Gaining Coping Skills, Losing A Friend, Helped Jennifer Overcome Heroin

Dec 23, 2015

From Prescription To Addiction

Jennifer Burke’s addiction story began with prescriptions for pain medication. She was born with a rare birth defect that multiple tumors throughout her body. The tumors, called hamartomas, weren’t cancerous, but they caused her persistent pain. At age 15, about a year after giving birth to a baby girl, she Jennifer had a tumor the size of a softball removed from one of her legs. For the next eight years, she had surgery after surgery.

Jennifer Burke's story is part of an initiative at Side Effects to collect and share stories of addiction recovery. Find out more

Jennifer started visiting a pain clinic where she lived in Dayton, Ohio. She says she was dependent on the painkillers she got there, but not addicted. She never took more than she was prescribed. But after a while, the pills stopped working. A friend told her about a different clinic where she could get higher doses.

I started going to a pain clinic that was 2 ½ hours from where I lived. The doctor had me on Percocet 30 milligrams, and I was taking 180 of those a month, then Percocet 15 milligrams, 120 of those a month.

After being in the pain clinic for quite some time, the DEA shut the clinic down because the doctor was selling scripts out the back door, or so I read. At that point I had no medical insurance and it was really hard to find a doctor, because the DEA was really getting on to these cash-paying pain clinics. That’s when I started meeting drug dealers.

Jennifer started buying pills on the street, but she couldn’t always find them. A friend told her heroin would have the same effect, so one day when she didn’t have any pills, she tried it. Within six months of shooting up that first time, she says, she was doing any drug she could get her hands on, selling her things and her loved one’s things, and sleeping with dealers. She was in and out of jail.

Steps Forward And Back

While on probation, Jennifer was sent to a 28 –day rehab program. Jennifer says she found ways to use heroin during the program.

I was very manipulative at the time. I would call my mom and tell her I needed twenty dollars because we were going on a field trip. They let us go outside to smoke, so I would go outside, jump the fence, meet up with a dope boy, then shoot up and sneak back inside like I had just smoked a cigarette. Then I started getting sick when I couldn’t get it, and that’s when they called my probation officer.

After six months in county jail, Jennifer was transferred to a six-month treatment center called the MonDay Community Correctional Institute –a locked-down facility run by the county. The constant surveillance kept her clean, but Jennifer says it was the skills she learned there that ultimately saved her life. Treatment at MonDay was based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on identifying negative thought patterns and restructuring them.

They taught me coping skills. They taught me I could do other things when I got bored.  They taught me how to be away from the people that I thought was my friends. I met a girl named Jessica and we became really close. But when they noticed Jessica and I getting to close they wouldn’t let us sit next to each other, they wouldn’t let us talk.

While in the MonDay program, Jennifer realized that she needed to leave Dayton in order to stay sober. She begged her probation officer to let her move to Michigan, where her parents lived.

I said when I get out I’ll go back to the same people and places I’ve been before. I said ‘I know me.’

But her probation officer said no, she had to finish her parole in Ohio.

DIY Recovery

Less than a week after she completed the MonDay program, Jennifer started using again, this time with Jessica. At the same time, she entered drug court, a strict program where she had to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meet with her probation officer and the judge every week, and hold down a full time job.

Then something terrible happened. Jessica overdosed and died. It was a turning point.

It was real hard on me and real hard on my daughter. My daughter loved Jessica so much. She called her Mommy. After Jessica passed away, I never shot up again.

Some drug court programs offer medications like vivitrol, suboxone and methadone – drugs that help addicts taper off their addiction. But that Jennifer's probation officer told her she had to go cold turkey, or to go to prison, says Jennifer. But after a few days, the cravings were unbearable, so Jennifer bought methadone on the street. She figured out a way to work around weekly drug tests at the parole office.

On Tuesday I would see [my probation officer], then I would take methadone until Friday. And then by Tuesday morning it would be out of my system.

To complete drug court, Jennifer had to continue attending NA meetings three or four times a week. She disliked NA though, because meeting attendees would approach her afterward and try to sell her drugs. But she resisted.

Gradually, Jennifer tapered down on methadone. She went from a daily pill Tuesday through Friday to half a pill, then half a pill just Tuesday and Thursday. Within four to six weeks she says, she was off methadone completely.

I stopped using and finished probation and drug court. The day I graduated drug court I had my things in my car to move straight to Michigan to where my mother and father was living. And I’ve never looked back.

New State, New Life

It’s been 2 years since I’ve used. I have my own home and I’m supporting myself now. I am not ashamed of my past because my past made me who I am today. I used for five years. I tell people I was living in hell for five years but it took me to walk through hell to find God. And I finally found joy in my life and my family. I live day by day. I enjoy watching the sunset and the sunrise. I really didn’t pay attention to all of that stuff before my drug addiction.

Jennifer says she uses the coping skills she learned in the MonDay program to resist drug cravings.

When I get urges I call and talk to my mom, or I go shopping. Wal-Mart’s my biggest thing. I just keep myself busy all the time.

Jennifer Burke lives in Saline, Michigan with her daughter Lacey and dog Maggie. For the pain in her legs, she takes a non-narcotic medication, which she says works on some days. She stays physically active to keep her legs from going numb.

It’s still hard at times but I look back and see what I went through and what my family went through, and there isn't a day that goes by that I NEVER want to put them through that ever again. My family never gave up on me and I'm now never going to give up on them. Now I will fight every day and never give up on me staying clean. 

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This narrative was compiled from a written submission by Jennifer Burke and a phone conversation between Ms. Burke and Side Effects reporter Andrea Muraskin. While the existence of the MonDay Community Correctional Institute and Ms. Burke's enrollment in drug court in Montgomery County, Ohio has been confirmed, the narrative has not been fact-checked. 

A previous version of this story stated that Ms. Burke spent time in prison. The story has been corrected to state that Ms. Burke spent time in county jail, and did not go to prison. 

Jennifer Burke's story is part of an initiative at Side Effects to collect and share stories of addiction recovery. Find out more.