'Yes, those are needles': Tragic story behind photo of baby in squalid bedroom

It’s hard to see her at first but among the rubbish, junk food and children’s toys on the dirty, brown mattress is a tiny baby.

“This is me at 18 months,” Brynlee, who did not wish to share her surname, explains in her first public telling of the traumatic conditions of her childhood which she almost didn’t survive.

In the photo, she’s lying dangerously close to a number of things she could easily extend her tiny hands to grab and choke on, including used icy-pole sticks and cigarettes.

But far more alarming, less than a metre from baby Brynlee is something actually terrifying.

“Yes, those are needles on the windowsill,” she explains.

“And yes, this is what the entire house looked like.”

Brynlee as a baby on her mother's bed. On the window sill are heroin needles. Source: Brynlee / Supplied

Despite her initial estimate she was 18 months old in the photograph, Brynlee is only about 10 or 12 months old.

Although she looks much younger because she is so underweight.

The image is from the early 2000s and was taken the day Brynlee’s 16-year-old brother “decided he was sick of our conditions”.

The other photos he took that day show even more chaos.

The family's kitchen which had "more pills than food". Source: Brynlee / Supplied

“These photos were of our house,” Brynlee told Yahoo News Australia from the United States.

“You can see broken glass by our toys, a knife on the bathroom floor and needles on the window sill in the picture of me.

“The kitchen has more bottles of pills than food and our backyard was a junkyard.”

The shocking images of the house — where baby Brynlee lived with two older sisters, her teen brother who took the photos and their drug-addicted mother as well as their father –– were then sent to Child Protective Services.

Because of the photos, Brynlee spent the next nine years of her life “in and out of foster care” until her older brother adopted her, and she went to live with him and his wife.

The bathroom of their home, showing a knife with a black handle on the floor. Source: Brynlee / Supplied
The lounge room of Brynlee's childhood home, featuring one of her older sisters. Source: Brynlee / Supplied

Born to an addict

Brynlee was one of five children born to a mother addicted to heroin who continued to use drugs and drink alcohol throughout every pregnancy, and also while she was nursing.

Miraculously though, none of her children developed neonatal abstinence syndrome — a postnatal condition that, according the New England Journal of Medicine, can occur in 55 to 94 per cent of newborns whose mothers were addicted to or treated with opioids like heroin while pregnant.

“My mum smoked, drank and did drugs during all six pregnancies. She had one miscarriage,” Brynlee explains.

“The five of us are very lucky to not have any lasting effect... We were all pretty malnourished and underdeveloped. We're lucky to be where we are today.”

Brynlee's other sister perches on the edge of the dirty bed –– her baby sister lies just out of frame. Source: Brynlee / Supplied

However, there were other close calls.

On one occasion, while she was still an infant, one of Brynlee’s older sisters had been unable to find her baby sister.

Eventually, the older girl found her wedged between the bedroom wall and the bed. She had rolled off the mattress and fallen into the gap.

The baby had cried herself to sleep down there and would have quite likely suffocated to death if her sister hadn’t found her when she did, Brynlee believes.

There was also plenty of emotional trauma wrecked upon the children from their early years of life.

One of Brynlee’s earliest memories involved waking up to her mother hitting her baby brother – the child her mother went to have after her.

In other traumatising memories which still cling to the recesses of Brynlee’s mind, neglect was an overwhelming constant.

“If I cried as a baby, my mom would pass me off to [my older sister] Jara and pass out again,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“Jara was basically my mom, she would feed me meals and make sure I was clean.

Brynlee's older sister Jara who 'basically raised' her, despite only being a few years older. Source: Brynlee / Supplied

“I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother passed out drunk and my baby brother crying covered in faeces because he hadn't been changed all day.”

Her other early memory is of her father’s funeral. He had died in a car crash when she was four.

“He was 30 years older than my mom. Just too old to be a good dad, I guess,” Brynlee explains, adding that before his sudden death, her only memories of him involved him either sleeping or arguing with her mother.

Unlike his wife, he had not been an addict but worked long hours so was rarely home.

Her mother eventually died under tragic circumstances in 2017 when Brynlee was 15 — the age her mother was when she became addicted to drugs.

Despite still battling with addiction and severe mental health issues, including schizophrenia, she had just enrolled in college and was trying to make amends with her children.

“My mom had convinced us she was sober for three-ish years before she died,” Brynlee told Yahoo News Australia.

“When I was 15, she was staying with her aunt and she tried swallowing the bag to hide the drugs.”

Instead, her mother had suffocated on the bag of drugs and died.

US opioid crisis declared ‘public health emergency’

In the same year Brynlee’s mother died, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received the backing of President Donald Trump to declare a “public health emergency” to address a “national opioid crisis”.

During 2017, an estimated 1.7 million individuals suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers and 652,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the years prior, data collected by peak health and drug bodies had shown the number of Americans using heroin and other opioids was rising. So too was the amount of people dying.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health’s findings from 2016 said about 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year. The survey’s data also suggested heroin use in the United States was on the rise and had been following that trend since 2007.

When the HHS’ announced in 2017 the state of emergency the country was facing from opioid-use, the department revealed 52,404 Americans had died from drug overdoses in 2015, while “preliminary numbers” indicated at least 64,000 had died in 2016.

‘My mother was not her disease’

Despite struggling her whole life with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety because of her childhood, at the age of 17 and on the cusp of graduating high school, Brynlee felt compelled to share her story.

“I have made so much progress and being able to share my story is therapeutic,” she says.

“When I struggled, I loved reading success stories.

“They gave me hope for my own future and I hope by sharing my story, they can help someone else.”

The other thing she is eager to stress is the lack of anger she feels for her mum.

Although, she admits, it took her some time to get to that point.

“It took me a long time to forgive her,” the 17-year-old explains.

“My mother was not her disease and it took me a long time to realise that.”

In any case, remembering the good aspects about her mum and dad has helped with her own recovery.

“As much as they sucked at being parents, they were pretty cool people,” Brynlee says.

“My mom was a genius, she had an IQ of 137. She read and drew amazing pictures. Her favourite books were Stephen King.”

While her father, a physician, would frequently help patients for free.

“Yes, they made mistakes, but I've forgiven them and I try to remember them the best I can.

“Drug addiction causes good people to do horrible things.

“It took me a long time to forgive her and to separate her from her disease.”

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