Rosita - One Tough Mother

From Childhood Trauma and Self Medicating to Long-Term Recovery and Better Mental Health

How Learning About the Science of Trauma Helped Rosita Heal

Not many 16-year-olds can say they made a scientific discovery that earned them a full-ride scholarship to college. Rosita Camargo-Gilliam can. She discovered a bug in the waters near her home while working on a science project. And the University of New Mexico took notice, fully funding an opportunity for her to study science.

But soon after she received the award, Rosita dropped out of high school.

“When I got this award, I was not comfortable with it at all. I just dropped out, straight up. Just dropped out of school. I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m 16 years old, and I’m not going back.’”

Her grandmother was floored. She was so proud of Rosita for receiving the scholarship. But she didn’t know about the violence Rosita had seen. Or the sexual assault she experienced. Or the drugs and alcohol she’d been using to numb the pain.

“She didn't understand that I was already so far into my addiction,” she said. “I hadn’t processed what happened to me at all.”

From this point on, everything escalated. Rosita got caught up in gang activity. She turned to illegal activities to pay for the drugs she needed.

By the time she was 18, her grandma told her she had a choice: get sober or get out.

“She wanted me to choose her, and I couldn't. By that point, I was really done breaking her heart.”

Rosita bought a Greyhound bus ticket and left. She was shooting cocaine whenever she was able. If she couldn’t find cocaine, she was drinking heavily.

And she was angry.

“I used any excuse to fight.”

Rosita hitchhiked to Las Vegas, where she went to jail for assault, public intoxication and possession. The judge gave her the option: treatment or jail.

She chose treatment. They sent her to Florida, where she did a 90-day detox and intensive, inpatient treatment. There she met a man who had a lot of money. After four months of sobriety, he asked her to go to Mardi Gras with him.

“And I'm like, of course, 'cause nobody's gonna relapse at Mardi Gras, right?”

Within a few hours, they both began using again.

“I lost all control,” she said.

He rented an apartment for them but eventually left. Rosita stayed until the end of their lease. Then she found herself homeless. She’d meet her “future ex-husband” and the father of her two children on the streets.

Rosita didn’t think she could get pregnant. Her body weight was low, and she didn’t get a period. She was given a pregnancy test in jail after getting arrested for trespassing.

“They say, oh, you're pregnant. We can’t care for pregnant women here. So they just released me, which was scary.”

Back out on the streets, Rosita and her husband decided to get clean, together.

“At that time in Louisiana — and it still might be the same — if they found out that you were using and you were pregnant, you would go to prison, and your child would be taken.”

Rosita immediately stopped drinking. But she’d been such a heavy drinker, that her withdrawal landed her in the ER. Out of fear, they made up a story about how she’d hit her head and it was causing her to seize. She received an IV for hydration and was told to start eating more. She was discharged with prenatal vitamins and a referral to a health clinic for people experiencing homelessness.

The clinicians earned her trust. They helped her detox safely. By the time she gave birth, she had no substances in her system.

The couple held on to their sobriety for a few years and moved back to New Mexico. She got pregnant again and experienced a complication called placenta previa at five months. She was airlifted to Albuquerque, New Mexico. She stayed in the hospital for the rest of her pregnancy, and her baby stayed an additional six weeks after being delivered by emergency cesarean section.

During the time she was away, her husband had a recurrence. Once she got back home, she did, too. They used together for another four years, until her family gave her an ultimatum: stop using or we’re taking the kids.

“So we freaked out. We packed up. We left. We came to Colorado,” she said. "And we got clean again. We weren't using any programs. We were just white-knuckling it.”

This was in 2008. In 2010, her husband had a recurrence. Their daughters were in his care when he got arrested. The Department of Human Services got involved and saw the violence her daughters had witnessed. Within a week, Rosita alone regained custody. At that point, she began doing the hard work of understanding why she used substances. She learned through parenting and domestic violence classes. And she finally received support for the diagnosis of depression she first received at age 12. She began receiving Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment to help with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder).

Her husband did not receive the same level of treatment. While in active use, he broke into her apartment and assaulted her. He held her against her will for 10 hours, then left her for dead. The children were in the home. Rosita found the strength to call a friend to take her to the emergency room where they collected forensic evidence of the abuse.

He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years. Though Rosita continued her therapies and medication, two months later she experienced a recurrence. She contemplated suicide. But she asked for help. And with the support of family and friends, she began making small changes. She found a healthy community to immerse herself in. She made her medications a priority. She asserted her boundaries. She practiced gratitude.

“And that was the last reoccurrence I had, and that was in 2011.”

Combatting shame with science

Since 2011, Rosita has rekindled a love of science. This time, she’s studying how childhood trauma affects the brain. She’s learned how poor nutrition growing up impacts a child’s ability to regulate emotions. She also understands how postpartum depression impacted her.

She’s turned away from her belief that she wasn't trying hard enough to recover.

“I actually understand now, I was using the wrong tool. There are actual chemicals I can use in a positive way that can help me."

It's helped her move through the guilt and shame.

“I forgive my family, forgive my mother, forgive my father,” she said. “I forgive myself.”

Finding wisdom through recovery

Rosita credits her story for the work she now does in helping moms like her in recovery. As healthcare program manager for Serenity Recovery Connections in Colorado Springs, she uses her voice to educate on the reality of long-term recovery.

She sees how getting into recovery wasn’t the instantaneous answer to every problem.

“When we first get into recovery, everything starts to fall into place quickly. So we think, I’ve got this mastered. I remember thinking, everything is going to be great. But it wasn’t. I had so much to learn. I had to learn to be a parent. I had to learn to be patient. And I had to learn to forgive myself. Even two, three years into recovery, I wasn’t able to be emotionally supportive to my daughters. And now I have to give myself grace. I have to forgive myself.”

Rosita’s daughters are now 19 and 21 and the light of her life.

“I didn’t cause enough harm that they don’t want to be around me. Every day, I can be a better person. For them. And that’s what I focus on. They are my gifts.”

She describes them as strong, independent and proud of who they are and where they come from. They love art and expression. And they have the tools Rosita never had.

“I listen to their conversations, and they talk about things like burnout and making sure that their cup is filled,” she said. “They tell their friends about boundaries. It's so beautiful. I am so grateful.”

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