Looking for a Fix
Craig La Rotonda

Looking for a Fix

Meredith Behm is a drug addict.

When it's time to get high, she disappears from her job, says goodbye to her mother, kisses her daughter as she drops her off at school, and vanishes for days.

She winds up wherever the drugs are.

During most of the past two years, Meredith has been injecting cocaine into her veins on a regular basis, although she routinely snorted the powder more than a decade ago. Her current cycle is simple: For $40, she can get two grams of coke. She sprinkles some of the coke in a spoon, adding a few drops of water to create a milky liquid.

"If you have good coke, it will turn out clear; if not, it will be goopy," she says.

She then takes a piece of cotton and puts it in the spoon. She places a needle on top of the cotton and draws the mixture into the syringe. She places the needle against her arm and pushes down on the syringe.

Happiness swims through her bloodstream, an electric jolt that runs up and down her limbs and brings an intense elation.

"You get a body high," she explains. "It rushes through your body and has your head ringing. It's a really intense high. It lasts maybe ten minutes."

She keeps mixing the coke, getting several spoonfuls out of the small amount of drugs. "You keep doing it until the coke is done," says Meredith. "You get five to six shots out of $40."

An addict can even take the used-up cotton and place it in water and drain it to get the cocaine residue, a process known as a "rinse."

As she describes all this, Meredith, an attractive 34-year-old blonde with tired eyes, seems sickened by her own behavior. The Denver resident says she hates herself for wanting the drugs, for needing that little flicker of heaven that has turned the rest of her life into hell.

"I envy the people who say, 'I tried it and never used it again.' I tried it once and loved it. Now I sit here and think, 'Why am I doing this?' I feel miserable. It's just disgusting."

She sighs and looks at the ground. "A friend said it's like shooting Satan into your veins."

Meredith's boyfriend introduced her to the new world of shooting up. She could hardly believe what she was doing, but the few minutes of paradise that came with it soon seemed like the only thing that mattered.

"I never imagined I'd stick a needle in my arm to get high," she says. "But the feeling was so good; I liked it too much."

Soon Meredith and her boyfriend created a whole lifestyle around shooting up.

They lived in a squalid motel. To make money, they launched a career as professional shoplifters. Today she is wearing a Colorado Avalanche sweatshirt she stole from a retailer.

"We could make from $200 to $500 per day shoplifting," she says. "We stole Broncos and Avalanche merchandise. We could take $30 shirts and drive into the barrio and throw open the trunk and sell them for $15."

Often she would steal seafood and steaks from grocery stores. It wasn't difficult: First she would load up a cart with food during the busiest time of the day; then she'd stop by the customer-service counter to ask a question, and from there, she'd push the cart over to the telephone and pretend she was making a call. Then she'd walk out the door.

"We'd steal stuff that cost a lot and sell it for half price. You could drive into any neighborhood and open up your trunk, and people were on it like flies on shit."

As time went by, her addiction deepened and her troubles grew. Her daughter's father took custody of the fourteen-year-old girl. Meredith's boyfriend was arrested on a parole violation (he had previously been in prison for selling methamphetamine) and sent back to prison. She found it difficult to cope with being alone, and before long was homeless, subsisting in her 1996 Dodge Neon.

"I didn't care if I was living in a hotel or not," she says. "I had given up hope. I went to Conoco to wash my face and brush my teeth. I didn't care how I looked or smelled, so long as I had someplace to shoot up. Getting drugs was all I cared about. If I didn't have drugs every day, it was the end of the world. I was in hell."

One day last December, she parked her car at the RTD park-n-Ride at Broadway and I-25. It was past midnight, and the lot was deserted. She figured she could shoot up without anyone noticing. A Denver policeman suddenly appeared and arrested her, she recalls.

"When that cop knocked on my window, I was thankful in a weird way. I knew it was either going to end or else. I think an angel led the cop to my car. It was a blessing to be arrested."

As part of a deal with the Denver District Attorney's Office, Meredith's case is assigned to Denver Drug Court, a special court for those arrested for possession of illegal drugs. The idea is to divert drug addicts from the regular court system -- where they have been overwhelming judges -- and into a setting that emphasizes rehabilitation.

