This is my sister’s story. A story of addiction, recover, and motherhood. As I write this, I’m at the airport, waiting for a plane to bring me back to Austin, having spent the last week in Estes Park Colorado with my parents, my sister, and my nephew Cannon (we call him “Cozy” as a nickname. Long story).
It was a near perfect vacation, and one that, just three years ago…really, just two years ago….I would never have pictured being able to happen.
Not with my sister and Cozy, at least.
My sister spent 13 years of her life as a heroin addict. A hard-core heroin addict. The word sounds dramatic but it’s accurate…she was a junkie. Homeless at times. Incarcerated at times. Her stories from that period of her life will either make you cry, or drop your jaw in shock, depending on the story.
I’ll get more into that in a bit, but first, I wanted to describe a moment to you, while we were in Estes Park, that was just a little moment…no big deal, really….but it was a big deal to me. Later that same evening, I’d find it was a big deal to her, as well.
We went on a hike through Rocky Mountain National Park. Our parents had offered to let my sister and I go ahead of them, while they hung back with my nephew. “Cozy” did not want to leave his mama’s side though, so it was just me, my sister, and him, as my parents lagged behind. This particular hike was a relatively long one, and parts of it were strenuous. For a three-year old, my nephew handled it like a champ. My sister and I took turns carrying him up portions, but he handled the vast majority of it himself, and we were super proud of him. At one point, both of us were too exhausted to carry him anymore, and he was beginning to grow weary and whiny. I took him by the hand and suggested we count our steps, in an effort to distract him from the task at hand. I honestly wasn’t entirely certain he knew how to count, but he impressed me once again by being able to count to 15. Needing something else to keep him mentally occupied, I shifted gears to the ABC’s. He knew those, too. I asked him, “who taught you all that?”, and he replied, “mommy did!!”.
Later, it was me trailing a bit behind my sister and him, and I could hear them ahead of me, chit-chatting with one another. I overheard her explaining to him everything from why we are able to see the sun sometimes, and other times it’s dark, to the types of trees we were passing, and explanations of why the leaves were all different colors. I noticed in fact, all throughout the trip, many occasions of her patiently taking the time to teach and explain various little things to him. Things that a lot of moms would just say “I don’t know. Quit asking questions. We’re in a hurry”. But she almost always would stop and explain and teach. I felt so proud, because never EVER in a million years would I have pictured her healthy, and hiking, sober, and patiently teaching a three-year old letters and numbers and seasons.
Why would I not have pictured that? Because she started taking drugs in high school. Pills, mostly, and then it evolved fairly rapidly into intravenous heroin. Large chunks of the last ten years, I had zero contact with my sister. Sometimes due to the fact that I didn’t WANT to have contact with her. She’d been so awful to my parents, and I was angry about it. Sometimes due to the fact that she didn’t want to have contact with me, because she didn’t think I could possibly understand what it was like to be in her shoes (she was right), and because she was angry at our family’s response to her addiction.
Honestly, a lot of times, it was simply due to the fact that we had no idea how to get a hold of her even if we wanted, and she had no means to get a hold of us, even if she wanted. She was homeless. She lived in a treehouse in the woods in Colorado for a time. She lived on the streets of Denver. She lived in a pysch ward. She actually, on this very trip, helped me to navigate the Boulder Colorado bus system, because “she was an expert at it”, she informed me. She said she used to spend entire days riding around on the bus, because it was the only way for her to stay warm. For some reason, that made me sadder than a whole lot of other things she’s told me over the years. Periods of no food. No shelter. No family. No friends. An overwhelming and persisting sense of loneliness. She missed the birth of all three of my children. She was there for the birth of her OWN child (obviously) but she missed the first 8 months of his life, because CPS would not allow her to have custody of him.
When I sat down to talk with her about this article, she admitted that when CPS had taken her son, she’d been heartbroken, yes, but relieved, too. Her addiction had made her selfish…nothing mattered but obtaining her drug….and she could already tell early on that being a mom was going to require her to be selfless. Her son was going to get in the way of her drugs. She wasn’t ready for that. Yet.
There isn’t enough time or space in this blog post to recount what the next eight months of her life looked like, but it was sad. I remember it while it was occurring, and “sad” wasn’t the emotion I felt at the time. Anger. Frustration. Rage. Annoyance. “For God’s sake. Why can’t she just pull herself together? She has a son now”. Hearing it all from HER perspective though, anger wasn’t the emotion I felt. Heartbreaking sadness was. (Side note: when it comes to just about ANYTHING, hearing the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, often changes EVERYTHING. It’s usually worth at least hearing).
