“I didn’t know I had a ME. I’m a whole new discovery.”

Cameron - Journey House resident

In her right hand Cameron holds a half-eaten ice cream bar. Her left hand is bandaged. She wears big black glasses and a tank top. Across her wide cleavage is an elaborate tattoo - a name maybe. It’s hard to read among the deep curves and shadows. Cameron’s shoulders are thick and her arms imposing stretched across the table. I ask about the bandage. “I caught my palm on the blade of an old-school style milkshake machine at work four days ago. The big silver ice cream cup I was holding under it slipped and I tried to catch it, but I grabbed the spinning blade instead. Pretty deep, but I can’t miss work. I need the money.”

In two weeks, Cameron will end her ninety-day stay at the Journey House and move into her own apartment. In her words, "Start Over". Her story unfolds one jarring incident after another.

Cameron begins

 I’ve never told all this to anybody before. The reason I’m telling you is to help somebody else. 

 During my first five years my dad was incredibly abusive - drugs, marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol. He was very violent with my mom. My younger brother got it, too, and so did I. I was six when they divorced. My baby brother and I saw him every other weekend. He was living with another woman who was pregnant. I remember feeling so crappy about that. He couldn’t be a dad to me, so why was he having another baby?

 I only have a few memories. Once while we were at his house when I was seven, I went to a skating rink with my cousins. Some older kids there taught me how to cuss. They encouraged me, so when I got home on Saturday afternoon, I called my father a motherfucker. I got a severe beating. I peed everywhere. I went to bed in pissy clothes. I was physically injured big time. I couldn’t sit down to go to bathroom. I had cuts from a belt, horrible bruises on my legs and back.

Did you show anybody?

 No. I hid it. I was so scared. I didn’t tell my mom because I worried I’d get in more trouble. But she finally saw it and broke down. She called DFS (Division of Family Services) on my dad. They came. I had to take off all my clothes in front of a stranger who drew a map of my body on a big piece of paper. It was a layout of my injuries front and back. I was so ashamed. 

 I had to go to court and testify against him, which ended our relationship. But my brother who was only three at the time was in love with his dad. He was so angry with me because I ruined everything. He couldn’t go to his dad’s anymore. I carried both my own trauma and the blame for my brother’s loss of contact with his father.     

 My mom eventually married a wonderful man. They’ve been together twenty plus years. He came to all my school stuff and took me driving. My mom had a good job as an assistant to a high-up executive guy so we had lots of money - designer clothes, handbags, and perfume.       

 My mom and I started to strain when I was fourteen. I got very wild - drugs, sex, and sneaking out. Even now I’m trying to figure out why I turned out to be a bad seed. 

Do you think it might relate to your early trauma?

 Definitely. Plus, I was incredibly bullied at school for being big. I was called ugly and fat. I had buckteeth that didn’t fit my face.  

Did you tell anybody about the bullying?

 I had a tendency to not tell things. Teenage years are rough. I played sports but at fourteen I had knee surgery. That was my first bottle of Vicodin. I loved opioids instantly. I will never forget the panic if my pain pills were running out. How will I get more? Mom didn’t know it was a problem for me. How would she? I didn’t tell her that opioids had become my total escape from everything. 

How did they make you feel?

 Strong, empowered, content, happy. I came out of my shell, talked a lot. It was very compelling. My grandparents had a boatload of medication for hip and back problems, but I don’t think they ever took any of it. I shuffled through my mom’s things, too, because she took pills for headaches. I’d also go through other people’s medicine cabinets looking for codones - Hydrocodone, Oxycodone. They were super easy to find.     

 My first boyfriend was when I was fifteen. He was nineteen. He was amazing. He introduced me to weed. I didn’t tell him about my pills. He became my whole world. Earth-moving. I quit everything at school like band and choir and swimming to be with him. My mom hated it.      

 He broke off our relationship my senior year. I totally tanked. I ate compulsively. I weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds at graduation. My mother, stepdad, siblings, grandparents were there. And my dad who I hadn’t seen in ten years walked up to me that night and gave me two hundred dollars. Mom was devastated to see him. She said to me, “I raised you, why do you want him in your life.” I said, “He is my dad!” Things were very bad between us. My drug use got way worse, with cocaine added in. I stole money from my parents’ wallets. I stayed out all night. I was extremely promiscuous. I was sleeping with thirty and forty-year-old men. Married men.

How did you meet these guys?

 Chat lines. My friend’s fathers. Even a schoolteacher I knew.     

 My dad invited me over to his home and we got high together on weed and pills. I was shocked. I thought he had changed. So, for about fifteen years my dad called me when he needed drugs. He was a car mechanic. He fixed my car until the day he died. He had a heart attack in his sleep at fifty-six. He always hung it over my head that I’d never amount to anything, that I was pure shit. He was right. My twenties were a wasteland. Evictions. Self-destruction. Free fall.  I’m still angry with him for dying while I was in prison. I never got the chance to show him that I am a decent human being.

