“I Never Meant to Become a Heroin Addict”

Close up of infant's feet.

We are all connected. We see it everywhere. We see that the health of our community relies on the well-being of everyone in it, and that each person’s health is connected to the health of their families. All of this is another way of saying that we have to be here for each other. That no one is alone. In Vermont, we’re lucky to have people and organizations that understand this and dedicate themselves to helping others, that know we’re stronger when we work together.

Today we’re hearing from Victoria, a woman who overcame opiate addiction to become an amazing mom and teacher with the help of KidSafe Collaborative and their innovative CHARM program. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.

Victoria’s Story

My name is Victoria, and I’m a mom from Burlington. I have two children. One is 12 years old and one is 15. I am a teacher. I’ve worked very hard for this life.

15 years ago, I was a heroin addict. I never meant to become a heroin addict, as no one ever does. It was, oh my goodness. Going back, this was the early 2000s, I didn’t know about opiates. I didn’t know about heroin. I didn’t know that using this substance one time at a party would lead to physical and mental, and spiritual addiction. I was not educated at the time. I never even knew the word heroin.

Oh, I was probably 20 years old, very young, very naïve. I drank and smoked pot, and then friends would mess around with pills, and it was, “Oh, well that’s OK, because a doctor prescribed that to you.” We didn’t know any better back then, and I had been prescribed pills too, for wisdom teeth, and my tonsils out, so I never thought I was doing anything wrong.

The heroin epidemic hit this community in early 2000, and the community was not prepared. We didn’t know about the effects, and everyone I knew became addicted. It was just this whirlwind. I used every day for six months, and then one day, I woke up and I was sick. I had a friend say to me, “Oh, that’s because you’re dope sick.” She said, “If you just do this little tiny bit, you’ll feel better,” and I did about the size of a match head, and I felt normal. And that became my new normal.

I hid it from everybody. My boyfriend knew at the time, but that was it. I was always trying to live like a double life, but on the outside show everybody that I’m doing great, and I worked. I had a small cleaning business at the time, and I’d work every day, get money every day, just to support my habit, to keep me well every day. I had my life set up for me, to feed my addiction.

As soon as I knew I was an addict, I wanted out, so I went to rehab six times in two years. I knew I didn’t want to be on this path, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. I’d be called a chronic relapser. I didn’t want to use, but I didn’t know how to stop the compulsion inside me to use. This went on until one day, I became pregnant.

I was dating a very wonderful, nice guy at the time. I didn’t find out I was pregnant until about three months in, because I’m sick anyway. I’m not using, I’m sick, so as soon as I found out I was pregnant I was like, “OK, I’m not going to use. I’m not going to use. I’m not going to use.”

I was so, so scared to tell people that I had become pregnant. There’s a big stigma about pregnancy and addiction. We are addicts. We have a disease. It is chronic. It is dumbfounding. I knew the path I was on was not okay. I didn’t want to keep using. It was bad for me, bad for my baby, but I wanted to fix it. I wanted to make it right. I didn’t want to go to them before I had a plan in place.

At the time, I would just call up places, and I would give an anonymous name and just ask questions, and one of the women I called, she goes, “You sit tight, honey. I’m going to take care of this. I’ll call you right back.” She called me back maybe 20 minutes later and said, “Go to the hospital tomorrow. You’re going to get stabilized on methadone, and you and your baby are going to be OK.”

I called my mom, and my mom came and sat on my bed, and held my hand, and told me she loved me, and she knew that I had been struggling, and she sat on my bed and was like, “I love you, and I’m here for you, and I will do whatever I can.”

I’m so lucky, because my dad was the same way too. I lost my dad a few years ago. No matter what I did, they were always there to support me and back me up, and there’s so many addicts that don’t have that kind of support. I was very, very, very blessed.

My son was born, and it was one of those moments where you really feel like the clouds part, the sun shines down, and the angels sing. It was one of those moments where it was like, “I’m going to do everything in my power, little boy, to give you the best life possible, and I’m going to try to be the best mom possible,” so I stopped using before he was born. However, in my mind, my recovery day is the day he was born, because that was the day I changed my life and I changed my head, and it wasn’t about me anymore, and I wanted the chance to be that little boy’s mom. I wanted the chance to give him the life that I felt that he and I deserved.

I’m very lucky, and it’s because of the CHARM team that I had that chance. They are an interdisciplinary team of DCF, and Visiting Nurse Association, and the Chittenden Center, and Sally Borden from KidSafe, and every single one of them was an integral part of getting me to where I am today.

I started college when my son was nine months old, because I knew as soon as I got pregnant, I needed to have a degree. I needed to provide a better life for him and myself. I love going to school, I love education, I love learning about many different things, so it was really good for me.

