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Beth’s Story: Commentary on an epidemic that hits close to home
“Beth’s Story” is the first in a five-part monthly series on the addiction epidemic that our society is facing. While names, locations, and dates have been changed to protect her family, Beth’s story is true and sadly becoming too common.
The series is written by Janice Ballenger, who works at Retreat at Lancaster County, a premier 160-bed addiction treatment center in Ephrata. While working closely with patients suffering from addiction, she has a passion to raise awareness to what addiction truly is, namely, a chronic, treatable brain disease. There is a need to detach the negative stigma attached to addicts. There is help and there is always hope. One more “Beth” is one more too many lost to this horrific disease.
Not once have I made a New Year’s resolution to become an addict. Not once did I dream that I would “grow up” to become a drug addict. How many holiday celebrations did I contribute anything worthwhile to? None. None that I can remember. I am a drug addict. I have never had a “Hallmark” moment.
You wouldn’t have known by looking or chatting with me, a highly successful registered nurse, that I am an addict. I am Beth, who five years ago was living the dream, balancing a successful career and home ownership. Living in bucolic Lancaster County, everything was picture perfect. But that changed when I met my husband Sean. It was love at first sight. Sean was handsome, even if a little scruffy. I loved the smell of his hoodies. I loved him unconditionally and he was good to me. Life was good, until we started to smoke marijuana on weekends. Then we dabbled in cocaine, and eventually moved on to any drugs we could get our hands on.
I had a drug problem as a child. My mother dragged me to church every Sunday. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful. I was drug to the kitchen to help cook. Those drugs were still in my veins, but they didn’t show in my behavior. The cocaine, crack and heroin now consumed my every vein.
I wasn’t born an addict, nor was it my New Year’s resolution. When I took that first puff on a joint, never did I imagine it would lead me down a journey into a life of pain, despair, shame and hopelessness. I hated myself. I hated the terror of knowing that withdrawal was looming if money wasn’t found, some way, any way, for my next fix. But in my blinded eyes, that was the only way to survive.
We had scraped together enough money for a tiny apartment on Main Street in Akron. But drugs and dealers were everywhere. I didn’t want to leave our minimally furnished apartment, but we needed to escape our surroundings. Sean showed me an article that Lititz was voted, in an online survey by Budget Travel, as “America’s Coolest Small Town,” out of 924 towns in America. With their hand-twisted pretzels; quaint shops; seven-acre park; farmers market and Wilbur chocolate, Lititz sounded like the ideal place to move to.
We moved to another small apartment on Broad Street. This apartment had a green and pink bathroom and looked just like my late grandparents bathroom. We loved it. Sean learned about a newly formed group in Lititz, “ASAP — Action for Substance Abuse Prevention”. We became involved in the group and participated during their National Night Out in August 2015. We attended a town hall meeting in November.
I had Sean and everyone fooled into thinking I was able to manage the drugs I was using. One evening I told him I was walking to a local corner store for an iced tea. The truth was that I had planned to meet with my dealer for some “good, cheap stuff.” I didn’t return home. Sean found me passed out on the front steps leading to our apartment.
Sean had been a patient husband. He was my soulmate. But he couldn’t handle me anymore. Sean moved out, leaving a note on the cluttered, filthy kitchen counter sink. It read: “Try and love an addict, and then see if you don’t get addicted to trying to fix them. If you’re lucky, they recover. If you’re really lucky, you recover, too. Loving an addict consumed my every thought. Watching your physical deterioration and emotional detachment made me the most tired insomniac alive. I just wanted you back! Others don’t understand why I was so focused on you, when you don’t care about yourself. I’m not angry. I know you don’t understand. You’re lucky to not understand. I wish I didn’t understand either. I don’t hate you, I hate the disease. I hate your behavior. It is so hard for me to watch you; I can’t even imagine how hard it is to be you.”
He had printed out an article from the online group, Lititz ASAP. It read: “During the holiday season that is meant to be joyous, please remember those suffering with addiction and their families. ‘Addict’ means to be bound as a slave to the disease of addiction. Under it, Sean scribbled: “I saved every penny that I could to buy you that silver necklace for Christmas, and you sold it just for one bag of dope! I am breaking my slavery chains.”
One New Year’s Day, writhing on the cold bathroom floor, I realized that I hadn’t showered in weeks, and had been wearing the same faded pink pajamas for weeks. Barely able to catch a breath between sobs, I desperately tried to remember Christmas, while visualizing my suicide. I didn’t care anymore. My mind bounced back and forth, thinking of things I had read on the internet, “She deserved to die. A junkie doesn’t deserve to live. They’re a waste of skin, nothing more.”
