How Jennifer Sullivan changed her life and took control of her story
written by M. Sophie Franchi; photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
“If I don’t have sobriety, I don’t have anything.”
Jennifer Sullivan waters down the juice and hands it to her 2-year-old daughter Gwynnie, who then asks for markers. Jennifer pulls a pencil box full of markers from the kitchen cupboard for Gwynnie, and another for one of her 3-year-olds, Kathryn, who has come into the kitchen to see what’s happening. Each box of markers is labeled with her daughters’ names so they don’t fight over them.
Pictured above: Jennifer Sullivan, her daughters and Edith the dog
It wasn’t always this way, but Jennifer now has a good relationship with her daughters: the twins Kathryn and Evelyn, and 2-year-old Gwynnie. Kathryn and Gwynnie sit quietly, coloring, listening to their mother tell her story.
In September, Jennifer graduated from Recovery Court. She has 13 months of sobriety today.
It began with a botched gallbladder surgery in 2001, for which Jennifer was in and out of the hospital for seven months. She was prescribed opiates for the pain.
“If you don’t have a drug problem and you go get your wisdom teeth out and they give you some Percocet, you might take them and you get really tired and you sleep,” Jennifer says. “You give me a Percocet and I’ll have the house clean. Like I’m rearing to go. And so I was highly functional for many, many years.”
After her surgery, Jennifer went to graduate school for creative writing in the NEOMFA at Kent State University. She graduated in 2008 and felt a void that needed to be filled. She needed a “next mission” for her “obsessiveness.”
At the time, she was teaching English at Barberton High School and addicted to Ambien.
“I met a guy—that’s always how it goes—and I remember I was on a date with him. It was like our third date. And I [told] him, ‘Pete, I need to let you know something. I kind of have a problem with Ambien and I really like pain pills.’”
Up to this point, Jennifer had never been dopesick. She would get leftover prescription painkillers from friends occasionally, but once they were gone, she’d go about her life as usual.
“I remember the exact moment when we’re in the car, and we pull [up] to my apartment, and we walk inside, and he goes, ‘It’s okay.’ And he opens his hand and he goes, ‘Oxycontin or Morphine?’ And I was like, ‘Thank you, Jesus. This is my dream man.’ Because that’s how my addiction worked,” Jennifer says.
She and Pete were together for two years. She explains how they were highly functioning addicts: “We never stole from our families; we always paid our bills. I ran a half-marathon sniffing heroin.”
Jennifer’s drug use worsened when she was prescribed Adderall from the same doctor that was prescribing the Ambien. She found bath salts next, using them as well as methamphetamines.
“That’s when a shift in my brain chemistry happened, and I became really wacky. I got down to a size 3. I thought I had parasites,” Jennifer recalls.
Jennifer was not yet a mother. She soon ended her relationship with Pete and met Brandon, the man who would father her children.
“I think for a lot of women, and maybe men, too, drugs and really unhealthy relationships go right together,” Jennifer says. “Their father — I don’t know what was worse for me: him or the heroin.”
Jennifer’s addiction progressed after she suffered a head injury five years ago. She passed out at the bottom of the steps and woke up in the ICU. She recalls receiving Fentanyl patches for her pain. Instead of wearing them as one is supposed to, Jennifer was cutting them up and eating them.
But as far as anyone could tell, Jennifer was still living a successful life. She wasn’t writing much, but she won Teacher of the Year. Then her relationship with Brandon turned tumultuous and he went back to Kansas. She’d stayed friends with Pete. He’d turned to the needle. Jennifer followed suit. Heroin, she thought, helped her come down from the meth.
“I know this sounds insane, but the speed was so bad for me, that to shoot heroin brought me back to reality,” Jennifer says.
Of course, heroin use brought its own problems. She stopped paying bills. The electricity was shut off. Then shortly after she started IV drug use, she became pregnant with the twins.
She sought help. Got into a program, was given Subutex, which she’d stay on for a couple days. In Edwin Shaw outpatient detox, she’d drop urine for a drug test and then go down the hall and shoot heroin, which Jennifer would continue doing throughout her pregnancy.
“I thought it was a moral problem,” Jennifer says. “I thought, ‘I am just a shitty person. How could you possibly stick a needle in your arm when you’re carrying twins?’”
She understands now that it wasn’t about her morality. Addiction is chemical.
“It overrides your midbrain, which tells you to reproduce and eat, so in your mind, you are either going to do this drug, or you are going to die.”
If she’d had a program of recovery, Jennifer doesn’t think she would have struggled to stay sober, but it’s hard to commit to recovery when you don’t recognize what’s really happening.
“I don’t think I realized I was a drug addict — which I know sounds ridiculous — because I was still going to work, because I had a house, and because I was always isolated in my disease.”
The twins were born early, which her doctor said wasn’t due to her drug use. Though neither of her daughters experienced withdrawal, the newborns stayed in the NICU for two months. That whole time, Jennifer stayed sober. But the night before they came home from the hospital, she started shooting methamphetamines with her friend Pete.
For the next six months of her children’s lives, Jennifer was shooting bath salts and meth, and then eventually heroin again. Her family took care of Kathryn and Evelyn during most of this time.
There was a point when Jennifer couldn’t even touch her daughters.
“I was shooting so many things into my body—it was the speed—that I felt disgusting, and I would feel like I was poisonous to them.”
Meanwhile, Brandon was in and out of jail and prison for domestic violence charges. When he got out of prison, Jennifer got back on Subutex to try once more to do right by her children, but her heroin addiction actually turned worse.
“I was doing $150 worth a day,” Jennifer admits.
