A vision of recovery

Sunday, June 11, 2006
Melissa Mackey talked about her life as a crack addict. On March 1, 2005, Mackey began a program at a new Cape Girardeau facility called the Vision House. She hoped she would be ready to approach life without drugs within a year.

Part 1 of 7

Melissa Mackey sat on the floral couch in a decorated apartment unit, puffing on her cigarette. The smoke danced with the bright sunlight that gleamed through the windows, a yin-and-yang kind of dance symbolic of the bright yet troubled woman who sat there.

Melissa was a bit excited, a bit uncomfortable, as if she didn't know what to do with herself. The cigarette kept her occupied.

The walls were freshly painted white, and the the room was daintily decorated as if Melissa and her roommate had been collecting knickknacks for years. A television at the end of the room was turned off. In both bedrooms, beds were neatly made with clean sheets and pillows. Pantries were stocked with food.

Perhaps the clean and pure space around her was one reason Melissa seemed a little out of place last March 1.

Weeks before, Melissa lay in a St. Louis street gutter, burns on her feet from the hot air that escaped from the city's sewer vents. She had rested there to keep warm.

A series of repeated mistakes had steered her there, homeless and wasted.

Alcohol led to crack. Crack led to life on the streets, panhandling, partying and prostitution.

Melissa had found herself alone, tired, absent from her 4-year-old daughter, away from God, who seemed to be speaking to her.

You don't have to die this way.

Melissa had tried and failed 14 times to purge herself of her demons through various two- to four-week drug-rehab facilities. But the demons wouldn't let go. Or she wouldn't let go of them. That's the perpetual puzzle of addiction. It's hard to tell where the person stops and the illness begins. Where does a person cross the line from chemically dependent to mentally weak or from mentally weak to merely undisciplined? At what point does a recovering addict deserve empathy? At what point is the abuser using that empathy in her favor? As Melissa knew, as her family and counselors knew, the lines were hard to draw. Drug addicts are manipulators, cheats and thieves. They're also, under the thick cloud of dependency, real people with feelings, personalities, dreams and even morals.

By the time Melissa had unpacked her few belongings into the tidy apartment on March 1, 2005, she knew about all the pitfalls that came with drugs.

In the past few years, Melissa had been a terrible mother. She had given birth to a daughter who was found with cocaine in her system. Melissa had to give custody of her newborn to her parents.

She had sacrificed her motherly bond for the five-minute euphoria that only crack could provide. But that was about to change. Dirty, burned and strung out in the street gutter, she heard that voice and realized she didn't want to die. She wanted a better life. She called her father, who once again reached out to help. Melissa ended up in a rehabilitation facility called the Family Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau.

She finished that program and became one of the charter residents of the Vision House. As she smoked her cigarette in her clean, new apartment, she was 69 days clean. Now she faced the real world again, a smoke-and-sunshine world that presented a fresh new start and the same filthy temptations. But this time, she didn't have to go back to St. Louis. She didn't have to reintroduce herself to the same acquaintances who led her down crack's path.

This time would be different.

This time she had the Vision House. The newborn Vision House.

That's where Melissa sat, and that's where Melissa's latest and most serious attempts to stay clean began.

The facility was called the Vision House, but more accurately it was the Vision apartments. Melissa shared a unit with a woman named Donna Bruce, a mysterious character who preferred to listen more than talk, a woman who kept herself at arm's length, a woman who had moved to Dexter, Mo., to help her elderly parents get through some difficult times, a woman who was going through a divorce but seemed indifferent about it, a woman who claimed she was wrongly accused and arrested for a burglary. But unlike her apartment mate, she was a closed book. She spoke softly, exuding little personality.

For both women, the Vision House was more than a new start. It was a gift, courtesy of a woman named Theresa Taylor.

To know Theresa is to know a war survivor. She survived fights (most of which she picked) and gunshots (all of which fortunately missed). She scrapped her way through most of her life. Her childhood was a mess. Then she left home, had three children of her own, gave her two daughters to their grandmother and dragged her son, now a teenager, through the muck. In the end, she survived her addiction to methamphetamine. It was not the weak stuff they sell on the streets these days. Her meth was the powerful, clean, old-school crystal shipped from California, back in the days the drug was first being introduced. But she survived more than drugs. She survived a lifestyle, which became an addiction of its own. She had lived in a place where morality hid in dark corners, encouragement vanished behind threats and love swapped places with betrayals and drug-induced highs.

