After several relapses, a recovered addict is optimistic

Julia is a friendly, fit, athletically inclined person in her 40s who has a professional background, comes from a prosperous family, has a high IQ, and is a devoted mother.

Julia (not her real name) was raped when she was 5 years old. In her teen years, she was recruited by an older sister to run hash from overseas into the United States. At 29, while walking her dog after work, she was permanently injured as a bystander in a senseless crime. She was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer four years ago.

Although Julia has had much success in her life, she’s also suffered from extended bouts with drug addiction. She’s lived in dives, lost custody of her son to his father, stolen from her mother, fenced her possessions, run up her credit cards, and ended up with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Today, Julia is sober, employed, and optimistic about the future. She credits the replacement drug Suboxone for helping her to quit her most recent drug of choice, OxyContin. And she credits the Acadia Family Center in Southwest Harbor and other support programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for helping her to stay sober.

“Once you get over the physical addiction, you’ve got to figure out why you’re mentally addicted,” she said. “That’s the hard part.  What is it that drove you there in the first place, what is it that makes you think you need it and makes you go back?”

Julia is an energetic person who comes across as someone who was meant for a sunny life – but who has been etched by shadows. She said she welcomes the soul-searching needed for her recovery from substance abuse. She is endowed with an innate optimism.

“Always. You need to be optimistic,” she said, while sharing her life story on a recent afternoon. “If you can understand that it’s going to go by, that it’s not the end of the world, you can use it to make you stronger. Everything happens for a reason. Yes, I have serious injuries, but I can put both my arms around my son. I look at it in that way instead of, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got these horrible scars.’ Then I go and have breast cancer. It’s not the scars; it’s, ‘You were so lucky that you found it at stage one.’”

Julia was born in Maine. When she was a baby, her family moved south, although they would return to Maine every summer.

“It was a party life when I grew up,” she said. “My parents were fairly wealthy at the time. They were in their 30s, living the dream in the ‘60s. I remember my sister giving me a shot of whisky when I was 5 – I remember it because it was so horrible.”

When she was 5, Julia’s father left her mother. She said she recently discovered interests that she instinctively shared with him.

“I found out that where I go is where he used to go, which is weird,” she said.

Down south, she said, her family had a nice piece of property on a hillside that overlooked a harbor. There was a big house, a guesthouse, a greenhouse, a pool, and a lot of jungly vegetation to play in. The kids were allowed to roam.

“You just played all over the place,” she said.

She said she vaguely remembers one time falling in the little pond down by the greenhouse; the gardener fished her out.

She recalled that, afterward, she was outside playing by herself when the gardener came around, took her inside the guesthouse and raped her.

The gardener’s wife came in afterward.

“She actually started spanking me and telling me that I had to go home. I was scared to death,” she said.

She doesn’t remember much after that.

“I do remember our maid holding me a lot and rocking me a lot,” she said. “I had to leave my dog behind when we left the islands. That’s all I know.”

Several years later, she said, her mother moved the family up to the Northeast. Her parents had long since divorced; her father had moved halfway across the country and showed little interest in her or her half-siblings. Her mother lost her money through a bad stock deal and, Julia said, wasn’t really “there” as a parent. Two of her half-brothers used to beat her up. Julia started to run away, staying with friends or with her adult half-sister.

“By the time I was 11 or 12, my nieces and nephews had been born, so I was always staying at her place on the weekends, babysitting,” she said.

Her half-sister and a half-brother were in their 20s.

“They were smoking pot and partying,” she said. “And they thought it was cute to see me high.”

The pot-smoking intensified in high school where, Julia said, she was surrounded by rich girls whose parents were always gone.

“They had money, drugs, alcohol, at all their houses,” she said. “By the time I was a junior, one of them gave me a black beauty [street name for amphetamine], and it was incredible. I felt so focused.”

She moved on to the more addictive stimulant methamphetamine and dabbled in opiates. Right before graduating from high school, she visited a half-sister overseas, and was promptly recruited as a drug mule. After traveling back and forth to the States for six months, she decided to settle down back home where, she said, her life was pretty much taken over by meth.

Still, she said, she retained an awareness that her life wasn’t going in a good direction. In her early 20s, she went to a rehabilitation clinic, cleaned up, and decided to wear pinstripe suits, get her hair done, and join the corporate world.

Julia said she had, basically, grown out of pot and meth and was well on her way in a career with a financial firm. She met a pleasant man, and they had a baby. She went for five years and five days without any substance problem.

