Schaumburg heroin addict's daughters hold out hope for mom
Jaida and Mikayla see two possible futures for their mother.
In the good one, Tracy Perry-Belz breaks free from her heroin addiction, gets a job, buys a house and becomes part of their lives again.
In the bad future, she dies.
It's at once that simple and infinitely more complicated for the 11- and 9-year-olds who live with their grandparents and 4-year-old sister in the same Schaumburg home where their mother grew up.
Tracy Perry-Belz is 37 and has been a heroin user for eight years, her parents Kent and Patty Perry say. For much of that time, the Perrys have had guardianship of Tracy's daughters, Jaida and Mikayla, and recently they've also been caring for her youngest, Nevaeh.
Tracy's latest heroin bender lasted from September until December and led her to take Nevaeh home to her grandparents while she hopped from place to place.
"She cared for Nevaeh," Tracy's father said. "But she was glad to unload that responsibility."
Collateral damage, it seems, is a sad fact of life for Tracy's family and the families of many heroin users.
A series of events during the past two months illustrates it perfectly.
In November, Tracy has been away from her children for two months, getting high in Chicago somewhere -- as far as her parents know. But just before Christmas, she shows up, freshly sober from a hospital's detox unit and desperate for a place out of the cold.
Her parents take her in -- again -- despite their reservations. Tracy's presence causes more pain than it's worth, Patty says, especially for the user's daughters, who live somewhere between wanting the "good future" for their mother and worrying she'll fall further toward the bad.
"I didn't want her to come back and I still don't want her to come back," Patty says when Tracy reappears Dec. 21. Her existence long has been ruled by heroin.
It's conflicted, uncertain, jagged.
By Dec. 28, she's gone. And just six days into the new year, Tracy winds up in Cook County jail.
She and the drug share the blame.
'I become selfish'
During the week she came home, Tracy spoke candidly of her addiction. While on her recent binge, she felt relaxed, euphoric, warm, with no pain. Heroin, she said, gave her those feelings and removed her cares, even her responsibility to her daughters. She lived those months with various friends and bought drugs on Chicago's South Side.
The lifestyle is "fun" at first, she said, until the money runs out and bridges are burned.
"You just get so caught up in that lifestyle that I become selfish and all I think about is myself and my next high," Tracy says the day after Christmas, from the warmth of her parents' home. "It clouds your judgment. It clouds the things that are important to you. Your No. 1 priority is that next high."
It wasn't like that the first time Tracy used heroin. She was 19 or 20, she said, and coming down from a cocaine high at a party. She snorted heroin and immediately "freaked out," thinking, "I'm not a junkie living under a viaduct." Or, as a friend once said, "We're from Schaumburg. We don't do heroin."
She stayed away from the addictive substance for four or five years, she said. In the meantime, she married and had a son, who now is 14 and living with his father in Wisconsin.
Tracy later divorced and started seeing the man who is the father of Jaida, Mikayla and Nevaeh.
One evening, she and her boyfriend bought some cocaine and got a hotel room. Tracy said OK when her boyfriend asked if she wanted to do heroin. It was 2002 and it marked the beginning of her slide into "catching the habit."
Tracy and the girls' father first would use only one night a week, then on weekends, then all weekend long until waking up dopesick on Monday mornings and doing more heroin. That led to full-blown addiction.
But her father says she was in trouble well before that.
"When she tried heroin for the first time," Kent said, "that was the end for her."
Tracy and her parents agree she had a pleasant, well-rounded childhood and none of her drug problems stem from a desire to mask any youthful trauma. Born in Michigan as an only child, she has lived in the suburbs since she was 8 or 9. She's always been friendly, a people-person. She got involved in some sports and did OK in school.
Tracy says she's always loved children and she considered careers as an early childhood educator or in criminal justice.
Her father says she's too prone to the influence of others, and Tracy admits she tried drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy, in part to fit in.
"That was in the 1990s and that's what everybody was doing," she said.
But even after getting addicted to heroin, Tracy has stopped using multiple times with the help of rehab programs. She wasn't using when she was pregnant with Jaida and Mikayla, but she was hooked before her youngest was born.
"She does well at first and she follows all the rules. Then she starts slacking off, gets antsy, gets kicked out," her mother said. "She's clean for two years and then something happens."
That something is as simple as a thought, Tracy says. She'll have a thought of using again, and even if she doesn't act on it right away, she knows she eventually will. She's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and says she suffers manic episodes when her mind races and she can't focus.
"I don't know if it is partially to do with the bipolar and the manic where I want to self-medicate or if it's just me being selfish because I enjoy getting high," Tracy said. "Nine out of 10 it's because I like that feeling, and it's me being selfish."
