There are days when Kelly Estes wakes up and doesn’t know if her daughter is dead or alive.
“I went hunting for her for hours the other morning, and I just could not find her. For all I know she’s in a hospital bed with irreparable brain damage, or worse,” said Kelly, a Johnston resident. “I’ll go days and weeks without knowing where she is, and I’m scared.”
Kelly’s family is dealing with the effects of drug addiction, and it has taken more than a heavy toll on the lives of her loved ones. Even for Kelly, her story is difficult to follow, filled with convoluted twists and turns, of dark memories of the last 15 years where drugs have gripped her daughter and refused to let go.
“It literally took six months for her to go down the tubes once she turned to heroin,” said Kelly.
It wasn’t always this way. According to Kelly, her daughter “Julie” (not her real name) grew up with both her mother and her father for the first 13 years of her life before a divorce. Julie, who is now 35, had what could be considered an average childhood. She was in the Girl Scouts, a decent student, and outgoing with friends and family.
At around 18 years old, Julie was diagnosed with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), similar to lockjaw, and she was prescribed Vicodin. That’s where the problems began.
“She just kept taking it and taking it, and ultimately got addicted to it and then at some point started abusing it,” said Kelly.
For a while, things were okay for Julie. She moved out of her mother’s home and was on her own for about 10 years, working as a house cleaner and living in low-income housing. Julie went on to have three children, all of who are currently under 18 years old. While she struggled, she made ends meet and was able to keep her head above water.
Then, according to Kelly, she met a new boyfriend about eight years ago, and things took an even greater turn for the worse.
“They were using heroin. She probably did other drugs that I’m not aware of, like cocaine. I wasn’t with her all the time,” said Kelly. “But she eventually got kicked out of her apartment and her kids got taken away. I had no idea how bad her addiction was. I just had no idea.”
It was a whirlwind of a ride for both Kelly and her grandchildren, two of which are now in her custody. Her grandchildren would tell Kelly stories about how their mom would have needles stuck in her arm. However, for years Julie convinced both her mother and her children that there was nothing wrong and that the kids were just making up stories.
Kelly would receive messages from Julie through social media, such as for Mother’s Day in 2016, when Julie invited her mother for breakfast that day. But at the last minute, Julie sent a message that she was sick and had to cancel. Kelly decided to go to see her daughter anyway.
“When I got there, she looked like death. I said, ‘Oh my God, you need to see a doctor,’” said Kelly. “I thought she had cancer, she looked so bad.”
Her daughter later told her mother that she was trying to “walk off methadone,” something Kelly did not know her daughter was taking. It’s just one of a multitude of stories Kelly can share of addiction, as she’s seen more than her fair share. She said that she’s tried to remain supportive, providing her daughter with housing, bringing food and supplies, trying to do whatever she thought would help Julie. She admits that some of her efforts may have enabled her daughter.
“This is not the daughter that I raised, this is some other being that this drug has created,” said Kelly. “It’s a terrible, terrible, awful thing.”
Kelly said she’s been on the verge of a nervous breakdown several times. She’s tried tough love, she’s called the police and DCYF about the situation. She’s found needles, spoons, cotton balls and other drug paraphernalia in her daughter’s possession that was well within reach of the children, with no safekeeping whatsoever. She’s given ultimatums, gotten into altercations, asked and then begged her daughter to go to rehab. Nothing seems to work. Kelly said that her daughter can manipulate any situation into her favor to appear that there is nothing wrong.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was to sit my grandkids down and tell them the truth about their mother,” said Kelly. “I had to tell them that their mother was using drugs.”
Kelly has gone through counseling. Her grandchildren have suffered through behavioral problems from the situation that they’ve been placed in. They have a hard time trusting others and have lashed out at their grandparent. She said that Julie taught her grandchildren to lie and cover her drug use.
“It’s amazing the skill that addicts have to obtain the drugs, but they can’t make proper decisions for themselves. She was so skilled in covering up and hiding all of this,” said Kelly. “They say that this is a disease, and I’ve researched this over countless hours. But with drug use, the frontal lobe gets so damaged that the addict can’t make a proper decision, but their survival instinct is not damaged. They say that they can take care of themselves, but they can’t.”
With this being an election year, and the state facing a growing drug epidemic, Kelly is hopeful a stronger stance will be taken towards drug addicts. Kelly believes that those addicted to drugs should be forced into rehabilitation, that the decision for care should not be left to the addict, but that law enforcement and government should make rehabilitation mandatory.
“Insurance doesn’t cover a long enough period of time for addicts to create those habits and learn those skills that will get them off and keep them off of drugs. There are so many parents out there that are dealing with this, raising their grandchildren, watching their children die,” said Kelly.
Kelly believes that funds going to places such as suboxone and methadone clinics would be better served by opening asylums where people are cared for and treated for their mental and drug conditions. She added that the cost of first responders going to multiple calls for the same person, hospital bills that are being paid by state-funded health insurance, and the costs of placing children in the foster care system might be curtailed if mandatory, long-term rehabilitation was instituted.
Kelly also wonders if some private rehabilitation centers are really looking out for their patients’ best interests, as they state that relapses are part of recovery, and questions that some clinics may just be in it for the money.
“The reality of the failures of the system to follow up with people in a more aggressive way, knowing full well that their problem solving part of the brain is damaged, that they can still in good conscious just release human beings out onto the street with some sort of list of things to do, something more needs to be done,” she said.
Julie has been in rehab multiple times, once for upwards of four months. But as soon as she gets out she relapses. She’s also overdosed and, fortunately, been revived.
“She wants to get better but she doesn’t. She relapses,” said Kelly.
Julie now lives in an alley in Providence and can often be found standing on street corners panhandling for money with her boyfriend. Attempts to contact Julie for this article were unsuccessful. Kelly hopes by sharing her family’s story something more can be done.
“I really want to find out a way to become more active in fighting this epidemic because my daughter is still out there living on the street feeling hopeless that if she goes in to a treatment center that she’ll only be there for 30 days and because insurance cuts out she’ll just be thrown back out again,” said Kelly. “She’s basically giving up, which is awful and she’s wrong to do that, but the system is so flawed and I don’t know what politicians I can talk to.”
While it’s obvious that Kelly loves her daughter, she isn’t sure that a solution can be reached without some kind of public or government intervention.
“She is an addict. She has made really bad choices, and I don’t think she is capable of making good choices on her own,” said Kelly.