Melissa felt she had turned a corner in her recovery from drug abuse as she cut through a side street to take a city bus to her therapist’s office.
Only months clean and fairly fresh off a month-long stint in jail, she spotted some tiny, familiar glassine baggies on the ground, and kept walking.
“Once upon a time I definitely would have picked those up to see if there was any heroin left in them,” said Melissa, a client at CHD’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic on Pine Street in Springfield.
She celebrated the moment with her therapist, Donna St. John, LICSW, a social worker who helps adults with mental health and substance abuse histories, as well as gambling addictions.
The clinic is among many community-based behavioral health clinics CHD provides across western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“Donna is something I can share a success like that with. It might sound crazy to someone else to consider something like that a success, but it was. It was a big moment for me because I would have made an entirely different decision a hundred different times before,” said Melissa, a wife and mother of three who found herself in the throes of heroin addiction at 35.
Massachusetts has been among the top 10 states for opioid-related overdose deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2016, there were 1,821 opioid-related overdose deaths across the state – nearly twice the national average. Since 2012, deaths attributed to heroin overdose have increased from 246 deaths to 630 deaths, statistics show. Many of those were parents, like Melissa.
She attributes the downward spiral to sexual abuse she suffered as a child, which re-emerged as a young adult after she convinced herself she had sufficiently tamped down the anxiety and trauma the abuse left behind. Melissa, 37, started using opiates to cope and to sleep, then progressed to heroin. She began stealing from employers to support her habit and nearly surrendered her marriage and family.
“My husband told me he knew I was using again, and if I didn’t get clean he was going to divorce me and take my kids. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t do it to them and I couldn’t do it to myself. We all deserved better,” said Melissa, who credits St. John as a critical component in her ongoing sobriety.
She and St. John began meeting weekly when her sobriety was new and fragile. They now meet bi-monthly but Melissa said Donna is often on-call whenever she finds herself in need.
“Melissa is a wonderful and devoted mother. She’s a hard worker. She works hard on herself and she volunteers to help other addicts,” said St. John, who has been a social worker and counselor for decades, and has worked with children, adults and now the elderly as well.
Many of them are parents fighting to do right by their children, and there is a particularly fine point on that around the holidays.
St. John’s relationships with her 84 clients including Melissa do not begin and end in the confines of her office. She often hunts down other community resources for clients and has spent the last several years, on her own time, looking for bargains on Black Friday and to provide holiday gifts for her clients’ children who may otherwise go without – or with very little.
St. John said she recalls feeling lucky herself when she received a winter coat or a new pair of shoes every few years as a child.
“I care about kids and their parents and their struggles. I grew up very poor, and someone helped me when I was a child. I will never forget that,” St. John said. “I hope to never forget that.”
Although Melissa is in a better place, this Christmas still fills her with anxiety when she considers what she may not be able to give her children – particularly 4-year-old Phoenix. Although she has a long work history, a recently-diagnosed seizure disorder has prevented her from getting a steady job.
Her husband was formerly a grave-digger and maintenance worker at local cemeteries. He began calling out of work too frequently while she struggled to healthy and stable. He lost his job as a result. Melissa’s husband recently got a new one, but the months with no work took their toll on the family’s financial well-being. They are struggling to make themselves whole with creditors, keep the heat and lights on, and put food on the table.
“It makes me feel particularly sad for Phoenix, the baby. I worry what I’m going to be able to give him this year,” Melissa said.
Melissa has 11 months clean.