Some insomniacs count sheep. Lori Quintavalle used to count treatment centers.
Her son Alec, now 24, had cycled through at least 10 alcohol-and-drug rehabs. He'd stay clean while in a program, but once he was out for a week or two, he's relapse. At one point, he slept in his car in a Walmart parking lot in Florida; other times, he'd text Quintavalle, begging for money. More than once, he overdosed; only a shot of Narcan dragged him back from death.
Keriann Meyers was a homeroom mom who planned rollicking kindergarten birthday parties and made chocolate chip cookies dipped in crumbled Heath bars. Then her marriage imploded, her husband moved out, and she tried heroin for the first time.
"I did it once, and I fell in love," says Meyers. Each day became a chase for the drug, a frantic dance to avoid the dope-sickness that felt like flu, but a thousand times worse. "Every day was the same: How can I get money to get high? I'm still astounded by how far you can fall so fast."
Every other Friday night at Interim House, a women's substance-abuse treatment program housed in a former convent in Mount Airy, mothers of addicts and women in recovery (often mothers themselves) come together and tell one another their stories. In the midst of a heroin and opioid epidemic that snatched nearly 700 lives in Philadelphia in 2015, the group is a small island of survivors - those who have watched their children struggle with addiction, and those who battle the disease hour by hour, day by day.
Quintavalle started the moms' group three and a half years ago, when her son was in a Utah rehab. She and others in her parents' support group were anticipating the December holidays with sadness or dread. Some of them also had daughters or sons in recovery; some had kids who were living on the street. All jumped when their phones shrilled in the middle of the night.
Quintavalle took up a collection among the moms and raised enough to buy each Interim House resident a gift bag of toiletries, books, and fuzzy socks. The moms brought the bags, along with a meal, and sat down with the Interim House women for a sharing circle on a Friday night.
It was supposed to be a onetime gathering, a pay-it-forward gesture from the mothers of addicted kids to women who had been there and done that.
But they didn't want to stop; now, Mama Bears is an every-other-Friday ritual involving as many as a dozen mothers from across the region and nearly all the 25 residents of Interim House. The women share a home-cooked dinner, then sit in a circle, pass a stuffed bear from lap to lap, and talk.
"My son is an opiate addict," Cindy Munger tells the group on a recent Friday night. "He's 24. He's out of rehab again. If it weren't for you and what I've learned here, I wouldn't be as good a mom."
Meyers is next; she arrived at Interim House on May 26 straight from jail in Chester County - a probation violation related to a previous DUI. "Today, I have 58 days clean," she says. "I've had a rough week. But I've been hearing such good things about the moms' group, and I feel grateful."
She passes the bear, grown shabby from so many Friday night hugs. One woman has knitted the stuffed animal a blue poncho; another gave it a lavender scarf. Tonight, the bear wears a rosary and a fuchsia hair extension. Some women clutch it as they speak.
"I have a son who's an addict," says Sue Crathern of Oreland, her voice quavering. "He's in the midst of his fourth relapse. But coming here gives me strength to watch how you guys struggle for your recovery."
The circle continues: Gail Campbell says that her son, who has been living in her Berwyn home for several weeks before moving in with friends, was still in bed at 3 in the afternoon Sunday. That left her frustrated. "I was trying to find some compassion," she says. "Addiction is not a choice."
Crystal Keller, an Interim House resident from Northeast Philadelphia, tells the group that her oldest son's 16th birthday spurred her to seek treatment for a five-year addiction to Percoset, Adderall, and alcohol. "When I got here, I was so broken. I was scared of my own head, my own feelings. . . . I'll never forget the first day I woke up normal. My heart wasn't pounding. I was not searching for drugs anymore. I felt human again."
Kathy Wellbank, program director of Interim House for 22 years, believes the moms' group helps banish the shame of addiction; it's a place where both sides can share their stories without judgment. It's also a locus of unconditional love. "The women will say, 'I can't believe people from the outside really care about us.' "
For moms like Quintavalle, the group is a source of forgiveness. "There's nothing worse than being the parent of an addict," she said in an interview. "You have this beautiful child, and then there's this hurricane that comes in and destroys your family. . . . Then [an Interim House resident] will come up to you, hug you, and say, 'It's not your fault.' "
For everyone in the circle, Mama Bears fills a void: the empty space gouged out by addiction, the place where there should be toddlers to cuddle, teenagers to hug, or moms to extend a reassuring hand.
"When I'm with these women, I feel closer to my son," says Munger.
"They bring a mom-presence, a kind of trust," says Meyers.
The mothers show Interim House residents that time and effort can heal a strained relationship between parents and their grown children. The residents remind the moms that recovery from addiction is difficult, but possible.
The group also muddies stereotypes: A few residents of Interim House are older than the moms who visit. Many have kids of their own. And several of the visiting moms know addiction from the inside.
"I've been in recovery. I haven't had a drink or a drug in 31 years," Campbell tells the group. "I haven't had a drink today, and that's the most important thing - living one day at a time."
In the end, no one in this room wears just one identity. They are daughters, sisters, spouses, parents. Their children are in foster care, or living with a relative, or in boarding school, or rehab, or on the run. One woman has a quarter-century clean; another has 55 days. They live in big houses in Wayne or Blue Bell; they bunk two to a room in a former convent.
But tonight, after a dinner of deli sandwiches and homemade salads, and an hour of frank and tearful talk, someone pushes the coffee table out of the way, backs the couches against the walls, and puts on music. It's the Cupid Shuffle: Now kick . . . now kick . . . now walk it by yourself. Feet cha-cha in sneakers or flip-flops. A tattooed shoulder shimmies; hips rock to the beat. For the duration of the dance, there is no way to tell who's who.