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2 ex-addicts on recovery: ‘It doesn’t have to end in death.’

April 8, 2018

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (AP) — In 2013, two young drug-addicted women found themselves on the front page of the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch as part of an article about the growing heroin problem in central Virginia.

Today, they are mothers of young children, celebrating their sobriety and helping others get — and stay — clean.

On that Sunday morning in the summer of 2013, Deborah Waite received an unexpected phone call from someone telling her that her daughter, Briar Vickhouse, was in the newspaper. The mother and daughter hurried from their Mechanicsville home to a nearby store to pick up The Times-Dispatch.

Sure enough, Vickhouse was in the paper. The story described how Vickhouse, then a college student, had overdosed on heroin a few months earlier, leading to the arrests of her and her longtime friend Courtney Pace.

Vickhouse recalls feeling devastated and humiliated by the article. She remembers thinking, “It’s the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch — everybody’s going to know everything now.”

Her mom already had known about her heroin addiction, but lots of other people didn’t until the story was published. That day, a relative sent Vickhouse a message that she said is still burned in her brain. “I can’t believe I let you and your junkie friends in my house.”

“My whole family found out I was doing drugs,” Vickhouse said recently. “Several of them disowned me.”

Still, things would get worse. She said she was suspended from Randolph-Macon College. She would go in and out of jail. Her home was a relative’s basement. She had no car, no money, no cable and only one DVD, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

She spent every penny she could scrape together on heroin and overdosed more times than she can count. At that point, her life mattered less to her than the pull of heroin. The last time she got high, on New Year’s Day of 2015, rescuers had to resuscitate her using paddles.

But Vickhouse finally quit using drugs, mainly because the drugs no longer made her feel good. She was still miserable even after getting high. After she finally quit, her life slowly started to get better.

She later became a mother and went back to school. She has worked hard to stay clean and regularly attends meetings in a 12-step recovery program. Her friend Pace, 25, is more than one year clean and works in the Chesterfield County Jail helping women with addictions to heroin.

After Vickhouse got clean and sober, the resentment and shame of having her name in the newspaper as a heroin addict has continued to eat at her over the past few years. On the internet, she’s the same addict who got arrested one night five years ago. Anyone who Googles her name would see the article. Even though she had changed her life, her past was following her around.

“Every couple months, it would be late at night. I would Google my name and the article would come up. I would read the article and I would read it again, and it would fester.”

Finally, in January of this year, shortly after celebrating her three-year anniversary of being clean and sober, she sent an email to The Times-Dispatch late at night. In it, she said that the article has hurt her reputation and she wants the newspaper and the public to know she is not that person anymore.

“I have straight A’s in school today,” the 27-year-old Vickhouse wrote. “I have a daughter that I take care of. I am a responsible, productive member of society today.”

‘This is not who I am’

Pace remembers how emotionally low she felt one night in late 2012 as she was sitting in her car with a gram of heroin.

By then, she had become an everyday user and was truly miserable. Suddenly, she dumped the heroin outside her car and decided she was done.

“This is not who I am,” she remembers thinking.

But escaping her addiction wouldn’t be so easy. A few months later, she and Vickhouse were back to using heroin together. They have been longtime friends going back to their time at Hanover High School. They both had developed addictions to opioid prescription pills.

“Pills were really big when I was in high school,” Vickhouse said.

Eventually, they tried heroin when it became harder to find more pills and they were getting more expensive. They were together when they each tried heroin for the first time. They had snorted the drug in the beginning, but by March of 2013, they both had started injecting it.

On March 27, 2013, Pace and Vickhouse decided to get high. They went to Mosby Court in Richmond’s East End and scored, then drove to Mechanicsville and parked outside a bar.

Pace remembers shooting up. She felt the rush of euphoria envelop her body. But something else was happening.

She turned and looked at Vickhouse, who had started convulsing. Her eyes rolled back into her head. She was turning blue.

Pace called 911. The authorities came and Vickhouse woke up lying on the ground in the parking lot. Pace had hidden the drugs and she thought she had gotten away with it, but sheriff’s deputies had found evidence that later led to the arrest of both women.

They’re lucky to be alive. Opioid overdoses killed 683 people in Virginia that year, and the toll continues to rise.

Pace shared the details of that terrible night on a recent day as she told her story to a rapt audience of about 30 inmates at the Chesterfield County Jail, where she works as a peer recovery specialist. She facilitates the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program for female inmates. Maybe, she thinks, sharing her worst mistakes can help prevent others from making them.

Chesterfield sheriff’s Capt. Eric K. Jones, who works at the jail, said he was skeptical of Pace when she first started as a facilitator for the HARP program because he didn’t know her.

“She has been a great addition,” he said. “She is good at what she does.”

Pace also sponsors women in a 12-step recovery program, including Ashley Perkinson, who recently was released from jail and came voluntarily to the Chesterfield jail to hear Pace speak.

Perkinson said she has benefited from having a sponsor who holds her accountable, and Pace can be tough. Perkinson met Pace at a 12-step meeting last year and eventually asked her to be her sponsor.

“She’s somebody I definitely looked up to,” Perkinson said. “I loved her recovery. I loved the way she looked at things.”

