Addiction nearly stole everything from Zac. When his daughter Holly was born, he faced a choice he wasn’t ready to make - become the father she needed or lose her forever. What he never expected was the difference a family of strangers could make in the battle ahead of him.
Substance abuse crept slowly into Zac’s life, laying its first claim on him in high school when he started drinking. By his early 20s, he was dealing drugs, and by 30 his “recreational use” had escalated to full blown addiction. The once bright student and loving son found himself homeless, jobless and out of reach of the people who loved him.
He met Holly’s birth mother in the midst of addiction while living on the streets. Their turbulent life changed little when they found out she was pregnant with twins. Zac was still using when police arrested him on a drug charge a few months before the babies were due.
One day in late January, he received a phone call. Over the crackling of the jailhouse phone his mother broke the news that one of the twins, his son, had died in utero. His daughter still clung to life. Their birth mother was scheduled for a C-section the following week. Just this once, Zac’s mom offered to bail him out.
Holly was born in early February 2017. She was premature, her little body bearing the effects of drug use during pregnancy. In the NICU, she slept in her glass box amid the glow and beep of various monitors. There, Zac first laid eyes on his daughter. Too fragile to hold, Holly’s first connection with her father was a tender hand wrapped around her tiny foot.
“Daddy will always be here for you, no matter what.” Those were the first words he ever spoke to her.
Shortly after first meeting his daughter, Zac sat in the hospital chapel waiting to say goodbye to his son. A nurse entered holding a tiny box, her eyes full of tears. Inside lay the still, breathless body of Holly’s twin brother, whom Zac named Jacob Frederick Cannada, after his grandfather.
Zac still recalls the intensity of so much joy and grief overlapping in the span of a just few hours.
The couple’s evident drug use brought Child and Family Services (CFS) into the picture before Holly ever left the hospital. Upon the worker’s arrival, Zac realized neither of his children would be coming home with him. From the hospital, each member of the new family went in a different direction. The mother left town. Zac stayed put. And little Holly went home with the family that would change her and her father’s lives forever.
Holly’s birth planted a seed of longing deep within Zac.
He wanted his daughter. He consulted a social worker about what it would take to get her back. The recommendations she made, however, were numerous and hard to swallow.
Looking back, Zac describes living in “survival mode” during those first months of Holly’s life. He lived only for his weekly visits with Holly, the time in between growing blurry and meaningless.
“She was my source of peace,” he said. “I could finally relax with her in my arms.”
It was at the end of one such visit that Zac first met Holly’s foster mother, Katie. He described her as a perfectly lovely person but didn’t yet recognize the impact she and her husband, Matt, were having on his life.
Recognizing Zac’s desire to parent his daughter, CFS created a plan to move them toward reunification. That plan comprised a list of requirements, including parenting classes, drug testing, inpatient drug treatment, mental health evaluations, etc.
Getting Holly back would call for a complete lifestyle change and an uphill battle against the monster of addiction.
He tried, but conflicting forces pulled Zac in opposite directions. On one hand, he loved his daughter and wanted nothing more than to bring her home. On the other, his addiction held him hostage in a self-destructive cycle. He started parenting classes twice and dropped out twice. His attendance at scheduled visits with Holly became sporadic. Some he missed for lack of a ride; others he missed having landed back in jail. Often, when he did make a visit, he showed up high.
“I was struggling in every way you can define the word,” he said.
Holly was nearly seven months old when that struggle brought Zac to a crossroads. Newly released from jail, he stood graveside at the funeral of a friend one weekend. When the drug and alcohol infused wake had ended, Zac chose to stay behind while his friends left to continue the party in town. As he sat alone reflecting on his friend’s death, he knew the time had come to choose which direction his own life would take.
Who did he want to be? Did he really want to be a dad? Was it worth fighting to be part of Holly’s life? The answer, he knew, was yes.
There and then, Zac made the decision to get better. He walked from the wake to the nearest inpatient drug treatment facility and knocked on the front door.
