A life unraveling
A close look at heroin’s dangerous effects
A failing smoke detector beeps. The smell from the overflowing litter box fills the air. Santa and snowmen decorations crowd the coffee table.
Tomorrow, when she takes her first dose of methadone, Raquel will take a step toward recovery. But tonight, she’s still a junkie. And she’s scared. Scared of withdrawal. Scared the state will take her girls anyway.
Raquel has tried to quit heroin many times in her 47 years, mostly to please probation officers. This time, though, she wants to quit for good, she says, determined to do right by her daughters, ages 4 and 5.
The odds are against her. She hangs out with junkies, counting many as friends. She is bipolar and severely overweight. She has no job, no teeth, no degree beyond the GED she earned in prison. She gets by on Section 8, food stamps, and disability checks for mental illness.
Her dealer, a fellow user, is moving into Raquel’s place with his wife because their apartment has no heat. So there will be easy access to what she is so desperately trying to avoid.
Drugs have been the one constant in Raquel’s life. Born poor in Chelsea, the daughter of an addict and an alcoholic, Raquel is haunted by memories of sexual abuse and drug use as a child. By 19, she said, she was pregnant and selling crack.
“I never wanted to stop using drugs. That’s what my life was,” Raquel said, her voice husky. “I was a junkie, a rundown, a whore.”
Between stints in prison for prostitution and drugs, she got pregnant again, and then twice more. Her oldest daughter, now 29, was raised by her grandmother; the next three — a girl and two boys — were relinquished to foster care.
The two decades that followed were a blur of selling drugs and using drugs and sleeping with men to get money for drugs. Then she got pregnant again in her early 40s, and vowed to do things differently. In 2009, she had Mimi, a funny, wide-eyed girl; less than two years later, Estrella was born, a shy, serious tomboy — both born drug-free, Raquel said. Estrella’s father, a Salvadoran landscape and construction worker named Jose, was different from the other men. He drank too much, but he didn’t do drugs. He was quiet, supportive. And he stuck around.
Raquel’s life on the streets wasn’t over though. A few months before giving birth to Estrella, she was picked up for prostitution in Chelsea. “I was trying to make some quick cash,” she told police, according to the arrest report.
That arrest, coupled with a probation violation, led to a year in prison. Jose, by then a steady presence in Raquel’s life, took care of the girls while she was gone.
For the next few years, Raquel says, she continued to steer clear of heroin. But then she let an addict stay with her. And just like that, she was a junkie again.
She started taking the bus to Chelsea to buy drugs in the square. She had a little extra money from her Uncle Bobby, an Army veteran, who thought he was just helping her get by. On a gray morning at McDonald’s, a few weeks before she geared up to quit, the transaction was almost invisible. Sitting at a table, the dealer handed Raquel a bus pass, drugs concealed underneath. The bathrooms were closed, so Raquel asked the man to watch the girls and headed to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to get high.
The children, unconcerned by her absence, continued playing with a toy doctor’s kit.
Their mother reappeared 10 minutes later looking alert, almost refreshed. Her mascara was smeared, but her green eyes were clear.
Raquel is a woman of rapidly shifting moods, quick to anger and quick to laugh. She is demanding and dramatic, but also affectionate and generous, giving away cigarettes, opening her home to friends in need. And she is remarkably organized — budgeting around the arrival of benefit checks, juggling welfare appointments, always arriving early.
Above all else for her are her daughters. She frets over them constantly, and relies on them to take care of each other and, sometimes, her. When Raquel starts to panic or cry, as she often does, they comfort her with back rubs.
Watching the girls chase each other around the apartment the night before she started on methadone, Raquel worries that she can’t do it. Drugs are too much a part of who she is.
But she must. If she relapses, she’ll lose them.
The next morning, Raquel wakes up “dope sick” — freezing one minute, burning up the next, her stomach cramped and skin crawling. After Jose takes the girls to school, Raquel takes the bus to Chelsea to get high.
Later that morning at the clinic, she swallows her first “happy cup” of red liquid methadone. She starts with 20 milligrams, the first step toward the 100 or so milligrams where most people level out. Many clients stay “on the clinic” for a few years, some far longer.
At first, Raquel continues to use, gradually weaning herself off heroin as her daily dose of methadone rises. Her routine remains largely the same. She spends mornings drinking shakes at McDonald’s, surrounded by other people from the clinic. The idea of getting a job never seems to come up.
Mary Ann Sullivan, a volunteer at the Salvation Army community center in Chelsea where Raquel goes for lunch, has watched Raquel get clean and relapse before. Chelsea is a hard place to stay sober, Sullivan said. Addicts are everywhere, trying to “drag you back in.”
By mid-January, Raquel is up to 65 milligrams, and struggling. She’s wetting the bed, and her hair is falling out. Her short-term memory is also failing: “I’m forgetting how to take buses,” she says, dressed in pajama bottoms at Dunkin’ Donuts, her hand wrapped around a large coffee with eight Sweet’N Lows.
Like other people living on the margins, Raquel has figured out ways to get what she wants. She orders “Frozen” boots for the girls from a shoplifter who charges her half price and gets dentures from a woman who claims to be licensed in Colombia. She buys the antianxiety drug Klonopin and other prescription drugs for $1 or $2 a pill on the street.
At times, the Klonopin, on top of the methadone, puts her in a fog, eyes glazed, speech slurred, nodding off in the middle of a sentence with a cigarette burning between her fingers. Raquel swears she isn’t doing heroin, and her urine screens from the clinic confirm it.
