• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Recovering addict shares her journey to getting clean

ANGIE STEWART, who has been clean for 12 years, says she has been to "more funerals than I can count" for people who have died of a drug overdose. Stewart says she helped start Raising Awareness Woodford County because she was tired of going to funerals. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

In recovery for 12 years now, Angie Stewart remembers a time in her life when she swore to herself that she would never use intravenous (IV) drugs. She was terrified of needles. And yet in the midst of her drug addiction, she allowed a friend to inject drugs into her system because she couldn't get in touch with her dope dealer. "When you're injecting something into your arm - no matter what substance it is - it sets off something in you that there's no coming back from," says Stewart. She eventually ended up in the hospital at age 34 on her daughter's fourth birthday. "I was in really bad shape. I was almost dead," says Stewart. She cannot remember much about what happened during the couple of weeks before her drug overdose. She does "remember the ER doc telling me, 'I've spent three hours saving your life ... do something with it.'" During her stay in intensive care, Stewart also remembers her brother coming into her room and telling her that she looked like their uncle - her face was blank, expressionless. With this emptiness in her eyes, she only weighed 97 pounds. "It's hard to tell what was in my system to tell you the truth," says Stewart of her overdose. "I think they read it off at my drug court graduation - the list of drugs that were in my system." Stewart, now 46, says she started dabbling with pills and snorting cocaine around the time she dropped out of Woodford County High School during her senior year. She soon found herself unable to stop using cocaine, and eventually started smoking crack. "And that's how I lived my life - wide open for years," says Stewart. She says her family wouldn't know where she was living for weeks at a time. And because she was also in a very abusive relationship, "there were days they probably didn't know if I was dead or alive. "I was in such bad shape," she continues, "it was shameful to come back home, for my family to see me the way I was. So I just stayed gone." When Stewart finally did come home after getting herself "pulled together," someone would call to tell her about a drug they had or a drug that was around town - "so I'd be gone again," she says. Unlike friends who used cocaine with her on the weekend, Stewart often didn't go home and then back to work on Monday. "I would work off and on," she explains. "I'd work a couple of weeks and quit my job." During the peak of her addiction, Stewart found herself hiding in closets "from things that aren't there," she says. All it took for her to start using cocaine or other illicit drugs was someone saying, "Hey, let's try this?" And even if she was aware of the drug overdoses and deaths occurring in her community back then, Stewart says, "I probably would've" used. "Because after awhile," she explains, "you don't do it to get high. You do it to feel normal." Drugs eventually take over, "and you would sell your soul to the devil..." She says, "You can't work anymore to get your own money to buy drugs. Your family is done giving you money. So then you have to steal because you have to have it." After several miscarriages in her 20s, Stewart was told she'd probably never have children. So when she found out that she was four months pregnant - after not being able to "hold any liquor down" - she got clean and moved back in with her parents. "And by the grace of God," she says, "I was able not to drink or use (for) the rest of my pregnancy." Stewart didn't stay clean and sober for very long. She got a beer and started drinking again after a friend had a baby one week later. She also started taking pain pills, which were prescribed to her because of complications related to her pregnancy. Eventually, Stewart started using cocaine again, but only when her daughter's dad kept her on weekends. "And when Savannah was about six or eight weeks old," she recalls, "we got our own apartment. And then when things started going bad and I couldn't pay my bills, then we moved back in with my parents. And they would take care of her while I was gone." Stewart loved her daughter more than anything in the world, but drugs had a hold on her. "I just never knew that there could be another way," she says. "I thought I would always have to do something." Her younger brother (by four years) had begun his recovery in Woodford County Drug Court and started to turn his life around in the early stages of sobriety when Stewart says she started smoking crack again. She has now come to understand why her brother kept his distance. Her drug use may have become a trigger for him to start using again. "I've learned that now," she says. "That I have to learn to set boundaries because sometimes I put myself in bad situations trying to help others." A felony warrant for her arrest, and a near-fatal overdose, ended up saving her life. "Today," she says, "I thank God that he (the man who was doing drugs with her) dumped me at the hospital..." It also angers her that he continues to peddle drugs in the community. "The same people doing the same thing," she says. Both Stewart and her brother successfully completed Drug Court and are now in recovery. "It took a long time for us to end up where we were," she says. Her brother got sober first and remains very private about his experience. Stewart talks about her experiences as a drug addict and shares her path to recovery with others. Most strikingly, she has become a voice in the community who's making others aware of drug abuse issues and how they can turn their lives around through her involvement with R.A.W. - Raising Awareness Woodford County, which she and others in the community (most in recovery) started because they were tired of going to funerals. The grassroots organization's Crusade Against Addiction is now an annual walk in downtown Versailles to raise awareness about drug-related issues - most notably the rising