By Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer, and John Pendygraft, Times Staff Photographer
When her mom came to pick her up for drug court that morning, Stacy Nicholson was still high.
She staggered to the door, fumbled with the bungee cord that kept it closed, blinked back the sunlight.”You ready?” asked her mom.
Stacy and two of her cousins had been holed up for months in this rundown house, shooting crushed-up pain pills. Used syringes littered an end table. Stacy’s mom had kept telling her: Someone in this house is going to die.
Stacy, then 28, knew she was right. Days before, she had told her mom she was tired of stealing and doctor shopping to get pills. She was in trouble for skipping her last court date, so today, she planned to turn herself in.
“Okay,” Stacy said. “Let’s go.”
She twisted her long, honey-colored hair into a knot. Zipped her sweatshirt. Underneath, she was wearing two bras, a tank top, two white T-shirts and three pairs of panties.
She wanted to be sure she would have a change of underwear in jail.
COURTROOM 10 WAS PACKED when Stacy and her mom, Sherry Alkire, slid into the back row. It was Feb. 1, a Tuesday.
More than 100 women, most 20 to 40 years old, filled the wooden benches. Some were visibly pregnant. Others trailed toddlers. Many of the women struggled to hold up their heads.
Just before 9 a.m., a thin, chestnut-haired woman in a black robe strode through the back door. “All rise!” called the bailiff. “The honorable Judge Dee Anna Farnell presiding.”
The judge raised her arms and smiled. “Welcome to Ladies’ Day,” she said. America’s first all-female drug court was in session.
Soon the judge called Stacy’s name. Stacy slouched down the aisle, clasped her hands behind her back and hung her head.
Eighteen months earlier, she had been arrested for using a fake prescription to buy oxycodone, the painkiller she had been snorting or shooting for four years. The charge carried a possible five-year prison sentence.
The judge had offered a deal: Plead guilty and go on probation. If you go through rehab, if you go to 12-step meetings and get a job and stay sober, you can stay out of jail — and have your felony record wiped clean.
For a while, Stacy had tried. But then she failed a drug test, stopped going to counseling, started skipping court. Now she faced a sentence of 10 years instead of five.
The judge could send her to a long-term treatment facility or halfway house. Or she could put her in prison for violating her probation.
Farnell asked Stacy about her children. Stacy said her 12-year-old daughter had been staying with her paternal grandparents for almost a year. Her mom was taking care of her 2-year-old son.
“What are you going to test positive for today?” asked the judge.
Stacy shuffled her Air Jordan slides. “Well, I’ve been smoking and drinking. So marijuana and alcohol.” She paused. “And benzos. And maybe …”
The judge shook her head. “Okay,” she said. “What do you want to do? Do you want to opt out? Or keep trying?”
Stacy wanted what a lot of addicts want: to get clean, but also to get high. She wanted to have her kids back, but also to have no responsibility. She wanted to feel better, and to feel nothing.
She wiped her nose on her shoulder, looked up and said, “I want to keep trying.”
PRESCRIPTION DRUG abuse kills 40 Americans every day. That’s more than a threefold increase in the last decade, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oxycodone is the deadliest drug of all. An opiate found in such painkillers as OxyContin and Percocet, it’s prescribed after surgeries and car wrecks, and to people in chronic pain.
Others take it just for the high. The drug works by blocking the spinal cord’s pain receptors. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but prevents people from feeling it, creating a sense of euphoria. Soon, they need to take more to get the same pleasurable escape.
Oxy makes junkies out of people who would never buy from a street dealer. It is everyman’s high, heroin in a pill.
Of all the oxycodone prescribed in America in the first half of last year, 98 percent was dispensed in Florida. According to the state medical examiner’s office, an average of seven Floridians die from prescription drug overdoses every day — more than from car accidents.
In recent years, Pinellas has lost more people to prescription drugs than any other county in the state — 249 just last year. That’s an increase of 60 over the year before.
“Everyone knows someone who has gone through this addiction and you just feel so helpless. It’s a horrible, vicious disease,” said Pinellas County sheriff’s spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
“These aren’t Dumpster-diving drug addicts,” she said. “These people are getting their pills from doctors. It’s the person in line beside you at Publix, the woman next to you in the pew at church.”
A few years ago, drug court Judge Farnell started seeing more and more women charged with prescription drug abuse. By 2009, almost half of her drug court defendants were women.
That year, Pinellas County received a $900,000, three-year federal grant to fund substance abuse treatment for women in drug court.
That’s how Tuesdays became “Ladies’ Day.”
Instead of punishing the women, the judge offers them a chance to start over. They come to court once a month. She creates incentives for them: Do yoga, run a 5K, quit smoking, and we’ll waive your $52 monthly probation fee. She makes sure they know how to get a bus pass. If she gets a bad vibe about a boyfriend, she’ll order a woman to steer clear of him.
She tells defendants, “You can do this. It’s going to be hard. But it will be worth it.”
When a woman slips, the judge scolds her and sends her back to jail to detox. Then she offers another chance.
About 500 defendants came to court on Ladies’ Days this year. St. Petersburg Times journalists attended week after week. They interviewed dozens of women. They followed addicts as they bounced between jail and treatment, stayed in abandoned houses, looked for jobs and stumbled toward recovery or relapse.
One woman let the journalists follow her all year.
Stacy Nicholson grew up in St. Petersburg. A streetwise, Southern-fried tomboy, she loves the Florida Gators, Chevy pickups, Lil Wayne and Toby Keith. She believes in dream catchers and her Gemini horoscope, craves Cocoa Puffs and smokes Newports. She never wears makeup, always spritzes on Victoria’s Secret body spray. When it comes to men, she likes the smell of trouble.
Her history of drug use and dysfunction stretches back to puberty. She tried marijuana at 13 and alcohol at 14, had her first baby at 16 and her second, with a different man, at 27.
But the pursuit of the oxy buzz erased any chance of a productive life.
For addicts, using quickly becomes a necessity, not a choice. Getting the next pill becomes more important than work, friends, family, even food. The addict’s values shift to justify whatever it takes to get more oxys. Hard workers can no longer hold jobs. Smart students drop out. Good moms neglect their kids, drain their bank accounts, steal from family members.
