The Road to Renewal: A Mother’s Triumph Over Addiction

On Christmas Eve last year, Jessica, a young mother from Valdosta, Georgia, got the best Christmas present she’s ever received; she was reunited with her four-year-old daughter after a year and a half apart.

Jessica is just one of around 20 women at VOA Southeast’s Pine Family Campus, a residential treatment center for mothers struggling with substance use disorder (SUD). Along with VOA Southeast’s Millenium Center in Cuthbert, Georgia, the Pines is a very unique facility; it’s one of only a few of its kind in the state where women combating addiction are able to live with their children while they receive full-time treatment for SUD.

That Christmas Eve was the culmination of months of therapy, care, and hard work on Jessica’s part. For a year and a half, her daughter had been removed from Jessica’s custody by the state, and she’d been living in foster care with contact between them limited to weekly four-hour visits – visits that Jessica couldn’t always make while she was addicted to injecting methamphetamine and alternating between homelessness and unstable, even abusive, living situations.

How Jessica ended up in the grips of her addiction – and how she struggled to overcome it and get her daughter back – is the story of this blog today. This is just one example of the hundreds of clients in similar situations that VOA Southeast has helped in Georgia.

Addiction: A Family Disease

Addiction runs in families, and Jessica’s was no exception. Her mother, father, and an aunt all abused prescription drugs while she was growing up. Her brother is addicted to meth to this day and lives in the woods outside Nashville. Her father sold drugs, and was often Jessica’s supplier when she was younger.

“I’ve taken pills my whole life like it was nothing, like it was just a cigarette,” says Jessica. “My dad would come up to my high school to bring me Percocet and Hydrocodone. And it wasn’t ever for pain, I just wanted to get high. I’d say, ‘I hate this class, could you bring me a pill?’”

Jessica’s story isn’t an unusual one for children growing up in homes with drug addiction. “Research is showing that the likelihood of a child using drugs when they’ve been in an environment where drugs are used and accepted is very, very high,” says Audrey Green-Campbell, VOA Southeast’s Director of Integrated Behavioral Health.

Jessica says frequent and casual drug use was a constant part of her life. From those prescription pills in high school to cannabis and MDMA throughout her teens years and twenties.

However, it wasn’t until she was introduced to methamphetamine that drugs truly took over her life, she says.

“I needed it [meth] everyday, all day, couldn’t go without it. I needed it just to be okay in my own skin; just to be okay with myself. Because I hated myself. I felt that guilt about not being the best mom for [my daughter] and all the roads I could have taken differently.”

Cyclical Patterns of Abuse

“Most of our ladies are coming in after a lifetime of trauma, poverty, and low education,” said Theresa Shirey, Program Manager at the Millenium Center.

As a child, Jessica saw her mother move from one abusive relationship to the next over the course of seven marriages. “And I gravitate toward men like she did,” she said. Through the therapy she’s received at Pines Family Campus, Jessica’s come to recognize the way that she, as an adult, developed a series of dependent relationships with (often abusive) men, similar to the way her mother did when she was growing up.

Reflecting on her own life before she met the man who became her daughter’s father, Jessica mourns everything she gave up to be with him.“ I was doing good! Before I met him I was working at [a] hospital and I had my own car. And all it took was for him to show me a little bit of attention, and then the next day I was a no show for work and I moved 15 hours away to be with him.”

Because he was in the military, he and Jessica moved to a military base far from home, where they married and lived relatively happily in their own home for several years. At that time, Jessica got pregnant with her daughter. But when Jessica’s husband was charged with sexual assault and dishonorably discharged from the military, the two were forced to sell off everything they had to scrounge together enough money to move back to Valdosta, GA.

“So everything we had, we sold, we stopped paying our bills, we moved into a camper with no hot water. He ended up leaving us after I stuck through him through everything. I went from living in a four-bedroom house in Hawaii doing great to living in a camper with no hot water, with a newborn baby, and he’s gone.”

A Loss in Her Family and a New Addiction

If all that weren’t enough, two weeks before Jessica’s daughter was born, her mother died.

Jessica sank into a deep depression that made it nearly impossible for her to take care of her child on her own.

“I wanted so bad to be a good mom for my daughter,” she said. “But I couldn’t get out of the bed to take care of [the baby] because I was so depressed about my mom’s passing.”

In desperation and with no support, she called her estranged husband’s mother for help.

She was the one who introduced her to meth.

Meth, Jessica says, “helped me numb my feelings – [it helped me] to get up, and take care of my house, and take care of my kid. I used it as a crutch and then I just became full-on addicted to it.”

A newly single mother to a newborn, Jessica found herself jobless, in unstable housing, and in the grips of postpartum depression and grief for her deceased mother. Her addiction rapidly worsened, and she alternated between homelessness and dependance on a series of abusive men – men who often supplied her with the drugs that felt like her only refuge.

Lack of Support

Lack of support – from family, from a stable place to live, from community integration – is often one of the greatest challenges VOA Southeast’s clients face.

Sheree Revels, the Program Director for the Pines Family Campus, says a lot of the clients she sees at Pines have lost all connections or credibility with their families because of things they did while they were addicted to drugs.

“They burn a lot of bridges,” she says. “When they come into our program, a lot of them are abandoned by families because they’ve burned those bridges with lies and deceits trying to get drugs.”

With Jessica, drugs and addiction were an inescapable part of her family, which has meant that time and time again, the only people she could turn to for help were already addicts themselves. As a consequence, Jessica often found herself turning to men for help surviving – just to keep off the street. But that meant enduring abusive relationships and submitting to mistreatment for fear that she had nowhere else to go.

