The road to recovery

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(Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction effects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photos: Birthday cards and pictures serve as meager decorations to Nadine Lujan’s bunk in her cell at the Valencia County Detention Center in Los Lunas. Because of her alcoholism and meth use, she is behind bars and her three young children are in foster care.

They come in through the back door. They are sisters, wives, daughters and mothers.

But after that door closes, they are reduced to one common denominator.

Photographed, fingerprinted, dressed in shapeless beige, these women become inmates at the Valencia County Detention Center.

Even after that, many of them have something else in common — addiction. This month, of the 18 women in jail, 12 were there for drug-related charges and four of them were repeat “guests.”

“I’ve been here a long time and I am tired,” says 43-year-old Cynthia Reid.

And she isn’t talking about the little more than a month she’s been sitting in VCDC awaiting arraignment.

She’s talking about the 34 years she has spent addicted to drugs. She started using methamphetamine at age 9, after two years of sexual abuse at the hands of man she knew and trusted.

“My mom didn’t want to believe it,” Reid said, tears pouring down her face. “I tried to kill myself any way I could.”

Amy Maestas worries her children, especially her youngest, might follow in her footsteps and make the same bad choices. Maestas has struggled with a heroin addiction for nearly a decade.

As Reid talks about her life as an addict, she keeps her head down and averts her eyes as she cries and wipes her runny nose on the back of her hand and prison-issued shirt.

Reid talks about her children — a 22-year-old son she hasn’t seen since he was 3, and a 27-year-old daughter with a college degree — and sobs.

“The state took him because of my stupidity. My daughter has gone to college. I am so proud of her,” she said.

Tears well up.

“I wish I could say I was like her.”

Reid says she will never forgive herself for failing to be reunited with her son. He was adopted by another family and is somewhere in California, she says.

She managed to stop using while she was pregnant both times, but started up again after the births. Once Reid lost her son for good, she started using and pretty much never stopped.

She also blames herself for the troubles her fiancé has seen. He is in the county jail’s C Block.

“He’s here because of me,” Reid said.

Her shoulders shake as she sobs over what she has brought into his life.

“He used because of me. If I don’t use, he doesn’t use.”

Cynthia Reid sits on the bunk she calls home at the Valencia County Detention Center. Surrounded by snippets of scripture, Reid prays a judge will give her a second chance and sentence her to a rehabilitation program.

Together for seven-and-a-half years, the last thing he told Reid before they were both locked up was, “I love you. Please get help.”

He is everything to her, Reid said. She would die without him.

For three years, the couple lived homeless, drug-free. Ironically it was after they decided to find a permanent home, live the American dream, that the pressure of living became too much and they began using.

And breaking into someone else’s house to steal and sell what valuables they could find.

“We need to be strong for each other,” she said.

For a long time, every time Reid got high, she hoped it would be the last time. She hoped it would be the one that killed her.

Now she seems to have turned a corner, hoping fervently that the district court judge will sentence her to a rehab program.

Reid knows her daughter would be hugely disappointed to know her mother was sitting in jail — again.

And she knows it’s time to go a different direction in life, for herself and the man she loves.

“I am done with this sh**, done with this life,” she says. “I am done worrying John and my daughter. It’s not cool. I am done ending up in the hospital with scars.”

At 40, Amy Maestas is missing out on being a grandmother. Both her daughters have daughters and Maestas missed the birth of the youngest because she was in jail.

Maestas is in jail because of her addiction to heroin, an addiction she started nearly a decade ago after the father of her three children died of a heroin overdose. The irony isn’t lost on her, or her son.

“The worst thing he ever told me was, ‘My father died of a heroin overdose, my mother is using the same thing, so I might as well be an orphan,’” Maestas said.

Because of her drug use, Maestas has been in and out of jail, and spent two-and-a-half years in prison.

“I totally let my kids down,” she said. “I acted stupid and was totally selfish.”

While she worries they might follow in her footsteps, Maestas also hopes her choices will open their eyes.

“Here I am at 40 years old, in jail. It’s just horrible,” she said. “I talk to my kids a lot. They know my drug life.”

Maestas says she doesn’t want to be “a grandma on drugs. Both my daughters told me I can’t see my granddaughters if I’m on drugs. That hurt me, but I won’t say they’re wrong.”

When her mother died in 2009, Nadine Lujan’s drinking got worse and segued into meth use. After 11 years of being “always drunk,” the 28-year-old says it’s time for her to get her life straight.

