Part One: Mother and daughter share harrowing addiction journey and ongoing recovery
MACOMB TOWNSHIP, MI —
Michiganders are dying. They’re dying at a higher rate every year from drug overdoses. The Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force appointed by Governor Rick Snyder and led by Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, called the situation in Michigan a heroin crisis in their 2015 report.
The Centers for Disease Control noted significant increases in Michigan overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015. It’s a crisis that one Michigan mother and daughter found themselves in. For Katie Donovan and Brittany Sherfield, it was a fight for life spanning seven years of intense struggle, heart ache and unexpected redemption.
The duo knows well about all consuming love. For Katie, that love arrived right along with Brittany. The single mom, then only 19, was determined to give her daughter a beautiful life from the day she was born on March 14, 1991. Brittany quickly was similarly attached to her mother.
“My mom is my best friend; she has always been my best friend since I was born. It has always been me and her. People think we’re sisters,” Brittany said with a laugh.
As it goes, those closest to us, often hold the tightest grip on our hearts. As a child Brittany filled Katie’s heart with pride.
“She would bounce into a room and light it up, and I was that normal PTA mom and Brownie leader and I even taught her Catechism class,” Katie remembered.
“I was a good kid, I was on the honor roll, I played every sport, softball, dance, basketball, I was even in baton for a little bit,” Brittany added with a chuckle at the memory.
Together the duo grew and achieved. Katie climbed the corporate ladder holding positions in marketing and communications for companies like Chrysler, CSR and Default Attorney Group. She traveled the world for work, constantly becoming better at what she did.
“I didn’t know, but my mom was always moving to a better neighborhood with better schools,” Brittany said.
Brittany spent time in six different elementary schools and the changes kept coming. Katie married when Brittany was 12. Katie and Brittany’s new step-father, John, eventually had a daughter together, Brooke. Brooke became the little sister Brittany adored. The family ultimately landed in an upper middle class Macomb Township neighborhood. Brittany described the area as a place filled with families and very little crime. By then Brittany had learned from all of those times where she had been uprooted. She said that she learned to follow to fit in.
“I became this chameleon, like whatever you liked, I liked,” Brittany said.
That pattern continued. When everyone else was trying out prescription drugs as a high school pastime, Brittany’s colors blended yet again.
“At first it was fun to take pills with my friends, it was fun to do a line of cocaine here and there,” she said.
Yet, all that fun led to a car accident where Brittany ended up in the hospital, high on Xanax. Katie was called to come to the hospital and found her daughter being held down on a gurney by multiple people.
“She was thrashing around and screaming and yelling almost animalistic,” Katie said.
It was Katie’s first indication that something was wrong with her seemingly perfect daughter.
“We taught our kids about drugs, we taught our kids about alcohol. I never knew I needed to teach her about prescription drugs. It never even entered my head,” Katie said.
But, Vicodin was the drug of choice for Brittany’s boyfriend, a member of the hockey team. He started taking it for a back injury and got Brittany hooked. His teammates had similar addictions.
Vicodin is the brand name for Hydrocodone. As is noted in the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force 2015 report, while US residents constitute less than 5 percent of the world population, they consume 99 percent of the global Hydrocodone supply. In Michigan, it was the most prescribed drug accounting for 32.2 percent of prescriptions in 2012. The report also noted that Hydrocodone has a high potential for abuse and dependence. It’s what started taking hold of Brittany.
“Slowly one pill led to two, two led to three and now her body was craving more and more,” Katie said.
Katie said that she tried everything to help Brittany. She tried grounding her, she tried therapy, but nothing worked.
“What I saw was my daughter becoming a different person. She was isolating herself, very angry, very moody,” Katie said.
Eventually, Brittany turned 18 and moved out of the home she shared with Katie, Brooke and her step-father, John. She moved in with her boyfriend. When Brittany wasn’t feeling well one day, not realizing she was withdrawing from prescription medication, her boyfriend suggested she do a line.
“They told me it was Vicodin, that it was a prescription drug, and they told me to snort it, and so I did,” Brittany recalled.
Yet, the high Brittany experienced was a high like no other.
“It made me feel good, really good. That was the first time that I think I ever truly loved something. With every fiber of my being I fell in love with it, more than I loved my mom, more than I loved my little sister who was my world, more than I loved school, my future, anything,” Brittany said.
