On a Thursday night in May 2015, Maureen Cavanagh received an emailed news alert from the local paper in her hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts. "Former Marblehead Honor Student Facing Prostitution Charges," she read. I wonder who that is, she thought, shocked. For four years, Cavanagh, then 52, taught special needs students in the district; her daughter, Kaitlin, had graduated from Marblehead's high school. There was a good chance she knew the student.
Cavanagh clicked on the piece. "Twenty-three-year-old Kaitlin Harvey was arrested last Wednesday after she negotiated a half-hour of sexual activity with an undercover detective," she read. Cavanagh couldn't quite process it. Kaitlin Harvey … that sounds familiar, she thought, her mind racing. Then: Oh my God. She gasped and pushed the phone to her boyfriend, Randy, hoping he would tell her she'd misread something — and that it wasn't her daughter who'd been arrested.
By this point, Cavanagh thought she'd seen the worst: Kaitlin, the third of Cavanagh's four children, had suffered from heroin addiction for five years, since her first year of college. She had been in rehab over 10 times. Cavanagh knew it was common for addicts, especially women, to fund their addiction through sex work, but she couldn't map that onto her own daughter. "Here I'm [still] looking at the 7-year-old I'm bringing to soccer practice," she remembers. "That was [when] the whole world came tumbling down. It was horrible before that, but this was the point of no return."
Kaitlin sent a statement to the paper after her arrest: "I'm really sorry to all my friends and family I've hurt through this nasty heroin addiction, and I hope one day I officially beat it," she wrote. "I would just like people to know addicts are good people who believe they need to do bad things because they don't deserve any better."
In the aftermath of the news, only one person from close-knit Marblehead, a tiny New England town with a storybook seaside quality, reached out to Cavanagh. No one, it seemed, understood what she and her daughter were going through. "There's this great meme that says, 'Here's a picture of all the casseroles I got when everyone found out about my daughter's substance abuse disorder,'" says Cavanagh. "And it's an empty table."
Cavanagh and her ex-husband, Kaitlin's father, weren't sure where to turn when they discovered their daughter's addiction in 2010. They started aimlessly Googling and calling their health insurance companies for advice. And over the next few years, out of necessity, Cavanagh built up a fount of knowledge about addiction and recovery. After Kaitlin's 2015 arrest, she had an epiphany: Why not channel what she'd learned into something productive? She knew there must be other parents in the same powerless position. Cavanagh — who'd earned a master's degree in non-profit management — had launched an organization in 2012 called Magnolia New Beginnings, to help homeless and jobless people get back on their feet. She decided to pivot Magnolia to create a support network for people like her — parents whose lives were overtaken by their child's addiction.
As the opioid crisis rages on, grim stories of death and tragedy have become commonplace. (During the same four-year span between the development of Kaitlin's addiction and her arrest, opioid-related deaths tripled in the the U.S. They now rank higher than gunshot and automobile-related deaths. The problem is particularly grave in Massachusetts; in 2016, opioid deaths in the state rose by a steep 16 percent from 2015.) But the ripple effect on addicts' families gets lost in the headlines. For tens of thousands of parents, the opioid epidemic has impacted their lives in ways they could never imagine. As their children battle substance abuse disorders, many parents hand their own lives over to the rollercoaster of addiction. They throw their energy into finding treatment centers, attending court dates, agonizing over whether to support or cut off their children, and helping their children reintegrate into their normal lives during recovery. They take in and raise their grandchildren. And like Cavanagh, they're looking for a place to empathize with others who've been through similar experiences.
That's where Magnolia New Beginnings comes in. In the two years since Cavanagh changed Magnolia's focus, more than 15,000 members have joined its now 30-plus Facebook chapters. About 90% of its members are women. The chapters are broken down by state — everywhere from Utah to West Virginia to Maine — and by topic. One group focuses on grieving for children who have overdosed; another is just for siblings of addicts. These Facebook pages provide family members with a therapeutic space to vent, but they also offer vital practical resources, like links to medical papers about addiction psychology, or information for a well-regarded rehab center.
