Ted & Colleen

Ted & Colleen

Colleen and Ted with sons Teddy, left, and Peter in 2012, before the birth of Josie.

Defying Addiction | Summer 2012 Spotlight | photo by Brownie Harris |

UPDATE: Colleen was the featured speaker at Wilmington’s Epicurean Evening 2012. Read her comments. |

“Colleen, I met your boys. They are just so darling. If they can’t keep you sober, I don’t know what can.”

Perhaps the guardian ad litem said this to motivate Colleen. Maybe she wanted to challenge the young mother to finally beat her long-running battle with drug and alcohol addiction. But what Colleen heard that day in August 2010 was condemnation—more judgment, spoken before by disappointed social workers, family members and her own aching conscience when she’d made a mistake. And she’d made a lot of mistakes in recent years.

From all appearances, Colleen and Ted once led a charmed life with two beautiful children, successful careers, a 4,000-square-foot home in Wilmington. Colleen came from a wealthy family; she had a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Georgetown University. Ted was a general contractor with success in a side business, affiliate marketing. But none of that, including the children they loved dearly, could keep them sober. Both were tending addictions that ruined their lives. By the time the boys’ guardian ad litem stepped in, the couple had lost it all: custody of their children, freedom, careers, family relationships, self-respect, home and possessions.

It would take a higher power, a web of support and lots of work through Methodist Home for Children to heal their family and to reveal what was missing from their lives. Colleen and Ted now share their story with hearts grateful for God’s forgiveness and the chance to pay forward their blessings.

Colleen hit rock bottom in October 2010. Her boys, 3 and 4 years old, were in foster care for the second time. Her husband was in prison. She had attempted suicide. A drug dealer was living in her home and beating her. She was getting high almost daily and selling everything she owned—tools, jewelry, the kids’ beds—to support her addiction. “In those situations, maybe some people rush to get better,” she says. “But I just crashed even worse.”

She had struggled with addiction before—relapsing, then sobering up through 12-step programs—but this time was different. Everything fell apart in a matter of months. She started abusing amphetamines, convinced she needed them to function as a mother, wife and top-billing case manager at a human services agency. With stimulants and alcohol, she thought she could outrun a busy schedule and a persistent emptiness that stole all the joy from her life, but she was never far ahead of her problems.

In March 2010 Colleen forged a prescription for Adderall on a pad stolen from work, and she got caught. She was arrested, fired from her job and barred from working in the human services industry. Depressed and shamed, anxious about quitting a drug she thought she needed to survive, she was referred for a psychiatric evaluation. A doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and prescribed Geodon. “I didn’t want to live anymore,” she says. “I didn’t believe in myself and I didn’t think anybody else did. I thought there was no hope.”

On the night of May 24, 2010, Colleen swallowed an entire bottle of prescribed antipsychotics and collapsed on the bathroom floor in front of Ted. Her breathing stopped as her frantic husband called 911, but he could do little to help that night—or any night before. At his worst, when the boys were babies, Ted would disappear for days at a time; he’d accumulated multiple DWI charges. He and Colleen had both gotten sober after losing custody once in 2008, but they relapsed after the children came home, and both had been drinking the night she collapsed. While an EMS crew took Colleen to the hospital, Ted piled sleeping boys into the family car and drove them to a friend’s house before heading to the emergency room.

Colleen woke up in the hospital the next day with her arms restrained and a breathing tube in her throat. She learned then that her boys were going back into foster care. A month later, she learned that Ted was going to prison for driving without a license the night she was hospitalized—a violation of probation for an earlier DWI.

In prison, hundreds of miles from home, Ted reeled at the losses in his life. He was stripped of everything he cared about. “I firmly believe that God removes anything that is keeping you from Him,” he says. “It was the money. My freedom. Our children. Our marriage. He took everything away from me. I was alone and gone.”

Ted had seldom done it before, but he began to pray—and the prayers electrified him. He joined a discipleship ministry in prison. He taught other inmates to read. He “prayed like a madman” for Colleen, writing letters begging her to turn to God and sending people to talk to her.

But Colleen would have none of it. “I was angry,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry we can’t all go to prison and find Jesus. Leave me alone. I’m angry that you left me.’ ” She was resentful and numb, unable to think about her children when the prospect of getting them back seemed impossible. She attended some 12-step meetings, trying to get better, but wound up instead connecting with a drug dealer who moved into her home. “I was doing drugs every day. I got high in the bathroom. I pretty much lost everything we had.”

It was inexplicable, she says, what she was doing. It was incomprehensible. But it was, finally, the rock bottom. By October, exhausted and disgusted, she found the courage to evict the drug dealer and look for help.

Help came to Colleen from two unexpected sources: A neighbor she barely knew and a Methodist Home for Children social worker she didn’t trust, at least not initially.

