Signs of trouble at Vision House

Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Theresa Taylor, left, listened to Karen Daugherty as she talked about finding out her granddaughter had started doing drugs. (Diane L. Wilson)

Part 3 of 7

The clock rewinds 30-something years to Theresa Taylor's first memory of drugs.

She was 5 years old, a blond kindergartner with big blue eyes.

Theresa thought it would be nice to make a little money, but she didn't know how. Then a thought came to her. Like many children, she enjoyed using scissors and glue to make things. She watched her stepbrother roll up paper, light it and smoke it, and knew he made money by doing so, so she took her knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to class.

While at school, she took a piece of paper, rolled it up, glued it together and sold it to a friend for some change. The little girl who bought the make-believe joint got sick from the glue fumes.

Theresa was expelled from kindergarten and spanked at home. Theresa was confused by the hypocrisy, though she didn't know what that word meant at the time.

Theresa remembered another moment about a year later, sitting out on the front porch with her mother, her stepfather and some of their friends who were all drinking Pabst Blue-Ribbon Beer. Her stepfather had been pouring new concrete, which was still wet so Theresa was not allowed to walk on it.

Theresa doesn't know why her parents allowed her the beer. Maybe they thought it would be funny. But after a few gulps (she doesn't recall how much she drank), she remembers feeling woozy on top of her stepfather's shoulders. Theresa vaguely remembers the adults laughing at the drunk little girl. They sent her inside, told her to take a shower. She remembers locking the bathroom door behind her. Then her memory fades to black until she hears someone banging on the door. Six years old. Passed out, drunk on the shower floor.

Three years after that, Theresa smoked her first joint.

Three years after that, tired of abuse and threats, she ran away.

From that point on, Theresa's life was a scramble to survive. At times she ate out of Dumpsters. At others she found shelter in moving vans. She bounced from the streets to home and back again.

Later, she made good money as a stripper.

Her money was often spent on drugs, especially methamphetamine.

She always had to be the center of attention, and she was always surrounded by trouble. Some of her friends were killed in a shooting in Cape. She was considered a suspect before the real perpetrator was found and apprehended.

Decades later, Theresa was still surrounded by trouble. But this time she was on the helping side.

After 17 years of living on the streets, pole-dancing and doing drugs, she cleaned up her life after a spiritual rebirth.

Seventeen years later, Theresa found herself up to her eyeballs in paperwork. She was directing a place called the Vision House, a place that was inspired by Theresa's vision and built on faith, hard work and an impromptu, get-things-done-somehow attitude. Leading such an organization is no small task for anyone, much less a former drug addict whose only education was a General Equivalency Diploma.

But on that day, she wasn't worried about that.

She was still glowing from Melissa's speech at the pastors' conference over the weekend.

Theresa thought it was important for some of the Vision House women to feel accepted by folks outside the drug circles.

"I don't think people realize that when you take them out of their setting where they're accepted, there is another level of life," Theresa explained. "People don't hate them. It had a profound impact." And she had more good news.

Her husband David was going to get a preacher's license. She couldn't believe she was going to be a preacher's wife. Eventually, David would be named associate pastor of their church, Iona Baptist, a nonpaid position.

And there was one more thing.

She might have a solution to her Cookie-Monster voice.

The meth and the cigarettes had destroyed Theresa's voice. Theresa's mother was a country music singer who sang at bars in Illinois, and music was in her blood.

Theresa always loved to sing. Sometimes she'd get on stage at the bar and wail a Dolly Parton tune. But she couldn't wail anymore.

She was embarrassed when she appeared on the local television news. All decked out in a sharp business suit, her speaking voice gave her away. She was a hard woman, had lived a hard life and was paying the consequences.

But behind the raspy voice was the Theresa Taylor enthusiasm. And her vision of this facility began to spread throughout the community. Through a mutual friend, the Vision House message reached a woman who casually stopped by one day and wanted to know more about the Vision House.

When Theresa began to explain the purpose of the treatment program, the woman asked her what was wrong with her voice.

Theresa told her it was the result of years of smoking and drugs.

The woman was a doctor's wife. She offered Theresa her husband's services.

Theresa went to see Dr. Christopher Jung. She climbed into a chair and he probed her mouth.

Theresa was stunned, when she heard Jung say, to his assistant: "My God, have you ever seen anything like this? I've never seen one this big."

A cyst had grown in Theresa's throat.

Melissa Mackey had a 12-step program meeting in just a few minutes, and she was busy in her apartment kitchen throwing together a bean dip. The girls were to watch a movie that evening, "Between the Sheets" to be specific.