Hundreds of grassroots support and recovery organizations have popped up across the U.S. in the wake of the worsening opioid crisis, and groups like Nar-Anon have existed for years. These are essential to the recovery community, but their sheer numbers — which include for-profit businesses prone to exploiting addicts and their families — can also muddle information and create more confusion for parents. Magnolia is different in that it fuses support and activism, but it also acts as a reliable compass for navigating these networks.
"I always say I'm like a traffic cop," Cavanagh explains. "I purposefully plant myself in a conspicuous place so that you can see me to ask for directions, and then when somebody pulls up and asks which way is the hospital, or treatment center, or the funeral home, or money, I can tell them. Everybody wants help; they just don't know it's available." She's easy to find online and spends her days fielding a never-ending stream of communication. And she has a reliable reputation: When someone needs to reach her, they know she'll pick up the phone or answer a text.
Michelle Curran, an Ohio-based Magnolia chapter leader who lost her daughter to an overdose last year and is now raising her daughter's son, says the community has been crucial. "If they weren't there to vent," she says, "I just don't know what state of mind I'd be in." After losing her daughter, she started frequenting the chapter for grandparents raising kids of addicts. The support she's found through Magnolia is "a lot more comforting than even my mom is," Curran says. "She isn't dealing with the loss of a child. I have extremely close friends I've never met face to face — each knows exactly what you're going through." The grandparents' group understands the layers of exhaustion and financial stress on top of the sheer grief of losing a kid, Curran says. "It's been a huge financial adjustment. I haven't put a child in daycare in 20 years; the prices have gone up."
One of Magnolia's main goals is to guide addicts toward sober living houses — a vital and often-overlooked step in the recovery process that comes after rehab and usually isn't covered by insurance. Last year, Magnolia raised $60,000 for sober living housing scholarships through fundraising. (Cavanagh doesn't receive a salary from Magnolia; she recently started a job consulting for Recovery Centers of America.) One of these scholarships was started by Marion Tina, a Boston local who met Cavanagh just after Kaitlin's arrest. Cavanagh had been "all frazzled, really upset," Tina remembers. Tina asked if she could give Cavanagh a hug, and the two forged a friendship.
A year after Kaitlin's arrest, in April 2016, Tina's son Brian was kicked out of a halfway house on a Friday night. He came home to Tina's house, who said that she'd find him somewhere to go on Monday, when more recovery centers were up and running, then wished him goodnight. When Tina woke up the next day, she found Brian cold in his bed. He'd gone out for drugs and overdosed while Tina was asleep. Before she even called the ambulance, Tina reached out to a few Magnolia friends. She knew they would understand and could help with the grueling task of calling the state police without judging her.
One Monday in March, I visited Cavanagh, who has soft features and a mild manner with an undercurrent of toughness. After waking up at her usual time of 5:30 a.m., she checked her phone to find a text from T., a young woman who'd heard about Cavanagh through her mother. T. wanted to get clean, she said. Cavanagh immediately looked up an online database of Massachusetts' drug and alcohol detox centers and sent over the list. No response. For the rest of the morning, Cavanagh's phone buzzed nonstop. "You should see how I have names stored in my phone: 'Bobby in sober living' … 'So-and-so in detox ... '" she said, glancing down at a stream of fresh texts.
It's often easier for young addicts like T. to speak with Cavanagh instead of their own families. Magnolia's Facebook groups are for parents, but those parents often refer their children directly to Cavanagh. "A lot of these kids have been made to leave their homes," Cavanagh says. "There's a lot of resentment to work through. I'm not judging them. I can pretty much say anything, and there's no backstory there." Her strategy has always been to meet young people "wherever they are," she says — to let them know that when they're ready to get help, they have somewhere to turn.
While her life can feel like playing Whac-a-Mole with one of the deadliest public health crises in recent history, Cavanagh's work has paid off in profound ways. Magnolia member Michelle Decelle lives 40 miles south of Cavanagh. In 2016, when Decelle's daughter Sammy suffered an overdose, Decelle ran into a barricade of problems that prevented Sammy from getting a bed in a quality rehab center. Decelle saw Cavanagh's name on addiction-related Facebook pages and reached out. "Maureen dropped everything to help," says Decelle. "Within 15 minutes, she was ing people." Cavanagh put Decelle in touch with a program called Awakenings, and Sammy entered treatment that day. This February, Sammy celebrated a year of sobriety.
