SELLERSBURG — Tracy Skaggs was just 4 years old when she was first exposed to drugs, in the company of her mother. Just over three years ago, she took back control of her life from an opioid addiction and is using her experience to help others.

Skaggs was one of four who told their stories Friday to a room full of community members, state and local leaders and people living with addiction at the Voices for Recovery rally at Ivy Tech in Sellersburg, an event sponsored by the school's chapter of Phi Theta Kappa.

“This opioid crisis has raised much discussion and billions of dollars in governmental funding going toward ways to prevent, treat and recover from this prescribed death sentence,” she said. "... No one can explain the reasoning or hell that one endures while living with this disease except for the addicts themselves.”

THE STORIES

Skaggs was a toddler when she began helping pass a joint around a circle of her mother and her mother's friends. Before long, she learned to roll the joints, and was smoking at each pass.

Then it progressed.

“At the age of 13, my mother stuck a straw up my nose and at the other end was a big old line of cocaine, a shot of whiskey and school the next morning,” she said.

In adulthood, Skaggs ventured into other drugs. When she came upon pain pills, which she was at first prescribed, “they were my perfect drug because I could control how high I got,” she said.

When the pills became scarce, she found herself gravitating toward heroin.

“I've walked through some fiery pits of hell before but I had never known fear,” she said. “But now for the first time in my life, I was terrified. This drug controlled me.”

Skaggs prayed for answers, for support, for help getting rid of the substance that had ahold of her. Then she landed in the hospital for nearly a week which helped her detox — enough of a foothold to start moving forward with recovery.

“When you look at me you may see a college student, a wife, a mother and a grandmother but that's not all that I am,” she said. “I'm a survivor with a dark past, but my past no longer defines me.”

The others who gave their testimonies may have different backgrounds, different ways they were exposed to drugs and/or alcohol. But each has come out on the other side and wants to show that “we do recover,” one person said.

'I WAS A ZOMBIE'

In high school, Erin Hairston had been an athlete in school with good grades, a self-described perfectionist. She didn't drink or use drugs and was usually the designated driver.

But when she found alcohol, it seemed to help ease some of the depression and self-esteem issues she realized she'd grown up with. Soon she started smoking marijuana, and this too, eventually progressed.

“Drugs were a foreign concept to me,” she said. “I didn't know what I was getting myself into.”

When she found pain pills, “I thought I'd found something that made me feel good about myself,” she said. “These drugs felt like a cure for me.”

But the pills ran out. Soon, she would find heroin as a substitute. Now in recovery, she doesn't know that person.

“I was a zombie and a monster and my soul was gone,” she said. “The devil had it and I was going to let him keep it.”

Hairston eventually found help through the women's Healing Place, and through the support of her friends and family.

“My parents didn't give up on me and I don't think it's fair to give up on anyone,” she said. “If everyone would have given up on me, I'd be dead.”

I'easha Cornelius was 18 when she started using methamphetamine, which also progressed over time to different drugs. She was arrested and sentenced to prison time on drug charges, and lost her mother to drugs.

That life, she said, “ends in jail, institutions or death.” She shares her story as one of hope to others.

“We cannot heal from the alcohol and drugs until we heal from the past,” she said. “I fought to be the woman here today.”

Jason Kendall is a U.S. Army veteran whose addiction grew as he returned from service to find his wife had been unfaithful. He began drinking every day, eventually attempting suicide. A friend found him and saved his life.

“It is a hard road, that I cannot deny,” he said of addiction and recovery. “But there is light at the end of this tunnel. As long as somebody is there for you, your life can be a great one. You're worth it.”

A MOMENT OF SILENCE

A light rain fell as the nearly two dozen people quietly marched around the campus, carrying signs with words of hope, and stones in memory of those who had been lost. After a moment of silence, they placed the stones at the base of a tree.

Desaree Brown, a graduate of the recovery home Bliss House, said the march was “comforting, emotional, real. This is a disease people are dying from every day.”

It was important to her to be part of this to help bring awareness and help break down the stigma of addiction.

“People don't just wake up and choose to die or to hurt the people they love the most,” she said. “It's a daily struggle not to use.”

ALLIES IN THE FIGHT

Among those at the event were state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, a representative from Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly's office, Indiana Drug Czar Jim McClelland, Kevin Moore, director of the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction and Ivy Tech president and former Indiana Lt. Gov,. Sue Ellsperman.

Moore talked about recent and ongoing initiatives to fight the opioid crisis. Through recent grants, the state has been able to secure 26 percent more residential beds for treatment in the state and this fall will have access to more resources through a $17.9 million state Opioid Response grant.

He wants to see more recovery residences, more training for peer support specialists and more access to care for people in the criminal justice system. But he added that "most of this work happens in rooms like this."

McClelland said he appreciates Gov. Holcomb's intent from the beginning of his term to make addressing the drug crisis a priority. He said Indiana needs "strong, community-based coalitions" to help fight on the ground, and praised grassroots community organization Clark County CARES for the work it's done in the past three years.

"We need more understanding and less judgement," he said, and hopes people can "replace despair with hope."

For Skaggs, perhaps the most important supporter in the room was her daughter, Kaila. Although they are still working on healing from the rift drugs put between them, Kaila couldn't be prouder of her mother for how far she has come, and what she's doing to help.

"She's come a very long way," Kaila said. "To be able to come from such a low place and become a voice and face for such a huge epidemic is life-changing and also encouraging for other people. I am proud she was able to say 'I can still go up, no matter how low I am.' I am very thankful for her."

(A previous story previewing this event misidentified Phi Theta Kappa and Tracy Skaggs).

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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