Last summer I met a young woman who was in a specialized treatment program for mothers. She had been using drugs during her pregnancy, and was sent to treatment to get clean after her son was born. She had to complete her first phase of treatment before her boyfriend could even bring their son for visits. Today, this woman is my hero.
She was one of two volunteers from the center who volunteered to join me in the first of four garden clean-ups. I’ve dedicated a few weekends throughout my summers to shepherd this volunteer opportunity for the women because honestly, I get more than I’m giving. They get a pass for an afternoon out of the center, away from the drama of thirty-plus other women in a confined space. I get a work force that is willing to pull ivy and blackberries come rain or shine. I might learn a slice of what it is like to be on this path of recovery while listening to whatever stories they share about their lives. They come there with different motivations – some are a block away from smoke breaks and jolt drinks at the corner convenience store. Others want to see a tangible achievement in an afternoon. I don’t care why they’re there really – I’m just glad they’re there.
The young woman worked hard that first day. She came back that next month with her roommate and passed the word around. She also brought stories of phasing, while others were having difficulties passing the milestones they needed to progress to the next level of treatment. Why was she so on track? She spoke of her infant son often, and glowed when she talked about her boyfriend. He was raising the boy with the help of his family back in their hometown. But was she over-romanticizing this guy?
Her background story was full of pain. Her father was incarcerated when she was a baby, and her mother gave her up by time she was six-years-old. She was placed in foster care, and finished high school. Her birth parents came back into her life by time she had officially become an adult, and brought the dysfunction with them. She was using drugs with them throughout her pregnancy, and when they finally wised up and asked her to stop for the sake of their grandchild she continued on in secrecy. She spoke of her parents as being destructive for one another but also completely magnetic – their broken selves fit together. How would this young lady know what a healthy love looked like? And would she be up to the challenge of building that in her own life?
The next month, she was able to have longer visits with her son and boyfriend. He made the hours long drive even when she only had a limited time to visit. She started to talk about their home, and their plans for after her release. She was also talking about what she was learning in her program, including the crucial ability to set healthy boundaries for herself. She said that this meant that she would be telling her birth parents that they could not come near her family – her boyfriend and her son.
She missed the last clean-up event, and I don’t blame her. She was probably on a full-day or overnight pass to spend with her family, making plans for her life outside of treatment and bonding with her child. I think she graduated the program a month later. She returned to her hometown. She beamed about living with her two favorite men – her boyfriend and son. Her boyfriend proposed. She found out she was pregnant again. And today, she got married. She looked healthy and radiant, and in love.
I hold many of the women I’ve met in this project in high regard, including the ones in relapse. They are battling a crippling disease. Fighting the urge to drink or use can be a daily struggle and that can be exacerbated by a lack of support networks, a lack of friends who are clean themselves, a complicated history that might come back to haunt them, and battling the litany of social services that never seem to sync up right to be completely effective.
If I look back into the days when I made less-than-healthy decisions for my own body I can remember how deep and repetitive patterns of drinking were. I didn’t have someone telling me about adequate nutrition, or how to balance my check book. If I had birthed a child during those years, I would have been just like many of the women I meet at the clean-ups. Lonely, scared, and in need of someone to guide me without judgment through the toughest job there is out there – parenting.
So I am raising my tea-cup to one young woman out there who reached out and held on for dear life to love. And to her new husband and relatives who have forgiven her so that she could shine in this life. May she fill her days making healthier decisions for herself and for her family, showing that her warrior spirit has only gotten stronger from her past wounds.
I think we can all agree that marriage and parenting are not an end to a race, but ongoing challenges. From what I’ve seen, this young woman is on the right track to embrace both.