"With addiction, all of us are winging it," says Decelle. "It's one mother or father helping another. If it wasn't for Cavanagh, my daughter probably would have ended up in the wrong place."
Stories like these pile up. One evening last year, Cavanagh showed up to a local vigil for mothers who'd lost children to addiction. She wound up standing next to a woman whose son had overdosed; they struck up a conversation. "I just wish there was someone who could help my other son, Kyle, " the woman told Cavanagh, recounting that Kyle had been in and out of prison and struggled with an opioid problem for many years. Cavanagh suggested Kyle call her. He reached out the next day, and Cavanagh set about finding him treatment in Massachusetts. Today she talks to Kyle almost every week, and recently took him to the 30-years-clean ceremony of one of her Magnolia board members. "She's very business-like. She doesn't sugarcoat things, but she doesn't talk negative either," Kyle says of his relationship with Cavanagh. "She's just ... comfortable. "
Cavanagh has lost track of the number of parents and addicted children she's helped. Yet sometimes it feels as if she is unable to help her own daughter. "A lot of people who have lost children say, 'If I had only known about Magnolia … '" Cavanagh says. "I always tell them, I'm doing it — and my daughter still isn't there yet." If there's anything Cavanagh has learned through her work, it's the speed and power of this crisis, in part due to the potency of the substances involved. "[Addicts] don't even have a chance to hit bottom," she says. "They're dying first. It almost feels like this race to get people well."
On that day in March, while Cavanagh fields phone calls, emails and texts from addicted kids, parents, treatment centers and police, she's also trying to find a rehab placement for Kaitlin. It's been about two years since Kaitlin's arrest. The 25-year-old has now been in rehab more than 25 times, and has just relapsed again. Their insurance has run out — there's a cap on how many times someone can enter rehab in a short window — so Cavanagh foots the bill herself. Over the phone, she assures the treatment center that the money will come through shortly. Then she calls her credit card company to get an extension on her credit line.
"It's been a nightmare, the last couple of weeks," she says. Cavanagh's tough shield is softer today. She's rarely fazed by the tragedies she's exposed to on a routine basis — "If I get all upset and emotional, I can't help anybody," she says — but when her daughter is suffering, it's harder to stay calm. "Once something with Kaitlin goes wrong, everything falls to shit," she says. "I forget everything. I stood somebody up the other day. They were meeting me for dinner, and I'm sitting in my driveway thinking, I know I have to do something tonight. Usually I'm organized, but not when there's something wrong with Kaitlin."
About 15 hours after her wake-up call, Cavanagh finished her day with a speech at a recovery event in Boston. Earlier that afternoon, T. finally texted; they'd been trading texts all evening. "I can't live without this feeling," T. said. Cavanagh checked in with her every half or so, and gently explained that she wouldn't engage with her while she was high. "But get in touch when you're ready," Cavanagh wrote.
Given Kaitlin's latest relapse, the stakes felt a bit higher, as though she was talking to her daughter through T. Kaitlin "doesn't have a whole lot of relapses left in her, to be honest," Cavanagh admitted on the ride home. Still, the day felt triumphant — Kaitlin had made it into a good rehab center, and sounded happy on the phone. (In the following months, Kaitlin would leave rehab and continue to spiral; Cavanagh would have her arrested and court-ordered into treatment. Eventually, Kaitlin got clean again.)
It's easy to imagine that constant exposure to others' trauma would be draining for Cavanagh. And her work is exhausting, but it's also a necessary salve. Many of Magnolia's members join not only to help their children — but because they can't help them. "This is so painful that I have to turn it into something good," Tina says of her life after Brian's death.
For her part, Cavanagh chooses to devote her mental energy to the children who recover. "I see people that you never would've thought would've made it in a million years," she says. "And now they're amazing. It gives me hope [for Kaitlin]. It reminds me that it's possible. No matter how bad things look."