First sober Christmas together greatest present of all

Lynsi Donnelly sat on a couch between her mother and her mother's boyfriend playing with a cell phone.

A Christmas tree, trimmed neatly with lights and baubles, stood next to the living room's front window in the Hegeler home. Carefully wrapped presents lined the walls along the side, some stacked underneath.

For 15-year-old Lynsi, this Christmas is the first she'll celebrate with a sober mom in her new house and in her new life. Her mother, Becki Donnelly, graduated from the Vermilion County drug court program in December – drug-free for 15 months.

"I didn't really like her doing drugs because she was mean, she was never there," Lynsi said.

Lynsi and a 6-year-old brother are now living with their mom, but their four brothers and sisters are not. Lynsi Donnelly's 18-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother live with aunts. Her younger sisters, ages 7 and 4, live with her father.

While Lynsi and Becki Donnelly, 35, sometimes think of each other more as sisters than mother and daughter, they each play another role. As a recovering addict in a 12-step program, Becki Donnelly has a list of people who support her. Lynsi is one of them.

Her list also includes a sponsor; her boyfriend, Kevin Doggett; and her sister-in-law, Judy Donnelly.

"For me, my support system has to be the people who stood by with me in all of this," Becki Donnelly said.

"All of this" started with a drink when she was 11.

"I've used everything out there, but meth was the one that spiraled out of control and I hit rock bottom," she said.

Methamphetamine is sometimes known as the poor man's cocaine because it offers a similar high. Unlike cocaine, highs from the concoction of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine and anhydrous ammonia can last hours. It can be made at home in the bathtub or portable coolers. It's also highly addictive.

Though Becki Donnelly smoked marijuana on a daily basis, used cocaine and "so on," it wasn't until she was 31 that she tried meth.

"I'd done it a couple of times, but I just never found the right way to do it. One night, someone fed me two grams in a capsule, and I was higher than I'd ever been in my life," she said. "I remember thinking, 'This is what I've been waiting for all my life.'"

Soon she found herself cooking the stuff to get high, selling what she needed to buy ingredients for another batch. She and her husband separated in 2002. Often left alone, Lynsi and her younger siblings eventually moved in with their father.

Donnelly went after them, dropping by one night to take them home. None of her children wanted to go, but Donnelly took her youngest daughter, then 1.

"She wasn't old enough to say no," Donnelly said.

For three months, Donnelly took her baby from place to place to get high.

In 2004, she went to the bank to cash an income tax refund check, leaving her baby with a friend. When she returned, her baby had been taken by police.

A month later, she was arrested on charges of cooking meth. More than a year later, in April 2005, Donnelly entered drug court.

The Vermilion County drug court program helps convicted substance abusers clean up and stay out of jail through intense supervision and treatment. There are punishments such as jail time and awards based on behavior.

Drug court is an effective criminal justice rehabilitation program, said Susan Perkins, clinical director for Prairie Center Health Systems Inc., a drug treatment and counseling center.

"The majority of (the graduates) stay off drugs and out of the criminal justice system," Perkins said.

About 75 percent of those who serve jail time become repeat offenders, Perkins said.

"The recidivism rate (of drug court graduates) is 5 to 25 percent," Perkins said.

Enrolling in drug court didn't automatically sober Donnelly up.

Four months into the program, she used meth again.

This time, though, Donnelly knew that if she "dropped dirty" – if her drug test came back positive – she'd face jail time.

She made plans to run, plotting with a friend for supplies, but Doggett interfered. He took her to drug court himself.

Donnelly spent one month in jail. In August 2005, she was sent to a residential treatment center in Springfield. She resisted at first.

"I thought, 'If these people let me out and let me get high, I'd be all right,' " she said.

It was Doggett who encouraged her to give it a chance.

"In my opinion, an addict is nothing but a two-bit loser," he said. "I've been there."

He also forced Donnelly to think of her family.

"The kids need you to do this; you need to do this," he told her then.

It was a turning point in Donnelly's recovery.

"I put everything I had into it," she said.

Meth addictions are just like any other addiction, said Betty Seidel, director of Prairie Center.

"The outcome for addiction treatments for people who abuse (meth) are just as good for someone who was addicted to alcohol," Seidel said. "The problem is getting them into treatment."

It took Donnelly five months to accept treatment. Though she was in drug court, she initially doctored drug tests and persuaded the court to let her sober up on her own.

"I'd rather be in (the department of corrections) than in residential," she said. "I wanted to get high."

Perkins estimates that 30 to 40 percent of drug court newcomers initially continue using drugs.

"People are used to a nondrug system; their head's in a drug fog," Perkins said. "Our biggest thing is trying to get them engaged in treatment."

For Donnelly, the addict, meth was the top of the pyramid of drugs she took. Marijuana was the base.

"I'd use weed to get up in the morning, weed on a break at work, weed when I was sad and weed when I was happy," she said.

But now, "I'm more worried about what's going on in this family. I've eliminated everybody in my life; all the old people are gone."

She's still working on mending her relationships with her children.

"I don't think a thousand 'I'm sorrys' can ever repair the damage I've done," she said.

This Christmas, though, is a milestone. It will be the first year that Donnelly will have her four younger children at her house, the house she just moved into and the one she plans to buy.

Raking leaves one morning a few months ago, Donnelly realized she had more than she ever had before.

"This is life," she said. "I finally have a life."

Lynsi sat on the couch next to her mom and debated when to open Christmas presents.

"Struggles bring out the best of us," Donnelly said. "We show them there is life other than (drugs). We're not closed up trying to hit a pipe."

Lynsi agreed.

"She's changed a lot. It's better," she said.

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