I'm Raquel

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal  Raquel

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Raquel

Everything has to change.

From the clothes she wears to the food she eats, even when she uses the restroom - it is all dictated by counselors at the center.

They tell her what to talk about and correct the way she walks.

In return, she learns how to understand her feelings, to recognize what thoughts lead to which behaviors.

Before she leaves on June 27, she makes a list of positive peers and those who will be destructive.

Aside from her family, she lists three people in the positive category. She writes 77 names of people she needs to avoid.

She compiles a two-page list of what are called "red-flag days," when she may be most tempted to use again.

Among them is Jan. 1, because she'd always set a goal of getting high for the New Year. Another is Oct. 18, the anniversary of the first time she used meth, and Feb. 18, the anniversary of the last time she did it.

Finally, after almost four months of therapy, it's time to go home. She's ready, she hopes.

It's not easy.

She tries not to think about it, but sometimes she can't help it. Then, one day in July, she sees a guy she used to know walking down the street.

Almost like a reflex, she tells her mom she'll walk home and gets out of the car. He has what she's looking for and she gets high.

But this time, she's aware of the choice she's making. It's the wrong choice. There are consequences.

The next day, she calls her parole officer and her sponsor.

After five months of sobriety, she starts over.

She has a plan, goals. She needs to get a job and go back to school. And she accomplishes those goals.

By the time she turns 17 on Oct. 12, she has a job at a clothing store, and is taking a full schedule of classes.

Her mom and sisters throw her a birthday party, but her real gift is three months of sobriety.

She still thinks about it, especially at night just before she falls asleep. But her thoughts shift from wanting to use, to a gratitude for the opportunities she has.

Combined with the credits she earned at the youth center, along with night classes and work-study credits, she's gone from being a freshman to a junior in the course of a year. She should graduate next year, and plans on enrolling in Western Nevada Community College to pursue a career as a probation officer.

Her March report card is straight A's.

"A pleasure to have in class," one of her teachers writes.

Every Monday, she goes to counseling. Four times a week, she attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Her friends say the groups she attends are boring, because everybody is older, but Raquel likes that.

"I like listening to older people. They have more time clean and sober." And they help give her perspective.

"I feel like saying I'll never use again, but I might get overconfident and relapse. I don't want to."

One by one, her old friends call, looking for a hook-up. One by one, she tells them to stop calling.

"I'm very grateful. I know I'm a lucky one. I learned that in my AA meeting."

Still, there are dark moments.

She watches a program about a drug abuser on television, and she thinks about her old life. She remembers things she had blocked from her mind. Violence, abuse, rape.

She writes it down. Gets it out. Moves forward.

That means letting go of her past.

She drives with her parole officer to the Tahoe Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology Center for her second tattoo-removal appointment. The first time, she refused the pain medication, worried it would show up on a drug test. But her parole officer tells her it's OK, and this time she gets the anesthesia.

"I don't feel it this time, but it still smells like burning skin," she says. By the end, it's just a bloody outline of "Loony."

"That's not who I am," she explains to the esthetician who is removing the tattoo. "I'm not Loony, I'm Raquel."

Her wound is wrapped in a bandage, and she hopes the healing process will erase the letters.

There are other wounds she hopes will heal as well.

"Can you teach me to use e-mail?" she asks one of her teachers.

She finds the address to RHD Memorial Medical Center in Dallas where she was taken when she overdosed.

"I was a patient from a drug overdose of heroin on March 25, 2004, and I don't know who was the doctor who treated me, but I wish I knew so I could thank him for saving my life. He or she is an angel," she writes. "I live in Carson City, Nevada. I am so grateful today. I've been waiting a long time to say this ... thanks ya'll!"

While her friends and peers look for places to go at night, Raquel prefers to stay in when she's not working or in school.

"I don't have to worry that somebody's going to come looking for me," she says. "I just love having a place to be, somewhere I'm wanted."

On April 27, she gets the results of her Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. She passed each category, with an especially impressive score in math.

She'll complete a year of sobriety in July, but thinks she'll celebrate in summer school so she can speed up her graduation date.

"The faster the better," she says. "I'll just be a younger probation officer."

The next day, her mother drives her back to the dermatologist in Lake Tahoe.

"Are you ready?" the esthetician, Lisa Hughes, asks.

"No, just do it anyway," Raquel answers, turning her head so she doesn't have to watch the needle enter the skin.

"It's going away," Hughes says, while inserting anesthetic around the tattoo. "It looks really good. Another two or three times and I think you'll be good."

Once it's numb, Hughes hands Raquel a pair of amber-colored safety goggles to protect her eyes from the laser.

"Do I look like J-Lo?" Raquel jokes as she puts them on. "They just need some diamonds in the corners."

Zap ... zap ... zap. Blue light sparks. The stained skin is burned away.

Hughes sets the laser aside and applies salve to the open wound. Only time will tell how it will turn out. But so far, it looks promising.

"It looks like you're taking good care of it," Hughes says, before applying the bandage. "So there won't be much scarring.

"Good for you."

• Contact reporter Teri Vance at tvance@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1272.


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