The long road home: Journey through drugs, tough life decisions leads to landing on feet in Grass Valley
July 5, 2018
A dirty duffle bag sat in the middle of the floor in Amanda Stephens' new Grass Valley apartment as volunteers moved in furniture around it. To the average person, the tattered bag almost looked like something that should be thrown into the dumpster out back.
But not to Amanda.
"Everything I used to own I carried in that bag — for years," she said. "I remember telling myself that the day I was able to unpack this bag and put stuff in drawers was the day I finally made it."
The duffle bag was with Amanda when she ended up in the hospital with a serious kidney infection and pregnant at 16. Although she dabbled in drinking as a young teen, it was the morphine drip and the Dilaudid, a prescription opioid, that started her in a downward spiral, she said. Then came the dark days of postpartum depression.
Back at home, when her prescriptions ran out she began to feel worse. She developed crippling social anxiety and struggled with the demands of being a new parent. It seemed that the drugs were the only thing that helped her cope.
"I started going to the hospital and lying about needing the meds," said Amanda. "Then I started stealing pills from my parents and other family members. Then other people close to me began taking them with me."
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Whenever her supply ran short, withdrawal was excruciating, bringing on feelings of intense depression, extreme irritability, flu-like symptoms and burning leg cramps. It didn't help that addiction was a familiar shadow from her childhood. When Amanda was 18, her father died of liver failure due to complications from his own addiction issues. From his hospital bed he looked up at his daughter and said, "I deserve this."
Amanda and her father are clearly not alone in their struggles with addiction. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million Americans aged 12 and older battled a substance use disorder in 2014, and the numbers are only getting worse.
In a 2007 report by the Office on National Drug Control Policy, drug abuse and addiction cost American society close to $200 billion in healthcare, criminal justice, legal, and lost workplace production and participation costs, and these costs are sure to have risen in the past 11 years.
For more than a decade, Amanda's duffle bag and its contents were her only possessions. The bag was in her hand when she checked herself into several rehab programs, only to slip back into addiction whenever she returned to the people she knew best.
The bag was her pillow when she found herself homeless, camping in the woods behind a Grass Valley gas station or grocery store. It was there she started taking heroin, smoking meth and sleeping behind buildings on the streets of Sacramento, or in abandoned drug houses. And sadly, the bag was there when she was forced to relinquish her parental rights to her mother.
"I was on the streets of Sac by myself — I felt like I was around wolves," said Amanda. "When I look back, I'm lucky to be alive, and I give thanks to God in this. I remember hoping to get sober at some point to find out if all the stuff I was seeing was real."
Then, one day, she finally did have a moment of clarity. Something had shifted in her outlook.
"I started watching people on the street enjoying life and wishing I had that," she said. "I wanted to enjoy little things, like the clouds — I had lost touch with that. I started to realize again that there were good people out there. It was Thanksgiving Day and no one knew where I was."
In June of 2016, a serious staph infection, an arrest for outstanding warrants and a pregnancy were the three events Amanda now attributes to finally getting clean. Thanks to four consecutive rehab programs, she was able to stay under supervision for more than a year and get a job. Many programs are simply not long enough, she said.
"I wouldn't have been about to recover if I didn't have time to heal from the inside," she said. "Many people only get 30 days to get clean. That's just scratching the surface — there's so much damage to be dealt with."
Thanks to The Booth Family Center in Grass Valley, a Salvation Army facility that offers homeless families a safe haven while they rebuild their lives, Amanda and her children were finally able to secure temporary housing.
Tom Kellar, the center's housing locator and case manager, was impressed by how far Amanda had come and was eager to help her get into a rental of her own.
"It was a question of how we would find something Amanda could afford based on her salary — it's tough in Nevada County," he said. "Then I got a hold of Pauli and asked her to give us a shot."
Pauli Halstead, a well known advocate for low income housing and homeless individuals, owns a handful of small Nevada County duplexes and miners cabins.
"A lot of these old properties can be refurbished and made into good housing," she said. "When I bought these units, my goal was to house single parents with children, even if they've had a hard background. To me, it doesn't matter if they have a record — what matters is that they have shown they are now determined to get their lives turned around for their children. Every tenant there now has gone through programs related to Booth and Hospitality House and are highly motivated. If extra help is needed, I have the support of these organizations, which is super important.
"It's very safe and stable there."
Programs like Booth prepare families to be good tenants, and communicate regularly with landlords, said Kellar.
"We tell the landlords that we'll be there for the tenant — that's what makes it successful," he said. "We continue to be a presence for up to two years. We don't just place a family and disappear. My message to landlords is to give people a chance and have faith in these programs. The Booth Center has helped house more than 50 folks and not one person has lost their housing. Not one person has had to leave."
Kellar was the one who broke the good news to Amanda. She would be getting her very own apartment — a safe place where she and her children could begin rebuilding their lives and relationships.
"Amanda was ecstatic — her place is affordable enough for her to have a life and afford rent on what she's making," he said. "I'm thrilled for her because I know how far she's come and it has not been easy. A big part of what we do is offer hope, providing a vision of what a person can be, even when they can't see it themselves."
"Too often I hear, 'You believe in me more than I believe in myself,'" Kellar continued. "We emphasize people's strengths and remind them of what they're capable of, even if they can't see it themselves. That's a huge part of what this work is about."
At first, Amanda didn't believe it when she was told she would finally have a home of her own.
"I kept asking, 'Are you sure?'" she said, with a laugh. "I didn't think it was real. I told Tom it wouldn't be real until I was in the apartment with the keys. I'm so lucky to have these people lift me up. We were crying together as the donated furniture was being moved in. I was so touched by the whole experience."
Paying it forward
Amanda is now 33, and her oldest child is 16. Looking forward, she hopes to start her own nonprofit homeless shelter that provides a variety of on-site resources, such as mental health services, job support, transportation and outpatient services. When clients are simply given a referral on a piece of paper, too often they don't follow through, she said.
Kellar was there the day Amanda began unpacking her duffle bag. She wondered aloud if she should keep it or throw it away.
"I pleaded with her to keep it as a positive reminder of all the good work she's accomplished," said Kellar. "I get that there are people out there who read this and think they could never let their life get that bad, or respect someone who does. Anyone in my line of work knows that it's rarely the case when you have someone with a horrible drug problem who quits the first time and never uses again.
"People swoop in to help, then a person relapses and the helpers don't get the result they hoped for, then they just write the person off. But I've known tons of people who have been to rehab three to seven times, and every time they've burned bridges and disappointed a lot of people. Sometimes it's the fifth time that sticks. Then light goes on and they finally get it together."
Kellar was reminded of a story in the Bible.
"Jesus is asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but 70 times seven.'
"I say, just keep helping people and don't worry if you don't get the result you hoped for this time. Why? Because that's what we're supposed to do. Look at Amanda — no doubt she's turned a corner and deserves people's respect for never giving up. She's on the right path now. If someone wants to cast a stone, so be it."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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