December 1, 2006
Stumbling through the front door, she sees the note her father tacked to the wall.
“Get your stuff and get out,” it says.
Raquel knows he’s scared. He saw her lying for a week in a hospital bed, nearly dead from a heroin overdose.
And for the two weeks since she’s been home, they’ve been fighting constantly about where she goes and who she sees. Then she didn’t come home last night.
She knows he doesn’t mean it. But the note says, “Get out,” and that’s what she’s been wanting to do anyway. So she crumples the paper, stuffs it into her crack pipe and walks to the apartment of a guy she met last night.
She’s 15. The guy is 22. He says she can stay, even agrees to tell her father that she’s pregnant and they’re moving in together so her dad won’t come looking for her.
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She introduces him to crack, and for three weeks they have fun. But then he starts giving her dad updates on what she’s doing and his money runs low.
“If you ain’t got no money, I’m outta here,” she says. She finds herself sitting on a bus to West Dallas.
She’s alone … again.
Her life hadn’t always been so empty. Growing up with three sisters meant a constant chaos of fighting and laughter and sharing secrets. They were each others’ best friends.
That changed with their parents’ divorce three years earlier. Her mother and two younger sisters moved to Carson City. Raquel and her older sister stayed in Dallas with their father.
Not long afterward her older sister got married and moved to Carson City, too.
Raquel was left alone with her father.
Her grades, which had always won her accolades, began to fall. She found a new sense of belonging with the wrong kinds of friends. Gangs became her new family.
Maybe it was the loneliness; maybe she would have done it anyway. At 12, she started drinking and smoking marijuana. At 14, she tried heroin in her boyfriend’s Cadillac.
“Just this once,” she rationalized.
The second time was justified because of the first, and after that she no longer needed any justification.
With her new family, she needed a new name: Loony. It came from her willingness to do anything. When a guy offered to tattoo the name on her wrist for $10, she got high and let him do it. She stiffed him the $10.
She had just turned 15. With her new identity, her sole purpose in life became getting high.
It was what she was thinking while waiting to catch a city bus to school that rainy day in March.
A van pulled up beside her.
“You need a ride?” a man asked through a cracked window.
She needed something, so she got in.
“How would you like to make 50 bucks?”
The man was ugly, with a dark scar that looked almost like a bruise around his left eye. He was about 45, and fat, like he swallowed a beach ball.
But he promised her $50.
It would be just this one time, she told herself, and at least she was getting something in return.
He pulled off the road into a vacant lot.
“OK, this is going to be over in a little bit,” she repeated over and over in her mind, while they had sex in the back of the van. “I’m going to have $50.”
It was still raining when he dropped her off at school. She walked into class with $50 worth of heroin stuffed in her bra.
15 and homeless
She hasn’t gone to school since she left home after her overdose in March. On this busy street she’s just another set of hollow eyes looking for the next fix. Education has never seemed less important.
She can’t stop crying. She’s walking down the streets of West Dallas with nowhere to go.
“What’s wrong?” an old man calls out.
He’s kind. He doesn’t want anything in return, just lets her stay at his apartment. Then food disappears from the community kitchen he shares with his neighbors and they decide it must have been her, and she’s kicked out.
It’s a scary life. Cops drive up and down the streets, walk in and out of rundown apartments and flop houses. She swears one of them sees her clutching her pipe in her fist, but he doesn’t say anything.
At night, it’s all about survival. She sleeps on doorsteps, in abandoned buildings, always holding on to some kind of weapon, usually a knife.
It’s summer now and warm enough to sleep on the streets, but she seeks shelter from other dangers.
Behind just about every other door is someone dealing some kind of drug.
She meets a guy who built a lean-to out of plywood against a row of apartment buildings and he lets her stay there.
During the day, she joins a line of women walking along the main street advertising what they have to sell – using their bodies to barter for money and drugs.
At 15, she’s the youngest, the most popular. She can stand to take about four appointments each day. Three are regulars who pick her up every other day, and the fourth a random john.
Twice, men who were unwilling to pay violently took what they wanted.
Her first customer – the guy from the bus stop – knows where to find her now and comes by almost every day. He’s the only one she ever talks to about anything, outside of negotiating price.
She tells him about her family, about living on the street.
He tells her that he’s never had any family and no real friends, never had a girlfriend. He works at Domino’s Pizza and buys and restores cars to sell for a profit. Occasionally, he steals one.
He tells her he got the scar on his face when he was burned by fireworks as a boy in Mexico.
He’s weird. But he buys her food, convinces her to eat, and takes her shopping for clothes at a dollar store. He tells her she can sleep in one of his cars, which is good, because it’s almost October now and starting to get cold at night.
Days run together. All she thinks about is getting high, whatever it takes. Everything else is second priority – even eating. She loses about 30 pounds and the heroin makes her scratch her face. She doesn’t look like herself.
But her dad still recognizes her, and she recognizes him. He’s walking toward her. How did he find her after all these months?
“Please come home with me.”
There’s no more anger. He doesn’t yell. He’s pleading, “Just come home.”
“Hell, no. I can do this by myself.”
She’s running again.
But the next day, she can’t run from the signs. They’re plastered all over: Huge pictures of her face, asking for information on her whereabouts.
But she’s safe now, in the back seat of the car the bus stop-guy lets her sleep in. She smokes some crack and stashes the pipe under the seat, then lays back on the seat.
It’s Oct. 10. She knows that because in two days, she’ll be 16.
Then the lights flash. There’s a swell of voices, but she only recognizes one.