It is January. Despite her arrest, Meredith is still using drugs and has yet to be placed in any kind of treatment program. Still, the system gradually takes hold of her life. After failing a urine test, she is sent back to jail for several days. Denver officials discover that there is an outstanding warrant for her arrest in Arapahoe County on a drunk-driving charge and send her to the Arapahoe County jail. Because Meredith is a diabetic, her frantic mother calls the jail to let them know she has to have her insulin shots.

Having served three days, Meredith is finally released and collapses at her mother's apartment. In a familiar pattern, though, she eventually asks to borrow her mother's car. Meredith disappears; her mother is deeply worried. The wayward daughter finally calls, in tears, and says she wants to shoot up so much coke she will trigger cardiac arrest and die. Desperate, her mother telephones Denver agencies looking for help. When she reaches the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the first thing she says a staffer asks is, "Does she have any money?"

She makes the same discovery as many of the other families whose loved ones become addicted: In Colorado, there is little help available unless you can come up with thousands of dollars to pay for it. The only source of free help her mother can find is Cocaine Anonymous, which holds regular meetings around the city.

Meredith returns home from her latest binge, exhausted and wrung out. She sleeps all day. Frightened by her own behavior, she tells her mother she will go to a Cocaine Anonymous meeting.

And so, on a bright morning in February, Meredith walks down Broadway on her way to the noon Cocaine Anonymous session at Trinity United Methodist Church.

It is no mystery why Meredith is walking this path. She carries a burden that is nearly as old as she is.

When she was six years old, she and her five-year-old brother were playing alone near a swimming pool. Her brother was named Bobby, in honor of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Meredith doesn't remember exactly what happened that day, but Bobby fell into the pool and drowned.

The sad story is amplified in a family photo album. The first pages show Meredith and Bobby constantly together, playing in the sand during a family trip to the Grand Canyon or jumping on the seats of their father's red Volks-wagen van, two happy kids with hair washed blond by the Colorado sun.

Then unimaginable grief leaps out in black letters. "Child Drowns in Apartment Pool," reads the newspaper clipping.

"Denver police Monday were investigating the death of a 5-year-old southeast Denver boy whose body was found at the bottom of a swimming pool near his home about 9 p.m. Saturday. The boy's mother reported he disappeared about 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Police were called by the boy's father about 8:30 p.m. after his toy football was found at the swimming pool. The swimming pool was filled with dirty water, making it impossible to search. Firemen were called to drag the bottom of the pool and found the boy's body a short time later. Assistant chief Clarence Priest of the Denver Fire Department said the youngster apparently crawled under a fence enclosing the pool and then fell in."

Bobby's funeral was a few days later, on March 13, 1974. The program contained this poem:

God hath not promised
Skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives through;
God hath not promised
Sun without rain
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labor,
Light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
Unfailing sympathy,
Undying love.

After this, Meredith's mother struggled with depression, which ultimately led to her hospitalization. Unable to work and support her daughter, Meredith's mother sent her to live with her father, who had remarried. Until then, Meredith had seen her father only once a week, when he would take her and Bobby to McDonald's. She says he was cold and unemotional, completely unsuited to fatherhood; he never told her he loved her, and rarely even talked with her.

"He treated me like I was a sofa," says Meredith.

Feeling unloved and abandoned, for two years Meredith saw her mother only on weekends, although they spoke on the phone every night. She remembers being ten years old and taking the bus alone to see her mother at St. Joseph Hospital.

"I felt like an orphan," she says.

Her mother says that Meredith's father and his second wife tried to make a real home for Meredith. His new wife had two daughters, and they hoped Meredith would bond with them, but that wasn't meant to be. Instead, Meredith often shut the door to her room and refused to have anything to do with the rest of the family.

("I know she says she felt abandoned, but there were lots of family and friends around her," says her mother. "She was a very isolated girl, really not social.")

Meredith's mother disappears from the photos taken during the next few years. Instead, Meredith is shown with her father and grandmother or simply standing alone, a lonely girl posed unsmiling next to a Chevy sedan, a suitcase behind her.

