The heroin epidemic has rocked New York state. A lot of attention has gone to how to stop drug trafficking and help addicts. But the increased use of opioids has created another issue -- how to care for the children of those hooked on heroin.
Filling the "Void"
It’s hard to take care of a new baby, then add trying to get sober from a heroin addiction in the mix.
Marisa, who didn't want to use her last name, gave birth to one daughter while she was using heroin, then another while she was in treatment at a long-term care facility in Delaware County, New Hope Manor.
Marisa spent her young life looking for affirmation she's appreciated -- the search for contentment, to close, what she calls, “the void.”
As a teenager, it manifested itself in self-mutilation and an eating disorder. In college, her discontent took her to England to study acting. She then moved to southern Florida to teach and tour.
A deep feeling of sinking emptiness left her vulnerable when a doctor prescribed her painkillers for neck and back pain after a car accident--pills that provided some sense of comfort.
“It’s like a nice warm fuzzy hug. Like a whisper that everything’s going to be okay,” Marisa said.
"I Didn't Want to See My Face in the Mirror"
When painkillers became scarce and expensive, Marisa started snorting heroin. Then shooting it.
Every day was a fight to avoid the “feelings of death” from the physical pain of withdrawal. Each injection was a shot to numb her body and push her sense of guilt past the point of debilitating. She could barely face herself.
“I hated how I looked. I hated how I looked. I saw the sadness in my eyes, the hardness on my face. I remember looking so distant," Marisa said.
"I got to a point where I couldn’t turn the light on when I went to the bathroom because I didn’t want to see my face in the mirror. The shame was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming.”
But a ray of hope emerged when she learned she was going to have a baby.
“When I got pregnant with my first daughter, I thought, 'She’s going to save me. She’s going to be the reason my life changes.'”
Instead, she changed the opiate, switching to Suboxone. Marisa thought she could control her addiction with a milder drug, but it didn’t work. She gave birth to a daughter, Harper, but relapsed and spiraled shortly after.
While Marisa and baby Harper were living in a hotel room, Child Protective Services took her to court and took away “the most precious person in the world.”
"When they said she was being removed from me, I just wanted to die. I immediately left and tried to get high, although I wasn’t trying to get high anymore, I was trying to die," Marisa said. "Every time I used at that point, I wanted to kill myself."
Marisa would pass out on the couch, come to, and be mad she was still alive. In between suicidal doses of heroin, she missed Harper’s first steps.
For a year, Marisa played with Harper just one hour a week during supervised visits. In that year, she was ashamed to learn she was pregnant again.
First Steps Toward Sobriety
A doctor mandated she enter a year-long stay at New Hope Manor, uprooting her from her old environment to finally deal with “the stresses, the triggers, the availability of drugs."
"Absolutely everything has to change.”
And it did. Instead of stresses, she got structure and support. Instead of heroin, she learned coping skills and developed her own personal spirituality.
When Marisa's second baby was born, Scarlett, the state tried to remove her too, according to Marisa. But this time, New Hope Manor defended her. Scarlett came home with Marisa to the rehab center and the two nurtured a close bond.
After Marisa was discharged and moved into an apartment, Harper eventually came to live with her and the new baby. Marisa felt guilty she had hurt Harper and confused her, but says she was very forgiving.
“Kids are so resilient ... a child can be traumatized or can suffer because of their parents disease, but all they want is to just be with their parents and to be loved," Marisa said.
"She’s so happy to have me and her father in her life. It’s just overwhelming and I’m so grateful.”
"She's Just Like Me"
The two have developed a close bond. Marisa said she sees hints of her love to act and perform in Harper.
"She's so over the top, so dramatic, so musical. She's just like me," Marisa said. "Even though I haven't been a consistent influence in her life, she's still so much like me."
Marisa said she worries Harper and Scarlett might have a propensity for addiction, but she watches for it.
As Marisa leaned back on the couch, her daughter fell asleep on her stomach and quietly cooed.
“I love this feeling when they fall asleep on you because there was a time when I did not feel comfortable with me. And the fact that now my two children can feel so safe and secure in my arms," Marisa said. "That is the most incredible feeling.”