Three months later, Brittany felt horribly ill. She’d later learn the flu she thought she had was instead Brittany experiencing withdrawal from something much stronger than Vicodin.
“Finally my boyfriend sat me down and said, ‘Brittany, you’ve been doing heroin for three months,’ and I was devastated. And that was the first time I really felt betrayal. Heroin to me was such a disgusting word. Heroin to me was someone that lived on the street corner. It wasn’t the All-American girl,” Brittany recalled thinking.
“She went from being on the honor roll to we are going to be lucky if she actually graduates high school,” Katie went on to add.
But as Brittany lost trust in one relationship, another reached out and held tight. Katie was there for Brittany as she always had been.
“I called my mom and we literally Googled what to do for heroin withdrawals,” Brittany explained.
No one in their family was an addict. Katie and Brittany had no way to know what they were in for or how society would view them or Brittany’s addiction.
“We’re constantly judged as addicts, constantly. There’s a stigma attached to addiction unlike any other,” Brittany said.
For Katie, her love for her daughter drove her in those early days as it would throughout Brittany’s active addiction.
“I didn’t cry. I went into fix it mode. I remained calm, ‘ok, we can do this, we got this, I’ll make some phone calls, we’ll get you into treatment,’” she said of her initial reaction to learning of Brittany’s new heroin addiction.
Because Brittany didn’t have a history of substance abuse her insurance covered only five days of inpatient treatment, it wasn’t enough. Within six months she was an IV heroin addict.
“And that led to a spiral of 17 different treatment centers in seven years, in California, Seattle, Florida, Michigan,” Katie said.
“I was obsessed over it. I would do anything for it, steal baby formula, sell it back to Detroit stores, steal from friends and family,” Brittany said of her consuming addiction.
Eventually Brittany’s drug use led her to an abandoned house on Detroit’s east side. Many who know the area call it one of the worst areas of the city. Brittany said when she lived there the home didn’t have any windows, no front door, no running water, and no heat, even in the middle of winter. She was living in what is called a trap house or a drug house. For Brittany it was the ideal situation, living where her drugs were sold, so she could get a quick fix. She described thinking how cool it was that the people in the drug house “cleaned” out a room for her. Cleaning out a room meant that she slept on an uncovered mattress with burn holes in it that occupied the middle of the room. While dirty baby diapers and raccoon feces still shared the room with Brittany, she felt special getting her own room. The conditions only got worse from there.
“Cockroaches and rats everywhere with other people that don’t shower and are using drugs and have HEP C and are stealing, and lying and manipulating, my disease told me that was ok,” Brittany said.
She had been driving down to Detroit to get her drugs for a while. She learned where to find her dealers from people she met in rehab. They were people that helped send her on a destructive path, taking her to places that she admits now that she would never go to alone, except amid the throws of addiction. Brittany explained though, that she would do anything for her heroin. Her safety was never really a concern.
“And that’s the crazy thing about it, you love it so much the first time, then it becomes such a chore,” Brittany said.
She recalls being sexually assaulted while living in the trap house and then being raped in broad daylight during her active addiction. It happened after she’d wrecked her car, high on drugs, and went to get money for a tow truck.
“As I am walking back from the ATM I hear, ‘hey Snow Bunny,’ and I am in the middle of Detroit, the worst parts of Detroit, like 6th and Vandyke and I immediately knew something bad was going to happen and I took one step forward and I was pulled down by my hair and I was drug unto a field and raped. It was pouring rain, and when I finally came to because I was knocked out, all I could think about was I want to get high, not that I was raped or that I need help cause I can barely walk or that I have bruises all over me and I’m gushing blood. The first thing that I thought of was that I need to get high,” Brittany said as she remembered her rape.
“Many times throughout her active addiction she’d just come crying to me, ‘mom please come help me, this is not who I’m supposed to be. I don’t know how to stop,’ and as a parent you don’t know how to make it stop. I wanted to take her pain,” Katie said.
But consumed by addiction, even Katie’s love wasn’t enough. For Brittany, death was knocking.
“We were mentally preparing for her funeral,” Katie said.
Brittany had overdosed five times during her seven years of addiction, and that’s just counting the times she was treated at the hospital. At one point in a week she received 12 doses of Narcan, the drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose. She also attempted suicide multiple times.
