Original article no longer available
The Herald Times
By Cindy Hodgson, Herald Times Reporter
November 16, 2008
Area woman spiraled from good student to methadone abuser
Editor’s note: Today the Herald Times Reporter begins a series on drug abuse and addiction in Manitowoc County by introducing readers to “Jennifer,” a young woman who declined from a successful high school student to a methadone addict undergoing treatment at a residential center. Subsequent stories will explore the tortured world of abuse and addiction that exists amid everyday life in our county.
MANITOWOC Parents who point to their teenager’s good grades and participation in school activities as evidence their child couldn’t possibly be using drugs need to meet “Jennifer.”
She wasn’t an “at-risk” student, didn’t get into trouble, and wasn’t trying to cope with a painful past.
“I had a great childhood,” she said.
“Anything (Jennifer) put her mind to she was very good at,” her dad said.
She says she maintained a 3.0 or higher grade-point average and hung around with other students who got decent grades, came from “good families,” participated in school activities and did drugs.
Throughout high school, Jennifer tried every drug imaginable, she said. She also drank a lot, having had her first drink when she was 13.
Jennifer said she started using drugs because she was curious and because she wanted to fit in with her friends.
“It’s what everybody was doing,” she said
“It really started when I was 15. I started smoking marijuana,” she said. “I tried it once when I was 13 and didn’t feel anything. And then I was introduced to it again from a boyfriend of mine.
“I ended up dating him for five years. And he didn’t really want me to start. He did it all the time, but he didn’t really want me to, and his exact words were, ‘Don’t do it ’cause you won’t like it the first couple of times a whole lot, but pretty soon you’ll love it.'”
“And that’s exactly what happened. I did it every day, all day for a good four years four or five years.”
The 24-year-old Manitowoc resident, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, recalled the beginning of her drug addiction during a series of interviews conducted at MARCO, a state-licensed residential facility that provides treatment for adults with chemical dependency. MARCO stands for Manitowoc Alcoholics Recovering in County. The program also provides treatment for those addicted to other drugs. Jennifer came to the county-funded, United Way-supported agency in July.
Jennifer’s father said he knew his daughter was drinking and using drugs when she was about 16.
“I know she smoked marijuana and … dabbled, but I didn’t know how serious it was. … My focus was more on my son, who was not doing well,” her dad said, referring to Jennifer’s brother who also has a drug problem.
“I guess I just kinda thought, you know, it was a recreational thing. … It didn’t seem to affect other areas of her life,” Jennifer’s sister said.
“I never really looked at her as having a drug problem,” her dad said.
The second half of her sophomore year, Jennifer got into a drug called Ecstasy.
“Ecstasy became really big around here,” she said. “We started doing that every weekend. We would like set up little raves in houses and stuff and just go nuts. I did that for probably three months every weekend. The next day you would go for a buzz run … and like you’d almost start to feel little effects from the Ecstasy.”
She explained a buzz run: “It’s where you ride in the country and smoke weed, listen to music. You’d feel better ’cause you’re pretty hung over from Ecstasy.”
In her junior and senior years, Jennifer started experimenting more with other drugs mushrooms and Dramamine, an over-the-counter drug used to prevent motion sickness.
When she was a senior, Jennifer and a friend started stealing medication from the friend’s mom.
“And we wouldn’t want to go hang out without everybody else at that point because we just wanted to take those pills, go smoke weed on a buzz run, come back to her house, eat, take some more pills, go smoke again,” she said. “It was just like all night, every night, that’s all we wanted to do because the two together were a really good feeling.”
Jennifer stopped taking the pills and decided to try cocaine.
“I didn’t smoke crack till after I got out of high school,” she said.
Through all of the experimenting, she continued to smoke marijuana, “and, of course, drinking is in the mix of all of it,” she said.
After being injured in a fall, Jennifer was put on the painkiller Vicodin. Her mom, who Jennifer said has struggled with alcohol addiction, was on Vicodin, too, and Jennifer started stealing pills from her until she was caught. She also was on antidepressants to help her cope with her parents’ divorce.
“Drinking with the antidepressants made me really crazy,” she said. “I wanted to fight everybody. It was craziness. A lot of unmanageability at that period.”
Eventually, she cut back on the drinking because of her dad’s angry response to it.
Jennifer’s “drinking was more of an issue than the drugs to me,” her dad said. “She’s … not a very nice person when she gets drunk.”