It was a fitting title to Melissa's recent episode, a mistake she had made a week or so earlier.

Perhaps the mistake was one reason she felt tired and irritable. After years of drug use, and then after a few months clean, she found herself consistently exhausted.

She had found a job at McDonald's. Not exactly the best use of her hairdresser training, but it was a small step, and the manager there decided to give her a chance. The job was a lousy one, the type of job you'd expect a recovering drug addict to find. She would wake up every morning at 4:45 a.m. And despite the rare reward of 20 minutes in the tanning booth or a new pair of shoes, life -- real life, the kind without drug-induced euphoria -- was beginning to weigh heavily on Melissa's shoulders.

The longer she was sober, the more she missed her 3-year-old daughter who was living with Melissa's parents in the St. Louis area. She made daily phone calls to Olivia and loved to hear the innocent voice on the other end of the line. But with the conversations came guilt and a need, an urgency to hurry her recovery along, probably a bad thing to be thinking about.

She didn't say all these things were excuses for her mistake, her indiscretion.

Without drugs to turn to, perhaps she felt a man could temporarily make her problems go away.

The indiscretion probably would have gone unnoticed, too. But after having sex one day in her apartment, Melissa wanted to impress one of her friends. So she told her about it.

At the Vision House, a long-term drug recovery facility for women, secrets aren't kept well.

Her friend told one of her friends, and eventually the word traveled by string and soup can to Karen Daugherty, the Vision House manager, that Melissa had had sex. Sex with Karen's adult son.

Karen's son, who grew up with a meth-making mother, was a recovering alcoholic himself, Karen said, but a guy who has made great progress in his own right. He was often doing labor for the Vision House, making deliveries, visiting his mother, helping remodel apartments. He was an asset to the new facility. He had seen the effect drugs had on many lives, including a woman named Katie Ruppel, who he had been dating off and on for three years.

On the day of the incident with Melissa, he was remodeling the apartment next to Melissa's.

When Karen found out about the escapade, she was angry at and disappointed in both her son and Melissa. But particularly Melissa.

Karen and Melissa had formed a tight bond in drug rehab three years ago. Melissa got out of the detox program then went back to using. Karen never went back to methamphetamine. But her journey was difficult in every way -- physical, mental, spiritual and psychological -- considering she had subjected her three children to a lifestyle of drugs. And just because Karen was ready to quit didn't mean her family was ready to do the same. The drug problems weren't confined to the immediate family, either.

Drugs were passed all through her extended family. She was one of the few clean members, although others were trying to get clean as well.

So Karen's life is always full of drama. Family members all around her were always going to jail or detox. Drama, drama everywhere.

And, for Karen, not a drop to drink.

Like Theresa, Karen quit her addiction cold-turkey. She had been clean for three years. The Vision House was a way to cope with all of the damage she had inflicted on her own family. At the Vision House, she could help others. And by doing so, she did help her own family. Many of them, including her son, were much better off now that Karen had turned her life around.

Melissa, meanwhile, had been clean for roughly two months. Old habits and behaviors don't usually disappear in that short amount of time. In her past, Melissa prostituted herself for her drug of choice. And she was not the only woman at the Vision House who had done that. One 18-year-old girl testified that at the height of her addiction she was having sex with up to 11 men a day in exchange for drugs.

While Melissa decided to have casual sex with a "clean" mind, it was against the Vision House rules. To Karen and Vision House director Theresa Taylor the decision was a troubling sign that Melissa didn't have control over her impulses, a cause for concern.

The incident drove Karen to tears.

She was angry with her son for taking what he could get; she was angry with Melissa for giving herself away.

"Do you know what that makes you look like?" Karen asked Melissa when she approached her.

They had a serious conversation, and Karen let her feelings be known.

Melissa felt guilty. And embarrassed.

After the conversation, Melissa said she realized that she held power over her actions. That her behavior wasn't impressing anyone, anyone that mattered anyway.

Theresa, attempting to get to the root of the behavior, set Melissa up with a psychiatrist. Melissa wasn't being humble. She had indulged herself and reverted to some poor lifestyle habits. She was wearing too much makeup and too revealing clothes. Theresa put a stop to that, taking away Melissa's cosmetics and demanding more appropriate attire.

Melissa had only been clean for a couple of months. She still had about 11 months to go before reaching her goal of one year with the Vision House and then another chance at life on her own.

Barely a month into the Vision House. And already into trouble.

Coming tomorrow: The Vision House loses its first girl; Theresa and Karen get by on grit.

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