My Daughter, the Addict
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When Katie Donovan found out that her daughter Brittany Sherfield — a good girl from a loving family attending a suburban high school — was addicted to heroin, it transformed her life for seven long years into utter hell. Through her popular blog, A Mother’s Journey with her Daughter’s Addiction, Katie has reached countless thousands and helped many families to face their own struggles. Luckily, and through hard work, Brittany eventually found a path of sustainable sobriety, but her recovery did not stop the family’s advocacy efforts. Katie became one of the leaders of Families Against Narcotics (FAN). Today, mother and daughter often travel across the country, spreading a positive message of recovery. Together, they told their story to The Fix.
After a seemingly idyllic upbringing, Brittany progressed within a year from experimenting with Vicodin as a party drug during her senior year in high school to being a diehard IV heroin addict. How did this happen? When did mom find out about your drug abuse and what were the first steps taken?
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Brittany Sherfield: It all started when I was dating this guy in high school who played hockey. Anyone that knows me knows that I am a diehard hockey fan, so I got close with the team and went to every game. Some of the guys from the team, plus my boyfriend and I, got an apartment. I came home from work one night and they had a line on the table for me, which I was told was Vicodin. We had been popping pills for a while. They had access to prescription narcotics to deal with the injuries, and we used them to party.
After almost three months of snorting this powder, I woke up really sick. It felt like the worst flu in the entire world. I didn’t know what had happened. My boyfriend sat me down and told me I had been doing heroin for three months and that I was dope sick. I called my mom immediately, and we were both in shock, crying. We literally Googled what to do because the concept of addiction was so foreign to us. We had no idea how to detox, what to do for treatment, and so on.
Katie Donovan: When I learned of the prescription drug abuse, I first thought, “Okay, we can get her into some counseling, take away her privileges, and nip this in the bud.” This was nine years ago. At that time, I was absolutely blind and completely uneducated about the dangers of prescription narcotics, not to mention heroin. We taught our kids about the dangers of alcohol, weed, and drugs. I never even thought about prescription narcotics. Once she was spiraling out of control and turned to heroin, I felt so numb. I couldn’t believe this was happening. It felt so unreal, yet so painful at the same time.
I called a treatment center and was able to get her in right away. I remember driving home and I had to pull over. I was crying so hard, I couldn’t see through the tears. My chest was heaving, so heavy with emotion, fear of the future, relief she was in a safe place, shock that we were even in this position. Then I received a call five days later that she was being released. I couldn’t believe it. Five days wasn’t enough time, but insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of the rehab anymore. They felt outpatient was a better route because “she didn’t have a history of substance abuse.” I was heartbroken because I had seen my daughter firsthand. I knew how bad it was.
Yes, and when I say that Brittany was a diehard addict, it is not blown out of proportion. Over seven years, she experienced 17 attempts to get sober in a variety of institutions, overdosed three times, and ended up being homeless in three different states. Looking back, does the extremity of what happened astonish you? Beyond the disease of addiction, what other factors were fueling it?
Brittany Sherfield: Looking back, it feels like I am talking about a totally different person because the things I experienced now seem unimaginable clean and sober. Aside from having the disease of addiction, I was extremely depressed. I could be in a room full of people, yet I still felt completely alone. The drugs made me feel part of and connected. By being high, I obliterated the loneliness for a second and nothing seemed more important at the time.
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There was a reason for this: My mom and I moved around a lot when I was younger. It was always to a better area or a better school, but it was hard on me. I constantly had to make new friends. It got to the point where I was so exhausted from trying to meet new people that I became a chameleon. I would blend in with any crowd no matter where I was, so I had no real sense of personal identity. I didn’t know who Brittany was and that scared me. But when I was high, I felt nothing—no pain, no loneliness, no sense of anxiety about not fitting in or being myself. Just peace.
Katie Donovan: I look back and have no idea how we made it through the addiction. Truly. I don’t think I slept for seven years. I was running on fumes and every day there seemed to be a new fire to put out, a new twist to the turmoil. I had to be a strong mom, trying to save my daughter, but I also had a full-time job, a husband and a younger daughter to bring up and care for. I experienced things that I never in a million years expected to ever experience in my life. Watching your child slowly die in front of your eyes, well, I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. I’ve seen her in jail and witnessed her having three grand mal seizures. I once saw my daughter shoot up in a dealer’s car and nod out. I was so frightened that she wouldn’t wake up. We felt like prisoners in our own home, locking up items and being stolen from and violated. I slept with my purse and car keys under my pillow. It was just such a feeling of helplessness, beyond awful.
During the dark years of Brittany’s addiction, why did you never let go? Al-Anon recommends that you carry the message but not the addict. Do you feel that their perspective of letting go of the addict so they can hit bottom is too extreme?
Katie Donovan: In the beginning, I thought I could save her. I felt like if I could just “fix” all of her issues and bail her out of bad situations, it would make things better. I was the Queen of Enabling. It wasn’t until our family was several years into her addiction that I reached out for help. It was humbling to me because I was usually the one fixing other people's issues. Why can’t I fix my own daughter? Clearly, whatever I was doing wasn’t working. I had to try another way.
