A song within the storm

Sarah Womack is a mother and an addict. When her identities collided, she was forced to choose one and she's fighting to hold on to motherhood.

Story by Brittany Hailer · Photos by Maranie Staab

"The hardest part is when she says, 'Mommy, I don’t want you to leave,'” Sarah Womack said as a visit ends with her daughter, Lola. The 3-year-old has been staying with her aunt and uncle since Oct. 3, 2015.


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

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Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Jason Toombs finds his voice while writing a novel and love letters from jail

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Meet Sarah

Sarah Womack stands in the center of her daughter’s pink room and explains why she had to take the frame off the bed and leave the mattress on the floor. After the Office of Children, Youth and Families inspected her home, the agency claimed that a bed with a frame would make a room seem too much like a bedroom and a bedroom would make things “too confusing” for Sarah’s daughter, Lola. The mattress on the floor makes Lola’s room a playroom instead.

Lola lives with her great aunt and uncle. That is her home. Not with Sarah. Not yet.

Sarah Womack is an addict as well as a mother. I listened to her story for three hours. We cried together as she detailed her years of drug abuse: an ex-drug dealer and lover holding a screwdriver to her temple and threatening to drill; Sarah weighing in at 86 pounds when she is finally arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for parole violations.

Listen to Sarah's story on 90.5 WESA

Her experiences in the American penal system were harrowing. And plentiful. She says her inmate history started as soon as she was old enough to be arrested as an adult. In Virginia, where she lived as a teenager, she says a county jail corrections officer strapped her naked to a chair for six hours, wheeling her over a hole in the floor to urinate and hosing her down after. And now, Sarah is fighting again, trying to prove to the Office of Children Youth and Families that she deserves to keep her daughter.

Sarah, 38, gave me a tour of her home, showing me Lola’s ‘playroom’ and the collection of owls she keeps in her bedroom: “They remind me of Lola because she has those big brown eyes. She looks like a little owl.” The two people who Lola calls Papa and Nana, who live 2 miles from Sarah, will change Lola’s name if the court decides they may permanently adopt her. Sarah would have to forfeit her rights as a mother.

Sarah’s last court hearing was Jan. 20, 2017. She is still waiting for the judge’s ruling.

Sarah Womack stands in a room in her Greentree home that she has decorated for her daughter, Lola, on Jan. 10, 2017. Womack will find out in the next several weeks whether or not she will be granted full custody of Lola.

"The hardest part is when she says, 'Mommy, I don’t want you to leave,'” Sarah Womack said as a visit ends with her daughter, Lola. The 3-year-old has been staying with her aunt and uncle since Oct. 3, 2015.

I may lose my daughter right now. I may lose her and the way that I deal with it every day is that—all the fear of possibly losing her, all the pain of not having her with me all the time, is for a reason. There’s a purpose.
I compare my situation to other women. Why is this woman with a needle in her arm sitting there with all her children? While I am sitting here eight months clean and I have to have a supervised visit with my child? I draw those comparisons all the time.
I choose not to believe that I will lose custody of my daughter.
I choose to believe that all this hell I am going through has an ending that is good.

Losing Lola

If you google Sarah Womack, a News 11 article will pop up describing her 2013 arrest that catapulted her journey for Lola’s custody. Sarah, then 35, was arrested for public intoxication; she says she was under the influence of Xanax and methadone, the latter of which was prescribed to her to curb her addiction to heroin.

News 11 reports that “customers also noticed her behavior, telling police she nearly dropped her daughter and bumped the child’s head on a counter.” The court dismissed the child endangerment charge after it reviewed surveillance footage and discovered Sarah never took Lola out of her stroller. The child was not harmed.

The police showed up and literally ripped my baby out of her stroller. They took her one way and took me to the back of the store.
They wouldn’t tell me who had her, where she was going, what was going to happen. All I knew was that my 4-month-old baby was taken.
I was outraged. I was freaking out.
I may lose my daughter right now.
They threw me into a single holding cell by myself.
I’m crying. I’m scared. I keep pounding on the door asking for someone to tell me: Where is my child? Where is my child? Can somebody tell me where my baby is? Can somebody tell me what is going on?
And the guard came up to my cell and I thought, 'Oh, thank God. They’re finally going to tell me what’s going on.'
And she said: What’s your baby’s name again?
And I said: Lola
And she goes: Huh, that’s funny, I am about to adopt a Lola.
And then slammed the door back closed.
That’s the way I got treated.
I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I literally sat at the window. The window is about 5 inches wide, and it overlooked the river. And I’d watch the moon start from one end of the river and go to the other end of the river. All night long.
I would sit there and picture my child’s face and watch the moon.

Text in italics are Sarah's words.

Sarah Womack displays photos of her daughter, Lola, as an infant in the room she has prepared for the 3-year-old in her Greentree home.

Finally, Sarah gets in touch with her mother. She tells Sarah that Lola’s father’s family has Lola in their custody. After eight days in jail, Sarah goes to Sojourner House, a rehabilitation facility for addicted mothers. She gets off drugs and gets Lola back four months later in December 2013.

I was clean 14 months. I had her back 10.
I relapsed. But I didn’t lose her then.
I relapsed on alcohol and I asked for help immediately.

Two months later Sarah will relapse on alcohol again, and she will reach out to Lola’s great aunt and great uncle for help again. And while this is disappointing, Sarah maintains that this is growth.