Was your dad the main focus of your drug use during your twenties?

 No. He was just a part of it. When I was twenty-six, I had a friend named Duke who brought me pills. There was a pink pill - Opana, which was highly fatal, fifty times stronger than Fentanyl. It cost fifty dollars per pill. You can’t buy it anymore. Duke said we aren’t going to waste it by swallowing it. We would shoot it up. I said no, but he did it for me. I sat there waiting twenty minutes while he poked around to find a place to inject it. I will never forget the first time I shot up. I instantly vomited. Puked all day long. But between pukes was pure ecstasy in my blood, my body and bones. It lasted twenty-four hours. I’d have all the energy in the world, then I’d nod out for a while, and then I’d take care of everything real energetic again and then back to nods.      

 Duke taught me how to shoot up heroin, which was cheaper. I bought a box of needles and used water to draw the heroin up in the syringe. Needles in my arm, the veins in my feet and legs, my chest, hands, neck. But now I wanted to do drugs alone at a deeper level. Nothing social. I wanted every drop for myself. 

What was different about doing drugs alone?

 I was lost in my own trance. I could push the limit and still cover up the extent of my use. I wanted to get on the verge of death. (Cameron holds up her palm angling it from side to side.) 

You wanted to die?

 I played with that exact point between life and death. I felt my breathing and my heart begin to slow down toward respiratory arrest. I knew exactly how much heroin it took to find that razor’s edge and then I’d work to tell my brain to tell my lungs to expand. I was conscious enough to say breathe… breathe… breathe. That was my reality. 

What’s the experience being in that fatal place between life and death?

 An ultimate feeling - kissing death but not succumbing. Pure ecstasy magnified by one million. A power that I am not like other people, I’m more. It was horrible, terrifying drug use.

Were you doing anything else in your life besides drugs?

 No! I was totally self-absorbed. I got up to do drugs. I went to work only to earn money to do drugs. 

What type of work?

 Anything I could find. 

Any relationships?

 Not real ones. I isolated myself to keep my secret but I faked it showing up for birthdays and family events. Then I missed a period.     
  I am fucking mad because now the world will know I am a drug addict because I’ll be pissing in a cup at the doctor’s office every month. I had severe kidney stones that I took Vicodin for, so I had that excuse for it being in my urine. It was the only drug I used during the whole pregnancy. 

 So… everybody was in my face now. My mom wanted to see me all the time. Everybody wanted to be part of my life with this baby coming. I needed a plan. I got online and found a gay couple in New York - Thane and Jeremy. I told them I was a drug addict. I told them,  “I do not want this baby girl. Do you?” They said, “Absolutely!” They came to Kansas City. They went with me to my doctor appointments. They are very wealthy. They paid for my ultrasounds, my rent, clothes, car, and food.  

 They even met my family who were all totally devastated that I didn’t want my baby.

How did you find Thane and Jeremy?

 Very easy. Google it. Ask for couples who want to adopt a child. There are profiles of adoptive families. Thane and Jeremy were present through the delivery. I had a C-section scheduled. Thane sat by my head. Jeremy on the other side. I had Elisa at thirty-seven weeks, six days.  She was born addicted to Vicodin. 

 I had no more attachment to her. She stayed in the hospital for four days to wean off opioids. She was a pretty strong cookie.   

 Ten months later at Christmas time I realized that Elisa had broken my heart. I explained to everybody, my family, why Elisa was adopted. I have a giant hole in me.

You told about the drugs?

 Yes. I confessed. Remember… I had never told anybody the truth about my life, but my mom had already started to come around. Paying attention. I told her, “I am barely balancing on the edge of life.”      

 I love Thane and Jeremy. I love them both. We still have connections. Elisa will be seven in August. She’s wonderful, big, and healthy -  ballet, soccer, baptized in the "all-the-way-under-the-water way". She’s hardheaded. Sort of an asshole like her mom!   

 I met a new guy, a good guy, and four months later I’m pregnant with my second child - Jackson. I went straight to the ER and said, “Please help me. I am a pregnant heroin addict.” I was admitted and went on Methadone therapy. I worked hand-in-hand with the obstetrician - regular visits and Methadone every day. Jackson was born addicted to methadone. He was in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) for three months. I visited him everyday. He shook and screamed. Diarrhea. Couldn’t sleep. They couldn’t get him off the Methadone. It was horrifying. My heart shattered again. 

 Shattered doesn’t even describe the self-loathing, the rage, guilt, shame.I felt something build a layer around my heart.

 At three months Jackson was big enough to leave the NICU, but we couldn’t get him totally off the Methadone. We gave it to him at home. But it was a wonderful time. We acted like a family. We were both working. Jackson eventually got off Methadone after a few months. He struggled with his bowels but he was a normal kid.      

