By Nathan Ruibal
With the dramatic rise of fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin, Sarah J. had overdosed five times over the course of a few years, always waking up in an ambulance with the police hovering over her. With each near-death experience and each resuscitation, the fear of dying diminished. But after detoxing in jail for the last time, that reckless fearlessness was replaced by other thoughts: “What would I do to my parents? What would I do to my kids? That’s their story? My junkie mom died in the bathroom?” Desperate to get sober, Sarah contacted Beit T’Shuvah for readmission and told them that they needed to pick her up directly from jail; she didn’t trust herself to be released on her own. “I need you guys. I’m going to die,” she wrote in a letter from her jail cell.
This year, on Independence Day, Sarah celebrated her own kind of independence: one year free of drugs and alcohol.
Back in junior high, Sarah remembers feeling like an adult already. “I started hanging out with the gangsters, smoking weed and not wanting to go to school,” she says. ”In high school, I just ditched and did a lot more drugs.” By seventeen, Sarah got into harder drugs, snorting coke and pilfering OxyContin and Norcos from her job at a pharmacy.
Sarah was well aware that she had a problem. Starting at the age of twenty-one, she began trying to get clean off the pills, embarking on a seventeen-year tour of countless detoxes and treatment centers.
Sarah cycled between working, traveling, and trying to get clean, never stringing together more than a few weeks or months sober. Despite her frequent relapses, a friend helped Sarah get her first film industry job in the studio vaults sorting film. And even though she never graduated high school, she worked her way up in the industry.
Throughout her twenties, Sarah continued slipping in and out of active drug use, treatment centers, jails, and relationships. She was looking for a way to fill the void she felt at the center of her being, looking outside herself for a solution. One month into her first stay in Tarzana Treatment Center, she took off with a fellow resident and ended up in Downtown Los Angeles, shooting up heroin for the first time. After another seven-month stint in rehab, while pregnant, Sarah relapsed just before giving birth, which ultimately led to the loss of her parental rights. Afterward, she found herself on a similar path with her drug-dealer-turned-boyfriend, with whom she had two more children who were also taken from her.
At every point and with every loss, Sarah knew that she wanted out of the drug-using life, but her only tool for coping with this psychic pain was to return to the substances that precipitated the pain to begin with. This self-destructive and self-reinforcing cycle is a familiar story for many addicts.
Sarah finally hit rock bottom last summer when she was sentenced to an eight-month jail term. After spending the first few months there detoxing from heroin, she reached out to Beit T’Shuvah, encouraged by her father, whom she says is “the only person who was there for me in jail.”
At first, Beit T’Shuvah denied her admission—Sarah suspects this was due, in part, to how she left Beit T’Shuvah in 2016, when she had begged for admission, but two days later absconded by jumping over a balcony with only a single backpack of her belongings.
Sarah didn’t take the rejection as the final word. Out of options and wanting a new start, she wrote Beit T’Shuvah a heartfelt letter along with a poem about her kids. Sarah’s persistence worked, and with Beit T’Shuvah on her side now, they went to court with her and successfully pleaded with them to allow her to serve her sentence in treatment.
Now, six months into treatment and clean for over a year, Sarah says she’s feeling like herself again. In the past, when she could only get sober for a few months, she didn’t regain her self-described goofy personality. Now she says, “I’ve learned that I can function without drugs.” She has eagerly stepped up in service to the community during the quarantine by helping cover the front desk and main phone line. Additionally, she has been an enthusiastic member of the in-house Film Department, which has inspired her to explore a passion for cinema. Looking forward, Sarah wants to return to work in the entertainment industry, either in production, post-production or makeup.
Sarah is also learning to accept the consequences of her past while maintaining hope for the future. For the ten years before she landed in jail last summer, she had become accustomed to the cycle of physical violence, both as perpetrator and victim, but is now learning anger management and how to deal with violent urges. “When I get that angry with someone, it’s not that I see red, it’s that my words don’t come out fast enough. So I can’t fight with my words. So the only way I could overpower someone in that situation is to get physical. I’ve learned I don’t have to do that.”
Sarah says an essential part of her recovery is doing the hard work necessary to be back in her kids’ lives. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a mom,” she says. “I had baby dolls, played house, had a little sister and a niece. I wanted to be a mom.” Today, the hard work she’s putting into her recovery is laying the foundation for her to be the mother her children deserve. “I want to be a good person, someone my kids can depend on.”