Editor's note: The illicit drug trade is undergoing a seismic shift, with Utah in the middle of the deadly impact of opioids. This is the third story in an ongoing series about this modern-day plague.
Inside an old brick chapel in American Fork, Whitney Morrill sat near the back of the LDS congregation, waiting on the clock. Whitney felt sick, which was normal for her. She knew what she needed and where to get it. She just had to get through sacrament meeting first.
A man was at the pulpit, speaking. She pretended to listen.
She could keep it together for an hour. She’d been doing it for years.
Somebody coughed. Papers shuffled. Children whispered, shushed by their mothers.
Her own mom glanced back, making sure Whitney was still there.
She fidgeted in the pew by the side door, where she sat with her new husband Greg every Sunday. Today she was wearing her favorite dress, blue and maroon, to the calf, just tight enough to show how fit she was at 26, after three babies.
Her kids weren’t around, but that was normal, too.
The speaker kept going.
Her back throbbed. She used to see a pain specialist, after the surgery, but the drugs he prescribed were never quite enough.
Amen, the man finally said.
Air flowed back into the room. The organ hummed to life. The congregation sang. She’d grown up with them. Now they seemed far away, in their small-town bubble, where nothing bad ever happened if you were a good person, and if it did, you just turned that frown upside down.
Amen, she said, and rushed outside, into the cold of February 2014.
Her husband drove the minivan down clean, tree-lined streets, then north on I-15. Someday, she told herself, she’d get it together.
It was about to get much worse.
Just off the freeway, in downtown Salt Lake City, he parked at The Gateway mall.
Across 200 South, past the TRAX line, people huddled in clusters outside the shelter and the soup kitchen, which faced each other across Rio Grande Street. A road to nowhere. Whitney’s heels clicked against the asphalt, carrying her into what felt like a Third World country. People here called it “the block.”
“What do you need?” a man asked, urgently. The air smelled rotten. People shuffled along, eyes flat.
“What do you need?” a boy asked.
The couple stuck to their usual route — 200 South to 500 West, south past the men’s side of the Road Home shelter, east through the Rio Grande parking lot, then north between the family side and the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall. Here and there, men stood like sentinels, repeating the question.
“What do you need?” another asked, pressing. “Black? White? Glass?”
After less than 10 minutes, Whitney and her husband hurried back to the van with two 0.2 gram "pieces" of black-tar heroin, wrapped in twists of black plastic, enough to get them through the day. Soon they would park outside a gas station or under a tree and shoot up in the back seat, sinking into oblivion, still dressed in their church clothes.
Until late this summer, the block looked like the set of an apocalyptic movie. Wizened men and women stood in the median, slept on the sidewalk or drifted into traffic. Some pushed baby strollers packed with plastic bags. The block was like a refugee camp without boundaries, existing wherever its denizens were allowed to gather, waiting for a hot meal or a warm bed. Many were mentally ill. Others were economic victims, damaged veterans, migrant workers between jobs, alcoholics and drug addicts, like Whitney Morrill.
Commuters heading downtown couldn’t miss it. Since early 2016, tents and tarps had filled the median and much of the sidewalk on 500 West, and inched down 300 South toward the FrontRunner station. Rows of men young and old crouched along the walls, waiting for nothing or sleeping off a fix. Dealers hiding in plain sight sold cocaine, methamphetamines, Spice, bath salts and marijuana, but heroin was king, according to detective Greg Wilking of the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Drug incidents in Rio Grande from 2008 to 2017The Rio Grande area is the pulsing heart of Utah’s opioid epidemic. Drug incidents — police incidents where police encountered drugs — declined citywide from 2008 to 2012. Then, in the latter half of 2012, drug incidents in the Rio Grande area began a steady upward climb, jumping from fewer than 50 incidents monthly in 2012 to nearly 250 per month by June 2017. The heatmap above shows the geographic distribution of drug incidents over time, illustrating a shift from being spread over different parts of the city to being concentrated in the Rio Grande area.
