Second chance

12:00 p.m Saturday, June 1, 2013 Local

Don’t worry mommy, I’ll take care of my sisters.

With those words, Toshia Brown felt another nail sink into her heart.

It was January 2012 and Toshia’s prescription drug abuse had reached a crescendo of self-destruction. She was unemployed and living in an extended stay hotel in Douglas County with her three daughters: Misty — who had already shouldered more than any 7-year-old should — Windy, 5, and Summer, 3.

Toshia was taking a handful of pills before her feet hit the ground in the morning and another fistful at night.

Now, standing in a room in the Douglas County office of the Division of Family and Children Services, she knew this was the day the state child protection agency would take away her children.

She had all kinds of reasons for landing in this terrible state. Just no excuses.

And no way out. That morning, she and her mother had debated whether to just take the girls and run. Her mother argued for that.

“But we had no money, nowhere to go,” Toshia said.

Walking into the DFCS office, she was shaking on the inside. A worker told Toshia she was taking the girls into another room to play. Toshia knew better. She started to cry as the words of the DFCS worker came at her.

Toshia felt sick to her stomach.

Windy and Summer were a crying mess. They hugged their mother and didn’t let go for a long time.

Toshia felt like something was physically being ripped out of her.

“I need you to be a big girl,” she told Misty.

“You’re not supposed to have to.”

That day, Toshia vowed to change.

Just not that night.

Instead, she filled one of her prescriptions for painkillers and lost herself in another drug stupor.

“I wanted to erase every feeling,” she said.

She packed up her daughters’ belongings in a haze, not just their clothes but possessions that had never left the house, like their favorite movies: “Cinderella,” “Tangled,” “Hello Kitty.”


2
A cycle of drug abuse
Toshia (pronounced Tasha) is 28. She has long dark hair, brown eyes and a smile that reveals a longtime appreciation of mischief. So does her husky laugh.

Her drug problem did not begin with prescription drugs. She hit upon them when she contracted a staph infection after she got a tattoo of butterflies on her right thigh about five years ago. They quickly became the easiest drugs to get.

Her mother, Sheila Sanders, was a longtime user, too. When she found out her daughter had a drug problem, Sanders recalled, “I started doing drugs with her.”

Back when Toshia was a child, drugs were plentiful and money scarce in the family’s Douglas County house. Relatives moved in and out. On weekends, bikers came over and there was lots of drinking and pot-smoking. Men would get in fistfights and make up with big hugs.

When Toshia was 6, her older brother, T.J., who was her best friend, died of leukemia. That made her feel more alone, and that made her tougher.

The first boy who kissed her, she punched in the nose.

Her father was out of the picture by then, soon to be replaced by a stepfather, and she lived in fear of his drinking and his rages. When the cat urinated on the rug, her stepfather chased it through the house shooting a .22-caliber rifle. Sometimes, she said, he’d train the gun barrel on her.

As a young teen, she hung a cord in the center of her room with a big padlock attached to it. When he’d stumble in late at night, he’d hit his head on it. The noise would wake her and she’d run.

By the time Toshia was in middle school, the stress had savaged her stomach. At times she threw up blood.

Then came her suicide attempt by slitting her wrist and a stint in the children’s section of the state psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville, a place where she feared getting “the needles,” injections that numbed her emotions.

There, she established herself as a bit of a troublemaker. Out to impress the other girls, she broke the rules and ran all the way down the hall into the boys section.

“That got me the needles,” she said, “and an elbow in the mouth.”

By 13, she was smoking cigarettes and pot. By 15, she’d tried crack cocaine. She left home and married when she was 18 and quickly had the three girls: Misty Rain, Windy Storm and Summer Sky.

She and her husband are divorced now. They don’t talk much. He pays child support and sporadically gets the girls for overnight visits.

Toshia’s prescription drug abuse evolved into a cycle of seizures and injuries. One time she busted her head, another time hurt her back. Each injury necessitated more painkillers.

She learned what to say at emergency rooms and urgent care clinics to get prescriptions. Then she found a friend who could get her lots of pills without the hassle of going to the doctor.

At first, she rationalized the drug use. She needed them for the pain. Or she needed them to stay sharp for work, taking care of her elderly uncle.

She learned the language of a prescription drug addict: Vicodin, Percocet, Lortab, Soma, Oxycodone. She mixed and matched, performing chemistry experiments on her own body in pursuit of that elusive, perfect high. In the morning, she took a Loracet with an energy drink, some weight-loss pills and two Tylenol, which, she said, intensified the buzz.

“Then I would eat something,” she said.


3
A turning point
Misty walked into the kitchen and saw her mother splayed on the kitchen floor. Toshia was woozy and bleeding from her head.

It was two years ago, and the family was living in Toshia’s mother’s house in Douglasville. Both Toshia and her mother were heavily into drugs and they let the place become a mess — dirty floors, cockroaches in the kitchen, children’s clothes and toys strewn everywhere.

