For Mackenzie Andrews, it was an idyllic bookend to the summer of 2010.
During the day, in rare Northwest tank-top weather, she kayaked the San Juan Islands with her childhood best friend, Alena. At dusk, the sun faded into a color so beautiful, she’d later describe it for an English class project. At night, she sat around the campfire singing along to the strum of a guitar.
Mackenzie was ready — excited, even — to start high school a few days later.
But when she returned home to Olympia, she could sense something was wrong.
We should probably sit down, her mom said soon after Mackenzie walked inside.
Where was her dad? Had he not come home?
The day Mackenzie learned her father had been arrested was the day her life imploded.
Debt threatened her family’s home. She soon decided to quit training in gymnastics, effectively ending her promising career. Her mom muffled cries at night, trying to hide her desperation from her only child. For years, Mackenzie’s father would remain absent from her life.
It was also a day of relief. Finally, tension at home might subside into peace.
Nearly eight years later, Mackenzie is a 21-year-old brimming with success. Soon, she will graduate with two University of Washington degrees: one in neurobiology, and another in bioengineering. She was nominated for the engineering school’s Dean’s medal. She’s a powerlifting champion and a budding entrepreneur. University lecturers rave; classmates can’t understand how she makes it all fit. Next year, she’ll pursue a masters at UW.
All the while, Mackenzie’s been searching.
She couldn’t have known it at the time. But her father’s arrest would send her on a yearslong quest, both academic and personal, to understand his stumbles and why her family fell apart. The pain of her family’s fracture would propel and shape her college career.
Addiction is a disease, her mother, Karina Andrews, told her at the time.
“I wanted proof,” Mackenzie says.
Just why Mackenzie’s family unraveled is something of a debate.
All agree they began as a happy bunch, with a math-whiz daughter who favored playing in the dirt to Barbies.
As a youngster, Mackenzie climbed everything. On playgrounds, she walked across the monkey bars.
“It was important to teach her how to fall,” Karina says.
Sometimes, she wore her parents out with her energy. Her first time on a gymnastics mat, she refused to leave. On a road trip, Mackenzie, just 6 years old, demanded math problems — square roots, no less — from the back seat.
Mackenzie spent hours wiring an electronics kit, a gift from her father. She first put him in checkmate in second grade. She loved sitting on his lap amid the jungle of wires ensnaring his office.
Karina, an artist, taught her daughter to shape clay figurines. Mark brought her to job sites and taught her how to splice wires into connectors.
She was so mature, her parents called her an “old soul.”
As a family, they often escaped for weekends in an RV, touring the West Coast. Both parents fondly recall one Easter Sunday at a rest stop, when Karina packed eggs with one-dollar coins, then hid them in the olive trees for young Mackenzie to search for, bounding around happily.
Since his childhood in California, Mark always had a knack for technical work.
But school bored him. He dropped out, got hooked on heroin and spent his 20s in and out of jail. At 28, he went to recovery and got clean.
A few years later, Mark started an electrical contracting business, doing custom projects for ritzy Bay Area homes. He found success, employing multiple people at the company’s height. He met Karina, and later hired a biplane to pull a sign proposing marriage.
At a job site in 1990, a lumber beam fell on Mark as he held a ladder below. The beam struck his back, leaving him with a watermelon-sized hematoma, slicing his liver and a kidney, and crushing his vertebrae. For decades, he’d struggle with pain so fierce, he’d sometimes collapse when it struck his back.
In 2002, the family moved to Olympia. Mark hoped to leave behind the hard labor of an electrician. He and Karina had hoped to flip houses and later dreamed of starting a glass business together.
Karina marks the construction accident as the cause of a steady, downward slide for Mark into prescription drug abuse — and worse, more than a decade later.
Mark was overprescribed by a doctor, she says. His moods began to swing wildly. Sometimes, she says, he was verbally abusive: shouting, yelling and calling her and Mackenzie names (Mark disputes this).
Mackenzie remembers him nodding off while driving.
“He was slipping away for a long time,” Karina says.
Mark says Karina overstates his substance issues at that time: It was his family’s deteriorating finances, the failing business venture and the 2008 financial crisis that sent him spiraling with stress. His wife, he says, refused to face their financial troubles, and he couldn’t talk to his family about the pressure (Karina says he wouldn’t talk).
Financial woes sent him to California for a few weeks of electrician’s work.
He couldn’t sleep.
On Sept. 2, 2010, police found Mark at the scene of a crash outside Novato, Calif., City Hall. He was pushing his wrecked Dodge Charger out of the intersection. Both of its air bags had deployed, according to a police report.