The block was a part of Utah’s story that developers and city leaders would rather not tell, but here it was, at the entrance to the city. An eyesore. A drain on property values. An embodiment of the “homeless problem.” It had always been tucked into a less-desirable section of the city, but as development moved west, the block became impossible to ignore.
The block was also a symptom of something darker and more insidious. In 2007, Utah led the nation in abuse of prescription painkillers. As America woke up to an opioid epidemic, Utah focused on the suburbs, where moms overdosed on pain pills. But “the block” was where many of those moms turned once their prescriptions ran out.
Some, like Whitney, become another face in the crowd.
Whether or not city leaders chose to admit it, the block was an open-air drug market, and had been since at least 1990, when Salt Lake police officers stumbled onto checkout lines on Rio Grande Street — one for heroin, one for crack — where dealers sat on lawn chairs and a lunch wagon came at noon, according to two retired police officers with extensive experience on the block. Ever since, various agencies — from the Drug Enforcement Administration to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — have tried every kind of enforcement tactic, from creative stings to crackdowns and tacit acceptance.
Salt Lake City was not alone. A network of drug markets exists across the U.S., the officers said, wherever they can be hidden among a homeless population on the streets.
Like any market, the block was always driven by demand.
As early as 1994, according to those same officers, the Sinaloa cartel took over the block and professionalized the drug trade, cutting out drive-by shootings and other violence that was bad for business.
In 2005, after Congress restricted access to methamphetamine precursors, the cartel amped up its heroin operation, from poppy fields and labs in Mexico to distribution hubs around the U.S. Some dealers came to Utah on six-month rotations, rooming with co-workers like sales reps for pest control. Many came from Honduras, some teenagers. They were all expendable.
“Almost every day, our office gets another 17-year-old kid, arrested in the same spot for selling the same drugs,” said Bob Donohoe, a lawyer with Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys.
Heroin is the dark underbelly of the opioid crisis. It is a destination drug. Eighty percent of heroin users start with legal painkillers, according to the Utah Department of Health. Fewer people use heroin than other opioids, but heroin kills them more often.
Nowhere in Utah was heroin more accessible than the block. Between March 2016 and June 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration led a series of operations there, resulting in 35 arrests and seizures of 35 pounds of heroin, 26 pounds of cocaine, 23 cars and $1.1 million. Still, business went on.
“If you take down one dealer, there’s 10 more to take his place,” said one retired officer. “If you take down one organization, there’s 10 more to take its place.”
And then, overnight, the block seemed to disappear.
On Aug. 14, the Salt Lake City Police Department, the Unified Police Department and the Utah Department of Public Safety descended on the block in force. During Operation Rio Grande, they made more than 400 arrests, including a handful of " “hardcore drug addicts.”
The block crowd scattered, but demand for heroin hasn't gone anywhere.
That same week, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. An estimated 2 million Americans suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers as of 2015, and overdose numbers have spiked in recent years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
This is the story of one face of that epidemic, a suburban Mormon mom from Utah County who was prescribed pain pills after an accident and descended into an addiction that nearly took her life.
She's one of the people who called the block their home.
Descent into addiction
Whitney had to come home when the streetlights came on. That was the rule on summer days in the late 1990s, when she was young and the town was small and a mother had no reason to worry. The family owned a modest but tidy brown-brick ranch home in a quiet cul-de-sac on a hill above downtown American Fork. Whitney and her younger brother, Nathan, would run around together, building treehouses or trekking to the gas station for treats. Later they’d play night games in the streets with the neighborhood kids. Sundays, they’d all go to church down the hill.
Her family built their life around their faith. They prayed together and read The Book of Mormon.
Whitney was the fourth of five children, youngest of three daughters, with bright eyes and babyface cheeks. She wasn’t outgoing, but she loved to sing and dance, and often asked Karren, her mother, to film her with the family camcorder. She took dance lessons and later became a cheerleader at American Fork High School. Junior year, she made the volleyball team as a setter with a wicked serve. One classmate remembered her as a good student, cute but shy.
