A child of the 1980s, Nicole Leith was taught to “just say no” to drugs.
But the simple slogan, promoted by first lady Nancy Reagan and adopted as the name of thousands of anti-drug school programs, didn't thoroughly illustrate the consequences of addiction, said the 30-year-old Washington woman.
“Parents need to talk to their children. If they don't, somebody else will,” Nicole said. “'Just say no' doesn't work. They have to know, 'What am I saying no to?'”
Nicole, a recovering addict who struggled with opiate dependency for years, plans to be brutally honest with her 7-year-old daughter, Lilyana, about her addiction.
“The grittiness and the dirty side – I don't think that's talked about. TV and movies glamorize drug use. Nobody shows the dark side. It's the reality of the situation,” she said. “I can't hide that truth from her, and I wouldn't, so that she could maybe understand the devastating effects of it all.”
With the help of Lilyana's therapist, Nicole and her parents, who have custody of Lilyana, have explained that Nicole is recovering from an illness and that she is away because she is getting better. Recently, though, the youngster has been asking more questions. Nicole thinks that within the next year, she'll divulge more details of her history to her daughter with the help of the therapist.
Nicole hopes honesty will prevent Lilyana from being naive about drugs and alcohol, like she was.
Never experimenting in high school, Nicole began using while in college. Eventually, she said she did anything she had to do to feed her habit, including “stealing, lying and conniving.” While her daughter never witnessed her taking drugs, Nicole said she missed a lot of Lilyana's formative years.
“What finally made me want to get clean was, my daughter started to get to an age where she began to understand things,” she said. “It wasn't something that I could hide anymore from her.”
Leaving her hometown of Monroeville for Washington was pivotal in Nicole's recovery.
She visits her daughter weekly and has rebuilt the once-strained relationship with her family, including her brother, who is also battling addiction.
Nicole's mother, Connie Leith, said early education is an important preventive tool. Although she and her husband were active in their children's lives and provided a stable environment, Connie said opiate addiction still crept into their lives.
“I tell anyone who's willing to listen, especially if they have young teenagers, because that's when you need to get in their head,” Connie said. “You need people to be aware that this can happen to their kids. I never in a million years thought it would happen to either one of my kids.”
More than 20 months' clean, Nicole is a certified recovery specialist, managing a house with nine other women battling addiction. She has strong opinions, not only about drug education, but also how lingering stigmas hinder recovery.
Children would benefit from the adults in their lives “being honest, brutally honest ... and really showing them what addiction looks like. It's not the stuff that they see in movies. It's not the stuff that they hear on the radio. It's a lot deeper than that,” she said. “It looks like somebody who hasn't showered for days. It looks like somebody who has lost all self-respect and self-love and self-worth. It looks like somebody who is dying on the inside and dying physically.
“It starts out as peer pressure, and then experimenting and then first use, and it progresses from there. It's overdoses, it's jail, it's losing your family. It's losing your children.”
Connie said she was naive about addiction. When she discovered Nicole was using, the Plum Borough resident thought telling her daughter to stop would be enough.
“When it's not a part of your everyday life, you don't understand the impact that it actually has on a person and the impact it's going to have on your family,” said Connie. “We didn't really understand what she was into.”
The Leiths believe their lack of knowledge delayed Nicole's recovery. They also believe more treatment options would help curb the heroin epidemic.
“Walks and vigils are all awesome – great ways to get the word out. (But they help) people who are touched (by addiction) rather than the active addict. As an active addict, you don't care about those things. Something I think would help the addict ... is making treatment more accessible,” Nicole said. “So many times, I was done. If treatment was available that day, I would have went. Sometimes it is so difficult to get into treatment, that's how a lot of lives are lost.”
'There is a way out'
As a recovery specialist and as someone going through the process of regaining herself, Nicole offers a unique perspective to others.
“What I would say to someone who is dealing with addiction right now is not to give up. That there is help out there,” Nicole said. “There is a way out. There are many people like me who have found recovery. It is possible. You just have to speak out and reach out and say, 'I need help,' and just follow through with it.”
Detoxification, or “detox,” the process of the body ridding itself of the drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal, is the first step of recovery. Several medical detox choices are available, including methadone and Suboxone treatment.
However, it is paramount that a person follows detox with treatment, such as intensive therapy, to achieve sobriety. And while it's a difficult process, Nicole said connecting with others, like therapists and those going through treatment, helps ease the transition.
“Those initial feelings are a lot of weight on your shoulders. You can't do it alone,” she said. “There are still days where, if I have a bad day, I get that fleeting thought for just a second that, 'I know what would make it go away.' But I don't act on it ... because that's my addictive nature. My brain likes to take the easy way out and find the quick fix. Over time, you learn to deal with those fleeting thoughts. You understand nothing bad can happen if I don't act on it. I just need to talk this out with somebody, go to a meeting, pray, whatever works for that specific person. Reach out. You need that support. We cannot do it alone.”
Nicole encouraged loved ones of addicts to keep the lines of communication open. She said her parents did, helping her feel “comfortable enough to break down. When you react with anger and aggression, that's the perfect way to make an addict run the other way,” Nicole said. “A lot of times, (an addict) is so scared and ashamed. Be compassionate. Love unconditionally, but don't enable. Look at it like someone with depression, anxiety or PTSD. It makes it a lot easier for someone to be honest with what's really going on.”
About two years ago, Nicole moved back to her hometown and relapsed. She was afraid to tell her family, thinking they might desert her. But they helped her get the support she needed, which made it so much easier to get back on track.
“My mom has so much compassion and strength. Knowing she's going to be there for me makes a world of difference.”
Connie said she never agreed with the advice of those who told her to end all communication with Nicole when she was using.
“You have to be comfortable with the degree of separation that you put between you and your addict. Because there was never, ever a chance that I would ever cut ties,” Connie said. “I think you shouldn't do that as a parent. You can't give up. If you give up on your child, there's nobody else. They have nobody else. They'll fight as long as you're fighting for them.”
No one is exempt
Nicole has dealt with being labeled an addict. While volunteering with her daughter's school activities, she has heard the whispers and seen the stares.
“Others will look at you like, 'Why is she here? Is she high?' Stop looking at me like I'm a piece of trash,” she said. “Nobody's really exempt from it. A lot of people have addictions – to shopping, eating, gambling and drugs. People don't treat you the same as they would treat people with other addictions.”
Rather than succumb to the negativity, Nicole is honest about her past and willing to tell anyone what she has gone through.
“There's a stereotype of an addict that people have in their mind, and it's not true,” said Connie.
Through Nicole's recovery, they have encountered a variety of people in treatment, from teens to senior citizens. They have encountered professionals like teachers and lawyers.
“There's no set income level, race … none of that matters,” said Connie. “If (addiction) sneaks into your life … it completely takes over your life.”
While Washington is earning a bad name for a string of heroin overdoses, Connie pointed out there is a positive side to the epidemic.
“On the other side of that coin, Washington is also an amazing place to recover. There are quite a bit of recovery houses and people in recovery out there … that, amazingly, have become very tight-knit.”
She said Nicole has many friends who offer her support, whether in the form of a ride to a meeting or as a sounding board when she needs to talk. Her employer and coworkers at an area retailer have also been supportive.
“Places will hire you and give you a chance,” Connie said of the Washington area. “The stigma just doesn't seem to be there like it is in a lot of places, because it is so prevalent there and because recovery is so prevalent there.”