My cell phone rang on Memorial Day. Kristin Alexander's voice sounded warm.
"I need to tell you something," she said.
"I got high today."
I heard that sentence, but the meaning didn't penetrate right away. I asked her what happened.
The day started out so well, she said. Her recovery group had a picnic. She sat with her sponsor in the grass at Valley of the Moon Park. They talked through all the work she did to complete her first step of recovery. She had been proud of herself, she said, and confident.
And then she went to visit a friend who owed her $50. She knew her friend still used heroin, but they had hung out before and it hadn't been a problem. She sat on her friend's couch. She watched "Hoarders" and "Pawn Stars" on cable. Kristin joked about getting high in exchange for the money.
"Yeah, right," Kristin said.
But as the words came out of her mouth, the possibility opened up in her mind. Yeah. Right.
And her friend said things to talk her out of it, but she knew her friend didn't mean them because nobody likes getting high alone. And so Kristin melted the powder in a spoon. And then she filled a syringe. And then she found that old vein in her neck. And then came the sweet rush.
There had been no drama. No trigger. Just a good day and an opportunity. And four months of sobriety evaporated. She violated her probation, risked a felony on her record, and cast doubt on her ability to ever be a parent. She broke the promise she had made to her mom, her son, her friends, herself. Just to get high one more time.
I held the cell phone to my ear, feeling queasy. Kristin told me she talked to someone from her recovery group. She would go to a meeting. She wouldn't use again. It would be hard, but she wouldn't, she said.
I knew that without treatment, it was only a matter of time. Even with treatment, the odds were against her. But as I'd spent time with Kristin, I'd started to trust her ability to change on her own. She made so much progress. She had so many reasons to stay clean. Relapse defied logic.
We agreed to meet the next morning. Take care, I said. Stay safe.
Kristin showed up a half-hour late to the coffee shop, where I was waiting with Daily News photographer Marc Lester. She didn't sit down. She'd been getting high all night, she said. She had heroin in her purse.
What if she just threw the drugs in the trash? I asked. What if she went to a meeting? There was a meeting in two hours.
No, she said. She had to finish the heroin. Then she would call her probation officer and turn herself in.
If it had been a regular day, Kristin would have gone to that meeting. And in the afternoon, she would have seen her son. She would have gotten a physical, the last hurdle between her and a treatment bed at Nugen's Ranch in Wasilla. She would have gone to her mom's house in Chugiak and maybe watched cable until she fell asleep. But it wasn't a regular day.
Her to-do list came out garbled. She still needed a physical. She would get on the list for treatment at the methadone clinic. She would cancel the visit with her son. She would call her social worker at the Office of Children's Services. To get some money, she would return something at Nordstrom. Her cell phone was dying. She had to find a charger. She was thirsty. She started to slow down, sweating, looking bleary. Her thoughts disconnected. She excused herself to the bathroom and came back five minutes later looking flushed.
Marc and I followed her from the coffee shop to get clean needles at the needle exchange. Then she went to the house of an old neighbor in Spenard. She sat on his porch with a phone book on her lap. She left messages for OCS and the probation office. Then she called the baby's grandparents and said she wasn't going to make her meeting with him.
"I'm doing OK," I heard her say to them, trying to sound normal even though she was crying. "I love you, too."
And then we went downtown, where she returned some perfume at Nordstrom. Somewhere she'd lost her ID, so she couldn't get cash back. She wandered, glassy-eyed, through the handbag section, floating by oblivious daytime shoppers in the scented cloud that hung over the cosmetics counter. She was slowing down again. Her face went slack, her expression blanked out. She didn't talk to Marc and me as we walked behind her. She hadn't eaten in 36 hours.
We followed her to the methadone clinic. Kristin pulled into the parking lot. Marc and I got into the car with her. To get on the list for methadone, she had to go to an orientation. It started in two minutes.
She already had a tiny metal cup filled with liquid in her hand. She pawed through her purse. She pulled out a needle. I tried to absorb what was about to happen.
Kristin's cell phone buzzed. It was Ann Fallico, her probation officer. She ignored it.
She filled the syringe with liquid, eyeing the street to make sure no one could see. This was the secret part of her. The impulsive, destructive part she'd been trying to outrun all these months. I didn't understand how dangerous she was to herself until right then.
