Fellowship Story Showcase
After Losing It All, Former Drug Addict Looking Forward to Renewed Life
This article was written by Noozhawk Staff Writer Lara Cooper as part of Day 1 in Noozhawk's 12-day, six-week special investigative series. Related links are below.
The Noozhawk's Prescription for Abuse series is a special project exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County. Our series is a result of an exciting and unique partnership with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which awarded Noozhawk a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to undertake this important work.
Through our reporting and presentation, we will establish an independent baseline of where our community is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications; how the problem is affecting health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, addiction and treatment, and our culture and society; what we as a community can do to educate ourselves about prevention and controls; and how we can perhaps reverse what appears to be a very troubling trend.
Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli are the lead reporters on the project, and they've been assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St.Oegger; content producer Cliff Redding; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.
Ashley Almada, Garrett Geyer, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of our story sources.
The project is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation in partnership with KEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca. The Annenberg School is assisted by the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University.
» After Losing It All, Former Drug Addict Looking Forward to Renewed Life
Day Two:Alcohol Plays a Role All Its Own in Setting the Stage for Local Abuse, Overdoses
Day Three:Rich Detty Bears Burden of Not Knowing Extent of Dead Son's Drug Use
Day Twelve:Professionals Working in Addiction Field Often Share Roots at Antioch University Santa Barbara
Police kicked in the door of a Lompoc motel room where they suspected drug activity was taking place, and officers swarmed in to arrest the two people inside.
Syringes were scattered about the floor, along with dirty clothes and dog feces from a pair of chihuahuas.
One of the people using the motel as a place to shoot up was Lisa W., who asked that her full name not be revealed while sharing her story. The other was her husband. The couple had been injecting the prescription medication methadone, a drug used to treat severe pain.
Lisa and her husband were arrested and charged with sales and transportation of methadone. Lisa was also charged with a felony possession of Fentanyl, a powerful analgesic often used to manage post-operative pain and pain in cancer patients. The drug can be found in lollipop form, and when police found Lisa, she had several of the lollipops in her mouth.
Sticks from the pops were scattered about the motel room, and although her three children weren’t present at the time of the bust, Lisa was charged with felony child endangerment, too.
“Unfortunately, when the kids are around, those lollipops would be out and I have a disabled child who could have potentially gotten really hurt,” Lisa told Noozhawk.
After that charge, she said, “we lost the kids for sure at that point ... Our life was so out of control.”
At the time of their arrest, Lisa and her husband had already lost their three-bedroom home and their jobs. And now they lost custody of their children because of their drug use.
“We went from being a housewife and working husband, to being drug addicts shooting up opiates in a motel room full of cockroaches, but still thinking it was OK because we were keeping it together,” Lisa said. “It was so delusional.”
While the couple had been injecting medication earlier, Lisa had unknowingly contracted a staph infection in her heart. After the arrest, her symptoms led jail staff to believe she was merely withdrawing from the drugs.
“They would ignore me and ignore me,” she recounted. “Several days later, when they realized, they had to literally pick me up off the floor.”
Lisa was transported to the hospital, and was close to death.
“(The doctors) didn’t expect me to live through the morning,” she said.
Nurses discovered that nearly all of Lisa’s veins had collapsed from her regular drug injections, but they were finally able to put an IV line into her neck to give her life-saving antibiotics.
Lisa survived, and says the arrest is the only way her self-destruction could have been reversed.
“Miraculously, getting arrested saved our lives,” she said.
The road to that motel room was a long one for Lisa, and began 16 years earlier, when she had decided to get clean after a heroin addiction. Lisa and her husband were both in recovery, and as months became years, they remained clean.
Eight years ago, doors to drug use began to open again. One of Lisa’s daughters became critically ill, and the stress was overwhelming for the mother of three. Then she pulled a muscle in her back and was given a Vicodin prescription to help her manage the pain.
“I knew that I shouldn’t have been taking it, because I was an addict, but I could rationalize that I was hurt and that I needed it,” she said. “Even though I was clean for 16 years, when that first Vicodin entered my mouth, it was like I was transported back.”
Soon, she needed to take more because she had gained a tolerance to the drug so quickly.
“I was still trying to believe that I was in recovery, but that it was OK to (take the Vicodin) because it was a prescription medication,” she said.
Her doctor then introduced her to pain management, “and from there, it was like going to the pharmacy and getting candy,” she said. She was introduced to other opiates, like fentanyl, methadone, OxyContin, morphine and Dilaudid.
“In my mind, I would say ‘I’m in pain, I need more,’ but really I think it was more psychological,” she said. “I was also thinking ‘This is a prescription, you got it through a doctor so it’s OK, you can take these.’”
Within the first year of the prescription drug abuse, Lisa would wake up sick if she didn’t have drugs in her system. A change in her personality was also occurring. She began to feel overwhelmed about taking care of her children, a task she had loved, and had begun to lock herself in her bedroom.
Around the same time, Lisa’s husband was injured on the job, and started up with pain management doctors through his workers’ compensation insurance. Lisa doesn’t quite remember when, but at some point “we realized we both had habits to take care of.”
The couple soon moved from their main doctors, to pain management experts to psychiatrists in an effort to secure the prescriptions they needed to maintain a fix. Lisa says she sought prescriptions from every emergency room and urgent care facility in Santa Barbara County. Her story wouldn’t change as she went from place to place.
