LARGO — One Tuesday morning last May, after dropping off her 9-year-old son, Mickey, at school, Melissa Dysart swallowed so much vodka and Xanax she blacked out.
She was overwhelmed by stress. She had a 3-week-old son, Brayden. Her fiance, Michael Brown, faced prison. Her home in Palm Harbor was in foreclosure. Her mother, grandmother and godmother had recently died. A drinker and drug user since age 12, she turned to the only thing she thought could help.
She woke up the next day at the Suncoast Center, a Largo mental health clinic. In her stupor, she had thrown a remote at Brown's head, punched his mother, Pam, and threatened to kill herself. Police hospitalized her under the Baker Act.
At the clinic, child-protection officers told her she was forbidden to see her children. Mickey was taken to live at his father's house in Atlanta. Brayden was taken in by Brown's parents, Pam and John Brown.
Last year in Pinellas County, more than 900 children were moved into relatives' or foster homes due to their birth parents' abuse or neglect. Like Dysart, they were given one option to see their kids again: a court-appointed case plan with months of counseling, constant drug testing and few promises. In court, they call it "reunification."
In June, Dysart, 34, enrolled in parenting, drug counseling and anger management classes. She joined Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous and started a 12-step plan. When she wasn't at work, she attended three meetings a day.
Without Mickey and Brayden, she felt empty and guilty and alone. What she had done was so shameful, so wrong, that she had trouble forgiving herself. "So many times I thought, they probably deserve better than me," she said. "I should probably just go away."
At night when she felt overwhelmed, she remembered a movie she had watched often with Mickey. Her mantra was that of Dory, the blue fish in Finding Nemo.
"Just keep swimming," she told herself, alone in her room. "Just keep swimming."
• • •
The first days for the Browns were scarred with unspeakable anger.
John was 65, a longtime county craftworker with an arduous job and aching knees. Pam was an athletic director at Oldsmar Christian School, where she had worked for 30 years. Neither wanted to be parents again. Their only son had been born 40 years ago.
State investigators inspected their home and grilled them in interviews. Brayden wailed through the night. Pam quit her job to stay home with Brayden, and John, who had never changed his son's diapers, learned the messy details firsthand with his grandson. The Browns, exhausted, prayed for help.
When they learned Dysart was working to get Brayden back, the Browns seethed. Was she doing this out of spite? Would she be the same callous, careless mother as before? They were growing close to him, taking him every Sunday to Oldsmar Baptist Church. They didn't want him to leave.
Dysart could only see Brayden a few hours a week at McDonald's. The Browns waited silently several tables away. After she gave him back, she sat in her car and cried.
Months passed as Dysart worked through her case plan, worked as a waitress at Sonny's restaurant and moved into her own home in Clearwater. She stayed clean and pleaded for the Browns' forgiveness. In December, when they agreed to let her keep Brayden overnight, she bought a Christmas tree and toys.
On March 9, after the court approved, Brayden became Dysart's baby again. Earlier this month, she threw his first birthday party at Dunedin's Edgewater Park.
"He wakes up every day," she said, "with a smile on his face."
• • •
On Thursday, Brayden's diaper peeked out from his black slacks. He wore a tiny clip-on tie and shiny black shoes. His blond hair was unruly, and his blue eyes were wide open. He stomped around a conference room in the Pinellas County Courthouse.
Ten families had come here to share their own stories of case plans and anger and reunification at the second annual Reunification Celebration, attended by judges, caseworkers and guests.
Of the 900 Pinellas children last year removed from their parents' care, more than 800 were returned.
Dysart stood at a podium to speak, reading a Mother's Day card from Mickey. "He knows I would go to hell and back for my baby," she said. "He knows that I did."
Brayden lives in Dysart's room, where she can watch him sleep. Mickey, who still lives in Atlanta, will be visiting her soon. The Browns watch Brayden while she's at work and bring him to Sonny's to say hi.
As Brayden began to crawl away Thursday, Dysart looked over and cooed his name. He stopped and stared back.
"I see you," she said. "I see you."