Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Road to recovery: Holidays have new meaning for former addict

Carrie Anne Ross will spend this Christmas with her family for the first time in years.
The 28-year-old Greenville woman spent the better part of the past decade trying to find herself and learn how to express her feelings. Instead, she found herself lost in the hellish world of an all-consuming drug addiction — with a jail and prison record, near-death experiences and emotional scars as proof.
Carrie Ross plays with her two pit bulls, dogs she adopted from a rescue agency. Their names, Kubera and Janis, have symbolic meanings for Carrie. — Daily News/Cory Smith
Now Ross is out on the other side with a new outlook on life. She agreed to share her story with The Daily News with the goal of helping someone else learn from her experience before it’s too late.
“I only do this in hopes that maybe even one person may read it and know that they are not hopeless,” she said. “That is what I needed. And that is what I try to give to those who still suffer.
“Addiction is life-consuming,” she said. “But so is recovery, if you give it a chance. All you need to be is willing.”

A happy childhood
Ross has no traumatic childhood issues upon which to blame her struggles. She grew up with loving parents, an older sister and two younger brothers.
“I actually had a really good childhood,” she said. “I was loved and I felt loved.”
Ross was born in Dearborn, but her family soon moved to a suburb in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she flourished in school, both educationally and socially. When her family relocated to Greenville, Ross was placed in honors and advanced classes.
But making new friends wasn’t as easy as making A’s. Ross recalls spending a lot of time in the library.
Carrie Ross enjoys a guitar jam session with a friend on her front porch. — Daily News/Cory Smith
“It took me a long time to make friends after moving up here from Ohio,” she said. “I was socially awkward and didn’t really fit in.”
Ross’ mother, Pamela, encouraged all four of her children to get involved in extracurricular activities. Ross began playing string bass at age 10, which led to her picking up additional instruments later on, including the guitar. She sang in choir and played soccer. Ross’ mother worked at an inpatient rehabilitation center for senior citizens and Ross found herself spending a lot of time there, wrapping Christmas presents and bringing in pets for the residents to enjoy.
Ross was especially close to her father, Roger. She bonded with him by hanging out in his garage and listening to classic rock music while he shared his vast knowledge of Harley Davidson motorcycles with her.
“He was my best friend,” Ross said. “He had the biggest heart. One of those people that everybody loved.”

The beginning of a vicious cycle
Ross eventually made new friends in Greenville, but she never quite felt comfortable in her own skin. She knew her friends accepted her, but she often felt anxious and quiet.
Barely into her teens, Ross began attending parties with her new friends and suddenly her feelings of inadequacy disappeared.
“All of a sudden, all of the inner awkwardness I had felt my whole life had gone away,” she said. “I was able to open up, have a good time and actually felt like I belonged.”
What would eventually become a lengthy and vicious cycle started simply enough with Ross going to parties and drinking alcohol on the weekends. She smoked marijuana a few times, which led to smoking pot every day and drinking more often.
Carrie Ross smiles during a Celebrate Recovery Walk and Rally in Detroit on Sept. 16. Ross helped arrange for a charter bus to transport recovering addicts to the rally for free, with the assistance of Riverhaven Coordinating Agency. — Courtesy photo
At age 16, Ross began snorting cocaine – but only on the weekends. She didn’t feel like she was losing control. She tried crack, ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs.
“Of course, it went from weekends to weeklong binges, but I still didn’t think I had a problem, because I could stop using one drug,” she said. “But I always seemed to replace it with another.”
Carrie’s older sister, Cassandra, felt like it was her fault since Cassandra and her friends smoked pot too.
“She was such a good girl,” recalled Cassandra, now 30 years old. “She would tell me how I was ruining my life and all this other stuff because of drugs.”
Cassandra left drug use behind after high school, for the most part. Carrie didn’t.

The first real high
In October 2003, Ross’ father was diagnosed with liver cancer. Ross was suddenly faced with having to help care for Roger, the rock in her life, and watching his health slowly and painfully decline.
“The inner pain was excruciating, but I felt unable to express it, because I didn’t want him to see me break down,” Ross said. “I felt like I needed to be strong for everyone, because things were falling apart.”
Ross took Oxycodone to cope. It was stronger than anything she had ever taken before.
“I got a nice buzz off of it,” she recalled. “It felt warm and calming. It completely numbed everything, mind, body and spirit. And it worked for me, because I have never been comfortable in my own skin or with intense feelings. I felt the illusion of peace, masked by the inability to feel anything at all.
“It felt like a warm wave of comfort manifested into physical feeling,” she said. “It was what I conceived as happiness at the time.”
Carrie Ross enjoyed attending this year’s ArtPrize event in Grand Rapids, as well as spending time with her sister — something that wasn’t a priority when Ross was addicted to drugs. — Courtesy photo
For the first time, Ross felt no pain. She misinterpreted that feeling for happiness. She began taking Oxycodone every day. She could get them easily, so it was a convenient habit and she justified it due to the stressful situation with her father. She began selling Oxycodone, which made it easier to afford the pills.
Ross also entered into a serious, longterm, romantic relationship.
“All I will say about that is that it ended up being extremely destructive from both sides,” she said.

