Twenty years ago the nation faced a new drug scourge: crack cocaine. With it came thousands of children born to addicted mothers and labeled “crack babies.” When the drug first hit the streets of New York in the 1980s, the city had 17,000 children in foster care. A decade later, that number had soared to 50,000. Many of the children had been exposed to crack cocaine before birth. I got over my crack addiction but my family hasn't recovered.
One night I met a man who treated me so nice. He was light skinned, with beautiful brown eyes, and he always called me beautiful. All my life I'd felt ugly because I have dark skin and got teased for it. Then I got hit by a car. The accident left me with a serious limp. When my hip hurt, he liked to pick me up and carry me. I felt like a queen.
But after we'd been dating for a while and had a son together, he started beating me. Once he hit me in the chest so hard he fractured my ribs. And one day when I was home I opened the door and a paper fell from the door. I realized that he'd stuck it there to see if I was leaving when I said I'd stay home. I was terrified.
I often went to my mother's house because I felt safe there. She'd say, “Why you always over here?” But I didn't want to tell her, because she always told me, “You don't need to be with him, he's no good.” I knew she was right, but I was afraid to leave him and didn't want to admit that I was wrong.
A new drug called cook-up
One night in the early 1980s, I ran into an old friend. We went to his apartment and talked. Then I noticed a glass object on his kitchen table. Next to it was a lighter. I asked, “What is that?” He said, “You don't know what that is? Stop playin'. It's a pipe.” He asked me if I wanted to smoke a new drug called cook-up. I decided to give it a try.
Cook-up gave me a rush to the heart that felt so good. It made me feel up and rushing, wanting more and more.
After that, cook-up (which got known as crack) became the way I dealt with the abuse I was going through and the sadness and anger I was feeling. Soon I was thinking, “Where can I get the next dollar? The next bottle?” It was more addictive than any drug I had tried. Two of my sisters tried it, too, and all three of us ended up addicted.
'Lose the taste for this drug'
The next year, my daughter was born with a positive tox. At the hospital, a social worker told me that I needed to get myself off drugs. After that I did start to tell myself, “You need to lose the taste for this drug.” But I didn't know anything about drug treatment programs, and in truth, I didn't think I was really an addict. I didn't smoke crack every day. And when I wasn't high I was loving and playful with my kids.
Besides, in the 1980s in Harlem, crack was the in thing to do. People were standing in line waiting to get this stuff, or sitting in apartments all getting high. And I needed crack to give me some happiness. When I wasn't high, I felt so depressed. I didn't want to kill myself, but sometimes I did want to die.
I tried many times to remove crack from my life. It was hard, very hard, because it was all around. It was in my mother's home without her knowledge because my sister got high. My neighbor next door got high. My neighbors down the hall got high. Yes, I lived in the projects. With all 21 floors, I could get high in at least 15 different apartments, and if not in an apartment, then in the hallways or exits.
People would come to my house asking me to get high with them, or yell from the window, “Come upstairs for a minute.” The temptation would lead me to whomever was calling my name. Depression and misery were no help at times like this, for it would take me deeper and deeper into a hole filled with drugs and alcohol.
Spending our food money on crack
Looking back, I can see that my drug habit was affecting my kids, although I didn't realize it at the time. When they were babies, I got free baby formula and I'd sell it, putting my kids on whole milk instead because it was cheaper. When I got high, I'd buy my kids a bunch of candy and put them in their room for a long time because I didn't want them around me.
And I spent almost all our money–the welfare check and food stamps“On drugs. The day I got my check, I'd write down the food we needed from the market. But then I'd go out and get 10 bottles of crack and a bottle of alcohol. I was especially depressed when I looked and there was nothing in the fridge. Then I'd have to go to food pantries and my parents'. I was taking advantage of the system so my children wouldn't starve.
When I was broke people told me, “You can go out and beg. Carry your cane.” Or they'd say, “Act like you're gonna give 'em some sex and then take their money.” I'd say, “I can't even run. How I'm gonna take their money?” I did not want to go that far.
Separated from my son
Often I tried to stop using drugs, but I didn't know much about rehab and I thought that if I told someone, “I'm using crack,” they couldn't have helped me anyway. I just kept trying to stop using crack on my own.
But in 1991, I gave birth to a son with a positive tox. He went into care as soon as he was born. I could only see him at the agency once or twice each week. The visits hurt. My son would cry when he had to leave. They had to separate us, because as he left he was still reaching out. That made me want to get high even more, even though I knew that wouldn't help me get my baby back.
'Your children can't stay here'
The next year, ACS came to my house. “We have a report that you've been selling drugs from your apartment.”
“What? I've never sold drugs.”
–You getting high?
–Look, I get high, but I never sold them.”
But ACS said, “Do you have somewhere for your children to go? They can't stay here.”
My kids went to stay with my sister (who was also using drugs).
I felt ashamed and angry at myself for losing them, but instead of letting myself be sad and miserable that my kids were gone, I decided to party harder. It's a shame, but I thought to myself, “Yes, now I can get high without worrying about these kids.”
After my kids had been with my sister for a year, I felt I had no other choice but to get clean. I missed my kids. I was also afraid of what drugs would do to me. Around that time, my two older brothers, who were addicted to heroin, both died.
Some nights when I was watching TV, that old ad would come on, saying, “It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” Then I'd think, “Oh my God, I gotta get my babies back.” I'd feel so ashamed.
