This true story has a mostly happy ending, but it’s going to take a while to get there. If it’s tough for you to read, it’s tougher for me to write.
Melanie Marshall is 53 years old. I use her name with permission. She lives in southern Idaho. For more than half of her life she was addicted to meth.
For most of her childhood she was beaten, frequently, by her stepmother. She was the kind of kid you see wearing long sleeve shirts every day in summer. The reason she didn’t tell anyone about the abuse is because she deserved it. That’s what she was told often enough to become convinced. When you’re a child it is as hard to defend yourself against adult words as adult fists.
By fifteen, wrapped in adolescent anger and a malignant sense of her own worthlessness, she was a newly-married pregnant high school dropout.
Her husband, six years her senior, introduced her to meth and cocaine during her pregnancy. Her son survived six weeks before dying of SIDS.
A year later she was pregnant again, but newly single. She wanted a more positive outcome for her next child. She stopped using drugs, had a healthy daughter, and moved in with a supportive grandparent.
She was sober for a year, but found sobriety to be worse than addiction.
If you’ve never been a drug addict, that last sentence is impossible to understand. She had to explain to me what she meant.
It’s just this: Being sober means having to say hello again to the worthless person you are, the person that deserves to be beaten. A person who deserves to lose a child. Being sober means having to share your brain and body with a person you utterly despise.
Within a year she was mixing and matching cocaine, meth and alcohol. She told me that during this time she felt no connection to anyone else, including herself. I told her I didn’t understand what she meant. She said that she ceased to exist in her own body. Only the drug existed — and that being high was the only time she felt anything vaguely resembling happiness.
This was Melanie’s life for 35 years. She miscarried four times. She went to prison three times. She had a son, but he weighed 2.5 pounds at birth, and had cerebral palsy. Water off a duck.
Finally, she found herself pregnant again, and facing a fourth prison sentence, this time for 15 years.
It was the threat of 15 years in a jail cell that got her attention. So at age 47, she decided it was time for a change.
She quit the drugs. With brave honesty, she told me what it was like.
She says that the worst part was realizing she has lost 35 years — that it’s gone and can never be recovered. She’s now 53 years old, but says it feels like she’s only 18 in her head. The rest of it, all of it, was time spent inside a sealed coffin. Suspended animation. Drug abuse counselors know what I’m talking about. The rest of you, probably not.
Today she has two living daughters and five grandchildren. She says she is thankful that her daughters are still willing to let her be a part of their lives.
I asked about the long-term effects of her drug use. “In my mind,” she said, “I’m not actually where I’m supposed to be. I can’t remember things. I can’t make decisions.”
And then I asked her the big question: do you miss the drugs? “I want to say no,” she said, “but sometimes I’d say yes. Some days are harder than others.”
Again, I had to ask her to explain. She said that the drug-induced euphoria you feel on meth is the best feeling in the world. Sobriety doesn’t touch it. She said meth becomes the addict’s best and only friend. But, she said, the damage it does is forever.
She says her teeth are in bad shape. She has hepatitis C. Her weight is a problem.
But she’s clean. She has a husband. And she’s willing to tell her story.
Here’s what I learned from her story: Child abuse is a crime against humanity that takes generations to heal.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley.