A Parent’s Road to Recovery

Therapy and support groups helped me heal and get my kids back

by Rosita Pagan

This story originally appeared in Rise, a magazine written by parents involved in the child welfare system.

When my daughter Rosemarie was 5 years old, she told me that her father was sexually molesting her when she went on weekend visits.

As soon as she told me, I took Rosemarie to the hospital, got the court to terminate visits between my daughter and her father, and put Rosemarie in therapy.

But Rosemarie seemed to get worse, not better. She began touching herself and acting out of control. I felt helpless because nothing I did seemed to put her at ease.

I did everything I could think of to handle my stress: family therapy, stress management classes, meditation, acupuncture, massages. But none of it helped me feel better.

I tried to talk to my husband, Rosemarie’s stepfather, and my sister about how depressed and overwhelmed I felt.

My husband would tell me, “I’m here for you.” My sister would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

Their comments would only make me more upset. I would say to myself, “What is wrong with these people? Don’t they understand what I’m going through?”

I had an intense feeling of worthlessness. I believed I should have been able to protect my daughter. My children meant the world to me and I put everything else second, but it seemed like all my caring and hopes just didn’t matter.

Ease and Calm

One night when I was angry, I decided to drink one beer, then another, then another. For the first time in months, I could feel the ease inside me. I felt calm.

After that, I began drinking more often, until I was having a beer first thing in the morning.

I saw myself as a helpless mother and I saw my family as so messed up that whatever I did wouldn’t make a difference. I honestly felt that if I went away and never returned, I wouldn’t be missed.

I got to the point where I couldn’t function without having a beer first.

If I woke up in the morning and there wasn’t any or someone had thrown out the one I had left, I would catch a fit.

No matter what time it was, I was going outside to find a 24-hour store so I could get a beer.

My youngest daughter, Noelle, was only 7 months old. One day I took her out for a stroll and I had an alcohol-related seizure. I fell and hit the edge of the sidewalk, and Noelle fell, too. I ended up in the hospital for four days.

When I saw the damage I’d done to myself, I started to cry. I was so scared. I decided to stop drinking cold turkey.

But that made me feel sick from withdrawal, so I continued drinking. I had a theory that if I wanted to stay safe, I could drink just a little. That was dumb, but in my way of “stinking thinking,” it made sense.

Finally, after about a year, Rosemarie’s therapist called Child Protective Services (CPS) to report that I came to appointments smelling like a brewery, and they came knocking on my door.

When CPS first came, I didn’t think anything bad would happen. Despite my drinking, I saw my home as being in order. The children were healthy and well-fed. I wondered, “Why are they here?”

On the first visit I was sober and the caseworker said he would come a couple of times, then close the case. He asked me some basic questions about my children and left.

On the second visit, I had already had a couple of beers. On the third visit there was a glass of beer on the table, and I’d just had a huge argument with my husband.

I was extremely upset, because for the first time my husband had called me names. What hurt me the most was when he said that I was an unfit mother and a “ho.”

I Felt Empty

After that visit, my children went into care, and I went home to an empty apartment. I felt empty myself and went out to get drunk. I just didn’t want to hurt anymore. Over the next few months, I felt kind of good only when I was drunk.

Because my children weren’t home, I got less money from public assistance. I couldn’t pay my rent, so I got evicted. I felt my life was over. I was homeless, childless, and shameless.

But that fall, ACS sent me to a substance abuse program called Women Connect.

I felt like I didn’t belong because I still did not believe I was an alcoholic. I was in denial.

For three months, I argued with the workers and didn’t take the program and its rules seriously. But it turned out to be the beginning of a new life for me.

I was blessed with Ms. Torres, my substance abuse counselor. She showed me tough love. She felt that outpatient rehab wasn’t serious enough for me.

She said, “I’ve been watching you for three months. It’s time to get better. You’ve hit rock bottom and it’s time for you to get up.”

She sent me to detox and then to a residential rehab program upstate.

My experience in rehab was one that I will never forget. I’ve never been in jail, but the rules in rehab made me feel like I was locked up. Every minute was scheduled with groups and meals.

One day, the director of the Spanish group asked me, “Do you love your children?”

I told him, “Yes, I do, very much.”

He replied, “No, you don’t.” We went back and forth.

“How can you stand there and tell me I don’t love my children?” I asked.

He said, “Because if you did love your children you wouldn’t need our services.”

Taking Off the Mask of Anger

I felt stunned, like someone had hit me over the head with a rock. He was right. His comment made me feel I needed to get serious about my rehabilitation so I could love my girls like a real mother should.

During all of these meetings everyone would introduce themselves like, “I’m so-and-so and I’m an addict.” But I didn’t believe I was an alcoholic, so I would just say, “I’m Rosita.”

But listening to all the other members of the group expressing their pain and turmoil, I got scared. I didn’t want my alcoholism to escalate to something I couldn’t get help for.

Hearing other people talk about their addiction made me finally realize I had a problem. I knew my problem was serious, and that my girls were removed because of my actions.

One morning, after about three weeks, when it was my turn to introduce myself I said, “Good morning, my name is Rosita and I’m an alcoholic.”

To my surprise, all the other members of the group started clapping and saying, “She finally admitted it.” That was a great feeling. I think that the group was just waiting for me to come to my senses.

In rehab I learned to love myself again and to feel strong despite feelings like shame, betrayal, and worthlessness.

I learned that while drinking, I couldn’t be of any use to anyone because my main concern was getting drunk. By staying sober, not only would I see things more clearly, but my feelings would be more intact.

I also learned to appreciate and value different things. I started to understand that I should value all my time with my children, even when they get me upset.

After I graduated from the inpatient rehab, it was difficult to go back to Women Connect. Facing Ms. Torres without my mask of anger was overwhelming. It was hard to let her know that she was right about me.

Ms. Torres looked at me and said, “I knew there was a good person under all that drinking.” I was determined to stay sober and get my life back together.

Staying Clean

I started attending a women’s group called Coping and Connecting. In the group, women would say how they felt, and we’d talk about ways to cope with those feelings.

This group was intended to help parents who had or have an addiction problem cope with their sobriety. It also helps you understand that there are going to be a lot of conflicts and ups and downs during your journey to becoming a family again.

This group helped me understand that not only did I need help, but my children needed help understanding that things were going to be different once we were reunited.

While I was under the influence, setting rules and regulations wasn’t my thing. Now that I was sober, I’d have to set some.

It took a long time after I completed rehab for my children to come home. That first day the girls were so happy. At first they didn’t believe they were really coming home, because I picked them up like it was a regular weekend visit. But I told them, “Say goodbye to Sandra. This day is the last day you’ll live with Sandra.”

“Why?” asked Rosemarie.

“Because you and Noelle are home for good.” The girls were cheering. I could see in their eyes the joy they felt.

At first my children thought, “I don’t have to follow these rules.” It helped to explain to them that these rules were not to punish them but to help them become better people.

It’s been almost three years now since the girls came home. It feels good to be a mom again. Things are better, especially because I found Rosemarie an excellent therapist who is helping her deal with the sexual abuse.

The past is always going to be a part of our lives, but I feel like we’re not dwelling on the hurt.

Today Rosemarie, Noelle, and I have a better mother- daughters relationship. We take the time to talk about each problem and try to come up with a solution or understanding.

My girls and I have special time together. My favorite time is when we watch TV together. I lie on the sofa, Rosemarie lies on my legs, and Noelle lies beside me. We’ve made a pact to do this at least once a week.

By staying sober, not only would I see things more clearly, but my feelings would be more intact.
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