ANNAPOLIS – After she was abused and abandoned by her mother, in and out of foster care, living on the streets, and unsuccessful at two other drug treatment programs, Denise has found a home.
Denise, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of 21 residents of Second Genesis Mellwood House trying to get clean after “drinking and drugging” for years. Though she’s been through other treatment programs, Denise says Mellwood House is different – it embraces mothers and their children.
A round-faced black woman with big eyes and short hair cropped close to her head, Denise, 34, wears sweatpants and a sweatshirt as she speaks softly and thoughtfully about her time at Mellwood. She was there for three months of the six-month program once before, then got fed up and left.
There was no defining moment that brought her back to treatment this time, but she realized she didn’t like the life she had, especially with her 2-year- old son, Joseph.
Denise struggled to care for Joe during her first time at Mellwood. She was not quite ready to be a mom, says Mellwood’s child therapist, Diana Furrow. And it showed in Joe – he was withdrawn, had lots of temper tantrums, and was hitting and biting other children. Her problems with Joe caused Denise to run, Furrow said.
But she wanted to do the right thing and has been back in the home for five months.
“I’m all he has, I want the best for him,” Denise says. “I don’t ever want to see him in drug treatment down the road somewhere.”
Treatment for Denise has done wonders for Joe.
“He has just blossomed,” Furrow says.
Joe is now potty-trained, moved up into the pre-school class, and has a much better vocabulary. He wants to be independent and he’s very protective of his mom, Furrow says. His thinking skills are even advanced for his age. He loves to sing songs.
“Denise has made tremendous growth in being a parent,” Furrow says. Her counselor, Jackie Crawford, says Denise is one of the hardest working clients at Mellwood House.
“She’s been doing hard work, taking a close look at herself and looking at issues she avoided prior to treatment,” Crawford says. “She knows now what not to do and is dealing with issues about how she was raised and the abuse she experienced.”
Denise’s mom abandoned her as a child and she went to foster care. When she was 3, her mother returned, but beat her so badly that Denise was returned to foster care until she was 17.
“I lived in group homes, shelters, out of boxes and bags,” she says. She ended up with an older couple who had two biological children and two other foster children. They were good to her, she says now.
But in her teen years, Denise started using drugs – alcohol, then marijuana, PCP, cocaine and crack. She got involved in abusive relationships, lived in shelters, abandoned houses, crack houses, and slept in bus shelters.
“I love the alcohol and I love my daggone crack, but they sure don’t love me – they made me do insane things,” Denise says. “Sleeping around, tricking, stealing – I did all these things under the influence that you could never get me to do now.”
She ended up in an out-patient program in Washington. It didn’t work. Neither did the Afrocentric in-patient treatment center she tried next. It was at that co-ed facility that Denise got pregnant. “I focused a lot more on the man than the treatment,” she says.
Pregnancy and motherhood kept her clean for three years, from 1995 to 1998. She was living with a boyfriend who “was always there for me.” But there was a darker side: “It was a very co-dependent relationship,” she says.
She started drinking again.
Then Denise struck her son, so her boyfriend threw her out. She spent the night outside, and the next day went back to get Joe. She called her sponsor, who told her about Mellwood House.
“I knew I needed the help,” Denise says. That was her first trip to the treatment center. This time, she hopes, will be the last.
Denise says the structured life at Mellwood House is teaching her respect, humility, independence, and above all, self-discipline.
Residents at Mellwood get up at 6:30 a.m. and spend their days taking care of the children and going to counseling, both group and individual.
“A lot of us come in with trust issues, thinking our business is more important: ‘Nobody’s been through what I have.’ I feel abandoned and inadequate. It’s hard to talk about,” Denise says. “But if I say that in a group and another sister feels the same way, that makes me feel good, like I’ve helped someone.”
The newer residents at Mellwood look up to Denise, Crawford says. “Denise is a very charismatic woman…She’s very dedicated to her goals.”
Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. and then mothers have time to spend with their children.
“A big part of the program is learning parenting and developing a bond with our kids and growing with them,” Denise says. “I thank God I wasn’t out on the streets with my child.”
Now she is looking to the future. Denise dropped out of school in 10th grade, but has been taking classes toward a high school diploma. She has failed the test before, but is anxiously waiting for the results of another attempt.
She wants her own apartment with her son – “No man, because I need to find out who Denise really is. I don’t know anything about relationships.” When she leaves Mellwood, Denise will live in interim housing. Denise says she wants to take a nursing class and learn to care for the elderly. Her late foster parents were in their 60s and she wanted to help them. “All I remember is stealing from them,” she says. “But I can help others.” -30-