words by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
Editor’s note: The names of the children and one of the mothers in this article have been changed.
Kristy Eyre is watching her three-year-old daughter, Emily, ride her bicycle. It’s nighttime and they’re at the Circle K on Arlington and Exchange Street. Kristy holds a few items of Emily’s clothes in her hands, nervous because once her older sister arrives, it’s over. In a few moments, that green SUV will pull up, they’ll load her things inside, and Kristy will have to say goodbye to Emily, who will, for the foreseeable future, live with her aunt.
“I didn’t want her to see me stick a needle in my arm,” Kristy says. “I didn’t want her to see me be dope sick. I didn’t want her to go living from here to there and on couches and in abandoned houses and in a garage with half a roof.”
Kristy’s life only became that way in the months before she gave up custody of Emily. Things had been rough, but then Kristy lost her father. Trying to cope, she started smoking weed every day and soon met a man who lost his mother around the same time Kristy’s father passed away. Their relationship was going well until Kristy’s boyfriend, a recovering heroin addict, started using again. Kristy had fallen in love with him, spending much of her time at his grandmother’s house, which quickly became a place where other addicts met to buy and use.
Kristy’s involvement with her boyfriend and her frequent visits to the drug house worried her ex-husband so he filed for emergency custody of their son, James, who was just seven years old at the time. When Kristy went to pick up James one week, her ex-husband refused to give James back to her.
“That killed me,” Kristy says. “[James] is my little dude. My first born.”
Kristy didn’t hit rock bottom when she gave up custody of Emily. She had admitted she could no longer provide for her kids, but things were about to get worse.
The morning after she had her older sister take Emily, Kristy did heroin for the first time.
“I wasn’t a mom anymore. What else did I have to lose?”
For the first year and a half Kristy used heroin, she managed to stay out of trouble with the law. Kristy didn’t consider recovery an option until officers caught her with a needle in her purse. She was sent to recovery court, then IBH Addiction Recovery Center. She completed the program, then relapsed. More legal troubles followed.
When she got caught stealing a bottle of shampoo, she was sent to Glenwood Jail for 24 hours. She shot up before going in, but being in jail scared Kristy. That was the last time she used.
“I heard the [Summit County Jail] was worse and I didn’t want to do that.”
Kristy’s kids are now 7 and 11 years old. She’ll mark 21 months of sobriety on September 14, thanks to Peachtree Estates, which provides two-year transitional housing for women in recovery. She has now moved out of Peachtree into a new home in Goodyear Heights.
“I miss my kids,” Kristy says. “I want to be a mom. I want to get up early in the morning and get them off to school. I want to get them cool little [toys] for Christmas. I want to put a Band-Aid on their boo-boos.”
While Kristy navigates the complicated legal process of regaining custody of her kids, they remain with her family, though, since her relapse, Kristy and her mom haven’t spoken. She doesn’t blame her mom for being angry.
Although they aren’t Facebook friends, Kristy has been sending her mom monthly updates through Messenger about her recovery every time she reaches a new milestone. Her mom typically doesn’t respond.
But one day, “It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” aired on television, and Kristy messaged her mom because she has vivid memories of the two of them watching it together when she was little. Her mom sent her a few words of encouragement. So Kristy invited her to her recovery court graduation.
“She didn’t come,” Kristy says. “I’ve lied so much in my addiction that I don’t think she believes me. I cry a lot. I can’t call her. And it hurts really bad.”
Marie Higgins has what Kristy wants. Marie has been in recovery for about two years. She has four sons, now ages 11, 13, 15 and 18, who all once lived with their grandmother Marie’s mom, who currently has custody of Marie’s youngest son, Dylan. Marie and her mom live close to help keep the family together.
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
Her opiate addiction began when she was 14 years old, after her doctor prescribed Darvocet for menstrual cramps. Darvocet is a habit-forming opiate pain killer that can cause bad withdrawal symptoms when quit abruptly. It was taken off the market in the United States in November of 2010 because of its link to fatal heart problems.
She switched to Vicodin and Percocet. Marie wouldn’t stop there.
