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HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — A dusting of snow covered the ground as Patrick Mahoney and Rebecca Call huddled close together to stay warm.

It was December 2016, and they had hit rock bottom. They had relapsed back into their drug addictions once before, but with this relapse, they had reached a new low. The couple had just lost the garage they were calling home. Now they were sleeping under the Frank Hart Bridge by Carey Park in Hutchinson. Only the drugs they were hooked on would take away the chill.

A year later, Rebecca stands behind a cash register at Hutchinson’s Kohl’s where she is often an encouraging voice to the customers who come through her checkout. Patrick has flown to Washington, D.C., and back as president of his Oxford House – a place for recovering drug and alcohol addicts.

The Hutchinson News reports that Dec. 29 – a year after they left the bridge to seek help — they will have been clean a year.

Inside the employee break room, Rebecca, in her early 40s, looks like a stylish Kohl’s associate. Her makeup is perfect, accenting her jet-black hair. She is wearing a flowered blue kimono over a silk shirt. When she smiles, she reveals pretty white teeth.

It’s a different Rebecca from four years earlier when we found her on a cold January morning in 2014 sitting at a picnic table outside Fox Run smoking a cigarette.

At that time, she was trying to make a clean break from more than six years of drug addiction.

When we first met her, Rebecca had recently quit her job at Dillon’s Chinese Kitchen in a fit of anger. Her food stamps had been cut off and, needing cash, she spent the next few months standing on the corner of K-61 and 17th Avenue holding a sign announcing “Huge Inventory Blowout” for Sears’ going-out-of-business sale.

Rebecca and her fiancé, Patrick, were featured in our Feb. 1, 2014, series “Faces of Food Stamps.”

She was only 38 at the time – but looked 10 years older. Her teeth were rotted from her meth addiction. Her hair roots were graying. She had lost her home and her children. Patrick was in the same dark place. They were going on one year of being clean. It was a struggle. Both had child support to pay. Bipolar and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Rebecca couldn’t afford prescription medications. Holding the sign was enough to cover their rent at the low-income apartment on Second Avenue.

“We were bound and determined to get on our feet,” Rebecca said back then.

Rebecca started using drugs in 2007, she said. She had lost her mother, who had abandoned her at a young age and left her to be raised by her grandparents. She found out her daughter had been molested by the man she had been in a relationship with for several years.

Rebecca met Patrick, a giant of a man at 6-foot-8, through a drug dealer in 2011. They had things in common. They both sought comfort from different types of methamphetamines, and they knew how to cook the drugs.

From the first time we met the couple, they were struggling hard to stay drug-free and make a living. By our next visit in January 2016, they were living in a tiny house in an alley off of Fifth Avenue, and Rebecca was on house arrest — a bracelet on her ankle provided by law enforcement.

Previously, they were living a good, drug-free life. Rebecca renewed her CNA license and found a well-paying job at a nursing home. Patrick found work and decent pay at Yoder Smokers near Yoder.

They were able to afford the nicest home they had ever lived in – a ranch-style on Meadowlark.

“We had a beautiful house,” Rebecca said during our next visit to get an update on her situation.

“We had a car. It was a beautiful backyard.”

But it wouldn’t last.

“That is the problem with addicts,” she said. “It’s kind of like having the devil speak to you — telling you you’re worthless, telling you that you won’t amount to anything. You’re not happy within. Addiction is a battle with yourself. You feel like there is no way out and you want to numb it. They call addiction a filling disease.”

Rebecca sometimes gets mixed up with the dates and seasons. Between 2014 and 2015, she told us, she had broken up with Patrick and gotten back together with him. Because they weren’t using, Patrick’s ex-wife allowed his son to move into their Meadowlark home. Then, with issues growing, the child was forced to move out.

Rebecca said she began to reminisce about what it was like to be high and the weight loss from being on meth.

They decided to drink red beers on weekends.

“We were just bored,” she admitted.

Rebecca mentioned drugs. They thought they could control it.