Toshia mumbled for Misty to call 911 and then passed out.

“Hello, this is Misty Brown. I’m a kid. My momma is having a seizure,” the little girl told the 911 operator.

The operator had Misty reach down to feel whether any breath was coming out of Toshia’s mouth.

“Yes.”

Where is she bleeding from?

“From her head, where she always does.”

An ambulance was on the way and would be there soon, the operator said, adding, “You did such a good job. You’re such a smart girl.”

It wasn’t the first time Misty had stepped up. Other times, seeing her drug-addled mother acting irrationally, the blond-haired girl would quietly lead her two younger sisters out of the room.

A slender child, Misty can be a rubber ball of energy, bouncing around the room, suddenly leaping into something resembling a manic interpretative dance. She loses herself in her laughter, just like her mom.

But when she meets an adult, she takes on the serious, frank look of someone making an assessment: Is this adult going to cause me trouble? Am I going to have to take some action on my own?

It was Misty who inadvertently turned her mother’s life around. In 2011, school officials at Holly Springs Elementary School noted that the first-grader had 13 unexcused absences, nine doctor excuses and eight unexcused late days. They sent a worker to check on the household.

Toshia didn’t answer the door.

Her daughter’s truancy led DFCS to get involved. Toshia thought she could outwit the state caseworker who visited, saying Misty had been sick a lot. But the worker asked to see Toshia’s medications and he noticed an abundance of empty bottles with dates that overlapped.

In July 2011, Toshia was summoned to Douglas County Juvenile Court to discuss her daughter’s truancy. When she walked into the courthouse, she was so nervous she had a seizure and passed out.

“She just kind of fell on the floor,” recalled Midge Roman-Ortiz, a case manager with the juvenile court.

Toshia appeared before Judge Peggy Walker in a wheelchair. She was asked to take a drug test.

The summary report from the juvenile court stated that Toshia tested positive for Oxycodone, opiates and benzodiazepines.

In the following months, the court had Toshia take drug test after drug test. She failed them all.

When DFCS placed the girls in a foster home in early 2012, the court made Toshia an offer: Enroll in drug court.

This wasn’t like drug court portrayed on TV. Toshia was not being arrested. The Douglas County program is designed to help parents kick addictions, straighten out their lives and recover their kids. Officially, it’s called the Family Treatment Program.

At first, Roman-Ortiz doubted Toshia was a suitable candidate.

“(In) Her mental state, we were concerned,” said the case manager. “She was in a fog — very, very, very foggy.”

At the time, Toshia admits, she was a mental and physical mess — overweight, dressing like she didn’t care about her looks, letting her hygiene go for days.

But Gail Walters, the court-appointed advocate for the children, spoke up for Toshia.

“It was mostly because she was so stoned,” said Walters, who had been working with troubled families for a dozen years. “If she could come clean, she could function.”

Another factor spoke in her favor: Toshia loved her children.

With her daughters in a foster home, Toshia went to live in a Cobb County residential drug treatment program called Mothers Making a Change in April 2012.


4
Another chance
The girls called them “Foster Mom” and “Foster Dad.”

Their months in the foster home were a time of chandeliers, ice cream, new clothes and shoes. They had mornings of Lucky Charms and nights crying for their mom.

At times they felt slighted, in ways only a child might feel. Windy thought Foster Mom put more water in the bathtub for her own child than for the three foster girls.

Jumping on the bed made Foster Mom mad, so Misty watched over her sisters, making sure they didn’t do it. Misty complained she had no friends to play with. Kids at her new school made fun of her, calling her a nerd.

Visits with Mom were one hour every Thursday at a church, supervised by DFCS.

During one visit, Toshia told the girls, “I’m living at mommy college. I’m learning to be a better mommy so I can get you back. Mommy’s got to work on me.”

Visits often ended with crying jags.

Going into rehab was terrifying. But not as terrifying as the prospect of losing her kids forever.

Toshia lived in an apartment with other women addicts. Discipline started with the basics. She had to keep her room clean and treat others with respect, even if she couldn’t stand them.

“It was like going back to high school,” she said. “Sometimes it felt like jail.”

The first hurdle was breaking the physical addiction. That came with pain, about two weeks of it. It hit her in the back and ankles and legs. Some days she would ache all over, with a gut-wrenching knot in her stomach. At night, she had dreams of getting high that were so vivid she woke up wondering whether she had actually taken drugs.

Once the physical bonds were broken, she could clearly see what she had become. It filled her with shame. She had had sex with a guy for drugs. She had become a drug dealer, buying pills in volume and selling enough to pay her bills.

Worst of all, she said, “I didn’t want to face that I had been a negligent parent, that I really did not take care of my children.”

She realized she had made too much of a friend of her oldest daughter, telling Misty things a child should not have to hear.

Her counselor, Christie Asuzu, told her: “You’re bringing (the past) to the present every day, and you need to let it go. ... That wasn’t Toshia today. Toshia today would know what to do.”