“I worked as a home health aide, and one of the men I took care of was prescribed a lot of pain pills, and he was allowing me to take his pills, so I moved onto Opana, which are really strong.”
When that wasn’t strong enough, Marie started using heroin in 2011, dragging her boys along as her addiction spiraled.
“I didn’t care about anything except getting high.”
Marie spent nine months in jail after police raided her home on suspicion she was cooking meth. They didn’t find a lab, but they did find “a lot of meth” so she was arrested on felony charges. She wasn’t deterred.
“It was about a month after I got raided. I was still doing all the things I was doing before I got raided. My mom called children’s services and told them I was cooking meth, and so they came and removed my children from my home.”
She signed away permanent custody of them to Child Protective Services until her mother could take custody. Marie’s boys grew up in and out of foster care. Sometimes they were separated from each other. Her son Matt, now 13, was almost adopted by a family.
“The foster family really had their heart set on adopting him but he wanted to be with his brothers, not with these people he didn’t know,” Marie says.
She feels incomplete because of all of the time she missed with her sons.
“I didn’t have four kids to not raise them,” Marie says. “I never intended on becoming a junkie, but I did become one. And it’s not only affecting me, it’s affecting my children. These four children didn’t have a say so in the matter.”
Marie overdosed when her youngest son Dylan still lived with her. He woke up to see her getting rushed away in an ambulance and thought she had died. Marie was charged with child endangerment.
That was another life ago now. Today, she is a state registered recovery coach with the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OMHAS). She volunteers for Summit County Opiate Task Force and attends the Advocacy Subcommittee meetings. Aside from this, she’s also an active member of the advisory board for Akron Say No To Dope. It keeps her busy but it also helps keep her sober.
“I’d like to be able to spend more time with my children, but I believe they understand that I’m trying to get better,” Marie says.
It can take years to finally seek help and just as long to get your life back after addiction. So many moms in recovery give custody of their kids to family or close friends because they are afraid of having their kids taken away by Child Protective Services (CPS). Fortunately, there are programs to support mothers seeking recovery.
Recovery Centering at Summa Health Medical Group, led by G. Dante Roulette, MD of obstetrics and gynecology, provides support for pregnant women as well as postnatal support for the first year. Recovery Centering gives women an opportunity to develop safety plans and identify people who can take care of the child in case they overdose. Roulette says that getting over the stigma of being a recovering mom is critical to helping them and their children.
“We actually have folks from Children and Family Services come in on a rotating basis and talk [to mothers] about what it looks like to have a child while you’re in recovery,” Roulette says. “Because a lot of people come in and think that we’re going to take their babies, but we have absolutely nothing to do with that.”
Being a mom is stressful enough, but being a mom in recovery is a different kind of challenge. Shame and guilt are often significant triggers.
Danielle Jolley has been been sober for six years. She has three kids: twin sons who are now 21 and another son who is seven. The twins stayed with grandparents for most of their childhoods while Danielle was addicted to drugs. Although she has a relationship with all three of her kids now, she says one of the twins is “a bit resentful,” and it took a long time to reconnect with them.
“I lived to get high and I got high to live,” Danielle says. “Once I got into their teenage years I could have been anywhere. In a different state, in jail, I was just nowhere to be found.”
Danielle says she is ashamed to remember taking her youngest son along when she went to meet dealers during the last year of her addiction. He was only a baby at the time.
“I would turn the car off in the winter so the police wouldn’t see the exhaust,” Danielle says. “But what if I was one of those people who overdosed? My son would have died in the backseat from hypothermia.”
Danielle is currently a recovery advocate for sober living in Kent. She attends the University of Akron and is majoring in social work. Danielle got sober in AA and stays sober by practicing yoga and maintaining her spirituality.
She is glad nothing bad ever happened to her kids, and she hopes more mothers should seek help, despite fear of losing their kids to CPS.
“I feel like if you use those reasons the problems are only going to get bigger. Start somewhere and see what doors open up because it definitely pays off. It’s easy to stay trapped underneath in shame and fear, but there’s a way out. ”