Life after high school
Despite her drug use, Ross continued to function in society. She graduated from Greenville High School in 2003. She worked several jobs at one time, including a grocery store deli, concessions at fairs, an art boutique, various jobs on Mackinac Island and various cashier and waitressing jobs … “just a means to get by, nothing with any potential for growth,” she noted.
As her drug use continued to escalate, she found it easy to get jobs, but difficult to keep them.
“Once I got into opiates, I would dabble in the occasional coke or meth, but nothing too drastic,” she said. “The pills served every purpose I needed. My addiction progressed from eating to snorting and ended at intravenous injection. Once you resort to using the needle, there is really no going back.”
When doctors began restricting Oxycodone prescriptions, Ross said an influx of heroin hit the local streets to fill the need of addicts.
“Basic economics at its worst,” she said. “I found it was way cheaper and since my tolerance had went up so high, that was a good thing to me at the time. A detox nurse later told me that the amount I was describing was not possible, that it would be a sure overdose. My reply was, ‘You want to see?’”
Still, Ross never viewed herself as a drug addict until the first time she went to jail.

Jail and prison
Ross began using methamphetamine at age 19. This went on for about a year. The periods of use were months long. She lost track of time and reason.
“I distinctly remember my mom shaking me and screaming, ‘You are going to die!’ Ross recalled.
Ross was arrested for the first time in July 2004 for carrying a concealed weapon. She had a loaded gun under her car seat, mainly for safety while she was selling pills. She had come to recognize how desperate drug addicts could be when going through withdrawal, although she had never gone through withdrawal herself.
Ross experienced withdrawal for the first time during a weekend in the Montcalm County Jail.
“It was the most excruciating pain I had ever experienced,” she said. “I couldn’t stop throwing up. My insides were revolting. My body hurt. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was freezing, yet profusely sweating. I couldn’t even stand. I just remember laying on the holding tank floor, crying. I didn’t even really know what was going on.”
After her first withdrawal, Ross began to realize she had a problem, but she thought she could control it.
She couldn’t.
She continued to sell drugs and began stealing as well. She repeatedly violated the terms of her probation until it was revoked.
“I found myself homeless, sick and without hope,” she said. “I was almost raped, experienced abuse and left hopeless to find my own way. The insanity is that I continued to use knowing it was the source of all of my problems.”
Ross’ father Roger died from liver cancer on Oct. 10, 2006 – four days after Ross’ 22nd birthday. Once again, she didn’t know how to express her feelings of inner turmoil in a healthy way. The drug use continued to escalate.
Ross was convicted of four felonies and multiple misdemeanors from 2004 to 2011. She spent as much time behind bars as free. She spent two and a half years in prison for retail fraud.
Ross can’t count the number of times she tried to quit drugs. She went to inpatient rehab once, but left after several weeks. She put herself into detox five times, each time lasting five days, but she would be physically ill when she left and would get high to relieve the withdrawals. She even tried going cold turkey.
“Sometimes, I would get a period of time without using, but would always go back,” she said. “A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was never willing to give up the lifestyle. I kept the same schedule, same behaviors, same associations. And eventually, every time, I would start getting high again, no matter how badly I wanted to be clean. I didn’t have any clean friends. I didn’t have the vast support system needed for a recovering addict. Everything was the same.”

Wake-up call
The final straw came last year.
Ross thought she had her life together with a good job and stable home life. She had been clean from drugs for a new length of time. But she was fooling herself … and once again she found herself feeling hollow and alone.
Everything fell apart one night in August 2011 in a room at the Flat River Inn & Suites in Greenville. Officers from the Greenville Department of Public Safety were searching for a local drug dealer. Instead, they found Ross and another man in the drug dealer’s motel room, along with a backpack full of drugs.
“The day before my last arrest, the thought occurred to me that I was going to die from this disease,” Ross recalled. “Divine intervention came in the form of a police raid. And I remember praying that if I get one more chance, I will do everything possible to get better and to make a difference.”
Ross got her one more chance – the Montcalm County Drug Court program. She was told she would be allowed to participate if she pleaded guilty to what would be her fourth felony. She agreed.
“At first I was scared, because everyone says the program is set up for failure,” she said. “I find that is only true for people who don’t want to stay sober. To be honest, everyone involved really cares and just wants the best for you, even though sometimes you may not agree, but remember, my logic got me into this in the first place.”

