On a warm, late-summer morning, Nicole Leith sits on the front porch of an old, rambling house, occasionally sipping from a mug. The Washington neighborhood is still, the quiet punctuated only by the gentle hum of conversation between Nicole and a friend.
It's only 9:15 a.m., but the 30-year-old already has conducted a meeting. She will work at a second job later in the day.
More than 45 miles away, her daughter, Lilyana, heads to school.
Nicole neither put her 7-year-old to bed the night before nor got her ready in the morning. She didn't feed her breakfast or brush her hair or make sure all of her homework was done. She won't see her child until the following day.
“So many nights, I cry because I'm not there to tuck my daughter in,” said Nicole. “There are days when I don't want to do it and I'm ready to quit. Those are the times I think of her. She's the reason I continue to fight.”
Once addicted to opiates, Nicole has been clean for more than 20 months.
On this tranquil day, she talks about her tumultuous journey to sobriety, from experimenting as a naive college student to stealing in support of a $200-a-day habit.
Growing up in a “normal” household in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville, Nicole and her younger brother were raised by a stay-at-home mom and working father.
“Everything that they say you're supposed to do that makes a difference … we did,” said Connie Leith, Nicole's mother. “We ate dinner together every day. My husband did the coach thing. I would think we were pretty normal. We did what we were supposed to do.”
Nicole played softball, earned good grades and had many friends.
“There was nothing dramatic that would justify me using,” Nicole said.
After graduating from high school, she attended community college. There, she began experimenting with alcohol, marijuana and prescription medication.
“I didn't see it as a big issue because I was going to school full time and working full time,” she said. “I didn't know what I was getting into.”
Upon learning of Nicole's drug use, the family took her to a local church for a lecture on addiction.
“We just figured that listening to somebody else's story would be enough to steer her away from anything,” said Connie, believing her daughter was “back on track at that point” because she continued to work and attend school.
But Nicole continued to use. She became involved with a man who was addicted to opiates.
A short time later, she became pregnant.
“I didn't use when I was pregnant, but the mental abuse of the relationship was gradually breaking me down over time,” she said.
Months after giving birth to Lilyana, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Prescribed medications didn't help, but Nicole found relief in nonprescribed opiates like oxycodone. When that habit became too expensive, she turned to heroin.
“From the first time I did it, I was addicted. It was all I could think about,” Nicole said. “It took the pain away. It was everything that I had been looking for to fill that void and kill that pain.”
Still managing to care for her daughter and work, the addiction slowly engulfed her.
“I was OK for a little bit. But, eventually, it brought me to my knees.”
Nicole said she began enacting the “typical behaviors” of an addict: stealing, lying, conniving and doing whatever she had to do to get the drug.
She described her mind-set in the thick of her addiction.
“You're so numb to everything. You're not happy. You're not sad. You're not hungry. You don't have any emotions or feelings. You're just numb to the world.
“My family knew that something was going on,” Nicole said. “They didn't know what.”
After stealing from her brother, Nicole was confronted by loved ones. Exhausted from the weight of her secret, she revealed the injection marks marring her arms.
“My family didn't know what to do. I, myself, didn't know what I was going through. I didn't understand addiction. I didn't understand the drug,” she said. “I knew that I needed help, but I was so ashamed and just so overwhelmed with guilt. Just confused, hurting and wanting a way out, but not knowing what to do.”
Nicole's family confiscated her car keys and cellphone and prevented her from leaving home. Stopping “cold turkey,” she experienced severe withdrawal for days. Her body shook, her legs ached and her thoughts raced. After three days, her family felt it was safe for her to leave the house.
She immediately fled, in search of drugs.
From the time Lilyana was a few months old until she was 2 years old, Nicole battled the addiction, attending weekly meetings and undergoing intensive out-patient and in-patient therapy.
When she needed a fix or needed money to buy heroin, she “handed her daughter off” to her mother.
“She just didn't look like our daughter at all,” said Connie, who tried to “push” Nicole into treatment. “That's the hardest thing … coming to terms that there was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing I could do to make it better. I think that's sometimes why it takes parents so long to get them the real, actual help they need. Because you're in denial. You think you can fix everything.”
“Physically I was there; emotionally, I was not,” Nicole said of caring for her own daughter.
With their child spiraling out of control, Nicole's parents made the decision to petition the court for full custody of Lilyana.
“Taking (her) probably brought me the most guilt,” Connie said. “I thought, 'If I do this, (Nicole) will definitely die. She'll have nothing to fight for,'” said Connie. “But I think it was a wake-up call for Nicole. She started to take her recovery seriously.”
That's when Nicole moved to Washington to begin intensive detox and therapy. Relapsing once when she moved back to the Monroeville area, she realized her surroundings were a trigger and decided that to stay sober, she would have to vacate the fount where her habit was born.
A certified recovery specialist, she now manages a recovery house with nine other women battling addiction. Nicole is a confidant and mentor to her peers, who are making the transition from guided recovery to independent living. As much as she helps them, they help her, offering understanding in a way that only an addict can.
“Yes, I've gone through terrible times. But if I can help another person because of my weaknesses, if I can help one person by sharing my experience, everything I went through was worth it,” she said.
In an effort to help others with loved ones battling dependency, Connie also shares her journey on Nicole's recovery.
“Addiction doesn't just affect the addict. It affects every single person that cares about them. And it doesn't matter who you are, it can happen,” she said. “I'm impressed, genuinely impressed, that (Nicole) can do it, because I don't think I could do it. She still gets up ... and keeps moving forward.”
Nicole continues to work on strengthening her relationship with Lilyana, visiting at least once a week and calling daily. She plans to become a substance abuse counselor and help women and children. Eventually, she will take on a more active role in her daughter's life.
An avid reader, Nicole recently took note of her collection of novels, recalling the days that she sold “everything that meant something” to pay for her habit. The simplicity of that full bookshelf bought her a moment of peace.
“Reclaiming parts of my life gave me hope,” she said. “Maybe I'm not where I want to be, but I'm on that path.”
Tomorrow: Nicole talks about the stigma of being an addict and offers advice to those who are struggling.