Heather Wetzel, a 26-year-old recovering heroin addict, lives with her 4-year-old daughter, Bobbi-Lee, at CAMEO House, a residential treatment facility in Hagerstown, Maryland for mothers in recovery.
Heather was first prescribed Percocet at age 17 for endometriosis, she says, and by 22 she also had prescriptions for Fioricet with Codeine, and Klonopin, for back pain, migraines, and anxiety. “I didn’t really abuse the Percocets – at least that’s what I still believe,” Heather says. “Maybe, like right before I did heroin, I remember taking like 10 Percocets because I was just hurting…And that night, I did the heroin.”
Heather says she bought heroin in the hope that her boyfriend – a heroin addict – would come back to her. She says he did not return that night, and she tried it herself. Before long, they were together again and snorting the drug; soon after, they were shooting it.
“Eventually I didn’t have anything else to sell so I started to steal,” Heather recalls about how she supported her deepening addiction. She says that after trading and selling Percocet pills for heroin, and then selling off her belongings, she turned to theft.
Heather recalls how she juggled being a mother and an addict. “It was harder for me to get up out of bed in the mornings, get her dressed, feed her, things like that,” Heather says. “I look back now and I feel horrible for it. I never neglected her; she was taken care of, but never as well as she should have been.”
Nearly two years after Heather first used heroin, the police arrested her at her parents’ house, where she was living with Bobbi-Lee. She eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary and was sent to the Washington County Detention Center. While there, she completed a substance abuse treatment program.
“I was scared when I was in jail that she wouldn’t want me when I came home,” Heather says of Bobbi-Lee. Here, they bake a cake together at CAMEO House, where they moved once Heather was released in July, 2015.
“I never thought that moment was coming and finally, finally I had my baby in my arms,” says Heather about reuniting with Bobbi-Lee. That first night, Heather says, “I fell asleep with her repeatedly telling me, ‘I love you, mommy. I love you, mommy. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.’”
Heather, center, eats dinner with other mothers at CAMEO House. Living with other women who are working through similar issues can be a challenge but also a blessing, Heather says. “What CAMEO House does, is they give you the tools to use to stay sober. I just need to use them.”
Heather is comforted by Penny Weaver, a vocational coordinator at CAMEO House, after a group session left her feeling upset. “You just take it day by day,” Heather reflects later. “Don’t overwhelm yourself.” The group and one-on-one sessions really help, she says. Heather, who overdosed on heroin four times, is now on Vivitrol, a monthly shot that helps block the effects of heroin in the body.
Bobbi-Lee pouts as Heather tries to get her ready to leave the house one summer day. “I see, like, what damage I’ve done from me being away for 11 months – and it hurts,” says Heather. “I feel like I got a second chance at everything.”
“She’s a part of me and I wasn’t myself without her,” Heather says about Bobbi-Lee. Here, they retrieve ingredients for cooking. “I’m very hopeful. I’m scared that I might mess up but I feel that me being scared is good. It’s going to keep me from messing up.”
Heather tries to get Bobbi-Lee dressed after a bath one night in July. Being firm with her daughter is sometimes still a struggle for Heather, who says she carries guilt for what she’s done in the past. Heather says she had wanted to stop using after she overdosed, but was overcome by the effects of withdrawal, calling that “one of the worst feelings.” She adds, “I know now that that’s nothing. You know, missing my daughter is the worst feeling.”
“I feel confident that I won’t use but then again I haven’t had a craving,” says Heather. “I’m scared when I get out of CAMEO or when I get the freedom…If I have a craving will I be strong enough?”
Heather is now fifteen months clean, and has a new job at a restaurant in Hagerstown. She says she is saving up to buy a home for herself and Bobbi-Lee. And she notices a difference in how her family treats her. Her mother recently asked her to hold some money for her – a small but meaningful gesture for Heather, who says she was once accused of stealing from her grandmother.
“I have a lot to make up for,” Heather says, adding that being sober is the first step. “She’s my priority now,” Heather says of Bobbi-Lee. “Everything that I do will reflect her future.”
Photos and Text: SARAH WEISER / RETRO REPORT