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Dissecting addiction: Cycles of pain

Even in remission, addiction can still come back

LINDON — MarySunshyne flashes a shy smile as she climbs into her mother's lap.

She's 2 now, she proclaims, holding up little fingers to prove it. She's not old enough to remember the months she spent in a Provo recovery clinic with her mom and two older siblings.

All she knows now is that her mom is home.

And she is clean.

That was November, when Shantel Walker's thinking was clear and she was focused on being a mother — not a meth addict.

But a few days before Christmas she fell again. Hard.

December is a hard month, Walker says. Holiday pressures, plus the memory of her brother, Shayne DeWitt, whose birthday falls on Dec. 25.

It was 19-year-old DeWitt's death in 2001 from a drug overdose that drove Walker to smoke pot. Soon after, she started to drink.

Less than two years later, Walker's father died, and overnight, she says, she became an alcoholic.

"My mom would say, (I know) you're suffering," Walker said in November. "(But I told her) I was not drinking because my dad had died. I was in total denial. I would not admit one had to do with the other."

The heavy drinking warped her personality and attracted a different crowd.

All of a sudden it was methamphetamine.

Walker spent three years addicted to meth, then two years in intensive recovery. It was like a game of Ping-Pong — she'd get released from a program and end up relapsing months later.

In November, Walker had been sober for nine months. The 28-year-old's smile was bright, her eyes clear. She had finally realized drug addiction was a battle she would always face.

"I have to deal with this the rest of my life," she said. "Everybody's got something. If I had asthma, I'd have it the rest of my life. If I had diabetes, I'd have it the rest of my life. Cowboy up."

She will need that reminder now more than ever.

Relabeling addiction

Shantel is not alone.

Last year, officials documented 23.2 million Americans who needed treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Of those, only 10 percent got help. Most of them didn't even think they needed treatment.

In denial, just as Walker initially was.

In Utah, more than 95,000 adults and youths need substance-abuse treatment services, according to the Utah Division of Substance and Mental Health 2007 annual report. Those being served? Just over 17 percent.

However, some don't realize that 17 percent may still come back for more treatment. A second time. A third time. Maybe even a sixth time.

There is no quick fix for addiction. It's like cancer. Even in remission, it can still come back.

And it does.

"Substance abuse is not a moral failing," said Richard Nance, director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse. "It's a biochemical disease. (It's) still treated like it's a short-term, acute disease, but it's not."

Through treatment, Walker had finally seen what drugs were doing to her. They changed her brain pathways and perpetuated thinking errors.

"Addiction is a brain disease," added Dr. H. Westley Clark, the director of the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. "The receptors have changed; the neurotransmitters have changed. Just because you stopped drinking by 8 a.m. today doesn't mean you will by 8 p.m."

Getting help

After spending three years hooked on meth, Walker credits "divine intervention" for her arrest in 2007 — six years to the day after her brother died.

Her grandmother's house caught on fire, and responding officers found drugs in the garage that belonged to Walker's cousin. When officers searched her, she had drugs in her pockets, too — the only things she found in her room that hadn't melted.

As part of her drug possession case, Walker was sent to House of Hope, an inpatient treatment center for women and their children in Provo, where she finally saw how her addiction was affecting her children.

Angelle, now 11, had severe stomach cramps and took Zantac daily to deal with stress.

River, now 8, doesn't remember much, and MarySunshyne, 2, was still a baby.

After her three-month stay and months of aftercare, "I thought for sure I was good," Walker said in November. "I didn't realize how hard it is out of that safe environment."

Loneliness drove her back to old friends, and she convinced herself she wouldn't use with them. After all, she had been through treatment. She was better.

But she underestimated her disease.

She still underestimates her disease.

Using drugs had become automatic and compulsive, like a twitch. In addicts' brains, drugs "hijack" large neural pathways and corrupt them to focus on getting and maintaining a drug supply, said Dr. Glen Hanson, a professor at the University of Utah's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and director of the Utah Addiction Center.

"Now that you've got this major pathway that's very dominant, it's controlling your behaviors," he said. "That pathway will win out."

And it did. Walker relapsed the first time, flooded with guilt.

Her negative thinking brought on another, easier, relapse.

"I thought, 'I've already screwed up.' But even the second relapse, I hated every minute of it," she said. "Treatment is a buzz-kill. You don't get high because ... you know who you are hurting."

She continues to hurt herself, her kids and her mom, Lisa Ross-Walker. But it's not intentional.

Ross-Walker said it took her years to realize she hadn't caused her daughter's relapses — even this most recent one.

"It was ridiculous, but that's what I thought," Ross-Walker said. "(Relapses) were part of the recovery process I was not aware of. I learned that relapse was not something that I should be so devastated with."

But the pain is still there. Walker has pulled away from family and is currently living with friends.

Months ago, after relapsing again in another county-funded program, Walker finally realized she had to see addiction as an illness without a quick fix.

"I had no idea (recovery) was such a process," Walker said in November. "When you relapse, you brush it off and move on. You don't beat yourself up."

She got that new perspective through the DORA program. The Drug Offender Reform Act was established in 2007 by the Utah Legislature to provide treatment for addicts with felony charges or addicts who are first-time parolees.

In DORA, Walker confronted her demons and dealt with the emotional pain that was driving her drug use.

She didn't relapse in DORA. She didn't want to, she said.

But even the follow-up weekly one-on-one counseling sessions couldn't stop her from relapsing again.

Her brain is still affected. She is still dealing with a life-long disease.

"You never cure addiction," Hanson said. "You get it under control, but you never cure it. You've laid pathways in the brain — those things do not go away. But having said that, you can do (treatment) successfully."

In November, Walker was committed to success. To recovery.

Her mother and children pray she finds the strength to try once more, to create new brain pathways, to focus on being a mother again, which is what she really wants. Not drugs.

"My main purpose in this life is to be a mom," Walker said in November, smiling at MarySunshyne, who was climbing on and off her lap like it was a playground toy. "If I knew that I was a good mom, I would feel fulfilled. (But before) I was choosing something besides my kids. A stupid chemical."

Coming Monday: Detours along the paths to recovery

Coming Tuesday: Just like us, blending in, giving back