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Mother's Day in the midst of the opioid crisis

Selene San Felice
Contact Reporterssanfelice@capgaznews.com

Last Mother’s Day was hell for Patt Selway-Eckenrode.

Instead of brunch or a spa day, the Glen Burnie resident got a call from police. Her granddaughter, Tori Wagener, had overdosed in a Dollar Tree parking lot in Brooklyn.

This wasn’t the first time she’d gotten this call — Wagener has overdosed 12 times — but it was one of the scariest episodes. A paramedic told her he could hear Wagener’s ribs breaking as she received CPR from a bystander.

Wagener is not alone in her experience. As of April 25, Anne Arundel County police have responded to 332 overdoses, with 56 of those being fatal, making 2018 the deadliest year for opioids in the county.

The only way for Wagener to stay in recovery and, for Selway-Eckenrode to keep her sanity, is to keep telling their story, they say. As Wagener is about to give birth to her third child, the stakes feel higher.

Four years ago, Wagener was raising her twins, Liam and Lilyana, now 5, and in nursing school at Anne Arundel Community College. When she met her then-boyfriend, she thought she could fix his pill addiction.

“You’re not going to fix him, he’s going to fix you,” Selway-Eckenrode told her granddaughter, who “was so normal. You couldn’t even hold the twins if you smoked cigarettes. She was headed in the right direction.”

Wagener went from being a funny, witty person to growing nasty and mean, her grandmother said. Two days before Christmas, she left the twins at her grandmother’s house and never came back.

As her grandmother tried to get her help, Wagener relapsed and overdosed. She began asking her grandmother for money every day to take the bus to an outpatient clinic in Baltimore, but said she would still get high every day.

“I was her biggest enabler, but it’s because I wasn’t aware of what you do when there’s an addict in the family,” Selway-Eckenrode said. “It was a dark place. I waited for that phone call constantly that she had overdosed. You just lose your mind.”

Wagener said her birth mother also fed her addiction. The two have been estranged since Selway-Eckenrode said she left Wagener when she was only 14 months old, and her grandmother gained custody of Wagener at 11 years old. She is also an addict, Wagener said. After the two reconnected on Facebook shortly before last Mother’s Day, Wagener said she sent a message to ask for drugs, and that her mother called her own dealer and even gave her a spoon.

Wagener’s mother could not be reached for comment.

"(Patt) is my father's mother, but I call her my real mom," Wagener said.

While trying to help her granddaughter, Selway-Eckenrode knew she had to help herself. So she did both. She threw herself into county organizations like Nar-Anon and Not My Child. When she’s not caring for the twins in her custody, she’s organizing recovery walks and fundraisers.

She’s thankful for her friends at Nar-Anon meetings and the county Crisis Response System.

“Everyone supports you without judging you,” she said. “Everyone thinks they’re going to tell you how to run your family, but they don’t. You can get information through watching people fail and succeed, and in their stories and their journeys. We’ve all felt that pain.”

Selway-Eckenrode said whether family members can get loved ones into recovery, they still need to make healing themselves a priority.

“They say the families of the addict are as sick as the addict, and that’s true in a whole different way. I couldn’t think of anything else but addiction. You wake up thinking, ‘Are they OK? Did they make it through the night? Where are they at? Oh my god I hear an ambulance.’ You live in this state of terror. It’s like falling in a well and not being able to get out.”

In August, Wagener went to the hospital since the flu was spreading around her group home. But her symptoms weren’t from a virus. She was pregnant.

Wagener was determined to get clean for the sake of her baby, but she relapsed at the start of her second trimester. She spent a night using small amounts of crack and heroin, reasoning that switching and trying not to overdose would regulate his heart.

“I know his heart rate was going up and down all night,” she said.

Her grandmother’s heart was broken.

“That’s how powerful the disease is, if you would take that chance,” Selway-Eckenrode said.

This time, Wagener chose to go into recovery through a county Safe Station. The program that started a year ago has fire and police stations open 24/7 with personnel who are ready to offer help to those who seek treatment. The program offers counseling, expedited treatment and coordination with other agencies like the court system to get users the guidance they need. As of April 25, 275 people have received help from county Safe Stations.

Wagener says she is clean and living in an Annapolis recovery home. She’s reconnected with her children, who think she’s away at college during the week. Her relationship with her grandmother is stronger than ever.

Her baby boy, Leeland, is due May 23 and already weighs 7 pounds, 12 ounces.

She knows one day she’ll have to explain her addiction to her children — and warn them.

“Sometimes I wonder which one of the three or how many of the three will take that route,” Wagener said.

Once she’s back on her feet, she wants to go to cosmetology school and then maybe get back to nursing.

Her grandmother is wary but optimistic.

“I think it’s looking good,” she said. “With Tori, I’ll never feel comfortable that we’re not going to step off that dark edge again. I’m always going to be wondering if she’ll go back in that direction.”

This Mother’s Day, the two just want to relax at home and garden.

“Anything normal is great,” Selway-Eckenrode said.

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