Kristin Alexander stood in the hall outside the probation office downtown one afternoon in mid-May. I panned over the faces outside the crowded waiting room: a bored older woman with "L-O-V-E" tattooed across her knuckles, a nervous, dusty laborer in his Carhartts, a teenager in a ball cap talking too loud on a cell phone. Then Ann Fallico, Kristin's probation officer, breezed through one of the metal doors and ushered Kristin, me, and photographer Marc Lester back into her small office.
Kristin had a lot of good news that day. She moved out of her apartment and in with her mom. She started an outpatient drug treatment program a few days a week. She found some temporary office work. She was building strong connections in her recovery group. She saw her son every week and sometimes twice.
Fallico was a friendly woman in her 30s with a big mane of curly hair. She had a habit of pausing at the end of a sentence a little longer than is comfortable, as if she was waiting for you to say something. Kristin was no fan of probation. Once, on a particularly emotional day, she told me she'd rather just go to jail than have someone watch her all the time. As she sat in Fallico's office, she shifted in her chair .
Earlier Fallico dropped by her old apartment and mother's house and left business cards in the doors. Kristin worried about what Fallico thought of her.
Fallico asked where Kristin went during the day. She asked about treatment. Kristin had been waiting to get into inpatient treatment for more than two months. She had followed all the steps so far. She had an assessment done by the Office of Children's Services, which recommended two long-term inpatient treatment programs, Akeela House and Nugen's Ranch in Wasilla. Neither had an open bed. Kristin had been going to outpatient treatment at Dena A Coy, a woman-only program. She wanted to stay there, she said. Dena A Coy had an inpatient program for women with children. But the wait for it was many months. And OCS hadn't approved it.
Fallico put the phone on speaker, dialing OCS and Dena A Coy, trying to work something out. Voice mail picked up. She left messages.
"Let me tell you what my perception of you is," Fallico told Kristin.
I could see Kristin brace herself.
"I have family that were in the Air Guard, and they remember you and you had an excellent reputation," Fallico told her. "I think you're a young woman who is trying to stay clean."
Her problem was addiction, Fallico said, but she had the power to change her life. I watched Kristin's expression relax. Fallico saw the best in her. No one had seen that in a long time.
Later Fallico and I talked about treatment. She told me she sees a lot of Kristins, people mandated to get treatment who can't get a bed.
"You have to jump through so many hoops to get a bed that somebody who is an addict, they can't stay clean long enough to jump through all the hoops," she said.
Getting treatment is especially hard for women, because there are just fewer places that they can go, she said.
Anchorage has a small drug and alcohol Wellness Court program that allows people who have committed some types of drug and alcohol-related crimes to go directly to intensive outpatient treatment as part of their sentence instead of jail. The program deals mainly with people who have committed alcohol-related crimes. Most of the defendants do not go to inpatient treatment. Kristin might have been a candidate for that program, which would have gotten her into treatment immediately, but at the time she needed it, the program wasn't accepting anyone new.
In the course of reporting this story, I asked prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers, probation officers, corrections officers, addiction doctors and social services why wait-lists for treatment were so long. No one had a good answer.
Many said there wasn't enough funding for treatment. That it wasn't a priority for the Legislature. Some said there weren't enough doctors willing to treat addicts. Some said there needed to be better coordination between agencies. Some said the problem was exaggerated. Some blamed addicts for not following through with the process. The thing I heard most was lack of treatment filled jail cells with people whose first problem was addiction. And those people kept coming back.
A few weeks after her probation visit, Kristin got the call she'd been waiting for from her social worker with OCS: Nugen's Ranch had a bed. She just needed paperwork and a physical and she would be able to start inpatient treatment.
Marc and I drove out to Kristin's house a few days after she got the call. She and her mom, Kathleen Stevens, sat on the grass in the bright afternoon sun. Kristin had been clean for four months, longer than any time since she started using heroin. I wanted to find her and Kathleen getting along. I wanted to write about her plans for treatment.
But Kathleen seethed as she filled a planter with dirt. No one from OCS had called Kristin back. Kristin showed up for drug testing, which had been required a few times a week, but the drug testing clinic had no orders to keep testing. Drug testing was an important piece of the structure that kept her clean.
"Every day is a concern," Kathleen said. "Every day without treatment is a risk."
A reply had arrived to a letter Kathleen wrote to William Hogan, the commissioner of the Department of Health in February. It listed generic resources for addiction. "I sincerely regret the pain that your family has experienced," it said. To Kathleen it was an insult. Kristin was working so hard. How was it that she still wasn't in treatment?
Kathleen's anger at the system bled over into anger at Kristin and her addiction, at all the potential lost. Kristin asked to plant flowers in a blue ceramic pot. Kathleen told her no.
"You know she used to play flute beautifully," Kathleen told me. "But she hocked her flute for drugs."
Kathleen once imagined Kristin would get married, that Kristin and her new husband and a grandchild would come home for holidays. They were so far from that now. These impossible, horrible things had happened and kept happening. Shock gave way to disappointment, disappointment to heartbreak, heartbreak to rage. It was totally outside of her control. All she could do was watch the nightmare unfold.
Kathleen's tears fell into the garden dirt. Kristin leaned back in the grass and looked up at the sky. I couldn't see her eyes behind her sunglasses. The next day Kristin and I had coffee and I asked about it. She needed to hear her mom's anger, she said. She needed to see how her addiction spiraled out into her family. That would help her stay clean.
As part of her recovery, she had to make a list of things she couldn't control. It read: other people, herself when she was using drugs, the past, and when she got into treatment. She was still waiting to hear from OCS. She still didn't have a drug test scheduled. But she didn't want to use, she said.
She told me that once, back when she was getting high, she went to Sicily's Pizza with a heroin addict who was in treatment. They talked about what they wanted out of life. He told her he just wanted to use heroin one more time. After that, he'd quit. She told him she wanted to get high, too. She didn't care if she died from it. The next day he relapsed. He overdosed and it stopped his heart and killed him.
The day we talked, Kristin said that maybe there was a reason she lived through all those years of addiction. Maybe her life was supposed to mean something. Maybe telling her story would change something or help someone. "I don't want to die anymore," she told me.
And that was how I wanted this story to end.
But it didn't.
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COST OF ADDICTION: Are there cheaper, better ways to handle drug addicts in the court system? Talk about it on Julia's blog. adn.com/jomalleyAudio slide show: Kristin recalls the toll heroin has taken
By JULIA O'MALLEY