It is a momentous day. Mimi is graduating from kindergarten. Then Raquel, wearing a tight T-shirt dress and leopard necklace, will graduate from a trauma and addiction program.
It had been a dark spring. In April, depressed and suicidal, Raquel spent almost a week in a Boston psychiatric hospital, a bleak ward with peeling paint and a stale cafeteria smell.
After she got out, she attended a three-week outpatient addiction program in Jamaica Plain. And she emerged feeling hopeful.
She stopped taking Klonopin and hanging out in the square. She threatened to kick Jose out for coming home drunk. As the weather warmed, she took her girls to the playground and bought them ice cream.
The children she gave up years ago have been on her mind. She wants to find them. She knows where her oldest daughter is — in prison for selling drugs, her children being raised by adoptive parents.
On the day of the graduation, Raquel stands outside Mario Umana Academy in East Boston with Estrella, Uncle Bobby, and Jose. “My first time seeing my babies graduate,” Raquel says.
Then she spots a family with a balloon and realizes she is empty-handed. So she rushes to the nearby Shaw’s and finds a big, blue “Frozen”-themed one for Mimi and a bunch of white carnations. For a few moments, everything feels OK.
Then the lit tip of her cigarette grazes the balloon, and it deflates instantly. Raquel erupts into tears. She hustles down the street to buy another one.
Inside at the ceremony, Mimi stands on her tiptoes and waves, smiling furiously. “Mommy!”
Raquel blows her kisses. When Mimi gets her certificate, Raquel clasps her hands, a wide, proud grin on her face.
A few hours later, at the conclusion of her therapy program in Jamaica Plain, Raquel starts to cry.
“I didn’t think this was going to work,” she says when she gets her certificate of completion. “It never works.”
Then she beams: “I’m going to put this in a frame.”
Raquel is a mess. Aching, cramping, sweating. Food doesn’t stay down, and when it does it runs right through her.
She is convinced she needs more methadone. But the clinic won’t up her dose until a doctor evaluates her. She just has to tough it out for a few more days.
But she doesn’t want to tough it out. “It will be your fault if I relapse,” she remembers yelling at her counselor.
Her heroin supplier is staying with her again, and it’s almost too easy. After eight months of treatment, Raquel is using again.
The relapse lasts less than a week, she says, and she stops when the clinic at last ups her methadone.
But the damage is done. On Aug. 27, the state takes the girls.
They are whisked away from camp, where, according to court documents, Raquel was unable to speak in complete sentences when she dropped them off, depositing the girls with “poor hygiene and inappropriate clothing.”
At home that afternoon, Raquel is outraged, screaming at Jose, screaming that the Department of Children and Families has no proof of her relapse. As dusk settles, she grows inconsolable. Crawling into the bed she often shares with her daughters, she clutches Estrella’s giant stuffed bear and wails: “I want my babies.”
Her kitten-sized dog, a Chihuahua Yorkie mix named Angel, chews on the toys and prescription pill bottles strewn on the floor. Jose sits silent on the couch.
“Maybe I’m not good enough for them, maybe they need someone better than me,” Raquel says, nearly whispering.“I’m nothing but a junkie.”
Raquel and Jose arrive separately at the DCF office for their weekly visit with the girls, loaded down with Halloween costumes and chocolate milk.
In the month Mimi and Estrella have been gone, the distance between the couple has grown.
At a court date a day after the children were taken, Jose broke down, quickly, quietly, wiping his eyes with his gray tie after learning it would be a few months, at least, before the court would consider sending them home. Raquel reached out to hold his hand, but he ignored her.
The hourlong visit takes place in a small room filled with toys, a social worker keeping close watch outside an open door as the girls dive into the treats, thrilled to see their mom. When it ends, Raquel kisses the girls goodbye and they climb into a van, going where exactly, she does not know. As the door starts to close, Mimi looks back and her face collapses.
“Mimi, stay strong,” Raquel calls out, her eyes welling up. “It’s almost over.”
Then the door slams shut.
The rest of the fall was hard. Raquel got pneumonia and came home from the hospital on oxygen and with a walker. She is still taking methadone, staying busy going to therapy and working on her relationship with Jose, who has started taking her to the church where she was baptized. He wants to adopt Mimi in case something happens to Raquel.
The next court date is in February, but it’s unclear what it will take to get the girls back. For a time, DCF wanted Raquel to go into a residential treatment program. She balked at that. If she’s away too long, she could lose her Section 8 voucher, leaving no home for the children.
“As far as they’re concerned, I’m a junkie, and I’ll never be anything more,” she said.
Sitting alone in her apartment on a windy afternoon, Raquel turns off her oxygen to smoke a cigarette. There is no Christmas tree this year, no stockings hung on the door. A pile of unwrapped gifts — dolls and jewelry kits from the Salvation Army — cover the couch.
When the girls come back, Raquel plans to celebrate all the holidays they missed: putting together Halloween costumes, cooking a Thanksgiving turkey, showering them with Christmas gifts.
Mimi and Estrella seem to be adjusting to their temporary life in foster care. There are fewer tears during supervised visits, fewer wrenching goodbyes — a shift that brings their mother both comfort and pain.
“Sometimes I feel like they don’t even miss me,” she says, lips trembling.
The gray afternoon grows dim. Raquel looks around the empty room and lights another cigarette.