Nicholas and Stephanie McFall look to give their children the parents they never had
To say that the childhoods of Cartersville residents Nicholas McFall and Stephanie McFall were “dysfunctional” would be an understatement — indeed, the term “tragic” seems more appropriate.
For Nicholas, substance abuse was so common in his family that he simply considered methamphetamine “as a thing to do,” perhaps no different than an after dinner glass of Merlot.
“It took me going through drug court to realize how abnormal that was,” the 36-year-old Taylorsville native said. “To me, I didn’t see anything wrong with it, because that was what I had always grown up in.”
He started drinking alcohol when he was 10 — maybe even younger than that. By the time he was 12, he was already a heavy user of marijuana.
He began using methamphetamine after graduating from Woodland High School.
“I guess I just used it to cope with things,” he recounted. “I don’t know why I kept doing it, but at a certain point I just couldn’t get through a day without it, or if I did, all I would want to do is sleep.”
Like Nicholas, Stephanie also grew up in a home without a father. She recalled her mother’s substance abuse struggles intensifying after her grandmother died in an automobile accident.
“I remember being 6 years old the first time I had to call 911 because my mom overdosed,” she said. “She’s had her stomach pumped over 10 times for prescription pills.”
On one occasion, she recalled her mother overdosing, falling asleep with a cigarette and setting the house on fire.
Although her mother was a nurse and an Air Force veteran, throughout her childhood Stephanie recounted having to be “the strong one and the tough one” in the parent/child relationship.
“Just as successful as she tried to be and could’ve been, her addiction was so much stronger than that,” she said. “So growing up, I wanted my whole life to save my mom, but I couldn’t save her. Her addiction took her.”
As a child, Stephanie was diagnosed with several mental health and behavioral health disorders — anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression.
When she was 12, her mother was placed in a behavioral health facility in Floyd County. That’s when Stephanie started consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana.
And after being involved in a nearly fatal truck accident, she was prescribed opioid painkillers. By the time she was 15, she was on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals — Adderall, Prozac and Hydrocodone.
“I like this feeling nothing thing, because it seems to be working better than everything else,” the 30-year-old recollected.
The drug-fueled numbness, she said, was a welcome reprieve from the torrents of agony over her mother’s daily struggles — which, in hindsight, she now recognizes as the origin point of her own battle with substance dependency.
“The biggest gateway drug,” she said, “is unresolved trauma.”
Nicholas and Stephanie met in 2009. At that time, each agreed that their lives were “a mess.”
A year earlier, Stephanie returned to the local community from Florida. At that point, she said her mother wasn’t just using prescription painkillers, but selling them as well.
“I hated them, but after so long, I kind of just jumped on the party wagon and started using them strong — 80-milligram Oxycontin,” she said.
Meanwhile, Nicholas’ methamphetamine use continued.
“It just made me feel like Superman, really,” he recounted. “It made me feel like I could do more than I knew in my right mind that I could actually do … it made me delusional like that.”
At one point, Stephanie experienced a nearly fatal overdose. Then Nicholas was arrested for a litany of charges — criminal damage to property in the second degree, theft by taking and possession of methamphetamine.
Then there are the trips to the local detention center. Nicholas said he had "at least" 14 stays in the Bartow County Jail. Stephanie counted up around eight.
Stephanie ultimately ended up doing about 20 months in a residential substance abuse treatment (RSAT) and boot camp incarceration-alternative program. Nicholas ended up doing a 30-month prison sentence, with time split between Johnson State Prison in Wrightsville and the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
But the time behind bars did little to resolve either of their substance dependency issues.
“It was just as accessible in there as it was in the streets — all it did was warehouse me until I got back out,” Nicholas said. “I came out of prison and I needed rehab immediately.”
Within 10 days of his release, he said he was already using hard drugs again.
Stephanie recounted her RSAT experiences in 2010.
“Hopefully, it’s changed a lot since then,” she said. “The general population outside of the RSAT people, the actual prisoners, would always entice the people in RSAT, trying to get all kinds of different things.”
She said at least a dozen people in her group used drugs while in the RSAT program.
“They failed urine tests and [were] sent to actual prison,” she said, “from being exposed to the drugs inside of the prison.”
After finding out Stephanie was pregnant with their first child, who was born in August 2013, Nicholas said he stopped using meth for about four months. Yet he continued to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana.
“I wanted to change my life and I wanted to be a daddy,” he said. “But to be honest with you, I had no idea what ‘family’ even looked like, I had no idea what being a dad actually consists of.”
Nicholas and Stephanie separated in early 2014. Two weeks later, Stephanie discovered she was pregnant with their second child.