“Within 10 minutes of having a conversation about getting high, we had a sack of dope at our house after three years of being clean,” Rebecca said, adding it was easy to find. “Within 10 minutes, we had a needle in our arm.”

It was like having an old friend back, she recalled then. She was doing full gauges of meth every five to 10 minutes.

“I wanted more,” she said. “We didn’t want to come down.”

They fell behind on rent and started having financial issues, Patrick said. He left his job. She didn’t want to get out of bed to go to work. They lost their home in August 2015.

“I was so powerless over my dope,” Rebecca said. “I couldn’t get up out of bed without it. I couldn’t do dishes. I couldn’t take my dogs outside. I couldn’t even brush my hair. I had to have the dope. Patrick was on the phone getting dope for me so I could make it through the day — it was that bad.”

Around that time, God spoke to her, she said. He guided her.

“By the grace of God, I don’t want to use ever again,” she said on that January day in 2016, her two emotional support bulldogs nestled beside her.

She was looking forward to the fresh start as she sat on the couch of her home, which included her new set of teeth that replaced her meth-damaged ones. At that time, she could only go to work at her job at Kmart and to meetings. Rebecca was under house arrest after being stopped in September 2015 — on Pat’s birthday — driving a vehicle with a suspended license. She wasn’t using at the time, but she had a known drug dealer in the car with her, which caught the attention of law enforcement.

Patrick’s boss hired him back at Yoder Smokers but in a different position and making less than he had been previously. The couple, according to the dates she gave, were going on five months not using meth.

But with any chronic disease, relapse is common with people in recovery, said Libertee Thompson, Drug Court coordinator for Reno County.

As Rebecca and Patrick continue to fight their addiction coming up to their year anniversary, Thompson said the holidays are a hard time.

“Most of us have happy memories of Christmas and Thanksgiving, but for a lot of our clients, the holidays are not happy,” Thompson said. ” Everyone says, ‘It’s Christmas, why aren’t you happy?’ It makes it very tough for people.”

Patrick said their addiction has been their demon.

Methamphetamine is an illegal, highly addictive drug. The first experiences give users a rush, or high. But from the start, meth begins to destroy a user’s life, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

It rots teeth and gums. It causes anxiety, paranoia, extreme weight loss and their faces become aged. A meth high can cause users to behave unpredictably and even aggressively. Users may suffer brain damage, including loss of memory and other cognitive problems.

Reno County made 278 drug arrests in 2016, a number that fluctuates depending on the year, according to Kansas Bureau of Investigation stats that go back to 2003.

Thompson said 80 percent of the people in the criminal justice system in Reno County have an addiction. With that in mind, she helped start Reno County’s Drug Court in 2011.

Thompson said they take the hardest cases – the felons who are struggling. Most people enter drug court as an alternative to jail or prison. Drug court, which is a division of Community Corrections, is an intensive form of probation and requires daily calls for possible drug tests and weekly meetings as well as bi-weekly drug court.

Thompson said the positive reinforcement through drug court is more effective than jail time. Since 2011, 43 people have graduated from drug court. Twenty returned recently for their annual Christmas party.

Among them was Patrick Mahoney.

During a second relapse, Patrick didn’t want to live.

After two decades of abuse, which includes two felonies and a combined four years in prison, it had gotten to the point that Patrick was trying overdose and end it all.

“I was on a suicide kick,” he said.

This time, it was Patrick who pulled Rebecca into using again in the summer of 2016.

“I was going strong,” she said. “I told him if he wanted to use he needed to get it out of his system. He went and got a friend and they kept talking about it. I said fine, just don’t bring it in the house.

“They went and got pulled over outside the dope house. There had been a warrant for his friend’s arrest. Sgt. (Eric) Buller brought him home.”

As soon as she went to bed, Patrick left the house in her car and used her paycheck to bail the friend out of jail. Then he purchased the drugs and brought them home.

“The second before relapsing there is a feeling you don’t want to, but then you do,” she said. And, without hesitation, after months of being clean, Rebecca gave in and joined them.