If addicts stop using, they suffer horrible symptoms: vomiting, headaches, intense bone pain. That’s why many are afraid to even try to get sober. They need to stay high so they don’t crash.
After Stacy got hooked, she lost her personality, spark, motivation. Every new boyfriend was a red flag, but she never saw it. She dragged her kids from bad apartments to cheap motel rooms, and finally gave them up.
In Judge Farnell’s court in February, Stacy entered what everyone agreed was a fight for her life. She could get better, or she could become one of Florida’s seven a day.
She had a lot going for her: a mother who supported her even after all the times Stacy had broken her heart. Two children who desperately needed her love and attention. A treatment program backed by almost $1 million in taxpayer money. Drug counselors who wanted her to succeed. Other recovering addicts eager to share their experiences at 12-step meetings. An empathetic judge who was willing to give Stacy chance after chance, if only she would try.
Working against her: a little blue pill and Stacy’s need to numb herself with it.
WHEN STACY SAID she wanted to keep trying, the judge sent her straight to jail to get the drugs out of her system.
Guards took Stacy’s clothes — all those bras, all that underwear — and strip-searched her. She pulled on gray jail scrubs and followed a guard to the medical wing on the fourth floor.
All 50 beds in the infirmary were full, so a guard gave her a blowup “boat” and a blanket, which she tossed on the floor.
Stacy had detoxed before, and she dreaded going through the ordeal again. It was one of the reasons she had kept using — she was afraid of how sick she would get when she stopped.
“If you don’t give them anything to help, a lot of people will have really bad seizures,” said Dr. Bernard Yukna, the jail’s medical director. He prescribed diazepam for alcohol withdrawal, Tegretol to stop seizures, Valium “to keep them a wee bit high while they’re here.”
Stacy spent 10 days in the medical wing, aching, shivering and nauseous. Her back hurt from lying on the floor. Nurses kept checking on her, bringing her Gatorade.
When the sickness subsided, the doctor sent Stacy into the general population. She lay on her bunk hour after hour, listening to country radio and wishing she could tell her son she was sorry.
ON FEB. 25, SHE WAS brought back into drug court. Her mom stood beside her.
Stacy was going to get another chance at rehab. The director of a halfway house had agreed to take her into his six-month program.
But first, Stacy’s mom had a request for the judge. It was about Stacy’s cousin Frankie.
Stacy had been living with him, using with him every night, before she had gone to jail.
Two days ago, Frankie’s brother had found him snoring on the floor. Puncture marks dotted his thick forearms. On the table nearby stood vials of painkillers: Dilaudids and Roxicodones.
Frankie’s brother tried to wake him. No response. He threw water on him. Nothing. When the snoring stopped, Frankie’s brother dialed 911.
Now Frankie was on life support. Stacy’s mom, Sherry, had visited him in the hospital.
“He looks terrible,” she said in court. “His liver is shot. He had a heart attack at 32. He’s bleeding bags and bags of blood.”
Frankie Herrera had been like Stacy’s big brother. He taught her to swim and ride a bike and play Nintendo. Sherry asked the judge to let Stacy go to the hospital so she could watch him die.
“Please, I feel my daughter needs to witness this,” Sherry said.
Stacy, still in jail scrubs, began to sob.
Dee Anna Farnell had that day off. Her husband, Crockett Farnell, a retired judge, was presiding over Courtroom 10. He agreed to let Stacy out of jail. She could check into the halfway house later.
He told the women in drug court, “Every one of you should see this.”
Stacy and her mom sped to Northside Hospital. When they arrived, Stacy heard her aunt wailing in Frankie’s room. Stacy gagged at the smells of blood and bowels and death.
Above Frankie, a breathing machine puffed, lights flashed, a monitor beeped. Tubes trailed out of his nose, from beneath his arms, between his legs. His eyes were open, rolled back in his head. Stacy reached out to stroke his forehead. His skin was hot and slick with sweat.
“I love you!” Frankie’s mom kept moaning. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Stacy stood at the head of the bed, crying over her cousin, until the beeping of the monitor melted into one long, low tone.
Afterward, in the hospital hallway, Stacy’s mom held her close. “Don’t ever do this to me,” Sherry cried. “You hear me? This time you have to get better.”
They collapsed to the floor, rocking in each other’s arms.
RESEARCHERS SAY about 50 percent of addiction is genetic. So if you come from a family of alcoholics and addicts, you’re more likely to become one yourself.
But why do people take drugs to begin with?
“Trauma, abuse, depression, anxiety, emotional discomfort. People use drugs to dampen their negative feelings,” said Dr. Douglas Marlowe, senior scientist at the Treatment Research Institute in Pennsylvania.
Others use drugs for the opposite reason — to amplify the reality they’re in. “People who are reckless and outgoing, gregarious and sensation-seeking will try drugs, at first, because they’re fun,” said Marlowe, who also teaches psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Stacy’s parents say she doesn’t have addicts in her family. Stacy herself leans toward emotional trauma as the reason for her drug abuse. Her parents split up when she was little and she rarely saw her father.
“The saddest image I have of her is when she was little, 5 or 6,” Sherry said. “She’d be sitting at the window, holding her Barbie suitcase, waiting for him.” Stacy’s dad, Mark Nicholson, said that may have happened “once or twice. Things come up. But I didn’t do that repeatedly.”
Stacy was 10 when her mom married another man. She said she had a difficult relationship with her stepfather.
Stacy’s mom says her daughter has a reckless streak. “She’s always been balls to the wall,” Sherry said. “Whatever she did, she did it big.”
At 13, Stacy was with a group of boys who threw a Molotov cocktail at their school. She got kicked out of Riviera Middle and sent to counseling. She started sneaking out of her bedroom window at night. Then came the dope smoking and drinking.
Stacy dropped out of the PACE school for girls at 16 to be with the baby daughter she named Jade.
Stacy moved in with Jade’s dad, who was 18. They worked as telemarketers, rented an apartment, paid their bills, took care of their daughter. Most nights they partied: Bud Light and pot.
They split up when Jade was 1. Stacy later took up with a man who started using pills to dull the pain from a car accident. Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone.
The ones that worked best, he told Stacy, were the blue ones: 30 milligrams of Roxicodone. It’s a high dose of oxycodone; the “R” stands for rapid release.
