Of the men and women who enter and exit the doors of McHenry County PADS Homeless Services, 80 percent are dealing with addiction, mental illness or both.
Some are drawn to addiction because of a genetic predisposition, said Kevin Lesniewski, who works with substance abuse at Pioneer Center for Human Services. For others, it’s a form of masking something deeper.
“It keeps your mind off of things,” Lesniewski said. “That’s self-medication. You’re killing pain is what you’re trying to do.”
The Northwest Herald met with two recovering addicts as they prepare to leave PADS in Woodstock, where they’ve received counseling and support. They told their stories in a locked upper room of the PADS transitional home in front of case manager Melissa O’Donnell, and on the condition that their last names would be withheld to maintain a level of anonymity.
PADS, a division of Pioneer Center, provides referrals and offers in-house counseling services in an effort to treat the root problems of substance abuse and, ultimately, homelessness.
They administer breathalyzers at the door and random drug tests, yet they know only those most committed to recovery will find sustained sobriety on the other side of addiction.
Life is short, but for Renee, it was nearly far too short.
She’d always said that no matter how bad it got, she’d never take heroin. Yet here she was, pumping the drug through her veins, this time once and for all.
April 25, 2007, she decided, would be the last day of her life. How did she get here?
Renee, now 31, was in third grade when her family moved to McHenry. That’s when the sexual abuse worsened.
At first, Renee and her two siblings called him the “tickle man.” He was a close family friend who’d stay a few nights a year with the family.
“He would tickle the kids and play with us, throw us up in the air. We thought it was great,” Renee said. “Then, as I became older, I realized that something was going on, and it was wrong.”
Renee remembers, at age 11, taking cough medicine for days after her cold had cleared up. She liked how the drugs made her feel.
At age 15, she told her parents what their friend was doing. Her mom no longer lets the man into their house. To this day, her dad doesn’t fully accept what was happening.
No charges were ever brought against the man. Instead, they all just swept it under the rug – Renee, too. She never received therapy.
She made it through high school and started college. She was prescribed an opiate as pain medication sometime in her early 20s. She enjoyed the euphoric feeling.
She started lying to get more pain meds. Eventually, she started buying it illegally. Her tolerance progressed – Vicodin, Tylenol 3, Norco, Percocet, Oxycontin. She needed stronger drugs, and she needed more of them.
Renee drew the line short of heroin. She could not let herself do heroin.
But she knew a guy. The guy did not draw the same line, and one day he offered Renee a mix of heroin and Xanax. This seemed like something short of full-on heroin use to Renee, something short of the line she’d drawn.
She snorted it.
“It was fantastic,” she said. “So then the next day I went back to where he had gotten it from, and asked if he had any more of the [heroin] crushed up with the Xanax or whatever it was. And he said, ‘I’m no chemist, that was dope!’”
Renee needed that feeling again. She bought heroin. She’d snort it regularly for something like three months in 2006. She would do odd things on the drug – go to the gym, clean all night. She wanted to feel something, anything.
“In the back of my mind, I felt like drugs always made me get up and do stuff, but in the end they really didn’t,” she said. “They never did anything positive for me.”
Renee tried shooting heroin briefly before admitting herself to a rehab center.
She was clean for three or four months, then she slipped. The addiction came back stronger. If she didn’t shoot heroin every four to six hours, she had withdrawals – runny nose, watery eyes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. She’d become mentally unhinged and depressed.
She needed $100 a day to feed her addiction, but didn’t have it.
She stole from her family. Food, water, shelter, clothing – basic needs – were an afterthought. Heroin was king.
The relapse would last only two months, but it was deeply damaging.
“My family,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I remember becoming like an animal. ... Your brain clicks into survival mode and thinks that [heroin] is all we need. This is what we have to do. And thank God I never had to strip or hook or do anything like that, but there’s a lot of women that do, and did. They’ll do anything to get the money. I stole my mom’s jewelry from her deceased mother for that crap. For what?
“The damage I did was bad,” her voice fades. “It was really bad.”
Time can drag, and for Dennis, the minutes inched.
What else was there to do but drink?
At age 22, he proposed to his wife. He bought a house in Oakwood Hills at 23. A couple of months after the purchase, his mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin died in a car accident.
By the time Dennis got married, his sister had turned to drugs.
He and his wife had a daughter, born disabled. They had another. Dennis’ dad died early, around age 60 – just about the same age when his grandpa had passed. Both died of heart attacks.
His dad was on a boat, set down his glass of wine and felt a pain in his chest. “That was it,” Dennis said. “He was done.”
Marital troubles came next for Dennis. He and his wife got a divorce 15 years ago. Dennis moved into a smaller place.
“At first, living on your own being a single guy is pretty fun,” he said. “You do the ‘Risky Business’ thing – you turn the speaker up and dance in your underwear. But after a week, that gets old.”
Loneliness set in. Dennis didn’t want to eat alone. He went to the bar for dinner. He stayed for drinks.
At home the time moved slowly, so Dennis got up each morning and went to work, and headed straight to the bar afterward. Minutes passed. Days appeared and drifted by.
His health finally forced his hand. At age 43, Dennis had open-heart surgery to repair a valve.
Doctors told him to slow down and stop drinking. He quit work.
Dennis is conflicted on how to define alcoholism. Society’s view, he said, has shifted through the years. A beer after work used to be the norm. Now it’s a problem?
“My dad would go home from work every day and have a glass of wine when he got off of work,” Dennis said. “Was he an alcoholic? I don’t think so. That was his way to unwind.
“Do I have a drinking problem?” he continued. “In a certain sense, yes. Compared to some people, no.”
Asked point blank if he is a recovering alcoholic, Dennis pauses to think.
“Honestly, yeah,” he said. “You could probably put me as that.”
SFlbSobering steps forward
An old friend happened to check on Renee on April 26, 2007, the day after she’d failed in her attempt to overdose. That’s the last time she saw heroin.
The friend brought Renee to a substance abuse center. The physical withdrawal symptoms didn’t cease for about 90 days, but Renee got sober – it will be six years in April.
She said the trust from her family is slowly returning. She’s getting her own place soon and plans to go back to school at some point.
Dennis got remarried three months ago. The couple are looking for their own place. The heart medication he’s on slows his heart rate and zaps his energy, but doctors think he should be able to handle a part-time workload.
He got re-baptized at a church two years ago. That, coupled with psychiatric counseling and the support system at PADS, have kept him on track. It helps to put things out there – Dennis’ family was never very open with their emotions.
His wife is worried he might start drinking again when the couple moves out, and to be honest, Dennis doesn’t know whether he will or not.
“Am I through the rough patch where I’m good to go? Probably not,” he said. “If I get out there on my own and I have a bad day, I might go out and have some drinks. ... You never know until you’re turned out in the real world.”
He’s seen others at his church go through a sort of transformation. He wants the same for himself. “In the process,” he said.
It’s tough to find good in any of this, but Renee scratches for and offers a silver lining: She is living, breathing, sober proof that the worst of addiction can be conquered.
She still has urges to use – she figures she always will – but they weaken with time.
“Sometimes, you have to take it minute by minute, literally,” she said. “They say one day at a time, but that’s almost ... I remember initially, I was so ready to call someone and go use. I said, ‘OK, I’ll call them in a minute if I still want to.’”
Renee sat by the phone. The minute passed.