Editor’s note: This article was produced through the St. Lawrence Citizen Journalism Incubator (SLCJI), which provides North Country residents with the opportunity to receive training and support for conducting independent, investigative journalism projects in their communities.
What do we encounter every day that most of us just don't see? The cruelest life circumstances are translated into statistics — cold percentages that don’t fully show the heartache of poverty, addiction, crime, and loss. The numbers represent real people in our hometowns who are struggling to cope, to build or rebuild their lives, but it’s as if they’re invisible to us. These stories begin a collection examining the resilience, hope and humanity of life in progress. Thank you to all who shared their stories. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
David: The devil you know
The clean and sober life is a lonely one for David. Recently released from rehab and jail, he's trying to fit in to a new life with new guidelines. Almost 30 years old, he's on probation and trying to find work. Formerly a goofy sort of guy who would try to date girls he'd meet in court, he's quiet now and steeped in sadness.
“When I was doing drugs, everybody wanted to be my 'friend.' I couldn't count how many friends I thought I had. Now I'm trying to figure things out and no one wants to listen,” he says. At this point, he's a stranger to himself. “When I was in school, I wasted so much time doing drugs I don't even know what I like or am good at.”
He shakes his head. “Having nothing to offer anyone is hard, especially when I have so much to say. I have so much to share. I believe that I could change some people's lives with a few words or none at all.”
His past includes family dysfunction, dead-end jobs and unhealthy relationships. He had a girlfriend that he thought might be his soulmate, but after five years together where three pregnancies ended in miscarriages, they broke up, and he says he just wants to be alone now.
He's happy that he doesn't rely on medication or drugs to stay happy or healthy. Putting his life into perspective so far isn't easy, though.
“Sharing this story is going to be one of the hardest challenges I have ever put myself through. Mom said at one point in that I could do anything I put my mind to. So here we go...”
Tess: Recovery but no cure
Like domestic violence, substance addiction and alcoholism cut across all socio-economic groups. Lawyers, professors, and doctors are as vulnerable to addiction as anyone else.
“It's not just the dude under the bridge,” Tess notes.
A 61-year-old North Country native who has an advanced degree and a respected career – albeit interrupted by rehab – she's on her third period of recovery from opioids. The last time she smoked pot was 20 years ago and she hasn't had a drink in 15 years. She's been clean from opioids for eight years. Even so, just as an alcoholic is always deemed to be recovering instead of cured, she, too, will always be in recovery.
Strong and savvy, she knows herself and is on to many of the sly ways addiction lured her in. She's also acutely aware of the ways it devastates families.
“Addiction is a family disease. It makes a ripple effect that affects the whole family,” she stresses. Her two children are now in their late 20s. Tess sadly admits that she took them with her on her “roller coaster ride of addiction.” Rock bottom for her came eight years ago when her son confronted her angrily, telling her how much her drug use disgusted him.
“He walked out and we didn't speak for months,” she says. “I never want to see that look on his face again.”
While there may be some genetic disposition toward addiction, Tess takes all the blame on her own. As a teen in the North Country in the 1970s, she certainly never imagined using drugs, but realizes she was a “Doubting Thomas” as a child. She didn’t take warnings to heart and had to find out for herself, the hard way, about any possible dangers. When she was older, there was no experimentation with booze and pot. She tried them, liked how they made her feel, and knew what she was doing.
“I'd drink to get drunk, and smoke pot to get high,” she says plainly.
David: Running away
When he was growing up, David's family lived around the county on farms, in apartments and trailer parks. He liked working with his hands, building and fixing things.
“I'm one of three kids by the same mother and father. My mother had one other boy with my stepdad, and my father had two girls by another woman as well as a younger brother that was kind of adopted by my father. My father's brothers lived with all of us at our farm house at one time and they built a treehouse for us. I don’t remember this, but my mother did mention that he was mean to us kids and used to hit us upside the head.”
His family went through several transitions when he was young. As he recalls: “My mom introduced us kids to my little brother's father, who would be my stepdad for the next eight years. He was nice to us at first. We used to go fishing and stuff. He was a fun person to be around all and all.”
After a few years, the stepfather left, so David's mother was faced with raising the kids alone. Unable to pay for the rent, she and the kids moved to her mother's house. “Things there were very strict and stressful there,” David remembers.
“My mother was taking classes at college to become a secretary or something. She landed a job here in Canton, where she worked for a few years. We were finally able to have our own apartment again,” he adds.