Stacy’s boyfriend gave her one, and she felt herself melt away. “The high was so much stronger, it was amazing,” she remembered.
Someone told Stacy the buzz was better if you crushed and snorted the pills. Snorting turned into shooting. “I had times when I was real bad, shooting 30, 40 pills a day,” Stacy said. Needle tracks scarred the insides of her arms; her veins turned into rivers of dark bruises.
For a while, she waited tables at a Greek restaurant. When she couldn’t work anymore, she started stealing to buy pills. She took hundreds of dollars from her mom’s purse, broke into Sherry’s backyard shed and pawned a chain saw.
She lost half her weight, dropping from 180 to 90 pounds. Her collarbones protruded, her skin went ashen.
All she and her friends talked about was their next high. They would shoot Roxys, pass out, wake up, start again.
In one year, Stacy lost 10 friends who overdosed. One cut up Fentanyl patches for cancer patients, chewed on them and died. Another was a 19-year-old who did oxys and died with her baby sleeping on her chest.
“But that didn’t scare me,” Stacy said. She kept doing whatever pills she could find, anything to blur the sharp edges.
By the time she was 26, she had figured out she didn’t have to steal. She bought somebody else’s MRI and carried it with her to pain management clinics. She told the doctors her pain was an 8 on a scale of 10. When she got her prescription — she always got one — she would pay a dollar or two for pills at the pharmacy and sell them for $15 on the street.
That left her with enough Roxys to keep her high — and enough money to take her daughter to Disney World.
When Stacy got pregnant again, she kept using. Three hours after her C-section, she snorted Roxys in the hospital.
After Richie was born, Stacy and her boyfriend fell behind on rent and got evicted. Jade was 10 and starting to talk back, so Stacy sent her to live with her dad’s parents. She and her boyfriend turned to battered motels, dragging the baby with them.
“She kept calling, so messed up she couldn’t talk, and I could hear the baby screaming in the background,” Stacy’s mom said. “I kept begging her to give him to me. I kept trying to find them.”
On Aug. 26, 2009, Pinellas deputies arrested Stacy and 20 other people in a drug sweep dubbed Operation Oxy-Con. She had tried to buy oxys with a fake prescription at Seminole Pharmacy. She was charged with obtaining oxycodone by fraud and trafficking. That was when she landed in drug court.
Now, after failing at her first try there, Stacy was getting another chance, this time at a halfway house with an optimistic name: Simply Hope.
She checked in the night her cousin died.
SIMPLY HOPE PROVIDES “transitional housing” for recovering addicts in 14 homes in Pinellas Park. Its clients are too deep into their addictions for outpatient treatment, but not so far gone that they need full-time residential facilities. The houses are grouped by gender, each with about five residents. Most come from drug court.
The program is run by Ray Harris, a Vietnam vet who sounds a little like Robert De Niro. He shot heroin for 31 years. He has been clean for eight.
Of his 181 clients this year, 86 graduated and 56 are still clean.
“You have to want this,” Ray, 56, told Stacy the day she moved in. “You can’t just fake it to make it here.”
Rules at Simply Hope are strict: Get up by 8 a.m., make your bed, clean the house. Go to counseling and to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Get a job. Get home by 10 p.m. Pay $125 a week in rent and utilities. Pee in a cup whenever Ray asks. Test dirty and you go back to jail.
Ray warned Stacy: “I’ll be watching you.”
In the back bedroom of the halfway house, Stacy spread a plaid blanket across the single bed. On the dresser she placed a photo of herself and her daughter. Stacy hadn’t seen her in two months. Jade was doing gymnastics, getting good grades. Stacy felt she had done the right thing by leaving Jade with her grandparents, but that didn’t erase her shame at other things she had done — snorting pills in front of her daughter, locking her in her room, neglecting her. Stacy knew Jade was still angry. She didn’t plan to contact her.
Next, she pulled out her little boy’s frog pillow. It still smelled like him. Richie lived with Stacy’s mom now and was learning to color. Stacy knew it would be a while before she would see him again.
For the first few weeks at Simply Hope, Stacy kept having nightmares. In them, she was always shooting Roxys. She could feel the needle sliding into her arm.
“After the dreams I feel like I’ve used,” Stacy said. “But I don’t feel good. I feel guilty.”
By the end of March, Stacy was bonding with her roommates, making coffee every morning, watching TV with them most nights. Her mom brought over a bag of DVDs: Road Trip, Castaway, Meet the Parents. “I’ve seen all these movies before,” Stacy said. “But I was high all the time, so I really don’t remember. It’s like they’re all new to me now.”
One Wednesday night, Stacy curled up in a blue armchair with the remote in her lap and her roommates sprawled on the couch. Stacy had gained 8 pounds. “Sober girls love food,” said her roommate. They raided the fridge and pooled what was left: cottage cheese, canned pineapples, frozen potato pancakes. “Can I steal some of your Oreos?” Stacy’s roommate asked her.
Stacy responded, “Can I have your applesauce?”
Four days a week she went to counseling, riding the bus an hour each way. She attended NA meetings. On Sundays, her mom brought her over to play with Richie.
But a month after getting out of jail, Stacy still couldn’t sit still. “Jimmy legs,” she called it. Her face had broken out. “That’s the drugs coming out of my skin,” she said.
When she got the urge to use, she thought about getting her driver’s license back, getting her kids back.
She just needed a job. If she didn’t get one by April 1, Ray was going to send her back to jail.
WHILE STACY WAS IN REHAB, her mom struggled with Richie. Sherry was 49. “Too old to be raising a 2-year-old,” she said.
Especially Richie, who had been exposed to opiates in the womb, dragged in and out of motels, dumped in a playpen.
Richie’s dad was serving five years for selling pills. Stacy would be in the halfway house for six months. The boy was confused and frightened and restless. To get him to sleep, Sherry had to lie beside him in his crib.
“I love my grandson, but there are mornings I wake up and just don’t want to deal with all this,” she said.
Stacy’s mom works for a commercial copier company. She takes in stray pit bulls and neglected nieces, offers rides and advice at all hours, a sofa to crash on. She says she was too lenient with Stacy, that she should have been less of a friend and more of a mom.