Although she reduced her drinking, Jennifer resumed stealing Vicodin from her mom.
Descent into methadone addiction
Shortly after turning 18, Jennifer was in a car accident while riding with her boyfriend who was driving while under the influence of alcohol.
“The night that we got in the accident I had stole pills,” Jennifer said.
She suffered a neck injury in the accident and was prescribed Vicodin by a walk-in clinic. When the pain flared up a couple months later, she went back to the walk-in clinic and was told going to a pain clinic was one of her options. She jumped at the opportunity.
“I was prescribed methadone,” she said. “It’s really cheap and I didn’t have any insurance.”
She found the methadone helped her overcome her low self-esteem and deal with her parents’ “messy divorce.”
“I was hooked from the beginning,” Jennifer said. “It made me feel like I could talk to anybody. It was the best feeling in the world.”
The problem was she would run out of methadone before it was time for a refill.
She took far more than the prescribed amount in order to get high, and when her supply was gone, she would buy drugs on the street. It was hard to find people willing to sell their methadone, she said, so she would substitute other opiates that helped her make it to her next refill.
Jennifer said she wouldn’t wish the withdrawal symptoms on her worst enemy.
“Restless legs is a big one,” she said. “Nausea. Diarrhea is a big one, because there were … months on end where I wouldn’t have a bowel movement for three weeks. …
“You are constantly sweating. … Hot, fiery skin like you’re cold and you’re hot at the same time so your skin’s burning, and crawling. And your eyes are humongous, your pupils. I mean, if you get up in the morning when you’re withdrawing, you look like a crackhead, your eyes are just … humongous.”
That cycle of using and withdrawing continued for several years.
“I knew I was an addict for a long time … but I didn’t want to go through the withdrawal,” she said.
Once an outgoing girl with lots of friends, Jennifer became isolated while on the methadone and hung out only with people from whom she could get drugs.
She wasn’t drinking much anymore, and although she used Ecstasy and cocaine a couple of times during those years, her primary drug was methadone.
At age 21, Jennifer learned she was pregnant. She said a specialist told her if she stopped the methadone completely while she was pregnant, the baby could be stillborn. But if she kept using, the baby would be born addicted.
Jennifer continued taking the methadone, and when the baby was born, the child needed to receive small amounts of morphine in order to be weaned off the methadone, she said.
After her child was born, she promised her dad she’d get off drugs, her stepmother said, but “it actually got worse.”
Six months after her baby was born, Jennifer learned she was pregnant again. That’s when she decided it had to stop. She remembers the Sunday night when she made that decision.
“I was sitting there with my daughter, she was sleeping, it was pretty late. All day long I had been just withdrawing. I had taken my last two methadone and I was still withdrawing, I didn’t feel any relief from it. … I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to do something about it. …
“You know, I just thought that every month it’s the same and when I get to this point my house is trashed, you know, I don’t do dishes or anything ’cause you don’t want to do anything. You have no energy. I (didn’t) even want to take care of my daughter. And I just wanted to stop. So the next day was a Monday, I went in.”
She said she went to the pain clinic, told a nurse she was addicted and was put on a program in which she had to go to the pain clinic each day to receive her daily dose. But rather than taking the pills at three times during the day, she took them all at once so she could get a buzz.
The pain clinic weaned her off the methadone, she said, reducing her dose by one pill a day per month. She said the withdrawal was bearable until she got down to two pills per day.
Her brother was going to a methadone clinic in another city to receive a daily dose as treatment for his addiction to opiates. Jennifer decided she would go there, too, so she could supplement the pills she was getting at the local pain clinic.
“I told her that’s a very, very bad idea,” her sister said. “I really honestly believe that the methadone clinics are a safe way for people who are addicted to intravenous drugs to not have to go to the street to buy drugs or … use dirty needles or whatever else it is that they do. I don’t think that that program is designed for people to ever get off.”
Kelly Jodar, a counselor at MARCO, said methadone clinics “are really great for people that use them appropriately and are monitored appropriately. … The methadone is designed to help people avoid the withdrawal (from opiates) and not get the high.”
Jodar said counseling is required along with the methadone treatment, but “you get what you put into treatment.” Some people don’t really want to get off the methadone and don’t work on the “core issues” related to their addiction, she said.
All it took to get in was a phone call, Jennifer said. She told the staff she was addicted to opiates and didn’t mention she was receiving methadone from the pain clinic.