“It was an act of desperation to walk up and knock on that door,” Zac recalled. “For the first time ever, I was completely honest with another human being about what my drug use really looked like. I laid everything out there.”
He left the facility that night and reached out to his aunt for support. He wrote out everything about his use: his history, his reasons to overcome addiction, his hopes for his daughter. And upon hand-delivering the written statement back to the facility, Zac was admitted for inpatient treatment.
“I used up until the day I walked in that door,” he said. “November 10, 2017 was the last day I ever used.” The battle had begun – for his daughter and for his life.
The in-patient treatment facility was located hours from Holly’s foster home. Due to the distance, their weekly visit times shrank from six hours to two. But for those two hours a week, Holly saw her dad clean and sober for the first time in her life.
In the following months, Zac took huge strides toward recovery. Upon completing inpatient treatment, he entered a sober living house, attended 12-step recovery meetings and joined a parenting support group.
He remembers the visit with Holly when the facilitator informed him that, next time, he needed to bring his own diaper bag. Zac had never changed a diaper in his life. Thankfully, the men in his support group gathered around him, cluing him in on the mysteries of diaper rash, blow outs and proper diaper-changing techniques. At the next visit, Zac changed his first diaper – his daughter’s.
Life began to take on a new meaning for Zac as his identity changed from addict to Dad. Thanks to the Petersons, Zac got to witness his daughter’s first steps, first words and first birthday through photos and videos they sent. Photos of Holly’s big brown eyes and gummy grin covered the bulletin board in Zac’s room, above which he wrote “motivation.”
Gradually, Zac fulfilled each requirement in his reunification plan. He got a job, passed months of drug tests and moved into his own apartment. Finally, the day arrived that would decide Holly’s future. In that meeting, a social worker asked Zac on behalf of the Peterson family if he would consider relinquishing his parental rights to Holly. The family who had loved her since she was born, the only family she’d ever known, wanted to keep her forever.
But Zac shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
When reminded that he would have to continue passing drug tests if he wanted to move forward, Zac stood firm.
“You can drug test me every single day if you want. I’ll be clean.”
At that moment, Matt said he realized how much Zac truly loved his daughter. He’d fought too hard to give up on her. The decision was made. Zac and Holly would be reunified.
Though Matt and Katie never doubted Zac’s love for Holly, they now faced a transition they hadn’t expected. He’d done it. He had overcome his addiction and earned the right to be Holly’s dad. Though heartbroken over their own loss, the couple chose the hard road of supporting Zac for the sake of the child they all loved.
Zac began picking Holly up and dropping her off at Matt and Katie's home for visits, giving her foster family their first glimpse of transformation he’d undergone. Zac, it turned out, was a great dad.
In September 2018, Zac took Holly home for good.
Matt and Katie celebrated his success. The relationship between the two families evolved into a friendship. Zac learned from Matt and Katie’s experience. They got to stay connected to the little life they’d guarded since it began.
“I really feel like I won the lottery with the people who took care of my daughter when I couldn’t,” Zac said. “The most selfless thing you can do is care for another person’s child and then give them back. It was the most important part of my recovery journey and one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever received.”
But God was not done writing Zac’s story when He brought Holly home.
Inspired by his rehabilitation, Zac became a licensed mental health and addiction support specialist, mentoring men and women through the same battle he’d fought. Today, he uses his experience to help other parents overcome addiction and navigate the child welfare system.
“It’s never too late to turn it around. From when my daughter was born, it took 17 months for me to get to a place where I could parent. You never know when someone is going to turn a corner.”
Zac’s story is one of glorious success, one made possible by the family that stood in the gap.
Though Zac’s gain was Matt and Katie’s loss, the couple found hope in what reunification meant for Holly. Now a bubbly, happy 6-year-old, Holly will never have to wonder what she is worth. Her dad fought for her and showed her exactly how loved she is. That message will be clear as she grows up and hears her own story.