Before [I] would have drank until I got caught. Until a force greater than myself stopped me.

Lola’s great aunt and uncle file a protective custody order against Sarah.

I reached out to them for help.
Why would you take someone from their mother?

Sarah decides after her second relapse and after the protective custody order that she needs long-term care. She checks herself into rehab and gets Lola back in her full custody. After completing treatment, Sarah moves to a homeless shelter. Sarah describes the conditions as “dirty” and “horrible.”

My Scar

A poem by Sarah Womack

Passing the plates to three customers sitting at my booth, I hope they don’t notice the thick layers of Maybelline concealer and pressed powder slowly melting away from the sweat on the inside of my arm. I wish my uniform was long-sleeved. I wish this was easier to hide. I wish that every single time I have to reapply globs and layers of makeup I wasn’t reminded of the seatbelt in my beat-up Subaru wrapped tightly around my bicep, furiously trying to switch gears as I drive.
I need that hand on the gear shift to deliver the shot that will take the pain and make me feel human. I wish I wasn’t reminded of burning the tip of my needle to melt the unrelenting wax used in those pills to prevent abuse by others like me. I wish all those times I hadn’t been so sick that I didn’t bother to wipe away the black soot that has tattooed my track marks like black ink.
I would sit there and picture my child’s face and watch the moon.

She tells me that women were abusive to their children, which made her uncomfortable. After another child strikes Lola across the face, she decides to leave and move in with a friend who lives in Brookline and has “CYF Clearance.”

A woman from the Children Youth and Families [CYF] office calls Sarah:

Court order says that you were to stay in Washington County until you found supported housing. So you breached the court order, so we're coming to take Lola again.
I convinced myself that they’ll give her right back to me.

She follows the CYF van to Mercy Hospital because Lola needs an “exit physical.” When CYF takes Lola, Sarah tells her:

You’re going over to Papa and Nana’s house. I’ll see you tomorrow.
They pulled away and I lost it. I went to the bar.

Sarah blacks out. She wakes up in jail.

It didn't matter that I went to the emergency shelter hearing. It didn’t matter that I had been clean 10 months when they took her. Because all that mattered was that I got drunk after they took her. At that point in my life, I hadn’t done enough work on myself to prevent that kind of reaction.
I didn’t know how to deal with that deep of a pain. So they didn’t give her back.

Sarah has been trying to get Lola back since September 2015.

A Voice

The first time I met Sarah Womack, I was a graduate student at Chatham University. I’d volunteered to observe a creative writing class at Sojourner House in East Liberty. Chatham University’s social justice program Words Without Walls sends students and faculty members to Sojourner House every semester to teach poetry and nonfiction to its residents. I shadowed the class for several semesters before being hired as an instructor.

But when I met Sarah, I was 23 years old and terrified. I sat on the outskirts of the classroom, my hands shaking. These women were addicts and junkies, broken mothers who were in and out of jail. Women who had lived a life I’d never understand. I was afraid they’d see me as weak and privileged.

But I kept coming back.

In the past 15 months, as part of a court-approved reunification process, Sarah Womack has had several visits per week with her daughter, Lola Aniuk. During these visits, Womack and Lola have shared many of Lola’s “firsts” together, including her first time roller skating, bowling and visiting both the Carnegie Science Center and the Children’s Museum.

There was something electric about the art these women were making. Poems about motherhood while in prison. Essays detailing the horrors of heroin addiction. I wrote with them. I listened to their stories.

One day, before class started, Sarah turned around and faced me, “I am happy to see you here again! Thank you for coming. I look forward to this class all week. What you guys do means a lot.”

She was the first student to ever acknowledge my presence. She was beaming, her big blue eyes meeting mine. I muttered a “Thank you.”

I never forgot her.

And when PublicSource asked me to head this project, Sarah was the first person I thought to interview. She had recently been accepted into Chatham University’s Maenad Fellowship Program, a 12-week creative writing course for women in recovery. Sarah was ecstatic about her acceptance telling me, “I think my purpose in life is to tell stories.”

Sarah is now eight months clean. She engages with a private therapist once a week, works part time and takes classes at Chatham University. She tells me, “I am very committed to my recovery and relapse prevention. I want to lead by example for my children and display a healthy, productive, drug-free lifestyle.”

I thought that the love I would have for my daughter would be so strong that it would cure me of all the things that were wrong with me. And it’s really, really devastating when you figure out that addiction is stronger than the love for your child. That is a hard pill to swallow.
The disease of addiction had convinced me that it won’t have an effect on my child, but it does.
That was a hard thing for me to accept ... I thought, ‘Do I not love her enough? Why do I keep making bad choices?’ But there’s no one on this planet that I love more than her. Look at what she’s done—what I was before and what I am now is largely because of her, but she cannot cure my addiction. She’s not the cure. She’s my motivation. But she can’t take [the addiction] away from me and that was unfair for me to even think.
I do stand up and fight for myself. I do have a voice. There are so many women who get ran over. They don’t know where to go. They would have given up. ‘Save yourself the heartache and the problems because you’re going to lose her anyway,’ I’ve been told.
And the stress. The character assassination ... Women just give up because they don’t know what to do. And I refuse to give up.
I believe I am supposed to give back to other women. I’ve always felt like it’s been me against everybody. There’s something that I have to give. All of this hell hasn’t been for no reason. There’s a song within the storm. There’s a purpose behind it all. It helps me get through it.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.

PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.