“Stop helping her,” her boyfriend, Tim, kept saying. “You have to let her fall.”
Sherry wanted to believe Stacy would get better, get her own apartment and take Richie back. But she was afraid to let herself hope. For the first time in her life, she started taking antidepressants.
“Richie’s like an energy drink,” Sherry said, catching him as he dived off the couch. “He never slows down.”
She started calling her grandson Full Throttle.
He started calling her Mama.
THE DAY BEFORE Ray’s deadline, Stacy walked into Roma Pizza Pub and asked if they needed help. She was honest with the owners about being in rehab. Turns out the owner’s son had pill problems, too.
“God sent you to us,” the owner said.
Stacy hadn’t had a job in three years.
To get from the halfway house to the pizza place, she had to take two buses. Stacy would get up at 7:30, walk a mile to catch the bus and arrive just in time for her 10 a.m. shift. She earned $8 an hour.
The busier she was, the less she thought about using. By bedtime, she was too tired for nightmares.
On a sunny Friday in April, Stacy walked into work. “Morning!” she called. She tied on a long black apron, pulled a tan visor over her ponytail. Then fired up the oven and started rolling out dough.
“Sit anywhere you like,” she told two men who walked in. “I’ll get a couple of menus and be right there.”
When she got her first paycheck, she rode the bus to the mall and bought Victoria’s Secret body spray. She gave the rest of the money to Ray, for rent.
That weekend, he made her write 1,000 words on staying clean. “I always failed at everything. I hurt way too many people,” Stacy wrote. “The joy of being clean is more than I imagined.”
By mid April she had been sober for 75 days.
WEARING A MASK
THE CALL CAME about 5:30 p.m. Sherry was working at the copier shop.
“Mom?” Stacy said. She sounded defeated.
“I did something stupid.”
This is the story she would tell later:
Her group counseling session that morning had been canceled, so she had gone to see a guy she knew from Narcotics Anonymous. At his friend’s house, they watched a movie called The Losers, had sex.
When Stacy went to the bathroom, she saw a bottle of Klonopin tablets. She fought herself, washed her hands, turned away. Went back. And slipped the pill bottle into her pocket.
Klonopin is prescribed to prevent seizures and relieve panic attacks. It slows a person’s thoughts, makes everything fuzzy. Like other benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium, it can be habit forming.
On the way to work, Stacy took two.
She felt the wave of nothingness creep over her. At the pizza place, she took two more.
“What did I just do?” Stacy said she asked herself. Her first thought was, “Can I puke them up?”
She told her boss she had to leave. Then she called her mother.
“Come get the rest of what’s in this bottle,” she begged. “If I have them, I’m going to keep eating them.”
She swallowed two more before she met her mom. That made six.
They drove back to Sherry’s house, where Sherry stood over the toilet and flushed the rest of the pills. While Richie toddled around breaking crayons, Stacy flopped on the sofa.
“I’m glad you called me. You’ve never done that before,” Sherry said.
“I ate a couple of pills,” Stacy snapped. “That’s all I did.”
“Your attitude’s back,” said her mom.
“You’re grumpy,” Sherry said. “Like the world is crumbling in on you.”
“I’m upset,” Stacy said. “I’m going through things you wouldn’t understand. I’m uncomfortable.”
Just like that, she changed the subject from her own responsibility to her complaints in life. She was uncomfortable: She clocked 50 hours a week at work. Her roommates fussed at her for leaving toothpaste in the sink. Her daughter wouldn’t talk to her. Her son wouldn’t come to her.
“I’m not using,” Stacy told her mom. “I made a mistake and I took a couple of pills. Yes, to me that is a relapse.” But she wasn’t about to confess, go back to jail and start over. “Am I going to throw away what I’ve done? No. It’s not worth it.”
Stacy’s mom reached to stroke her tangled hair. “Up until yesterday, I was very proud of you,” Sherry said. “I had seen a lot of changes in you. I’d seen you handling things better, not calling me for money. Right now, I’m just disappointed and hurt. And I pray that you don’t test dirty.”
Richie threw his sneaker. Stacy shouted, “No!” The toddler crumbled on the floor, kicking and whining. “Okay,” Stacy said, standing up. “I think Mommy wants to go to a meeting now.”
She knew she was supposed to be honest at 12-step meetings, that she should admit she had slipped and ask for help starting over. But she thought people at NA would judge her for being weak. And she worried about someone telling Ray.
Stacy stepped into her flip-flops, pulled back her hair and asked her mom to drive her to the evening meeting. “I just have to go there with a mask.”
FIVE DAYS AFTER Stacy took the pills, her probation officer tested her for drugs. She passed.
She didn’t have the same luck with Ray.
He didn’t know about the Klonopin, but he had seen signs that Stacy was slipping.
Instead of riding the bus to counseling, she was calling her mom to come get her. Stacy said she was working long hours, but she wasn’t paying off her back rent. And she seemed defensive, not the sunshiny Stacy who had started to emerge.
On April 24, Easter Sunday, Ray acted on his suspicions. Stacy had told him she had to work all day. At 5:30 p.m., he drove to the pizza place. No Stacy. He went back two hours later. Nope. The last time he checked, at 9 p.m., the place was closed. He was waiting at Stacy’s halfway house when she walked in at 10 p.m.
“What time did you get off work?”
About 9, she told him.
“You’re lying,” he said. “Pack your things and get out.”
Stacy backpedaled. Her boss had let her off early, she told Ray, stammering. She had gone to her mom’s house to spend Easter with her son. All they had done was fry pork chops and play with Richie.
“All you did was lie to me,” Ray said. Stacy knew the rules, he said. If she wasn’t working, she was supposed to be at the halfway house. She had lied, and lying led to relapses.
“Now call your mom to come get you. And you need to be in court at 8:30 tomorrow.”
‘YOU HAD AN OPPORTUNITY and you blew it,” Judge Farnell told Stacy the next morning. “You’ve been lying and you’ve got to take responsibility for it.”
The judge didn’t know about the pills, and Stacy didn’t tell her. Instead, Stacy kept the discussion narrow, insisting she hadn’t done anything wrong the night Ray checked on her.
“It was about my child,” Stacy said, wiping her eyes. “It’s not like I was trying to deviate to do something wrong.”
