Tough Love

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Last month, we proudly shared the story of Kassy, whose newborn son's medical emergency while she was living at Central City Concern's Letty Owings Center became the turning point for her to take her recovery and her future with her son seriously. We debuted our video about her at our We Are Family fundraiser in early May, and she continues make progress in her schooling to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

But as many will attest, the pain and destruction from addictive behaviors nearly always extend beyond the individual. Family and loved ones get hurt, too. They're often put in impossible situations. Kristi, Kassy's sister, graciously shares what Kassy's journey—from her rocky childhood to her present-day successes—looked like from the other side.

• • •

The phone call came while I was in Disneyland:

“Yes, this is Kristi,” I answered.

“I don’t know what’s going on in your apartment but you better get home now!” said the voice on the other end, frantic and angry.

I listened in horror.

“They’re trashing the place and dropping bottles from your balcony, trying to hit people!”

I flew back the next day. My home was ransacked, almost everything either broken or stolen. I begged not to be evicted.

She did it again—my sister Kassy.

Kassy and I are four-and-a-half years apart. She had a lot of needs early in life; she couldn’t hear at birth, but eventually that was corrected with surgery. She learned to talk late, seemed to always be sick, and was often in and out of the hospital. As Kassy entered school she had trouble making friends and developed anger issues. By high school, drugs became a major part of my sister’s life and impacted the entire family. I watched my parents go through one heartbreaking episode after another with my sister. 

Kassy (left) and Kristi.I didn’t speak to Kassy for almost eight months after she destroyed my apartment. When she finally called, I was surprised by what she said, but not totally. “I’m pregnant,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry for everything… Will you help me?”

My sister needed me. I had to be there for her.

Kassy committed to being clean and sober through the entire pregnancy. At only 18, she chose to let friends of our family adopt the child. Giving up the baby put her in a dark and lonely place. Kassy couldn’t see the good in what she’d done for the adopting parents, and for the baby. She suffered. Deep down I knew as soon as the papers were signed, my sister was going back to where she would feel no pain. The closer we got to the birth, the more dread I felt about her future.

Not long after Kassy gave up the baby, I made a critical mistake. Newly divorced, I needed a fresh start. I accepted a job in Virginia but was nervous about the move, having never been away from my family in Oregon. So I took my sister with me. She was still dealing with the guilt of giving up a child, and was using drugs regularly and drinking again. But in lucid moments Kassy claimed she wanted to give it all up. We agreed that a change of scenery would improve life for both of us. It all came to an end two months after the move, on what I thought was just another Tuesday night.

She charged at me with a fury that caused me to fear for my life. She wanted money for alcohol, and my car keys. She threw things and spewed hatred. I wasn’t going to call the police on my sister—even though I didn’t recognize her. I fled.

Our parents moved Kassy back home almost immediately. I returned six years later. During the time I was gone I was constantly on the phone with Mom or Dad having gut-wrenching conversations about the state of panic they were living in. Kassy was spiraling. She was stealing from them to buy drugs. Dad would go out and find her in the most disgusting places, sometimes beaten severely by a drug-fueled “friend.”

Living so far away, all I could do was worry.

When I moved back and saw my sister for the first time in years, she was extremely frail and unhealthy. I feared she’d have heart failure right then and there. As a family we tried to stay positive, but the strain of Kassy’s addiction was unbearable at times. Mom would do something Dad didn’t agree with, I would do something Mom saw as unhelpful, we would all stop talking to each other, and it went round and round like that day after day. We worried that by loving her, we were enabling her. But we couldn’t let her go without basic needs like food and shelter. All of us were confused… exhausted… terrified. Holidays were the worst. Our hearts were beating, but we weren’t breathing—always on eggshells, waiting for a call from the police, saying Kassy was arrested again, or had overdosed.

At 29, pregnant and homeless, Kassy got arrested for the last time after a series of arrests. It was a relief. I saw jail as a chance for her to be protected. A chance to get a meal, and be away from drugs and alcohol.

While Kassy was in jail and facing prison time, our mom’s cousin discovered Central City Concern’s Letty Owings Center (an inpatient treatment program for pregnant women and mothers with young children). She presented the possibility to Kassy, who only interviewed at Letty Owings Center (LOC) as a way to stay out of prison. She was admitted within days. There were challenges immediately. Kassy didn’t like the rules, expectations, or emphasis on accountability. But the staff was patient, and eventually won her trust.

She began to heal. My parents and I could take a breath.

Over the next eight months Kassy completed treatment at Letty Owings Center, and had her son Ace. The experience at LOC taught her how to be a mother. She learned how to care for a baby, and for herself. After leaving LOC Kassy and Ace (Mom calls him our miracle), moved into Laura’s Place (three to six months of housing, support services and case management for women who have completed treatment at LOC). Next, the two of them moved into permanent alcohol- and drug-free family housing provided by Central City Concern. The fact that it’s a clean and sober living environment is so huge.

"I know if I need something Kassy will be there for me. And she knows I’m here for her, and for Ace. Always."Moms, dads, and kids get together to celebrate milestones, support one another emotionally, and look out for each other. Families are able to laugh, relax, and enjoy their lives. Knowing my sister and nephew have a safe place to call home helps me sleep at night.

We stopped trying to do everything for Kassy, and she claimed more control over her life. She gained a profound understanding of what it takes to get better. And she’s committed to seeing it through. I was afraid for so many years. For my sister. For my parents. There were days when nothing I said or did seemed to make a difference. Days when I felt useless and weak. But now I know what the right help and strength of family can overcome. I know the power of not giving up on someone. I no longer blame or second guess myself. I’m not running to my parents and trying to figure out why, why, why, or how, how, how. I talk to my sister almost every day. We are together three to four times a week. I know if I need something Kassy will be there for me. And she knows I’m here for her, and for Ace. Always.

Central City Concern’s help has been invaluable. Without the resources, I believe Kassy would maybe still be using drugs and likely be homeless, or worse. CCC gave Kassy an extended family of staff and residents who share similar backgrounds and speak from experience. They put her in touch with a lot of good things like peer support, the Employment Access Center, family mentoring, health care, and mental health counseling. The possibilities of a promising future were revealed to my sister through healthy living, education, and friends to lean on. Today Kassy is going to school at Portland Community College, studying to be an addictions counselor. Soon she’ll be able to share her experience with others, like the staff at Letty Owings Center did with her. She’s well on her way, having recently earned certification as a peer mentor. I am so proud of her!