Saturday, February 20, 2016
Erica Brown-Zamudio shows her sobriety keychains from Narcotics Anonymous. "I have never seen someone go through such an amazing transformation," said Betsy Miller, her Child Protective Services caseworker. PHOTOS BY MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD
There is hope.
That’s why she sits here now, telling her story — why Erica Brown-Zamudio doesn’t hold back.
How bad did it get?
Three times child welfare officials took her kids. Three times her boys lost their single mom to choices she couldn’t stop making.
She tried meth for the first time at 14 (didn’t like it) and the second time at 16 (loved it) and pretty much didn’t stop until she hit 32. There were stretches she kept clean, court-ordered and personally compelled to do so, but it never lasted.
How bad did it get? Her probation officer, a compassionate man, was ready to make the call that would send Erica back to jail, killing any chance of getting her boys back. He gave one final ultimatum. One more rehab facility. Do or die.
Erica agreed, convinced she’d fail. She’d mess up again and lose her boys. Given a last shot at life, her mind turned to death. She considered doing it herself.
Then something changed. This time, at this facility, the words and lessons meant more. Week by week, she began to heal. She stopped looking at herself as a loser. She was a survivor.
She’d get her boys back. She’d guard herself — guard them — from the instincts that told her to make bad choices, that said the answer to stress was to smoke. This time, she’d stay clean.
And she has, two years and counting now.
So that’s her reason for dredging through it all now: There is hope.
For others suffering as she did, who have lost themselves, who have struck out over and over: There is hope.
For her, too.
Because she knows she’s not out of this.
The night before being sentenced to as many as 30 months in prison, Erica put her son to bed at her mom’s house. Instead of staying with her son while he slept, she left. She partied all night, arriving back at her mom’s just in time to leave for court. “I’m not that person anymore,” she says.
She’s been here before. Once she stayed clean for nearly two years, though most of her stretches in sobriety ran much shorter. Each time, Erica collapsed into a habit quickly defining her life.
She fell victim not just to herself but to the tortuous reality of methamphetamine relapse: More than 60 percent of meth addicts relapse within a year of treatment, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
The good news: Relapse rates drop significantly for those who make it to two years — right where Erica finds herself now.
Her 16-year relationship with meth operated as just that. There were the early years, from age 16 to 19, when she felt like she was having fun. Partying. Never mind that deep down she carried the effects of sexual abuse at an early age, or that her antics were quickly tearing apart her life. She started failing school. At one point her mother forced her into a mental health facility — “I was losing my mind,” Erica says — which is when she learned she was pregnant.
She stayed sober through her son’s birth but started up again after that. She was still partying, but now her relationship with meth had changed. She depended on it.
“That was my whole being,” she says. “My whole worth.”
Parenthood couldn’t stop her. Not even a cancer diagnosis at age 20. Not even chemotherapy. She used through it all.
“It controlled everything I did,” she says.
She started selling, too, and eventually sold to an undercover cop. A year later she violated probation. She remembers a morning she was so high that all she wanted was to smoke more. Her boy, by then a toddler, was crying.
“My baby wanted my attention,” she says, “but I just wanted to get high. I yelled at him ‘I wish someone would come take you away.’”
A county sheriff and Child Protective Services worker appeared one day. Erica’s son went to live with his grandma. His mother kept getting high.
Until one day she found herself alone in a jail cell. That morning she’d been sentenced to as many as 30 months in prison. None of it seemed real. She recalls graffiti-covered benches, the stench of urine and tears that wouldn’t come.
“I tried to cry and couldn’t,” she says.
The night before her sentencing she had put her son to bed at her mom’s house and left. She partied all night, arriving back at her mom’s just in time to leave for court.
Now in her cell, waiting to be transferred to the Correctional Center for Women in York, one thought consumed her: She could have stayed home. She could have stayed and looked at her sleeping boy. She could have picked him up, held him in her arms and rocked him as he slept.
Instead, she left him behind.
“I’m not that person anymore,” she says, almost to herself.
In prison, she was determined to get her life on track. She fought to get into a recovery program. She did all the things she was supposed to do, and when she was released, she was rewarded for it. She got her boy back. Things looked up for a while.
She met a guy. They got pregnant, then married and moved into a new apartment.
Looking back, Erica says, the signs were there. She’d gotten sober, sure, but still ran with the same crowd. Even her husband was using. Pretty soon they fell behind on rent. They got kicked out of the apartment, and around the time they found a new place to live, Erica started smoking meth, too. She fell hard. Years passed. She split with her husband and took both of her sons, high much of the time.
This time when protective services came knocking, her refrigerator was empty. The water had been turned off, though she’s pretty sure that was a building issue. In any case, when she refused to answer the door, protective services returned the following day, and the day after that.
Three days they knocked before she let them in, another sheriff and protective services worker, and what did she feel when they took her boys away?
Truth be told, she felt relief. She knew she needed help.
She served another three months in jail and began using again. Then, fed up with herself and determined to get her boys back, she went into another treatment program, landed a new job and won back the kids, only to lose the job and relapse again.