She had used the tranquilizer Xanax in the past and hadn’t liked it, but now she tried it again and suddenly she did like it. She acquired prescriptions from three doctors.
“It’s so easy to get ’em it’s unbelievable,” she said.
All it takes to get a prescription is to know the symptoms of anxiety, Jennifer said.
Like other addicts, Jennifer went to great lengths to keep from getting caught. She would freeze her urine when she was clean and save it for when she needed to pass a drug test. She said she put the urine in a tube and inserted it into her body so she could pass the urine tests at the methadone clinic even though there are cameras in the bathrooms.
Jennifer said she knew taking methadone and Xanax together could lead to death, but that didn’t stop her because, “I was powerless over it,” she said. “I couldn’t control it, at all. That’s all my mind thought about, that’s all I lived for.”
Her family could tell she was in trouble, but Jennifer always had an excuse, often saying she hadn’t gotten enough sleep, her dad said.
“As a family, we did feel at a loss because she had become so secretive,” her sister said.
One day Jennifer was supposed to pick up her brother and take him to the methadone clinic. When she didn’t show up, he found another ride there and then came to her apartment.
“He knew I had my kids, he was wondering why I wasn’t answering the door. He knocked and knocked, and he yelled my name ’cause I had my windows open,” she said. “I didn’t hear any of it.”
He broke in “and came upstairs and the kids were crying in their room and I was passed out in my room and it was like 1 o’clock in the afternoon. And he said I was like really confused when he woke me up, just completely out of it,” Jennifer said. She has two scars from cigarette burns she suffered during that episode.
“When that happened I told her, ‘If you don’t get it together you’re gonna lose your kids,'” her sister said. “She kinda just blew it off. Her thinking was so cloudy, I don’t think she ever really thought things were that bad.”
Accidents and arrests
The Xanax caused her to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, like in the middle of a sentence or while driving.
She had two accidents while sleeping behind the wheel. First, she rear-ended another vehicle on her way back from the methadone clinic. Then, while that car was in the shop, she jumped the guardrail on Memorial Drive and rode the rail in her rental car. She managed to avoid injury in both incidents.
Eventually, she was arrested for operating while under the influence of drugs. She said she was sleeping in her car in a convenience store parking lot. She was awakened by a police officer knocking on her window. She recently read the police report from that incident and learned paramedics were there, too, and that her blood pressure was high and her breathing was shallow.
Jennifer said she was taken to jail but was released the next day despite being impaired to the point that she doesn’t even remember who picked her up.
“I don’t remember whole weeks at a time still to this day,” she said.
Less than two weeks later, she was picked up again when she was found wandering around on foot under the influence.
Because she was on probation for a previous crime, she faced the possibility of going back to jail. She said her probation-parole agent gave her two days to check herself into a detox unit and said a local hospital could refer her.
“I took her to the hospital and they wouldn’t take her,” her dad said.
Although she wasn’t feeling suicidal, Jennifer threatened to cut herself in order to get sent to a detox center. Because the threat contradicted the way she had been acting to that point, the doctor didn’t believe her, according to her dad. They got up angrily to leave and her dad threatened to sue the hospital if something happened to his daughter, at which point the doctor told them to wait. The police and a social worker arrived, and the social worker helped Jennifer get into detox in Brown County. She stayed there until a bed opened up at MARCO.
Jennifer stayed with her dad and stepmother for the two days prior to going to detox. The days were stressful, filled with arguing.
“It was always ‘you don’t understand what it’s like, Dad,'” her father said. “‘You have no idea how strong this is over our body.'”
Dealing with the drug use of Jennifer and her brother was “very, very stressful,” her stepmother said. “Extremely. I thought (her dad) was going to have a heart attack. …”
They were relieved when she went to MARCO after her stint in detox.
On the road to recovery
“She came out of Brown County really good,” her dad said. “From Brown County on, it’s been steady improvement all along. I mean it’s never gone down a little bit and then back up. It’s been … straight up the hill, (Jennifer’s) marching.”
Her counselor at MARCO, Mark Stephens, sees it differently. When Jennifer arrived there, her attitude was “extremely poor,” he said. “She was still pretty physically sick from her addiction and from the withdrawal that she’d experienced.”
For example, she was lethargic, irritable and had trouble paying attention, he said.
Stephens believes “once she physically and mentally cleared from her chemical use,” she was able to comprehend “the reality of her predicament.” He thinks it was looking at her family history and realizing she was powerless over the disease of addiction that set her on the right track.
