Melissa takes a stand in her daughter's life

Monday, June 12, 2006

Part 2 of 7

Nothing about the way Melissa Mackey acted or looked made her appear like a crack addict.

Melissa was in a grand mood, or at least she appeared that way, laughing and mingling in the nave of St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau. The service had just ended, and the priest was preparing a baptismal font for two families.

It was March 13, 2005, almost two weeks after the opening of the Vision House. Melissa was taking a huge step in her life.

She was surrounded by her family. Melissa's parents, who raised their daughter in Catholic traditions, were there. So were Melissa's brother and two sisters. A couple of aunts and uncles and Grandma Russo had also made the trip down from St. Louis.

But the most important member of the family on that day had to be Olivia, Melissa's 3-year-old daughter.

She was dressed in a frilly yellow dress, a purple sweater and an irresistible ear-to-ear grin. The smile was contagious. Melissa glowed as she watched her daughter travel from lap to lap, from kiss to kiss and under the pews, perhaps looking for treasure.

"I'm getting baptized," Olivia told anyone willing to listen.

Melissa had a strong presence in the room. She was tall and overweight, not unpretty. Her bubbly and outgoing personality made her likable, and Melissa always aimed to please. That thirst to make others happy, to impress or entertain others, was perhaps one of her most glaring personality flaws, though if channeled correctly, it could have been a tremendous asset. Had drugs not overtaken her life, Melissa could perhaps have had a career in sales, marketing or even politics.

Instead, Melissa was an unemployed and drug-addicted mother. While her problems seemed to vanish with her smiles, and even though she was trying to do the right thing, Melissa could not escape her past, not even in the spiritual spaces of St. Mary's.

Melissa was out of place here.

Five days earlier, she had met with the priest about the baptism.

She explained her situation: She was a recovering addict. Her biological daughter, whom she did not have custody of, needed to be baptized. She was 3 years old, and the spiritual ritual had been put off far too long already.

Melissa said the priest, in trying to assess her situation, had told her addiction was like a bowl of acid. The addict was simply dipping her hand in the acid over and over again.

Melissa thought the analogy was awful, yet another attempt at advice by someone who thought he knew what it was like to be an addict, who knew how easy it must be to say no. No one would ever find pleasure in dipping her hand into a bowl of acid, she thought. Crack, on the other hand ...

Melissa insisted to the priest that this time was different. She said she had an epiphany from God while lying in the St. Louis street. She knew God was with her, she told the priest, and it was time to do the right thing.

"What do you want out of your life?" the priest asked.

The question was one she had thought about often, a big question, the biggest of questions. One that was stressful and dangerous to answer. Because she didn't know.

"I'm not even thinking about that," Melissa responded, wondering what it had to do with getting her daughter baptized. "I'm just living in the day, trying to come to peace with myself, trying to be caring to others." The priest agreed that the church would do the baptism.

The talk was stressful, one that might have led to a bad decision weeks earlier. She had to have a long talk with Theresa Taylor, the Vision House director, to calm herself down.

The stress five days later was a different kind.

Melissa, dressed in khakis, a dark sweater and a white shirt, acted like the hostess of a party, gliding from one relative to another, sometimes holding Olivia on her hip, while the priest got things ready.

The family reunion inside the church was a happy moment, but her troubled past surrounded her.

Another family, a beautiful family with a father, mother and an infant, was preparing for a baptism as well.

Olivia's father was noticeably absent, a detail Melissa admitted later made her feel sad. But Melissa wasn't angry at her daughter's father. Like her, he had demons to face, she said. He wasn't ready to deal with that, and she understood that better than anyone else in the room.

Father Patrick Nwokoye, one of St. Mary's priests, called the families to the front. A bespectacled man, Nwokoye spoke with a pure and deliberate tenor voice.

In front of him rested the baptismal font. Behind him, a bronze-colored Jesus hung from a cross. Below the crucifix was a sign that read: "Be reconciled." On the sign was a picture of a glass of wine, a Christian symbol for Jesus' blood. But on March 13, 2005, knowing Melissa's past, it could have been interpreted as a symbol for Melissa's sin, appropriately placed at the foot of the cross. Her destination to crack always began down the road of alcohol. First a drink, then another drink. A drunken stupor that's not quite enough. Only crack could finish the job, only crack could give the rising action a suitable climax. It was a story repeated hundreds of times over the last several years.

Melissa and her 16 relatives watched the other baptism first. Then came time for Olivia.

The priest's spoken words, perhaps viewed as ceremonious to some, came across as difficult vows for Melissa.

Nwokoye said: "You have come here to present this child for baptism. By water and the Holy Spirit they are to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love. On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring her up in the practice of the faith.

"See that the divine life which God gives them is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in their hearts …" The priest continued, and then asked Melissa a series of relevant and sobering questions.

"Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children?"

"I do."

"Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?"

"I do."

"Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?"

"I do."

"Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?"

He asked several more faith-related questions. She answered affirmative to all of them.