One family member after another stepped up to take the boys. Early on, it was her mother and grandmother; later, her sister; and finally, an aunt and uncle of her older son, Isaac. The couple raised Isaac and his brother, Alex, for the better part of three years.
She remembers one day leaving the boys behind, and Isaac asking: “Why? Why did you do this?”
She remembers her younger son, Alex, maybe 7 at the time, telling her: “Mom, you don’t want to go through this again.”
“She had that desire to recover. She just didn’t know how." – Family friend Jessica Lichtas
Jessica Lichtas hardly knew Erica when this all began. But she and her husband, the brother of Erica’s ex, made a commitment. They’d foster the boys, and if it ever came to it, they’d adopt them as their own.
Over time she got to know and like Erica. Erica seemed to want to get better.
But Jessica saw another side of Erica’s addiction. She experienced Erica’s ups and downs through the tremors it caused in the boys. Jessica was the one searching for an answer when the boys would ask when they’d reunite with their mom.
Jessica felt their pain, and her own bitter disappointment, when Erica got them back only to relapse and lose them all over.
“She had that desire to recover,” Jessica said. “She just didn’t know how. Nobody taught her these things most of us were taught along the way.”
She worries still. She worries that Erica, young and single, will meet the wrong person, and that one bad choice will beget another. She worried — how could she not? — when Erica got pregnant with her third boy not long after getting sober. She wondered how Erica would handle the stress of an infant. She turned to her husband and asked him if they were prepared, if it ever came to it, to welcome a baby into their home.
She is encouraged but, yes, she worries.
“I’m probably up to 80 percent confident in her,” Jessica says, “whereas before it would be 25 percent.”
In the end, in a volatile life now measured as the moments between meetings, it was a meeting that set Erica straight.
“That day, she really had to dig deep,” says Ryan Mahnke, her former probation officer.
Mahnke was joined by Betsy Miller, the protective services caseworker assigned to Erica. The two had been her biggest allies, offering the support and resources to get better, but the time had come to draw a line. If Erica refused his offer, Mahnke would recommend she go back to jail, and if she went back to jail, Miller would file to terminate her parental rights. She wouldn’t be able to make decisions for her kids. She’d lose any right to live with them.
The offer was another treatment program, which Erica resisted.
“We talked with her for quite a while,” Mahnke says. “We gave her a break to clear her head and go outside. We talked to her some more. I remember that day. ... She just really struggled with it. For anyone, it’s natural. (You’re) starting all over again.”
Erica finally realized she hadn’t much choice.
In December 2013, she entered Santa Monica House in Omaha.
“It’s really, really individual,” Mahnke says of treatment. “What might work for Erica might not work for other people.”
The Rand Corp., in a report on the economic impact of methamphetamine use in the United States, estimated in 2009 that as many as 18,545 kids were put into the foster care system in a single year (2005) because of parental meth use.
Erica Brown-Zamudio has worked to repair her relationship with her children, starting fresh with her newborn. “He’ll never know that mom I was before. He’ll never know that person," she said.
At the Santa Monica House, Erica dealt not only with her addiction but the underlying shame and undeserved guilt she felt about her past. She realized what she’d survived. She graduated in six months and chose to move into a three-quarter house to continue her sobriety under supervision. She got a day job, and later a second job working weekends at a restaurant.
Five days a week she attended meetings: Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She saw people earning 20-year and 30-year medallions. She saw hope personified.
She saved money, moved into a new apartment and brought her kids home. She went to work repairing her relationship with her older boys, and starting fresh with her newborn.
“He’ll never know that mom I was before,” she says, as though challenging herself. “He’ll never know that person.”
Last March she completed her probation, and Child Protective Services closed her family’s case.
“With Erica, she’ll always be a client I remember,” Mahnke said. “She put a lot of work into it. Even with the struggles she had initially, she continued to fight it.”
Miller said: “I have never seen someone go through such an amazing transformation. As much as you might say we helped her, she really made an impression on me.”
“With Erica, she’ll always be a client I remember. She put a lot of work into it. ... She continued to fight it.” – Ryan Mahnke, Erica's former probation officer
Howard’s Charro Cafe is the restaurant where Erica has worked on and off for years, where her struggles have been watched and weathered and treated with a patience and empathy others now see flowing through her.
“She is more willing to understand other people who have similar struggles in life, and she’s willing to give them advice based on what she’s been through,” owner Debbie Orduna-Estrada said. “There are people out there who struggle, who fall. You have to give them a chance. You can’t close the door on them.”
One morning in late January, Erica was driving her baby to day care when she rear-ended the car in front of her. She and the baby weren’t hurt, but the accident caused her to be late a third time for work at her day job at a manufacturing plant — a third strike that, according to company policy, terminated her employment.
It was the sort of setback Erica’s supporters fear. It was, in fact, a similar scenario that had sent her spiraling out of sobriety just a few years earlier. But back then, Erica believes, she was sabotaging herself. This time felt different.
On this day, Erica stayed within herself. She recognized the difference between first thought and good thought.
This time, the tears came easily, and Erica Brown-Zamudio found herself a meeting.
Epilogue: Erica took on more hours at the restaurant while searching for another job, and eventually a break came her a way with a cleaning company. She started last week.