number of overdoses in the community. Sadly, Stewart says R.A.W. lost two of its own to drug overdoses this year. They had been very involved in this grassroots effort to raise awareness about drug use and abuse in the community, and now they're gone. Stewart says she was recently asked to write and read the eulogy of a former boyfriend who died of a drug overdose. She feels honored to have been asked by his family, and especially his dad - a man who once told his son, "Don't you leave that damn girl in my house, she'll rob me blind." Stewart says she started drinking beer and whiskey with friends during her freshman year at Woodford County High School. "And I was never one who could drink just a little bit," she remembers. "...I was the one who is drunk and passed out. Halfway through the ballgame, (my friends had) to carry me out and put me into the backseat of the car until everybody else got done. "I could not ever do just a little bit - never." She now knows "alcoholism runs deep through both sides of my family," but she did not understand that when she was a teen growing up in Woodford County. Nobody ever talked about alcoholism or the consequences of drinking, so Stewart viewed drinking alcohol as normal. Her uncles drank. Her dad drank. "A lot of people who I'm in recovery with talk about being beaten or molested or (say), 'Oh my gosh, we never had enough food in our house.'" Stewart says she was raised in a low- to middle-class family, "but we always had everything that we needed. There was no abuse or going to bed hungry. We had a good life, but I was surrounded by alcoholism." Drinking was a normal part of family life for everyone except Stewart's mom, who never drank. On nights when their mom was working second shift and their dad came home late from a bar, Stewart says she and her brother would take money out of their dad's pants left lying on the bathroom floor. "You'd go to any lengths to get just one more (hit of a drug)," says Stewart. Later when her brother went into treatment, she says, "Daddy started hiding his wallet and mom started saying, 'No, I'm not giving you money to buy Savannah a coat. I'll go buy her a coat." Her brother was getting clean and learning to tell their parents the truth - not lies. During this period of her addiction, Stewart says, she was able to avoid being arrested, but no longer able to fool her mom. She met Stewart at the backdoor and told her, "You're not welcome in here anymore. I'm tired of sleeping with my purse in the bed. I'm tired of not knowing when I'm going to get up and you're going to be gone ... I'm done." It wasn't too much longer before Stewart says, "I hit my bottom" - nearly dying of an overdose and being arrested for stealing a car. A felony conviction became Stewart's opportunity to get into Woodford County Drug Court - and finally get clean. "My brother was so important to my journey," she says. "I could've never, ever done it without him ... Because he got clean before me ... he held my hand and led the way ... and saved my life." Reflecting on her Drug Court experience, Stewart says Woodford Circuit Judge Paul Isaacs genuinely wants drug addicts in his courtroom to succeed and have a real life. So "when I see him," she says, "I want to hug him." While he knows Drug Court doesn't work for everyone, Isaacs said most who successfully graduate from the program have very few drug-related problems in their future. Calling her "a poster child" of this success, Isaacs says, "It worked because Angie decided she wanted to change her life. And she was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. "The thoroughness of her work is evidenced by how long she's stayed clean and how involved she is in the recovery community - and she's actually become quite a leader in it." He pointed out that anyone who agrees to Woodford County Drug Court as a condition on their probation must abide by very strict rules or face consequences for their actions. Being held accountable for her actions was a new experience for Stewart, who says she wouldn't trade her Woodford County Drug Court experience for anything. "I would be dead - there's no doubt in my mind - if I hadn't gotten that felony charge and got put in drug court," she says. "I would've left that hospital and used again, and I would've died." Because judges in Kentucky do not receive any additional compensation for taking on a Drug Court docket, Isaacs describes watching someone like Stewart get clean as "my pay. That's how I get paid. That's what makes this job much more ... worthwhile. To see people be able to change their lives and become a different person that is good for not only society, but good for themselves." Stewart says she moved to Frankfort when she first got clean because for so long she didn't know anything, but how to drink and use. "I tell people all of the time," she says, "(that) when I was trying to get high, I couldn't find a dope man. When I was trying to get clean, they were waving me down trying to give me free s**t. I had to get out of here." Today, Stewart and her daughter are back living in Woodford County. This recovery addict says she now has a very strong foundation, with friends whom she can count on and an understanding of what she can never do again. "I know today that if I even drink," she says, "that I'll end up drinking, getting a buzz and think I can get a little high ... I cannot do a little bit of anything. I know that today. And today, I want to live. "So, no, it's not hard to live here today. It was in early sobriety, but not today." Fortunately, Stewart says she has good relationships with her mom and her daughter, who just turned 16 years old. "She's a good kid ... She has seen people go to prison, but she's also seen people get well and recover." Stewart's dad, who doesn't drink any more, and her mom are still married and have even invited her back into their home. "They forgave us and we have a good life now," says Stewart, who has been working for Woodford County Animal Control for about six months, and appreciates that people outside of her family also know how she lives her life today. Not how she "was back in my craziness."

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