When it comes to her past, Barbara Dawkins admits she has made some foolish decisions. However, when she looks forward, she is optimistic and proud of all she has achieved in the past four years.
The 57-year-old New York native battled drug addiction and subsequent run-ins with the law for nearly four decades – a dark journey that started when she was just 13 years old.
“I started with heroin. My friends were doing it and I was curious because it seemed like they were having so much fun,” Dawkins said. “Nobody gave it to me or even offered it. I asked to try it and they said, ‘You don’t want none of this.’ I said I did, but now I wish I’d never said that.”
Addiction ran in her family and she said her mother immediately noticed a change in her teenage daughter, but that didn’t stop Dawkins from snorting heroin.
“I slept all the time,” she said. “Heroin puts you in a sleep state, so I’d come home and go straight to bed. My mother knew something was going on, but she didn’t know what.”
Heroin was the drug of choice among the New York City streets Dawkins grew up on and as her addiction set in, it took hold of her life. At age 18, she had two infant daughters and was serving a sentence for shoplifting at Rikers Island.
“Shoplifting was how I made my money,” she said. “I’d get orders for people and shoplift $500 or $600 worth of stuff, then use the money to get the drugs.”
Her penchant for shoplifting developed into a way to feed her addiction, spanning her life in New York and Durham.
“As I got older, I started to sell drugs,” she recalled. “I was a booster and would steal mink and leather coats – anything of value I could sell. After I got tired of stealing, I stole enough to get the money to buy a package (of drugs) and I started selling.”
With readily accessible drugs, though, Dawkins said a vicious cycle started where she would end up using more drugs than she sold and had to steal to make up the loss.
“I’d go to prison, come out and start doing drugs again,” she said. “I’d start stealing, then start dealing, and I’d end back up in prison. It was a revolving cycle.”
Heroin was popular in the 1970s and ’80s then fell out of favor with users, experts said. The opiate-based drug – which can be snorted or injected – has regained popularity several times since, but a fad of opiate-based prescription pill abuse has led to a recent resurgence, especially among teenagers.
“I’ve been in this business almost 30 years and I can remember 30 years ago when heroin was one of the main issues we’d see,” Second Chance Recovery CEO Marion Frazier said. “Officials knew they couldn’t stop the use of it, so they started needle exchange programs to at least control the spread of infectious diseases.
“Now, 30 years later, we are at the same point, but with a new generation of users.”
Second Chance is among a handfull of local substance abuse treatment centers that offer comprehensive services to break the cycle of addiction and support recovering addicts.
What used to be a small group of heroin users and dealers in the Twin Counties has grown with the popularity, often breaking any perceived social boundaries.
“Basically, they turn to heroin when they can’t afford the prescription medications anymore, which I say 85-to-90 percent of addicts start with,” Frazier said. “Ultimately, it goes back to finances because the idea is you can get the same high for a cheaper price with heroin, but they don’t realize heroin is so addicting with many becoming addicted the first time they ever shoot heroin.
“A lot of heroin addicts don’t live long lives. They die at young ages because it is so potent.”
The first heroin-based high is widely perceived as the greatest feeling in an addict’s life of drug abuse.
“When you inject it, it goes straight to the brain and the high is very intense. They get this euphoric feeling where the endorphins and dopamine kick in in the reward part of the brain,” Frazier said. “Users end up trying to get that same feeling again – known as chasing that high – but they can never get to that level again, which is when it becomes habit forming.”
SERIOUS WITHDRAWAL PANGS
Having experimented with crack cocaine and other drugs, Dawkins knows first-hand how the withdrawal of heroin compares.
“You don’t sleep. You don’t eat,” she recalled. “You throw up and go to the bathroom at the same time – everything that is in you comes out.
“When your system flushes the heroin out, it is like it goes into shock, and you might be able to rest, but that is it. You can’t sleep,” she said. “You are hot and cold, sweating but have chill bumps all over you. It is a terrible, terrible feeling.”
Despite describing withdrawal as pure misery, Dawkins admits she went back to using countless times.
“That is addiction. You can’t help it,” she said. “No matter how bad it makes you feel, you still want to get high.”
It wasn’t until she had a “spiritual awakening” with her dying mother when she admitted she had a problem.
“I figured all during my 20s, 30s and 40s that I could stop using whenever I wanted to,” she said. “I didn’t think I had a problem. I thought I could stop, but I couldn’t. The urges were just too strong for me.”
While serving time at Fountain Correctional Institute, Dawkins committed to turning her life around. On Jan. 12, 2010, she stopped using with the help of a treatment program in Tarboro.
When she was released from prison in 2012, she moved into Redeemer’s Inn – a faith-based transitional home for formerly incarcerated women to rebuild their lives – and voluntarily joined Frazier’s program at Second Chance Recovery.
“I’d been in prison half my life. I’ve always been in prison,” she said. “It was a constant battle for me and I mean constant. It got to the point where I was just tired of living like that.”
Experts who deal with substance abuse recovery said denial of the problem is commonplace among addicts. And the impact drug abuse has on families: another reality many addicts deny.
“Most of the time they don’t believe what you are saying, even if they see the death of a friend because of drugs or social services comes in and takes their child,” Frazier said. “They’ve been in denial so long that it takes that rock bottom where they’ve lost their family, their job, their home. There comes a point in time where they have a point of clarity and are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
A NEW WAY OF LIFE
“We talk about people, places and things,” said Tracey Dickerson Taylor, director of psychiatric services at Coastal Plain Hospital. “You need to change all of those to break the addiction.”
Support groups, addiction counseling and faith often become cornerstones of a successful recovery plan. Relapse is common, but a commitment to change can mean the difference between life and death.
“When people self-medicate to avoid past or current trauma then they get clean, the issues are still there to deal with,” Taylor said. “People who try to detox without assistance often fail because when life gets rough, they don’t have the tools to cope and they go back to the coping method they know and go back to using.”
The temptation to use is gone for Dawkins, but she continues to go to group therapy.
“It is an everyday battle,” Frazier said. “We try to educate them on the fact that they have to maintain the things that have helped them get and stay straight because it all plays a part because treatment never really stops. It is a lifelong process.
“We’ve seen people who’ve been off drugs for 10 or 15 years and they stop the maintenance aspect of treatment because they think they’ve got it beat, but then they go right back to using.”
Now four years sober, Dawkins works two jobs and lives alone. She is working to rebuild her relationship with her daughters.
“Using cost me my family,” Dawkins said solemnly. “Mr. Frazier used to tell us that you can’t change the past, but you can change the future. You just have to look forward, so now I take it one day at a time.”
For drug users who don’t pay with their life, Dawkins’ journey is a relatable one. Frazier and Taylor said they both continue doing what they do for stories of recovery like Dawkins’.
“I’d recommend Mr. Frazier’s program to anyone. I did drugs for 30-some years and if they can help me, they can help anyone,” Dawkins said. “If you’ve got the will to stop, they’ll help you.
“I don’t have a whole lot of life left in me, but I don’t want to give what I have up to drugs. My life is good today.”