It didn’t seem like that was going to change, but one day, her dog went missing and was gone for seven days. That’s when Jennifer prayed to God, promising that if Edith came back, she would quit doing heroin. Soon after, Edith was found alive on the side of I-77.
Pictured above: Edith the dog
“That’s the first time I ever stopped doing drugs. That’s also when I realized you really can’t just stop doing drugs. But I did because I promised,” says Jennifer. “So for eight days I stayed locked in a room at my mom’s house.”
Jennifer would still get up and go to work every day, even while going through withdrawal. Still in withdrawal, she discovered she was pregnant with her third daughter, Gwynnie. If it ever would have made sense for her to stay off heroin — clean for eight days and finding out she was pregnant again — this was it. But she didn’t.
“I went right back out and started using again because I freaked out about the pregnancy.”
She was in and out of the hospital throughout her second pregnancy. Subutex for a couple days. Heroin for a couple days. Even though she was in trouble for missing a lot of work, Jennifer continued until she ended up in the psychiatric ward at St. Thomas Hospital.
Once again, she was treated for her addiction. She went to IBH Addiction Recovery Center. Once again, she was treated with Subutex until she had Gwynnie. But something changed. This time, she stayed off heroin for a year. Brandon got out of jail and went to rehab. When he got out of rehab, they reunited.
Almost immediately, Jennifer relapsed with one Adderall.
“I had a needle in my arm in two days,” she says.
A week and two days after that one Adderall — May 9, 2015 — Jennifer overdosed on heroin.
The twins were upstairs sleeping, and Gwynnie, not even a year old, was playing in the living room.
“I had this thought when I was walking in. I was like, ‘God, get me out of this.’ And I sort of meant with their father, because he was already annoying me. He’d been out of treatment for a week and a half, and I just knew I wasn’t going to stay sober with him.”
And yet, Jennifer left the room to shoot up with Brandon.
“I can remember the sun coming in, and her little feet kicking, and I was like, ‘Man, why can’t I feel like this and be a mom. And that’s all I remember.”
Jennifer died. Brandon found her on top of Gwynnie. When she woke up after being administered Naloxone, an emergency treatment used to treat opioid overdose, a police officer was charging her with a misdemeanor of child endangerment. She lost her job of 13 years and she lost custody of her children, who were given to their grandmother. Alive but spiraling, Jennifer went deeper into addiction.
“That was the summer I started stealing from my family, selling all my furniture in the house, telling my mom I had to go drop [urine] for drug court and it cost $25, but I was doing that every day. She was giving me money every day.”
The child endangerment charges were dropped, thanks to the attorney Jennifer’s family helped her afford. Instead, she was charged with property destruction and attended Recovery Court in lieu of conviction. She was still able to see her daughters every day.
Jennifer went to detox five times that summer. She was trying to get on the Vivitrol shot, but she couldn’t stay sober long enough. She continued failing drug screen and overdosed several more times, which she believes was a result of the Fentanyl that dealers had started mixing in with their heroin.
“It got to the point in Drug Court where they were going to put me in jail to detox, and the only reason they didn’t is because of the notoriety of the Barberton Herald,” Jennifer says. “The Barberton Herald blasted me on the front page: Teacher on heroin — child endangerment.”
Laura Ramsey, Jennifer’s caseworker, knew that her teaching career would be over if she had a mug shot. Jennifer surrendered to her mother. She would detox at her mother’s house once again. After a week, she went to IBH again and has been sober ever since. Laura cried when Jennifer graduated from Recovery Court in September.
“We were just trying to keep you alive at that point,” Laura told Jennifer.
So why did it work this time? How was this detox, this stay at IBH different?
The first time Jennifer went to IBH, she was pregnant with Gwynnie, and when she got out, she took her kids back from her mother and went back to work with a newborn at home.
This time, that wasn’t an option. She no longer had custody of her children.
“I had to focus 100 percent on recovery, and I had to go through the court systems—both the juvenile courts to get them back, and also Drug Court. So, that held me accountable.”
Jennifer had to go through drug screenings, meet with her caseworker and attend Recovery Court weekly. Instead of being fired, she was allowed to resign so she was eligible for unemployment. She paid ahead on her bills with a tax return. That meant she could fully focus on recovery. She follows a 12-step recovery program, attending five to six meetings per week. She also sees an individual counselor every week to get to the root of her addiction. She understands that she was using drugs to fix a problem, and she’s now trying to figure out what that problem is. Fresh from IBH, she did a lot of volunteer work with the REACH Project.
“The point of the REACH project is to have us out there in the community showing that alcoholics and drug addicts aren’t the scum of the planet and are doing good things,” she says.
Jennifer sponsors another woman who is in recovery and helps her through the 12 steps. She also speaks at rallies and awareness events for heroin addiction and recovery. This is how she works on being a better parent.
Pictured above: Kathryn and Edith
“My mom gets annoyed with me and thinks I spend too much time doing that stuff, but that’s what keeps me sober, is to know that they only way that I can stay sober is to continue going to meetings, and sobriety has to come first,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes it might look like I’m putting sobriety ahead of [my kids], but if I don’t have sobriety, I don’t have anything. There’s no going back for me. It’s either death or jail, but I assume at this point, it would probably be death.”
Now Jennifer is trying to figure out how to live a normal life. She has a counselor who comes to her home to work with her and her daughters, to help them build a healthy relationship.
“I could order a wine in France, but I didn’t know how to cook meals for my kids. I’d gone my whole life seeking these experiences—I think that’s the writer in me—and having these great moments, but not being able to pay bills on time,” Jennifer says. “Though I tell you I’m 39, I think emotionally I’m 24.”