Inside, she was suffering. She never felt good enough. She never felt accepted by the girls at church, who teased her for a slightly muscular build. She lost weight. She became anorexic and bulimic. Her parents, Karren and Dean, sent her to counseling but didn’t know where else to turn. They agreed to speak about their family on the condition that only their first names be used.
“Let's just go to Young Women's and be normal, please,” said her mother. Whitney didn’t feel the same. Church “was something my mom wanted me to do and I didn't want to do it.” She felt more comfortable among “troublemakers,” friends who would skip class, sneak out with boys, or cruise State Street on a Friday night.
In 2003, at age 15, Whitney got pregnant by Homer, her boyfriend since junior high.
Her mom was devastated. “I wanted the earth to swallow me up,” Karren said.
Whitney carried to term, then placed her son for adoption that December. “I was like, I don’t want to,” she said. “It hurts. It’s hard. But I knew that baby wasn't meant for me."
She got pregnant again at age 17 and insisted on keeping the baby. She and Homer married in October 2004, after handing out invitations in the school hallways, and moved into her parents’ basement. Whitney dropped out to work and prepare to care for their son, who was born in March 2005. Later, Homer followed suit. The marriage was tempestuous, rife with juvenile habits, jealousies and multiple separations. Another pregnancy followed.
One Monday each month, they went to family home evening at her parents’ house and in October 2008, they were sealed with their 3-year-old son in the Salt Lake Temple. That night, their daughter was born.
This was the life Whitney had always wanted, but it was harder than it looked. At 21, with two small children to care for, she suffered a bout of postpartum depression.
Then in January 2009, she slipped and fell carrying a load of laundry down the stairs, landing hard on her back. The pain was excruciating. In May, an MRI revealed a broken back and spondylolisthesis, a condition in which one vertebra repeatedly slips off the one below it, compressing the spinal cord.
In October that year, she had surgery to fuse three vertebrae, and recovery was brutal; a simple cough would paralyze her with a stabbing, throbbing pain. “The only time it would go away was if I took more than the prescribed amount of medication,” she said. “I just thought that was normal.
Her doctor had prescribed OxyContin pills and fentanyl patches, both highly potent opioids. Whitney found these meds soothed all kinds of pain, even anxiety and depression. “I liked the way it made me feel,” Whitney said, “not like a better person, but not so on edge.”
By February 2010, when Homer left to Missouri for basic training with the National Guard, she was wearing three or four patches at a time. “I thought if one makes me feel good, three or four is going to make me feel even better.”
Their marriage was crumbling. In 2011, they moved to Eagle Mountain, hoping a clean slate in a new town would help. The isolation made things worse. Fights made her back ache.
“When I took my pain medication,” she said, “I didn’t … think about what was going on in our life and how we were struggling. If we got in a fight the night before, I would take 12 in one day” — four times the prescribed dose.
Homer tried hiding her pills and meting them out as prescribed, but he was young and inexperienced. “Looking back now,” he said, “it was definitely an addiction. At the time, it just felt like she was in a lot of pain.”
Whitney’s moods flattened out. With enough pills, she didn’t worry about anything. She’d get the kids to school late or not at all. She stopped cleaning her house.
When her mother visited in February 2012, she found Whitney’s house a disgusting mess, with a withered Christmas tree still standing in one corner. Her grandson showed her unsigned school papers from September. The kids would yell and Whitney would stare, unresponsive. “I just stopped caring,” Whitney said.
One day, at her parents’ house, Whitney dropped her last OxyContin on the couch. She reached for it but it disappeared. She tore off the cushions. She tore out the bottom. She reached underneath and ripped off the liner. She found it, relieved.
This made sense to her at the time.
“I didn't think I was doing anything wrong because they were prescribed,” she said. “I'm getting them from a doctor.”
From pills to heroin
“So what’s your drug of choice?”
“Pain pills,” Whitney said. It was one of her first days in rehab, in March 2012.
“What?” The other patient seemed perplexed.
Opioids, like OxyContin, Whitney explained. She doubted it was a real drug problem, but her pain specialist said it was. So did her family.
“Pain pills, that’s not an addiction,” the patient said. “Why are you even here?”
Shortly after the Christmas tree incident, Whitney had left Homer, moving in with her sister, Tiffany. Tiffany had watched Whitney’s moods swing as she burned through her prescriptions and warned Whitney’s doctor at the pain clinic she attended. A blood test had confirmed that Whitney was abusing her meds. The doctor had cut her off from OxyContin and prescribed suboxone, a treatment for opioid addiction. She had started going to weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, even though she found them boring and irrelevant.
Her family had staged an intervention. Whitney, now 24, told them she wanted something more intense, so they sent her to Steps Recovery Center, an inpatient rehab program. The cost was $16,000 a month. What her insurance — through Karren’s job in the administration of the 4th District Juvenile Court — didn’t cover, her parents paid, with help from the church.
At Steps Recovery Center, Whitney had to quit everything, even suboxone. She was expected to feel her need, to know her withdrawals, and get truly clean.
“If you liked pain pills,” the other patients told her, “you’ll love heroin.”
Her counselor recommended a 90-day treatment. She got kicked out after 36.
In May, she moved to Intermountain Daysprings, an outpatient program in Midvale. “That’s where I met Jesse,” Whitney said. He was younger and fit, with a broad chin. “We flirted a lot. I felt like a teenager again.”
She graduated from Daysprings after 30 days.
A week later, she was driving Jesse around in her minivan, somewhere in West Valley City, when he asked her to stop. He dropped black paste into an upturned bottle cap, added water, then smashed and stirred the mixture. As the black tar heroin dissolved, an acrid smell filled the cabin, like old vinegar. Whitney felt sick to her stomach. He shot up with a needle that he carried loose in his backpack.
“Do you want to try?” she said he asked. He tied her arm off with a shoelace and waited for her blood vessels to swell, then felt for the vein and slapped it a few times to open it up. Tiny droplets of her blood bloomed into the syringe when the needle punctured her vein until he squeezed the plunger, sending it all into her bloodstream.
“It was like all the pills I’d ever taken, all in one shot,” Whitney said. “It felt like a relief almost. This is what I want to feel.”
The first time, heroin feels like falling in love. A concentrated form of morphine, it produces overwhelming euphoria, absolute relief from care or concern. Anxiety, depression, fear and anger dissolve in a cloud of warmth and safety, addicts say. The second time is never quite as good, said forensic social worker Patrick Adams. “Now they’re chasing it.”
He has heard stories like this before. Countless heroin addicts passed through his office during the 10 years he worked at the Salt Lake public defender's office. His clients were charged with serious crimes, and his job was to help the judge to understand their motives and circumstances. “When I dig into their lives, I find misery,” Adams said. “From the outside, you couldn't tell.”
Finding the block
Jesse loved Whitney, but he had to sit on her chest, knowing this was the feeling she hated most, to enforce the rules. He had instated many rules since she moved into the brick duplex he shared with his grandmother in Millcreek in July 2012, she said. For example, she was to fall asleep each night with her head on his chest. In the morning, she was not to move until he awoke. She said she wasn't allowed to call her family.
Every day, he would bring more heroin and shoot her up again, she said. Every time, she put her life in his hands.
Jesse taught her how to make money fast. “We would steal, cash (fraudulent) checks, go do retail theft,” Whitney said.
She no longer had her children to care for. Tiffany, her sister, and her husband had filed for guardianship. Homer, whose work required long hours away from home, acquiesced. Whitney didn’t fight it. Now and then, she’d visit and post a selfie with her kids on Facebook. They would try to smile with her, but instead look distracted and scared.
Sometimes, Whitney got scared and tried to leave. Once, Jesse followed her to the van. It wouldn’t start. He had siphoned all the gas out of the tank, she said. The relationship was tumultuous and unstable, and by January 2013, she left him for good, returning again to her parents' home.
Whitney had to get clean. But heroin withdrawals were like nothing she’d ever experienced. She felt anxious and exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. Her body ached. She took hot showers at 2 a.m. to calm down. Her fingertips ached.
In February, she returned to Steps Recovery Center and graduated from the outpatient program after 60 days. She spent her nights in the eating disorder treatment program at the Center for Change.
She got a job as office manager at a chiropractic clinic and started going to the gym. She even became co-chairwoman of an ongoing AA meeting at Sundance’s Cirque Lodge, an inpatient rehab program.
That’s where she met Greg, a former bodybuilder. (Greg declined an interview request.) When their relationship was discovered by Cirque Lodge staff in August 2013, he got kicked out of the program. He had nowhere to go. His parents, who were both French, had disowned him. Whitney’s family took him in, on the condition that they attend church every Sunday.
“It was a terrible idea,” Whitney said. “I thought I could save him, and he thought he could save me. Then it just got ugly.” Drugs returned. Within a month, she was using heroin again.
Together, they discovered the block.
Whitney married Greg that December in Las Vegas.
Soon after, she pawned her mother’s wedding ring. She took money from the till at work, using patient copays to buy drugs and get high.
She stole checks and dipped into her parents’ accounts, until the bank caught on and notified them. They didn’t press charges, but they had to do something.
They tried random at-home drug tests — Dean watching Greg, Karren watching Whitney — until Karren caught Whitney dipping the cup in toilet water to dilute her urine sample.
They tried to make Greg get a job and other ultimatums. Whitney’s parents kicked the couple out, let them back, then kicked them out again. Every time, Whitney promised to quit stealing, to quit using, to quit lying.
Every promise was a lie.
Whitney found her father’s debit card. She knew the PIN, and over three days, she emptied his account. He confronted her. She denied it, but photos from the ATM showed Whitney in the driver’s seat.
“Get out of my house,” her dad told her.
That night, in February 2014, Greg and Whitney slept in the minivan, parked near Cougar Stadium in Provo. Outside, it snowed. At first, they kept the block at a distance, driving north for heroin, then back to sleep in the van or on a friend’s couch, until they moved into an aunt’s basement apartment in Orem.
Some nights Karren would park outside and watch, just to see her daughter get home safe. Then Whitney stopped coming back at all. When Dean and Karren cleaned the apartment, they found dirty clothes and piles of scorched foil, and hypodermic needles under the bed.
By July 2014, the van was parked on 500 West, just off the block.
‘I've never been so scared’
Monday mornings started early on the block. If you wanted to work for a drug dealer, you had to get there first and be ready to get after it. Like foremen outside a Home Depot, dealers would roll in, pick a crew and get to work. At first, Whitney was nervous. She’d been warned about drug dealers her entire life.
“Then I realized, if you’re working for them, you’re going to get free drugs,” she said. That was a free day — a day she didn’t have to hustle for heroin.
Life on the block was a daily grind. The same hustle here as in Las Vegas, Oakland, California, and Spokane, Washington, anywhere drug addicts end up on the streets.
People who couldn’t get on a crew went panhandling, racing for good spots like a gas station or a stoplight. Some women strutted for johns.
Lookouts stood at the major cross streets, rolling around on bikes, reporting back to shot callers who watched it all from somewhere discrete.
On a crew, a dealer did the talking. Somebody else held a backpack with the money. Whitney held the drugs, usually tucked into her bra.
Buyers came in on TRAX, or walked through, or pulled up in a Lexus with a window down. On Sundays, Whitney could tell when church got out by the influx of buyers in suits or flowered dresses.
Whenever a cop rolled by, Whitney would shout, “one time,” a code. If she saw children, she’d yell, “babies on the block,” and the dealers and users would pack up their drugs and pipes and needles, for no other reason than to protect the children.
There were moments of humanity. People shared tents and tarps with improvised families, built around whatever they had in common. The dealers would sometimes treat the crew to a meal at a restaurant or a night in a motel. Chapo, a dealer from Honduras, kept Whitney on for a month, feeding her and keeping her out of the cold. Most importantly to Whitney, he gave her heroin.