Again they lost their jobs, their home. As the holidays approached, they were living in desperation. Homeless, they found shelter in a garage in exchange for providing the landlords’ meth.

Rebecca said they used space heaters to keep warm. A bucket became their toilet. They cooked on an open fire outdoors.

She realized how severe the addiction was again.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a drug addict,” Rebecca said. “I wanted to be a veterinarian.”

With no money, the dealers began to ask favors in exchange for drugs.

“You basically sell your soul to them,” Patrick said. “I used to be one of them who bought people’s souls. But it had reversed on me for the first time. I was selling myself.”

He paused before adding just how low their lives and their addictions had gotten.

“The hard one to swallow is, um, I would sell Bec.”

“When it comes to the sexual part of it … you don’t care,” Patrick said. “You know, it’s whatever you can do to get that fix.”

This was their rock bottom. They lost the garage when Patrick couldn’t supply their landlords’ drug habit anymore.

Under the bridge, they realized their lives had to change.

Lance Whitney knew what Patrick and Rebecca’s struggles were like.

He had used meth for years. Before going to prison, he began working to change his life. He was released from prison in 2015 after serving 29 months of his 37-month sentence, getting out early because of good behavior and recovery efforts. He moved into the Niam Oxford House in Hutchinson.

Whitney knew Patrick from Gift of Life Narcotics Anonymous. They also worked together at Yoder Smokers. During breaks, they would have their own accountability meetings with a group of former users. After Whitney left Yoder to work as a counselor at the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas’ Hutchinson office, Patrick and Rebecca began to miss meetings. Then he heard Patrick had quit his job.

Whitney continuously checked up on his friends.

“I would go knock on their door until they answered. And they would be in there higher than a kite,” Whitney said. “They would be like, ‘Oh, crap Lance is here again.'”

He told them he missed them at their meetings. He told them he loved and cared about them. He asked them to consider the Oxford House route.

Pat said he told Whitney he was ruining his high.

Whitney is now a recovery coach at Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center in Topeka and also oversees several Oxford Houses near Kansas City. He and Patrick call each other several times a week.

Whitney never gave up on the couple.

Realizing under the bridge that they didn’t want to live this life anymore, Rebecca reached out to her daughter. Pat contacted Whitney and asked if Oxford had an opening.

They detoxed at Rebecca’s daughter’s home in rural Reno County. On Dec. 26, 2016, Patrick moved to Phillips West Oxford House on West 20th Avenue, which Whitney had started. Hutchinson has eight Oxford Houses. There is work to start a ninth home.

“He didn’t think he could do it,” Whitney said. “But we knew he could. We showed him we cared – we believed in him. We don’t give up. That is the thing, we can’t give up on somebody.”

“I knew how to die,” Rebecca said. “I just didn’t know how to live.”

Rebecca tried Oxford but didn’t have the personality for communal living. She started 2017 homeless – it was a rough go even living in the back of the Tattoo-B-Gone shop on Main Street, owned by Alan and Judy Webster. The Websters said they helped her get on her feet – loaning her money for a deposit and the first month’s rent for an apartment at Fox Run – the low-income apartment on Second Avenue.

This time she is digging deeper into the 12-step program with Narcotics Anonymous. She has a sponsor.

In March, she was hired at Kohl’s, and her co-workers are supportive.

“She is a recovering addict,” said Katie Race, a Kohl’s associate. “There are going to be days that are hard, and there is going to be days she is bubbly and crazy. It’s just being understanding. She is obviously here trying and doing everything. You can tell she is trying.”

Compounding her recovery is Rebecca’s multiple mental health diagnoses.

Over the years, she should have been on prescription medication for her bipolar condition as well as other issues, including drug-induced schizophrenia, personality disorder, anxiety and PTSD. But she couldn’t afford them.

Three months ago Rebecca had a meltdown at work. It was a busy day and she was put at a different register. There is one register she prefers to be at when checking out customers.

“I have to be in that area,” Rebecca said. This time they moved her to a different area.

