TOLONO — She just wanted relief from having three teeth pulled. But what Rachel Harris got was 15 years of drug addiction from which she only recently emerged.
From Vicodin to heroin, and a few other drugs along the way, Harris lost her home, lost a boyfriend to a heroin overdose, walked out on three children, got fired from her job, and turned to stealing.
Her arrest for burglary in 2015 may have saved her life.
The rural Tolono woman is about to join 309 other people who have come out of drug-induced fogs in the 20 years that Champaign County has had a court dedicated to helping people whose addictions drove them to crime.
She and four others make up the 41st class to graduate on Wednesday.
“I would tell anyone in a position like me: Days are going to be hard and we’re feeling things we haven’t felt in a long time,” Harris said.
“All these things will pass: hurt, anger, resentment toward yourself.
“You have to make yourself uncomfortable. You can’t stay in the same routine.”
Up to 30 Vicodin a day
Harris said she was about 22 when she was given a prescription for the painkiller Vicodin after having three teeth pulled. “It was just a normal routine teeth removal.”
The effect of painkillers was not normal.
“They made me feel good. I felt like I had more energy,” she said.
She refilled the prescription, went through the second batch and wanted more.
When the refills expired, she found pills any way she could — off the street at $5 to $10 a pop or by visiting the emergency room with feigned back pain.
“At first, it was probably like five (a day). But it got to the point where I was taking 30 pills a day,” she said.
Realizing it was a problem, she went to a detoxification center for a week in 2012.
“It helped for two years. In 2014, I went to the doctor for chest pain. They gave me Vicodin,” she said. “I thought, it had been two years. This isn’t going to be a problem. Within two days, the bottle of 30 was gone.
“That led to me seeking pills out. I met the father of my 2-year-old son. He gave me heroin.”
“I just kind of melted in my seat. It was like being wrapped in warm blankets. It was a totally different experience and I loved it,” she said of the effects.
Daily goal: ‘Find heroin’
“I ended up leaving my home, my children. Right now, I have five. Then I had only three,” she said, adding she moved in with the boyfriend who first gave her the heroin. “That was our mission every single day to go and find heroin.”
Without the means to pay for it, that’s how she got into the justice system.
Arrested at age 33 in February 2015 for residential burglary after breaking into a home in Tolono, she pleaded guilty in October 2015 to the less serious burglary for probation. It was her first-ever conviction.
She had lost her job of 14 years — an aide at a group home — in January of that year.
“They suspected drug use,” she said. “They never drug tested me but I was nodding off while there, not doing my job duties. I was slacking.”
She’s not sure if she even knew she was performing poorly.
“I was so caught in it. I think my awareness just went out the window the moment I started doing it (heroin). I didn’t care about anything else.”
When she didn’t have it, it was awful. Withdrawal from heroin “is so much more in your face” than withdrawal from pills, she said.
“Your bones hurt. You’re cold, sweating profusely, vomiting, diarrhea. It feels like your whole body is shutting down. You know that only one thing is going to make you feel better. That is your goal and you will do anything necessary to fix it.”
‘I need to come home’
In 2016, she stole her boyfriend’s mother’s checkbook to get money for heroin. To avoid prosecution, Harris and her boyfriend took off to Maine, where he knew someone that they stayed with.
She got a job, using the tips she earned to buy heroin. If there wasn’t enough cash for drugs, she lied to her employer, borrowing against her paycheck and from co-workers. She perfected her skills at manipulation.
She left three children behind to go to Maine.
“Any time I ever thought about my kids, I would cry and then I would use. I’d use that as an excuse,” she said.
Learning she was pregnant in July 2016, she began getting Suboxone, intended as a treatment for opioid addicts. She was two weeks clean, she said, when the boyfriend announced he didn’t like the sober version of her.
She caved and used.
“I called my mom, crying and saying I need to come home,” Harris said.
The endless patience of family members who took care of her children and were willing to help her is nothing short of remarkable. Without telling the boyfriend, she left Maine with the help of family who got her back home but insisted she turn herself in for violating her probation.
Because she had a high-risk pregnancy, she was quickly released from jail.
Living with her sister, and reunited with her three children, she felt out of place.
“Not three days later, I see (the boyfriend) walking down the street. He came back to Illinois. I talked to him. He said, ‘I got some dope.’”
“I’m about five months pregnant. I did a line with him and then I went back to my sister’s house.”
The next day, she returned to his apartment and found him dead on the bed, the victim of an overdose.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god. What is going on?’ I had done the same heroin with him that he had overdosed on. I was numb,” she said.
Three weeks later, on Dec. 21, 2016, Harris was sentenced to drug court. She hasn’t used heroin since.
‘I didn’t listen well’
After being jailed about a month, Harris went to rehab. She got out in February 2017.
A month later, her son was born with Suboxone in his system.
“He had to be in neonatal intensive care for three weeks for withdrawals. It was horrible. I cried every single day. I felt like the biggest piece of (expletive) on this earth. How could I do this?” she said.
In March 2017, she moved back in with her sister, her sister’s child and some of her children. And while she attended classes and court as ordered, she admits she was “just going through the motions, not putting my all into it.”
“They say people, places and things will keep you clean. I didn’t listen well. I kept letting people into my life I knew were no good for me.”
In the summer of 2018, nightmares made her turn to Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. She got it from a well-meaning relative.
Again, she used her skills at manipulating the system.
“I could take it on Friday and by Monday it would be out of my system. I had this whole thing down pat. Or I thought that I did. Judge (Jeff) Ford is way smarter than any of us think. He sees, he knows and will let me hang myself,” she said.
She went to drug court in April 2018 thinking she’d be graduating the next month. Instead, Ford put her in jail.
“I was so mad, so angry,” she said. “I don’t know where all that anger came from. I was mad at myself, mad at anybody and everybody.
“It wasn’t until I was in rehab for probably two months that I finally got it. I have been taking Suboxone for almost two years. When I went to jail, they wouldn’t give it to me. After that was out of my system, I could hear, think, I was listening.
“I was taking in what everybody was saying. One day, everything just made sense.”
Road to recovery
Returning home in August 2018, Harris had a newfound mission: “I’m going to do this. I am not going to prison. I am not leaving my children again.”
Her family members, who welcomed her again, stressed: “We want to see actions, don’t want to hear ‘sorry.’ Just follow through and if you do not, you do not have us, your kids or anything.”
“That resonated with me and I have been full-speed ahead with this process,” she said.
That included anger management.
Oh, and there was one more pregnancy in December 2018.
Continuing to follow the rules, Harris thought she’d graduate from drug court in May but Ford thought differently.
“He said he wanted me to get through this pregnancy. For the first time, I was not mad at him. These people are trying to give me everything I need to deal with this,” she said.
Her fifth child was born in August. In September, she started working and was able to move into her own place with three of her children. One older son lives with her brother. Her oldest daughter is in college.
‘My kids are my strength’
“I am in a place right now where I have hope,” Harris said. “I am smiling. Every day, I wake up and tell myself that today I am choosing to be happy and I am going to get myself together and keep myself together.
“I work every day on that. That is not an easy task. Some days are hard.”
She has re-established relationships with the three older children she left behind with family while she was sick.
“My kids are my strength,” Harris said. “I try to teach them every day: ‘Do not make the choices I made.’ They watched me go down a hard road.
“But now they see me be a better person, live in the moment and show them there is something different. They didn’t let my actions deter them from what they wanted to do.”