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Published May 12, 2012, 11:30 PM

Tower City mother ends cycle of substance abuse to reunite with her children

FARGO - Sarah Bath can’t imagine what the child protective services worker thought. But ever since she’d been in treatment for substance abuse, Bath felt compelled to reach out to the social worker who had taken away her children – and, in the process, forced her to reevaluate how she’d been living her life.

FARGO - Sarah Bath can’t imagine what the child protective services worker thought.

But ever since she’d been in treatment for substance abuse, Bath felt compelled to reach out to the social worker who had taken away her children – and, in the process, forced her to reevaluate how she’d been living her life.

So after one year of sobriety, Bath found herself dialing the number of the case worker she once feared and dreaded. When she spoke the words into the phone, she meant them.

“Thank you for taking my children away. You saved my life, and you made me be a better parent to my children.”

Astonished, the child protective services worker told her no one had ever thanked her before.

Today, the memory of that exchange still fills Bath’s bright blue eyes with tears. “It was a hard one,” says the pretty, dark-haired 33-year-old. “Because I didn’t want to admit that I was a bad parent.”

“You weren’t a bad parent,” Julie McCroskey of the Sister’s Path treatment program says gently. “You were just a parent.”

Thanks to Sister’s Path, a Fargo-based comprehensive recovery program, Bath has her life back.

Sister’s Path provides stable, long-term housing along with chemical dependency treatment to single, homeless, addicted women who wish to live clean and sober. Many of the women live in apartments with their children as they participate in 12-step groups, addiction counseling and life-management classes.

Bath graduated from Sister’s Path in August 2010. She believes the program restored her health, her family and her life.

“I feel like it was designed with me in mind,” she says. “I went from this person with this beaten, broken-down past and no structure to structure, safety and learning to be who you can be.”

Drinking starts at 11

Bath was born in Crookston, Minn., although she didn’t remain there long.

Whenever her mother, an alcoholic, broke up with a husband or exhausted all her resources, she would pack up her family and move them to another small community in Minnesota, Bath says.

And when her mom was in a relationship, life wasn’t much better. Bath says the adults of the household would drink too much and get in violent fights.

“Safety is not something I grew up with. There were mornings we’d wake up and there were half-full beers all over the place and blood splattered all over the phone,” Bath recalls. “Sometimes it was a scary situation.”

Her family eventually landed in Grand Marais, Minn., to live in a cabin owned by Bath’s grandparents.

Although her grandparents added some stability, Bath says her mother’s alcohol use escalated to the point that social workers removed her younger siblings from the home.

Bath moved in with a boyfriend at age 16. Soon, she found herself unwittingly tracing her mother’s path. She would drink too much and pick fights with her boyfriend before blacking out.

By then, she already had several years of alcohol abuse under her belt. Her mother had let her party in their home since she was 11, saying she’d rather have the kids consume alcohol under her supervision than out drinking and driving.

Like many addicts, Bath says she abused alcohol to fit in and feel normal. While her peers talked of doting parents, slumber parties and hanging out at the mall, Bath’s life consisted of hard partying, school, a tumultuous home life and – since the age of 14 – part-time jobs.

She received little affection or encouragement growing up. When she took home a good report card, her mother replied: “Little Miss Overachiever, huh?”

Bath’s grandfather was one positive force in her life. He modeled an excellent work ethic and repeatedly reminded her of the importance of a high school diploma.

Bath did graduate from high school. A tireless worker, she also consistently landed decent jobs.

But her personal life was chaos. “I pretty much lived from boyfriend to boyfriend until my 20s,” she says. “When I turned 21, it just got worse.”

Her drinking eventually began to erode her work habits, and she lost a waitressing job she’d held for 4½ years.

“The owner said, ‘I love you very much, honey, but this is it,’ ” she says.

In 2003, Bath found herself making a geographic move in efforts to straighten out her life. She reunited with a sister who lived in Page, N.D., and eventually wound up living in Tower City.

Loses fiancé, children

For a while, Bath’s new life in a new state, hundreds of miles from Grand Marais, seemed to be filled with promise.

She fell in love with a local man named Brett, and they eventually decided to have children together.

Bath didn’t smoke or drink when she was pregnant. But after their two kids were born, her old drinking habits always returned.

