YORK — Crystal Cooper, a 26-year-old mother of four, is picking up the pieces of a life shattered by marijuana.
Marijuana often is called a gateway to other stronger, more addictive drugs; but Cooper, one of the first to complete a new residential substance-abuse program for mothers on the York Place campus, said pot was her downfall.
“I think marijuana is so easy to get,” said Cooper, who started smoking marijuana when she was 12 and tried cocaine at 14.
Cooper said she eventually stopped using cocaine, which became more difficult to get when she got married, moved and lost her contacts. But she said the marijuana use continued daily for years, sometimes more than once a day.
“Marijuana, for me, was like crack,” Cooper said after completing the rehabilitation program. “I would worry where my next high was coming from when I still had weed to get high.”
Cooper entered the Family Care Center program at York Place last fall, after her youngest child, now 8 months old, tested positive for marijuana exposure at birth. Cooper said she had smoked marijuana during her last pregnancy but had stopped during three previous pregnancies.
The alternative to being in the Family Care Center program, she said, was losing custody of her children.
York Place, founded by the Episcopal Church as an orphanage, later expanded to offer services for children who were victims of abuse and neglect. It is now a division of Thompson Child & Family Focus, a Charlotte, N.C.,-based provider of clinical and prevention services for children and families.
Cooper admits she was angry about having to enter the treatment program to keep her children, but now says it changed her life.
“I’ve learned how to be a parent again,” Cooper said. “I used to use marijuana to cope with everything. I’d just get high.
“I was not a very consistent mother when I came here. I was very passive.”
Cooper said she had lost parental rights to her two oldest children, now 4 and 5, because of her drug use when she and the children’s father divorced. She didn’t want to let that happen with her son, now 3, and her 8-month-old daughter.
The pilot treatment program, which can accommodate up to 10 mothers with their children, opened at the York campus in July 2013.
The program provides residential care for mothers in substance-abuse recovery, and family support for the children who live with them during treatment. The program also is intended to involve fathers.
Shelly Copeland, vice president of York Place, said the program offers up to six months of residential treatment. It has served seven mothers, and 14 children, since it opened.
Without the residential program, Copeland said, those children would have been removed from the home and placed with family members or the Department of Social Services.
Copeland said statistics show that substance abuse is the leading cause of family collapse.
In the Family Care program, mothers receive substance-abuse counseling through Keystone Substance Abuse Services in York County in Rock Hill. They also receive hands-on help with parenting skills, Copeland said, and other services including family therapy, life-skills training and case management.
Keystone has been offering gender-specific services for women since 1993, but it cannot house mothers and their children together for inpatient treatment.
The York program is the first of three planned South Carolina residential treatment programs; the others are in Greenville and Columbia.
The program is a collaboration of Thompson Child & Family Focus; the nonprofit Children Come First; Keystone; and three state agencies: DSS, the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation Department.
DSS helps identify families for the program.
Cooper, who grew up in Florida, said her parents used drugs when she was a child, and she first tried marijuana with her mother.
When she was 16, she said, her mother stopped using drugs and her parents separated. Cooper said she now lives with her mother, who has been an important part of her own recovery.
A few years after she started using marijuana, Cooper said, she also started using cocaine, which was easy to get. “All my friends did it,” she said. “As I got older, that was the group I was in.”
At 18, she married and moved from Florida to Alabama, where she abruptly quit using cocaine because it was hard to find. She said the marijuana use continued, however, and became more frequent.
Her husband of four years eventually joined the military and tried to get her to quit, with no success, she said.
“I was spending $200 a week on weed,” she said.
Cooper said the couple lived near her husband’s relatives, who sometimes helped with child care. She said she was often more interested in using drugs than in taking care of her children.
“I would just drop off the kids and go get high,” she said. “I didn’t care about anything but getting high. I didn’t want to care for my kids.”
When the marriage ended and Cooper lost rights to her two oldest children, she returned to Florida for a while and had a third child. Her mother left Florida and moved to York County, and in 2011 Cooper moved to Rock Hill to live with her.
Cooper said her desire to raise her children gave her the motivation to stop using drugs. “I started realizing it was about how much effort I wanted to put forward for my children,” she said.
When she first stopped using marijuana, she said, her need for the drug was so strong that she suffered from anxiety and nausea. “I was nervous, it was a lifestyle change,” she said. “I had to adjust.”
Cooper said the counseling from Keystone helped her learn how to deal with stress in ways other than “self medicating” by using drugs. She said she also learned about parenting skills and tactics like positive reinforcement, timeouts, keeping her children on a schedule and ways to deal with behavior issues.
“It’s made a major difference in my 3-year-old, a major difference behavior-wise,” she said. “He didn’t hit. He didn’t scream as much.”
“It’s brought us a lot closer,” she said.
Cooper said she’s now in a training program to become a certified nurse assistant, and she hopes to eventually get her surgical-tech license.
Her mother has supported her throughout her recovery, she said. “She has been really helpful. She was my only support system, besides here,” she said.
Cooper said the inpatient treatment program was critical to her success; she doesn’t believe she would have made it through outpatient treatment.
And she feels like her future has opportunity.
“I feel like there are possibilities, there’s room for growth,” she said. “I can handle stress better. And I can take care of my kids.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077