My mom has been addicted to heroin since I was 8. Her addiction has defined my life.

By Larissa McDonald
as told to Brittany Hailer

April 19, 2018

Larissa McDonald. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Part of the PublicSource series

The Fix

Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
About this series.

If I want to see my mom or talk to her, I have to find her. She doesn’t come to me. Mostly when I see her, I’m driving past and she’s just standing on the street with people. I don’t like it. It hurts because, if she can be with other people, why can’t she be with me?

Why can’t she just call to see how I am doing? Usually when she calls, it's to ask for something. It’s not ever to see how I am doing. I feel like the parent. I am 15 years old. My mom started using heroin when I was 8 or 9.

I would tell a younger me, “Don’t blame yourself because it’s not your fault. And don’t try to help her. You can try to be there for her and pray for her, but she’s not going to change unless she wants to do it herself. Don’t try to do everything you can for her because she doesn’t even want it.”

Read an essay by Larissa's mother, Lynann Michelessi:
I’m a recovering drug addict, and my daughters need me

It’s coming out mean, but I’m not trying to be mean. It took me a long time to get there. And I am still not all the way there. She asks me for money, and I can’t say ‘No.’ She says, “I’m hungry.” It’s my mom. I want to help her.

I have told her, “I don’t want to give you money to support your habit.” And she has told me, “It’s for Suboxone so I can get off the drugs.” But I don’t believe her. That’s an excuse she says a lot.

I don’t think she realizes what she’s putting me through. I wouldn’t be depressed if she didn’t do these things. If I hadn’t witnessed what I’ve witnessed, mom stealing my toys, mom trying to kill herself, mom nodding out on the couch again and again, I’d be happier than I am now.

She was always leaving back then, always leaving with bags. She’d use pap’s car and take me. She’d steal so much stuff with me. I’d wait in the car. Then she would drop me off at home and disappear. When she came back home, she’d lock herself in the bathroom for hours. She’d come out and sit on the couch and doze off or sway back and forth.

(Left to right) Lynann Michelessi puts a necklace containing her mother's ashes on her daughter, Larissa McDonald. Larissa spends some of her free time writing songs; she finds journaling and writing therapeutic (Photos by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

"I don’t think she realizes what she’s putting me through. I wouldn’t be depressed if she didn’t do these things."

Once, my mom overdosed and they brought her back. She tried to kill herself.

She didn’t know I didn’t have school the next day. I went into her room to wake her up. She’d been sleeping all day, which was a normal thing. There was stuff coming out of her mouth, and I got scared. My pap came running up the steps, but said it was just slobber and he went to work. She was moving and breathing, so we thought she was fine.

My grandmother went in later to wake her up again. She had actual foam coming out of her mouth. It was bad. Her eyes were rolling into the back of her head. The ambulance came.

After they took her, I went into her room and there was a letter on the TV stand. I started reading it and it said, “I can’t do it no more. I don’t wanna be here. I’m not good enough.”

I never witnessed an overdose where someone died but I saw that. I was 10. That’s when I started therapy. I didn’t really understand it. Pap told me she didn’t want to wake up.

When I got older, I asked about it again because I remembered it. I have anxiety and depression. And I have PTSD, from losing my grandma in April 2015. She had a heart attack in her sleep. She went to bed and never woke up again. Like my mom wanted to.

I feel as if mom chose drugs over me, over everything she had.

I wish my mom would say she’s sorry. But there’s nothing she really can say, because I won’t believe her. What she can do is she can get better. She can get her life together so I can be with her and my sister. She’s 9. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening.

‘Are we ever…’

Before we moved to Sheraden in northwest Pittsburgh, it wasn’t as bad. We would play Barbies. Mom had a car. She had a job. Once we moved there, everything stopped. She was sleeping all the time. When she wasn’t sleeping, she wouldn’t be home. I’d walk in on her falling over or she would hurry up and hide something.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, and she’d be in my room scraping the wall.