Her three children, ages 8, 4 and 1, are in foster care while Lujan is incarcerated.

“This is the first time I’ve been away from them,” Lujan said.

She wipes tears from under her eyes, using the edge of her hands in a motion that indicates she’s used to wearing eyeliner and not being barefaced.

She admits the life she has led has been hard on her children.

“I was selfish, thinking of myself,” she says.

Lujan said at one point she was living in her sister’s travel trailer with the three children, without power or running water.

“We had battery-operated lights and water in gallon containers,” she said. “They shouldn’t have had to live that way.”

When asked about what comes next for her, Lujan smiles big, her face taking on the characteristics of a still young woman.

Her voice takes on a dreamy edge as she talks about getting into the Women’s Recovery Academy in Albuquerque, a six-month rehabilitation program administered by the state’s adult probation and parole office.

She is hoping for probation for the child endangerment charges she faces. During her time in jail, Lujan has been attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

“I want my kids. And messed up on drugs is not the way I want them to see me,” she said.

But she knows even after six months at the academy, she may still end up in a situation that tests her.

If she’s unable to move out of Belen, Lujan will find herself right back in the same community, the same circle of friends who encouraged her drug use.

“I would love to move because when you get out, it’s the same people doing the same things,” she said. “You know everybody and they’re all, ‘Let’s get high.’”

And if you come into jail high and addicted, kicking it isn’t an especially pleasant experience. The medical staff makes sure each inmate is medically stable, their vitals are monitored regularly and then inmates are basically on their own.

A mattress and blanket on the floor and a bucket of their own is what gets an inmate, male or female, through the body-wracking, mind-numbing experience that is detox.

In the three years Rebecca Otero-Granger, a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and the jail’s medical director, and Debra Stanger, a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner, have been working at the detention center, they have seen hundreds of inmates come through with substance-abuse issues.

They say there has been an upswing in multi-substance cases. Long-time meth users, Stanger says, will often turn to heroin to sleep when the stimulant has become too much for them.

With the average inmate age ranging between 20 and 40 years of age, Otero-Granger says the older men and women tend to abuse alcohol and heroin, while the younger crowd uses meth and prescription opiates.

After detox, inmates are faced with forced sobriety. Valencia County Detention Center Warden Joe Chavez has implemented AA meetings inside the jail, run by community faith-based groups.

Whether an inmate follows up with that program once they are released is a craps shoot, Chavez says.

“These guys are master manipulators. They know what you want to hear, what their family wants to hear. I listen to the calls. ‘Oh Mom, I’m doing really good. I know what I did was wrong,’” Chavez said.

They might be sincere in their recovery but, most likely they are looking for a place to crash for six months. Before they go back to old, bad habits, Chavez said, expressing a jaded and cynical viewpoint nurtured by experience.

A Los Lunas High School graduate himself, Chavez raised his kids in this community. And he has seen what drugs and addiction have done to it and the children he once knew.

He remembers encountering a young woman inmate, struggling with addiction. He also remembers giving that same young girl encouragement out on the soccer fields along with his own daughter.

“She saw me and just started to cry,” Chavez said. “What do you say? You know this person from when they were a certain way and you wonder what you missed. What were the signs I should have looked for?”

With a career in law enforcement and corrections, Chavez knows the signs of addiction well.

“And they are the same in here as they are out there,” he said. “It’s sad. We have to do something different because what we’re doing right now isn’t working.”

But sometimes there is a small glimmer of hope and things do work. A caseworker at the jail for 13 years, Barbara Smith still has some of the Brooklyn accent that marks her as a non-native.

She is brusque, no-nonsense, lacing her language with a touch of profanity.

Smith’s job is to act as the bridge between inmates and rehab programs, like the men and women’s recovery academies and Delancey Street in Albuquerque.

Inmates write letters to her, asking for that much-desired second chance and Smith sets up the interviews. After that, it’s out of her hands.

A few years ago, she set up an interview for a young man at the jail with Delancey Street, a two-year inpatient program.

“I didn’t think they would take him, but after the interview, they loved him,” Smith said.

So off he went to a brighter future.

“He came back. Oh, he looked so good, so healthy,” she recalls. “Then he came in the back door with a needle in his arm.”

Smith speaks in hyperbole of course, but the picture is clear. Even after two years in a program, he still couldn’t shake his addiction to heroin.

“Two years. Why put in all that work? My heart broke for that kid,” Smith says of an invisible knife through the heart, driven by a very real hypodermic.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.