She jabbed the small needle into a vein in the back of her hand. She pushed the plunger. I heard her inhale.
She stashed the needle under her seat, checked her reflection in the mirror, and got out. I watched her pull open the door of the clinic and go inside for the methadone orientation.
Marc and I stood in the parking lot for a couple minutes, staring at a spoon someone else left in the dirt. The orientation was pointless. It would get her name on the list, but the clinic was full. To get in, she could wait as long as a year.
Kristin didn't want this to be her story, we knew that. She didn't want to relapse. She didn't want to risk her right to be a mother. She didn't want to hurt her family. But here it was. Almost inevitable. One more time, heroin pulled her down, drowning her best intentions.
The next morning, Ann Fallico e-mailed me to say she had arrested Kristin, "high as a kite," in the lobby of Dena A Coy, where she had been going to outpatient treatment. Kristin called her and told her she relapsed. Fallico said she tried everything to avoid locking Kristin up. She begged a couple of treatment facilities to take her. She finally found an open inpatient treatment bed at Nugen's Ranch. Kristin had to detox from heroin and stay clean for three days to get in. The only detox facility open in Anchorage, Ernie Turner Center, had a wait list and wouldn't take her. So Kristin would have to withdraw from heroin in jail, again. Her mother's prediction had come true.
Soon Marc and I were back in court, where we'd first seen Kristin months before. Kristin filed in, handcuffed to other female prisoners. She didn't look like herself. Her eyes were swollen. A lawyer bent down to talk to her. Fallico worked out a deal that would get Kristin straight to treatment from jail. Kristin could try, one more time, to change her life.
I thought about all the public money that had been spent dealing with Kristin. The police, the jail time, the lawyer' fees, the drug tests, the probation officer, the state social worker. What a waste. All those months of waiting for treatment. All the hope and suffering. And we were back at the beginning. Would treatment have been cheaper? Probably. Would it have worked? Would it have kept her from cycling back into jail? I couldn't answer that. But it seemed like it would have been worth it to try.
I kept looking for a place to end this story, but things kept happening. After that day in court, Kristin went to Nugen's Ranch, a working farm and treatment program in Wasilla. We talked on the phone. She sounded calm. She said she was happy to be there. I promised to drive out to see her. Then a couple of days later, there was a crazy accident. A boar pig bit her in the leg. The laceration was so serious it required surgery. In the emergency room, a doctor prescribed narcotic medication for pain.
She went back to her mom's house to recover from the surgery, still taking pills. The stories about her started to run in the paper and online. We exchanged messages on Facebook on Thursday. She was doing all right, she wrote. She was going to Akeela House at noon on Friday. Her name came up on the list.
Friday morning I woke up to a message in my in-box from her mom, Kathleen, sent at 3 a.m. Kristin seemed ready to go to treatment, she said. She'd been packing. On Thursday night she was going to have dinner with a couple of her sober friends, he said. They picked her up. Somewhere on Northern Lights Boulevard, she jumped out of the car and ran away.
"I have a sinking feeling I will not see her again," she wrote.
Marc and I drove through Spenard on Friday morning, half-hoping to catch a glimpse of her. We didn't. I saw a hollow-eyed young woman at a bus stop, hoodie pulled over her head, smoking. Since I'd gotten to know Kristin, I saw girls like that everywhere.
Why did Kristin run? Maybe she wanted to use one more time. What if someone hurt her? What if she overdosed? I tried not to think about the possibility that she could be dead.
A few hours later, a message came from Kathleen.
"She called her friend and is on her way home. She wants treatment. She is scared."
Later, Kathleen told me Kristin had gone to the house of friends who used. They wouldn't let her in because her picture had been in the paper. They told her she could sleep in their car. There, her mother said, Kristin decided she wanted to get clean. She didn't want to lose her son. She called another friend, who brought her home to pack.
She showed up on time at Akeela House on Friday to begin her treatment.
"Hopefully, this time it will stick," Kathleen said.
Hopefully. I typed the word and stared at it. Kristin was finally going into treatment. This was my ending, the resolution I'd been looking for. Kristin is just getting started.
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