By Christina Hughes-Babb
A hot pin pierces my frontal lobe and the pain ripples outward. My ears throb, my heart pounds and a wasps’ nest awakens in my gut.
Something deep down begs unconsciousness, but my merciful, chemically induced slumber has ended. I am on my side, skin and bones shivering on a concrete bunk in a place I have been before. Sounds of angry chatter and slamming doors — doors that lock from the outside — seep into this cruel consciousness.
You are a lousy piece of shit, the voice inside my head says.
I concur. I struggle into an upright position and my brain feels like lava. I see dried vomit on my collar; my mouth tastes like rotten fruit. The smallest movement is a marathon. By the time I rise and plop my rear on the cold bunk-side steel toilet, I am out of breath and my heart slams angrily against my breast. I sit there in a self-embrace, holding myself together. I scan the tiny white cell until I am sure there is nothing available with which to kill myself.
My urine looks like rusty rainwater. My high school track coach, in my mind, admonishes me. A healthy hydrated runner’s urine is light yellow, like lemonade. I’m dehydrated, but that’s the least of my problems. It’s been 24 hours, maybe, since my arrest at the Kroger pharmacy.
That means the worst of the withdrawals are imminent. I feel bad, but over the next seven days, my body will endure a kind of torture known only to junkies. I crumble in a pile on the floor, freezing and sweating. The tray arrivals, three times a day, provide a sense of time passing, however sluggishly.
It wasn’t always this ugly. In fact, after a couple of teenage mishaps (an ambulance ride following a bad LSD trip, and an overindulgence in marijuana and alcohol that made me prey to three high-school boys who tore my clothes and left me on a friend’s front porch), I figured out how to make chemicals do what I wanted them to do.
Getting high on designer drugs and studying or writing, writing, writing all night, or popping amphetamines while waiting tables until 2 a.m. (or at least until my dad called the shift manager and insisted that I come home. “She’s in high school for Christ sake”, he’d say) seemed, to me, a uniquely productive use of drugs.
I only snuck liquor from my parent’s cabinet when the memory of what occurred in the car with the three boys threatened to enter my mind, when the voice called me a dumb slut.
On what I think is the third day, a guard opens the door.
All she says is, come on, and she pronounces on the way I pronounce own.
I don’t ask questions because I understand she hates me. She, with the clipped-on ponytail and extra-long acrylic nails, is waiting for me to allow her the opportunity to crush me with a caustic answer. I won’t.
She leads me to a tiny cell where I suffer several hours. There are at least 15 women in the cell. Lettering on the wall reads, 5-PERSON CAPACITY.
You skinny, white girl. You on crack?
I have always wanted to be called skinny, ever since I began busting out of my scrawny-kid skirts and shirts, so I almost thanked her. It’s not a compliment, Idiot, the voice notes. I tell them I am sick with heroine withdrawals and they leave me alone. One promises to pray for me.
Narcotic pain pills are my poison, not heroin. But it is just the same, because all opiates — codeine, morphine, oxycontin, hydrocodone — are cross-addictive. Once you are addicted to opiates you cease being human. Keep the drug in your bloodstream and you’re good. But when you run out, you enter a realm of terror. Separated from the comforting effect of the pill, you realize that you have become inhuman - a monster who will do anything to get relief.
Addicts need the drug like vampires need blood. Without the blood, vamps get sick. A vampire with a good upbringing — one whose mother is a Catholic-school teacher and whose father is an attorney, for example — might feel conflicted about drinking human blood. They must do it to live, so they proceed, no matter the cost.
The women in the cell — prostitutes, I deduce from their chatter — know the plight of the drug addict without the drugs. They have seen the monster among their peers and customers, or in themselves.
When my name is called I stand and follow a guard to a small space alongside the courtroom. There is a man, slightly older than me (30, I guess) who smiles and introduces himself as “Bruce Your Court-Appointed Attorney.” He asks me what happened and I ask him if he’s read the arrest report. “It’s all true,” I tell him.
Yes, I gave the pharmacist at Kroger a fake prescription. She called the doctor, then the police. All I could do was sit there. I was out of pills. I was sick. So tired. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t run anymore.
“Yes, Bruce, I have been to rehab before.”
“No, Bruce, this is not my first offense.”
He says, “OK, let me talk to your judge and see what our options are.”
As I wait, I watch the other attorneys hurrying about in their short-sleeved Oxford-style shirts and economical black shoes. I look down at my shoes; they are fluorescent orange canvas, three sizes too big.
When Bruce returns, balancing a tower of ivory folders against his chest (a shield?), he tells me “ the judge isn’t fucking around.”