But by eighth grade, he was in trouble for fighting at school. He got kicked out, then was into the legal system put on probation.
“I used to run away from home a lot after school, during school and whenever things didn’t go right at home. I’d get on my bike and leave for hours, sometimes days,” he explains. “My mother had to call the police a few times to have them bring me home. Each time I ran away I was in trouble with probation for it. I would fail drug tests for using Adderall (used for attention deficit disorder) and marijuana.
“Probation put me on house arrest until my family court date, but I would still run away from home and get in trouble with drugs. Each time I ran away on house arrest, it turned into a felony AWOL charge. I ran out of luck when a judge sentenced me to seven months in a juvenile rehabilitation center.”
Grace House: Created in the image of God
As the numbers of North Country people becoming addicted and seeking help kept ticking up, a group of people was working hard to establish a local recovery house for women. It took about 10 years to happen, but after several meetings with local boards, a lot of paperwork and presentations to the townspeople, Grace House opened on Dec. 1, 2018 on Main Street in Canton. Located on the corner next to Grace Episcopal Church, the faith-based facility has room for six women and a resident director. By spring, the former rectory was half-filled.
I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. Jeremiah 24:6
Carolyn White is president of Grace House's Board. She worked from the beginning to establish the recovery house, the first in the area for women. Erin White, who is not related to Carolyn, is the director. She reviews applications and sets up individual plans and goals with the women, each of whom will stay about nine months.
A sense of peace permeates Grace House, seeming to pour in with the sunshine. The small white clapboard house is immaculate, attractive and comfortable. Erin “has an eye for design, color and decorating,” Carolyn says. One room holds an old piano, and the walls of the living room are covered with a series of framed inspirational Biblical sayings.
One woman who toured here before applying told Carolyn, “I think Heaven will be a lot like this house.”
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
At Grace House, the women say grace before each meal, devote time to Bible study, and are expected to go to church – any church – each week. They are required to have at least a part-time job or be in school or do volunteer activities. They cooperate on household chores and cooking.
According to a brochure for the facility, “Through the transforming power and grace of Jesus Christ, we provide a safe, supportive and structured environment where women are encouraged to create, learn and grow, (re) build and discover what it means to be created in the image of God.”
This is an agency that should be expanded or replicated in this geographic area, Carolyn says, adding, “It certainly will help on the impact of the opioid epidemic and other substance use disorders. We will be keeping data to show this program is cost-effective, and we expect it will be successful.”
More information about Grace House is available at its website, www.newhopetransformation.org or by calling 315/386-3904.
David: Home yet homeless
David’s teenage world was turned upside down in juvenile detention. “I was scared shitless. I met a few kids in juvie who also had a rough life growing up. Killers, rapists, gangsters, robbers, all sorts of kids in there,” he says.
He buckled down and earned his GED diploma while in detention, in addition to attending a college class for Microsoft Word 2007.
When he returned home to the trailer park where his mother lived, his three brothers were all still in school, so he was alone all day. Parole put him on house arrest to keep him away from old friends, but he managed to find trouble on his own. It wasn’t long before he was smoking pot again. He was loud and rowdy, which annoyed neighbors. His mother was threatened with eviction from the park.
David still feels guilty. “My mother owned the trailer. She made her first home purchase after saving for so long with her boyfriend. I had to move out at 16. I lived in my buddy’s truck for a while until I found somewhere to stay in Ogdensburg with a girlfriend of mine. Her mom ended up kicking me out and I went to live with my father.”
After a series of girls and parties and fights, his father had enough of him so David ended up on his own until he met “an amazing person who I thought was my soulmate.” He was excited when they learned she was pregnant, but she miscarried. They broke up, then got together again.
“I was into doing pills to ease the pain of us losing the baby from the miscarriage, so I went to a rehab. When I got back, we were having a hard time paying the rent and bills, so we moved back in with my mother,” he notes.
His girlfriend became pregnant again. This time the baby died soon after being born. A third pregnancy also resulted in a miscarriage. By then, the relationship was over.
David prefers to spend his time alone, playing video games, he says.
He didn't know it yet, but he was heading into more trouble, bigger trouble.
Tess: Beware of enablers
“My demon was opiates. I jeopardized my family, friends, and career. I put them all on the line – for something that will kill me,” Tess says. “I can't depend on anyone else to keep me sober. It's up to me. I'm an addict; I'm just not active today.”