“It was about you,” the judge countered. “That’s the addict’s way of thinking.”
Stacy’s mom stood up.
“Up until this point, she’s been doing very well,” Sherry said.
It was the kind of thing only a mother could believe. Sherry had just seen Stacy relapse, insist it wasn’t a big deal, and go to a 12-step meeting and pretend it didn’t happen.
Addicts’ families can rationalize as well as addicts themselves. Parents are often so traumatized, so desperate for any sign of hope, experts say, that they’ll focus on tiny successes and ignore catastrophic failures.
In Sherry’s mind, Stacy was doing well because, this time, she had called her mother when she had used.
“I’ve seen a big change in Stacy,” Sherry told the judge. “But it’s not all going to happen overnight. She’s going to make some mistakes along the way.”
“I’m so sorry,” the judge said. “I truly am. But I’m going to have to send you in. And I want you to take some time to think about what you really want.
“You can get clean, take responsibility, do the right thing. Or you can continue to waffle through life. It’s your pick. Part of success is what you do with failure.”
Stacy spent that night in jail. And the next. She wouldn’t shower. Wouldn’t eat. Then the judge brought her back into court and Stacy said she was sorry for lying. Ray agreed to take her back and give her one more shot at Simply Hope.
STACY’S MOM DROVE HER to Ray’s office to pick up the key to the halfway house.
“There are some things we need to straighten out with you,” Ray told Stacy. She nodded slowly. Whatever he wanted her to do, it had to be better than staying in jail.
“I need to see your weekly payroll stub, your time sheet where you clock in and out …”
He leaned back in his leather chair, laced his fingers across his belly and laid out the rest of his expectations:
Submit your weekly work schedule. Be home by 8:30 every night, including weekends. Attend a group that addresses relationship issues. Submit a timeline of everything you do over the next two weeks. Write a 5,000-word essay on how justifying and rationalizing are going to lead you to your grave.
“And I got an offer for you,” Ray told Stacy. “What kind of education do you have?”
“Not a good one. I don’t even have my GED.”
“So what do you want to do?” Ray asked.
Stacy studied her hands, thought for a while. “I want to be an ultrasound technician, but that takes a lot of school.”
“I tell you what,” Ray said. If she did well in the program and got her high school diploma, Simply Hope would pay for her nurse’s training and her licensing test. “You do what you’re supposed to and I’ll take care of you.”
Stacy didn’t seem surprised or grateful. She looked scared. “Okay,” she said slowly.
Then her focus shifted. She saw a Florida Gators calendar on Ray’s desk and picked it up.
“You like it? Take it,” said Ray.
Stacy started flipping through the pages, as excited as Ray had ever seen her. “Really?” Stacy asked. “It’s even got trivia!”
As she walked out, she told Ray, “I’m 90 days clean Sunday.” At least she would have been if she hadn’t taken those pills.
Stacy knew honesty was the first rule of sobriety. Counseling had taught her that addicts perpetuate their behavior by lying first to themselves — I didn’t know what I was taking; I took just one pill. She understood that each lie is a crack in the dam of recovery.
At the next NA meeting, 18 days after she relapsed, Stacy stood while everyone clapped for her. She accepted the red key chain indicating three months of sobriety and faked a smile.
BACK AT SIMPLY HOPE, Stacy started pushing herself through the program.
Out of bed by 8. Shower. Brush teeth. Rinse sink. Coffee and Cocoa Puffs. Wash dishes. Walk to the bus, transfer, show up at work or a meeting or counseling. Home by 8 p.m. Lights out by 11.
Her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor wanted her to start tackling the 12 steps. The sponsor talked about what each one meant, how hard Stacy would have to work. She told Stacy to write the first step on notebook paper:
“We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Stacy started talking to God. She started writing down her prayers. “Help me see the plan for my life and guide me on the right path.”
When Stacy was stressed or angry or wanted to get high, she fingered a necklace her mom had given her, a silver ring inscribed with the word FAITH. It helped her focus. Made her feel strong.
Stacy’s aunt gave her a blown-glass globe to thread onto the chain. Its outside swirled with amber, cobalt and forest green. Inside were some of Frankie’s ashes. Now Stacy had a new touchstone. She felt her cousin was watching over her.
Every week, Stacy went to a court-ordered individual counseling session, plus three group therapy meetings at PAR.
She learned about the “feeling wheel,” where red was angry, yellow was joyful and sad was purple. Mostly, she was yellow. But she still had purple days.
“Feeling sucks,” Stacy said. “But I’m starting to get used to it.”
At first, all she felt was guilt, self-loathing, regret. Then good feelings started getting through, like when her mom said she was proud of her or when Richie kissed her nose. Pills had been drowning out the bad feelings — but also muting the good ones.
To really feel, Stacy’s counselor insisted, she had to give up all drugs, even marijuana and alcohol. Any substance can send addicts into a tailspin of remorse and shame. Once they’ve taken that first drink, it becomes easier to say to hell with it and keep going. Drug court, Simply Hope and probation all required Stacy to sign papers promising total abstinence.
Recovery is a big struggle, said Stacy’s counselor, Ronald Ellis. “You start thinking about your identity, your purpose. What you haven’t done. What you could have been doing.”
Men are your weakness, Stacy’s counselor told her. In eight months she had been with four guys, all of them using or in recovery. One of Stacy’s biggest fears was being with someone who looked down on her. So she gravitated toward men as broken as she was — dropouts, partiers, guys who defined relationships as sex and texting. Stacy didn’t think she deserved anyone better.
“Once you become intimate with someone, it’s all about the physical relationship,” Ellis said. “You need to build that emotional intimacy first. Concentrate on friendship.”
On a steamy Thursday in May, at the end of an individual session, the counselor handed Stacy a document in a plastic purple frame. He told her she had completed PAR’s program. “Congratulations.”
Stacy stared at him. She wasn’t ready to be done. She had been sentenced to 48 sessions but had finished only 30.
“It’s an administrative discharge,” Ellis explained. The grant that paid for the counseling had run out.
He told her to be careful. Only half the people who complete treatment stay clean.
“Now you have your life back,” he said. “The rest is up to you.”