Bruce doesn’t sound himself saying “fucking,” but this is his way of telling me that this situation is fucking serious.
You aren’t going to like either option, he says. “It’s two years in the Texas Detention Center or two and a half years in a hard-core, lock down treatment center.”
Standing close to the coffee-scented Bruce, I shake my head. The enormity of the consequence rains down on me. Every fiber of my body screams for anesthesia. I want to grab Bruce. His normalness, his long sleeves and soft leather shoes, make me wish he would set aside the folders and put his arms around me and tell me it might be OK. But the look in his eyes tells me I frighten him a little and sadden him a lot. There is no chance he will hold me or tell me it is OK. Nothing is OK and everyone here knows it.
He tells me I have two weeks to decide and tells a guard I’m ready to go back to my cell. I labor over a letter to my husband. After 24 hours or more I manage:
I am sorry. I am in jail. I don’t know how things got this bad. I just don’t know. Christy
One morning, my cellmate, a large, quiet black woman occupying the bunk below me, asks me, “Who is Cole and Morgan?”
A gut punch.
“They are my kids.”
“You talk to them while you asleep,” she says.
“We have found a couple in New York who wants to adopt the baby,” my parents told 18-year-old me a few weeks after I explained why I had gained 15 pounds and quit the soccer team.
Possibly out of stubbornness, I decided to keep the baby. I named him Cole and his father, a shaggy haired, green-eyed 17-year old, fell in love with us. When we married a few years later at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church, we had a huge party with all of our friends and family, and Cole carried our rings down the aisle.
I tried hard to be a good mom. I waitressed at night and studied Journalism at Southern Methodist University. Morgan came along when Cole was three. By then, I had a respectable, well-paying job as an editor at a Dallas magazine. I fueled my ambitious lifestyle with chemicals.
The doctor who prescribed medication for my “back pain” was the first to confront me.
“These things are addictive, so I am going to switch you to extra strength Tylenol.”
Fuck you, answered the voice in my head. After a year of regular Vicodin prescriptions, you want me to take aspirin?
I showed that bitch, using my magazine-design software to create an exact replica of her prescription pad.
When I see Bruce again he says I look much better. We stand in the room beside the courtroom. I say, “I’ve made my decision. I want to go to prison.”
He begins talking about a treatment center, but I don’t want to hear it. I deserve torture, not treatment. I won’t look at Bruce. My eyes wander to the courtroom, where I see — oh god, no — my dad is sitting in the back row.
He looks more professional than the other lawyers. No one in the room knows how sad he is, sitting there wearing the subtle smile he applies to uncomfortable situations. To them, he’s just a smirking lawyer. I wonder how he can stand to love me.
Christy? Are you here? Bruce tries to convince me that the treatment center is every bit as bad as prison. A compelling selling point. “And your family can visit,” he says. “Won’t it be more difficult for your family if you go to prison?”
Better if they could forget me, I think.
My husband tried to save me many times. But he had to stop spinning his wheels at some point, for his — and our children’s — salvation.
“The people from the treatment center can pick you up in the next 48 hours, if the judge agrees to let you go,” Bruce says.
“Do they have pillows there? “
“Yes,” says Bruce confidently, though he is surely guessing.
“OK,” I say. Wiping damp eyes and lifting my head, I follow Bruce The Court-Appointed Attorney into the courtroom. I have to look up in order to see the judge. I feel small and ugly standing there in my baggy white jumper, the word PRISONER along the leg. Painfully aware of my stringy half-blonde hair and (thanks to the girls in holding) my crackwhore-esque physique, I flinch as the voice, free from its chemical shackles, screams inside my head, junkie! Bruce seems small, too, as he passes paperwork to the honorable Judge Vickers Cunningham, who pauses for a read.
Am I going to black out? A drop of sweat crawls down the back of my neck. The judge peers at me over his reading glasses a few times as he ponders our plea and returns to his reading. Finally, he sighs, removes his spectacles, and looks right at me.
I look him in the eye. My parents told me that when you look people in the eye, they respect you for it. Even if you are in handcuffs and clown shoes, I assume.
“You are already on probation for possession of a controlled substance, Ms. Hughes. You’ve been given chance upon chance, and treatment doesn’t appear to take on you. The treatment center that your attorney has suggested to you is a little different — tough. Problem is, I’ve seen many a hardened criminal opt to do prison time over this place.” He looks at his notes and back at me. “This is no SMU sorority. This is the last house on the block and frankly I don’t think a pretty little thing like you will do well there. But I don’t think your chances are all that great in the women’s prison either.”
“You have kids?”