Road to recovery
No one helped Ross more than her probation officer, Bonnie Steed, who had revoked Ross’ probation twice in the past. The second time Steed revoked Ross’ probation, she had left her with haunting words that rang in Ross’ ears for years after, saying, “WHEN they find you dead in a ditch somewhere, I will not be supervising you.”
After almost a decade of drug abuse, Ross was finally ready to come clean for good. She recognized that the feeling from drug high was actually only the feeling of not being able to feel anything at all. She began to learn the importance of surrounding herself with people who were not addicts. She realized that while she and some of her former friends had a genuine connection, they also helped each other destroy themselves.
“We were all just really sick and the desperation was shared,” she said. “That is probably the No. 1 reason people relapse once they get clean. It was for me. I would get off the drugs, but be desperate for that bond that had grown between friends over years of struggling together. It was a twisted form of camaraderie.
“I still hope to see them get better,” she said. “And I am extremely happy when I get the opportunity to do so. I know though that I have to wait for them to come around on their own. All I can do is live a life that they may want one day.”

A purpose-driven life
Ross will be home with her family this Christmas for the first time since 2007. She and her sister Cassandra are reconnecting for the first time since their teenage years.
“She came out of jail (after the Flat River Inn & Suites incident) with a whole new mindset,” Cassandra said. “I thought she was better when she got out of prison, but when she got out jail, she had a whole new mindset. She had goals and said, ‘I’m gonna do it.’”
The sisters recently enjoyed attending a Trans Siberian Orchestra concert, which has been a traditional way of celebrating Cassandra’s birthday for the past nine years. Carrie went to the first concert nine years ago. She missed the next seven. This year, she was here for the ninth.
“I am so, so proud of her,” Cassandra said. “She is doing so good. I’m so happy for her. She wants to be a drug counselor and she can relate to drug users, which is so, so huge.
“I’m her older sister and she inspired me,” she added. “I’ve been trying to do more and give more every chance I get. It’s just such a beautiful story. I think she’s got the guns for it this time. I’m so looking forward to seeing what she does with her life.”
Ross is also finally getting to know her younger brothers, Keith and Cody.
“They were still so young when I started heavily using that I never got the opportunity to get to know who they really were,” Ross said. “They are great men now and every moment I get to share with them is a source of gratitude.”
Keith, 22, is enjoying his new friendship with his sister. They have been spending time working on cars together and talking.
“She’s been gone for years and it’s like now I can finally hang out with her,” Keith said. “It’s pretty good. She’s a lot more open with people nowadays. She seems happier and she’s a lot more successful now. She does a lot for everybody else.
“I’m just hoping that she keeps up with this program,” he added. “She’s teaching classes now too, she’s teaching this community how to be better. And Greenville has been through some tough times lately.”
Ross has a good job now. She recently moved into a new house with the two pit bulls she adopted through a rescue agency. One dog is named Kubera, after the wrathful guardian and god of wealth in Buddhism. Ross associates Kubera’s wealth namesake not with materialist wealth, but spiritual wealth. The other dog is named Janis after Janis Joplin. The dog’s name was inspired because she enjoys howling along while Ross plays guitar.
“They are both rescue dogs and got me through a lot,” Ross said. “Loneliness can be a big factor and early in my recovery I had gotten Kubera to avoid that pitfall. It worked and I saw it fit to get him a friend as well. That is where Janis came in.”
Ross is on a mission today: to help ease the suffering of those who struggle with addiction. She does so via service work with drug court and other volunteer committees. She organized a bus trip for recovering addicts to attend the Celebrate Recovery Walk & Rally last year in Detroit. She helps collect coats for the homeless. She volunteers at food kitchens. She is attending college with the goal of becoming an addiction therapist.
“It is a humble way of life,” she said. “The biggest thing I can do is stay sober and hopefully someone will see something that I have and they want. You can’t push recovery on anyone. I was blessed with the gift of desperation to do whatever it takes to stay sober. And I do that through a rigorous recovery program. The biggest thing though is living clean and being willing to share that with people searching for the same thing.”
Ross’ road to recovery was long, dirty and hard-fought. But she’s on the right road now, headed in a new direction, excited for what the New Year holds. Her hazel eyes are clear and sparkling. Her smile radiates innocence and hope. Her enthusiastic personality is contagious and full of life.
“I am thankful to be present and to have the relationship with my family that I am gaining,” she said. “Thankful to have real friends who just want to help me recover. And thankful to be able to pass the ripple on.
“And it took all of that for me to finally be willing to change,” she summarized of her story.

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