She was always high or trying to get high, until she couldn’t anymore. “After so long doing heroin, you don't get high, you just get back to normal,” Whitney said. “So we’d go 'get well.'”
Days, months and seasons ran together.
She thinned out. Her cheeks sank. Her bright eyes went dark. She developed painful abscesses, bacterial infections where she shot up with dirty needles.
She saw a dealer get slashed in a robbery. Addicts scurried to search him for drugs.
She saw knives and guns and fights, and learned to feign sleep.
She saw a young guy get decked and hit his head on the curb. People went through his pockets and took his shoes while clear liquid streamed from his nose. Whitney watched in horror, 10 feet away. She wanted to tell the police. But talking to police would put her in jeopardy.
Sometimes she wanted to get a bed at the shelter, just to get some rest. But men and women couldn’t share a bed at the Road Home, so Greg wouldn’t let her go in, she said.
As fall came on, the nights grew cold.
It was raining. Whitney was alone, sleeping fitfully on a piece of cardboard. Her blanket was wet but better than nothing. Greg found her. He took the blanket, rolled her onto the grass and curled up on her cardboard. Shivering, she started walking with no intention. Across 400 West, she found a breezeway and huddled in a corner to get out of the rain. Still, she was chilled. She had to get warm somehow, so she peed herself in the dark. The warmth spread, comforting, and she fell deeply asleep. She slept more than four hours.
Sometime in fall 2014, a dealer kidnapped Whitney off the street, demanding payment for another's drug debt. Whitney said the dealer kept her locked in a motel bathroom for 14 hours, until her parents wired $300 to pay down the debt.
Her parents picked her up and took her home, where she detoxed for a day. She felt like she was going to die. So she stole some cash and rushed back to the block.
Still, something had changed after that, and it wasn’t just the weather. November brought snow. Whitney ditched her husband to sleep on the floor of a customer’s apartment near 3300 South. She stayed there for three months, waking up early every morning to ride TRAX to the block.
She said she felt something. A foreboding. “Mom, Dad,” she said on the phone. “I’ve never been so scared of dying in my entire life.”
Karren believed it. She’d been feeling something herself. One more time, they brought their daughter home.
In February 2015, Whitney left the block for the last time.
Searching for a solution
Operation Rio Grande began on Monday, Aug. 14. By Tuesday night, the block looked like occupied territory. Patrol cars and SUVs lined up along 500 West, too many to count. Chain-link fencing surrounded the median. Mobile surveillance cameras dotted the area. One mobile command center — a police RV — sat in the middle of 500 West. Another sat behind a fence near the Rio Grande building, where people stood in line doing paperwork under a temporary gazebo.
The trouble with a major crackdown, Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking explained last May, is that it doesn't change the underlying issues. “To disrupt the activity helps, and makes it harder, but it’s not going away,” he said. “The war on drugs is a Band-Aid for society's issues that we haven't dealt with.” Issues like mental illness and trauma.
- Police presence in the Rio Grande area has forced many of the homeless out in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Lt. Governor Spencer Cox speaks at a press conference at the State Capitol as law enforcement conduct Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Homeless individuals camp on 500 West in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City on Friday, July 28, 2017. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Homeless individuals camp on 500 West in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City on Friday, July 28, 2017. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Adams, the forensic social worker, agreed. Jails, prisons and medications can only offer temporary fixes. “The solution is so long, and so far-reaching, and so revealing about the limitations of our culture that it's almost hard to believe,” he said. “You’ve got to teach people to love each other and be better to each other. If a person feels connected and safe, they will behave beautifully.”
As the police clamped down on the block, shadowy figures scattered across downtown. Gaggles of three and four moved west, wearing hoodies, carrying backpacks or trash bags across empty fields and railroad tracks.
North Temple now buzzed with activity. A crowd gathered in the parking lot of a cheap hotel. Here and there, a patrol car was parked with the lights on. Farther west, outside a convenience store, a few men sat on the open tailgate of an SUV. Others stood watch. Cars rolled through slowly. Men ducked to open windows. People walked up on foot.