“Yes, Your Honor. A boy and a gir…” voice cracks.
He looks downward and rubs his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “You do this treatment. You need to stay the whole term. I am adding 10 years to your probation, which means that if you don’t stay at the treatment center until you are discharged, you’ll do ten years in prison. Christina, I will hate doing it, but, SO HELP ME, if you don’t clean up, I will put you in prison for ten years. By accepting this deal, you are agreeing to this.”
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
I look at Bruce who looks me squarely in the eye and nods. “Save yourself. You can do it,” he says. “It is going to be OK.” I look beyond Bruce and see my dad. He nods like he heard what Bruce just said.
I look back to the judge. “Yes, Your Honor. I understand.”
The Therapeutic Community is like no rehab I’ve inhabited, and there have been a few. No sitting around in support groups led by overpaid psychiatrists who always prescribe more medicine to the medicine addicted. No holding hands or excessive prayer. No TV watching or lounging. No cigarettes for smoking or aspirin for headaches.
But there is strong coffee, edible food and a bed with a blanket and a pillow. And, inside this place, the voice isn’t as loud.
There are two hundred or so inmates in the program and we spend the majority of the time working. Beginning at 5:30 a.m. every day for two years, I work in the kitchen or the facility laundry room, and when I become stronger and sturdier than I look, I join the construction and landscaping crews.
The judge was right about one thing: Folks did not generally hang around this place for the prescribed term. Physically, it proves unbearable for some. I am grateful for the sweat, though, and it is simple (Running, running, running.) compared to daily life (Hiding, pretending, lying, crying in the darkness.) leading up to my incarceration. At night, we take substance-abuse classes and periodically meet with a chemical dependency counselor. Some of the residents take high school classes. I work as a tutor and help a nineteen year-old meth addict earn her GED.
After two years I am allowed to get my own job. A pastor at a gigantic neighborhood church takes me in as a charity case. When he sees that I can write newsletters, help him with his computer, and make cool videos for the church service, he no longer sees me as a charity case. After about six months, he promotes me to Communications Manager.
Everyone at the church knows I am from the rehab. During my tenure, more than a few of the faithful pop into my office to spill secrets about drug abuse or infidelity. I suppose I am hearing their confession. Am I no longer a monster, I ask myself.
The pastor’s wife encourages me to “Accept Jesus Christ as My Lord and Savior” and to be baptized. I thank her for the suggestion and promise to think about it. But I find my religion among a group of people who meet at a smaller church up the street. They’re all drug addicts or alcoholics like me, and each pray, not necessarily to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, but to the God of his or her own understanding. And running on the charcoal hot Texas trails is also my religion.
Every day after work, I change into my running shoes and run for two hours or more. Dr. George Sheehan, a runner and modern-day philosopher, wrote that the way out of an abstract existence (that is, a solitary, socially awkward and passion-free life) is to “go out…If not to other people, at least to the body,” he wrote. So I run in the deep of night, the wee hours of the morning, the sweltering days of summer and iced-over Decembers — and I keep running until it is time to go home.
On a Saturday night, along with just four other Therapeutic Community residents (more than 100 started with me), I graduate from the final phase of the program. Then I step back into my life.
The first time my husband Josh and our children, Cole and Morgan, visit me at the Therapeutic Community is on a Christmas afternoon. The others and I transformed the warehouse where we lived into a holiday wonderland with Christmas trees and donated gifts for visiting children.
I sit at a table in the cafeteria. My hair has returned to its natural color—a dark, sandy blonde—and I wear a red sweater plucked from a bag of donated clothing. In the doorframe, six-year-old Morgan freezes in her steps and scans the room with wide green eyes. Her brother, now 10, appears next, towering above her, an arm on her shoulder. He looks back to his father, who swiftly moves forward. My eyes meet my husband’s and he smiles.
I stand and will away tears. Make the best of this, the voice, now kinder, says. He wraps his arms around me as I scramble to get a hand on my children. I hug, kiss and inhale them. For the first time in months, I am grateful that the forty Vicodin I swallowed the day before my arrest induced nothing more than a lengthy slumber.
Morgan hands me a card: “I miss you while you are at the docter,” it reads. Cole’s note is on college-ruled notebook paper: “Dear Mom, I really miss you. Are you getting better? I had a double out at my baseball game and we won. I love you.”
Cole tells me about a bike ride with Morgan: “She stopped for no reason and started crying and sat on the curb. She said ‘I miss my mom.’” Then he returns to the highlights of his baseball career.
