How One Family is Trying to Break the Cycle of Substance Abuse
Editor's note: This story uses first names only because of an ongoing case with Child Protective Services.
Since at least the 1970s, researchers in Texas have been calling substance use a "family affair." A study by the Texas Research Institute's Drug Abuse Clinic compared two groups of families similar to each other in every aspect – from socio-economic status to ethnic background. The only difference was that one group had at least one family member who was an addict. The study found fathers dealing with drugs were critical and arrogant, mothers were disenfranchised and children were bitter and resentful.
That was in the '70s, but the story is not so different today.
Heather is 30 years old.
"I'm a troubled kid from Dallas," she says. "The trouble is just passed down from generational curses that my parents also had. My dad was a heroin addict. My mom was an addict. My dad died of heroin when I was 12."
Tamara is Heather’s mom.
"We come from backgrounds of – mine is mainly alcoholism. So yeah – it is a family affair," Tamara says. "I lost [Heather] for about four years – I guess she was like middle school age – but she had lots of rage and anger from my addiction and got in a lot of trouble."
While Heather was in CPS custody, Tamara sobered up. It took years. But she got Heather back. Soon after, Tamara married Alan.
"The whole period of Tamara and I being together,” Alan says, “Heather had been rambunctious – shall we say – disruptive? I really didn't have any opportunity to be a father figure."
Substance use has also plagued Alan and his family.
“My father isn't alive, [Tamara's] father isn't alive, Heather's father isn't alive,” Alan says. “Most likely Abby's – Heather's sister's father – isn't alive. Nobody has heard from him for four or five years. So that's an issue that quite a few of us are dealing with."
Heather says she’s always used used alcohol and marijuana to cover up the pain, to numb herself.
“I never truly got addicted until meth came into my life about two years ago – and that was a really hard addiction for me because it made all the pain go away," Heather says.
Heather says the love of her life was also an alcoholic.
"I have always been very aggressive – so once [he] was drunk enough, I would become abusive,” she says. “We lost our first daughter when she was close to 3 years old and then the pain got worse and then our self-deterioration got worse once we lost our child."
Just like Tamara 18 years ago, Heather lost her child to CPS. Her case is ongoing. Heather became pregnant with her second child while she was still addicted to meth.
"We were very fortunate,” Tamara says. “CPS met us at the hospital. They were like, ‘She's either going with you’ – I'm nana – ‘or she's going into foster care.’ When I heard that I was like, ‘No,’ I'm not going to let my grandchildren be pulled away from our family."
Heather got accepted into family rehab. Her newborn joined her shortly after. Heather also got accepted into a drug court program, which provides supervised treatment for substance use.
“You think you are signing your life away, you think it's going to suck,” Heather says, “but you want your babies. What other option do you have? Without my children – and this is where it becomes a little glitch in the program for me – they say you've got to do it for yourself. I don't think I'd be sober without my kids right now."
"She's a fabulous mother, she just is a fabulous mother,” Tamara says. “It's so awesome. I'm very, very proud of her – and James too."
James is Heather's partner. They both have scars from the terrible fights they had while intoxicated. Six months ago, James also signed up for rehab. Heather graduated from the drug court program in July.
"There's so much positive going on for me right now,” Heather says. “They talk about ‘promises of recovery’ in the program, and I can't explain to you the amount of promises I've gotten. I've got a job again – I didn't expect to work again for years, if ever. I have my own house. I'm regaining, not necessarily legal custody at this point, but I have my daughter every weekend and I hadn't had her in four years. I didn't think I would ever get her back."
At this point, Heather's parents are the ones who have custody of her oldest. They're all optimistic – but cautiously so – for the child's sake.
"It's scary for parents when you come off the program,” Heather says. “I would say my biggest factor that was affected was my step-dad. But, I can still see that relationship blossoming."
"I'm trying to stay positive,” Alan says, “because at this point I'm not truly convinced that Heather has turned a corner."
Heather has been clean for a year. Her hope is that – with James getting clean too – the "curse" that ate at her family's soul will be broken in her children's generation.
For help seeking treatment for substance use, visit the National Institute of Drug Abuse.