The report says a witness told an officer “he thought something was wrong” with Mark. The witness told police he had watched Mark run a stop sign, stop for a green light and then run a red light later, causing a slow-motion wreck with another vehicle.
According to the report, officers described Mark’s speech as “slow and slurred.” He struggled with balance.
“I kinda feel spacey,” he told officers. The report says Mark confided he had taken two Ambien pills the night before. Mark says now he had taken the Ambien by mistake.
Officers arrested him. The police report says Ambien was found in his left pocket and a prescription bottle for Oxycodone, with another man’s name on its label, was discovered in his right pocket.
In the trunk of his car, officers found a combination safe with pry marks.
Later, in an interview at the station, Mark told officers he had found the safe on the side of the road and didn’t know to whom it belonged.
A locksmith cracked open the safe. Inside, officers found an estimated half-million dollars of jewelry, cash and collectors’ stamps, along with documents bearing the name of a wealthy client for whom Mark had worked for more than 20 years.
It had been reported stolen the day before.
Mark pleaded guilty to felony burglary and driving under the influence, and received a suspended sentence that allowed him to attend drug treatment in California. He also got three years’ probation. Meanwhile, Karina, a school-bus driver in Olympia, stared down a new reality with Mackenzie.
The family was about $178,000 in debt, a surprise that Karina says left her and Mackenzie “deer in the headlights.”
The family owned two homes on back-to-back lots in Olympia, living in one and renting out the other.
Karina decided to foreclose their home. She pushed many of their belongings to the rental in a wheelbarrow.
For years, Mackenzie had been competing in gymnastics, often spending up to 30 hours a week practicing at the gym. That summer, she quit training, giving up her childhood passion.
Karina had always made grocery shopping a math game for young Mackenzie, asking her to calculate items’ values by price and quantity. Thriftiness became a game again. Creativity stretched $10 into a week of meals at times.
For a while, they were on food stamps. On probation, Mark was awarded full disability in 2011. As a child of someone disabled, Mackenzie received some funds, too, which helped.
When Mackenzie and Karina found a portion of a $10 bill chewed to pieces by Mackenzie’s dog, Lucy, a Google search told them they needed more than half of the currency to exchange at a bank.
A few days later, they found the rest of the bill’s shreds. Karina stuck a pin in the shreds and displayed them on the mantel, where they sit today.
“It was a symbol. If things got really rough, we have this,” Mackenzie says. “We hid it when Dad came back.”
Mackenzie’s relationship with her father deteriorated as Mark, living in California, bounced in and out of their lives, and prison, too.
For much of high school and into college, Mackenzie wasn’t ready to talk to him.
“I yelled,” she says, recalling a counseling session with her father in 2012. “I don’t remember what I said. It was not very nice.”
At the end of his probation, a petty-theft conviction landed Mark a prison sentence at San Quentin State Prison, beginning in July 2014. That November, California voters approved a ballot measure to reduce the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. Mark’s case qualified.
On Dec. 10, 2014, Mark was paroled from prison. When he got out, his back was seizing with spasms from the 1990 construction accident, he says. He tried to get to an emergency room for help, but couldn’t manage a five-hour wait.
Hours after his prison release, an officer found Mark unconscious in the driver’s seat of his wrecked car, according to a police report. He took a bus from prison, picked up his Volkswagen Cabrio, drank, scored some heroin, began to drive home and overdosed.
He was loaded into an ambulance and woke up in the emergency room without any memory of what had happened.
Soon, he was back in San Quentin.
So often, our curiosities are personal. Our motivation to explore and discover comes from deep within.
For Mackenzie, who cruised through high school and earned a full scholarship to the University of Washington during her family’s upheaval, college courses in neurobiology and bioengineering offered her the chance to explore the brain’s wiring and answer nagging questions about her dad.
Her sophomore year, Mackenzie joined a drug-addiction research lab.
In her interview, she spoke of her father’s struggles. That’s not unusual. Many researchers there have family ties to addiction or mental-health issues, says Antony Abraham, a postdoctoral researcher and Mackenzie’s mentor.
“Science is a route to improve or understand that part of your life and to make that difference long-lasting,” he says.
Mackenzie understood the context behind the lab’s work, Abraham says, because she could “empathize with someone who is trying to be abstinent and keeps relapsing.”
The scientists at the UW’s Chavkin Lab are studying the effects of stress, in particular the relationship stress has with the brain’s kappa opioid receptor.
