The first time Kayla graduated from inpatient treatment, at age 18, she felt hopeful. She had thrived in the program, comforted by the structure and sense of community.
She moved in with her dad, got a job at Target, attended 12-step meetings, and visited her baby daughter, who was living with Kayla’s mom.
But Kayla, who’d used drugs since middle school and had been addicted to meth since age 16, felt daunted by the prospect of staying sober forever. “Deep down, I felt: This is going to be hard.”
Kayla hung on for 6 months but had no sober friends her age, and loneliness crept in. One night, she asked a co-worker to bring her vodka, rationalizing, “It’s just alcohol — it’s not my thing, anyway.”
Within a week, she was smoking weed. Then, at a party, she learned how to snort Percoset.
“Right then,” Kayla remembers, “my life changed. I didn’t go another day without opioids.”
On meth, her life had been difficult enough.
At 16, Kayla got pregnant and fell into an abusive relationship with the baby’s father, a meth dealer. At 4 months pregnant, Kayla was choked by her boyfriend, who landed in prison for domestic violence.
Fearful for her baby, because of the abuse and her own meth use, Kayla moved out of state to live with a cousin. She stayed sober, took classes online, and returned home to give birth.
Within a few months, she felt lonely and asked a friend to bring her meth.
“I snorted it and immediately felt guilty because I had my baby lying on the bed. I went into a panic because I was breastfeeding.”
Embarrassed to tell her mom what she’d done, she tried to “dilute” the meth by guzzling a gallon of water.
Though her baby seemed OK, Kayla felt “major guilt and shame” and sank deeper into meth addiction. She ran off with her abusive ex-boyfriend, now out of prison and dealing meth from his grandparents’ house.
One night, she noticed her baby had diaper rash and thought: What am I doing? Why am I letting her suffer?
Kayla called her mom for help. “I was honest. I told her: ‘Mom, I don’t want to stop getting high, but I know I can’t take care of the baby.’”
In the morning, her boyfriend beat her up for having given away their baby. “It was World War III,” Kayla says. “But I felt it was what I deserved.”
Next, Kayla and her boyfriend moved into a friend’s rundown apartment, earning their keep by supplying meth to the household. But when Kayla’s boyfriend got arrested again, Kayla, now 18, got kicked out.
“I wasn’t good at selling drugs,” she says, “so I was useless to them.”
By then, Kayla had dropped to 90 pounds and had dark circles under her eyes. “I looked sick and tiny, like a cancer patient,” she recalls.
Desperate, she called her mom and said she was ready to stop using. “My mom was ecstatic,” Kayla says.
That’s when Kayla entered her first inpatient treatment program, the center where she flourished with support and structure — before she took up with a new boyfriend and began snorting Percoset.
At first, she justified her opioid use. “I felt like I was invincible, like I did my work 10 times better.”
But Percoset was expensive, and Kayla and her boyfriend couldn’t make their rent. Kayla briefly moved back in with her mom but found it too painful to be around her baby daughter.
“She’d run to my mom, not to me, and that would always cut a little in my heart,” Kayla remembers. “I didn’t want to acknowledge it or try to change the situation. I wanted to run from it.”
Kayla got a job at a nursing home, found an apartment with her boyfriend, and snorted a lot of Percoset. When her supply would run out, the withdrawal was unbearable, “like my whole body was breaking.”
She called in sick so often that one day her boss said, “Don’t bother coming in anymore.”
Broke and homeless, Kayla was thrilled when an acquaintance introduced her to a drug cheaper than Percoset: heroin.
“Within 48 hours, heroin was the new love of my life,” says Kayla. “I would do anything to get it.”
Kayla stole cellphones and cosmetics for her drug dealers. “But that was too much work, so I started trading sex for money,” she says. “I didn’t care, as long as I could avoid withdrawal. At that point, it wasn’t about getting high. It was about not getting sick.”
When living on the streets got too tough, Kayla would call her mom, enroll in detox and inpatient treatment, then relapse within a week or two of getting out.
“It was wash, rinse, repeat,” says Kayla, counting five stints in treatment.
Numerous times, she was prescribed Suboxone, and she credits the medication for suppressing her cravings. “It was a miracle,” she says. But, each time, she’d succumb to the mindset that Suboxone is a crutch.
“There’s a stigma in the recovery community that a drug is a drug is a drug,” Kayla says. “So, I’d quit Suboxone prematurely and then relapse.”
With nowhere to go, Kayla would return to the streets, living in abandoned houses and using dirty needles.
Gradually, she became terribly ill, coughing up blood and crawling on the ground, unable to walk. Kayla ended up in the hospital with a shocking diagnosis: endocarditis, a life-threatening inflammation of the heart valves.
She was admitted to intensive care, where she stayed for three months.
“When I asked a nurse if I was going to die,” Kayla recalls, “she didn’t answer me.”
Connected to a feeding tube and IV antibiotics, she did little but sleep the first month. By the second month, she’d lost so much muscle tone she had to relearn how to walk.
Upon her release from the hospital, she still relied on a walker. “I could barely stand on my own for 3 minutes,” she recalls. “I still looked so sick, like I was in active use.”
She was 22.
Kayla applied to live at a sober house and was grateful to be accepted.
“You have to do chores and go to school or have a job, and those are things I wasn’t able to do,” she says. “I wanted to contribute, but I could barely walk.”
Kayla threw herself into her emotional and physical recovery. She worked hard to complete her 12 steps, attended all her doctor’s appointments, and stuck with Suboxone.
For the first time, she found sobriety liberating, not daunting
“Before, I used to think, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to stay sober the rest of my life,’ but that thought went away. Getting sick was terrifying, and I didn’t want to die. I had no doubt I was going to stay sober.”
Today, three years into recovery, Kayla is engaged to a man she met in a 12-step group. They have a baby girl, and Kayla frequently sees her older daughter, who is now 7 and still lives with her grandma but calls Kayla, “Mom.”
“I used to feel lonely and be codependent in my relationships, but I don’t need my fiancé for my happiness,” she says. “He has his own sponsors and friends. I hang out with my friends when I want to. We have a normal relationship, and we bond over being in recovery.”
One of Kayla’s passions is speaking out at 12-step groups in favor of Suboxone.
Kayla takes the same heart medication her grandfather takes and will eventually need heart-valve surgery, but her heart function has returned to the normal range.
One day, Kayla hopes to become an addiction counselor, but for now, she’s content.
“There’s no more chaos in my life,” she says. “I get to be with my family. I have my own home. It has electricity and doesn’t smell dirty, and I can decorate it how I want. I have a regular life, and that’s enough for me.”