At the end of the album, her mother reappears, her hair a cascade of blonde curls and her eyes shadowed in pale blue. The last photo is of eleven-year-old Meredith, mugging for the camera and holding a sign saying "I love ya mom."

At thirteen, Meredith went back to live with her mother. Bobby's death still haunted them both, and Meredith accused her mother of wishing she had drowned rather than her brother. ("She would say, 'I know you wish it was me,'" recalls her mother.)

Her story ends, but the pain doesn't. Sometimes, Meredith finds herself at Fairmount Cemetery, sitting next to her brother's tombstone, looking for something.

At the Cocaine Anonymous meeting, about two dozen people sit in a circle. Meredith introduces herself with the standard greeting: "My name is Meredith, and I'm a cocaine addict."

Several people in the group talk about their addiction and how it's affected their lives. A man wearing a white Oxford dress shirt and blue tie tells the group he works in a 17th Street law firm by day and spends his nights getting high in an alley. A woman who was declared an unfit mother sobs as she talks about the day she lost her children. A blond man in a Broncos sweatshirt remembers being homeless and spending all day looking for cocaine.

Many of the group's members talk about God (or, some say, "a higher power") helping them overcome their addictions. "I'd be dead if I weren't here," says one man, as a single tear runs down his cheek. Some stare at the floor and say nothing.

Meredith doesn't talk, but she listens closely to all the stories. At the end of the meeting, a tall woman named Susan approaches her and offers to be her mentor, guiding her through the twelve-step program on which Cocaine Anonymous is based.

Meredith isn't religious and is a little put off by the emphasis on God, but she decides she'll try. She and her mother have been arguing, and she feels like she needs someone to talk to. "Everyone needs a friend," she says.

For several more days she attends meetings; then the need for a high returns. The next thing she knows, she is borrowing her mother's car and heading for the suburbs. The cycle is repeating.

Her current dealer and his wife welcome her like family, asking her how she's been. They have four children -- two girls and two boys -- and the kids know and like Meredith. The mom doesn't do drugs, but the dad has been in and out of jail on drug charges. Usually he handles the sales; the wife only gets involved when he's in jail and she needs the money.

They have an apartment in the suburbs, a cozy place where Meredith feels at home. "All their kids love me," she says. "When their birthdays roll around, I buy them presents."

The dealer-dad calls Meredith at home several times a day, leaving messages with her mother. Meredith insists this is because he is worried about her, not because he wants to make a sale. Still, the calls anger her mother, who demands to know if the man calling Meredith is her dealer.

"The only time they call is if I haven't been around," says Meredith. "He never asks, 'Do you need some shit?' I don't want to leave him and his family wondering if I'm dead. There is true concern in his voice."

Out of consideration for the family, Meredith never gets high at her dealer's place. "They don't want anybody doing anything in their house," she says. She buys the coke there and finds a private place to shoot up.

This battle with addiction is not new. Meredith started using cocaine when she was 21 and living in Evergreen. For several years, she snorted powder cocaine, eventually buying it daily and bingeing. One day, she decided she'd had enough.

"In February of 1996, I grabbed my kid, threw her in the car and drove like a madwoman to my mom's apartment in Denver. I did what I needed to do to get clean."

At that time, Meredith was able to get into a treatment program (her mother picked up the tab). That four-week program was offered by Crossroads Managed Care Systems in Pueblo.

"It was all education and awareness," recalls Meredith. "They taught you life-coping skills, parenting skills and the harms and effects of every drug you can use. People were there for everything from alcohol to heroin. You'd get up every morning at 5:30 and you'd be assigned a chore, everything from vacuuming the carpet to cleaning the bathroom."

The female addicts were separated from the men. Meredith attended group therapy and classes on addiction every day, as well as workshops on domestic violence. The only time socializing with the opposite sex was allowed was at the weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Meredith credits the program with helping her to quit snorting cocaine for five years. She was clean and drug-free. "I couldn't have done it without Crossroads," she says.

If she could find such a program now -- and the money to pay for it -- Meredith insists she would leap at the opportunity to enroll. But she can't. Most people have no idea what is involved in kicking an addiction, she adds.