The researchers trained mice to poke their noses at a lever. Wait long enough, and they are rewarded with food. Researchers test the mice using a device called an optrode to measure brain activity.
Stressing the creatures, they’ve found, activates the mice’s kappa opioid receptor and promotes compulsive responses, Abraham says. When stressed, the mice’s timing fell apart.
It works similarly in humans, Abraham says. “It’s not that people can shake themselves out of these issues.” Difficult events and stressful periods often disrupt abstinence.
Mackenzie has been designing and constructing a new optrode with CAD software and a 3-D printer. Her smaller, sleeker optrode is more comfortable for the mice and can measure two brain regions at once.
Her device will help researchers see mice’s neural activity in networks — and more like the human brain.
Further understanding could help treat people.
Developing drugs to disrupt the stress system could help people manage what makes them vulnerable to addiction.
“When you begin thinking about human behavior and think about it from a biological perspective, it’s easier to make sense of people’s actions,” Abraham says.
Still, even as she explored the science of addiction, she kept her distance from Mark. She never visited her father in prison. She didn’t answer his letters. He sent prison artwork, and heard nothing back.
“I ignored what happened to my dad a lot. I never let it emotionally affect me,” she says. “I talk about it and forget it was me.”
Engaging with the biology of addiction was her way to accept what had happened to her father and to make something positive out of pain.
Her education extended beyond the laboratory.
When Mackenzie found an Honors class that would take her inside a prison, she “just had to take it.” The course in summer 2016 paired UW students with inmate students.
She visited the Monroe Correctional Complex four times, first for a tour, and then to work side-by-side with the inmates on a research project to survey their fellow inmates about childhood trauma.
The UW students were told to dress modestly — no holes, no cleavage, nothing too tight. Their shoes couldn’t contain metal.
In some areas, the facilities looked like a college campus, with flowers, a garden and a grass walking park outside. Inside, bright, cheery colors and polished floors greeted the visitors. Then, the intercom blared, demanding a head count.
Areas of higher security looked like the jails you see in movies, Mackenzie says — roommates, bars and little freedom.
On her tour, Mackenzie couldn’t help but see her father “basically living in a cage” in San Quentin.
Meeting the inmate students was a revelation.
“They were so bright, well-spoken, curious,” Mackenzie says. “They wanted to learn.”
Over several sessions, the college and inmate students bonded. After they all had presented their work, Mackenzie cried.
“Leaving didn’t seem fair,” she says. “These guys seemed so normal. They had thoughts and feelings and families … they were probably no different than my dad.”
Mackenzie had kept his letters. She hung his artwork in her dorm room.
But for years, Mark met silence in trying to connect.
“She was pissed off,” he says. “She had a wonderful life turned upside-down in a heartbeat.”
He turned to poetry, which he knew she loved.
One work he sent concluded: “Mackenzie my love, I have faith you know / Sure as the stars shine, and the winds still blow / Soon together we’ll be, traveling our mysterious road / Wise old soul, determined and bold.”
He received a series of poems in return.
“A lot of her poetry and artwork is about me. I think it was a great way for her to express feelings about our relationship,” Mark says, making a dagger motion toward his heart when asked how it felt to receive her words.
On a sunny day in March, with cherry blossoms in bloom on campus, Mark met his daughter for the first time in about four years.
Conversation ping-ponged between past and present. She told him about the optrode. What wavelength of light did the optrode use, he wondered. No one asks that.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the man who gave her that electronics kit so many years ago.
He asked about her boyfriend, Jake. They toured campus. She pointed out her freshman dorm building.
Their conversation was familiar and foreign, normal and fumbling.
Mark’s been out of prison for more than six months now and clean since his 2014 arrest, he said in an interview later. He remains on parole and is caring for his aging parents in California. He wants stability, and to reclaim his life and earn his way back into Mackenzie’s.
He and Karina are divorcing. It’s messy, contentious and painful. He’s grateful his wife kept Mackenzie on track. He’s grateful Mackenzie worked so hard to learn about addiction, to understand his brain’s wiring, to shed her anger and to give him a chance.
When he talks about Mackenzie, he beams with pride.
“It’s hard sometimes to go back and wish things had gone differently when it’s turned out so well — she’s thrived.”
Mackenzie is tough. She’s a powerlifting champion who can squat more than 300 pounds. She fought her way into her dream school. She flourished in one of its most challenging majors. She rarely cries.
At weddings, though, she finds tears trickle down her face during the dad-daughter dance.
Will he walk her down the aisle? Will he be around at all?
Now, it’s up to him.
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