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This Is How It Feels to Be the Parent of an Opioid Addict

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  • This Is How It Feels to Be the Parent of an Opioid Addict

    On a Thursday night in May 2015, Maureen Cavanagh received an emailed news alert from the local paper in her hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts. "Former Marblehead Honor Student Facing Prostitution Charges," she read. I wonder who that is, she thought, shocked. For four years, Cavanagh, then 52, taught special needs students in the district; her daughter, Kaitlin, had graduated from Marblehead's high school. There was a good chance she knew the student.
    Cavanagh clicked on the piece. "Twenty-three-year-old Kaitlin Harvey was arrested last Wednesday after she negotiated a half-hour of sexual activity with an undercover detective," she read. Cavanagh couldn't quite process it. Kaitlin Harvey … that sounds familiar, she thought, her mind racing. Then: Oh my God. She gasped and pushed the phone to her boyfriend, Randy, hoping he would tell her she'd misread something — and that it wasn't her daughter who'd been arrested.

    By this point, Cavanagh thought she'd seen the worst: Kaitlin, the third of Cavanagh's four children, had suffered from heroin addiction for five years, since her first year of college. She had been in rehab over 10 times. Cavanagh knew it was common for addicts, especially women, to fund their addiction through sex work, but she couldn't map that onto her own daughter. "Here I'm [still] looking at the 7-year-old I'm bringing to soccer practice," she remembers. "That was [when] the whole world came tumbling down. It was horrible before that, but this was the point of no return."
    Kaitlin sent a statement to the paper after her arrest: "I'm really sorry to all my friends and family I've hurt through this nasty heroin addiction, and I hope one day I officially beat it," she wrote. "I would just like people to know addicts are good people who believe they need to do bad things because they don't deserve any better."
    In the aftermath of the news, only one person from close-knit Marblehead, a tiny New England town with a storybook seaside quality, reached out to Cavanagh. No one, it seemed, understood what she and her daughter were going through. "There's this great meme that says, 'Here's a picture of all the casseroles I got when everyone found out about my daughter's substance abuse disorder,'" says Cavanagh. "And it's an empty table."
    Cavanagh and her ex-husband, Kaitlin's father, weren't sure where to turn when they discovered their daughter's addiction in 2010. They started aimlessly Googling and calling their health insurance companies for advice. And over the next few years, out of necessity, Cavanagh built up a fount of knowledge about addiction and recovery. After Kaitlin's 2015 arrest, she had an epiphany: Why not channel what she'd learned into something productive? She knew there must be other parents in the same powerless position. Cavanagh — who'd earned a master's degree in non-profit management — had launched an organization in 2012 called Magnolia New Beginnings, to help homeless and jobless people get back on their feet. She decided to pivot Magnolia to create a support network for people like her — parents whose lives were overtaken by their child's addiction.

    Maureen Cavanagh with Kaitlin as a baby.
    Courtesy of Maureen Cavanaugh

    As the opioid crisis rages on, grim stories of death and tragedy have become commonplace. (During the same four-year span between the development of Kaitlin's addiction and her arrest, opioid-related deaths tripled in the the U.S. They now rank higher than gunshot and automobile-related deaths. The problem is particularly grave in Massachusetts; in 2016, opioid deaths in the state rose by a steep 16 percent from 2015.) But the ripple effect on addicts' families gets lost in the headlines. For tens of thousands of parents, the opioid epidemic has impacted their lives in ways they could never imagine. As their children battle substance abuse disorders, many parents hand their own lives over to the rollercoaster of addiction. They throw their energy into finding treatment centers, attending court dates, agonizing over whether to support or cut off their children, and helping their children reintegrate into their normal lives during recovery. They take in and raise their grandchildren. And like Cavanagh, they're looking for a place to empathize with others who've been through similar experiences.


    That's where Magnolia New Beginnings comes in. In the two years since Cavanagh changed Magnolia's focus, more than 15,000 members have joined its now 30-plusFacebook chapters. About 90% of its members are women. The chapters are broken down by state — everywhere from Utah to West Virginia to Maine — and by topic. One group focuses on grieving for children who have overdosed; another is just for siblings of addicts. These Facebook pages provide family members with a therapeutic space to vent, but they also offer vital practical resources, like links to medical papers about addiction psychology, or contact information for a well-regarded rehab center.

    Hundreds of grassroots support and recovery organizations have popped up across the U.S. in the wake of the worsening opioid crisis, and groups like Nar-Anon have existed for years. These are essential to the recovery community, but their sheer numbers — which include for-profit businesses prone to exploiting addicts and their families — can also muddle information and create more confusion for parents. Magnolia is different in that it fuses support and activism, but it also acts as a reliable compass for navigating these networks.
    "I always say I'm like a traffic cop," Cavanagh explains. "I purposefully plant myself in a conspicuous place so that you can see me to ask for directions, and then when somebody pulls up and asks which way is the hospital, or treatment center, or the funeral home, or money, I can tell them. Everybody wants help; they just don't know it's available." She's easy to find online and spends her days fielding a never-ending stream of communication. And she has a reliable reputation: When someone needs to reach her, they know she'll pick up the phone or answer a text.
    Michelle Curran, an Ohio-based Magnolia chapter leader who lost her daughter to an overdose last year and is now raising her daughter's son, says the community has been crucial. "If they weren't there to vent," she says, "I just don't know what state of mind I'd be in." After losing her daughter, she started frequenting the chapter for grandparents raising kids of addicts. The support she's found through Magnolia is "a lot more comforting than even my mom is," Curran says. "She isn't dealing with the loss of a child. I have extremely close friends I've never met face to face — each knows exactly what you're going through." The grandparents' group understands the layers of exhaustion and financial stress on top of the sheer grief of losing a kid, Curran says. "It's been a huge financial adjustment. I haven't put a child in daycare in 20 years; the prices have gone up."

    Marion Tina with baby Brian.
    Courtesy of Marion Tina

    Maureen Cavanagh has helped countless of adult addicts and their parents through her organization, Magnolia Moms. But sometimes it feels like she can't help her own child.

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