WESTBROOK — Makenzie Doucette knows the struggles that come with having a parent suffer from a substance use disorder.
The 16-year-old also knows that those difficulties are made worse by pretending everything is OK.
“If I had just kept this to myself I don’t know how I would have coped with it,” she said. “It’s been a great tool to talk about it.”
The Westbrook High School senior is very open about growing up with a mother addicted to drugs and recently won a contest for an essay she wrote about her experience. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Maine Attorney General’s Office announced last month that Doucette had won the Youth Voices on the Opiate Crisis in Maine Media Contest.
The contest, which came with a prize of $750, was open to Maine students. Participants were asked to create audio, visual or written projects that addressed the opioid crisis.
Doucette said she was “shocked” to learn that she had won the contest. The U.S. Attorney’s Office praised her essay for its “clear, accessible, honest account” of how opioid addiction can affect families.
Doucette’s mother, who is now in recovery, was using drugs throughout Doucette’s childhood. In her essay, Doucette describes seeing her mother unconscious in their home surrounded by drugs and drug paraphernalia.
“I didn’t fully understand what was happening,” she said. “I just knew something was wrong with my mother.”
Most of Doucette’s early years were spent caring for her younger brother. She essentially had to be the mother to herself and her sibling, she said.
“He was so young,” Doucette said of her brother, who is two years younger than her. “I knew I had to take care of him. It was an instinct.”
When Doucette was in first grade, her teacher noticed signs of neglect and reported it, which resulted in Doucette and her brother being removed from their home. Doucette now resides with her father and paternal grandmother, who share guardianship.
Doucette and her mother have a “semi-good” relationship now, she said, and her mother has read the essay.
“She said, ‘It’s a really big eye-opener seeing what you kids remember from back then,'” Doucette said.
Now that she’s older, Doucette said it’s hard to believe she and her brother made it through their early childhoods.
“It’s scary to think back on it,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder how we survived that.”
With tears in her eyes, Debbie Murchison, Doucette’s grandmother, said she’s amazed at what her granddaughter has endured.
“From a little girl who started out with a hard life, she has come a long way,” Murchison said. “She persevered through so much.”
In addition to her essay, Doucette also addresses substance use disorders through her extensive volunteer work and community involvement. She’s a member of Westbrook’s Substance Use Awareness Team, Westbrook High School’s Youth Leadership Coalition and the school’s civil rights club. She also spent the summer working as a counselor at Camp Susan Curtis, which she previously attended as a camper.
“I had to grow up at such a young age and I think kids should be kids,” Doucette said. “That’s why I’m so involved in these groups.”
Doucette’s openness with the issue has led to many of her peers confiding in her about their own families’ struggles and addictions. She said it’s meaningful to her that other students trust her.
She has also shared her story with teachers and staff in Westbrook. Last month she was asked to read her essay to the entire WHS staff.
“One teacher told me it was really helpful for teachers to know more about students and that who they are isn’t just who they see in class,” Doucette said.
Doucette said she hopes her activism and openness dispels many stereotypes surrounding substance use disorders.
“Yes, they chose to try it the first time, but once you start it’s very hard to stop,” she said of those afflicted.
Doucette said it’s important to her that people realize that substance abusers are people worthy of help.
“I think as a community we need to be grasping (the issue) with open arms instead of shunning people and pushing them away,” she said. “It’s a real struggle. We need to be supporting them.”
The Westbrook Police Department on Aug. 31 participated in International Overdose Awareness Day by holding a ceremony in Riverbank Park. Doucette said she’s grateful the city recognized people suffering from substance use disorders.
“It makes me extremely happy,” she said. “This community is like a family and everyone is so invested in this.”
Murchison said she expects her granddaughter will continue to do great things throughout her life.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” she said. “She’s crawled her way up from the bottom and proved so much.”
Doucette said she wants to have a career working with those affected by substance use disorders. In the meantime, she plans to continue helping people however she can and showing how deeply the issue is affecting people’s lives.
“I hope that people will see that you don’t always really know the story behind a person and that there are really people out there struggling and it’s not just something you hear about,” Doucette said. “It’s a real thing.”
Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.
By Makenzie Doucette
She’s lying on the floor gripping the thin needle in hand; the rubber band tightly around her upper arm. The kid’s table nearly on top of her, dust from the thin white line of powder still makes it visible. Next to it is a five dollar bill rolled into a thin cylinder shape; the same five dollar bill my brother and I would be using to get a gallon of milk from the store later that night. I’ve just spent over an hour looking for her. It wasn’t a surprise this was where I would find her; the real surprise is that she’s still breathing. My small, trembling hands gently shake her, begging her to wake up. This has become a nightly occurrence. Shouldn’t a mother be the one to put her five-year-old daughter to bed? In my case, it’s the other way around.
I surprisingly remember a lot from my childhood. I’ve tried to bury away in the back of my mind, but the memories still creep at times like a monster under the bed. From around the early age of five until the age of seven, I was the mother of my household. I took care of my three year old brother and my mother; responsibilities no child of any age should have. Being the “mother” to my brother, I always put him first. Just a few responsibilities I took on in my parentified role included cooking dinner; usually ramen noodles, gave him baths, and having him sleep on the small crib mattress while I slept on the floor.
Not having a mother figure left me to figure everything out on my own. I rarely showed up to school because I was busy taking care of my brother and if I did go to school I was unbathed. My first-grade teacher took note of that and she is one of the many reasons I have come this far and I owe her so much simply for reporting my case of neglect, which landed me in the guardianship of my grandmother. Without my grandmother, I’m not sure where I would be. She has raised me, put me first, and has given me everything I need and I now reside in a loving, caring home. My brother was adopted and is being raised by a lovely woman. I couldn’t ask for better places for either of us to be living.
Growing up I watched what I thought was my mother choosing the needles over me and now I realized she has a disease. My whole life I have been faced with watching family members and friends suffer from this disease. In the past three years, I have lost my uncle and two family friends due to drug overdoses. I am passionate about my education and correcting the stigmas of substance use disorders. I was shocked over the amount of children in Maine that have had similar experiences as me. The beginning of my junior year I joined a club called Substance Use Awareness Team, “SUAT”. I have been to language trainings and at the beginning of this year I became a Certified Recovery Coach. I work closely with the Police department in my community to change how Substance Use Disorders are viewed and to support teens in the community that have been affected by it.
My mother is now in recovery and has been for about a year. I hope she can stay sober, not for me, but for herself. At times I wish I could have had a normal childhood, but overall I wouldn’t change it because these situations I have been faced with has led me to where I am today and helped me develop into the young woman I am still becoming. I am thankful for the life lessons this has taught me, but I would not wish this on anyone else. Life is all about choices. With the advocacy from the substance use disorder community and state, maybe we can truly break the stigma and lessen the death tolls and families affected using hard reduction and other educated researched based methods. Every choice we make in life not only affects us, but it affects everyone around you. Everyone deserves a chance at having a healthy life.
Westbrook High School senior Makenzie Doucette, 16, recently won the Youth Voices on the Opiate Crisis in Maine Media Contest for an essay she wrote about growing up with a mother with substance use disorder.