That was the turning point. It was when I truly became educated about addiction. I learned to become strong because the knowledge I acquired gave me more compassion as opposed to anger in relation to the disease. Personally, I’m not a fan of “letting them hit bottom.” With heroin, any day could be death. I needed to create my own healthy boundaries, but you never stop loving. She knew I would always be there for her if she wanted help. Letting go doesn’t mean you have to stop communication. For me, it meant I have to let go of the chaos, but I would never let go of my child.
Brittany Sherfield: And that still means the world to me, Mom! I might never be able to forgive myself for what I put you through, but I also will never forget how you were always there for me. Year after year, even when I was homeless, I knew I always had a way out if I needed it. I also know I terribly abused that love.
Katie Donovan: You are my daughter, and I love you more than anything in the world. I’m just so happy you are healthy and happy now. From our experience, I know we can put the past behind us and live for today.
In A Mother's Journey with her Daughter's Addiction, you write about enabling and codependency. Can you tell how your experiences with enabling and codependency affected what happened? Going back, what might you have done differently?
Katie Donovan: Given the last answer, that question makes a lot of sense right now. I wish I had learned about enabling earlier in her addiction. What I thought was loving her at the time was really practically killing her. I did many things wrong; things that I thought were right, but weren’t in reality. I would spend hours and days printing out lists of AA meeting locations, job searching for her, making doctor appointments, all things that she could have done herself, and she should have been doing herself. I thought she couldn’t mentally handle it, due to her addiction. I really thought I had to take over. I thought I had to find some way to save her.
Once I found help for myself, however, I started becoming very strong. Ironically, once I became strong, she did too. I think she saw the change and realized I wouldn’t do the things anymore that had been enabling the addiction. As parents, when our child is an addict, we have to completely change the way we act in the dark shadow of this vicious disease. It’s not a natural course of behavior, and it takes some time to adjust. We want to fix things for our children, not have them suffer. We want them to be happy no matter what, but happiness doesn’t come if we try to do everything for them.
My husband said something to me once that really stood out. He said, ”Katie, if anything ever happened to you, I really don’t think Brittany would be able to survive.” And I realized he was right and how wrong that was: What had I been doing? What was I teaching her by enabling her? Helplessness? Just like those struggling with addiction have to work a 12-step program, families affected by addiction need to work on our own recovery. We need to work the steps as well to see how the disease affected us.
Dr. Gabor Maté believes that behind every addiction there is a childhood trauma that needs to be addressed. Brittany has written how, “This bubbly, outgoing, beautiful girl was secretly lost and self-destructive and ran to anyone I could fit in with that day.” Can you describe how you were secretly lost and why you were so self-destructive? What was the trauma behind the addiction?
Katie Donovan: This is a hard question for me to even think about it. I know it’s a question for Brittany, but it reminds me of the part I played.
Brittany Sherfield: It wasn’t your fault, Mom, and it’s not about you. There really wasn’t necessarily any “childhood” trauma. The traumas that I’ve experienced are significant and keep me up most nights, but they all happened during my addiction. As far as my childhood goes, the only thing I can say is that I do not know my birth father. Even though now I don’t care to know him, when I was younger, it felt like something was missing. I felt like I didn’t know the other half of myself. My mom is my best friend though, and she has always been there for me. I never felt unloved or unhappy. I can honestly say that I had an amazing childhood. What’s important to understand is that addiction can take over regardless of love and support. It’s that powerful.
Can you tell us how and why you became involved in the advocacy group Families Against Narcotics (FAN)?
Katie Donovan: I stumbled upon FAN when I was looking for support. I had attended Al-Anon, but it just wasn’t for me because I couldn’t let go like that. I tried FAN, and what I found there blew me away. It’s not just a group for those who have families struggling—it’s for everyone. It’s for those who are in recovery, those who are struggling, and those who have lost loved ones. It includes people from drug court, school districts, law enforcement, truly anyone who has been affected or would like to learn more about addiction. It takes a community to come together, and that’s what I found in FAN.
I started to volunteer and dove head first into their group. FAN is so much more than just a support group because that’s only one of the facets, and FAN is a real jewel with many facets. We go into schools to educate and create awareness, bringing both recovering addicts and those affected by the disease as our speakers. Real stories. Real lives. We also work with law enforcement, community leaders, physicians, dentists, and the legislature to continue our mission. I still can’t believe I’m now the executive vice-president of the organization. It’s such an honor.
Brittany Sherfield: It’s an honor that you really deserve, Mom. You have put so much work into FAN, and they are lucky to have you. Beyond helping me, you have helped so many others. I think I learned how to be of service to others by watching you.
Katie Donovan: Thank you for saying so, darling! That means the world to me. I have tried to be of service to other families and guide them. If I can help them avoid some of the pain, that means everything.
FAN president Linda Davis has said, "Almost every addict we come across started with a legit prescription or their drug dealer was their parents' medicine cabinet.”
It sounds a lot like what happened to Brittany. How can such pharmaceutical abuse be avoided? What steps need to be taken?