My husband seems amused by my experiences at the treatment center. I share the funny antics about weird punishments — floor scrubbing detail or public speeches — and not the sad tales about mothers who birth crack-addicted babies or the former needle-users and prostitutes who buy time waiting for AIDS symptoms to emerge, (at which point they could no longer work and would have to return to prison). He tells me for the first time in years he now feels real hope that this Christmas just might turn around.
My clothes are soaked through and I feel like lava is running through my veins. My heart slams against my breast. My lower back, my ankles and my knees scream in pain and every movement is in slow motion. You can’t keep this up; you are going to die, the voice says. New voice responds, the hell you can’t. Move your ass.
Since coming home, I’ve run six marathons, including the internationally renowned and intensely competitive Boston Marathon. But this one is a little different. It’s in Rachel, NV, in the middle of the night. We are in the deep, dark desert in August ascending a 1,000-foot incline. Accumulated pain is contained in the sweat pouring from my body.
The primal sport of marathon running — moving beyond exhaustion and misery — makes me the Alpha animal capable, I think, of surviving anything. Takes me to a place where nothing but the present moment exists. There is no monstrous past. No future expectations. There is only the moment and the awareness, mingled with pain, of something bigger and illogically comforting. I am on the verge of being smothered but by a loving embrace.
Minutes after I cross the finish line, I call Dad. It’s 5 a.m. his time, and he has been waiting to hear about the race.
“I was the first place female,” I tell him.
“How many runners?”
“About five hundred,” I say, proudly.
“Christy! Way to go. She finished. First place!”
He calls to my mom, who I can hear asking about me from afar.
Dad’s a Marine and a Vietnam War veteran. He isn’t one to feign affection, or offer praise unless he means it. “You have a lot of guts,” he says. I have to fight back tears.
I write stories for a living. I have time to run and money to travel. I share my experiences with other women in trouble. As I am readying for an interview with a city councilman about the most recent community uproar (which happens to be over paroled convicts moving into a program at a nearby apartment complex), I pause to watch a horrifying national morning news story. A grainy black-and-white video shows a blonde woman in a bank calmly explaining to the teller that her family is being held captive and that she needs to withdraw $15,000 to pay the men who have invaded her home.
“Two hours after this was recorded,” the reporter says, “the woman and her two daughters were brutally murdered.” The killers tied and beat her husband, a well-known Connecticut doctor, the only member of the household to survive the attack.
A reporter for Esquire magazine would later write of the survivor, Dr. William Petit:
“Bad things happen to everyone. And in their aftermath, it is the human instinct to adapt and survive. By and large, people want to live. Biology and human history and our own lives tell us that we are indeed a resilient little bug. But there is bad, and then there is depraved. For Petit … it may as well be the end of the world. It is hard to see how a man survives the end of the world. The basics of life — waking up, walking, talking — become alien tasks, and almost impossibly heavy, as you are more dead than alive. Just how does a man go about surviving such a thing? How does a man go on?”
But Mr. Petit does go on. He has built a foundation in the memory of his family. He doesn’t sleep at night without taking many pills, I’ve read, and at 55 years old, he shares a home with his mom and dad. Each of his days is invaded by a hundred tortuous “what ifs.” But he plods on, I imagine, with his sights set on a world beyond this one.
On a Friday night I call my mom. “Mom, I am so sorry for all the pain I caused you and Dad when I was a teenager.” She can’t respond — maybe she’s crying or maybe she doesn’t know what to say. “You and Dad were good parents to me. Don’t ever think you weren’t.”
I learned last summer that my son Cole - a beautiful, intelligent, shaggy haired, green-eyed 17-year old - has dabbled in drugs. It’s the night before Mother’s Day when we catch him drinking whisky in his room and his father, my husband of fifteen years, turns on me. “This is your fault. You gave this to him.” I know he doesn’t mean the booze; he means the addiction. And I don’t blame him. In childhood, my husband lost family members to addiction. In adulthood, he nearly lost his wife. Now, the son he loves above all else is in the fire.
The next morning, Morgan, now a long-legged 13 year old, hands me a Mother’s Day card: “If you ever think for one second that your not doing a great job as mom, your wrong, you are the greatest mom in the world. And don’t worry about the bad stuff. It’s goanna be okay. remember, cole also got the ‘overcoming’ gene too. hes goanna be okay. I love you mom. Morgan.”
And behind my tightly closed closet door, I cry the cry of a lifetime. A cry filled with fear, regret, pain, guilt, love and hope - an enormous cry for our family, who has endured bad things, and for the families who have endured depraved things. But we move on past our cries, past our fears, and we brave the deepest pain we think we can possibly endure, sensing that maybe, instead, it is some disguised path to wisdom, some massive loving embrace.