To save her child from drugs like fentanyl, this mom will do anything Renae was so desperate to keep her child alive when so many others have died from overdose that she resorted to extreme measures — and extreme risks. She now supervises drug use in her own home.

'I ain't found it yet.' No line this mother won't cross to save her addicted daughter

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The main characters in our next story are a mom named Renae and her daughter Brooke. It begins with those fights, the ones that get worse during the teenage years. But then Brooke gets addicted to opioids and Renae decides there's nothing she won't do to keep her only child alive. The outcome may challenge how you think about the drug overdose crisis. Here's reporter Martha Bebinger from WBUR in Boston.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: The arguments were about Brooke missing school, not having a job, and hanging out with a boy Renae didn't like. Renae responded like many parents would. She grounded Brooke and took away her cell phone.

RENAE: I was wanting to force her to do what I wanted her to do because my child was not raised this way.

BEBINGER: Brooke, then 16, got tired of feeling like a disappointment and moved out. Renae didn't object at the time, but regret set in, because by age 18, Brooke was using opioids regularly. Renae often didn't know where Brooke was and whether she was dead or alive. NPR has agreed not to use full names in this story, and we've altered voices because some of what Renae and Brooke do could be illegal.

RENAE: Your door is not set. You're going to fall out and die. Thank you.


BEBINGER: To tell their story, Renae drives me around her small southern city...

RENAE: It's that big blue one.

BEBINGER: ...Past the parks and cheap motels where she'd occasionally see Brooke or someone with news about her only child.

RENAE: The yellow one with the red writing on it right there...


RENAE: She stayed there a lot.

BEBINGER: Renae says Brooke only reached out when she needed something. One day, after four frantic weeks of unanswered calls and texts, Renae spotted Brooke walking down the road.

RENAE: She was beautiful. She was my baby.

BEBINGER: In that moment of joy, something inside Renae flipped.

RENAE: And she was alive.

BEBINGER: Her expectations, demands, blaming, all that energy spun toward a new goal, keeping Brooke alive.

RENAE: And that's all that matters, you know?

BEBINGER: It's a realization that will transform and upend Renae's life. For Brooke, the encounter was just annoying.

BROOKE: She was, like, trying to get me to get in the car with her, and I just wasn't having it. I was trying to go get some [expletive], you know?

BEBINGER: Brooke says her goal was to get away fast.

BROOKE: It was kind of, like, embarrassing when I saw her, because I know my mama. She don't care where she's at or who's around.


BROOKE: She's going to, you know, get her point across.

BEBINGER: In characteristic style, Renae plunged into the campaign to keep Brooke alive. She bought Narcan, the drug that can reverse an overdose, lots of it. She shows me that first order confirmation on her phone.

RENAE: Scroll till you see that date I told you.

BEBINGER: Narcan deliveries put Renae back in touch with her daughter. Brooke looked reasonably healthy and not too thin. But her arms, where Brooke would inject, were a mess.

RENAE: Bruised and swollen and red, you know, I mean, obviously traumatized, skin that had been traumatized.

BEBINGER: Seeing Brooke's skin, Renae made a decision that many parents might not make. But Renae, relying on her medical training, could tell that Brooke's sores and scabs were from reusing needles. Dirty, blunt tips leave wounds. Sharing needles leads to more health problems - transmission of hepatitis C, HIV, and other viruses. Renae knew clean needles could improve her daughter's health. She also knew a needle she gave Brooke might deliver a fatal dose of fentanyl. Renae couldn't decide what was the lesser of the two evils.

RENAE: The swirl of emotions that I had was just insane. Am I enabling?

BEBINGER: Renae ruminated on the guilt, anxiety and fear for weeks.

RENAE: It just [expletive] spun like a record. It just [expletive] spun like a record, man.

BEBINGER: But Renae realized that Brooke didn't care if she had a clean or dirty needle, she'd use whatever was around. The goal was to keep her daughter alive, so Renae shelved her doubts, ordered syringes, and helped Brooke avoid hep C and some other possibly deadly diseases. When the box of needles arrived, Renae drove to the trailer park where Brooke was staying.

RENAE: These crape myrtles weren't so big then.

BEBINGER: Dotted with bright pink flowering bushes, the trailer park is the next stop on our tour of Renae's evolution.

RENAE: Pulled up right here and she came out and met me.

BEBINGER: It was a quick handoff. Brooke doesn't remember the exchange. She says she may have been high. Renae left in a panic, but she was too sick to drive. The debate kept pounding in her head.

RENAE: Did you just - what did you just do? Did you just make it easier for her? Did you just make it harder? Did you just give her permission?

BEBINGER: Renae's concerns about giving Brooke needles faded as her daughter's sores healed, so Renae bought another box. Possession of drug paraphernalia is illegal in many states. Renae didn't know that as she ordered more and more syringes and Narcan. Oddly, Brooke always seemed to be out.

RENAE: She would give her stuff away.

BEBINGER: And here is Renae's next revelation about what it would take to keep her daughter alive.

RENAE: To help her meant I had to figure out how to help everybody else somehow.

BEBINGER: At first, everyone was just Brooke's friends. But within a few months, Brooke was running into strangers who had her mom's cell phone number.

BROOKE: People that don't even know me. You know what I'm saying? I'd meet them and they'd be like, your mama is - that's my mama (laughter). I love sharing her because not everybody's got a mama like I do, you know?

BEBINGER: But all these surrogate children would call day and night, expecting Renae to drop everything and deliver needles or Narcan.

RENAE: It was absolute chaos.

BEBINGER: Renae couldn't keep up. Her credit cards maxed out. Exasperated, Renae opened her laptop and searched for help.

RENAE: There's got to be other people in the world doing this. How are you doing it and not losing your mind?

BEBINGER: She discovered people across the country doing similar work that they called harm reduction. Renae joined organizations offering free or discounted needles, Narcan, condoms and stimulant use supplies. Today, Renae walks through a room packed with crates and cabinets.

RENAE: And then we've got alcohol pads and cookers and tourniquets.

BEBINGER: She's learned to stop answering her phone at all hours. Now she has a regular delivery schedule. She's brought on volunteers and added a program to help victims of sex trafficking escape.

RENAE: I mean, we were doing it right.

BEBINGER: Some people didn't agree. A few years ago, a woman who lost her son confronted Renae. The woman said Renae gave the young man the needle he used for that final shot. It was an upsetting conversation, but Renae says she is at peace with what she did.

RENAE: It didn't break my heart that I gave him needles, it broke my heart that he was dead.

BEBINGER: But many people say handing out needles enables drug use, addiction and death. Programs like the one Renae runs are illegal in parts of the country. Renae's beliefs are shared by leading medical groups, who say harm reduction is a critical way to prevent diseases and fatalities.

RENAE: People are going to use drugs. I'm enabling life.

BEBINGER: Brooke says many people don't appreciate the risks her mom takes to do this work, going into neighborhoods where gangs are active, where people may be desperate for money.

BROOKE: I worry about her more than she knows, actually, because, like, she don't have to do anything that she's doing.

BEBINGER: Renae says she'd love to stop, but she can't abandon the mission, keeping Brooke and the 200-plus people she serves every week alive. It's getting harder with fentanyl, and Renae is taking more risks.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger.


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