If I Die Young: Woman overcoming addiction to painkillers facing the 'real test'

Drug court gives a woman who was on a downward spiral because of painkillers a second chance. But can she make it all work?
Published July 6 2012
Updated July 6 2012


When her mom drove her to drug court, Stacy Nicholson thought she knew what the judge would do.

Ask if she was staying sober. Ask if she was still working. Ask when she was going to finish her community service and pay off her fines.

The judge, Stacy thought, might even ask her to talk to other addicts about how drug court had saved her life.

Stacy liked helping other women who had lost their jobs, their kids, their hope to pain pills. But she was tired of coming to drug court.

"I just want it to be over," Stacy, 29, told her mom that Tuesday in May. "It feels like it's been forever."

• • •

Pinellas County Judge Dee Anna Farnell called Stacy's case. "You look great," said the judge.

Stacy smiled. "I finally lost those 40 pounds I put on in jail."

"So you get it now?" asked the judge.

"Oh, yes," Stacy said.

"What do you get?"

Stacy hesitated, and finally said, "Life, I guess."

A year ago, everyone had told her she was going to die of an overdose. Now, she was living with her mom, taking care of her 3-year-old son, Richie, managing a pizza place. On weekends, she saw her 13-year-old daughter, Jade.

Stacy handed the judge a letter saying she had fulfilled her community service by working for 60 hours at a church.

"Okay, I'm going to find that all of your community service has been successfully completed," Farnell said. She handed Stacy a framed certificate. "Congratulations. You graduated from drug court."

Stacy stared at the certificate in disbelief. Two rows back, her mom stood and screamed, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"

The judge laughed, "I wasn't sure I would ever see this day."

On the way out of the courthouse, Stacy's mom kept crying, "I can't believe it's over."

"It's not over," Stacy told her mom. "It's just starting. This is the real test. Now that I don't have to come to court, now that I'm not being pee tested at probation, now that no one is watching — it's all on me."

• • •

Stacy, who grew up in St. Petersburg, became addicted to prescription drugs in her mid 20s, sometimes shooting 30 or 40 oxycodone tablets in a day. She lost jobs, gave up her two children, saw friends die of overdoses.

On Aug. 26, 2009, Pinellas sheriff's deputies arrested her as part of a drug sweep after she tried to buy oxy with a fake prescription.

That was how she ended up in Farnell's drug court. The judge gave her an opportunity to get sober and turn her life around instead of going to prison. For more than two years, Stacy reported to Courtroom 10 every month on Ladies Day.

A Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer followed Stacy through 2011, when seven Floridians were dying of prescription drug overdoses each day. "If I Die Young," published in December, documented Stacy's relapse and return to jail, her move to a halfway house, and her first uncertain efforts to work and live a sober life with her family.

On Friday, Stacy's story will be featured in a television documentary co-produced by the Times and WFTS-Ch. 28. Her recovery remains tenuous. Now that she has graduated from drug court, she hopes to convince others ensnared in the pain pill epidemic that if she can survive, they can get sober too.

"It's really hard," she said. "Really, really hard. You have to just stop and think about why you're wanting to get high, then go do something else. Smoke a cigarette or play with your kid or crank some music, just do something. And think about all you have, and all you could lose."

• • •

The first 60 days, addicts say, are the hardest. Then they'll tell you no, it's the first six months. Okay, the first year. . . . It's always hard. It's never over.

By the time Stacy graduated from drug court in May, she had been sober for almost a year — and every day she still thought about using pain pills. She still wanted, sometimes, to be numb. On the day after graduation, her mom, Sherry Alkire, drained her savings account, paid off Stacy's driver's license fines and bought her a 1998 Ford Escort. Stacy's first car in years.

The next week, Stacy called her boss at Westshore Pizza and quit her job — the first she'd had in years.

She stopped paying her mom $100 a week rent. Stopped chipping in for groceries. Stopped going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counting the days she had been sober. "All the freedom just freaked me out, I guess," she said. "It was too much, knowing no one was watching me."

For a couple of weeks, she helped a friend paint houses. But that was hard and hot. She got tired.

"I can't say I didn't drink and smoke," Stacy said. Bud Light, Crown Royal, a pina colada or two. A few joints with her brother. "But I like spice better. It's a quicker buzz," she said. "And you can get that at the gas station."

Getting drunk or high isn't the problem, Stacy insists. "I even had a Xanax," she admitted. "But I'm not doing pills, or anything stupid. I'm not going to blow it again."

Ray Harris, who runs the halfway house where Stacy stayed, said he is worried about her. But not surprised.

"I knew just alcohol wouldn't do it for her," said Harris, a Vietnam vet who recently celebrated nine years of his own sobriety. "So she had to add the reefer. Then that wasn't enough so here comes the spice. Eventually that won't be enough to give her the high she's searching for, so she'll go back to her drug of choice.

"Being clean," Harris said, "means doing no drugs at all."

"Stacy has been clean, mostly," her mom said. "At least she hasn't done anything in front of me." Sherry knows her daughter drank. She heard Stacy got high. "But it was just pot. At least it's not pills. At least now I don't have to ponder her death daily."

Stacy's personality has come back, her mom said. Instead of being zoned out, she is often spunky. "I think she's past her lowest point. But she sometimes goes into these horrible rages," Sherry said. "I know she still has a long way to go."

Sherry would like to see Stacy go back to school, get her GED, maybe even go to college. She wants Stacy to raise her 3-year-old son on her own. And she needs to move into her own apartment. "She's 30," Sherry said. "She can't live with Mommy forever. I even told her I'd keep Richie until she gets settled and can take care of herself."

• • •

Sometimes, Stacy realized, the best nights are the normal ones. The slow, sober, stay-at-home nights with your kids.

Even when your mom makes you clean the kitchen, even when work intrudes, even after your brother barges in to tempt you with slitty, buzzed eyes, you can still somehow find serenity — even without pain pills.

"It'll be fine. Just put those fliers on the pizza boxes and we'll pass them out tomorrow," Stacy said into her cellphone. "I'll be there in the morning."

It was Saturday night, the start of summer, and she had just gotten home from a nine-hour shift at Westshore Pizza. The owner had hired her back and made her manager. She had driven straight home so her mom, who had been watching her kids, could go out.

Richie, 3, was riding his new bicycle backward through the living room. He was potty trained now and wore "big boy" pants. When he woke up, he had started crawling into bed with Stacy instead of her mom.

Her daughter, Jade, 13, was slumped on the leather sofa, watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit. "It's so much weirder when you're sober," Stacy said. Jade was living with her dad in Fort Myers, but loved staying with Stacy on the weekends.

"Mom was gone for so long," Jade said. "I'm glad she's back."

After the movie ended, after Stacy solved another pizza problem via cellphone, after her brother came in high and she kicked him out, Stacy went into her room and sat down for the first time all day. Her bed is a mattress on the floor, covered with a purple comforter. Her computer is propped on a wooden desk.

"Hey, Mom! Check this out!" Jade called, bounding in to show Stacy a video on her cellphone.

"Nooo!" Richie wailed. He ran into the room and jumped into Stacy's lap. "She's my mommy. Mine. I'm not giving her to you. She's my mommy!"

Stacy laughed and cradled her boy like a baby. He seemed to be craving her attention more and more. Maybe he had missed that, those first years while she kept him in a playpen so she could shoot pills.

"My mommy," Richie said again, snuggling against her. Within 10 minutes, he was asleep in her arms. Stacy carried her son into his room, pulled up the SpongeBob comforter and said softly, "You're such a trip."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.