By Tamara Udowenko
Drugs affect numbers of women throughout the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “15.8 million women ages 18 or older have used illicit drugs in the past year.” One’s race or social class does not guarantee that she will not suffer from an addiction.
NIDA states that those who study addictions have found that factors like a woman’s hormones and menstrual cycle can have an effect on her misuse of drugs. “Women themselves describe unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and self treating mental health problems,” NIDA adds.
The Pennsylvania State Coroner Association’s “Report on Overdose Death Statistics 2014” states that in Berks County, women accounted for 30% of overdose deaths. The report also states that between men and women, 81% of individuals that overdosed were white and 34% of men and women had been using opioids. NIDA states that “opioids are medications that relieve pain.” Today, a common opioid that is being used is heroin.
Iris Guzman, 47, from New Jersey, was a heroin user and has been clean for 18 months. She resides at Easy Does It (EDI), a recovery community center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Guzman said that she suffers from bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression. Growing up, Guzman did not understand that her mother, too, suffered from mental illness.
“Drugs took me to an animalistic level that I never thought it would take me.”
“My mom used to beat the living crap out of me for everything and any little thing … all I knew that I wanted to do was escape from the abuse,” Guzman said. Her mother, a go-go dancer, handed over to seven-year-old Guzman the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings. “I did everything,” Guzman explained.
At the age of nine, Guzman’s mother introduced her to heroin. “It was a form of escape,” Guzman said. She did not become addicted immediately, but she began trying other substances as well. “I used to take things out of my house that would numb myself at that age. So whenever she would give, I would take,” Guzman said.
When Guzman was 16, she had her first child and realized that she was addicted to heroin. “It never stops. It just keeps getting worse,” Guzman said. In addition to smoking heroin, she sometimes smoked cocaine and marijuana. At 21, she was released from prison and went to a program in Eagleville, Pennsylvania.
By 26, Guzman had four children and moved to Reading with her second child, a son; it was the first time that she did not use drugs. Guzman said that she was clean for about four years. However, she added, “I was still doing all the behaviors; the only difference was I wasn’t using drugs.”
Guzman said she used things like shopping and sex to fill the void of heroin. While in recovery, she met a man she later married and with whom she had two daughters. But when Guzman was in a car accident, she relapsed; Guzman lost custody of her children. Guzman said that since that time, she continued the pattern of being in and out of jail.
“Drugs took me to an animalistic level that I never thought it would take me,” Guzman explained. In October, Guzman will have spent a year at EDI. “Coming here was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
Before EDI, Guzman said that she did not know how to live normally, but now she is learning. “I discovered who I am here… if it wasn’t for NA, I don’t know where I would be,” Guzman said.
“An individual is not immune to addiction because of their race, social class or genetics.”
Unlike Guzman, Katie Achenbach’s drug use did not occur until later in her life. At 33 years old, the Pottsville, Pennsylvania native came to EDI of her own will because three years ago, she began using crystal meth.
Achenbach said that she grew up in a good family setting. Her parents were married; her mother was a drug and alcohol counselor and her father was a pharmaceutical representative. She has an older sister as well as a twin sister. Achenbach explained that she and her twin sister were close, but there was often an essence of competition between the two.
Her twin developed an eating disorder, Achenbach said, which their mother, too, had suffered from in the past. Achenbach stayed quiet because she did not want to distract her parents from her siblings.
As a student, Achenbach was not very interested in her studies. She recalled drinking and socializing at parties in high school. Her partying habits continued in college, when she spent a year at Wilkes University before she left for beauty school.
“The last 11 years have been just a disaster,” Achenbach said. At 24, she became pregnant and she and her boyfriend decided to get married. A week before her wedding when she was six months pregnant, Achenbach said that her mother had complications due to conflicting medications. After a week in the hospital, her brain was no longer functioning properly and the difficult decision was made to “pull the plug.”
“Ever since that, I just had a really difficult time getting it together,” Achenbach said. After seven years, she had two sons and her marriage was no longer working. Achenbach said that she divorced her husband and began to date an abusive man — a drug dealer who introduced her to crystal meth.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘This is great. This is my answer. I could do this the rest of my life and be able to deal with things.’… I was so happy that I found something that made me feel like normal,” Achenbach said.
For two years, Achenbach used crystal meth. “It was just a shit-show,” she said. Achenbach designated the weekends as her time to use crystal meth because she did not have her kids, but she then began selecting days during the week to use. “It always progresses,” she said. Achenbach went to Caron (a treatment center) for a month and relapsed. “A lot of times you use because you don’t feel like dealing with life, and I think that’s why I went back after six months,” she explained.
“When you’re using, you feel like your life is totally over.”
Achenbach fell ill one day while at Caron because her oxygen levels were low and she could not breathe. After she was in the hospital for two weeks, her doctor was astounded by the progress that she made. Achenbach said that while in the hospital, she told herself that she would never put herself in that situation again.
“For me, I had to hit my lowest point to get it,” Achenbach said. She opted not to return to her dad’s house and instead came to Easy Does It. “It’s something inside of you that you need to fix because nobody, not even your children, can keep you clean. That’s how I feel,” Achenbach said.
Achenbach’s ex-husband has custody of her children, and she talks to them frequently. “It’s definitely hard for my children that I’m here… they’ll say to me every day, ‘Mom, when are you leaving?’” she said. As a mother, Achenbach expressed that she does feel guilty, but is still able to focus on the positive. “At least while I’ve been here, I’ve been able to work on my relationships with my children,” she said.
Today, Achenbach has been clean for 16 months, and she says that she realizes that she dealt with hardships by moving on and focusing on something new. “Things that you put off and don’t deal with really hit you when you stop [using],” she said.
Achenbach expressed that she is very grateful to be at EDI. “There’s so much more to life than that [using drugs]. When you’re using, you think your life is totally over… Life can be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be that way.“ Achenbach said.
An individual is not immune to addiction because of their race, social class or genetics. Whether a woman comes from a family affected by addiction or not, she can still suffer from this disease. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, ”Research shows that genes are responsible for about half the risk for alcoholism and addiction, and while genetics are not the sole determinant, their presence or absence may increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol or drug dependent.”
“There are so many people out there that you wouldn’t think [are victims of addictions],” Achenbach said. It could be your neighbor, your best friend, or your boss — sometimes you just never know.