"They want you to just stop," says Meredith. "If I could just stop, I wouldn't be in trouble in the first place. I'm addicted; I can't just stop. Believe me, there are times when an addict thinks, 'If I could just get help.' There's a point in every addict's life where they want help."

Meredith knows she needs to make a commitment to give up cocaine, but she still wonders if she can: "Nobody wakes up and says, 'I want to be an addict.' This is hard."

Meredith is a diabetic, which makes drug addiction even more dangerous. In spring 2002, she is diagnosed with hepatitis, something she may have contracted while shooting up. She also discovers an abscess on her breast.

She spends her time going to medical appointments at Denver Health and legal meetings with her attorney in the Denver Public Defender's Office. She says she wants to find a job, but she knows it's difficult to take a job when you don't know if you'll be spending the night in jail.

By March, the justice system starts to play an even larger role in Meredith's life. As part of the agreement her public defender reaches with the district attorney, Meredith agrees to go on probation and take regular drug tests in return for a two-year deferred sentence. She consents to eighty hours of treatment and $2,370 in fines, but if she completes the classes that make up the treatment program, they'll cut the fines to $1,400.

Her case will be carefully reviewed on a regular basis by a magistrate in the Denver Drug Court. Twice a week, she has to provide a urine sample and will face time in jail if those tests show she's using drugs. She will also be assigned to mandatory classes at the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, but she will have to pay for that treatment herself, at $25 a session.

Meredith has mixed feelings about the programs at the Mile High Council. She attends two classes a week -- a drug-education class and a women's support group. She dislikes the education class, which is filled with "eighteen-year-old smart alecks."

"That class is really stupid, because nobody wants to be there," she says. "It's full of young kids who are smartasses."

But, she says, she likes the women's group, which includes older addicts that she can relate to. The group focuses on anger management and the way people often turn to drugs when they feel like they can't cope with their emotions.

"It's more like a getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings group," says Meredith. "A lot of these women have lost their kids."

However, in the time Meredith has been attending the programs, there has been constant turnover in the staff. Just as she learns to like and trust one of the counselors, he moves on. Meredith would like to be in a more comprehensive program, but the classes at Mile High are all that are available to someone with limited funds.

In late March, Meredith awaits her turn to appear before the judge. Two dozen people do likewise. A forty-something man nervously adjusts his tie, a woman with long black hair smoothes her floral-print skirt, and a young man with a ponytail gazes longingly at his skateboard. Many of them look like ordinary, middle-class Denver residents, although they tend to be young and male, black or Hispanic. Some of the younger boys, just turned eighteen, scarcely seem like they've begun shaving.

Meredith sits in the back row, scanning her fellow addicts. A few have an attitude and view the proceedings with scorn, while others seem ashamed and stare at the floor. Each approaches the bench, where the court clerk informs the judge about the results of each participant's latest urinalysis, or UA. Those who have failed are immediately sent to jail. Those who seem to be turning their lives around receive words of encouragement from the judge.

Drug testing is done on a spot basis; Meredith never knows when she'll be called in. She isn't sure whether her last UA will be clean. It was a few days after her latest binge.

Finally, she is called to the bench. The prosecutor tells the judge she failed the UA. He quickly orders her to the county jail for two days. Again.

Meredith smiles weakly as she is placed in handcuffs and led away.

"Tell Mom I'm sorry," she says with a sigh.

Meredith's mother loves her, but she finds herself wondering if she is making it easier for her to stay addicted.

Since being arrested, Meredith has been living in her mother's small apartment in Capitol Hill. Not having to worry about rent gives her more spending money. Meredith's car was seized by the city after her arrest -- under the drug forfeiture laws, the car was considered to be a public nuisance -- and the only way she can get around is by borrowing her mother's car.

"If she has money, time and a car, it's a bad combination," says her mother. "At times, I feel like I'm nothing more than an enabler, making it easier for her to spend what money she does have on drugs."

The previous night, Meredith disappeared with the car, and her mother wonders if she was at her dealer's house.