Tracy's admitted selfishness is what led to her parents seeking guardianship of her two older daughters in 2006, when they were toddlers.
Tracy and her mother both remember one episode that April as a turning point.
Patty came home from work in nearby Itasca on her lunch break and found Tracy slumped forward on her bed, not necessarily overdosing but passed out high, a baggie of heroin on her lap. Her two young daughters were still in their cribs, unfed and wearing dirty diapers.
"Neglected" is the word Kent used on the application for guardianship. Neglected by their own mother.
"I think that was a big reality check for my mom that there was a problem, because I covered it. I covered it pretty good," Tracy said. "It was a reality check for me, like, 'What the hell are you doing, Tracy? You've got these two little ones that need you and here you are high as hell.'"
The realization, though, didn't change Tracy's behavior, and soon her parents gained legal guardian status over Jaida and Mikayla.
The girls always have called the Perry house their home. Their grandparents are careful to keep them involved and nurtured -- and to explain in child's terms why their mother often is gone: because she took some bad drugs and has to go to the hospital to get better.
"I wanted to make sure they understood Mommy's choice for doing this has nothing to do with them. They did nothing wrong," Patty said in November while Tracy was on her three-month drug spell. "The drugs that Mommy was taking overtakes her thinking and her decision-making, and it makes people do things that they normally wouldn't do. But Mommy is going into these places because she wants to get better, be a good mom, come back and be your mommy."
The sisters visit counselors at their school from time to time and they've learned positive thinking tactics. It shows in their outlook for their mother. At least they envision for her the option of a "good future," of coming back into their lives as a mom instead of a vanishing act.
Jaida and Mikayla have good memories with their mother -- going to the park, shopping at garage sales, doing cartwheels in the backyard -- yet they're faced more often with the harsh reality that she's just not there for them.
So with their grandparents at the head of the family, the girls play softball and earn Girl Scout badges. They attend religious education at their church and they've tried band and chorus at their elementary school.
The Perrys say they feel fortunate that their faith, finances and love of kids give them everything they need to care for their grandchildren.
"A lot of people say, 'Those kids are lucky to have you.' I say, 'I'm lucky to have them,'" Patty said. "I'm able to focus on them and that's where my energy goes, so it helps me deal with what Tracy's doing. If they weren't here, I think I'd be worrying about my daughter."
Playing parent to three young girls is not where the Perrys -- Kent a 63-year-old engineer and Patty a 58-year-old businesswoman -- imagined life would take them.
"I've accepted the fact that we're going to raise the girls," Kent said. "If something were to change, if Tracy were to clean up and want to be with her daughters, we wouldn't prevent that. But it's just not in the foreseeable future by any measure."
Bad side or good?
In the Perry home before Tracy appears the week of Christmas, there is homework to be done and after-school events to attend. There's Kent in his study working from home and friends down the street to play with and new iPods or iPhones on the wish list. There's a warmth and an energy and a family, but something is missing.
"My mom and dad are not here. They're somewhere else," 4-year-old Nevaeh says in her small, young voice. She doesn't know it, but she's giving a telling answer that sums up the family's lives.
Tracy isn't where her parents know she should be -- caring for her own children and working some kind of job, like the bank teller position she held for six years before getting hooked on heroin. During her drug sprees, Tracy isn't anywhere her children or parents can see her or anywhere they can even identify.
Tracy isn't home, and despite the cartwheels and sibling rivalries and warm, fast-moving fun of the home, there's still a hole where a mother should be.
It's the day after Christmas, and Tracy has been home for five days. Her daughters aren't sure how to react.
"She could go to the bad side and do it again, or go to the good side and stop and get a job and earn money so she can pay for food," says Mikayla, the middle daughter.
"In her heart, I believe that she really wants to do it," says 11-year-old Jaida, begging her mother to choose the "good side."
"But it's hard," she adds.
Two days later, Tracy is gone.
So is Kent's car and all the money in the house.
The police are called. The car and money are reported stolen.
It takes 10 days, but Tracy ends up in Cook County jail Jan. 6, picked up on a warrant for failing to appear at a court date related to a charge of driving on a suspended license.
For now, Tracy is in jail, and the future seems as uncertain as ever.
"So it goes with a heroin addict. It seems to have control over her to the point family and any other moral actions are simply secondary," Kent says. "Such is the impact of heroin on a family."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries
Heroin in the suburbs: Through their eyesHeroin has taken hold in the suburbs and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines the heroin problem through they eyes of those it affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we take a look through the eyes of Kent and Patty Perry of Schaumburg, who are caring for their granddaughters because their daughter has been using heroin for eight years.