days ago, I knew that I was turning my back on a lucrative and successful career in advertising and exposing the false but very well-fabricated story of who Karen was. I even assumed that I would lose some friends in the process, because for many the disease of addiction is still viewed as a moral failing that can be controlled by will alone. What I did not expect was to receive all the love, support and personal stories of struggle that have been pouring in since Friday. I know I am on the right path, based on your reactions to my first blog post. And while I cannot represent the addict community as a whole, I’m honored to be able to tell my story and carry the message of recovery to those in need.

The heartbreaking truth about addiction is that it does not discriminate. Who is an addict? The blue book tells us that an addict is a man or a woman whose life is controlled by drugs; the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. A person who lives to use and uses to live looks like everyone else: your sister who abuses Xanax, your colleague who binge drinks every day, your son who smokes pot regularly. And while they might not look like the stereotypical junkie, they are in the grips of a continuing and progressive illness. They are in pain and believe they cannot survive without drugs.

My story begins at the age of eight. Feeling less than, I began to seek comfort in food. As I got older, food was replaced with stealing, then drugs, then shopping and finally sex. To be viewed as a functioning member of society, I created rules for myself. These rules would allow me to hide my addiction for 15+ years. On the outside, I had everything going for me: a good job with a decent disposable income, a nice place in a good neighborhood, a new car, family and friends who loved me. But inside I felt insignificant, depressed and always alone. Rules like: only drink in social settings, only do hard drugs on the weekend, only binge eat on special occasions, were both a blessing and a curse. To the world, I was functioning. To me, I was enduring until the next high.

It took three therapists, some rule-breaking and a few panic attacks for me to admit that I had a problem. I had all the telltale signs of an addict. I couldn’t handle life without numbing my feelings. I couldn’t feel pleasure in everyday things. I constantly replaced one addiction for the other. I even tried a number of geographic changes, hoping that a new city would give me the backdrop for a brand new start. However, when I really examined my life with a magnifying glass, I saw that I had lost a lot of things to my addiction: the house I grew up in went into foreclosure because I snorted the mortgage payments up my nose, a very dear friend pushed me away for years, because she couldn’t stand by as I destroyed myself with alcohol, I even lost the chance to say goodbye to my mother, as she lay on her deathbed losing the battle against cancer, because I was fighting the demons in my own head. I wasn’t there for my sisters when they needed me the most. I lost a $100k inheritance to frivolousness. And countless other scenarios that played out over the years, I see now as obvious products of my disease.

While this sickness has been there all along, my turning point was being sexually assaulted at 15 years old. One night, I was invited to a party at an acquaintance’s house whose parents were away. At the time, I was desperate for love and acceptance. After years of being bullied, I had finally found approval from a group of friends who were acting out like most teenagers do. We’d skip school; buy alcohol with fake ids and experiment with drugs together. That night, I snuck out of my house while my parents slept soundly. What I didn’t know, was that when I walked into that house full of boys, I was walking into my first traumatic experience. I was encouraged to drink massive amounts of alcohol and coerced to have sex with one of the boys at the party, while everyone stood by and watched. Feeling like I deserved it, like I had it coming to me, I never told anyone what really happened that night. I was a slut who should have never gone to that party to begin with. At school the next day, the boys spread rumors around. They told everyone that I had given blow jobs at the party and my girlfriends turned against me. I was devastated. Back in my bedroom, I drowned my tears in a bottle of vodka that my dad kept in the liquor cabinet. It killed the hurt and alleviated my sorrow. Vodka was there for me when I couldn’t reach out for help.

In my 20’s, when I lost both parents to cancer, I turned again to the only tool I had for dealing with pain. Feeling like life had robbed me, I moved to New York, where for the next ten years I lived each day like it was going to be my last. I rationalized my behavior behind the pretense that this lifestyle was part of the fast-paced culture of the big city. But, when you took the glamour of New York away, there I was; just me and my inability to feel negative feelings. When my current therapist suggested I go to rehab, she positioned it as a spiritual vacation for my soul. It finally clicked for me. I had been struggling with anxiety and depression for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to feel happy and hopeful. In February 2016, I finally surrendered to the fact that I was a drug addict. And what I went on to experience in rehab will stay with me forever.