"She didn't come back until 7:30. I said, 'Meredith, are you using again? Tell me the truth.' She said she wasn't, and I hope she wasn't lying, but I have a feeling she was. I want to trust her, but I know I can't."

For much of the summer, she watches as Meredith struggles to turn her life around, finding work and talking excitedly about getting her own apartment and having her life back. Then, out of the blue, she disappears for hours. Or days. Her mother frets, and then comes the phone call, with Meredith talking wildly about how she wishes she were dead. As in a bad dream, she shows up at the apartment, pale and shaking, sometimes sleeping for 24 hours on the couch.

"It's a real Jekyll-and-Hyde thing," says her mother. "There are such peaks and valleys. I'm tired of it. I think I've exhausted everything I can do."

She saw a television program about a well-to-do woman who put her drug-addicted son into a nine-month residential treatment program. It made her angry, since she would do the same for Meredith if she could afford to.

"I don't think these people should be coddled, but there's got to be something for them," she says. "She doesn't seem to have gotten much out of the program she's in. She doesn't feel like she's getting anything out of it that's particularly helpful."

Meredith's addiction is also painful for her fourteen-year-old daughter. As her mother bottoms out, she starts having trouble in school, saying she is too upset to concentrate on school work.

"Why should I study if my mother might be dead?" she asks.

Meredith is about to be sentenced to jail again. Magistrate Andre Rudolph is not pleased.

He is the one who does much of the day-to-day supervision of cases, reviewing urinalysis results and monitoring the progress of offenders. While the magistrate can put a person in jail, he can't conduct a trial or send someone to state prison. Only a district judge can do that.

Meredith has failed her most recent UA. Because she has failed several other UAs before this one, she could be sentenced to as much as 45 days in jail, followed by six months in a halfway house. Meredith seems panicked, since she hates the county jail. She insists the "hot" UA was all a mistake.

"I swear I didn't use," she says. "I've only had four dirty UAs, and I've always 'fessed up. I didn't use, and I don't know how to convey that to the judge."

Meredith has been working with a painting crew in the mountains, and she claims the paint fumes may have released toxins into her bloodstream. She tries to tell this to Rudolph, but he cuts her off, telling her he wants to talk to someone else who turned in a clean UA.

"I know he won't feed me any bull," says Rudolph.

The magistrate is effusive in his praise for those who pass their UAs, but when Meredith is called back to stand in front of him, he makes it clear he doesn't believe her. "I don't buy that for one minute," he says of her story. "The best excuse I heard was that the Burger King on Downing was putting cocaine in the burgers. If it's positive, it means it's above the cutoff. If you didn't have a positive UA just a little while ago, I'd be more inclined to believe you."

He quickly remands Meredith to yet another 48 hours in jail, far less than the maximum sentence she could have received.

Perhaps it is because the man who sent Meredith to jail knows something about hard knocks. A 35-year-old former University of Wyoming football player, Rudolph cuts a sharp image in court, sporting a goatee and walking through the courtroom with athletic swagger. He is by turns jocular and severe with the addicts who come before him, depending on their success in giving up drugs.

Rudolph was raised by his grandmother in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and didn't meet his father until he was fifteen years old. His grandmother worked three jobs to support him and seven of her own children. Even though money was tight -- Rudolph remembers playing basketball with shoes full of holes -- it was a loving household, and Rudolph thrived in the small-town state capital.

One of his sisters was a Perry Mason fan, and Rudolph soon became fascinated with the dogged television attorney.

"Perry Mason was articulate and dressed well," Rudolph explains. "With his words, he could get people to admit things and break open a case. I love to talk, and I thought, 'Gee, I can do this.'"

At Cheyenne High School, Rudolph met the children of several of Wyoming's most prominent attorneys. Later, he was introduced to Gerry Spence, the famous trial lawyer, and Spence encouraged the young man to pursue a legal career. A group of Cheyenne attorneys also took a liking to Rudolph and invited him to their offices to explore the legal world.

During college, he worked summer jobs at legal offices in Cheyenne. He won a fellowship to attend law school at Creighton University in Omaha. After graduating, he took a job in the Denver Public Defender's Office.