A chance at treatment
I decided to get my kids from my sister's house and take them to a shelter with me. I thought the system would see how much I cared about my kids and let me have them back.
The night I took my kids to the shelter, we were scrubbing down the mattresses when “Boom, boom, boom.” The police came to the door and took my kids. My daughter kept saying, “Mommy, please don't let them take me.” I told my son, “Stay by your sister and if anything is not right, call Nana collect.”
I went to my mother's that night and thought, “What am I going to do?” I felt depressed. Eventually, I went back to the shelter, where I learned about a residential drug treatment program called Willow Project Return. When they asked if anyone was interested in going, I raised my hand like I was in elementary school and said, “Ooh, ooh. I wanna go!”
Learning to live without drugs
I went to a neighbor's to get high for the last time. Then I checked myself into rehab for six months. At Willow, I learned that I was addicted to drugs and that I didn't know how else to deal with my depression. Over time, I also began to recognize that my addiction was connected to pain I felt in childhood. My parents were strict and hardworking, but they weren't the type to say, “I love you,” and when my mother got angry, she'd hit me with a belt and anything else handy. And for three years, starting when I was 11, I was sexually abused. That was a horrible experience for me.
At Willow, I learned that despite my past, I can cope without drugs or alcohol. I learned that I can live my life even though my accident left me disabled. And I realized that I'm a loving person who has a lot to offer others, especially my children.
Expressing my feelings
I felt comfortable expressing my feelings at Willow. I could talk about what I was going through because the staff were ex-addicts. They kept me motivated and busy. When I started to feel down, the groups and chores took my mind right away from my negative thoughts. It helped that I was not in my old neighborhood. There were times I thought about getting high, but because I was in an unfamiliar place, I wouldn't go buy what I craved.
Sometimes I thought about the people I used to get high with and knew that's what they were doing at that very second. I thought about the places I used to get high and knew that at least one person was there. I thought about how getting high kept me from getting the things I needed and wanted–an apartment so my children would have a home, and money in my pocket for things we needed.
When I graduated, we had a ceremony. We lit candles and knelt to say a prayer. I said, “If I ever get high again, make this flame blow up in my face.” Later, at times when I did want to get high, I'd picture that.
My children said things were OK while they were in foster care, but I knew they were not. After one year at my sister's, they ended up in several foster homes. I still remember our visits at the agency. Once I saw their foster mother drinking Bacardi straight out of the bottle–at the agency! She put her finger to her lips and said, “Shhh–” I said, “No,” and told the staff, “My children are not going back home with her!”
Whenever the visits were over, we'd cry, hug each other, and oh, it just hurt so bad to leave them. It felt good when I told my children how well I had done in my drug program and showed them my certificate. They were happy because they knew they could come home soon, although it took two more years for the system to send them home with me.
The system hurt my kids
My older son ran away all the time and would show up at my mother's, begging to be able to come back home. And a year or two after my children came home, I learned that my daughter was sexually abused by the foster mom's older son. Later, my daughter was in a group where they talked about different issues. She learned to forgive me for getting high all those years and for the time she spent in foster care. But my older son is still extremely angry. He tells me that he thinks foster care ruined his life. He almost never talks about his time in foster care, so when he does, I really try to listen. I want to encourage him to let some of that anger out.
'I'm so sorry'
Living with me when I was getting high was not easy, I know. I ignored my children when I shouldn't have. I'm also the type to get mad and yell when I'm frustrated, and I've hit them at times. But I loved my kids and cared about them. I gave them hugs and kisses and played games with them and treated them like a mother treats a child. When they were in foster care, they didn't get hugs and kisses. I don't think they were treated with love.
I've talked with my kids about why I turned to drugs and told them that if they had problems, they should come talk to me or find someone to talk to. Many times I told my kids, “I'm so sorry for using crack. That is a terrible drug. It will make you do things you wouldn't usually do. That's how things got so messed up with us. But don't worry, Mommy will never let this happen to us again.”
I've been drug-free for almost 11 years now. Every day that I stay clean is an accomplishment for me. I'm very eager to reach my goal, which is twelve years clean–April 8, 2005. I will celebrate without drugs, alcohol or nicotine, blowing my horn like it's the New Year, for this will be my new year.
Why 12 years? Because I had been getting high for 12 years.
Yeah, I know you're wondering what will keep me motivated after 2005. My dream is to get into college and become a substance abuse counselor. I truly believe I will never get high again because my life is much better now.
Angry at myself and the system
When I think about the way my children suffered because of my addiction, I feel so angry at myself for using drugs. I know I hurt them when I got high, and that it's my fault they went into care. But I also feel angry at the system. My children never were abused at home, and if they'd been returned to me more quickly after I quit using drugs, my family might not still be hurting so much. I believe foster care hurt my youngest the most. He was taken at birth and didn't come home until he was 5 years old. I was so happy for him to be home, but as time went on I felt there was something missing.
There's something missing
Because we weren't together when he was young, I don't think my son and I ever bonded. He doesn't look at me the way my other children do, and I don't feel about him the same way I do about my other children. That hurts both of us.
At times I'll reminisce with my kids about their first tooth or when they started walking, and I don't know those parts of my youngest son's life. It makes him feel different, like he's not really part of this family, or like he's the foster child here. At this point, it seems to me that my son doesn't really want to be here. I want us to be close, but I don't know if we can be. There's pieces missing.
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