“I was homeless, I didn’t have anything. I was always with these guys because they would provide a house for me but then I’d have to deal with the sexual parts of it, the abusive parts of it, and the controlling parts of it and none of these houses that I lived in was stable enough for [my daughter] to come home to.”

Shortly before she came to Pines, Jessica was living with a man who choked her until she lost consciousness twice; who broke her ribs and nearly broke her jaw beating her; who set up cameras around the house to watch her while he was out; and who often deliberately prevented her from making it to the once-a-week visits that were her only connection to her daughter while she was in foster care.

“Drugs are an addiction, but men are an addiction, too. Because I watched that [as a child,]” said Jessica. “So my biggest goal is to work on being independent and showing [my daughter] you don’t need a man. I’m not saying you can’t be with a man ever, but you need to know if something happens between you and him, you’re gonna have your own foundation built where you’ll be okay. You can support yourself. He doesn’t have to hold things over you and manipulate you into being in bad situations because you don’t have any place to go.”

Second Chances

At Pines Family Campus, Jessica has had the chance to build a foundation for herself and her daughter. Through group therapy, addiction treatment, AA meetings, and parenting classes, she’s been building the skills and resilience she needs to build the foundation she was missing to take care of herself and take care of her daughter.

But she didn’t take that opportunity right away.

Just a few months after Georgia’s Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) placed her daughter in foster care, Jessica got admitted to the Pines through the help of her case worker. But she didn’t take it seriously.

“I got the opportunity to come here but I just wasn’t ready. I took it as a joke. I treated it like high school almost and I ended up leaving. And that was the biggest mistake I ever made. I think the second I left I knew I’d messed up.”

Jessica called her case worker and said she needed to go back. For the next few months she became single-mindedly focused on getting back into the program.

She knew it was her last chance.

“I was excited,” she said. “God gave me another opportunity. I was calling up here everyday saying, ‘This is life or death for me.’ I just knew there was no other option.”

Jessica re-entered the program and began working through the steps to be reunited with her daughter. For parents like Jessica who have been separated from their children, regaining custody is a step-by-step process, beginning with supervised visits, then overnight visits, and finally culminating in full custody.

“It was so unreal when I actually got that moment of her coming back,” said Jessica. “When she first came, it was hard because she’d talk about her foster family and she’d call them Mom and Dad. That’s the most heartbreaking thing. But now I can tell truly that she knows Mommy’s home.”

Now her daughter is staying at the Pines with her mom, spending the day at the center’s full-time daycare while Jessica is in groups and classes.Her daughter joins the other children at the Pines ranging from newborns to 14-year-olds.

“She fits in good here,” says Jessica. “She knows all the kids, and all the kids know her. [When she goes to the daycare center,] she’ll ask, ‘Momma, can I go see my kids?’”

It’s a comfort to Jessica knowing she can see her daughter just by walking down the hall during the day while she’s in her groups. She says the parenting class in particular has been essential for her.

“When [my daughter] was gone she had just started walking. When I got her back she was in the middle of being potty trained. So parenting’s been big for me because I need it. I went from being a momma for just a short amount of time, to not even thinking about it anymore, to being a parent full time. I need a lot of help with the discipline, and I need a lot of help with parenting out of guilt.”

Holistic Addiction Treatment

“Addiction is a family disease,” says Audrey Green-Campbell, VOA Southeast’s Director of Integrated Behavioral Health, yet “there aren’t many programs in the state that allow children to come with the mom as they go through treatment.”

With the help of the Humana Foundation, VOA Southeast has been committed to further developing its Family Focused Recovery (FFR) model of treating substance use disorder. FFR integrates intensive addiction treatment, behavioral health services, and robust family support, targeting underlying issues that impede physical, mental, and behavioral well-being.

“Everybody recognizes that the client isn’t the only person that’s impacted by the use of drugs,” said Green-Campbell. “It affects everybody, the entire family. This particular model [FFR] focuses on the entire family unit, not just the identified client.”

She stressed that drug use affects the children in families at all stages of life. It affects them in vitro before they’re born, it affects them as they’re first growing up, it impacts their performance when they get to school and begin a process of broader socialization, and it affects them as adults when they’re old enough to use drugs themselves.

“FFR focuses on assisting the mother in learning how to parent more effectively, being more patient, more tolerant, more understanding, more kind, more gentle: all those areas that have been impacted by substance use.”

By emphasizing prevention of family separation, extended care and support for mothers and infants, risk reduction of relapse, and a decrease in neonatal abstinence syndrome and NICU births, the programs at Pines Family Campus and the Millenium Center showcase a holistic and impactful approach to addiction and behavioral health.

At these facilities, women are able to receive the treatment they need to address their addiction while maintaining and developing connections with their children, their families, and the other critical support networks they need to help them stay off drugs once they leave. Clients are encouraged to get a job, to seek more education, to find housing with a voucher once they’re released, and to learn to identify and avoid the things that trigger their addiction.

Changing Hearts and Changing Habits

“It’s truly a blessing being here,” says Jessica. “I’ve really grown a lot being here as a person. I learned so much about myself, my triggers, why I am the way I am, and my family dynamics and where it all came from. I know that’s going to be the foundation for everything when I leave here: everything I learned in groups.”

Thanks to you, Jessica is rewriting her story. Last year VOA Southeast touched the lives of over 47,000 people just like Jessica across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and it’s your contributions that made it possible. Together we can stop the cycle of abuse and addiction, strengthen families, and build the foundation for a healthier, happier community.

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