Hands met in surreptitious exchange.
They knew what they needed and they knew where to get it.
Redemption and recovery
On a hot afternoon in June, Whitney sits on the edge of the beige puffy couch in American Fork where she once lost her last pill, exhausted. A small replica of the Christus stands on a square coffee table. The couch has been repaired, and so has she. Her hair is blond, although she’ll be a brunette again in time for her wedding on Aug. 5, to a man she’d rather not name. He belongs to her future. She shared this story to keep it in the past, where it belongs.
That last detox, here at her parents’ house in February 2015, was the worst yet. She couldn’t sleep. She’d get chills then hot flashes. Sharp pains in her stomach. She’d scream and claw. Karren took her to the emergency room, where she was given fluids and anxiety medication. The nurses had to put the IV in her neck because the various veins in her arms were scarred, bruised, swollen or collapsed.
Later that month, her father sold his Harley Davidson motorcycle for $6,700 so Whitney could move into a sober living facility for women and stay for three and a half months. This wasn’t rehab. There were no programs or therapy, just a safe place to stay with women who had been through the same ordeal. They taught her to rely on herself. When she dislocated her shoulder in a car accident, she refused painkillers. It was the first time she’d ever done that.
- Whitney Morrill prepares for her wedding with her mother, Karren, and daughter, in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill gets her makeup and hair applied by Kelly Woodward, left, and Bailey Ault, right, before her wedding in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill gets a kiss from her mother, Karren, before her wedding in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill gets her hair and makeup done before her wedding in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill gets help from her mother, Karren, to put on her dress before getting married in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Whitney Morrill prepares for her wedding with her daughter, left, in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill gets her makeup applied by Kelly Woodward, left, in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
- Whitney Morrill checks out her hair and makeup in the mirror before her wedding in Alpine on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017.
“This time I was getting sober for me,” Whitney says, “rather than to make someone else happy or because I had to.”
Heroin addiction had destroyed her life. She had to rebuild it.
She worked to regain her parents’ trust. That requires time, without lying, stealing or relapsing. They installed a security system after she moved to the block. Now she has the code.
She got a job doing sales over the phone for a credit repair company, then got promoted to office administrator.
She’s still working on being a mom. She has shared custody with Homer. The kids visit her every other weekend and one day a week after school. She could seek a half-time arrangement, but she hasn’t done it.
“I don't know if I'm ready to take on that responsibility,” she says.
She visited different churches, like The Rock and South Mountain Community Church, both in Draper, both nondenominational Christian. She liked South Mountain Community best. She could dress as she pleased and nobody judged her. The music was fun, with guitars and drums and a gospel theme. They even did baptisms in a big pool right on stage. But Whitney didn’t get baptized.
She felt more comfortable on her own. She found spirituality within herself, a quiet connection to those who’ve gone before.
Still, she takes her kids to the brick LDS meetinghouse down the hill. It feels like home.
The man she's marrying has had some rough times of his own, but he’s no addict. He’s a former police officer who once pulled her over with Jesse in the van. His father, a DEA agent, asked Whitney to share her story. She has appeared at a police academy and a high school. It’s exhausting, but she can’t let herself forget.
When she feels a craving, she remembers that last detox and all the work she has put in to rebuild her ties with the people she loves, and that helps her to say no.
Whitney forgot once, in January 2016, after another relationship went sour.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” she said. She drove to the shelter around 10:30 p.m. She bought heroin. She was walking back to her car when red-and-blue lights flashed. She was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance. As the officer drove her to the Salt Lake County Jail, he never stopped talking, telling Whitney she was a good person and that her life didn’t have to be like this.
“I don't think that cop will ever know what he did for me,” Whitney says. “He saved my life that night.” She never went back.
So now, at age 30, she tells the story, as she will again, to keep it where it belongs. Her life depends on it.
“I know I have one more relapse in me,” she said. “But I don’t know if I have another recovery.”