“How was I supposed to love someone else?” she says today. “I didn’t love myself.”

After their first child, Riley, was born, the couple lost their home in a fire. They relocated to Fargo, a move that drove the couple further apart.

Bath’s drinking escalated. She knew it wasn’t normal to drink until you blacked out, but “treatment” sounded like a foreign concept to her.

One day, Bath came home to find Brett packing a

U-Haul with his possessions. He presented her with papers that announced his plans to take over custody of their children.

In efforts to get her children back, Bath was required to complete a chemical dependency evaluation to determine if she had a problem.

“I lied through my teeth,” she admits. Even so, the evaluator suggested she had a low-level chemical dependency.

Determined to get her family back, Bath gave up drinking for six months. She enrolled in college and regained custody of her children.

But beneath it all, she remained a wounded soul. Brett moved to western North Dakota to work, and Bath resumed partying.

“I was miserable about the loss of that relationship,” she says. “I didn’t feel good inside, even though I had two beautiful children in front of me and had started college.”

In 2009, she began using meth.

Meth quickens spiral

It was like pouring gasoline on a slow-burning fire. Within three months of meth use, Bath dropped out of school, lost her waitressing job, spent all her financial aid money and lost 35 pounds.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’ll quit tomorrow,’ and then praying tomorrow would never come,” she says. “I had to be high at that point to even function.”

On Oct. 1, 2009, she lost custody of her children.

“That was the coldest, darkest feeling ever,” she recalls.

The child services protection worker told her: “You need treatment.”

Several people had uttered that phrase to her before. Even her mother had said it. Maybe, she thought, they were right.

Bath began outpatient treatment at Southeast Human Service Center, but knew she needed more intensive help.

She remembered hearing another meth addict talk about Sister’s Path, a program that provided recovery, support and shelter to addicted, single moms.

Bath made a desperate call to McCroskey, program director at Sister’s Path. She entered the program on Dec. 28, 2009.

“It was the best Christmas present I could have,” she says.

‘The struggle was gone’

When the treatment center’s heavy security doors clicked behind her for the first time, Bath finally felt safe.

She was no longer around other meth users. Her children were living at their grandparents’ house with their father. She could concentrate on getting better and learning to become a solid citizen and good mother.

“The struggle was gone,” she recalls.

Still, there was much to learn. Through a women’s empowerment group at Sister’s Path, Bath learned she had post-traumatic stress disorder from growing up in an alcoholic, violent household.

“Trauma definitely goes hand in hand with addiction,” McCroskey says. “We feel it’s a disservice if we ignore that, because there’s going to be a trigger out there to that trauma, which will lead to a relapse.”

For the first time, Bath had to learn basics that people from normal homes mastered early on. Like how to be assertive. How to deal with stress or uncomfortable feelings after her chemical “crutch” was gone. And even how to accept herself.

“I spent so many years trying to be like this person or that person. I never found myself.”

AA and straight A’s

Nowadays, Bath approaches life with the same focus and energy that she used to channel into her addiction.

She attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly, has an AA sponsor and, in turn, sponsors several young women.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s good work. I can feel it in my soul,” she says.

She is back at Minnesota State Technical and Community College in Moorhead, where she’s pulling a 4.0 and recently landed a scholarship.

Her goal, ironically enough, is to become a social worker specializing in child protective services.

“I thought the last thing I’d ever want to be is a social worker, but now I see how helpful they are in taking children and parents out of that situation and getting help for both of them,” she says.

Bath also works at the Tower City Travel Center as a server, host and cook.

She works even harder at being a good mother to Riley, now 6, and Halie, 4.

After reading research that families who eat dinner together are less likely to raise children with substance-abuse problems, family dinners have become a big priority at their house. It gives everyone in the family a chance to talk about their day.

“We sit at the table, we say our prayers, we talk with our children and ask how their day went,” she says. “I want to build them up rather than tear them down.”

In April, she and Brett reunited. “We don’t have the house and the wonderful car, but now our life is complete,” she says. “We want to get married and do it right.”

But Bath knows none of her accomplishments would have happened if she hadn’t healed herself first – and Sister’s Path made that possible.

“I feel like my dreams have come back together,” Bath says. “What more could a mother want?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525