“GOD IS DOING A WORK IN US”
The McFalls' second daughter was born in December 2014. The two reconnected in 2016, and as Stephanie described it, "slowly began putting our family together."
Nicholas did not mince words. Simply put, he said methamphetamine destroyed his life.
“I have a 15-year-old daughter that, for about eight years, I had no contact with, just because my addiction had took me so far, in and out of prison and jail, to where, obviously, her grandparents were just protecting her from that dysfunction that I was exposed to for so long,” he said.
Drug use had a similar toll on Stephanie. She said it took away her freedom, her health, her morals and, ultimately, her children.
She said her absolute lowest point was after a relapse, when she took her two daughters to a friend’s house to keep them from being physically removed from her care.
“I had gone back to actively using meth and drinking,” she said. “It just seemed like second nature to do the best I could for her, even if it meant having to be away from anything that I loved, or anything that I wanted.”
Today, the McFalls see their children about four times a week. Stephanie said she’s optimistic that she and her spouse will regain at least some of their custody rights early next year.
“Our 15-month review is in February,” Stephanie said. “And we’ve done beyond everything that’s been asked of us.”
Nicholas likened the situation to a “valley” in their lives.
“But Jesus is using that valley,” he said. “Basically, He used it to break my heart to save my soul.”
For both Nicholas and Stephanie, their faith has played a prominent role in their recovery from substance abuse.
“Our boxes are checked off, we’re just riding the time out,” Nicholas said. “God is doing a work in us — he’s pruning out the things, he’s cutting away the things that are not going to be fruitful in our lives … this dysfunction that we grew up in, Lord, protect our daughters from that, even if it means we have to be without them.”
The McFalls also said they couldn’t have made it this far without ample support from numerous community organizations. Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter, Advocates for Children, LifePoint Church, Highland Rivers Health, Recovery Bartow, the local drug court program
and numerous Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous support groups all came to their aid in their most trying of times.
No one, Stephanie said, should feel ashamed to seek help for substance abuse issues. And as pivotal as the community’s existing resources are, she and her spouse agreed that more is needed to address the sheer volume of Bartow County’s drug use epidemic.
“We need more meetings, more peer support, we need a crisis stabilization center,” she said. “They need to go into treatment, they need detox, we need all of these things to take those steps to be re-entered back into society and then do the recovery.”
Not only are powerful narcotics readily available on Bartow’s black markets, Stephanie said where such drugs are being sold — and who is using them — may come as a surprise.
“Where you think all the drugs are going to be at, Parkway North or the bad areas, there’s just as much in the suburbs, there’s just as much in the Planters,” she said. “They’re everywhere — it can be the man under the bridge or the lawyer backing you up in court. You never know who is battling addiction.”
Even more shocking, perhaps, is how easy it is to find such illicit — and sometimes deadly — products in the community.
“The stuff that’s killing people left and right, the fentanyl and all the really strong super-drugs, is probably more accessible than marijuana,” she said. “I see somebody I know at least once a week dead in the newspaper, in the obituaries. Another sweet soul gone too soon.”
It’s perilous territory for anyone going though recovery, Stephanie said.
“Even five years clean, you’re still an addict, because you’re just one mistake away from going out into full-blown addiction,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to die from your addiction.”
Nicholas said he feels periodic bouts of shame and guilt — “moments where we think of ourselves lower than we should.” But that “pure desperation,” he said, also drove him to spiritual salvation.
“I know that no matter how things go in my life, how they turn out, I’m going to be OK,” he said.
Stephanie and Nicholas were married in 2018. Their daughters served as the flower girls for the ceremony.
Stephanie said she dreams about doing the simplest activities with her children — things like taking them to Build-A-Bear and washing their hair.
“You’d think brushing your daughters’ hair would be a bonding moment,” she said with a laugh. “It used to feel like an exorcism.”
Considering their upbringings, Nicholas said he and his spouse have had to learn how to be successful parents “on the fly.”
“We didn’t have mom and dad growing up and say ‘This is what family looks like,’ ‘this is what marriage is supposed to look like, ‘this is the way you love your wife,’” he said.
Or, as Stephanie put it, they’ve had to “become the parents they never had.”
Today, Nicholas’ mother is incarcerated. Stephanie’s mother died several years ago.
Time will tell whether or not the McFalls finally break the vicious, generational cycle of substance abuse. But in their daughters, Stephanie said she and her spouse have more than enough incentive to stay on the path of sobriety.
And on the day when their children do return home?
“We’re going to love them,” Stephanie said, “and we’re not going to let them go.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.