For Heather Austin Wade, the day that launched her long descent started with a scream.
It was 2008, and Heather was 18, living in Pasco County with her mother, two brothers and sister.
They were a tight-knit family, one that had grown even closer after her mom left an abusive relationship in Michigan to relocate to Florida. Here they settled into a spacious rental home, complete with a pool.
Heather had struggled with the move at first. She was a shy teen from a tiny rural town, lost in the many corridors and cliques at her new massive high school. Only at home did she come alive. To her family, Heather was the smart one, the person to whom everyone turned for help.
In 2008, Heather was enrolled in college to become an ultrasound tech. Between classes, she held jobs at restaurants and late-night clubs and helped her mother and sister watch her sister's two kids.
For Heather, her big sister was her best friend. Heather had been at her side, holding her hand, the day that Heather's nephew Matthew was born. Ever since, the little boy with the big laugh had been attached to Heather's hip.
"His laugh was just everything," Heather would say of the 3-year-old. "We would tickle him, and he would just laugh and laugh and laugh. It was the cutest thing. It was one of those things where you have to laugh with him."
That morning in 2008, Heather got home late from work and climbed into bed. Then, sometime after dawn, she was jarred awake by the sound of screaming. It was coming from her sister, who was calling out Matthew's name while racing to Heather's room for help.
The toddler had somehow slipped out the back door and into the pool. Discovered and pulled out by his mom, Matthew wasn't breathing.
Heather placed him on the floor and began CPR, the 911 dispatcher guiding her moves through the phone. In the end, Heather couldn't save him. Neither could the paramedics or doctors at the hospital.
After Matthew's death, the family - shredded by grief - fell apart.
"It was like a bomb went off and we all scattered," Heather would say.
When her mother took her brothers to Ft. Myers, Heather had a choice: go with them, transferring her college credits; or stay in Pasco with her sister.
Heather would forever wonder what might have happened if she'd made a different decision. Maybe she would have finished college and built a normal life. Instead, she'd later think, it was like she stepped through a passageway and fell down a chute, straight into hell.
A violent spiral
For a few months, Heather lived with her sister in another rental. She quit college and worked longer hours than ever to pay their bills.
She was overwhelmed with her own sorrow, worries about her despondent sibling and wracked with guilt.
Had she done enough compressions? Did she mess up the CPR? What if she hadn't worked that night? If she hadn't been asleep that morning? Would she have been able to save Matthew?
"I kept playing it back in my head, over and over," she would later say.
Smoking cigarettes to cope with her stress, Heather finally tore away from her sister and moved in with a boyfriend she'd met through work.
But the relationship quickly turned violent. Soon Heather was drinking heavily. The next several years involved ever-worsening forms of domestic abuse at the hands of the men she met.
For a while, her sister - on her feet with a house of her own - took Heather in.
"She came and rescued me every time I needed to be rescued," Heather said.
By her mid-twenties, Heather was a single mother working odd jobs, waitressing and bartending. And the cycle of abuse was escalating, with knives sometimes left in her locked car as a threat.
Her drug use was rising, too. While remaining sober at home, Heather - after dropping her daughter at daycare or with a friend - would drink while working at the club. Next, she turned to cocaine.
As the years clicked by, she remained haunted by the anniversary of Matthew's death, still able to taste the pool water and discharge from her nephew during CPR that day. For a bit, Heather managed to hold her own apartment but was evicted after letting a boyfriend move in.
In 2018, in her late twenties, Heather and her 8-year-old daughter Maleyia moved into the home of friends. The couple used and sold pain pills, but Heather thought she wouldn't be there long. She was waiting for her tax return check to finally find a stable place.
But then a boyfriend, with whom she'd started using crack cocaine, made off with her money. One night, as Heather's friends resumed a violent argument between themselves, Heather sent Maleyia to her room. She'd tried to shield her daughter the best she could as her life cascaded into chaos. That included giving Maleyia a flip phone in case there was ever an emergency.
That night, Maleyia acted on it. As shouts and threats got louder in the house, Maleyia dialed 911.
"She did a good thing," Heather would later say. "But then she was taken from me."
With Maleyia in foster care, Heather quit all her jobs at the bars and nightclubs.
The next two years she worked nine-to-five at McDonald's, enrolled in a residential drug treatment program, and went back to school to become a machinist.
"I worked my butt off to get her back," she said.
