Seven women on their personal journeys to sobriety—and the obstacles they still face.
“THERE’S NO SINGLE FACE FOR THIS OPIOID EPIDEMIC—BLACK, WHITE, HOMELESS, OR IN A $5,000 SUIT, I’VE SEEN THEM ALL TAKEN OUT BY THESE DRUGS.”
—Rebecca, 26, currently job searching and in treatment in New York City; eight months sober
In her words…
If you’d met me last year, you would have met a conniving, spiteful, evil person. You would have met a monster.
My addiction started September 23, 2012, when I got into a car accident and the doctor prescribed Percocet. Next thing I knew, instead of taking it to relieve pain, I was taking it because I was chemically dependent on it.
I’d never used drugs prior to that. I’m from a middle-class family. My dad and my mom are still together. I had a really decent, average childhood. But after I was prescribed the Percocet, it was a downward spiral into a black abyss. The sickest part? I’d healed up pretty well, and when the doctor asked me my pain level—1 to 10—I told him a 5. Five, and he gave me opioids. I blame myself for allowing what happened afterward. But I do feel like it was inappropriate for a doctor to prescribe such a powerful pain medication to a 20-year-old the way he did.
So many times I would say, “Oh man, I don’t want to do this; I’m going to stop,” and yet you’re stuck because you’re sick and you need your drugs. Yes, you have free will but you physically cannot resist. You cannot control your thoughts. When I tell you it was a full takeover, I’m talking Nazi Germany.
I never went to heroin, but my pill addiction got so bad that—you know how you lay your clothes out for work before going to bed? I would make sure I had my drugs set up by my pillow where I could reach out and take them just so I could get up in the morning and use the bathroom. It was that drastic. Because when I woke up—I can’t even find the right words—I felt like I was in the middle of death’s doors. Now, as soon as that drug hit my system, it was a 360. I would go to the gym; I was ready for anything. But without it I literally couldn’t get out of bed.
I got more and more isolated, living alone on disability; I cut off my family because I believed they wouldn’t understand. But last year I got so delusional I couldn’t hide what was going on from them anymore. When I told my parents, they were like, “What? You’re addicted to prescription medications?” It was so foreign to them. They’re the reason I came into the Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Harlem, where I’ve been in treatment since January of this year.
Detox was brutal. The pain you go through is breathtaking—physically but also mentally and emotionally. I had fallen in love with this drug. I was using it as a best friend. I was using it as family. I was using it as a lover. It became everything to me. And when I parted from it, it was worse than a broken heart.
Now I’m coming to terms with having feelings like sadness, even hunger. I’ve been under the influence of a drug that made me feel nothing for so long I have to relearn things. Imagine not being able to smell for five years, and all of a sudden one day you can. It’s like you’re being bamboozled from every side with these different scents and you’re fascinated, but at the same time you’re scared.
I’m so grateful to ARC, and I’m due to graduate soon. Every day I stay sober is more of a confirmation that I can do this, that I wasn’t born an addict, and that’s not who I am. I’m working to help women who are incarcerated, because during my addiction, I was arrested for stupid, petty little things (I don’t have any felonies) and saw so many people doing crazy time for drugs.
There’s no single face for this opioid epidemic—black, white, homeless, or wearing a $5,000 suit, I’ve seen them all taken out by these drugs. What I also see is so much buried potential. Like a diamond before it’s polished or cut is just a dirty old stone until you invest in it. That’s how a lot of us addicts are. We just lost our way. When someone helps us find our true selves and what we’re capable of, it’s like, Wow, maybe I can do this.
“I WAS IN REHAB FOR OXY WHEN A GUY IN REHAB INTRODUCED ME TO HEROIN.”
—Anee List, 35, full-time mom in Phoenix, seven years sober
Jann Blackstone, M.D., a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, is on a mission to replace “stepfamily” with “bonus family.” “Step implies negative things—wicked, evil,” she explains on her blog. “A bonus is a reward for a job well done.”
