Search About Newsletters Donate
Life Inside

‘Not Just Another Lost Cause’

How the justice system saved an addict.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

Machias, Maine, is remote, quaint America.

Growing up, everyone knew everyone and no one locked their doors. My parents worked hard at their jobs in local grocery stores. We went on weekend fishing trips to the lake. But what I didn’t realize was that somewhere within all of that — as has become increasingly true in communities like mine across America — were the seeds of addiction.

I’d always struggled to find where I fit: I had friends, but wasn’t the most popular. I worked hard at school, but wasn’t the smartest in my class. I played sports, but was never the MVP. I grew tired of mediocrity.

In 1993, when I was 12 years old, a new kid moved to our town. He was 16, and seemed rough, which was attractive. One day, I was looking out his window, watching the beautiful waterfalls that rushed in a nearby stream, when I turned around to see one of my friends sniffing something white off the coffee table.

I loved it immediately. While most girls my age were experimenting with makeup, I was rummaging in my dad’s tool bin for a razor blade.

By 17, I was drinking, smoking weed, and snorting pills, plus experimenting with coke and hallucinogens. The addiction that haunted my father, whom I remembered constantly having a beer in his hand, had begun to sink its teeth into me.

I began selling drugs to support my own habit, and selling became an addiction unto itself. I thrived on the attention. As a kid, I had always been jealous of others. Now, finally, others wanted what I had.

Even an unexpected pregnancy didn’t curb my use. My son was born in the summer of 2004 with neonatal abstinence syndrome. They took him out of my arms and carried him into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to ride out torturous withdrawal symptoms. I remember watching his tiny body tremble; I can still hear his small cries of pain. That’s when I did the only thing I knew to do when feeling out of control and overwhelmed by emotions: I went to the NICU bathroom and got high on Oxycontin.

I loved my son, but my addiction made me completely oblivious to how I could be dangerous to him. I counted Oxycontin pills on his changing table; I took him with me to the places I bought and sold drugs. And he was in my arms the day I looked out my kitchen window and saw two officers from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency pulling into my driveway.

Still carrying my baby, I went into my living room and swallowed all the pills I had left. Minutes later, they arrested me for drug trafficking. I felt a strange sense of relief: My place in the world is finally clear, I thought to myself. I’m an addict. I’m an offender.

Over the next year, I cycled in and out of court, waiting to be sentenced. On June 15, 2005, I was arrested again, this time for violating my bail with continued drug use.

I had never actually been held in jail before.

I was caged in a tiny cell with bright fluorescent lights, with nothing to do but think about all the pain. I felt trapped and panicky. When I looked into the scratched mirror above the toilet, I thought, for the first time, of drug use as a problem, not a solution.

I spent the next three weeks in jail, forced to be sober for the first time in a decade. Then, to my surprise, the court offered me the opportunity to enter the Washington County Adult Drug Treatment Program, commonly known as drug court or treatment court. It required participants to undergo substance use treatment as well as individual and group therapy sessions; submit to frequent, random drug tests; appear before the judge on a regular basis; and get a job or perform community service.

My lawyer actually advised me against it. He doubted that I could make it through such a demanding program, which would last at least a year. He told me he thought I should just serve my 30-month sentence.

But I didn’t want to miss the next two-and-a-half years of my son’s life. So I opted in.

It was clear from Day One that treatment court would be nothing like what I was used to in the justice system. The courtroom no longer felt adversarial, and I didn’t feel like just another number on a docket. The judge, lawyers, and law enforcement officers knew my name and cared about my status. Treatment providers were core members of the court team, making sure that each participant in the program received an individual assessment.

Perhaps I was a human being who had the potential to change, not just another lost cause in an epidemic.

Soon, I was attending treatment twice a week, traveling up to 90 miles round-trip to get there. I also attended support meetings every night, often missing out on tucking my son into bed. I faced the judge every week. The program engulfed my life, which was exactly what I needed.

Paradoxically, my recovery gave me the same feeling that I had been searching for those many years before, when I first picked up drugs. I had finally found a place in the world: showing others what is possible when we become willing, patient, and committed.

I successfully completed the program in 2006, intent on maintaining my sobriety. Back in the world and no longer under court supervision, I began working in a local medical center and obtained my state license as a substance use and addiction counselor. To do so, I had to disclose my record to the state licensing board.

In 2011, I met my husband, Brian. Our passion for recovery attracted us to one another. He too was free from the grip that addiction once held on him. We encouraged one another, not allowing ourselves to be fearful of sobriety.

Eventually, in 2012, I was asked to serve as the treatment provider for the very court program from which I had graduated. I had stood behind the podium as an addict, and now I was working alongside the same judge who presided over my own case.

On my eight-year sober anniversary, I approached him in his chambers. “Your Honor,” I asked, “Do you remember where you were on this day eight years ago?”

He chuckled and said of course he didn’t.

“I do,” I said. “I was standing before you as a criminal defendant.”

But there was one final hurdle: getting my felony charge pardoned. I knew it would be an uphill battle; pardons are rarely granted, and the probation officer who interviewed me said my case was unlikely to be selected by the governor’s council to be heard.

In 2014, I traveled to the state Capitol, in Augusta. In front of an intimidating committee, I defended my application by bearing my soul. I refused to minimize the severity of my crimes, but I also refused to be ashamed of my recovery.

Several nerve-wracking weeks later, an official-looking letter arrived in the mail. Thanks to a treatment court program that allowed me and others in rural America to walk away from the justice system and into a life of health and recovery that I love, I no longer have a criminal record.

Abby Frutchey is the primary treatment provider for the Washington County Adult Drug Treatment Program in Maine. She is a certified clinical supervisor and speaks on recovery at conferences and college courses.