I was setting out the hot buffet for the lunch rush at the grocery store where I worked, careful as always to put the fried chicken in easy reach of my hungry customers. But my thoughts were really on my daughter, Kelly. Three weeks earlier, on May 10, 2010, she died of a heroin overdose. It was 10 days before her 21st birthday.
I went outside to smoke a cigarette and figure out how I was going to kill myself.
I had become sober in 2007, and after three years of faithfully practicing my 12-step program, I did not even consider using a substance to escape the pain. I wanted a real solution.
I called a dear friend and poured out my plan. She said three words that saved me: “What about Jessie?”
In the fog of pain, I had lost sight of my younger daughter, Jessica, just 10. My friend’s quiet words brought me enough clarity to know that I needed to stick around for Jessie, to help her through grieving Kelly, to show her it’s possible to go on after terrible sorrow.
I was raised by two wonderful parents in Philadelphia who gave me so much security and opportunity. Yet somehow I still decided as a teen to try drugs. It was fun at first. I functioned fine for a long time. And then I couldn’t. I lost my job, my home, and my car to my addiction. Unable to even care for myself, I lost my children, and they lost each other.
Kelly went to live with her father and Jessie, just a baby then, went to her paternal grandparents.
For the next seven years, I struggled to get clean. I couldn’t face my family or my in-laws, so I rarely saw my children.
Then I ran out of options. I was living alone in a car with no brakes during a snowstorm. I was alone, unemployable, homeless, hopeless, and wishing for death. At last I realized that I had to choose between dying and getting better.
I chose to fight that day in 2007. Through medical help, therapy and group support, I got off the substances that destroyed me.
When I felt secure in my sobriety, I wanted to make amends to my girls. By then, Kelly was 18 and angry. Jessie was 7 and confused.
I had to be brutally honest with Kelly about what I had done in my addiction. She wouldn’t accept anything but the complete truth. And I had to let her vent all her anger and hurt. Slowly, she began to forgive me. And slowly, I started to see that she had her own addiction issues, compounded by mental-health problems.
To get close to Jessie, I had to begin with her grandmother. She needed evidence of my new behavior, and proof that it was permanent. We started with homework night. No matter what, I took two buses, an hour and a half each direction, to help Jessie every Tuesday night for the entire school year. Jessie — and her grandmother — began to understand that I was always going to show up for her.
As I spent more time with Jessie, I started to notice behaviors that felt familiar – because they were the same early signs of mental illness that I had seen in Kelly, but didn’t understand. I was present this time. I took her to professionals immediately for diagnosis and treatment. She is now in college. I’m proud to say she neither drinks nor uses drugs.
As grateful as I was for the grocery store job, I began to believe that my life experiences prepared me for more than frying chicken for the lunch buffet.
I was offered a job at a recovery house, then at an in-patient facility. I took the classes necessary to complete and pass my certified recovery specialist certification.
I now work at the Episcopal Campus of Temple University Hospital’s R.O.S.E (Recovery Overdose Survivor Engagement) program, which means I work with overdose survivors in the Emergency Department.
Though I couldn’t save my older daughter, now I have the opportunity to help save other mothers’ children.
One day, I met with a young woman, just 21, who would not even look at me — until I shared with her that I, too, was a heroin addict in recovery and had lost a child her age.
I knelt down and put my hands on her knees. “This is the last day you ever have to go hungry,” I told her. “You never have to be homeless again.” At this, she finally wept. So did I. The next day, she hugged me and got into the van to the treatment center.
Her mother slept that night for the first time in a long time, I later learned. We are still in touch, and she is doing well.
Gloria Steinem once said, “The final stage of healing is using what happens to you to help other people.” I felt my healing in how Jessie’s eyes lit up when she made the dean’s list in her freshman year of college. I feel it when I can tell a mother her child is safe and won’t sleep on the street tonight. This is the healing that has given meaning to all that my children and I have endured, and that inspires me every day.
Pamela Vasquez is a certified recovery specialist with Temple University Hospital’s Recovery Overdose Survivor Engagement program.