Journey from drug addiction to recovery
ALBUQUERQUE — More than a quarter of prison inmates in New Mexico are drug offenders, and about 85 percent of the prison population overall has substance abuse problems once they enter prison.
A 2008 prison task force convened by Gov. Bill Richardson stated in its report that New Mexico is spending $294 million on corrections for the fiscal year that started last July 1, up from $168 million in fiscal 2001. That amounts to a 75 percent increase over the past eight years.
The task force also found that substance abuse treatment programs range from $1,800 to $6,800 annually per person, depending on frequency and type of treatment, compared to $31,239 a year for imprisonment. It drew on information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment as well as the state’s Corrections Department.
The authors of the report noted the futility of ignoring substance abuse in efforts to reduce the prison population:
Without addressing substance abuse issues — before, during, and after — the best-intentioned and well-motivated corrections policies will most likely not succeed and the likely result is recidivism and its attendant costs.
In light of these factors, as well as the deeper issue of the stress that substance abuse places on individuals, families, and the greater community, the Independent interviewed Myra Wilson – who just celebrated her second year in recovery from a severe drug addiction problem – about the struggle of addiction and the importance of long-term rehabilitation programs to a full recovery.
Wilson is 34 years old, the mother of three, and in recovery from a decade-long addiction to hard drugs — crack cocaine and methamphetamine. By the time she was 28, she was barely surviving, her children had been sent to live with relatives and she was moving from motel to motel, letting herself be abused and at times stealing from others to feed her addiction.
Eventually, Wilson had five felony convictions for shoplifting, forgery and residential burglary, with her first arrest kicking off a cycle of jail, court and rehabilitation programs. Wilson credits sympathetic judges for sending her to rehabilitation more than once instead of prison.
The behavioral health program Wilson participates in now is called Susan’s Legacy. Her ongoing program is extensive, including counseling, group therapy, life skills courses and mentoring. It also provides housing assistance and medical care for her bipolar disorder. She’s currently enrolled in college courses and has her three children with her again.
NMI: Thanks very much for sharing your experience with us. To begin, could you tell us why you started using drugs at 23?
MW: Sure, I’m happy to. I guess I’d begin by saying that for my entire life I never felt “right,” I never had the natural motivation for life that most people have. I know now that I have a bipolar disorder that I need medication for, but I didn’t know it then. One night my daughter’s father came home with cocaine and persuaded me to try it. Because it made me feel like everything was right with the world, I continued doing it and before I knew it all I could think about was getting my next high. They call it chasing the dragon. You never really get it again, but you’re always chasing that first high.
Between the ages of 23 and 28, what was your life like?
I maintained for most of those years and thought I was OK. But when you are using as much as I was, you can’t maintain forever. I got to where I couldn’t work anymore — I was making a lot of mistakes, so was put on a leave of absence to get my life together. But there was no getting my life together on my own. Eventually I was living in motels, stealing to get by, not knowing from day to day where I would land.
How did going to jail change your situation?
Well, when you get there, after you get past the first few days it hits you. You ask yourself, what have I done? Who have I hurt? Where are my kids? You haven’t felt anything in so long that you might find God right there. People call it “jailhouse redemption.” I know it’s where I’ve felt the closest to God.
But you still couldn’t stay off drugs when you got out… you went through a cycle of rehab and relapse.
It’s actually a recovery cycle, which I don’t think most people realize. Every part of my recovery and relapse has led me to where I am today. I learned at every step, even the times I didn’t make it. When it comes to overcoming drug addiction, everyone says, “Just do it. Have some will power.” But it isn’t that simple.
Why isn’t it?
After one four-month program, I got out feeling OK, thinking I was over it. But I didn’t have a behavioral health program after rehab and before long I started having that empty feeling inside. At the time, I hadn’t been treated for the bipolar disorder I have. People I knew had cocaine, and I thought — why not. It wasn’t methamphetamine, which had been the really hard thing for me. Addiction is a horrible thing. It fools you. It’s without a doubt a sickness.A person really needs support to get past it.
What does support look like?
It can be as simple as having someone who will pick a person up and take them to a meeting. Sometimes people don’t realize what they need, but if they can get a little bit of a guiding hand or encouragement that makes all the difference. Parameters and a system of checks and balances are very important for me. I have meetings, counselors, a psychiatrist, and I stay on my medication. I know today that I have to work just as hard for my recovery as I did for my addiction.
What kind of support exists in the state for women who struggle with drug addiction?
There are very few programs for women, especially women with children. From my experience, the hard-core addicts need at least six months of treatment, and then an outpatient behavioral health program. Susan’s Legacy, which has been crucial to my recovery, struggles to find enough funding, but we need more programs just like it. We also need a better system for connecting people to programs.
Do you mean that there are waiting lists to get into these programs?
Yes, there’s only so much room. We’re really on our own — I feel that I lucked into Susan’s Legacy. I’ve been a fortunate one. Had judges not sent me to rehab twice — which is really unheard of, I think — then I would have for sure gone to prison. But even coming out of initial rehab programs, many women can’t find a spot in a program, and they can’t go back to where they came from — that would be pointless if they want to stay clean.
How do you juggle your recovery program with being a parent?
Being a mother at the same time I prioritize my recovery is a very stressful aspect of my life. I have to find meetings that offer child care, or find someone to watch my children when I go to meetings. It’s stressful — I have to live and breathe my recovery process, no question, but of course I have also have a big responsibility as a mother.
Being properly diagnosed and in a supportive program has made a real difference. At the same time, while I feel strong, if I used again tomorrow I know I would pick back up where I left off — at that place that was truly the worst of my addiction. And, I feel that if I used again, I could die. So I also really live the program I am in. It isn’t secondary to my life. So juggling this with my role as a mother is a lot, there’s a lot of pressure. But I’m going to make it.
You just celebrated your second year in recovery. What do you see in your future?
Well, I just moved into a home, have all my kids with me and I’m in school at CNM to become a drug and alcohol counselor. I can make something good out of all this chaos, these problems — you know, help other people from my own experience.