Every other time I think I tried to get clean before, I was still my only focus, and at the time, I didn’t think I was worth anything more, but then all of a sudden, I had this little boy, so it was about him.

I started working with ICON, which is Improving Care for the Opioid-exposed Newborn, and they would bring me to big conferences, and I would just talk. And I remember there were times when I’d look up, and I’d have people in the room crying and bawling. It really is when people hear you on a human level and understand you on a human level, that something clicks.

It’s not the stigma, and it’s not the guy in the alley with the needle in the arm. It’s the girl next door who grew up, and played sports, and got good grades, and just by a series of events, this is what happened.

I spoke in Washington, DC, at a national conference, which was pretty cool. I’ve been all over the state. KidSafe collaborative, I was their volunteer of the year, I think in 2007. I was probably four years in recovery at that time. I won an award for the work I had done, which for me, I was like, “OK, I’m coming,” but I didn’t … Even though you don’t feel worthy, and I sat at the table, and I looked down, and there’s my mom, and my dad, and my VNA, and my two doctors, and Sally Borden, all these tribe of people that had helped get me to where I was.

I saw my mom crying, and I remember being so proud, because I made her cry because she was proud of me, and not because she was worried that I was dead.

When I do speak, one of the two stories I always tell is when I was in the hospital for my son, but I also met this lovely nurse named Flora. I’m raw, and I’m vulnerable. I had to be there for a couple of days to get stabilized, to make sure the baby and I were okay and healthy, and she came in to take my vitals at like 2:00 in the morning, and sat on the end of my bed, and said, “Tell me your story.” And I did. No judgment, no precursor. She just wanted to know my story, and that always stayed with me. She just wanted to understand.

When my son was born, I went upstairs to breastfeed him, and there was another nurse there, I don’t remember her name, who told me that she was furious with the hospital that they were allowing me to take that baby home. And I remember being like, “I’ll show you. I will show you. You can think what you want about me, but I will be the best darn mom I can be.” I never forgot those two nurses, and that’s what I always tell people. When nurses ask me, “What can I do to help them?” I’m like, “Just listen and don’t judge. It’s that simple.”

I can’t even tell you how many friends I’ve had, that have died or killed themselves because they just couldn’t take it anymore. I was terrified. I was so terrified. The word fear doesn’t even give it justice. You can taste it how scared you are. And then sometimes, you can’t get out of your own way, and you think there’s no other way, until someone says the right thing, or does the right thing, where all of a sudden, you just click, and you see the world differently, and for me, having the CHARM team behind me and supporting me, these people saw something in me I could not even begin to see in myself. They were letting me know I was a good mom, that I deserved to have this baby. They treated me like a human being.

I remember the misery. That’s the one thing I will never forget, is just the misery in your soul. It’s just black, and there is a better way. You know, I remember thinking this was going to be my life, as short and as miserable and as painful as it was, until one day, I realized there was another option. There was light, and there was love, and there was family, and there was connection.

When people ask me, “How are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m amazing.” I have such an amazing life. I really do, and it’s something that, like I said, I’ve worked very hard for. Each and every relationship is important to me, every friend every colleague, my children, and I have such a beautiful life now that it sometimes brings me to tears. I’m so grateful, because way back then, there was this group of people that believed in me and gave me a chance to raise my son.

If they had taken away my son back then, I would not be sitting here in front of you right now. I can promise you that, 100%. If they had taken my son away, that would have been the nail in the coffin, to prove to me that I was the worthless degenerate, did not deserve anything better in my life, and I would have used until I was dead. I’m not the only person this has happened to. There are hundreds of other women, and their children, and their families that they did the exact same thing for, and supported them, and walked with them, and held their hand along the way. You know, we have to do the work. We have to walk the path, but they made the path an option for us to walk in the first place. I’m just one of hundreds that have been helped by this program and these people, that saw a different way, and a better way, to help moms and families.

Really, when it comes down to, the health of the child depends on the health of the family. Every human soul is worth it, and it does get better. There are people that want to help, and if you just give it a chance, your life can change exponentially, and it is so worth it, and it is so beautiful. That’s probably why the sun shines brighter, and the water is just glistening, and I think it’s because I know darkness. I appreciate how beautiful the light is. I had to go through that to get this, and that is a gift that addiction actually gave me.

The UVM Medical Center supports the CHARM Team and KidSafe Collaborative through our Community Health Investment Fund. We are proud to help fund their work and tell their story.

This partner story was produced collaboratively by the UVM Medical Center and the KidSafe Collaborative.

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