 Jackson’s dad was asleep when I came home one day. Jackson was ten months old and he had an empty Methadone bottle in his hand. He had gotten it out of the trash. It was one of my take homes, the dose bottles with a seal on them that I still used. I didn’t know if he had ingested any so I immediately took him to Children’s Hospital. While he drank juice to get a urine sample, they called the police as this was a potentially life-threatening situation. They took Jackson and I got charged with child endangerment. It was all over the news in Kansas City. They called me “Methadone Mom.” One station claimed I had drugged my son, which I did not do. I went to jail that day. Tests found no Methadone in Jackson’s system, but it didn’t change anything in their eyes.      

His father only got forty days in jail. I was sentenced to prison for five years for child endangerment.

 Jackson was adopted while I was incarcerated. He’s five now. My mom and I keep really good contact with his adoptive parents. (Cameron shows me pictures they send her.) “Here he is brushing teeth in his snow boots with his adoptive dad. He’s blond. He’s a character. He wears glasses now because he has a lazy eye. There are his adoptive siblings around him.”

(Cameron sits back crying. We are quiet for a long while.)

What was your experience of prison?

 Whatever is on the street is also there - sex, drugs, whatever. Prison is what you make it. I struggled a lot. I actually checked myself into the hole (solitary confinement) to be alone after my dad died. 

What did you do in there?

 Banged my head on the wall, screamed, cried, lost it. I knew it was coming. Everything crashing…

(More crying)

 Umm…. Cameron smiles. Leans forward over the table.) So now here we sit in the Journey House and I… am… sober! 

What about this place?

 Journey House is a total blessing. I can’t imagine getting out of prison with nothing - absolutely nothing - and immediately worrying about… (Cameron raises her hand as if holding something invisible.) How can I afford to buy this four-dollar stick of deodorant or decent food? They take care of everything here...bus pass, shampoo, phone, razor, clothes, washing machines, finding a job, I have no excuse, no reason whatsoever to neglect my important business. There is no reason to fail here. Nothing to stress about except staying clean which is not difficult to do. I have a caseworker. I go to treatment. They help us focus so we have no reason to steal or sleep with a man or sell drugs to get money - that’s what immediately starts that snowball effect. If it weren’t for this place, that is where I would be. This place stopped the cycle. 

 I’ve been here almost three months and am about to graduate!

Where are you headed?

 Stay in the area. A studio or one-bedroom apartment. I am so ready to go. Scared. I have a strong accountability level now. I am completely done getting high. I know from my spirit man that I am completely done using drugs. I heard God tell me one night in my prison cell that he would take the taste of drugs out of my mouth. I heard it plain as day. (Crying.) A booming beautiful voice - guts and strength. Very soothing. I will never forget that night, that voice. I knew then that if I do the footwork, God will do the faith work. 

How’s your health?

 Health is okay except for kidney disease. Kidney stones. Amazing to say… no Hep C or AIDS or anything with all my IV drugs and being so promiscuous. I’m working now but in six months I also want to enroll in school - math and reading skills. (Cameron looks off.)  I’ll get a cute little apartment with some nice furniture. A space that is mine and just enough. I don’t need a lot. I am ready. I am ready. I am really excited about what the future holds.      

 Since I was fourteen, I have never given myself the opportunity to be sober. I didn’t know myself sober...what I liked to eat or my favorite color or what I liked to wear. All I knew was what Cameron liked when she was high. I knew nothing. I didn’t know I had a me. I’m a whole new discovery.

You have done an incredible job pouring out your story. You have been honest and clear. (Both of us crying.) For someone with your history of isolation and secrets it is an enormous thing to do.

(Cameron leans across the table face-to-face.)

 Like I said, I’ve never told all this to anybody before. (Long pause) The reason I am telling you is to help somebody else who might read it. (Smiles. Checks her watch.) I gotta go. I’m fixing a great dinner for everybody tonight. Thank you again for listening. 

 Now I’ve got to get cooking!

The Drive Home:

Martha stayed open about her addictions. When she was called out about finishing everybody’s dinners and desserts, she didn’t deny or try to conceal it. Same was true with her insights about punching those machines at the casino and her warning the doctors about pain killers after her wreck.

By contrast, Cameron at a young age became an inmate inside herself by keeping silent about her deep trauma and shame, her drug addiction, and the ache of responsibility she felt for her little brother’s loss of his dad.

She hid alone on the razor’s edge of her own death.

Martha naturally turned her compassion for those with addictions into out-reach. But her grandest offering is more subtle. It is her just sitting amidst the daily chaos of Journey House. She is a beacon, a magnet, who rekindles impulses of generosity and kindness in the other ladies..just rare, momentary kindnesses with no strings attached. And the more the residents witness this behavior in each other, the more they do it themselves. Evidence of this is the joy and generosity arising in Cameron by making dinner for the whole house.

I’ve often imagined Martha’s vision of Jesus waiting on the path for her, “… there’s a path out there where Jesus might be waiting for me.” Martha, herself, is on the path the Journey House women take coming and going every day. In the same way she imagines Jesus meeting her, Martha meets each new resident with open arms, as another person to cherish and love.

Martha and Cameron - both women beginning new lives, both women becoming.