“She just took off with it and blossomed,” he said.
Her father hopes she’s not just playing along.
“She’s got a lot to lose. … That’s the part that scares me,” he said. “…I can’t tell the lies from the truth anymore. … I have to believe her. …I have to have faith in her. And that’s where I’m at right now.”
“I’m blessed to be here, and I’m blessed that my probation officer gave me another chance,” Jennifer said a few weeks after starting the program.
She said her experience at MARCO has been positive. Group sessions are a big component of treatment, and Jennifer has found them to be beneficial.
“We’re all so different but we share a common bond, and it’s a huge bond,” she said about the residents.
It’s helpful to hear insights from the other clients and to have the counselors correct their faulty thinking, she said.
“I feel like a different person, completely different,” she said less than three weeks after beginning the program at MARCO. “It’s nice not living in a fog anymore.”
Sharing feelings is a whole new experience for people who have struggled with addictions, according to Jennifer.
“All of us are used to stuffing everything,” she said, because the only feeling they want to experience is a feeling of “complete annihilation.”
While still at the detox center, Jennifer began reading Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous materials and learned she has to get clean for herself, not for her children, and if she does that, her children will benefit. They are staying with her sister until Jennifer is able to take care of them. The second child didn’t need morphine after being born, but both children have delays, such as speech and motor skills problems, according to her sister.
“I don’t want to lose my kids,” Jennifer said. “My kids were a huge motivating factor. And I was just sick of it. I’ve been looking for an out for a long time.”
She said she knew three years ago she would end up in rehab, but she didn’t foresee the things she would do along the way, like stealing, which she had the impulse to do while on Xanax, and driving under the influence with her children in the vehicle.
“That’s all stuff that I feel horrible about,” she said.
Early in her stay at MARCO, Jennifer said she planned to stay between four and six months even though the basic program lasts three months.
“I’m taking my time so I can do it right the first time,” she said then.
More recently, Stephens told her she was doing so well he was going to move her from the second phase of the program to the third and final phase, which allows overnight stays away from MARCO. He said Jennifer spent most nights at her sister’s home during the final phase, and all of her urine screens were clean.
She is doing “fabulously,” Stephens said then. “I see her as being very happy and content.”
“I think she’s doing excellent … I feel like I got my sister back,” Jennifer’s sister said. “She was in such a fog for so long it didn’t even feel like I really knew who she was anymore. … You can tell that her thought process is different than it was … three, four months ago. Now she’s more grounded and she’s got a plan for herself where before it was just like whatever happens today happens today.”
Despite her progress, it won’t necessarily be smooth sailing.
“The statistics are not good,” Stephens said. “It’s going to be guarded the first year.”
The focus wasn’t on the odds stacked against her, though, when her fellow MARCO residents, current and former, gathered Oct. 31 for Jennifer’s graduation. Her sponsor was there, too, as were Jennifer’s sister, an aunt from out of state and Jennifer’s young children. Those attending went around the circle sharing their thoughts. One man warned “it may seem easy, but it’s not,” but most offered words of congratulations and encouragement.
“When I first got here, I looked up to you,” one woman said. “You were so positive, and still are. I listened to you. Your attitude toward your recovery is just remarkable… You are an inspiration to me.”
A man told her they are among the fortunate ones who got a second chance.
“There are no goodbyes for us because I’ll be your lifelong sponsor, as far as I’m concerned,” her sponsor said. “The good thing about being sober, too, is the longer you stay sober the easier it gets. It has for me.”
Her sponsor told her life actually is easier when one is sober.
“You can only be yourself by staying clean, and when you use, you become someone else,” an older man told her.
After they’d all had a chance to speak, it was Jennifer’s turn.
“I’ve learned something from everybody,” she said. “I love all of you more than you’ll probably ever know. And get used to seeing me ’cause you’ll see me around.”
Jennifer said she is renting a house, and she expects the transition of bringing her children home to begin soon. She is not going to have a job outside the home the first year, she said, but rather will focus on raising her children. Jennifer said she will continue with outpatient treatment through Tamarack Behavioral Health Center and will attend the weekly alumni group meetings at MARCO.
She was asked how she felt now that graduation day had finally arrived.
“I am happy but I’m nervous,” she said. “As everybody says, the real work starts now.”
Cindy Hodgson: (920) 686-2966 or firstname.lastname@example.org