"I thought, there are all these black guys going to prison. I want them to see me and say, 'He's my lawyer, and he looks like me.' I grew up poor, and I wanted them to know they could turn their lives around."

In 1999, a job as magistrate in drug court opened up, and Rudolph considered applying. He remembers that he ran into a former client on the 16th Street Mall and told her he wasn't sure he should apply for the job, because court authorities might think he was too young. "She said, 'You told me I could do anything when I was a crack addict, and now you're telling me you can't do this?'" he says.

Rudolph adopts a tough-love demeanor in his courtroom, something he says he learned from his grandmother.

"She always told me, 'If you wind up in jail, I'm not coming to get you.' She said she'd kick my butt, and she meant it."

Presiding in drug court requires mixing compassion with toughness, says Rudolph.

"You cry with them; you try to give them the straight talk. I say, 'Look at what you're putting your parents through.' I give them the tough talk; they're in my house. I'm really about respect. That's what my grandma taught me."

Despite the fact that Rudolph has sent Meredith to jail a number of times, she adores him. In fact, Rudolph is immensely popular with many of the people who go through drug court.

"The way he talks to you and explains what you're doing wrong, he always holds you in high regard," she says. "He makes you not want to screw up. He doesn't talk down to you, even when you've been using. Even when I know I've messed up, I can't wait to see Andre. He makes you want to do better; he doesn't make you feel like you've failed. He says, 'You can do better than this. You can change.'"

Sometimes Meredith's daughter goes to court with her.

At an August hearing, the fourteen-year-old girl sits nervously with her mother, watching the spectacle of people being led away in handcuffs. A soft-spoken girl with lovely brown eyes, she looks apprehensively at the judge and sheriff's deputies, as if astounded that these people have the power to take her mother away.

She and Meredith hold hands during the hearing, whispering and giggling like two schoolgirls playing hooky. One minute the girl mentions an episode from her favorite show, The Powerpuff Girls; the next she casts a wary eye at a cop standing guard at the door.

Meredith's addiction has meant that she has often not been able to care for her daughter. The girl's grandmother has helped raise her since she was born, but it's clear that Meredith and her daughter love each other deeply.

Her daughter was very upset with Meredith when she went off on a binge. "She said, 'Mom, you told me you were going to stop. I'm only fourteen years old, Mom -- what am I supposed to do?'" remembers Meredith. "She's been the mom in many respects since my addiction came back."

The girl just started high school. She has been living in a small town on the eastern plains with her father's relatives, something everyone considers to be a blessing. In a close-knit rural setting, she seems to be thriving.

"I'm so glad she's where she is," says Meredith's mom. "They won't let her brood. If she's upset, she's got to talk about it right then and there. They won't let her wear makeup or spaghetti straps. She has to do chores and carry her own weight. It's so good for her. She feels safe."

The girl enjoys the stability of an extended family, and it's not hard to understand why. For a school assignment, she wrote a history of her family.

"When dad went to East High School he met mom. They dropped out when they were sixteen and seventeen. A couple months after she turned nineteen (and he was twenty) I was conceived. Mom and dad broke up after I was born...."

She goes on to describe her mother's growing up and the family tragedy that shadows all of them.

"March 9, 1974 was the worst day our family experienced. Bobby's death made nana and grandpa get a divorce. Neither of them really wanted to take care of mom and when she was fourteen she started using drugs and alcohol. My mom moved out when she was 18. She has always been a waitress. She never had enough money to go to college. She had always saved her money until she got hooked on drugs. Than all that money went to waste."

Meredith and her mother often argue over the girl. Her mother is critical of Meredith's parenting, mainly because of the way she periodically abandons the girl when she binges. She is also mad at the girl's father, who is behind in child-support payments. Meredith hurls her mother's criticism back at her, reminding her of how she wasn't there when Meredith was a child. "Who are you to criticize my mothering?" she asks.

This bickering upsets the girl, who even wrote her grandmother -- whom she calls "Nana" -- a letter complaining about it.

