Even while she’s still a small child, Liz Murray is surrounded by drug addicts. Her parents use various painkillers, as well as cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Furthermore, most of their friends use drugs of some kind almost every day. Some of these friends (such as Ma’s boyfriend Brick, who drinks heavily but also has a job) seem relatively high-functioning. Others seem to do nothing but get high. When she’s still young, Liz doesn’t fully understand what these adults are doing. From her perspective, being surrounded by drug addiction is a basic part of her life. As she grows older, however, she begins to understand the horrors of drug addiction more clearly.
Above all, Liz comes to realize that drugs can make addicts sacrifice their loyalty to their friends and their love for their families. At times, Liz’s own parents treat her with love and care. But far more often, because their need to get high seems more urgent than their desire to raise a family, they neglect her or, even worse, make choices that actively hurt her. There are many times when Ma and Daddy don’t buy food for their children. At one point, Ma attempts to exchange Liz’s winter coat for drug money. Underlying these decisions—which, one would think, no human being could possibly make—is the brutal logic of addiction. Ma and Daddy, as addicts, now have a psychological and biological need to get high—so they feel compelled to buy more drugs. Every dollar Ma and Daddy spend on their children is a dollar they’re not spending on drugs. And so, for this reason, there are many times when the young Liz goes cold or hungry.
Even as a child, Liz recognizes that drugs can make decent people do callous and even despicable things. But as she grows into a teenager, she begins to understand the broader consequences of drug use, in a way that she didn’t when she was a child. First, Liz’s own parents begin to grow apart, an event that has many causes but which is in no small part the result of their increased drug use. They begin using cocaine and other drugs more often, becoming more emotionally volatile and fighting with each other. This in turn motivates Daddy and Ma to use more drugs, perpetuating the cycle of drug use and the deterioration of their marriage.
But Liz also comes to understand the destructive role of drugs in her own life, not just her parents’ lives. She begins dating a young, charismatic man named Carlos Marcano. Over time, Carlos becomes louder, more aggressive, and less emotionally available. Gradually, Liz comes to realize that Carlos is a drug dealer and addict. Liz’s relationship with Carlos arguably teaches an even bleaker lesson about addiction than the one she’s already learned from her parents. In the former case, Liz witnesses every stage in Carlos’s decline, which makes his final cruel, violent state especially wrenching to see. Liz’s feelings about Carlos mirror her feelings about drug use itself: he’s fun and even glamorous, but in the end he hurts people and hurts himself.
There are many children of addicts who grow up to become addicts themselves, whether because of inherited addictions or because they’re taught that drugs are the easiest or even only way to find pleasure or escape in life. An obvious question that Liz never directly answers, then, is why doesn’t Liz herself grow up to use drugs? To a certain extent, Breaking Night suggests that Liz steers clear of drugs because she’s lived with the consequences of addiction for her entire life. She’s numb to drugs’ glamor but especially attuned to the pain they cause. But moreover, she avoids drugs because of her extraordinary willpower and innate sense of ambition and self-control.
Drugs and Addiction ThemeTracker
Drugs and Addiction Quotes in Breaking Night
I raised my arms into the air, and gave a singsong, 'Al-l-l do-ne."
Taken off guard, Ma paused, leaned in and asked disbelievingly, "What did you say, pumpkin?”
“A-l-l-l done," I repeated, delighted at Ma's sudden interest.
She yelled for Daddy. "Peter, she knows! Look at her, she understands!"
Lisa and I dined on Happy Meals in front of the black-and-white TV, to the sound of spoons clanking on the nearby table, chairs being pulled in—and those elongated moments of silence when we knew what they were concentrating on. Daddy had to do it for Ma because with her bad eyesight she could never find a vein.
When she returned home half an hour later with a nickel bag, I was furious with her. I demanded that she give me my money, and I shouted mean words at her that are hard for me to think about now. Ma said nothing back. She snatched up her works—syringe and cocaine—from the kitchen table and stormed to the bathroom. I trailed behind her, shouting harsh things. I assumed that she was running away from me to get high in privacy, but I was wrong. Instead, from the bathroom doorway, I saw Ma throw something into the toilet. Then I realized she was crying, and what she had flushed down the toilet was her coke.
She'd thrown away the entire hit—despite her desperation.
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, "I'm not a monster, Lizzy," she said. "I can't stop. Forgive me, pumpkin!”
The fun part of the night would always come when Ma's past occurred to her as a positive thing, a sort of adventure. But I knew this was temporary, a side effect of her anticipation of shooting up. Later—on the other side of her high, when she was coming down and the drug had begun to lose its effect—the very same thoughts would depress her. I'd be there for the letdown, too. If I didn't listen when she needed to confide in someone, then who would?
I told Ma all but one detail—the fact that I knew it was wrong. I knew that all I had to do to end it was to call out for her. But I didn't, because Ron made things better for Ma, for Lisa and me. I didn't want to ruin that, so I failed to call out.
In the center of the foil, ever so faint and small, I found tiny specks of white powder.
"Don't flush. Be quiet and look at this. . . . He's on coke."