Her daughter Anee never quite bought that idea in their blended family. Now 35, she says, “All my siblings are from my stepdad. They’re blond and have the same last name. My sister was a cheerleader. I have dark hair and a lot of tattoos. I just always felt really different and separate, which I think is a pretty common among drug addicts—like everybody had this instruction book to life that I didn’t get. The last-name thing was huge. All I ever wanted was to grow up and have a baby and a husband with the same name because I never felt like I had a team.”
Anee started partying with pot and booze with kids at school. But when she was 16, she found what she was looking for. “I got into a fight with a boyfriend and broke my hand punching through the side of a house,” she says. “The doctor prescribed me Vicodin, and it went from there to OxyContin. I met the guy who introduced me to heroin in rehab when I went to get off the pills.”
Her mom realized Anee was dabbling with drugs but not the full extent of her addiction and certainly didn’t know about her heroin use. “She hid it well. But I’m a professional,” says Dr. Blackstone, who has written six books on divorce and parenting. “I have to say I was really in denial.”
By her early twenties Anee was living on her own, raking in cash as a hairstylist at an edgy salon—and spending it on heroin. When she wasn’t at work, she’d hole up and smoke and snort $240 worth a day. “I was living in a residential hotel,” she says, “and I just hung out with my cat in my leather pants watching Intervention. It’s mostly judge-y, judge-y: You don’t wanna look at yourself, so look at someone else and judge how messed up they are. But then you’re rooting for them too.”
The years rolled on, punctuated by attempts to quit. One of her hair clients, a guy named Morgan she’d met in rehab, watched her go downhill while he stayed sober. “She got to the point where she was doing the heroin nod while cutting my hair,” he says. “And I would give her shit about it. My girlfriend would say, ‘Why are going to this woman who could potentially cut your ear off?’ But Anee was my friend.”
In 2010 he came in for his cut the day after Anee had broken up with a man she’d been with for three years. “He was like, ‘You look really bad—do you want to go to a meeting?’” she remembers. “And I said yes and we went, and that was it. I was so sick of being a slave.”
She has never stopped thanking him. (“For the record, I’m pretty sure I asked her that on many occasions,” he says, shrugging off the gesture.) This time Anee devoted herself to the 12 steps in a way she hadn’t before, and they worked. “I had to redo everything,” she says. “I had to get new friends and find new activities. I had to learn how to interact with humans again.” One of those humans ended up marrying her, and they moved to Phoenix, where there’s a thriving women’s recovery community; now they have a son, who’s two. They all have the same last name.
It’s been seven years since that AA meeting, but Anee says she still works every day at recovery. One of the big fears for those who’ve battled opioids is, Will they relapse if they have to take the drugs for medical reasons? When Anee had surgery recently, she says, “I had crazy thoughts and was counting the minutes until it was time to take the next pill. And then I was just, ‘No, nuh-uh, I don’t like this feeling.’ And I called my husband and I said, ‘I’m thinking about these way too much.’ He said, ‘Babe, I’ve seen too many people go out over this. Do you need ’em?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And so I threw them away, and that was that. When I did drugs, all I wanted was to feel fuzzy and disconnected, but the feelings I strove for all those years are no longer what I want.”
“I GOT SOBER SO YOUNG THAT SOMETIMES I WORRY IT MAY JUST BE A PHASE AND I’LL USE AGAIN.”
—Casey, 29, a health care professional in Connecticut, eight years sober
Casey: The first time I did heroin, I remember thinking—excuse my language—I’m f-cked. I knew I was done. There was no turning back. I loved it too much.
I can’t point to any traumatic experience in my childhood for why I used. I grew up in Connecticut and was told that I was smart and capable. My parents are still together, and I have a younger brother; we all grew up really close. But during high school, when I was around 16, I got OxyContin from a girl, and it was the first thing that appeased my anxiety—something I’d always suffered from but never dealt with head on. I’d done pot, and we drank, but once I tried opioids, I never wanted to do anything else. For the next four years I was seeking pills and buying them, although at first it was pretty much an after-school or weekend thing.
That changed when I went to college in Boston. There my drug use became an all-day occurrence. OxyContin 80s [also called OCs] were still around. It was $1 a milligram or $80 per pill, so I started shooting heroin, which was so much cheaper and lot easier to get. I was majoring in social work at school. I don’t know how I thought I was going to help people!
