Mothers, others Share Stories for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Month
From the waist up, Meghan Denney was cool and collected, telling the story of how, with help, she saved her own life.
Behind the lectern on the stage at Susannah's House on Monday, Denney kept one knee in constant motion — her only concession to her nerves.
Denney, 34, shared a story of an addiction to painkillers that started when she was a 17-year-old student at Farragut High School.
"Addiction does not care how much money your family has," she told around 40 people in the audience at the Mechanicsville nonprofit. "It will take anyone."
For decades, she said, she tried doctors, clinics and rehabs without success. In the process, she lost her self-esteem, her children and, she thought, any chance at happiness.
"I would have died for my children," she said, "but I was unable to quit using for them."
Until she got pregnant with her youngest and received a referral from her obstetrician to Susannah's House. Founded in 2014 by Cokesbury United Methodist Church, the nonprofit provides free intensive outpatient therapy to pregnant women and mothers in recovery from abusing alcohol or other drugs.
Denney said she already had a list of places she'd called for help that wouldn't treat pregnant women. At Susannah's House, which serves around 20 women in various stages of recovery, she got not only counseling and support, but also parenting and computer classes, job counseling, safe child care for her baby while she learned, and opportunities to earn money for items her baby needed — all, she said, provided without judgment.
The staff and volunteers "love us even when we can't love ourselves," Denney said. Without them, "my story would have had an entirely different ending."
On Monday, Susannah's House director, the Rev. Rebekah Fetzer, called Denney and other mothers in the program "heroes."
"They work so hard" despite coming out of challenging situations to "rebuild a clean and sober life where they can work and provide for their children," said Fetzer to those gathered Monday to recognize October as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Month.
Both Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett attended with proclamations noting it as such, the result of a resolution brought before the state Legislature last session by the Metro Drug Coalition and others.
"East Tennessee is the epicenter of the opioid problem," MDC Director Karen Pershing said. "The eastern portion of this state has to lead change if we're going to see anything happen."
Last year, about 1,000 babies born in the state had Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, problems stemming from withdrawal from drugs in their systems. Of those, more than half — 577 — were in East Tennessee.
Statewide, so far, 716 babies have been born with NAS in Tennessee, Fetzer told the audience, 64 in Knox County. But, she added, Knox County by this time in 2015 had 77 NAS births.
"In Knox County, we're making a difference," she said.
Susannah's House runs on about $1,000 a day, Fetzer said, almost all from the goodwill of the community.
"We're doing so much for so many with so little," she said.
Pershing said MDC and other organizations are encouraging Tennesseans to wear "pearls or bow ties" Friday in support of NAS Month, and posting pictures on social media with the hashtag #NASmonthTN.