SALT LAKE CITY — Emma Robison’s story illustrates just how unfair life can be.
But thanks to the generosity of others, hers is also the story of how simple acts of kindness can transform even the most dire situations.
The petite 6-year-old was born addicted to drugs she never had a choice in taking. The methamphetamines robbed her of physical, mental and emotional abilities that most of us take for granted.
“When we first saw the girls, they were 3 months old, and Leah weighed eight pounds,” said their mother, Freyja Robison. “Emma weighed four pounds eight ounces.”
Freyja and her husband, Shad, got a phone call about the twins when their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was 2½. All three girls had the same biological mother, and despite the significant challenges that awaited them, the Robisons fell madly in love with those tiny twins.
“Leah is very mobile,” Freyja said. “She has about 80 percent of normal function.”
Emma wasn’t as lucky.
“Emma has struggled with feeding and all kinds of sensory issues her whole life,” Freyja said. “She hated to be touched.”
She hated being touched, hugged and kissed.
“But she loved being swaddled,” Freyja said. “She loved deep sensory. That’s how we survived. We could swaddle her, and there was so much touch everywhere, she would eat.”
A few years ago, a friend whose son was wheelchair-bound told her about a group of runners who made it possible for special-needs children to participate in races by pushing them in strollers or wheelchairs. That group was Addict II Athlete, and it turned out to be just the kind of extended family the Robisons needed.
“They love our kids,” she said. “They love everything about our kids. We use them as our legs and our bodies and our hearts and souls to push our kids through races.”
While Freyja and Shad recently ran their first half marathon, she claims she’s not a runner. She does a few 5Ks with Emma, but she leaves the lengthy mileage to the runners who found their own support and salvation through a group that uses exercise as a tool to battle addiction.
It isn’t just that the AIIA athletes are willing to push Emma, just as they pushed her older sister, Elizabeth, until she passed away 18 months ago. It’s that they understand the challenges her children face in ways that most people cannot.
“As horrible as it sounds, our kids are addicts,” Freyja said. “I don’t understand everything they go through, but when they do and when they see our kids, they high-five them, they love them.”
She is also looking to the group to help her explain to Leah just how precarious sobriety can be. Freyja knows that as Leah gets older, she’ll be exposed to addictive substances.
“If she ever gets introduced to anything addictive, she’ll be hooked in a heartbeat,” she said. “We want her to have that support, and I know this group will be there for her.” The runners in the group understand what it’s like to live with addiction. They know what can be lost in the struggle, and just how dark certain situations can seem.
But they also know what it’s like to triumph over addiction. In fact, the beauty of AIIA is that it allows members to take responsibility for their recoveries, including the decisions that led to their addiction, while also allowing them to break free from the stigma.
Addiction doesn’t define them, and with the help of the group, it also doesn’t limit them. They become, through their accomplishments as individuals and as a group, so much more than "addicts."
“We can do hard things, and we’ve been through a lot,” said Lisa Hancock, the Salt Lake team captain for Addict II Athlete, which meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Salt Lake Community College’s Lifetime Fitness Center. “It makes us stronger to go through what we have and come out on the other side.”
She said they speak openly about addiction because they want those still struggling to know there is always hope.
“People think something like meth is too hard to get off,” she said. “They think it isn’t possible. How can they know it’s possible if they don’t see it?” Hancock will celebrate six years of sobriety from meth and alcohol in September, and she said sharing not only reduces stigma, it also reveals how different, successful and productive people can be if they deal with their addictions.
“I’m not going to be silent,” she said. “People need to know there is hope.”
Which is the 102-mile Break the Cycle relay Hancock organized this weekend, which serves multiple purposes. Yes, they hope to raise the $3,800 they need to buy Emma a new racing wheelchair. (Donations are still being accepted at addicttoathlete.org/donate)
But they also hope to let those struggling, and their families, know that the chains of addiction can always be broken. And that feat is easier to accomplish with help.
The Robisons have been the beneficiaries of that help, especially Elizabeth and Emma.
“We call them our loaned legs,” Freyja said. “But really, they’re a loaned heart, soul, body. They donate and leave so much on the trail with our kids. It’s hard to put into words what they do for our kids.”
That’s because so much of what her family receives from their AIIA friends is more easily felt than described.
“The light that is in their eyes when they’re racing,” Freyja said. “The light that’s in their eyes when they just see these people.” They each need and receive something unique from their friendship with Addict II Athlete’s members, whether they run, volunteer or cheer. But it is especially critical for little Emma.
“Leah will go and run and ride her bike,” Freyja said. “Emma is kind of trapped. When she gets in the racing chair, she’s totally free. She laughs and giggles and has the most amazing time when she’s racing. I see her smile more in a racing chair than any other time in her life. This group loves her for who she is. They don’t require anything of her whatsoever. They just love to run with her.”
Hancock chokes back emotion as she talks about how she pushed Emma’s older sister Elizabeth in one of her first races after joining Addict II Athlete two years ago. Pushing a racing chair is physically challenging but emotionally rewarding.
“It’s very emotional,” she said. “Knowing the emotion the child is going through while you’re pushing, it’s just an amazing feeling. It gives you the adrenaline to continue.”
And that’s really what this weekend was about.
Too many people understand how cruel and unfair life can be. And what this group of addicts turned athletes showed us this weekend is that it isn’t hard to make sure they also know how a little love, friendship and support can transform tragedy into triumph.