As she healed, Toshia cried about things she had never cried about, including her broken marriage. Before, the drugs had helped her hide from those feelings.

She was afraid all the time. She began keeping a journal, writing things like: “I don’t know how to feel anymore. I don’t know who I am.”

She couldn’t imagine who she’d be when it was over: “the scared little girl, or somebody else?”

But gradually a new, more adult Toshia began to emerge. Asuzu watched with pride as Toshia started taking better care of herself. Drug addicts often don’t bathe for days or longer. Toshia took long showers.

And the drug tests started coming back clean.

Last July, the court returned the girls to Toshia. The family lived together at Mothers Making a Change for her remaining three months there.

She also reached nine months of sobriety, so she and the girls celebrated.

Misty gave her a hug, her blue eyes beaming with pride for her mother.

Mom, if you can do this for nine months, you can do it for two years, or even three, she said.

By February of this year, Toshia was living in an apartment in Marietta and working in the meat department at Wal-Mart. It was right down the block, so Toshia walked to work.

The drug court helped with a month’s rent and some money to get the lights turned on. Roman-Ortiz brought furniture, linens and cleaning supplies.

The apartment was spare, the white walls mostly bare. Three small stone hearts adorned one wall, each with a saying dedicated to her kids: Faith, Hope and Laugh. A plaque with the Serenity Prayer hung on the wall above the blue couch.

The carpet was often dotted with the trappings of children: Summer’s stuffed purple bear, Windy’s Barbie doll, Misty’s collection of shoes and sneakers.

Months after the family’s reunion, Misty was still having trouble adjusting to the new Toshia. For a long time, her mother hadn’t put down many rules or provided much discipline over her kids. Misty was accustomed to watching over her sisters. She wasn’t altogether ready to trust this mom who wanted to set all the rules.

Sometimes Misty would stomp away when Toshia asked her to do something.

Toshia knows change will take time.

“I want her to become a little girl again,” Toshia said.


5
Unexpected setback
Then something happened that scared everybody.

In March, Toshia was stacking boxes of frozen meat at work when a box fell and pinned her arm to a shelf. No bones were broken, but the pain was intense.

She tried to avoid going to the doctor. She tried treating the pain with over-the-counter ibuprofen, but that didn’t work. Finally, she gave in and went for a visit.

I don’t want to be here, she told the doctor. I don’t want any drugs. I’m a recovering addict.

She knew she could be staring down a giant slide into the pit that was her former life.

You need emergency surgery, the doctor told her, and Toshia knew it was no use to argue. Her right arm was deep purple and swollen, the skin stretched tight. Her fingers were turning numb.

But first she called Roman-Ortiz, the drug court case manager, who came to be with her. Roman-Ortiz held Toshia’s hand and they prayed. Toshia called a friend she had made in recovery, and they talked about her fear of sliding back into addiction. She called her mom to make sure the kids got home safe from school.

The doctor made an incision from her right wrist to the elbow, drained the blood that had collected, and closed the wound with 36 stitches.

Toshia knew she was going to need help with her recovery and taking care of the kids. Her mother, Sheila, who had kicked her own drug addiction, quit her job and moved into the apartment to lend a hand.

Something else became clear.

Toshia was going to have to take prescription painkillers.

A month later, Toshia stood outside the courtroom of Douglas County Juvenile Court, waiting to go before Judge Walker. Her right arm was wrapped in an elastic medical sleeve. She made sure to look nice, pinning her dark hair back and putting on some makeup.

On the other side of the courtroom door, Judge Walker was discussing Toshia with representatives of DFCS, Mothers Making a Change and the drug court program.

When the doors opened, Toshia took the stand.

“How you doing?” the judge asked her.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look so fine.”

Toshia explained her injury, how her hand had nearly balled up into a permanent fist. She explained how she had reached out for help to the people in her support network. She did not slide back into addiction.

“You’ve done a good job,” the judge told her.

“Everything looks different in my eyes,” Toshia told her. “I didn’t realize life could look so different. I don’t feel so alone when I’m sober.”

Toshia wiped away a tear.

“I’m meant to be a sober person.”

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
When Craig Schneider decided to write about the devastating effects of prescription drug addiction, he contacted county drug courts looking for someone who had been down that road and was willing to talk about it in depth. When he met Toshia Brown, he knew he’d found the right person. Not only is she honest about her experiences, she is a natural storyteller with an amazing memory for detail. And above all, Schneider said, she is motivated by a deep love for her children. Schneider and photographer Hyosub Shin visited Toshia and her family on several occasions. They also accompanied her to court and a counseling session to illustrate her journey to overcome her struggles.

Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

Craig Schneider joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997. He has exposed problems with the state child protection system, personal care homes, trucking regulations and credit-card fraud. He has also done stories on his obsession with the musical “Les Miserables” and his sad attempt to meet Bruce Springsteen.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

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