Paul Stefan Home gives heroin addict hope

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On Christmas Eve, hope looked up through wide brown eyes at a woman who thought she'd lost it forever.

Less than a year before, Maggie was living under a bridge in Charlottesville and eating from a dumpster. She was an addict who spent her days panhandling to feed a drug and alcohol addiction.

"I thought all hope was gone," said Maggie, sitting in the dining room of a Paul Stefan Home in Unionville a month after giving birth to a healthy baby boy. "I thought there was no way I'd be able to look at myself in the mirror. Even being able to think that there was a future was impossible."

With the help of the Paul Stefan Foundation, which provides homes, support and love to women in crisis pregnancies, Maggie will celebrate a year of sobriety in May. Instead of spending her days holding signs asking for money, she cradles Keegan, her "Christmas miracle," to her chest and focuses on healing the wounds that led her to homelessness, abuse and the dark abyss of addiction.

Numbing the pain

Maggie grew up in Connecticut, where she spent her first five years of life in foster care before being adopted with her two older siblings. Her adoptive home was filled with infidelity and domestic violence, including toward herself and her brother and sister. Yet Maggie managed to be a straight-A student at the Lutheran and Catholic schools she attended, excelled at sports, played nine instruments and spent her spare time volunteering at nursing homes.

Then when she was about 13, her world began to fall apart. Her adoptive parents divorced, and her older sister developed a severe mental illness and left the house. Amid the turmoil at home, Maggie had an accident that would leave her forever changed.

One day while diving, she hit the diving board head-on. She was placed on life support, and the doctors called it a miracle when a week later she walked out of the hospital on her own. "But I walked away scarred, and I walked out with opiates," said the soft-spoken, articulate 30-year-old.

"With the divorce, with my sister leaving, I now had an out," she said. "Going to school didn't matter anymore; grades didn't matter; respecting authority didn't matter. All that mattered was I wanted to get high on opiates. And I was in too much pain to say anything to anybody."

Her young life whirled out of control, and she had run-ins with the law that eventually led to time in prison. After spending ages 16 through 18 in a treatment center, she had a period of good health before entering a physically and emotionally abusive relationship.

Soon after, she found out she was pregnant.

For the sake of her baby, Maggie managed 18 months of sobriety before relapsing. Still involved in the abusive relationship and emotionally unable to tell anyone, she began drinking and doing drugs when her son was with his father.

She lost her car and home. Eventually, she lost her son.

"It was a very dark place," said Maggie. "I was a prostitute. I stole, lied and cheated." Opiates transitioned into marijuana and later cocaine. Crack was replaced by heroin and then morphine. She lived on the streets and went from one dysfunctional relationship to another. Filled with pain stretching back to her childhood, "I kept making bad choices," she said.

About a year ago, she was attacked at a bar by a man who left her with a broken toe, contusions on her head, scratches on her neck and handprint-shaped bruises on her body.

"It was brutal," said Maggie. "I stayed very high and very numb after that. I had lost all hope."

After the attacker came back two more times, Maggie knew she needed to get far away. She moved from Connecticut to Virginia, where she spent time in a domestic abuse shelter.

But a change in location was not enough. Her housing soon became a bridge, where the neighbors included raccoons, rattlesnakes and even a bear. A dumpster diet was supplemented with three bottles of wine a day.

A place to heal

Then last May she had shocking news: She was pregnant again. "Due to my health and mental and emotional state, I did not think it was possible," said Maggie.

Knowing this was a miraculous second chance and that she needed support - and lots of it - she went to a Charlottesville shelter that quickly placed her in the Paul Stefan Home.

The Paul Stefan Foundation includes two large farmhouse-style homes in Unionville, and it has plans for a 30-room regional center in Orange.

For the first time in her life, Maggie was in a safe place to talk about her layers of trauma and begin to heal. And alongside intensive therapy, she received a blanket of love.

"You hear of two kinds of love in recovery: tender love and care and tough love and confrontation," she said. "I could have gotten tough love in prison or in the courts. I came (to the Paul Stefan Home) and I got tender love and care.

"To be in a safe place, to be able to let that pain come out so I could get ready to give birth and live a new life - that was one of the biggest gifts. (Keegan) is obviously the biggest joy, but that comes right behind it."

Although a longtime addict, Maggie had been sober since she took the pregnancy test, and doctors were most concerned about the in utero effects of her anxiety as she tried to cope with her emotions without drugs or alcohol.

Yet eight months after she arrived in Unionville, she gave birth via cesarean to a healthy baby.

After the birth of her first child, countless unaddressed emotional and physiological needs overwhelmed and crushed her spirit, and she knows difficult work lies ahead. But this time she's receiving the tools and time to slowly relinquish her past and add dreams to her future. "Here they make it so there's a bridge you can cross over into health," she said.

Maggie hopes eventually to become a certified nursing assistant and someday return as a volunteer with the Paul Stefan Foundation.

As she tends to her psychological scars, she's focused on her spiritual health, as well. She received the sacraments in the Catholic Church as a child, but she'd felt resentment toward God ever since the diving accident. Now she's in the process of returning to the church and plans to have Keegan baptized next month by Father Stefan Starzynski, parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly and co-founder of the Paul Stefan Foundation.

Maggie said she's afraid to think about what life would be like without the Paul Stefan Home. "I don't know of any place like this that just comes in and scoops you up and gives you love," she said, adding that it's "so important for women in abusive relationships to say something. You're not always lucky enough to be able to have another chance or to get pregnant again.

"And my son has given me the ability to want to get better," said Maggie, looking at her 1-month-old. "My son saved my life."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015