As that year progressed, when I wasn’t high, I was scheming to get high, sleeping until four in the afternoon, barely going to class. My life became really, really small.
I finally dropped out of school and talked my parents into letting me come home with the mask of it being an anxiety issue. So they said yes and planned this family trip to Aruba to uplift my spirits. Two days before, I tried to detox myself (because I knew I couldn’t bring drugs on the plane); being alone in my bedroom going through withdrawal was agony. I was throwing up; I was sweating. Not sleeping at all. My parents assumed I was just sick. I remember screaming into my pillow, being in that much pain. All I could think was what ball and chain this drug was.
The trip was only a few days, and the whole time I wasn’t feeling well. The first thing I did when I got back home was using again.
Then my parents kicked me out of the house. That’s when I went to rehab. After doing a medical detox on suboxone—much easier than my DIY in the bedroom—I went to two inpatient centers, one right after the other, for about five months of intensive treatment. The second one was a step-down program. I was able to get a job, go to meetings, and begin the slow process of going back to daily life. From there I went into a sober-living house and stayed only a couple months because I got an apartment with one of the girls I met in treatment. Her name is Stacey, and she’s still sober too.
Stacey, 33: When Casey came to rehab, she walked in with no shoes, covered in paint from a music festival—she couldn’t even speak for the first couple weeks. I didn’t know if she would make it. I didn’t know if I would make it. But I knew if we stuck together, we would call each other out when we were about not to.
Casey: Since then, I have gone into one-on-one counseling, I participated in after-care programs, I have a sponsor through AA, I’ve sponsored other women. I found exercise really helpful and am working with [the anti-drug-abuse nonprofit] Shatterproof to help organize a 5K run in New York in October.
I’m grateful that my drug use is in the past. But I often think that I got sober so young maybe it’s just a phase, and then I’ll think about drinking or using. It’s just the reality of being an addict. Exercise helps. And it helps to speak to somebody who’s sober, and I have a lot of people who love me now I can talk to. And fortunately, I haven’t picked up a drink or drug in eight years.
“SHE CAME EVERY DAY. AND AT THE TIME I WAS UNGRATEFUL.”
—Rebecca Reilly, 24, and Catherine Goedicke, 23, codirectors of a 12-step recovery house for women in Weymouth, Massachusetts; Catherine has three years of sobriety, Rebecca almost five
Rebecca Reilly: We met New Year’s Eve.
Catherine Goedicke: No, we didn’t.
Rebecca: Yes, I was going to a New Year’s Eve party.
Catherine: OK, sorry, we did; it was during the day. This was 2013. I was in a 12-step sober house, and she came by for an initial meeting because she was assigned to be my sponsor. I’d been doing opioids since I was 14, when I stole suboxone from my brother, who was on heroin. The first person to shoot me up with heroin was actually a girl I met in a halfway house in South Boston—kind of ironic, but I’d say very common. Honestly, I didn’t think that Becca and I had much in common.
Rebecca: I thought pretty much the same thing. We have totally different styles. She’s more of like a flannel-and-high-rise-jeans kind of girl. And I’m ballet-flats-and-leggings.
Catherine: Lululemon. But Becca already had some long-term and good-quality sobriety under her belt.
Rebecca: I’d done heroin for a year when I was, like, 17 to 18. Cat was my first real sponsee, and I thought she was doing well. Then five months after we met, it was Memorial Day Weekend, I heard she’d overdosed in the house. And it was just—I was shocked.
Catherine: Back then I didn’t want to relapse so bad. I’d be crying on the way to the drug dealer. I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t talk myself out of it. Nothing on earth could. So I had been secretly getting high in the house, which is so selfish, knowing I was about to be kicked out. And then I OD’d in the bathroom.
Rebecca: I can’t remember if it was that night or the next day, but her brother reached out to me and told me that when she got out of the hospital, she was gonna come live with him. He asked me if I could still come over to meet with her to take her through the steps again.
Catherine: She came every day. At the time I was very ungrateful. But thinking about it now, like, if I was to meet a sponsee every single day after work that would be—
Rebecca: I do a lot for you [half-teasing].