She eventually emerged from the shadows through a religious rebirth and found a new way to live.

Even as a born-again Christian, Theresa is still the spitfire she always was, a feisty, exuberant, no-nonsense woman whose outgoing personality will light up a room, but whose temper can rage if she is pushed hard enough. She still deals with countless psychological scars from her past, with her children and with herself. She bears physical scars, too. Like her voice. When she opened the Vision House more than a year ago, Theresa sounded like a gruff cartoon character.

Her voice was deep and scratchy, the result of smoking cigarettes and inhaling too much meth as a girl and young woman.

It was sometimes amusing to hear Theresa talk. Her voice sounded something like Cookie Monster's, but her message was positive, serious, meaningful and enthusiastic.

The last two years had been pointing to this March, the day she would open her Vision and her heart to women who were just like she used to be: trapped. It was open to selected drug-addicted women who were homeless and who had completed a drug-rehab program.

The Vision House was intended to be a bridge back to the real world. Its aim was to provide what girls like Melissa needed. A place to stay. A fresh start. A structured environment. A chapel. Hope.

Theresa and Melissa had bonded long before the Vision House opened a year ago March 1. They had become friends through various meetings and visits at the Family Counseling Center. Melissa was another version of Theresa. Both were outgoing, mischievous, fun and big-hearted, if you can believe that women with big hearts could do some of the things both of these women have done.

Theresa approached the Vision House like someone embarking on a new business venture. She didn't do it alone: Many churches, organizations and individuals came to Theresa's side, donating money, time and labor. But this was Theresa's baby.

Theresa was not getting paid. Her work, at least at first, was all volunteered. But there was an unmistakable optimism in her Cookie-Monster voice. She believed she was one of God's tools and that, through him, she could do anything. She was also a bit frantic. There were still rooms to refurbish, still so many loose ends. But the Vision House was open, and there were eight girls who needed help, including her friend Melissa.

Melissa, meanwhile, voiced guarded optimism. She was excited about the opportunity, thrilled about the apartment and encouraged by Theresa's helping hand. But she was also uneasy.

The Vision House would give Melissa two years. Two years of emotional and spiritual support. Two years of Bible studies, two years of counseling, two years of accountability.

As Melissa sat on that floral couch, gauging her situation, she hoped she could kick her habit in a year. That was her goal last March 1. One year and she'd be strong enough to reclaim her life, to be the mother she knew she could be; to make it on her own without crack. It would take a year to mend the damaged relationships in her family.

The rules would be strict at the Vision House. There would be a zero-tolerance policy. Once caught with alcohol or drugs, you were out. No exceptions.

So Melissa felt a little bit of fear as well.

"Addicts have a funny acronym about fear," Melissa said. "F-- Everything And Run." Fear was no good. Neither was boredom. Neither was stress.

Melissa and all the women at the Vision House would surely face all three before they'd be ready to leave. Every trial would create a temptation. Every temptation would provide an excuse.

But Theresa would take the ride with them, trying desperately to guide, coax and pull each woman to the recovery side of the fence.

Melissa, like all of the women at the Vision House, didn't have many belongings. Drug addiction tends to rob people of possessions as much as it does their meaningful relationships.

While the packing was light, the emotional baggage weighed on Melissa's and roommate Donna's minds as they puffed their cigarettes.

One path was lit with sunshine. One was filled with smoke. Which path would they choose?

Coming tomorrow: Melissa takes a stand in her daughter's life.

About this series

After 17 years of drug addiction and living in the streets, a Cape Girardeau County woman named Theresa Taylor was sent to prison. While incarcerated, she received treatment for her addiction and was clean for the first time in her adult life. She soon became a born-again Christian.

A couple of years later, the judge who sentenced her became aware of how well Theresa's recovery was going and opened the door for Theresa to speak with youth and women at the Family Counseling Center.

One day, while talking to a drug-addicted woman ready to leave the treatment facility, Theresa had a "vision." That vision was to provide a faith-based, long-term transitional living facility for homeless and addicted women.

This series begins two years after the "vision" and on the opening day of the Vision House. It follows the progress of the facility as well as some of the women who tried the program. The reporter visited the Vision House more than 30 times over the past year, conducting scores of interviews. While some of the scenes were reported first-hand by the reporter, most of the story was re-created through interviews of the various sources mentioned in the story. When events could not be verified by other participating parties, those events have been attributed to the sources who gave the information.

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