And then she was caught up in a senseless crime against herself and other passerby.

It was a Friday evening in May. Julia came home from work and promptly headed out again to take her dog for a walk. Her son was with his father, from whom she had recently separated.

“I had stopped on a street corner and was going to cross the street,” she recalled. “I was standing there. I can still see the red flash coming out of the end of the gun – lots of nightmares. It was like one of those split-second, slow-motion things.”

She said she remembers taking off her jewelry at the hospital, and then the lights and noise as she was wheeled down the hallway to surgery.

“The next thing I know, it’s the next morning, and my mother and my doctor were at the end of the bed,” she said. “They had stopped the bleeding. They bandaged me for travel and put me in her car, and she drove me up to another hospital. I stayed there for six weeks and went through five more operations.”

Julia said that, because of her prior drug problems, she was aware that she was at risk of becoming addicted to the opiates that were being given to her to relieve the pain.

“I was on a morphine drip the first three weeks. And then, when I got immune to that, they put me on Demerol,” she said.

For her final and most difficult operation, a doctor who was unaware of her history prescribed morphine.

“It didn’t do anything. I was in excruciating pain,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t do this. You have to make this stop.’ The last operation was when they moved everything the most. They took a huge strip of skin from my side, and when I came to, the pain was so excruciating, there wasn’t anything that would help it.”

She said that, because she had told the doctor she was an addict, he left her with nothing  more than a mild pain-killer – but also failed to move her to a detoxification clinic.

“I had asked the doctor, ‘Please release me to a rehab or a detox.’ The doctor said, ‘No, you can handle it,’” she said. “And it took me basically five hours from the time I checked out to being back on the street. I got out of the hospital – that morning they had given me the equivalent of Motrin – and by that afternoon, I was out looking for heroin.”

Two months later, she was shooting heroin and cocaine. She said she tried going to a couple of detox clinics but became discouraged. She lost custody of her son to his father. She went back to her old job for a while, but it wasn’t long before she was calling in sick and out hustling for drugs.

“It just wasn’t working because I had to stop in the morning and find something to get high on so I wouldn’t be sick on the job,” she said.

She had no money, so she forged one of her mother’s checks to buy drugs. Her mother, attempting to help her, had her arrested, and then transferred to an 18-month rehabilitation program that was intended to replace jail time.

“The program was horrible,” she said, citing strategies such as sleep-deprivation and “breaking down” the subject. “I ended up leaving and going back to the police station and asking them to put me back in prison. They didn’t. The charges from mother’s check had been dropped.”

With her mother’s help, she tried other detox clinics, but  she said they always released her too early, mainly when she was still in withdrawal, and there was no rehabilitation treatment.

“I lost everything. I lost my son. I couldn’t work. I was selling drugs or stealing to support my habit,” she said. “I do have some ‘I never’ left. I never had to sell myself. I had enough assets at the time, but I sold them all for half of what they were worth. Ran up huge credit card debt. One of the big things I did – I had five or six credit cards, and I’d go into a store and buy stuff and take it to the local fence. He’d give you 50  percent for it. I had very creative ways. But, oh God, I lost everything.”

Three years of deterioration through drug addiction – Julia returned to Maine, the place where her family had always summered and the only place she truly felt at home. She said she was flat broke and had only “the clothes on my back.”

She went to a local emergency room, told a doctor there about her addiction, and said she needed help. The hospital kept her there for the weekend, got her stabilized, and then sent her to Hope House in Bangor, an emergency shelter for alcoholics and drug addicts that offers medical care, mental health services, housing support and social service case management. Through Hope House, she said, she was able to get into a long-term treatment program.

“I didn’t know anyone here and I knew I would eventually run out of whatever [drugs] I’d brought with me,” she said. “I had put myself in a position where I had to clean up or go back—and I didn’t want to go back. I never went back after that.”

Julia started her life over. With her professional background, she was able to get a steady job. She remarried and “set up housekeeping,” as she said. Eventually, she went back to college and, over time, got her degrees.

Every third weekend, she said, she also drove 12 hours south to see her son, who was living with his father and stepmother.

“I’d leave Friday night, get there on Saturday morning and leave Sunday night and go to work Monday morning,” she said.

Two years after she moved to Maine, she convinced the father to let her have their son for the whole summer. After that, the father didn’t fight her effort to regain custody.

All in all, life was going pretty well, she said. Although she and her second husband eventually divorced, she stayed friendly with him. She bought a house, and stayed clean and sober for 12 years.