“That’s her,” she hears her father say. “Get her.”
Part II: Why can’t they just let me get high?
Rehab sucks. She’s shaking and sweating, like she has a fever, and the pain – it hurts so bad. Sleeping is impossible. She falls asleep for an hour … more shaking … nausea. Another hour … more pain … sweating …. It lasts through the night – no more sleep.
“I don’t have a problem,” she tells counselor after counselor for the four days she’s there. “This is how I want to live my life.” She won’t tell them about the pain.
In that pain, she celebrates her sweet 16.
She doesn’t talk to anyone, until she gets an unexpected phone call from her mom who heard where she was.
“You gotta help me, you gotta get me outta here,” Raquel screams into the receiver.
The next day, she’s on a plane, headed to Carson City where she promises she’ll turn her life around. She’ll be back with her mom and sisters and won’t give another thought to the drugs that held her captive.
And, in a way, she means it.
Her body craves heroin. Her first day in Carson City, she walks to the closest grocery store, the Safeway on North Carson Street.
She stands in the parking lot, watching people go in and out of the store. She’s scanning the customers to find someone who looks like her typical dealer from Dallas: dirty, unkempt, usually black.
She waits for hours. No one fits that description. Finally, she approaches a white man in mismatched, disheveled clothes.
“Do you know where I could get something,” she asks softly, looking around to make sure no one’s listening.
“What? What do you mean, something?” he asks.
She returns home disappointed and desperate.
Raquel convinces her mom to let her go to Reno to “reconnect” with a friend she’d made a couple of years ago on one of her visits to Nevada.
She’s sure her friend will be able to help her score heroin. But when Raquel asks her, she only balks. “Are you serious?”
It’s a completely wasted trip … until a friend of a friend agrees to give her a ride back to Carson City.
“So what do you do for fun,” Raquel asks him, and the conversation turns to drugs. He uses cocaine.
“I got some right now,” he says. “You want some lines?”
“Hell yeah,” she smiles.
He hooks her up with enough coke to get through a few days, and it helps her get through the heroin withdrawals. She wants more, but cocaine is hard to come by, and expensive.
Standing outside the Eagle gas station, she meets a group of guys who agree to “kick it” with her.
They don’t have coke or heroin. Instead, they hook her up with something new: methamphetamine.
They go back to the Downtowner Motor Inn, where she takes her first puff from the pipe. It hits her immediately. Her mind races, her heart pumps. She’s high. What a relief.
She’ll always remember Oct. 18, 2004, as the first time she used meth.
But the old strategies for chasing the high don’t work here. Prostitution isn’t as easy, nor as lucrative – it took $4 to buy enough heroin to get high in Texas. It costs $20 to buy the equivalent in meth.
But it’s in ready supply, she discovers, at the Downtowner. She moves in, paying the weekly rent by dealing.
Weeks she can’t pay the rent, she bums with friends in apartments or other motels.
When she’s really hard up for money, she calls her old john from Dallas, who let her stay in his car, and tells him she needs money for food and clothes. She spends it on meth.
Twice he sends her $150 so she can return to Dallas. Twice she uses the money to buy meth.
Finding anonymity in Carson City is more difficult. Her mom reports her as a runaway and she’s picked up on Jan. 5.
On Jan. 11, she’s arrested on possession of paraphernalia charges and put on probation.
She doesn’t let that stop her. She goes to check up on a friend about a month later at the Cherry Creek Apartments on the south end of town.
When one of the guys leaves in the morning, he says, “Be careful. I’ve heard there’s detectives around here.”
She smiles. He’s tweaked out and paranoid. She knows that feeling. She’s heard footsteps and car doors slamming that weren’t really there.
But there really is knocking at the window now, isn’t there? Raquel grabs her friend, and they peek out a hole in the curtain to see a female police officer.
They freeze. They’re high and Raquel’s got a pipe in her hand. There’s banging at the door now.
Her friend opens it, and it’s over.
Raquel starts to cry. Not because she’s sad, but because she wants to get high and can’t.
“Damn,” she sobs. “Why can’t they just let me get high? I give up.”
Alone in her jail cell, it hits her. She’s really in trouble this time. She has no place to go and nothing to live for.
She drops to her knees and utters her first prayer in a long time. It’s different than her prayers of old when she’d call for a blessing on the plants and animals, for a good Earth.
This one is pure desperation.
“I’m sorry for what I’m doing,” she cries. “I need your help.”
And help comes. She’s sent to the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center in Silver Springs on March 18.
Her first impression is that it’s in the middle of a desert. She can’t run away from it like she did twice before in Dallas, where she only had to climb a fence and hitch a ride to be free.
It’s the help she asked for. But she’s not sure she wants it anymore.
“I just have to put up with this for three months,” she reasons. “I’ll get out, find my homeboys and get a good – no the best – high to celebrate.”
For now, she just has to go along with what they say.
They tell her to admit she’s an addict.
“I’m an addict,” she obliges.
And destructive, and in denial, and angry. … The list goes on and on, and one by one she half-heartedly confesses.
But somehow, throughout the repetition comes realization. Slowly, it begins to resonate.
She starts to listen. For the first time, she realizes she really is an addict, and she realizes she doesn’t want to be one.
“I love my mom, my sisters. Oh my God, I really scared my dad. I can’t believe I did that.”
“I’m so sorry,” she tells them.
Every day, there are cravings. She can taste the cigarettes, the feeling of a high. But there’s no physical withdrawals anymore.
“Am I getting better?” she wonders.
Part III: I’m 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1272.