Texas: Home is where the heart is

By Carol E. Barnwell
Posted Nov 18, 2013

[Diolog Magazine] Breaking the cycle of addiction that has plagued a family for generations takes courage and support. Jennifer has been sober for nine years, but at age 15, she began to mirror her mother’s chaotic life—having a child and getting into alcohol and drugs. Now 35, Jennifer is determined to be a good mother to her two sons in a way that her own mother, Susan, was not. Jennifer was removed from her mother’s home when she was only three. Yet, as an adult, she still felt a longing to connect with her mother, Susan, who has lived on the streets for years, struggling with mental health issues and addiction.

Around Jennifer’s birthday each June for the past decade, she has combed the Internet looking for Susan. “I felt like I was always searching for a bond with someone,” she said, “At least [my birthday] was something I shared with my mother.” She searched websites, talk lists, homeless shelters, called mental hospitals … she wanted her mother to know she cared and that Susan was loved.

Jennifer grew up living with her grandmother and her father in Utah. She saw her mother on several occasions through the years, once running away to California to be with her. “But it ended badly,” Jennifer said. “She didn’t know how to be a mom.”  When Jennifer was 16, she tried again. She found her mother in San Antonio and moved there with her infant son and then boyfriend, but that ended badly as well. Susan, Jennifer said, first tried to commit suicide, and then after getting out of the hospital, she attempted to push Jennifer and her infant son over a second floor balcony railing. “She was still prostituting, [doing drugs] and was a severe alcoholic,” Jennifer said. “The cops came and took her away. That’s the last time I saw her until last year.”

Jennifer said she believes her mother just couldn’t handle the reality of having a daughter, especially one who was 16 and had a child of her own. Susan’s relationship with an abusive boyfriend didn’t serve to stabilize the situation either.

After becoming sober, Jennifer still sought some kind of relationship with her mother. Finally, she recognized photos of Susan on a website about homeless people in the Austin area. “My mother was so beautiful when she was younger. She had long, black hair, beautiful bright eyes and this contagious smile,” Jennifer said. In the photos she saw “this little tiny, frail, wrinkled, white-haired, sun-bleached person. But she was smiling and that smile just showed everything!”

Jennifer put together a flyer in order to try to reach out to her mother. Trinity Center’s executive director, Irit Umani, was one of the people who received an email with the flyer. “I recognized the picture as a woman who comes to Trinity Center,” Umani said. “I made it known that I was looking for her and she came to see me.” But it took a month before Susan gave Umani permission to contact Jennifer on her behalf. After a few tentative phone calls, Jennifer’s and Susan’s communication became more frequent. Pretty soon Jennifer was getting calls in the middle of the night about Susan’s current “boyfriend” beating her up or “tricking her.”

“I worried that I had found my mother just in time to lose her,” Jennifer said. She spoke to Susan’s older sister who lived in Hawaii and they developed a plan to gather the family in Utah and help Susan get a new start. Others in the family were concerned and advised Jennifer to leave things as they were.

“I’m not going to abandon her,” Jennifer told them. She believed that just because living on the streets was what Susan chose, it didn’t mean that she didn’t love Jennifer. “It just meant that she was incapable of doing more, and I understood that,” Jennifer said.

Growing more concerned about her mother’s safety, Jennifer asked Umani to help facilitate a reunion and headed to Austin to pick up her mother. “Irit is the most amazing woman that I’ve ever met in my life,” Jennifer said. “The care and concern [she showed] my mother was just astronomical!”

Umani was realistic with Jennifer, asking her what the ultimate goal was. “The end result for me is having a relationship with my mother regardless of anybody else,” Jennifer said. “I want to bring my mother home.”  Susan’s sister Sharon had offered to give Susan a home with her in Hawaii following the Utah reunion.

“One of the hardest issues with addiction, as well as with mental health, is that folks get better and then fall off again and again,” Umani said. “Families often, out of desperation and means, give up, or go back and forth between trying to help and giving up … This is a very painful journey that cannot happen without support, and faith, and deep knowing that our ‘task’ is to be there for the other person while we pay attention to our own health and our human limitations,” she said.

For Jennifer, the long-awaited reunion was nerve-wracking. “I was scared and excited all at the same time. I thought, ‘What if she doesn’t like me? What if I’m not good enough for her? What if this turns out horrible?’ ”  But she needn’t have worried. Susan began to cry and hugged her daughter when they met at Trinity Center. “She was shaking,” Jennifer remembers. “I could tell that Irit had been trying to calm her down. [We] had an immediate connection and I promised her I wouldn’t let anything happen to her,” Jennifer said. “We had a great conversation with Irit, we put my mom in the car and drove back to Utah.”

That was Thanksgiving, 2012. Jennifer, her sons and extended family spent two weeks with Susan before she flew to Hawaii with Sharon. Over the holiday, Susan tried her best not to drink, although Jennifer didn’t want to force her into sobriety; she just wanted her mother to know she loved her.

The family gathering was difficult for Susan, who met grandchildren for the first time and realized that life had continued without her. “But that was one of the most special times of my whole life,” Jennifer said. “I’m so grateful for it.”

Susan stayed with her sister in Hawaii for about a week before things fell apart and she moved back to the streets. Even though she knows she has a home with Jennifer when she wants it, she prefers to live on her own terms.

“We talk regularly and that is still amazing to me,” Jennifer said. Sometimes her mental illness is apparent and sometimes she is lucid, but a relationship with her mother is the thing Jennifer wanted. “I think she knows that I love her, that I care for her, and anytime she wants she can have a home, but I don’t think a home is something she wants.”

“Often is it about letting go of the idea that we can control another’s journey,” Umani said. “The wounds and pain and frustration of family members of an addicted or mentally challenged person require that they, too, be on an emotional, mental and spiritual journey of healing.”

Jennifer realizes her mother is caught in her addictions, and believes that “the drama of being homeless is addicting” for some. But she also wants to be a better mother to her own children, knowing the heartbreak that addiction can bring to a family system. “It’s a struggle, and some days it’s harder than I can imagine, but the difference is I’m staying.”

Jennifer remains grateful for the renewed relationship, whatever it brings, and she is grateful for the help she received from Trinity Center, an outreach ministry of St. David’s, Austin. “Irit is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. She put a lot of heart into this, and I’m so grateful that she did,” Jennifer said.

“Their reunion was one of the most inspirational days of my many years of working in social service settings,” Umani said. “I did not know if it would work in the long run, but I had no doubt that I witnessed God’s love at work, as well as seeing both the fragility and the strength of the human spirit. I went home for the rest of that afternoon just to remain with and breathe in the joy of the day.”

— Jennifer had her mother’s permission to share her story.

To learn more about Trinity Center here.