Catherine: I know. And I obviously I can see that in hindsight. At the time I was so miserable. I just didn’t get why people said, “Sober is better,” because, for me, once the novelty of waking up without being dope-sick wore off, I just felt increasingly irritable and depressed. I really can’t stress that enough, how uncomfortable sobriety was, which happens when you don’t deal with the issues that made you use drugs in the first place.
Rebecca: I could relate because I’d gone through it. But with Cat—it’s funny because she was pretty manipulative and she always put on this front that she was doing good and wanted to be sober. It was her brother who told me, “She says she’s miserable and doesn’t want to be sober anymore.” It took three or four weeks after she went to live with him before she started to get more honest.
Catherine: What I really like about Becca’s style is, she wouldn’t say, “This is my advice”; she’d help me use my internal compass to figure out what the right thing to do was. Because there’s a common mentality: “If you feel like you’re gonna use, call your sponsor.” Well, that’s when I especially would not call my sponsor. If I’m on the way to the dealer, that’s too late; nothing is going to turn me around. Becca showed me how to get to where I don’t feel like I’m gonna do drugs in the first place.
Rebecca: I can’t take credit. She wanted to get better.
Catherine: One of the big things for me was seeing how self-centered I was. At first I was insulted anyone would even suggest the idea. But looking back, I was so obsessed with what people thought about me and making sure I felt OK, that’s partly why I used. When I started thinking about other people—I know this sounds very sentimental—it made a huge difference. Although Becca and I weren’t close, that began to change. My brother and a couple of his friends had started The Brook Retreat, a recovery house for men. A year ago they decided to open one for women and asked Becca and me to move in and codirect it. That’s when we became, like, best friends.
Rebecca: I even kind of started dressing like her, although I’ve kind of gone back to my old style now.
Catherine: She regressed unfortunately—just kidding. I couldn’t do this work without her support. It’s a very tough job. Very emotional. Very soul-taxing. We see a lot of relapse and a lot of premature leaving treatment, and that part’s hard. But there are obviously moments that are—
Rebecca: So rewarding.
Catherine: Even though we don’t live together now, we talk every day.
Rebecca: I’m still her sponsor.
Catherine: Hopefully. Unless she finds someone better.
Rebecca: I won’t.
“THIS STRANGER FED ME. SHE TREATED ME LIKE A HUMAN BEING. I HADN’T FELT THAT WAY IN SO LONG.”
—Sara Kaiser, 32, a nurse outside Hartford, Connecticut; seven years sober
Sara spent six years on heroin. Several people tried to help her:
Beth Solania, 33: Sara grew up across the street from me. In high school we were like Laverne and Shirley, Lucy and Ethel—the inseparable dynamic duo. But her freshman year of college, she flamed out, and we started growing apart. It had to have been 2005, when her mom called me and said, “Can you swing by the house? Sara has something really important to tell you.” I went over, and Sara was detoxing from heroin. I’m thinking like, Really? You’re a junkie? Where do you even get heroin?
It was one of those moments where you know your lives have taken different paths, but it was also like, “OK, I’m not letting go of you now.” At one point Sara literally went missing. I was in optometry school when her mom called this time. I got in the car, and the whole four-hour ride home, I was trying to prepare myself to hear that she’d overdosed or had been murdered. I couldn’t think straight. I just kept saying, “Please don’t let that be true. Please don’t be true.”
I get home and a few days later, Sara casually shows up with her boyfriend, looking like hell, and acts like it’s all totally normal. I was angry and upset. And it was like: OK, kid gloves are off. You’re getting tough love now, because I thought you were dead. That’s not cool. And I wrote her a letter.
Sara: It basically said, “What the hell are you doing?” It was very honest. I read it and just felt so shitty. I knew I was letting everyone down. But it also meant she cared about me still.
Beth: I told her in the letter, “When you’re ready, I’m going to be there to support you.” Finally, a couple of years ago, after she’d been sober a while, she told me over lunch, “I’m sorry for everything that I did to you.” And I looked at her, and I said, “I appreciate that, but I do want you to know that I forgave you a long time ago.”
Ray Kaiser: When Sara was 19, I was driving up to Keene, New Hampshire, for work. And my sister called—
Anne Kaiser: Sara had confided in her aunt.