As the opioid epidemic hits especially hard here in St. Lawrence County, police and other responders in the region are being trained to administer Narcan, an antidote for opioid overdoses. While many welcome this life-saver, Tess isn’t so sure about it.
“I've been thinking a lot about enablers. I understand that the instinct is to tell an addict, 'It'll be OK,' but the devil on my shoulder uses that to urge me on. If someone will revive me with Narcan, what message does that give me? Why would I stop using drugs?”
What works for getting sober and staying sober varies for each addict. She's grateful to her co-workers for standing by her, even though she “lied to them and deceived them” when she was using drugs.
“They know me as an addict, and they accept me as long as I'm sober. I don't have to change anything else about who I am,” she says.
Tess knows herself well enough that she turned down an offer of a dream job in the big city. It would be too easy to get drugs there.
“Drugs are everywhere here, too. Even though I've never bought drugs in Canton, I could go out and find some in 20 minutes,” she says.
She's not going looking, though. She already lost her house, was fired twice due to drug use and has been to rehab twice. She has worked her way back into good standing in her career.
David: A felon the rest of my life
David never remembers getting a hug from his father, but he was close to his mother. When he was in his mid-20s, he took care of her as she was dying of an aggressive cancer. He administered her medicine, kept her company, shopped, and cleaned the house.
“I got into drugs pretty bad after my mom passed away. I had a heroin addiction and I smoked marijuana a lot. Then I had a very bad infection in my mouth. They removed six teeth at one visit. I was on prescription pills for the pain after the surgery and I was abusing them.”
“I didn’t want to be alone anymore in my Mom's house after the surgery, and it was around Christmas time so I asked my oldest brother if my dog and I could stay there for a while. He was okay with it.
“I decided to go to rehab. I knew I had a problem. The pills were running out and I couldn’t get any more refills through my family doctor or the dentist and I was in withdrawal from doing heroin. Detox was a five-day program.”
While he was in detox, David learned his grandfather had taken his dog to the pound because his brother wasn't caring for it. When he got back home, David was furious and accused his brother of stealing his clothes and other belongings.
He didn’t have anywhere else to live, so the Department of Social Services placed him in Single Room Occupancy housing in Ogdensburg. He passed time by volunteering at the maintenance building for the SRO. He painted and cleaned rental units around the county.
“I stayed there until I found a girl that was willing to share her apartment in Canton with me. I slept in the living room on the couch. We weren’t really getting along because I knew she was doing drugs and I didn’t want to be in a relationship,” he says.
He moved out, then met another girl on a dating app and moved in with her. He says he got drunk one night and was doing hard drugs when he decided to visit his daughter’s grave. From there, he went to his grandfather’s camp nearby. His anger and frustration exploded.
“I destroyed some stuff and threw a lot of his stuff in the water and took my lures that he took away from us when we were kids for getting in trouble. His fishing buddy brought them for us kids. So I took them and decided to sell them on Facebook, which got me in a lot of trouble. I did eight months in jail. Now I’m a felon for the rest of my life.”
“Living in jail is hard these days. I never had any visitors. I read a lot of books in jail. I wrote a lot of letters. I never got any letters back. So I wrote girls I met on court date runs to the courthouse in Canton. I’d meet a girl in the cop car and just write to her when I got back to the jail from court.
“When I was in jail, I got in a lot of trouble for various reasons and had to stay locked in my cell for 23 hours a day, with just one hour of recreation allowed. I did a total of 75 days like this. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or talk with anyone.
“I attended church every week while I was in jail. Then I started going to Bible study, where I helped teach the class. I took a gardening class as well while I was in there. You just have to make the best of it.”
Now almost 30, David and his oldest brother share their mother's home. His older brother is in jail, waiting to enter the drug court program. His youngest brother is in college and living with his dad.
David is looking for work but is a recovering drug addict who also has a jail record. He has completed his high school equivalency degree. What is he supposed to do to now to support himself?
Connie Jenkins was a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 30 years before coming home to Northern New York. A graduate of St. Lawrence University, she is now Director of Church & Community Program, which operates a thrift shop and a food pantry that serves around 200 families a month. She's interested in telling the stories of "The Invisibles," i.e., the working poor, people in recovery, and anyone else set apart from the mainstream community. Contact her at conjenkins_5 [at] yahoo.com.