"Dear Nana,

I just don't understand why I am more important to you than your own daughter. And then you tell me that I have bad parents. I am not asking you to tell me that I have the greatest parents in the world, but I would like you to not speak badly about them around me. If you continue to talk about my parents the way that you have been I won't ask anything of you EVER again. I really, really hate to say all this to you, I honestly do, but if I don't it is going to tear me up inside forever.

I love you so much."

The anger between Meredith and her mother leads to outbursts, slammed doors, tears. Her mother is fed up with Meredith's cocaine addiction, the way she vanishes with the car for days, the calls in the middle of the night, the hysterical crying. And she detests her boyfriend, dreading the day he is paroled from prison.

In turn, Meredith accuses her mother of tearing her down just as she tries to pull her life back together.

Then Meredith's daughter tells her that Nana fears Meredith now hates her, and this brings the fighting to a halt. Meredith writes her mother a letter, and -- for the time being -- there is peace.

"Oh mom, how could you, after all the things we've been through together, ever think that I hate you? I feel so lowly and hopeless, so ashamed at the damage I've caused...Once an addict, always an addict...I have so much to say, so much to tell, so much to salvage in you and our beautiful girl. The one constant comfort I've had is knowing that you are and always have been there by her side, no matter what, while your girl pulls yet another...Hell, I don't have a label for this stupidity, so selfish and ignorant...

I love you more than I can say. I'm taking baby steps -- but steps nonetheless -- in seeking help for my addiction. My mind is warped and in low gear -- I'm hoping for happiness and self worth. I need to love myself -- if I can achieve that I can get on with the life that has so much for me. I miss you and our girl so damn much. I can only strive to achieve forgiveness and improvement for all of us. I love you -- don't ever think I don't. I never doubt your love, just as I never doubt your disappointment and concern. That's what love is -- a lot of it anyhow.

Truly your daughter, Meredith."

It is late summer, and things are suddenly looking up for Meredith.

She passes her most recent drug test. Magistrate Rudolph congratulates her, raising her to Level Two in the Drug Court treatment regimen, meaning she'll have to do only one UA and take one class per week.

She has a new job waiting tables at a downtown restaurant. With a steady income, she starts looking for her own apartment. She finds a small studio a few blocks away from her mother's place and vows to make a fresh start.

"I'm still not out of the woods, but I'm well on my way," she says. "My will and sense of hope are back. I'm over the worst of it, thank God. Boy, what a ride it's been."

Then, a few days later, after her successful court appearance, she borrows her mother's car to run an errand and disappears for a whole day. Her boss calls, wondering where she is. Her mother waits and worries, finally crying herself to sleep at 2 a.m.

When she wakes up, the car is parked outside, and the keys have been left inside the apartment.

Meredith has binged again, just as everything seemed to be coming together. She begs her mother not to tell her daughter that she's shot up again, knowing she would be heartbroken.

Her mother tries to be analytical about it, since Meredith's behavior is typical of a drug addict. The experts say addicts often fall back into their drug habit several times while they're trying to quit, a process not unlike the common struggle to give up smoking.

But Meredith is her daughter, and she just can't think of her as a statistic.

"My sisters are upset with me for putting up with Meredith," she says. "But how can you not do everything in your power to help, especially when you've lost a child? I've never thought for a moment her actions were intentional or she was doing this to hurt us. It's just real limited what you can do."

For her part, Meredith doesn't deny that she's messed up, but she insists that she is getting it together. Her boss forgave her for missing her shift and has praised her work. She likes having her own apartment and recently adopted a kitten. Meredith says it just takes time to change.

"You know how many times I've been to jail," she says. "When you start losing pieces of your life from getting high, you wonder why you're doing it. I won't say the craving isn't there; there are still times I wish I could get high. But being monitored by the courts makes a lot of your motivation to use go away."

Meredith believes that, for the most part, drug court is a good thing, especially because of its emphasis on personal responsibility.

"Nobody likes admitting they're in trouble and having to face up to it," she says. "I felt like I was an addict, not a criminal. As bitter as I was at first, in the end I think I wasn't treated like a criminal. Their true purpose is to help you get your life straightened out. I'm not saying I've recovered, but this has helped a lot."


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