She eventually landed at a place called Austin Recovery, and it changed the course of her whole life. She lived there alone for a while, and eventually, when he was 13 months old, her son joined her. She told me the first night he was there, she had no idea what to do with him. Not only that, she didn’t have any of the feelings towards him she thought she was supposed to have. She loved him, but felt zero connection to him. And of all nights….he got a stomach bug that night. Diarrhea. She told me, not knowing what to do about it, or what to do with him in general, she carried him out into the hallway and handed him to someone else. “I can’t do this. Please take him”.
Over the next four months though, she learned, by necessity at first, and then by desire, how to be a mother. She and that little boy formed a bond that I’m confident will remain unbreakable for life. She got clean. She stayed clean. The two of them moved in with my parents for a while, and eventually into their own place, where she has managed, as a single mom, to hold down a job, pay the bills, but most importantly, give a childhood to her little boy that she can feel proud of. That boy loves his mama, and knows that his mama loves him. His favorite thing to do is drag a blanket over to her, and say “let’s go get cozy, mama”. Because he loves all things cozy, for his birthday last month, she bought him a little teepee for his room, and filled it with pillows and blankets and stuffed animals, and all things “cozy”. SHE did that, with money that SHE earned, at a job that SHE has kept, and is good at. Those were things she would not have able to claim too long ago.
I found it hard and sad, but also encouraging and inspiring, as I was talking to her, to hear her be authentic, and admit how truly difficult the struggle is, to be a mother, and an addict. Because even though she is sober, she is still an addict. She cried multiple times as we talked, admitting deep fears of the future. Her ability to maintain sobriety. How easy it could be to slip; how destroyed she would be if she did. How nothing fills her with more terror than either the thought of her falling back into her old ways, or of her son falling into the same habits that she fell into. She talked about how she is “13 years behind in life”, because of the 13 years she spent as an addict, and worries a lot about being able to “catch up”, and be successful, and provide all the things for Cannon she wants him to have. It was hard and sad for me, to hear how difficult it is, and will always be, to make the choice EVERY day to take the medications that help curb her appetite for drugs. To make the choice EVERY day to say “no” when she could so easily say “yes”. To forever and ever have this “cross to bear”. It’s a lot. It’s daunting. At the same time, it was encouraging and inspiring because, hard though it may be, she is DOING it. Every single day, she’s doing it.
She told me, also tearfully, that her entire life she has felt “less than”, and as though she will never amount to the same things that other people amount to BUT acknowledged that the one thing she KNOWS she is good at, is being her son’s mom. She said “the things he knows? I taught them to him. He’s loving and gentle and in-tune to people’s feelings, and it was ME who helped shape that”. She’s so right, and it’s exactly what I’d felt so proud of her about, on the trail earlier.
As she sat there though hashing out her fears, and potential failures and perceived shortcomings, and all the ways she may possibly “mess her son up”, my mind drifted momentarily to my OWN mom, who earlier in the day, had expressed her own fears and regrets about things that perhaps she’d done, that she now worried had fed into my sister’s addiction. My mind drifted from there to my own three boys. To the fact that, though drugs have never been a part of my life, there are a million things EVERY day…every SINGLE day……that I worry I’m doing wrong when it comes to my children. Ways I feel I’m failing. Ways I feel I should be able to be better and can’t manage to be. Events that have already happened in their little lives that I fear will shape them in negative ways. A million things flooded my brain that I needed to start doing, stop doing, do BETTER. “Oh my gosh. What if MY kids become addicts?”.
Before I totally just drowned though in a pit of despair, a calming reassurance entered my mind:
WE ARE ALL DOING THE BEST WE CAN
My mom. My sister. Me. YOU.
We are loving these babies with all of our hearts.
We are getting up every day, and we are TRYING.
We are making mistakes, and then learning from those mistakes.
We are failing, but we are succeeding, too. Succeeding in a million little ways, all day, every day, year after year. Even if “success” today only looks like teaching your kid to count to 15, and making them feel safe and secure when you say “yes” to their request to “get cozy together”, that is succeeding, dammit.
We are teaching them things. They are learning some things by our good example, and they are emulating that. They may be learning some things from our mistakes too, (what NOT to do), but that’s ok.
We likely ARE messing them up in SOME way. After all, we were messed up in SOME way from our own parents. We survived. They will, too.
We are all disappointed in ourselves at one moment, and immensely proud of ourselves the very next. That’s normal.
This is a HARD job. The very hardest one. No one teaches us how to do it. All we can do is our best. We can learn. read. grow. try and fail and try again and learn from that. Sometimes be the encourager, other times accept encouragement.
These kids of ours know they are loved, and that is the very most important thing of all.
Stay Strong, Mamas. (Especially Mamas in Recovery).