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What About Jessie?

November 12, 2019
Pam Vasquez

I was laying out the lunch buffet at the grocery store where I worked. I remember the smell of fried chicken and the sound of the Bangles, Manic Monday, playing overhead. But all I could think about was my daughter, Kelly, who had just overdosed and died three weeks earlier, 10 days before her 21st birthday.

I went outside to smoke and figure out how I was going to kill myself. I had become sober myself three years prior, and had experienced such a profound change that drinking or using a drug to ease my suffering was not even a thought. Killing myself seemed like the only way out. Deep inside, I think I knew this was wrong. So on my cigarette break, I called a dear friend. She said three words that saved me.

“What about Jessie?”

In the fog of pain, I couldn’t even see how important it was for me to go on for my younger daughter, Jessica, just 10, until my friend pointed it out.

Jessie became my reason to live.

I was raised by wonderful parents. I went to private school. Despite my happy upbringing, I still turned to drugs at an early age. It was fun at first. I functioned fine for a long time. And then I couldn’t. I lost my job, my home and my car. Most importantly, I lost my children. I’m sure it looked like I just walked away. Actually, I embarked on a journey to get clean. A long 7 year trip.

Making amends is part of the 12 step process that helped me recover. I started with my children. At the time, Kelly was 18 and lived with her father. Jessie was 7 and lived with her grandparents.

Kelly was angry, and I had to be brutally honest with her and allow her to be honest with me. It was horribly painful but it fostered healing. Kelly slowly forgave me. But she was already heavily into drinking and drugs. I couldn’t reach her. I couldn’t help her. Maybe I was too late. Maybe I was the last person she wanted to listen to. Not only did Kelly have the problem of addiction, she had a mental health diagnosis as well. The dual diagnosis was so difficult. In the end, addiction won. Or was it mental illness. Does it matter?

When I reconnected with Jessie, as I said, she was only 7, living with her grandparents. I had to show her I was back for good. Words carried little weight. She and her grandparents had heard them all before. I took 2 buses every Tuesday to go do homework with Jessie. Rain, snow, whatever. After a year, Jessie began to understand that I was always going to show up.

I began to notice behaviors in Jessie that looked familiar, the same behaviors I had seen in Kelly! I was present this time, and I acted. Jessica was diagnosed with a mental health disorder. The early intervention seems to have worked. Proper medication and support helped. Jessie no longer drinks or uses drugs. She is now in her sophomore year of college. Last spring she made Dean’s List.

I did not go through all this only to fry chicken for a lunch buffet. There had to be a bigger plan for me.

So a few years ago, I started searching. I was offered a job at a recovery house, did more work in the addiction field, and completed my Certified Recovery Specialist Certification.

I now work at The Episcopal Campus of Temple University Hospital under a program called R.O.S.E (Recovery Overdose Survivor Engagement). I engage with overdose survivors in the Emergency Department.

I couldn’t save my own daughter, but I am helping to save other mothers’ children.

One story: She was 21, homeless and hopeless. She had overdosed and been revived. When I shared with her that I was a heroin addict in recovery and had lost a child her age, she finally looked at me.

She could see I understood the pain and desperation she was feeling. I cried with her. I showed her my vulnerability. And that seemed to break down the wall around her.

I knelt down and put my hands on her knees. “This is the last day you ever have to go hungry,” I told her. “You never have to be homeless again.” At this, she finally wept. We wept together. After a night in Crisis

Response Center, a bed in a treatment center was found for her in the morning. She wouldn’t get into the transport van until she could give me a hug and thank me.

She now has a job, and a place to live. We keep in touch.

I like to quote Gloria Steinham.

“The final stage of healing is using what happens to you to help other people.”