Debra Gwartney’s oldest daughters seemed to have it all. Smart and popular, Amanda and Stephanie had inherited their designer father’s artistic talent and bold spirit. But their parents’ bitter ’91 divorce and Debra’s move with the kids from Tucson to Eugene, Ore., left the sisters angry and troubled. What at first seemed normal rebellion turned deadly serious, as alcohol, drugs and a street subculture loomed ever larger in the girls’ lives. Then one day in 1995, Amanda, 16, and Stephanie, 14, hopped a freight train and disappeared. “I woke in panic, lived my day in panic, went to bed in panic,” says Debra, 51, a journalist, who recalls the desperate months that followed in her book Live Through This. Together with Amanda, now 29 and a married mom of two, and Stephanie, 27, a college student, Debra spoke to PEOPLE about her family’s descent into chaos and how they healed.
DEBRA: They were fabulous kids. Amanda was into ballet, super-responsible. Stephanie was the child teachers fell in love with.
AMANDA: Our childhood was happy but tumultuous, because Mom and Dad fought a lot.
STEPHANIE: I was 10 when they divorced, and Amanda was 12.
DEBRA: I moved for a job at the University of Oregon. I was determined: “I’ll make a home so satisfying the kids won’t know the difference.”
STEPHANIE: Amanda and I felt a lot of guilt about Dad. And Mom was working multiple jobs to support us and our little sisters Mary and Mollie. It was very structured, but Mom was doing so much. The bottom was falling out.
DEBRA: One day I got a call from Amanda’s principal. She’d started a small fire in her junior high bathroom. I felt we had entered new territory.
AMANDA: I don’t know why I did it. We needed to talk to Mom so bad in those days, but you were so stressed out. I just wanted to hear, “What’s going on with you?”
DEBRA: I wasn’t communicating well; I was just going. After the fire, Amanda was banned from school activities. She would skip school. And Stephanie, being loyal, did the same.
STEPHANIE: There was a need for angry self-expression.
AMANDA: Mom took away my combat boots or anything that seemed “angry.”
STEPHANIE: We didn’t think the Mohawks we got were even that angry, but Mom did.
DEBRA: When the school year was over, they went to their dad’s in Tucson. One day Amanda took every pill she could find in the house.
AMANDA: I felt so empty. I didn’t know what else to do.
DEBRA: Her father and I were frantic. She was in inpatient treatment for three weeks. Back in Eugene in the fall, both girls started smoking pot and drinking. They wouldn’t come home at night. The books say, “Be careful who they hang out with,” but how do you stop it once it’s begun?
AMANDA: Mom had ultimatums—”If you do this you can’t live under my roof.” Drinking beer was a big one.
DEBRA: You’re making me sound like I was Hitler!
AMANDA: It felt like you were. Sorry.
DEBRA: I loved them fiercely and I never stopped. I tried working with their teachers, family therapy, we went to church. Finally, I sent them to a wilderness program for troubled teens.
STEPHANIE: At first I was pretty angry, but then I got into it.
AMANDA: When it was done, I wanted to come home so bad. But Mom put us in foster care.
DEBRA: The head of the program told me they hadn’t progressed enough to come home. I thought, “I’ve screwed everything up; I’d better listen.”
AMANDA: When we finally did come home, we met friends who were going to hop a train and go south.
DEBRA: I didn’t see Amanda again for three months and Stephanie for nine.
AMANDA: I thought this was better for all of us because it was so horrible when we were fighting. I really thought, “She’ll forget about us.”
STEPHANIE: These people we met, kids in their teens and 20s, [called themselves] “travelers.” It was a sort of nomadic tribe.
AMANDA: We slept in abandoned buildings, under bridges. We’d learned survival tools in wilderness therapy!
STEPHANIE: We’d panhandle, listen to music …
AMANDA: … talk, drink beer, search out public bathrooms. I loved having everything in my life on my back. Then I started doing more drugs, and it got ugly. I overdosed on heroin in Tucson. My heart stopped beating, and I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. I needed my mommy.
DEBRA: Amanda came home, but I had no idea where Stephanie was. I got it in my head that she was in San Francisco. I searched the youth shelters, but they would say, “Even if your child is in the next room, we can’t tell you.” I knew that if Stephanie didn’t want to be found, I wouldn’t find her.
STEPHANIE: My mother’s grief and panic felt so distant to me.
DEBRA: I remember thinking, “If I could just cry.” The devastation was so deep that easy emotion wouldn’t come. My therapist said, “We’ve got to think about what you’ll do if she’s dead.” Stephanie finally called. She was in Austin. My relief was staggering, but she wasn’t calling to come home, she needed money. After several weeks, Stephanie finally agreed to return.
STEPHANIE: I never thought I’d live on the streets forever. I just wanted to soak up experience. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I still feel blessed that Amanda and I forged safely through a very dark but very exciting time. It didn’t happen immediately, but I was able to reconnect with my mother. The more I’ve built my own life, the closer she and I are. I talk to her more than to anybody else.
AMANDA: I have a lot of remorse because I knew what Mom was going through. I’m sad that we couldn’t communicate. I feel like I’ll parent a little differently, voice my emotions more. It’s interesting, my mom and I have ended up really enjoying each other, and she’s the best grandmother ever.
DEBRA: I deeply regret those lost years. I want to rage at someone and say, “I get it, I made mistakes. Now can I have half of those years back?” But maybe we had to go through that to get the friendship we have now. My daughters are dear friends—people I want to know for the rest of my life.