BY LATE JUNE, Stacy had been in the halfway house almost four months. She had two months to go until she graduated. She insisted she had been off drugs since her mother took her to court that morning in February.
But even now, the cravings wouldn’t go away. “Stinking thinking” the judge called it.
Stacy woke up thinking about getting high. She didn’t want to get high, so she thought about getting high to forget how much she wanted to. Sometimes it just didn’t seem worth it, all this trying and still getting nowhere.
One Monday, Stacy had the day off. Her mom was at the copier shop and her son was at day care and her roommates were working, so she rode the bus to St. Petersburg to see an old friend.
They hung out for a while, watched TV. Afterward, Stacy’s head was throbbing. When she shifted on the sofa, she saw a plastic pill bottle.
This is the story she would tell later:
She didn’t read the label on the pill bottle.
“I thought it was something else,” she said. “I don’t know what, like Suboxone for cravings, or Tylenol, something non-narcotic.” She got up, poured a glass of water and swallowed two pills. In half an hour, she felt the cottony numbness, felt her eyelids droop, her shoulders relax. She thought about saying “screw it,” taking the rest of the pills and never going back to the halfway house. But then she realized she didn’t want the high. “I knew if I let myself enjoy it that would be a mistake.”
“Come get me,” she texted her mom at work. She gave her the address on Fourth Street.
Sherry texted back, “Start flushing.” In other words, start drinking liquids that will mask the drugs in your system.
Sherry knew she was enabling Stacy. But she wanted to believe someday her daughter would finish the program and take care of Richie. She wanted that for Stacy, and for herself. Stacy had gotten away with the first relapse. Maybe she could also hide this one.
That night, Sherry made dinner for Stacy and Richie. She tried not to scold, but she was starting to break.
“I thought you were going to be done with all this by August,” she said. “I was counting on August.”
She handed Stacy a plate of spaghetti and sat beside her. Stacy seemed almost despondent this time, not defiant like before. Her mom hugged her and said, “At least you’re not dead.”
Maybe Ray won’t even find out, Stacy said.
Her mom dropped her off at the halfway house before curfew and Stacy holed up in her room.
The next day, Stacy went to work and to a meeting. She posted a new Facebook status: “Loving my life!”
Nine hours after that, Ray’s assistant banged on Stacy’s bedroom door. “You should have been out of bed an hour ago,” the woman said. She held out a cup. Ray wanted a urine sample.
RAY HAD SUSPECTED Stacy for weeks. She swore she was clean, but he had noticed the pinpoint pupils, the glassy eyes, the little frown people get when they’re on opiates. People on pain pills have a hollow stare, he said. Like zombies.
“I guess seeing her cousin die wasn’t enough,” Ray had told his assistant. “That girl is up to something.”
Stacy told Ray’s assistant she couldn’t pee. She drank water, chugged iced tea. Even after a drive to Ray’s office, Stacy insisted she couldn’t give a sample. So they waited.
Finally, Stacy tested positive for methadone. “I thought I was taking aspirin,” she told Ray. He told her to pack her things, call her mom and tell it to the judge. He drove her to court.
She didn’t seem aware of how unlikely her story sounded. She expected everyone to believe she had swallowed some mystery medicine without knowing or really caring what it was.
The judge said she was worried. “You’ve got the dragon all over you,” she said. She sent Stacy back to jail for violating probation.
Stacy’s mom wept as she watched her daughter slink out of the courtroom. Stacy didn’t look back.
I’M STILL HERE
GUARDS ASSIGNED STACY to a bottom bunk in a pod with four other women. If she leaned off the end of her mattress, she could almost see the TV. But she didn’t feel like watching TV. When cartoons came on, she cried. She drew a smiling SpongeBob for Richie and signed it, “Mommy loves you.”
She kept torturing herself, reliving her relapse, throwing out what-ifs. What if she hadn’t seen that bottle, what if she had been stronger, what if she had thought of the consequences?
Every night before lights out, Stacy stood in line at the jail phone and called her mom. Sherry got to know the routine: Stacy would complain that it was loud, she was bored. Then she would shift to despair: How long was she going to be stuck here? She would sob until the phone began to beep time’s up.
She kept asking her mom whether she had heard from Jade. Her daughter was still living with her grandparents in Port Charlotte. Stacy hadn’t talked to her in months.
And how was Richie? “Richie is having a hard time,” Sherry told her. He was pushing other kids in day care, taking their toys. “He misses you.”
After Stacy had been in jail for a month, Sherry drove Richie to see her. She put him in his stroller and pushed him through a long room walled with TV monitors. Inmates at the Pinellas County Jail aren’t allowed to have in-person visits, so talking to Stacy on a TV screen would have to do.
Sherry pulled up a plastic chair and sat Richie in her lap. As soon as she picked up the black phone, Stacy’s blurry image appeared on the screen. Stacy was wearing gray scrubs. Her long hair was wavy because she had been wearing braids. Stacy waved at her son. He turned and hid his face in Sherry’s shoulder. Why was Mommy on TV? Why couldn’t she come home?
Sherry said Mommy was at work. She wanted to come home, but she couldn’t. Richie wailed so loudly that Sherry had to hurry him out of there.
As the weeks passed, Stacy’s hair started falling out. Her face became pocked with sores. In her nightmares, a crowd was chasing her, trying to tackle her.
Stacy wasn’t sure she wanted to go back into drug treatment. She told her mom she didn’t want to get high either. “Not anymore,” she said. She felt she had learned a lot about addiction and coping. For the first time in years, she had been earning money, playing with her son. Then she had picked up that pill bottle.
What were you thinking? her mom asked. “I wasn’t,” Stacy answered.
“And now I’m going to lose my job,” Stacy said, sobbing. “I lost my place at Simply Hope and my chance to get my kids back. I realized, this time, that I don’t even have any friends. They’re all just users who want something.” Only her mother ever came to see her.
Everyone in jail was telling Stacy to forget about drug court. Just do your time and get it over with.
But Stacy was facing 10 years. Her mom begged her to keep working, if the judge would let her. “Your kids need you,” Sherry told her. “You need to try again.”
Stacy said she still believed in drug court. “If you want it, the program will work,” she said. “I did want it.” A tear slid down her nose. “I guess I just didn’t want it enough.”