In addition to family counseling and parenting classes, she also obtained therapy and was placed on medication for depression. She scored a high-paying job with a filtration company and found a two-bedroom home to rent. And Maleyia was returned to her.
"I got her home. I was sober. I was doing great," she said.
Then the pandemic hit. At the end of 2020, Heather was missing too much work to care for Maleyia when she was out of school or home sick. Late or absent too many times, Heather lost her job.
The setback sent her reeling. So did the death of a close friend. Heather started using cocaine again - and then she tried crystal meth.
In January 2021, when she was pulled over for an expired tag, she was arrested for possession of paraphernalia in the car. Maleyia was sent away again, this time to Heather's sister, now in Alabama. Her sister moved to terminate Heather's custody rights.
Out of jail in March, and without Maleyia, Heather nosedived.
"I stayed at a friend's house a month and a half before I could go home to my house because everything reminded me of my daughter," she said.
The next eight months passed in a fog of drug use and depression.
"I have nothing left to live for. I'm done," she thought. "That was my breaking point."
During that time, she got pregnant.
Still, even then, her addiction did not loosen its grip.
"I still could not stop. It was just too much."
After taking a drug test for a job, she landed in jail again, something she'd later think saved her baby.
When Nylah was born, she was healthy.
"Thank God," Heather said.
Heather went to a program for mothers and infants through the spring of 2022. During that time, she was in and out of psych wards.
Afterward, she realized she needed a different environment. She had to get out of Pasco County.
It was then that she moved to Freedom House in Bradenton, in August of 2022.
But after getting through another of Matthew's anniversaries with the help of drugs, this time meth, Heather tested positive again on a test. As a result, Nylah was taken away, too.
Both of her daughters were gone. Heather felt broken. But now, she was ready to do something about it.
"I knew I needed to listen," she said, "and to figure out what was going on with me, what was wrong, and to fix me as a person."
A life to look forward to
She started with her meds. Heather took two months with her doctors to get them right - treatments not only for depression but also for PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and night terrors.
"I wanted to re-create myself and cleanse myself while I was there," she said. "If my mind is not right, I can't do anything else right."
She delved into more therapy and parenting classes. And in October 2022, she started a job at Goodwill Manasota - quickly moving up from apparel in the back to cashiering in the front.
She also was assigned to a Good Partner Coach to help with her life and career goals.
"I love it. I love it. I love my life coach."
She found support through a 12-step program, her peers at Freedom House, and her church. In her progress, she felt herself able to start living again.
"When you come off that stuff, you're in a daze. It doesn't feel like real life. You beat yourself up so hard. It's a never-ending cycle, the negative things you say to yourself," she said. "God came in and pushed out all that negativity."
Last July, after Heather successfully completed her reunification program through Child Protection Investigations, Nylah, then 18 months old, was allowed to come home to her.
The next month, Heather graduated into one of Freedom House's apartments - a feat aided with help from Season of Sharing, which contributed about $1,500 toward rent and utilities to assist Heather in getting on her feet.
In December - after months of driving back and forth to the courts in Alabama - Heather got to bring 13-year-old Maleyia home, too.
"It's taken me three years to get her fully back. But I did it," Heather said. "The ride home was great. I just couldn't stop smiling."
Since then the two sisters have quickly taken to each other - Maleyia, the more serious and protective big sister, and Nylah, now 2, the spunky ball of sunshine.
Earlier this month, Heather learned that she became eligible for a larger Section 8 unit with two bedrooms.
She's close again with her mother, who recently helped her get a used car. She loves Goodwill and envisions staying there long-term, maybe to work up into management.
"My whole life has changed. I have a life now, one that I look forward to," she said. "Everything has really worked out. I've got housing. I've got my kids. I got a vehicle. I got a job."
What's more, she has her mental health.
"Everything that I'd been through I pushed down inside of me," she said. "But going through this recovery, I had to run myself through every part of my trauma. And now I can think about my past and those traumas without letting them crush me."
Heather, now 33, has come to terms with the fact that while she couldn't save Matthew, she can be fully present as a mother to both of her daughters.
And, importantly - with a lot of support - she has found the tools to save herself.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at email@example.com
How to help
Season of Sharing was created 22 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape - every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.
You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to cfsarasota.org or calling 941-556-2399. You can also mail a check to Season of Sharing, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237.
For Heather Austin Wade, the day that launched her long descent started with a scream.