WESTVILLE — Stephanie walked past a cemetery here the other day, seemingly unaware of how close she came to being buried there.
Smoking a cigarette, the 35-year-old shared stories of her brushes with death. One of the last ones might be the reason she's alive.
In April 2018, she woke up on a train in East Chicago, a police officer standing over her, saying she had just overdosed on drugs.
It wasn't the only time heroin had nearly killed her. But it was the most public.
A group of teenage boys had found her in the bathroom, bent over on the floor, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. Spectators watched her get carted off to an ambulance. Her mother-in-law picked her up from the hospital.
"Are you done now?" the mother-in-law asked.
Usually that type of advice would wash right over Stephanie (a pseudonym). But, this time, she thought about her sons, who are now 8 and 5.
"That would be nice, to tell your kids, 'Your mom died in a South Shore train bathroom,'" she recalled on a recent day outside her home in Westville.
She had trouble finding treatment after her overdose, so she kept taking the train back to Chicago to buy heroin, until a bed opened up at a program for women in South Bend. She stayed there three months. She also got back on buprenorphine, an opioid-replacement medication also known as Suboxone.
On July 26, she said, she celebrated one year of sobriety.
"I've lost the obsession is the best way to describe it," she said. "I don't watch drug shows anymore, like 'Drugs Inc.' or 'Intervention.' Watching somebody fix up their hit would set me off.”
How she got clean illustrates all the twists and turns that exist in a life spent wrestling with addiction — the obstacles, the trauma, the self-destruction — that don't allow everyone to survive it, as Stephanie has. Her case also shows how many lives are now being saved because of the prevalence of naloxone — the opioid-overdose reversal drug used to revive her on more than one occasion, including on the train — and an increased investment in treatment, two factors that experts attribute to the recent local decrease in drug-related deaths.
Stephanie had tried getting help before. She had even been at the South Bend treatment center previously, after the Department of Child Services removed her son because of her addiction. Then her mom killed herself, and she fell apart.
She eventually had to unpack how her own childhood trauma contributed to her drug use, and how to forgive her mother, who had similarly adverse experiences as a kid. "I grew up my whole life not understanding why my mom was the way she was," Stephanie said. "She did pretty good under the circumstances." Stephanie has also discovered that her son has her personality — "down to a T," she said — and realizes she couldn't have been easy to raise.
Treatment programs often preach that you need to get clean for yourself, but Stephanie admits she probably wouldn't have done it if not for her kids. "I don't want to leave my boys the way my mom left us," she said.
During the recent interview, Stephanie talked slower, looked cleaner, and had more color in her face and weight on her bones than the last time she talked to The Times, in June 2018, after stopping at the East Chicago train station on the way back from copping heroin. She joked that she misses how defined her cheekbones were when she was using. She wore a pink T-shirt that read "Peachy," her hair and eyeshadow both purple.
"She looks better, doesn't she?" her husband asked, over the growls of passing motorcycles on a nearby state road. It was a blazingly hot, crystal-clear summer day. Her 8-year-old played in a kiddie pool; her younger son climbed a tree.
Despite no longer using heroin, her speech pattern can still be stream-of-consciousness. She steered the conversation from the religious influence in politics to how her medication makes her sweat to whether people should show mercy for mass shooters. She's a thinker.
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That quality should come in handy in the profession she hopes to enter: psychology. She is currently taking classes online through Indiana Wesleyan University, with plans to become a drug counselor. She said she and her husband might move out west, where he can pursue a career installing solar panels.
Her loved ones say having goals is one reason she has been able to stay clean.
"I don't know all the reasons for it, but I have indeed seen a real improvement in her," said the former pastor at her church in Michigan City. "I think part of it is going to school a little bit. And part of it is developing as a mother and realizing she didn't want to lose her kids. Being involved in the congregation there has been an important part too." He also points to her "loving and supportive family."
She has tried to make amends with loved ones she harmed because of her addiction. She started crying thinking about a family friend she used to steal from (her pastor said she might have been taken some money from him too).
Her father, for one, is relieved. The 70-year-old lives in Porter, not far from the Dunes Park train station.
"I used to enjoy hearing the train," he said. "My dad worked for the South Shore, and his brother and brothers-in-law worked for the South Shore. I have fond memories of the train. We used to ride the train into Chicago."
Then his daughter almost died on one.
"I grew to the point where I resented listening to the train," he said.
He didn't have a lot of experience with addiction before his daughter started using heroin. He remembers, in the '60s, guys he served with in the military popping "reds," a barbiturate called Seconall, but that's about it.
Thanks to Stephanie, he's learned a lot.
He recommends that other parents dealing with an addicted child seek out a support group for loved ones of drug users. And, he said, don't think you can control things. He struggled to find the line between enabling his daughter and washing his hands of her.
"Don't assume that you can find a rosy path, that recovery is right around the corner," he said. "Here it is nine years later, and we're still crossing our fingers and hoping the recovery will work."
As Stephanie works toward a degree, she said she's had trouble finding a job, because of a 2014 theft charge from her using days. She had found a wallet on the floor of a grocery store, and took the cash and used the bank cards.
"Everyone wants you to become a productive member of society, and, 'Oh, You're just some trash, layabout, sucking off the tit of society,'" she said. "But you try to do the right thing and try to do what you're supposed to and nobody will even give you a chance."
And not everybody has been supportive of the way she chose to stop doing heroin. Some people in her life and in the recovery community have told her she's not truly sober, because she's on Suboxone, itself an opioid (though one with much less potential for overdose or abuse). But many addiction experts would dispute that, and say that medication-assisted treatment is the gold standard in treatment for opioid addiction; studies have found it be more effective than abstinence. Buprenorphine can be considered part of the harm-reduction model, allowing people who struggle with opioid addiction to operate productive, meaningful lives.
Stephanie encourages families of people wrestling with addiction to attend support meetings like her dad did, and not be surprised if their loved ones don't immediately seek help. "You're not going to get clean until you're ready to do it," she said.
To the users themselves, she says: "You're not the piece of garbage you're made out to be. You have a relapsing brain disease. Find some spiritual basis for life. Find the right support group that works you. (Alcoholics Anonymous) and (Narcotics Anonymous) are great, but they're not the end-all-be-all."
There are many paths to recovery. Sometimes they even start on the floor of a train car bathroom.