I would say, “What are you doing?”

And she’d say, “I’m almost done.”

She was high.

I didn’t know what that was then. When I turned 12, I started to realize what it was.

Larissa McDonald, a ninth-grader, at the West End Overlook. She spent much of her childhood in the neighborhood. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

She got thrown out of our house a couple times. My grandmother would make her leave because she would steal my toys to get money. And she would steal from grandma and pap, too. At first, I didn’t understand why they made her leave but after awhile, I thought, OK, she has to go.

My sister has the same relationship I have with her.

When my grandmother was alive, my sister would ask, “Why can’t mummy come here? Why is mummy outside?” Back then, my grandmother wouldn’t try to explain because my sister was too little. She would tell her, “Mummy wants to be outside. It’s nice out.” Or if mom was in a rehab program, I would tell her, “Mummy is at the doctor’s.” Or, “She lives in an apartment with other people.” She asks me, “Are we ever gonna live with mummy again? Are we ever gonna live together again, Riss?”

And I tell her, “I hope so. Let mummy get better. Mummy is sick.”

My sister knows now that mom is doing stuff she shouldn’t be. I look at my sister like she’s my mine. I took care of her. When my mom was messed up, I was the one who woke up with her. I did the things my mom should’ve done.

‘Things got harder’

After my grandmother died three years ago, my world came crashing down. My pap started using. He was so against it before. He would throw mom out. He would say, “I don’t understand how she can choose drugs over her family.” And then he went down the same road.

The house got bad. The water got shut off. My pap would leave me home alone, and there would be people banging on the door at 3 in the morning. He owed them money, and he wasn’t there. People were always in and out of the house.

So I left for a little while but came back again. Pap had gotten clean, and my cousin lived there with me. Mom was arrested here while I was home. Five cops showed up and they made us all stand in the living room. They made me get my mom’s clothes for her. I just cried and cried. Now she’s in a program. I hope it helps. She’s been there more times than I can count.

Listen to a letter Larissa wrote to her mother, Lynann.

After mom went into her program, things got harder. I bounced from house to house again. I eventually ended up in a foster home. Three days before this past Christmas, two people overdosed in the basement of my foster home. I had to give one of them CPR. I saved his life.

I called my mom at her program. She said I had to leave. Now, the Office of Children, Youth and Families is involved. I moved in with my grandmother’s sister. She looks and talks just like my grandma. Once, she woke me up from a nap and I thought it was my grandmother. I burst into tears. I miss her so much.

After my grandmother died, I know it sounds silly, but Justin Bieber helped me get through it. He has a song called “Life is Worth Living.” It’s my go-to song for when things are bad.

I think my mom’s made progress. I think I’ve found a home. And then we’re back at the beginning again.

Larissa McDonald finds solace in Justin Bieber's pop music. She sees his presence in her life as more constant than that of some relatives. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

I used to write songs. Not much anymore. I can play the violin and the clarinet. When I am sad, I like to sing. I’m always singing. I was in the school talent show, too.

Last year, I went to a Justin Bieber concert, he said he’s “always going to be here, no matter what.” A lot of people have said that to me, but they’ve always left. I’ve been following him since 2009. He’s never left me. My grandmother was the only person I had, but she left, too.

I want to be successful. I don’t want to have to ask anyone for anything. I don’t want to be like my mom. I’m not going to go down the wrong path. I am going to do what my grandmother wanted me to do: help other people. And when I have kids, I won’t put them through what I went through. I want them to have a better life than I did.

I know that other people go through this.

It’s hard. And I’m not going to say I’m OK because I’m not.

But just knowing mom is still alive makes me feel better.

Larissa McDonald is a Pittsburgh resident who is in ninth grade. She finds joy in singing and coloring.

This story was fact-checked by Lindsay Patross.

Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.

Web design and development by Natasha Khan.

This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.

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