One day, she said, she was moving some stuff around in her house, and she injured a couple of disks in her lower back quite badly. This was on top of the constant pain which had never disappeared from her injury. A guy she knew saw that she was in pain, and he offered her some Oxycontin, an addictive prescription opiate used for pain relief.

“It was instant love. Instant,” she said of the drug. I thought that,  since I’d had over 10 years of sobriety, I could handle it. It’s one of the number one mistakes that addicts make. They get all that sobriety and they think, ‘I can do this on a recreational basis.’”

At first, she said, she popped a pill only once in a while. It didn’t become habitual until about six months in.

That kind of thing can happen gradually, she said.

“Now, instead of just doing it on Sunday, I say, ‘Oh, I’ve got Saturday and a Sunday.’ So now I’m doing it two days in a row. And then I say, ‘Oh, Monday morning, I’ve got to feel good for work.’ So you save a little, and now you’ve done it three days in a row. And then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – you feel like death. And this is how fast it happens – all you think about is Friday, when you get out of work, you get it all set up, you meet somebody, and you’re off and running.”

Once again, Julia had the presence of mind to know that her drug-use was out of control. She went to Mount Desert Island Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center for its 90-day intensive outpatient program.

Shortly after that, she was slammed with a diagnosis of cancer. Surgery and radiation followed and she is now in remission. Throughout this particular ordeal, she said, she continued to attend substance recovery meetings, and she realized that she needed to keep on working to keep her mind busy. She also picked up on one of her lifelong dreams.

Late in 2009, some people brought drugs into her home, and she started using again, this time for only about two months.

She said she remembers the exact date that she stopped again. It was Feb. 23, 2010. This time, she said, she hopes to make it forever. But, as she explained, “Forever is not a reality when you’re in recovery. You can only do it one day at a time.”

“It’s a huge dead-end road,” she said of drugs. “It’s not where I want to be. I want to be able to show up on a job and be able to do a job well. I want to be able to look people in the eye when I go into a store.”

She was prescribed Suboxone, a replacement therapy. Last August, she began outpatient treatment at the Acadia Family Center.

This past March, she said, she decided to get off the replacement drug as well.

“Suboxone helps you gracefully get you out of the mess you’re in,” she said. “But I don’t feel– and this is my personal opinion – that keeping someone on Suboxone or methadone [used to treat opiate addiction] or Antabuse [used to treat alcohol abuse] makes for  a healthy situation. You’re still doing drugs, you’re still getting up every morning looking for something to alter your brain waves.”

In her own case, she said, participation in Acadia Family Center treatment programs and in mutual-aid recovery groups has kept her on track.

“AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] works. AA is a style of life and you can use the 12 steps in any part of your life, not just with alcohol,” she said. “In the beginning, you need to go to a lot of meetings  because you obviously don’t know what you’re doing. If you did, you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in. Listen to everybody. Learn who you want to listen to and who you don’t want to listen to. Do 90 meetings in 90 days. In the beginning, the first time I sobered up, I went to more meetings than I can remember. And I learned it: Work your steps. Learn how to look at yourself differently and stop looking for outside influences to make your life better. You make your life better.”

Julia said that opiates have been her biggest challenge in life, because of their ability to shut down her mind – both when she’s awake and when she’s dreaming – and to give her relief from the emotional pain that began in early childhood, the terror that life has thrown her way, and the physical pain she suffers daily.

“There’s a whole bit with me, with opiates, that it gives me that wall that I can put up to stop the outside stress and it makes everything all better,” she said. “I shut off my phone and go somewhere by myself and I have no physical pain. And that’s a huge part. There’s no stress and no pain.”

She said that, although it’s sometimes hard to stay energetic and upbeat, she’s come to trust – with the help of therapists and the recovery community – that her life is driven more by positive energy than by terrible events.

“There are a lot of times in the past that I wish that I could just make everything go away. I really, really do,” she said. “But it’s not going to. I’ve learned that one. When you wake up in the morning, it’s still there. It’s right next to you in bed. So all you can do is make the best of what you have.”

This time around, she said, she’s determined to find the key to staying clean.

“I don’t know. I finally got it so when I close my eyes, I don’t always see the nightmare from being hurt so badly,” she said. “I’ve tried to work through some things. I’ve got to find some way, because I don’t want to relapse again. Something’s got to be different this time. I hope it’s me.”

(Published in The Bar Harbor Times, June 8, 2011.)

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