Former Heroin Addict Finally A ‘Mom’


Written by Diane Torian Keaggy
St. Louis Post Dispatch
Saturday, Nov. 08 2008


There are no do-overs for Cynthia Stevenson-Johnson.  She can’t return the clothes she the or keep her sons out of jail.  And the 26 years she was high on heroin—they’re gone forever.  But after a stint in prison, Stevenson-Johnson is back in her kids’ lives.

“I walk to the walk now and do all of the things a healthy parent would do,” Cynthia said. “I listen to them now. I don’t try to demand my way in their life, I try to earn my way in their life as a mother. We have family functions where I’m not stoned and out of my mind and thinking they don’t know.”

Cynthia cares for one son who was paralyzed in a gang shooting. Another son, a cancer victim who also is paralyzed, will return home when he is released from prison next year. Her other children also know they can lean on her.

“Today they call me mom,” Cynthia said. “My husband used to ask, ‘Why do they call you Cynthia?’ Because my mother was mama. But now I’m the mom.”

When did you start using drugs?

I was 15 years old when I had my first son, and by the time I was 18, I had two other children. My third child, his father was the one who introduced me to drugs. I had two other children by the time I was 25. I would say I was a functioning addict because we always had a place to stay and I got my kids off to school in decent clothes because I shoplifted all of my life. They had the clothes, but they didn’t have me. My parenting skills were so poor. It was almost as if I felt guilty telling them what to do. My kids started getting into trouble — stealing. My son went to jail at 16 for a stolen car, my other
son joined a gang. I didn’t understand why they were acting like this not realizing — why wouldn’t they?

You went to prison at 45 for shoplifting. What was that like?

I had my last drug Nov. 12, 1994, and that’s when I got to prison, thank God for that. I was there eight months and long-term treatment for 10 months. I made up my mind I was not going to use again. I got out of treatment and had to stay with one of my sons and came here to Let’s Start. That’s when I started to share my story and talk to people. The volunteers here who had children helped me become a better parent. And I’m still learning.

How did you make up for those years of neglect?

I didn’t try to make up for it. My first step was to work out my shame and guilt. In treatment they say we make amends, but what I took from society I could never give back. So my way of giving back is my work here helping mothers so they don’t make the mistakes I made. I always say, “I went to prison for you. I went through the courts for you. You don’t have to go through what me and my children encountered.”

I also share my story with people who can make a difference like our legislators. I tell them, “Society wrote me off, but today I’m a productive taxpayer.” Don’t get me wrong, some people belong in prison. But nonviolent offenders, mothers who commit these petty crimes and don’t get treatment — it just creates a cycle that repeats itself.

What is your relationship like with your children?

Sometimes I get stuck and don’t know what to say to my kids. My daughter and I can sit down and talk, but I can tell the anger is there. My son is in federal prison — I can sense his anger. But I reach out. They are proud of me, really proud. Now I’m part of their lives.

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