With final exams coming up and her supply of opioid pills dwindling, Cass, a 20-year-old college student, felt desperate to stave off withdrawal.
Searching online, she found a heroin connection — 4 hours away, in another state.
“I was only going to use it that one time, until I could get my prescription filled,” remembers Cass, now 28 and an Ideal Option patient.
After a drive that felt like an eternity, Cass bought the heroin and tried to smoke it in a motel. But her opioid tolerance was so high that smoking didn’t suffice. So, she searched online for instructions on shooting up, bought the supplies at a pharmacy, and, after fumbling around, finally succeeded.
“Once I was able to get that needle in, I felt that relief that washes over you, that warm feeling. I remember being disgusted with myself, but I thought: This is not going to be my life forever.”
Looking back, Cass traces her addiction to age 12, when she contracted encephalitis and meningitis, inflammation of the brain and surrounding tissue. Incorrectly diagnosed as migraines, the conditions left her in excruciating pain.
“My skull was squeezing my brain for a year because of the excess fluid,” says Cass.
With proper treatment, Cass recovered, but her mental health suffered. Around age 15, she began smoking weed, and a couple years later began using opioids.
“I was drawn to the relief opioids would give me,” she says. When she and her sister got their wisdom teeth out, Cass not only used up her own pain pills but her sister’s prescription, too.
Before she knew it, Cass was dependent. “I was still working and going to school every day, but I was finding a way to get my hands on them.”
At the restaurant where she worked as a manager, the owner and a co-worker were addicted to pain pills, too.
“We were finding it for each other — it was our little secret,” says Cass, who also had a pill prescription for nerve pain.
After that first trip out of state, Cass found herself making the 4-hour drive monthly, spending $600 each time.
“That’s a lot of money for a struggling college student,” she says. “I thought about what else I could do with that money. I worked my butt off, and every dollar I made I spent on drugs. I was so ashamed of myself.”
Cass concealed her addiction from her parents, who worked in law enforcement. At family events and holidays, she’d make quick appearances, fearful she’d get sick if she stayed too long.
Normally, a person who loves dressing up and putting together outfits, Cass began to look disheveled.
“I started wearing long sleeves because my arms were covered in track marks,” she says. “I wasn’t myself.”
Several times, Cass tried to taper off opioids, but she couldn’t last 4 or 5 hours before getting sick. Often, she’d have to use in the bathroom during a restaurant shift.
“I was at my worst place in life, feeling helpless and hopeless,” recalls Cass, who’d began to consider seeking treatment.
Though her parents didn’t suspect she was using drugs, they became concerned about her mental health. One day while Cass was at work, her mom entered Cass’s home and found her needles. Cass’s father went directly to the restaurant to confront her.
“My dad hugged me and said, ‘We just want to help you.’ He was a saint.”
By this time, Cass was in severe withdrawal — vomiting, shaking, suffering from restless leg syndrome so badly that “it felt like a bolt of lightning going through your legs.”
She begged her dad to let her use one more time, a memory she still finds painful.
Cass enrolled at an inpatient treatment center right away, feeling both relieved and afraid.
“The only thing I knew about rehab was what I saw on TV. I didn’t think people would be just like me. You think of drug addicts as dirty – you don’t think of the disease aspect. You think: I’m not that. Well, it turns out, neither are they.”
Once in rehab, Cass started on Suboxone, but her initial dose didn’t suffice to curb her cravings. “I’d just lay in bed and fantasize about someone bringing me drugs through the window,” she remembers.
She arranged for a friend to hide drugs behind the wheel of a bus, but she regretted her actions after taking the drugs and immediately turned herself in.
“You don’t realize how poor your decisions are,” Cass says. “Your brain is so twisted.”
After that, she got serious about recovery and stayed 60 days at the center. She then transitioned to a sober living house, participating in daily group sessions in addition to attending school and working at a restaurant.
Four of her coworkers were in recovery, too. “I’d see my coworkers at meetings. It was cool to have this support.”
The recovery community was also where she met Taylor, now her husband and an Ideal Option patient with his own story of resilience.
Slowly, Cass began rebuilding her life. She became certified as an addiction practitioner assistant while studying for her B.A.
During an internship at a treatment center, Cass recalls, “This girl came in and reminded me so much of me. I told her I know it’s going to be OK because I’ve been there. It was great to be able to pass that hope and strength forward.”
Today, Cass and Taylor live in a different state with their 5-month-old son. Cass plans to finish her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in addiction studies.
“I believe I’m in a place that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be,” says Cass, now 5 years into recovery. “I love the freedom, not having to worry every day if I’m going to be sick. My day is what I make it.”
Cass’s experience has given her empathy and grace for others and for herself. “You never know what someone’s going through.”
She says her recovery has helped her dad understand people he encounters at work in law enforcement. “My addiction gave my dad insight, knowing that addiction doesn’t discriminate,” she says.
Cass has repaired relationships with extended family and has many passions — painting, writing, graphic design, fishing, spending time in nature.
“In my addiction, I wasn’t present the way I am now,” she says. “Now I have those close bonds, and I’m able to find joy. When you’re high, you don’t find joy in anything, and that’s the most lonely feeling.”
Cass remembers how she’d lie in the dark and get high, while watching TV and staring at her phone.
“That’s all I did, lie in that dark room. Now my life is out in the bright sunshine. The symbolism isn’t lost on me.”
Cass looks like herself again, too. Back then, she was painfully thin, with bags under her eyes.
“The light was missing,” she says. “I thought I was hiding it, but I wasn’t. Now I look healthy and take care of my body. I love doing my hair and make-up and wearing new dresses. Now I take the time to look just how I want to.”