LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
It's not easy being a teenager. Many make it through that period fairly unscathed, but there are others who decide that running away from home is the only way to get through it. Sometimes they're trying to escape abuse at home, but most of the time they're struggling with deep emotions that are difficult to handle.
Debra Gwartney has firsthand knowledge of the problem of teenagers on the streets. In 1995, her two oldest daughters, Amanda, then 16, and Stephanie, then 14, hopped a freight train and disappeared. The good news is that they eventually returned and reconciled with their mother. Debra Gwartney has written a memoir of that terrible time called "Live Through This." And she joins us from Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the program.
Ms. DEBRA GWARTNEY (Author, "Live Through This"): Thank you so much for having me on.
HANSEN: The book begins when you and your husband divorce in 1991 and you move from Tucson, Arizona to Eugene, Oregon. Amanda was 12 at the time, Stephanie was 10. Were there any warning signs then that there might be trouble ahead?
Ms. GWARTNEY: Well, at that point, I would say that we looked like a very normal family. The girls were in many activities and had lots of friends. But, of course, they were devastated by this double whammy that hit them — that their parents divorced and that I decided to move away from their father.
And from the minute we got to Eugene, they were very concerned about his welfare and his loneliness. And I guess that was kind of a warning that I really didn't want to see at that time. But looking back on it, in retrospect, I realize that they were feeling awfully concerned about leaving him and their life behind.
HANSEN: Some troubling signs began to appear. Your daughter Amanda began to cut herself.
Ms. GWARTNEY: That's right, she did.
HANSEN: And she was involved in a fire in high school, in an arson fire, that kind of thing. I mean, that's a real cry for help right there, one that you must have recognized. And she also, at one point when she was visiting your ex-husband, swallowed a bottle of Tylenol.
Ms. GWARTNEY: She did. When the warning signs came, they came fast and furious, and we were all rather knocked over by it that she was definitely in trouble when she hit about the age of 15. She started that fire at school and not long after that, swallowed that whole bottle of Tylenol and was in the hospital and going through treatment.
And at that point, her dad and I both knew that this was very serious. And we were paying attention, but unfortunately, we became more polarized with each other and there was a lot of blame being tossed back and forth, which was absolutely no good for her.
HANSEN: Now, did Stephanie begin to exhibit some signs of this anger and distress as Amanda did? Because the two of them were very close.
Ms. GWARTNEY: She wasn't really showing those kinds of signs of trouble, but when Amanda came back after she was out of the hospital, came back to Eugene, the two of them started skipping school and heading downtown and kind of getting hooked up with the kids on the street. And I didn't really realize this was happening.
I was taking them to a school, taking them to their counseling appointments, you know, taking them to their art lessons and everything. But I didn't realize until several months that they had been going, skipping school and going downtown to hook up with these kids.
HANSEN: Now, it wasn't like you just sat by quietly and let this happen. I mean, you did a lot of things to try to help them. I mean, from getting counseling, to even one girl going on kind of an Outward Bound program.
Ms. GWARTNEY: Yeah, they both went on that wilderness therapy, and I hired a private investigator to go find them on the streets. Yeah, you know, their dad and I both just put all the money and resources we had, and so did our families, put a lot of money into getting them treatment and help.
And what I found out when I went out to look for them, once they started to disappear for days at a time, and then months at a time, was that, you know, that it's not against the law to run away from home, so the police just can't do much. They don't do much.
And then when you go to, as a parent, when you go to shelters and say, I'm looking for my 14-year-old, is she there? The shelters' answer is we're here to help the kids, not the parents. We can't tell you if she's here.
HANSEN: Amanda overdosed - didn't die - but had an overdose…
Ms. GWARTNEY: She did.
HANSEN: …of heroin and Stephanie tried to revive her. And then the two split up because Amanda gave her real name, Stephanie gave a fake name and ran away.
Ms. GWARTNEY: That's right. Amanda had overdosed on heroin in a tunnel in Tucson and Stephanie tells quite the story of dragging her out of this tunnel and dragging her down the street just calling for help until somebody came out of an apartment and said I'll call the ambulance. The ambulance came and revived her.
But the hospital, once she was awake and cognizant again, just released her later that day. But a police officer stopped them and Amanda said, I'm done. I want to go home. And Stephanie, 14 years old, jumped on another freight train, and we lost track of her for about nine more months after that.
HANSEN: You were working multiple jobs and you had two younger daughters at home, their two younger sisters. How were you able to cope?
Ms. GWARTNEY: Well, I have to say that those two younger daughters were, you know, my reason for getting up in the morning. And I'm just so thankful to them for being the loving supportive girls they were at that time. The three of us just really stuck together.
And around that time I met my now husband, and he stepped in and was great friends with the younger girls and me, and hugely supportive. So, you know, we had this kind of quiet support going on. But I was in a state of panic every single day.
HANSEN: Why did Amanda and Stephanie finally decide to get off the streets and begin a process of rehabilitation and reconciliation?
Ms. GWARTNEY: Well, Amanda, after that heroin overdose, she says that, you know, she just came too close to death to do this anymore. And so she was really ready to come home. And she had to choose to turn her life around, I couldn't choose that for her. Stephanie was gone for a long time - it was year before I saw her again. And she just called and made the first tiny overtures.
And it took us a few weeks, and then finally she came back. And I think she was just ready, too. She needed an education, she realized, and she wasn't getting anywhere where she was. So, again, they both had to choose to come home. They had to find the moment where they said, I'm done with this.
HANSEN: How are you?
Ms. GWARTNEY: I'm slowly learning to forgive myself. I woke up six times a night, I swear, from years thinking, why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that? I just rethought everything. And it was torturous, but it was also what I had to go through to make peace with it and to go back to my daughters and say, please forgive me for falling down on the job of being your mom.
HANSEN: And did they ask you to forgive them for being angry teenagers?
Ms. GWARTNEY: You know, I don't know if that language has ever been used, but I remember not long ago the four girls were at my house, we were all cooking and they were laughing and talking. And I looked around and I thought whatever forgiveness is, it has entered our lives now. We didn't say the words maybe, but we all have forgiven ourselves and it felt so organic and real and authentic that I was just really pleased that it came to us in that way.
HANSEN: Debra Gwartney is the author of "Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love." She joined us from Portland, Oregon. Thank you very much.
Ms. GWARTNEY: Thank you so much.