Ray: My sister told me Sara had a heroin problem. And it was like, “Hey, here’s a good day, a beautiful drive to Keene,” and all of a sudden I’m turning around to drive back to tell Anne this news.
Anne: I remember just being in total shock. And wondering what I did wrong.
Ray: We did an intervention and thought we’d cleaned up the problem. I didn’t understand addiction. And Sara was sober for two years. When she relapsed, it was a severe kick in the gut.
Anne: Ray and I started going to a 12-step program for family members of someone struggling with addiction. I also did some research and learned what opioids do to the brain and why it’s so hard for people on them to stay clean. Both were really helpful.
Ray: We were in Vegas for our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary when Sara was arrested. She called and asked us to bail her out. We had enough [lessons from the 12-step] program in us to say—even though we wanted to bail her out, we knew we shouldn’t. Because a lot of times, the more you help, the more you hurt.
Anne: The turning point came when I called one day, and there was something in her voice that was very different, something that told me maybe she was ready.
Sara: It’s true. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was living in total squalor with a roommate in a one-room apartment with eight cats. There were needles and empty heroin baggies all over the place. I’d been shooting up in my hands, neck, and breasts, and had hep C from sharing needles. And I’d just lost my nursing license. That hit me hardest, because I’d always been able to say, “But I’m really a nurse.” When heroin took that, it stripped away the one thing I had left that gave me any value.
My parents let me come home. My hair was matted down to my butt. And that first night I sat there while my mom cut the knots out with fabric scissors. I just sobbed and sobbed. I was so broken, spiritually.
Ray: I’ll tell you a little story about the cats, because she brought all eight of them with her. We still have two, and even now they leave nothing in their dish. They probably didn’t eat maybe days on end when Sara was in that situation of addiction—they still remember.
Sara: I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents. And I’m very grateful that they kicked me out of my house when they did, because things had to get really bad to in order get better.
Sara: Along with my parents and Beth, there’s someone else who really touched me at my worst.
It was a really hot day. I was homeless and sitting in my car, waiting for my friend to come back with more heroin. I had a novel that I must have read like 18 times. And this black woman comes up to my car. She knocks on the door, and she’s like, “You have been sitting here all day. You must be really hungry.” And I’m like, “No, no, I’m OK.” She was probably in her thirties, and her name was Shawn, I remember that. I was scared, but Shawn made me a sandwich and chips and let me sit on her front stoop with her while I ate. It was just sliced turkey and mustard. I don’t even like mustard, but it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. This stranger fed me. She treated me like a human being. I hadn’t felt that way in so long.
I was almost 25 when I got sober. I went on methadone for three or four years along with intensive outpatient treatment and now am able to help others as lead medical case manager at Aware Recovery Care, where we do in-home customized treatment. I can’t tell you how it felt when, in February, I got my nursing license back. It’s been a long, long road.
“I BLEW MY 401(K) MONEY ON HEROIN.”
—Rosa Maldonado, 35, office manager senior services program, Muckleshoot Reservation, Washington; four years sober
Rosa: I was born in Fresno, California, the youngest of four siblings. We weren’t too privileged. But we had clothes and were fed. We’re Hispanic and enrolled in the Muckleshoot Tribe. All I knew, though, about my Native heritage was that we got what we called these “Indian checks.” [Muckleshoot Tribal members receive payments from casino revenue.]
My dad was a drinker, and he used drugs—it was like, that’s what adults do. The first time I tried marijuana was in fifth grade. I found a burning joint in the bathroom, and I went in right after it.
I started running away when I was 14, and I’d go steal clothes and other provisions at the mall. If you can just imagine a Mexican chola-looking gangster girl in a Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls jersey and brown Dickies, that was me. My parents would call the cops to get me back, and I’d go to juvie for 30 days, I don’t even know how many times.
Junior Maldonado, 37, her brother: She did run away a lot. I tried to talk her into coming home, but she was very stubborn at the time.
Rosa: We moved to the Muckleshoot Reservation in Washington the year I turned 16. The house we lived in belonged to my grandmother—she’s where I get my Native American blood from—and it was really run down. The foundation was sitting on bricks, and there was no insulation. I stole a heater from school because it was so cold in my room.