“I’m in a lot of pain” she would tell the doctors, mentioning that she had seen a pain management physician in the past.
“I legitimately had some back problems, but it’s manageable when I’m clean,” she explained.
Seeking as many different doctors as possible was only one strategy. There were also doctors who overprescribed.
“People would tell us which doctors were easy on the prescriptions,” she said. “As long as I looked presentable, I never had any problems.”
Four years in, she started selling the drugs.
“We would get the medication and sell certain ones so we could afford different ones or to get more of what we were already taking,” she said. “It was this real vicious cycle of needing more, wanting more, getting more and having the means to get more.”
Lisa even began manipulating her children’s doctors for Ritalin to sell.
Getting more and more pills became a full-time job, but the underground marketplace on the streets provided ample opportunities, she said, adding that more pills are exchanged there than heroin. The couple would get Vicodin “because you can inject those, but we could sell them for OxyContin or Dilaudid or morphine,” she explained.
It was at that point that Lisa’s pharmaceutical habit got so out of control she began supplementing it with heroin and methamphetamine.
“Pharmaceuticals were really the best, though, because we knew about the purity and we knew how well they would work,” she said. “This went on for a good five years of just believing that it was OK.”
That tolerance also led the couple to start smoking and injecting drugs for a faster high, but the decision would have its consequences.
“The minute we started injecting it,” she said, “our life tumbled out of control.”
Not long before the police raid on Lisa’s motel room in Lompoc, her mother-in-law had taken the couple’s youngest child because she knew her son and daughter-in-law weren’t capable of caring for her. Lisa’s oldest daughter was 16 at the time, and was staying with friends because “she was too disgusted to be around us,” said Lisa, adding that her daughter’s friends had started buying pills from the couple as well.
Even after her arrest for child endangerment, Lisa said she was indignant and insisted that she loved her children and felt like she was the best mom for them.
“I still get that way at times, but the reality is that addiction had robbed us of everything, including our good sense, including the love that we had for our kids,” she said.
“There’s no way those kids should have been exposed to any of that,” she continued. “They shouldn’t have to know what a syringe is. They shouldn’t know the names of Dilaudid or methadone or OxyContin. But they did, because they were so aware of it.”
Lisa’s husband went to prison, and Lisa was eventually released, but didn’t stop using. She began doing whatever it took to stay anesthetized, including resorting to prostitution to pay for her drug habit. She discovered a ring of dealers selling large amounts of Dilaudid and fentanyl, and began using those intravenously.
But a year ago, Lisa was faced with a choice: treatment or a six-year prison sentence. She said she doesn’t know what made her choose life without drugs, but she had some helping factors. A judge ruled she needed to participate in a recovery program, and her children reminded her that if she didn’t accept treatment she was choosing drugs over them.
Lisa ended up at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission’s Bethel House through the Sheriff’s Treatment Program at the Santa Barbara County Jail. Right away she knew she wouldn’t be able to manipulate the program to keep using, as she had elsewhere.
Lisa quickly began to face up to the shame that came with addiction.
“I thought, ‘How could I face being a wife, a mom, a productive member of society again? I’m not worthy of it because I had screwed up so badly,’” she said. “That shame is what perpetuated me continuing to use.”
John Gabbert, senior program director at Bethel House, has worked with Lisa throughout her treatment. After several months of getting acclimated to their new environment during the initial phase, clients at Bethel House are assigned an individual counselor and they start something called the Genesis process, which provides an in-depth look at the clients’ lives, their histories and their belief systems.
“Recovery from any substance is really a relational process,” Gabbert said.
As part of the program, Bethel House residents are trained for their transition back into the community. Counselors help them improve academic skills, develop résumés and craft five-year plans for jobs. Others make enter more extended treatment programs.
Lisa has now completed the Bethel House program, and reunited with her husband, who has been paroled.
When Lisa was first interviewed by Noozhawk, she was on the cusp of finishing the one-year program and said she’d like to go back to school to “figure out what I want to do when I grow up.” She said she’d like to become a nurse, but doesn’t think she can because of her felony conviction for drug possession.
“But anything is possible,” she said. “And the longer I stay clean, the more options that I’ll have.”
There’s a lot of fear of being able to reintegrate into society, but Lisa says she’s surprised herself with what she’s been able to accomplish.
“Last year, I never would have been able to comprehend having this much time clean,” she said.
“My dream world would be able to be a housewife again and be able to raise my youngest daughter. Because she’s disabled, she requires the extra care. But have some volunteering on the side so I don’t lose myself like I did in the past.”
Lisa is hopeful that she and her husband can regain custody of their youngest child in the next year. Lisa also hopes to rekindle relationships with her two other children, both of whom are dealing with their own substance abuse issues.
When asked what she would tell people who might write off prescription drugs as a threat, Lisa got right to the point.
“That one Vicodin can — and will — put you in prison, emotionally and physically,” she said. “It did for me and it did for my husband.”
Lisa also encourages women in her position to try treatment at Bethel House.
“If you’re not in agreement after a year, you’re welcome to go back to what you were doing before,” she said. “Give yourself a break and just try it.
“I’ve been restored with my children and my marriage has been restored, and more important, I’ve been restored and given a second chance.”