She spent all summer in jail. In 79 days, the guards let her outdoors into a fenced courtyard for 45 minutes.
ACOFFIN STOOD in the back of Courtroom 10. Stacy’s public defender had built it in his garage after Judge Farnell asked for a meaningful place for defendants to deposit their cigarettes. It doubled as a symbol of how drug users courted death.
“All rise!” called the bailiff.
It was the second Tuesday in September, and Stacy was finally returning to Ladies’ Day.
Stacy’s mom sat in the front row, clutching a white three-ring binder. Inside were the sketch of SpongeBob for Richie, and a letter Stacy had written telling her mom she was sorry. She had never said she was sorry before. Sherry wanted to show the judge her daughter was ready this time.
Farnell thumbed through Stacy’s file. Stacy had been in drug court almost two years. “So you did well at Simply Hope, except for the methadone,” said the judge. “And you’re well aware that addiction is a horrible disease that not only plays with your body but with your mind. All of a sudden, it pops up and you do something so outrageously dumb …”
Stacy bit her lip. With the heels of her hands, she wiped both eyes.
“We need you to operate out of hope, not fear,” said the judge. “Know that you will get better. But if you want to blow out of here, I’ll let you go. You may be walking right into state prison, but …”
Then the judge turned around and addressed Ray Harris. “Ms. Nicholson was doing well at Simply Hope. Are you willing to take her back?”
Ray was wearing a black suit and silver tie. With his coal-black hair and ruddy complexion, Stacy thought he looked like the devil.
“I emailed our board. They don’t want me to take her back,” Ray said. “This will be her third time. But I will.”
Stacy’s mom gasped. Stacy looked up. She thought he hated her.
“I want 60 days clean,” Ray said. “No games.” He strode over to Stacy, poked a finger in her face. “Stacy, you’re an addict,” he said loudly so everyone in court could hear. He jabbed his finger toward the coffin. “And that box is your future. I see you and your cousin meeting up again soon if you don’t get busy.”
Stacy’s shoulders were shaking.
“You need to take a deep breath,” said the judge. “Be grateful you’re still here. You’ve been through enough. Your family has been through enough. Now, what do you want to do?”
Stacy looked at her lawyer, then her mom. “Finish this.”
“Okay,” said the judge. “I don’t want to see your name in an obituary. Stacy is going to make it.”
At Simply Hope, Ray gave Stacy the key to another halfway house. He told her, “I don’t think you’re going to make it.”
STACY’S MOM BROUGHT HER a Big Mac on the way home from jail. “Mmm,” Stacy said. “Real food.”
As they pulled into the driveway at Sherry’s house, Stacy saw a little blond head peek through the window. “Mommy!” Richie shouted.
Stacy ran in with both arms spread wide and fell to her knees. But the boy backed away. “It’s me, Mommy!” Stacy said. “You don’t know me?” To a 2-year-old, a summer apart is forever. Richie ran to his room.
Stacy stood up and got a surprise: her daughter, Jade. “Sissy?” Stacy shouted. “Oh, look at you! You’re taller than me now.”
Stacy hadn’t seen her daughter in almost a year — not since Christmas. They hadn’t spoken. Now Sherry had arranged a reunion.
At 12, Jade looked like a teenager. She had been telling everyone her mom was on vacation.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Stacy said, pulling her daughter to her. Jade fell into her mom’s arms, then wriggled away and said, “I have a song for you.”
She perched on the arm of the couch. “I’m nervous,” Jade said. Taking a deep breath, she launched into a song by the Band Perry:
“If I die young, bury me in satin, lay me down on a bed of roses …” Stacy had to turn away. She didn’t want her daughter to see her weeping. “The sharp knife of a short life,” Jade sang. “I’ve had just enough time.”
It was all too much for Stacy. After an hour of people hugging her, singing for her, showing her things and stopping by to welcome her home, she was overwhelmed. She still had to check in with her probation officer, find her clothes and get back to the halfway house by dark.
“Where’s my stuff?” she called to her mom. “Where’s my sheets and my perfume?” Everything was balled up in the garage. Stacy had been in and out of so many motel rooms and jail cells that her mom had stored bags all over. “I can’t find anything!” Stacy screamed. “I’m having a breakdown here! I’m freaking out!”
Jade brought Richie into the living room. She sat the boy on the floor, filled his sippy cup with chocolate milk. Stacy knelt in a pile of clothes, holding her head in her hands. The girl touched her mom’s shoulder and asked, “You want help?”
STACY MOVED INTO the halfway house for the third time. Got a new sponsor and started again at Step 1, humbling herself before her addiction: “We admitted that we were powerless …”
A pizza shop owner who knew Stacy’s mom gave Stacy a job. Dave Rose had known other people who were addicted to pills. “I know it’s a risk,” he said. “But everyone deserves a second chance.”
Within a week, Stacy’s boss gave her a raise, to $8 an hour. After a month, he handed her keys to the store. “I can’t say enough about Stacy,” he said. “She works really hard, and she can do it all, open, work the front counter, cook. She’s definitely proven herself.”
Stacy spent her days off at her mom’s house, playing with her son. She made Richie his favorite meal: macaroni and cheese. She tickled him and bit his toes and taught him peek-a-boo.
By late October, Stacy had been clean for four months.
In two weeks, she was supposed to graduate from the halfway house and move back into real life.
ON A DRIZZLY THURSDAY just before Halloween, Ray let Stacy stay out after curfew to go to a candlelight vigil with her mom.
“Thanks for coming with me,” Sherry told her. She smiled at Stacy, wrapped her arm around her shoulders.
More than 500 people had poured into Largo Central Park for a memorial to victims of prescription drug abuse. The event was sponsored by the sheriff’s office and NOPE — Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education — a group of parents who had lost children to pain pills.
Here, Stacy’s mom knew, she was one of the lucky ones. “You look great,” she told Stacy. “Tired, but great.”
Stacy buckled Richie into his stroller and they walked toward the outdoor stage.
After the sun set, a projector began flashing faces across a screen: a biker, a soldier, a cheerleader. A teenage boy with a guitar, a gray-haired woman with glasses, a girl smiling in her graduation cap.
Images of 249 people, all dead in the last year.