I started partying on the reservation, and they’re hard-core drinkers, man. I’m like, “Why don’t you guys pour it in a cup and put some soda in it or something?” They’re like, “No, we just drink straight out of the bottle.” So soon I was right there with them.
My life changed when I had my daughter, Alexis, when I was 19. She was the best gift that ever happened to me, and for two and a half years, I was drug-free and focused on being a good mom.
But after her father and I went our own ways, I was in a series of bad relationships, and that’s when I started abusing pain pills—Vicodin, Percocet, and then OxyContin. At one point I was snorting and smoking 30 to 40 pills a day. I had a good job at a day care center, but my addiction had me so desperate I stole money from a coworker, right out of her purse.
After getting kicked out of my apartment for selling drugs, I called Dan Cable [at Muckleshoot Behavioral Health Program], and he sent me to an inpatient program for three months. But I came home and relapsed. By now I was 28, and my best friend said, “Hey, come stay with me for as long as you want. Bring Alexis. No drugs.” I stayed sober for five months, and I was trying to get a new job. I decided to cash out my 401(k) to buy a car so I could get to work. My friend took the money to hold until we bought the vehicle, but I went across the street to a guy selling pills and asked if he’d front me something, and he said yeah. So the next day, when my friend was out, I searched the house and found where she hid the money. That was a $10,000 check. And the addict in me just went off.
My dad was still alive then, and I remember him telling me, “If you ever get to the point where you’re shooting heroin, make sure to use a clean needle; never share with someone.” And I was like, “Oh, Dad. I’m never going to do that shit.”
And then not long after he died, there I was, saying to the crew I was running with, “All right, I want to try it.” So this woman put the rubber band on my arm, and she’s telling me to make a fist so my vein can pop up and everything. I had just watched her shoot up with that needle before me. And all I could hear was my dad saying: “Don’t you use that damned needle.”
That voice in my ear made me grab my phone and call Dan Cable again. And I was just like, “Dan, I’m on the verge of shooting up. I need to get the hell out of here. I need help.” The rubber band was still on my arm. It was Friday late afternoon, and he said, “Just give me the weekend. I’ll have you out of there by Monday.”
Dan Cable: I remember she was scared.
Rosa: Monday morning I went to detox, and after 10 years of opioid abuse, I’ve been sober ever since. I was on Vivitrol [a MAT therapy that blocks the high of opioids] for 15 months, and I went into a recovery house.
I had tried the whole 12-step program, but I don’t like people telling me what to do, so it never worked. What did, this time, was learning about my Native American ways. I see so many women in my community struggling for self-identity and self-respect. I don’t know if the loss of our culture and tradition is driving so many Native people to opioids. I just know that when I got started participating in the rituals and traditions of my heritage, I finally felt whole as a person.
Junior: For so long it seemed like Rosa wasn’t getting anywhere. My dad and I talked a lot about how to help her up until his last days, though we both ultimately felt she was smart enough to hold her own. But watching my little sis stay sober now, knowing what she’s overcome, she’s so inspiring to me. It’s such great thing to see.
Rosa: I have my own place in tribal housing where I’m raising Alexis, who’s 16 now, and my 16-month-old boy, Kash. I worry about my daughter; unfortunately, she grew up too fast for her age. I never used in front of her but have sold drugs when she was around. I just keep it real with her and share the mistakes and the consequences we both suffered. I know that honesty is key.
Every Wednesday I go to the sweat lodge ceremony—it’s in a dome-shaped structure where you sit around rocks glowing red from a fire for three or four hours and people might speak or sing. Basically it represents going back to your mother’s womb. And it’s our way of praying.
My job with elders is another way I connect to the culture. Hearing how they struggled with racism when they were younger makes me appreciate the life I have so much more. And every summer I join 60 to 300 people from the West Coast tribes—even Alaska and Canada—and we travel in big canoes carved from cedar. For three weeks we go from one rez to another the way our ancestors did, sharing our stories and songs. To stop at a reservation and have all the hosting people welcome you, I can tell you from my heart, I’ve never felt so proud.
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