I couldn’t stop the demons in my head screaming, “Lie, steal, go to any extreme for a bag of heroin.” These voices forced me to call my dealer at 12:03 a.m. because my disability money just came through. My calls went unanswered. As I sat on the cold hard floor, rocking back and forth, the nausea, cold sweats, and body aches started to take full effect. I stared at the floor filled with blood and vomit. The room reeked from the smell of heroin diarrhea. Addiction is impatient, unforgiving and manipulative. My body had learned not to test it.
I had to get this monkey off my back. I crawled to find my laptop and posted on the internet, “Well, if anyone cares, if you know me, I have a drug problem. Drugs are the only thing I care about with a despairing passion. I am going to rehab. I aim to be clean and serene. I will not associate myself with anyone that will take my sobriety away. I’ve done every drug I can get my hands on. I’ve used and abused people for my addiction. I don’t want to drink anymore. I don’t want to smoke weed, I don’t want to stick heroin in my veins, I don’t want to smoke crack. Do not ask me to party. It pains me to let go of my ways, but it must be done. I must get out of this hamster wheel. Goodbye my faithful drugs and drug dealers. Goodbye to my old, worthless, junkie self. Goodbye and good riddance!”
I stumbled to a local rehab facility. Frightened from years of skid-row panhandling, complete with wine sores and feces-covered pants, while thinking of all that I had lost. There was nothing to live for anymore, but I was too afraid to die. Would I go to Heaven or Hell? I walked inside the front door. People welcomed me and I was handed a cup of hot coffee. They were honest enough not to pretend they didn’t notice my shaking. They assured me it would get better. I met with many others, including psychologists, counselors, clinicians, doctors and nurses.
Going through the initial detox and moving on to the rehabilitation portion of the recovery process helped me identify the core reasons behind addiction. Time management skills were provided to hopefully prevent relapse. Attending group and individual therapy sessions, I learned addicts are everywhere, many functioning as your children, spouses, friends, your favorite waitress, neighbors, your favorite actors and musicians. Some are quite obvious, while others are well hidden.
The facility helped plan for my unique needs, including individual and group sessions in my aftercare. I had to maintain sobriety the rest of my life. I needed my sisters and father back in my life. My therapist helped me throw away Sean’s hoodie that I had always slept with, curling it in my arms while pretending he was still there.
Sobriety was the scariest drug I ever did. But it was the greatest high I ever experienced.
After completing my 30 day inpatient program, I moved to a group home, equipped with a chronologically gifted sponsor. I returned to the nursing field, clean. My mother had died from breast cancer, and I desperately needed my two sisters and father to accept me. But they didn’t want me around them. They were scared. They were bitter over the past. Even in recovery, I was still labeled a “junkie.” I had shot heroin for 822 days, from Sept. 4, 2010, until Jan. 2, 2013, but I was clean for 24 months. That was okay though. I had accepted that those 822 days were the touchstone of my life.
My transition was plagued by constant mood swings, anxiety, lack of energy, irritability, trouble sleeping and vivid “drug dreams.” Wrestling with the need to abstain, I was feeling good about my recovery and my new job back in nursing. Life seemed pretty good, living moment by moment.
On Dec. 2, 2015, I got to work a few minutes early. I opened the daily newspaper to shockingly see my daddy’s obituary. He was dead! I read and re-read the article, crying as I looked at his picture, proudly wearing his Navy uniform. My intention had been to reunite with him, but that never happened. I called Sean but he didn’t answer his phone. I didn’t even have my sisters’ phone numbers.
I ran out of work and went back into my hole, after stopping to buy some heroin. As I cooked it in the bottom of a busted up soda can, liftoff was approaching. As I squirted toilet water on the spoon, purple ink from the can’s price tag dissolved into the heroin. The 10cc’s drawn up into the syringe through the cotton was solid purple. I gagged. But with the overload of anticipated pleasure I shot it anyway. Pure poison going directly into my bloodstream. As the tingles beneath my skin started, my cravings subsided, giving way to a rush of excitement. The bitter taste in the back of my throat was well worth the warmth starting in my chest and spreading to every extremity. Any thoughts prior to liftoff had dissipated. Needing more to erase my pain, I continued “just one more shot.” Sticking a needle into my vein, watching the blood register inside the cylinder, pulling the trigger, feeling the hot liquid moving up my arm, racing towards my heart, waiting for the rush of euphoria to explode, I was flying. One more shot was all I kept thinking.
My two sisters stopped by to inform me of our father’s death. They found me in cardiac arrest and began CPR, keeping me alive until I was placed on life support. After two days of them holding my hands, recalling our happy memories, crying and praying, they pulled the plug. At the age of 38, I was dead, with my sisters finally by my side.
About Janice Ballenger
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