“Something just snapped,” she said. “All I obsessed on was biting people.”

Then she panicked and marched off to the office where she threw herself on the floor in a fetal position.

“I need help,” she told her supervisors. She got up and left the building, walked through the parking lot and through the traffic of 17th Avenue – over to Horizons Mental Health Center on North Lorraine.

“They put me in crisis mode,” she said.

For the first time, she is working closely with mental-health workers.

“They have been excellent. I have my meds paid for a year. That’s huge. I never could afford medication. That’s why a lot of addicts go back out there and use. We suffer from mental disease and can’t afford mental health.”

In the next week, Patrick will hit a milestone – one year at Oxford. He went from a couch position – a temporary, zero-tolerance spot in the home where he lived in a room with a bunk bed. He was accepted into the home soon after – getting the required 81-percent vote from house members.

“They asked me, ‘Why do you want Oxford so bad, why should we accept you?'” Patrick said. “The only answer I had at the time was ‘I’m in despair.'”

There were rules and schedules. He had to do constant urine tests. He had to go to meetings. He had to pay rent and find a job. He had to have a sponsor and go through the 12-step program. There were no nights out at the start – until the restriction period was lifted.

Every Sunday they have house meetings. Early on, the house leadership gave him a role. Patrick grew from the rules and consistency of the home – rising to secretary and then president.

On a recent evening, he stood in the hallway of Phillips West, sporting a shirt showing his pride in his sobriety.

He’s a different man than the one under the bridge, wondering if he could find that one last high that would kill him.

Oxford has helped him. So have people like Thompson, Judge Joseph McCarville and others who are part of the Drug Court system, Patrick said. He stays in touch with Thompson, who was his corrections supervisor.

He has admitted he was powerless. He has acknowledged God is there for him. He’s given up his discretions. Now he is on step four of his recovery – the hard one – to take a full look at himself and the damages he has done.

For Patrick, he said that means admitting he wasn’t a good father, husband or friend.

“With me being in Oxford now, it has taught me to be focused on my recovery, it’s taught me to love myself,” Patrick said. “It’s taught me to respect and cherish other people. It’s taught me to pay bills again, to learn how to be a better person, clean up after myself. It’s not that I’m a grubby person, but my gave-a-s— broke.”

According to Rebecca, Patrick is a whole different person this time. Like her, he is really working the steps.

“He has let go of things, and it just clicked,” she said. “Sometimes I’m jealous. He is so much stronger than I am.”

They can’t make up lost time with their kids, Patrick said. But both his school-aged son and daughter have been supportive, and they are moving forward with their relationship. Rebecca has four daughters. One was adopted when she was little.

Unlike some of their friends, they have a chance, Patrick said.

This year alone eight people he knew died because of their addiction.

“They died because of a needle in their arm, or it was just too much,” he said.

“Perhaps the butterfly is proof you can go through a great deal of darkness and yet still become something beautiful.” Beau Taplin

This inspirational quote helps Rebecca through bleak moments.

She is not sure of her plans for Christmas Day, but she will try to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She feels this anniversary is different from the others.

Patrick has been permitted to move back in with Rebecca at Fox Run after he finishes at Oxford House. He is looking for full-time work and someday hopes to follow in friend Whitney’s footsteps as a substance abuse counselor.

“We have come to the agreement that if either of us uses it’s over,” Rebecca said. “I want to stay with him. It would be hard to break it off.

“There has been a lot of acceptance this time and acceptance is the path to freedom.”

She received a glow-in-the-dark key tag for this anniversary. It’s her third one.

“I don’t ever have to get another one,” Rebecca said. “I can’t say I’m going to stay clean. But I can say I will try. That’s all I can do.”

Both agreed staying clean is easier than starting over.

They encouraged others not to give up, they said, as we visited them at Phillips West the day before their one-year drug-free anniversary. A Christmas tree with presents cozily decorating the living room’s corner is a sharp contrast to what they were experiencing a year ago.

Now they know, Patrick said, as long as they are breathing, there is hope.


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News,