Stacy thumbtacked a photo of Frankie to one of the memorial panels. She added a sticky note. “We love you and miss you more than words can express.”
She slid back into her seat, wrapped her right hand around the necklace with Frankie’s ashes and, for the first time, let herself mourn.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” she told her mom. “Why is he gone and I’m still here?”
AWEEK LATER, Stacy showed up at Ray’s office unannounced. “Well, hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
For eight months, Ray had surprised Stacy with drug tests and bed checks. Now, with a week to go at the halfway house, she was seeking him out.
“I’m here to pay off my balance,” Stacy said, holding a cashier’s check for $475 in back rent, fines and fees. Her mom had been paying her phone bill, buying her bus passes and cigarettes so Stacy could save everything else for Ray.
Ray studied Stacy. “How many meetings are you doing a week?” he asked.
“Four, sometimes five,” she said. “I try to go every day I can.”
Ray nodded. “So what’s different?”
Stacy smiled and looked away. “A lot,” she said. “I’m not worrying about who I’m hanging out with or where I’m going to find the next pill. I got other goals now.”
“Good thing,” Ray said. “When I told you you’re not going to make it, that’s when you determined to prove the old man wrong. I’m glad you did.”
Stacy said she realized her mom needed her to get better for Richie. She decided to start over. Stop seeing people she used to party with. Stop getting together with guys she met in rehab.
She had a new phone number. Her boss let her hire people and collect money from the register. After work, she attended a meeting or went straight home.
Stacy told Ray she wanted to get her driver’s license back, and a car, and her high school diploma.
“That’s great,” Ray said. “But you got to make sure you don’t get overwhelmed.”
Stacy said she was ready to move in with her mom and Richie. When she had saved enough money, she and Richie would settle into an apartment.
Ray told Stacy she could leave the halfway house in two days. He would bring her graduation certificate to her next court date. But she still had to report to him for random drug tests. “That’s no problem,” Stacy said.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Ray.
The next 90 days will be the hardest, he said. Addicts have a hard time handling freedom. “The cat’s out of the bag,” he said. “The dog’s out of the yard. And there’s no fence. Just a lot of danger.
“The holidays are a hard time for all of us addicts,” Ray said. “Most 12-steps have marathon meetings around the clock, so just go.”
He shook Stacy’s hand. “The rest is up to you,” he said. “Do the right thing for the next six months and we’ll see if we can’t get you off probation. Maybe you can even graduate from drug court by May.”
“I turn 30 in May,” Stacy said. “I’m ready.”
ON A BRIGHT FRIDAY in November, Stacy cleaned out her closet at Simply Hope and dropped off her key. Her mom drove her to the pizza place to pick up her check, the first one she didn’t owe Ray. “Feels good, huh?” Stacy’s mom asked her.
“Feels great,” Stacy said. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever be done.”
For the first time in years, Stacy was moving back home with her family.
She still thought about using, still craved that high. Any high. When her head hurt she thought about popping pills. When she sniffled she thought about snorting Roxys. She couldn’t watch Intervention on TV because seeing someone slide a needle into his arm made her want to do it, too.
Temptation was everywhere. A man on the bus offered her oxys. A guy in Williams Park dropped his plastic bag of pills right in front of her. “I’m not even a drinker, but now that I’m pouring beers at work, it gets to me,” Stacy said. “I want a Bud Light so bad I can taste it.”
Drug court had kept her alive, she said. If she hadn’t gone to jail, she would have died in that house with her cousin. The counseling had given her ways to cope. The halfway house had given her sobriety. She wasn’t going to be a statistic.
Stacy was starting to enjoy quiet moments: watching a squirrel scamper along the fence, laughing at Kung Fu Panda, digging worms with her son.
“I’m just going to take it slow,” Stacy told her mom.
Sherry had hauled a mattress into the Florida room along with a new dresser, computer desk and TV. Richie was at preschool, so Stacy and her mom spent the afternoon setting up the new space. “I got a box spring and frame for you, too,” Sherry said. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
Stacy flopped on the mattress and said, “Me, too.” Then she said something she hadn’t said in years. “Thanks.”
STACY’S DAY STARTS at sunrise now, when Richie crawls into her single bed. He goes to her instead of to his grandmom.
Jade is back in her life, too. She visits on weekends. She loves rapping Drake songs with her mom, dancing the Dougie. “I used to cry all the time thinking my mom was going to die,” Jade said. “I thought she hated me, that she was never going to be there for me, that me and Richie weren’t as important as the drugs.”
Jade can’t believe how much her mom has changed. “After Mom got out of jail this last time, she was a much better person,” Jade said. “Everything is way better than it was before. I just want it to stay this way.”
The weekend after Stacy moved home, her mom built a bonfire in the back yard to celebrate. Sherry invited her boyfriend and the latest guy Stacy had been talking to. Stacy went and cashed her check.
And brought back a bottle of Crown Royal.
TO BE ADDICTED, experts say, is to be brain-damaged. When you take a drug, you flood the brain with more chemicals than it is used to. The brain stops making its own endorphins. It likes endorphins, so it wants more drugs.
“You’re basically killing brain tissue. If you do this long enough, the changes can become long term,” said Marlowe, the Pennsylvania addiction scientist. “The brain becomes dependent on that external chemical. Drugs reprogram your brain.”
Marlowe’s definition of recovery is “sustained long-term abstinence from all intoxicating drugs, including alcohol.” He doesn’t believe someone is in recovery until he or she has been totally clean for two years.
In treatment, Stacy had heard all the warnings. Addicts can’t afford to take any drug, the counselors had said, because one substance leads so easily to another. That means no alcohol, no marijuana, no nothing.
But to Stacy, booze and pot were not the problem. Pills were the problem. And she was proud of how far she had come.
A week after the bonfire party at her mom’s house, Stacy went camping with her latest boyfriend. They slept under the stars. But on Sunday, a few hours after they got back, he texted her and made a confession: His old girlfriend had just come by, and he had slept with her. He still wanted to be with Stacy but …
Stacy was devastated. This guy was the first one in years who didn’t use drugs, or wasn’t in recovery. He was supposed to be the good one.
On any other day, for most of Stacy’s life, a text like that would have been the perfect reason to reach for a pill. But not that day.
On that day, she let herself feel the pain.