By the time he reached the point of sprinkling the water, Olivia had become restless, squirming in her mother's arms.

When the ceremony was over, the family celebrated.

A dinner was planned. An adorable daughter and mending mother were reunited, if for only a while.

Melissa felt right. Even without being high, she felt wonderful.

"I finally took a stand in my daughter's life," she said.

But was she ready to take a stand in her own?

Melissa was an extrovert, a woman who was comfortable in crowds, who desired, at least at this point in her life, to be noticed. She set out to impress.

She had been clean from drugs for more than 80 days, and during that time she studied the Bible, prayed, confessed, worshiped and confessed some more.

But you never know with drug addicts. It's hard to tell where the person stops and the illness begins, when the abuser is using things, such as religion, to gain a leverage which can be used to obtain that which is most important: the five-minute high.

But as the words spilled out of Melissa's mouth on March 22, 2005, she must have been sincere. It's one thing to read the Bible or claim to your family or counselors that God has turned your life around.

It's something completely different to stand in front of 300 to 400 pastors and give your testimony.

That's what was happening in Dyersburg, Tenn.

Theresa Taylor, director of the Vision House in Cape Girardeau. (Diane L. Wilson)

Theresa Taylor, the Vision House director, had scheduled a trip to the bi-vocational pastors' conference that weekend. One of Theresa's biggest jobs as director of the Vision House was to raise money. So she took her entrepreneurial spirit, her faith and her relentless energy on the road as a Vision House saleswoman, hoping that a church would consider sponsorship. She had been asked to give testimony, and Theresa brought a couple of women with her. One of them was Melissa.

Theresa spoke first, outlining the purpose of the Vision House, which was to provide long-term transitional support for homeless drug-addicted women who had completed a short-term drug rehabilitation program.

Then it was Melissa's turn. She had volunteered and had been thinking on the drive down about what she would say.

"On the way here, I didn't really know what I was going to say," she started nervously. "I, you know, just wanted to give some insight of who I am and where I'm from.

"I'm a firm believer that nothing happens in God's world by mistake. If someone told me at the age of 18 that by the age of 25 I'd be a single mother who lost custody of my daughter, a homeless prostitute due to a drug addiction, I would have laughed and said, 'Not me. Don't you know who I am? I have goals and dreams; that stuff doesn't happen to people like me.' "And by 'people like me' I mean I was raised in a middle-class family whose parents were loving and nurturing. They didn't drink and didn't do drugs. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school till the 12th grade. I started drinking at 14, smoked pot for the first time at 15, snorted my first line of cocaine at 18. By 21, I had smoked crack for the first time and from that moment on, I began my illicit love affair with crack cocaine."

She told the pastors how she became pregnant at the age of 22 with the person she thought she would marry.

"One problem, though," she said. "He used drugs, too." She described herself as a "monster" who would lie, cheat and steal from her own family and friends. She said she began to push God away.

"I got angry at God," she said. "Why would he give an innocent child to a person like me? I really hated him because I hated myself for knowing what I was doing and not being able to stop. I was too scared to tell anyone what I was doing." Melissa was pouring it all out, confessing all her sins to 400 strangers. She told the crowd she had entered and completed 14 treatment-center programs that lasted 14 to 21 days each.

The centers would release her before she was ready. It wasn't enough time. The longest she had stayed clean was 120 days. She didn't want to go back home.

"I was tired of hurting and hurting others. My faith in God was gone.

"It was in that madness I had a moment of clarity. A voice inside of me, I'll never forget. I was standing on the side of the street; I just woke up from sleeping on the dock, behind St. Patrick Center when this voice inside of me, but it wasn't me, said: 'You don't want to die like this, Melissa. You know you don't have to live like this.'"

She then went to the nearest pay phone and called her father. Her parents hadn't heard from her in three weeks; Melissa had stolen her mother's car. But her father welcomed her home anyway.

When he saw her, he told her she looked dead.

He took her to the hospital, which referred her to the Family Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau.

It was there, several years before the most recent setback, she met a woman named Karen Daugherty.

Karen "asked if I had remembered Theresa Taylor, who used to come and speak to us," Melissa continued to explain to the crowd of pastors. "I said, 'Yeah,' and that's when I heard they had been working together on the Vision House.

"Through them and their vision I see every day the wonders and miracles God bestows upon me. I live in a wonderful home with incredible people.

"If someone would've told me four months ago that there was hope and a place like the Vision House for people like me, I would've laughed. But in such a short time, God has revealed himself through the Vision House.

"I realize I do have a purpose. My purpose was not to die as a hopeless victim of this disease, but to become a victor through my trials and tribulations." That's how the speech ended. She was greeted with a standing ovation. Melissa made her turnaround sound so inspiring, which it was. But she also made it sound easy.

Through her many previous failures she learned that fighting addictions -- and a self-serving lifestyle -- isn't easy. She would soon find out it wouldn't be easy at the Vision House either.

Coming tomorrow: Theresa's first childhood stupor; Melissa finds herself in trouble.

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