“Death never scared me. When I would overdose I would almost feel a sense of peace and I would get mad when I would wake up. When you’re using you welcome death. So when people say, ‘you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die you’re gonna die,’ that doesn’t scare me, living almost scared me more,” Brittany said in candid memory.
“I think I became as sick as she was. I became addicted to her. What are you supposed to do as a parent, right? Your child is sick, you don’t abandon them,” Katie said as she cried.
Katie explained that she knows now she enabled her daughter’s addiction. When Katie started to change her ways, so did Brittany.
“And I told her, I am done, and I don’t mean with the love, I mean with money, I mean with bailing her out of every situation. If you want this, I will always be here to guide you and get you into a good treatment center, but that’s it. I can do no more,” Katie said.
“When my mom finally said no and meant it, I got better,” Brittany added.
Katie also chose to call the police during one of Brittany’s suicide attempts.
“For me, at that point, I’d rather her be in jail than her be dead,” Katie said.
That call led to Brittany facing three counts of felony drug possession and became the catalyst both mother and daughter needed. While the numbing hold of addiction did so much to dull Brittany’s senses, it was one Detroit drug court judge, Mary Chzranowski, nicknamed, “Scary Mary” who finally broke through. Mary had planned to give Brittany two years in prison.
“I was standing in front of that judge, and I spent, I don’t know, 10 days in jail, and I was terrified the whole time, and the thought of being in prison for another two years, scared me,” Brittany said, talking about the first time she was really scared straight.
Being scared straight meant the shot Brittany craved would lead her toward life.
“She told me she was a recovering alcoholic and that she was going to give me a chance, and she did, and I ran with it,” Brittany said.
Brittany received three years of probation which was later cut down to one year because Scary Mary had learned that Brittany wasn’t wasting her second chance. Brittany had started saving other addict’s lives by sharing her story.
“Do I obsess about it like I use to, absolutely not. Do I think I am going to use today or tomorrow, absolutely not. But at any point in time, I’m just as close as someone else. I tell my story and then I keep it fresh so that I know how bad it got, because if I don’t, I’ll go right back,” Brittany explained about the temptation of heroin.
It was a descent into drug abuse a suburban Detroit mother and her honor roll daughter mistakenly thought they lived worlds away from. Now they know that is not the case.
“This disease affects everybody,” Brittany said recalling being in treatment with everyone from doctors to the homeless.
As tears fell, Katie said, “I don’t want people to feel alone, because my story is your story,” she explained about the universal nature of addiction.
Katie has since left her job in corporate America and she and Brittany both work for Reliance Treatment Center on Singer Island in Florida. Katie is the Director of Family Advocacy and Brittany is the Director of Alumni there. Katie is also the Executive Vice President of Families Against Narcotics in Macomb County, Michigan which is still her primary residence. Now, 25, Brittany has been clean for two years.
“Some people search their whole lives trying to find their purpose, and it’s so cool that me and my mom get to do it together now,” Brittany said.
Together they’ve authored a blog called “A Mother’s Addiction Journey.” In less than a year its been viewed more than 3.2 million times in about 146 countries. Through the blog they share their story in a way that’s allowing other families like theirs feel understood. The immense response drove Katie to tears when she was asked about it.
“To know that we did that with our story, it’s overwhelming,” she said.
Brittany also gives speeches about her addiction journey. In January she gave a speech at Michigan State University. She spoke to the medical students there. Her efforts were broadcast to the Macomb Community College Campus and also to Detroit Medical Center. She spoke about addiction, awareness, stigma and how physicians can prescribe less potent drugs to avoid adding to the opioid/heroin epidemic.
Katie has also trained as a family recovery coach and Brittany as an interventionist. They hope in the future to offer mother/daughter coaching to families. They would like to be able to offer online and in home visits to help those families through addiction. They would offer both the perspective of the addict and the perspective of the person supporting the addict.
For Katie and Brittany, it has been a long journey, but their love for one another has helped carry them through as they fight for a life of continued sobriety.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT KATIE AND BRITTANY’S ADDICTION JOURNEY, YOU CAN VIEW PORTIONS OF THEIR RAW INTERVIEWS AFTER OUR MAIN VIDEO.