Saturday, January 23, 2010
By Mary Meehan
"I messed up," reads the plea in careful, girlish script. "I used. I don't know why or what's wrong with me. ... I thought I didn't have a problem, that I could just quit. But I'm wrong. How can all those other people just quit? ... What if I can't get better? I don't want to be this way anymore. ... I want to be normal again."
Dawn Nicole Smith is desperate to get clean when writing this letter in May 2004, pleading with her Fayette County Drug Court caseworker, Elton Terry, for help.
She's praying that if she admits to taking drugs before a drug test shows she has, the judge will take pity and not send her to jail for a year. That's her sentence for stealing a prescription pad to obtain 540 pain pills in 53 days.
She's been using almost daily for two years. If too many hours pass without a pill, her body revolts. Her hands shake. Her insides cramp. Her head aches. Sitting up, tracking a conversation or watching television takes almost unfathomable energy and focus.
"It just feels like I'm fighting myself," she says. "My mind is tired. I've asked the Lord to help me not to do those pills no more."
She's tired because it's not just her life, but her family's, hanging in the balance. Dawn, 22, already has three sons, from her six-year marriage to Tony Smith. She's convinced herself she's shielded them from the worst of her addiction, one of the many lies she tells herself to get through the day. Tonio, 5, acts as if it's his job to make his mama better; David, 3, is an ever-watchful boy with a head of wild curls, and baby Kobe, 2, copes with the family chaos by careening between fits of anger and tears.
These dark-haired boys — her "heart," Dawn calls them — cling to her even when she's too high to feel the gentle rise of their chests as they nestle close in sleep.
She smiles a face-splitting grin, a rare instance of joy, at a mention of them. As she talks about them, she leans her head to the right, taking one strand of her long, dirty hair and twirling it around the inside of her ear, a calming tic she's had since she was a kid.
The drugs exaggerate in their lives the imperfect affection found in all families. But the children love her, as only kids can. And she loves them, as much as she is able.
THAT FIRST PILL
Dawn's goals, even when she was a kid, were never ambitious. She thought, once, about becoming a veterinarian, but she never finished high school. Now she longs for much more basic things: a house with the heat on, food for her kids, 24 hours without taking a pill.
Growing up in Crab Orchard and Lexington, she saw others turn to alcohol, then crack and sometimes pills. Even as Dawn begins drug court, her stepfather, Larry Raines, is on probation for forging a prescription for the painkiller Percocet in the name of Brenda Raines, his wife and Dawn's mom. Brenda is on probation for writing bad checks to support a crack habit that, she says, once cost her $1,000 in a day. Dawn says she doesn't know anyone who has, long-term, quit using drugs or alcohol.
Dawn was wild in middle school. For running with a fast crowd and drinking, she was sent away to a group home.
The drugs started after her babies were born.
She was dragging, exhausted from working, taking care of the boys and worrying about paying the rent and having food in the house. Someone she worked with at McDonald's said she had something that could help. Dawn waited until she got home to take that first oblong pain pill — a Lortab. As she sat on the couch in the dark with a battered old television on, a hazy sense of peace settled into her bones.
It was like a missing piece of herself slipped into place.
"It just made me feel sooooooo relaxed," she says, smiling at the memory, even after all the trouble that pill set into motion. "It's like people do crack, that one hit gets them. That one pill got me."
The warm release was followed by a burst of energy. She felt like she could actually do things better, take care of the kids, clean the house. "Weird and wonderful," Dawn says, dreamily, of that first time. "Weird and wonderful."
*Note: to read the rest of Dawn's story, and view the video's, click on the title link.