Katie Donovan: What I have found is that silence is the number one killer. The more we talk about it, the more we educate, thus raising awareness and saving lives. Getting the doctors to limit prescribing large amounts, educating the public on how to store prescription drugs securely and dispose of them safely, letting people know that it’s okay to say no when your doctor offers you painkillers. It takes strength to say to a doctor, “I don’t really need 60 Vicodin. Maybe I don’t need any at all. Advil or Tylenol should work just fine.”
Brittany Sherfield: I’m not sure I could have said that back in the day. I don’t think I would have said that when I was a teenager.
Katie Donovan: I know, but that’s why it’s also so important for parents to monitor their teenagers when they go to the doctors because of a sports injury or to dentist to get their wisdom teeth removed. Parents have to be in control of all prescription drugs, both the decision before being prescribed and when they are prescribed if truly needed, for any underage child. By underage, I don’t mean 18 by the way. Given the obvious danger, I mean 21.
As mother and daughter, what were the respective worst and best moments of this entire experience for each of you?
Brittany Sherfield: The worst moments were knowing how much I hurt my family. I did so much damage, and it still shocks me to this day. They were feeling so ashamed, and that shame hurt me because I was the cause. I couldn’t bring myself to call my family, even though all they wanted was to hear from me.
The best moments were when my mom and I started working together once I found the path of long-term recovery. They were when I could sit down at a family dinner and honestly enjoy myself. My mom, younger sister and I could sit and laugh for hours. That was something we hadn’t done as a family in seven years. I regret the time lost, but I am so happy that we have recovered those smiles.
Katie Donovan: The worst was seeing my youngest daughter actually become scared of her sister. It hurt so much to see that fear in her eyes of her big sister. They are 12 years apart. She didn’t want her around, and she just wanted it to be over. She became so tired of the drama, of the letdowns, of seeing mom and dad worry and cry, day in and night out. That was very hard.
The best moment was when Brittany was early in her recovery, this one now that has lasted and become real. One Friday night, her younger sister wanted to do a puzzle. My husband and I were working on it with her at the kitchen table when Brittany walked into the door from a meeting. She sat right down with us and jumped right in. She was really with us. It had been so long since she had been really present as a member of the family. It was so beautiful. I had to take a step back because I was overcome with emotion. I was so grateful to have my family back together again.
In "My Daughter The Addict-A Suburban Mom’s Nightmare," you write, “If you feel like 'it would never happen to you or anyone in your circle,' take a look around. It’s happening. You may not even know it.” What community-based steps need to be taken to battle the rising tide of drug abuse and the opioid epidemic in the United States?
Katie Donovan: I think community education is key. Speaking in schools, in colleges, at parent groups, coaches, athletes, churches, anyone that will listen. And don’t stop; you need to keep talking. Even after your kids find recovery, it’s not over. The healing process takes a long time, and we are still going through it, but it gets better and better. At the same time, it takes a lot of work.
I’m also on the executive committee in Michigan of an organization called Operation Rx. It’s a community-wide group with key stakeholders leading individual committees such as seniors, behavioral health, court system, education and prevention, data, dental, physicians, law enforcement, and legislative. All of these groups do amazing work. It really does take a village.
Republicans have been unwilling to provide funding for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. Although they voted for the act, Republicans seem intent on leaving the legislation toothless. Presently, only 15% of Americans seeking recovery are able to access treatment services.
Given your personal experiences, what is your take on this?
Brittany Sherfield: It scares me because I remember what happened to me, and I don’t know if I would have survived without the support of the treatment opportunities that I had. Even when they didn’t lead to long-term sobriety, they still helped me to survive and keep going. I think they even kept me alive.
Katie Donovan: Yes, it really upsets me because people are literally dying while waiting for treatment. There just aren’t enough beds available. There’s such a small window of opportunity when they reach out for help. We are failing them when we ask them to wait three weeks. Even three hours could mean death on account of an overdose. It’s a fragile situation, and it’s also life and death.
During the election, Donald Trump’s strategy for addressing the national drug epidemic was to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to stop the flow of drugs. If you were in charge in Washington, what would you do?
Brittany Sherfield: I don’t like talking politics. You can take this one, mom.
Katie Donovan: I don’t like to do it either, but I do know drugs are coming from everywhere. They are available online on that dark web, and they are coming from China, from Canada, and, yes, from Mexico as well. I’m a big supporter of any preventative measures that can be taken. Washington needs to take this seriously and make changes fast. They need to be funding recovery and making sure that treatment options are available nationwide to anyone that reaches out for help. In so many tragic cases, they don’t get a second chance.
Do you have any last words for families in crisis out there?
Brittany Sherfield: Recovery works, but you have to be willing to take the first step. I once thought I was hopeless, but I wasn’t, and that’s important for people to know. There is hope.
Katie Donovan: Don’t stay silent. Reach out for help. Don’t let the fear of judgement or shame hinder you. You are not alone. There are thousands upon thousands of people, even millions, across the country who feel the same and share the same stories. Once I opened up and began talking publicly about this, I was shocked and amazed at the outpouring of support.