The neighbor knew Colleen was struggling and facing eviction, and she recommended a church that might help with free groceries. She introduced Colleen to Global River Church and, through its pastor, to a Christian-based 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery. “When I first met with Pastor Mike [Satorre], I spilled all this stuff I had done,” Colleen says. “I poured my heart out to him and he just sort of stared at me and said, ‘Jesus died on the cross for all that. That’s not who you are. That’s done. Your slate is wiped clean. What are you going to do now?’ ”

Colleen had been raised Catholic by church-going parents, but she hadn’t grasped the power of forgiveness until that moment. “I’d never heard that Jesus died on a cross for us, to save us from our sins. I didn’t really know why he died. I thought maybe to make us feel guilty. I had always thought that God picked certain people to help out, and it wasn’t going to be me because I had messed up too many times.”

The idea that God would help her—that she was worth saving—transformed Colleen. She dove into the Global River Church community and its Celebrate Recovery program, finding hope and comfort that she hadn’t known before. But getting her children back a second time would not be so easy. For that, she needed the help of Kelly Campbell, a licensed clinical social worker and Methodist Home for Children’s program coordinator in New Hanover County.

Kelly and Colleen were paired in October 2010 through a program called Families In Recovery Staying Together. The Department of Social Services contracted with MHC to counsel families in crisis so that children could be safely reunited with their parents. At the outset, Colleen says, she wasn’t sure she could trust a social worker who’d reported her progress to DSS. But Kelly showed her she could.

“You want to start where the client is,” Kelly says. “And what kept Colleen going each day was her faith—her early faith as a new believer. So she started and it grew from there.”

For 10 months, sometimes twice a week, Colleen excised painful layers of her life and tried to make sense of her self-destructive ways. She worked without flinching, even the days she was barely hanging on, and she began to find peace in her sessions with Kelly. “Kelly was truly one of the first people who believed in me, and she made me feel like there was hope for a new life,” Colleen says. “I would be in a million different directions, wanting to clean up my mess all at once, and she would calm me down and get me on track.

“For a long time I couldn’t even communicate with people, and Kelly would give me the words to speak.”

When Ted was released from prison in January 2011, he and Colleen started a new life together focused on faith and family.

“I think having a faith-based agency involved when Colleen was new in her faith—and she and Ted were new in their faith together—that was not an accident,” Kelly says. “That was God’s work. So that was really cool to see it play out, to see what happens with the power of prayer. So many people were praying for her and for them.”

In July 2011, those prayers were answered when Teddy and Peter came home. They’d been gone 14 months.

It’s true what the guardian ad litem said about the boys. They are darling. Blue-eyed, brunette and freckle-spattered, they tumble and talk all over each other. They love Batman and other superheroes. Teddy, 6, likes to draw and he resolved for the New Year to improve with practice. He also wants to learn how to do a cartwheel and a backflip. Peter, 4, is a natural athlete, great at anything requiring a ball, club or bat, and he enjoys drawing dinosaurs, “rock stars and fancy persons.”

Between the two of them, the boys can recite the six “Family Rules”—some more than once:

“Obey without arguing.”
“Love God and love others.”
“Clean up after yourself. That’s No. 6.”
“Respect people, animals and things.”
“Love others.”
“Be kind to … dogs.”
“Be honest.”
“Speak kindly and in a pleasant voice.”

In the throes of her addiction and depression, Colleen had been unable to enjoy time with her children. “I felt like a bad mother. I felt like, I see these other mothers and they look so happy. How come my children can’t make me happy?” Today, she says, as much as she loves her family, she realizes she won’t be a good mother or wife—or have the strength to stay sober—without her relationship with God. “I realized that the periods of sobriety I had in the past were dry periods. I took away the drugs and alcohol, but never filled it with anything.”

Faith is what makes this recovery different, she says, and paying forward the blessings in her life will keep her focused.

“God doesn’t waste a hurt. I went through all of this for a reason. I know that God will use my testimony to save someone else’s life. I believe that if you want to show someone what God will do for them, then let them see what He has done for you.”

Colleen and Ted attend Celebrate Recovery meetings twice a week and, as trained leaders, plan the Thursday worship ministry together. They volunteer in their boys’ classrooms, teach Sunday school and help other families in crisis through their church, Grace Harbor. Colleen is studying to be a paralegal and Ted has a computer repair business, but they still have difficult work ahead, not the least of which is making amends with family members who may doubt their staying power.

“It’s so hard to put into words how much different it is right now because we’re basing our recovery on God,” Colleen says. “Right now, after everything He’s done for us, if I picked up a drink I feel like God would be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Literally, that’s how I picture it. I don’t want to lose everything we’ve gotten. I don’t want to disappoint Him. I know that I would be forgiven but I don’t even want to go there. I’ve seen the light and I don’t want to turn away from it.”

On the Case: Kelly Campbell, a licensed clinical social worker, is program coordinator for MHC’s in-home services in New Hanover County. Kelly worked with Colleen to manage her addiction issues, to fulfill the requirements of regaining custody and to resume parenting after the boys’ 14-month absence.

Helping Families Succeed: Ted and Colleen benefited from in-home services for parents whose substance-abuse problems have caused them to lose custody. The goal is to stabilize the home so that children can return safely. Other MHC in-home services include family preservation for parents who are at imminent risk of losing their children due to neglect, a problem often rooted in substance abuse.

These programs focus on the children’s best interests and work to correct family problems with counseling and support. Research shows children fare better academically and socially when they can be successfully reunited with parents rather than placed into long-term foster care.