‘I did some awful things’

Vickhouse and Pace both had good grades in school, and Vickhouse was inducted into the National Honors Society.

Vickhouse said she started taking prescription pills partly because they made her feel more comfortable in her own skin and more social. She also has been in some car accidents and was prescribed pain medication for her back injuries.

The second accident happened when she was 22. She had been clean for several months at the time, but she started taking the pain pills. “My brain convinced me: They prescribed this — so you can just go do heroin now.”

“Makes a lot of sense,” she jokes now, laughing drily at the old way of thinking. “That’s what an addict brain does.”

Pace had health problems when she was a teenager. She was prescribed pain pills for a condition called endometriosis, which involves chronic pelvic pain.

She recalls that she had to keep upping the number of pain pills she took to get the feeling of euphoria she felt she needed. She was getting pain pills after she had to have surgery for her endometriosis, but she eventually ran out and realized it was very hard to find more.

One night, Pace and Vickhouse were having trouble finding pills and someone told them they should try heroin. It costs less and it gets you higher, they were told. Pace said she remembers the first time she tried it like it was yesterday.

“I think within a couple weeks, I was an everyday user,” she said.

Their addictions took them to some ugly, miserable places. It wasn’t just the scrapes with law enforcement.

Pace remembers a particularly bad stretch of about nine months in 2016.

“I was in the worst run I have ever had — nine months of pure misery,” she told the inmates at the Chesterfield jail. “Some awful things happened to me. I did some awful things.”

Vickhouse was arrested for drug possession, shoplifting and writing bad checks, all in the pursuit of heroin.

‘Something was different’

For Pace, a pivotal moment came in September 2016. She had been dope sick all day and lying in bed. She got a call around 6 p.m. and decided to go meet someone to get high.

As she was leaving, her then-1-year-old son asked if she would sit with him and have dinner. She told him no and kissed him on the head and left.

“That was the moment that I knew I never wanted to feel like that again,” she said, recalling the guilt she felt that night. “I cared more about getting high than I cared about having dinner with my son.”

She used heroin that night and the next morning before she had to go to court for a probation violation. But the remorse she felt for refusing to eat with her son helped drive her to quit for good.

Within 24 hours of her court hearing, she checked herself into a detox facility and then went to treatment for the third time.

“Something had clicked in me this time,” she said. “Something was different.”

After treatment, she lived in a recovery house in Florida and then in Richmond. This past September, she celebrated one year clean.

Last October, Pace was maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. This is a friend who had told her at one point not to call her anymore until she had two years clean.

“I still think about getting high — I’m still an addict. One bad decision could land me in that chair right next to you,” she said, pointing toward the jail inmates sitting in a circle around her as she told them her story.

‘That saved my life’

Pace and Vickhouse are taking classes at Reynolds Community College for certification in substance abuse counseling.

Vickhouse plans to later get her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. Pace hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in social work.

Pace’s mother, Heather Gunn, is proud of her daughter’s sobriety and happy to see how well things are going.

“For the first time in a long time, Courtney thinks she’s smart and valued and has a purpose,” Gunn said. “She’s just present and there was just so long that she wasn’t present.”

“But there’s always that fear in the back of my mind. All it takes is one time and everything could completely do a 180. All it would take is one time and she would be gone or right back where she was.”

For Vickhouse and Pace, their mothers have been there for them. There was the initial shock to the parents when they realized their daughters were using heroin. They tried to help, giving them a place to stay and helping them go to treatment.

“It’s just an absolutely helpless feeling as a parent,” Gunn said. “There’s really nothing you can do.”

Except, she said, at some point she realized she couldn’t enable her daughter anymore.

By giving her a place to live when she was in active addiction, Pace had no financial responsibilities. “It was easy for her to spend her money on things she shouldn’t be spending her money on,” her mom said.

Pace believes that one of the most important things her mother ever did for her was when Pace was in treatment in Florida and Gunn told her she could not come home to live with her. That helped Pace realize she needed to stay in Florida longer and live in a sober house when she returned to Richmond. Those things were crucial in helping her get some clean time under her belt and keeping her away from old friends and routines that led to heroin.

“That saved my life,” Pace said.

Now, Pace and her son live with her mom in Mechanicsville.

Vickhouse’s mother, Deborah Waite, remembers visiting her daughter at a hospital on New Year’s Day 2015 after her last overdose.

Vickhouse was on a gurney at St. Francis Medical Center, still high on heroin, and Waite started laughing.

“I told her you’ve got to find a different hobby because you suck at being a drug addict,” Waite said.

By that point, Waite was just spent. She had been through about every emotion.

Now, Vickhouse is living on her own with her 16-month-old daughter in Midlothian.

“Hopefully this article will remove some of the stigma and put out some hope that addicts can recover,” Waite said.

Vickhouse said she finds it incredible that, even though the opioid epidemic has taken so many lives, some people still seem to have no empathy. It hurts when she sees people posting things like “They deserve to die” on social media.

“It really is a terrible thing,” she said of opioid addiction. “But people do recover. There is support. You can get better. It doesn’t have to end in death.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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