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It Looked Like Heroin Addiction Would Kill Our Daughter -- But We Never Gave Up Hope

Maureen and Katie Cavanaugh
January 21, 2021

By Maureen Cavanagh, as told to Stephanie Watson

Katie has always been a special human being. She's gentle, loving, and kind to other people. I nicknamed her "Ladybug" because she was such a sweet little thing.

As I've come to learn, Katie is one of those people who was not born with that hard outer shell a lot of us have. She's always worried about whether people liked her or if she was smart enough. Whenever someone said something mean to her, it hurt her.

She has a slight learning disability and always had trouble in school, but she worked twice as hard as everyone else to compensate. It was rough on her self-esteem.


Katie developed anorexia while she was in high school. She struggled with that. We took her to an eating disorders specialist.

She went to UMass Lowell, but her first semester was tough. Katie didn't like being away from home. When she went back to school after Christmas, she wasn’t in touch as often as usual. I thought she was just settling in, but she was experimenting with drugs and alcohol. She told me she’d tried heroin. I was terrified and heartbroken.

Katie moved back home, and we got her treatment in an outpatient program. She enrolled in a local community college to continue with her studies.

I thought she'd be OK. I underestimated the power of addiction.

Warning Signs

If you look at the warning signs of early drug use and typical adolescence, they look very much alike. Katie was moody and sleeping late but otherwise seemed like a typical 19-year-old. I have four kids. What she was going through looked just like what my two older kids had been like at her age.

I'd ask her if she was OK. She'd say, "Yes. I'm just tired. I'm kind of depressed." I think sometimes parents want so much for everything to be OK that we put on blinders.

A year later, Katie moved in with a boyfriend. Now that she was out of my sight, things got really bad. I had no idea what she was doing. I begged her to go to rehab, but she avoided me. Again, my blinders came on. I thought that if we could get Katie into treatment she might still be able to turn herself around.

She Isn't Going to Make It

I was skimming the headlines of my local paper one day, when I spotted a story about an honor roll student arrested for prostitution. My first thought was, "How sad." Then I read it again. I had to read it three times before I realized. Oh my God. The story was about my daughter. She was addicted and homeless.

At the time I was working with people who were trying to get their lives back together due to substance use disorder. Every time we'd begged Katie to go to rehab she had avoided us because she didn't see how she could do it successfully.

She finally agreed to go into treatment. The rehab helped, but the pull of addiction overtook her, and she repeatedly relapsed. Over the next several years, Katie overdosed 13 times where she came to the hospital lifeless. She overdosed more than 13 times but someone nearby had NARCAN to reverse it. She went in and out of rehab 40 times.

I don't think anybody thought she was going to make it. People I loved told me I needed to get ready for Katie's story not to turn out the way I wanted it to turn out. I couldn't do that. I wasn't ready to give up on her.

A Change

As Katie struggled to get back on her feet, I was there to help and support her. We were in contact pretty much every day. She would find a way to tell me she loved me. I would tell her I loved her too. You never regret telling someone you love them.

She tried one treatment after another. None of them worked. But Katie stuck with her recovery. And I stuck with her.

When she finally started on a medication to prevent relapse to opioid dependence, following opioid detoxification, I knew things were going to be different. She stayed in the treatment center and continued to receive this medication.

The first few months of her recovery were not pretty. Katie continued to suffer from post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Her brain chemistry was getting back to normal. That doesn't happen overnight.

It took about 3 months to start seeing a change in her. She got a new job. She found a place to live. The fact that she was supporting herself gave her the motivation and confidence to keep going.

After about 9 months, she started to look and act like her old self. Finally, I could breathe again.

Lifelong Commitment

Substance use disorder is an illness people need to manage throughout their lives. This can include medication, therapy, and meetings.

Today, Katie is 28 years old. Through her continuing hard work and determination, she was able to get her own home and car. She has a new job in a hospital, and she wants to go to school to become a nurse.

In 2012, I started the nonprofit organization Magnolia New Beginnings to educate and help people who are struggling with substance use disorder. We teach family members how to be supportive and learn as much as possible about their loved one's disease. I also work with families as a family recovery coach.

I also work with a lot of young people whose families have abandoned them. There's no doubt in Katie's mind that our love made all the difference for her. Unconditional love. That's what people who are struggling with substance use disorder need more than anything.

Maureen Cavanagh is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings, a nonprofit organization that provides peer support, education, and advocacy to those recovering from a substance use disorder. She is reachable at www.MaureenCavanagh.net.


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