ANCHORAGE - An infant massage class isn’t typically associated with drug addiction, but the mothers attending a February session in downtown Anchorage aren’t exactly typical.
“I’ll always be an addict, whether I'm using or in recovery,” said Rita Hazen, a 35-year-old mother of three, as she held her 5-month-old son. “...Heroin, painkillers, anything I could melt down, put into a spoon and shoot up.”
Hazen had been using for years when she learned she was pregnant. Abortion, she said, was not an option. She had heard help was available downtown at the Center for Drug Problems on East 4th Avenue.
“Pregnant women will get immediate access, but everybody else will wait at least a year before they get in this program,” said Ron Greene, the center’s clinical director.
There are 15 people on that wait list, struggling to survive until they can get help, Greene said. They need to call him every week to maintain their names on that list, and the calls are heartbreaking.
“’Mr. Greene, I’m killing myself. I'm out here, I’m prostituting. I'm doing this, I'm doing that. My kids haven't eaten in three or four days.’ Sometimes, I just hang up the phone, close my door and I put my head on my desk and I cry, because these people are asking for help.”
The center is helping 104 people, but it has just enough money to treat 100, Greene said.
Hazen is one of the lucky ones.
The story of how the mother of three ended up at CDP 11 months ago began 15 years ago.
"When I started getting on painkillers for my back after the birth of my first child, it was things like Vicodin, Tylenol 3's; really mild stuff,” Hazen said.
Eight years later, a family tragedy pushed her to the brink, then came divorce.
The newly single mother was also trying to finish her final year at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
The pressures were overwhelming. The pills offered an escape.
“I wanted desperately something to feel like it was normal and not to feel pain any more,” Hazen recalled, wiping away tears as she held her infant son. “It went from taking the painkillers to abusing them to crushing them up and snorting them because I wanted to get a faster high.”
When her doctor stopped writing her prescriptions, Hazen went to another doctor, then from doctor to dealer.
“The first time I really, really tried heroin was right after Christmas dinner,” Hazen said. “I went with [my dealer] to a hotel in Spenard and he brought me inside. He had a clean needle and we sat inside somebody's hotel room and [for] fifty dollars, I got high.”
Soon, the college graduate and middle-class mother was hooked on heroin.
”I'm just your normal girl next door,” Hazen said. “It could really happen to anybody.”
Then, the baby changed everything, and Hazen had to admit she had a problem.
”They're courageous in my eyes that they come in here and say, ’I need help. I want help. I'm pregnant, I need to get off drugs,” said Debra Laflen, the lead dispensing nurse at Center for Drug Problems, who also teaches weekly infant massage classes.
Center for Drug Problems is one of only two methadone clinics in the state.
”Methadone is a narcotic,” Laflen said. “It can be abused. It has a very low effect on the fetus.”
A shot of methadone is Hazen's daily dose of sobriety.
Critics say being on methadone simply replaces an addict's dependence on one drug for another.
”I still consider myself to be clean,” Hazen said. “I'm not in some seedy alley shooting up. I'm not looking for drugs the minute I wake up with a $50 bill hoping somebody will come across and call me if they have really good tar.”
For the first time in years, Hazen said, she doesn't look for escape and she can focus on being a mother. The future is now in her hands. Clean and sober, she's got a chance at a new beginning.
Tomorrow: There are thousands more like Hazen, according to state health officials. That's because heroin is so accessible in Anchorage, police say.