Local woman battles opiate addiction, finds hope with suboxone
MIDDLEBURY — It was New Year’s Eve 1998 when Cheryl Barrows got her first taste of heroin.
“I met this ‘wonderful’ guy in Rutland who put a needle in my arm and said, ‘This is wonderful stuff,’” recalled Barrows. “I looked out of the window, saw a pink cloud and my pain was gone. I felt nothing.”
Numbness was exactly what Barrows was looking for after having served a lengthy stretch of jail time on an assault charge. The Addison County native had also gone through a bad breakup with the father of her four children and she wanted to run away from reality. She ended up with a fierce addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers, a potent cocktail that sent her life spiraling into an abyss from which she is only now beginning to emerge with the help of family, counseling and an expanded Bristol Internal Medicine practice that is able to prescribe her suboxone, a drug designed to wean her off of opiates.
It hasn’t been easy.
Barrows is 49, but addiction has added years to her appearance. Her eyes are piercing but nestled deeply into a drawn visage marked by pallor and stress lines chiseled by jail time and the anxiety over where to get the next fix.
“You talk to any heroin addict and they’ll tell you that it gets to a point where heroin is your best friend, your lover, your everything,” Barrows said. “You will walk over your kids, lose your home, do anything to get that bag of heroin.”
By her own account, Barrows became a drug addict at an older age than most. She was born in Middlebury and spent many of her formative years in Ripton and Salisbury. Barrows said she was raised in a strong Catholic family where drug use was frowned upon “but drinking (alcohol) was fine.”
While she maintains she wasn’t a regular user of alcohol and/or drugs in her teens or 20s, she confesses, “I had the addiction in me.”
Barrows reported seeing, and being subjected to, verbal and physical abuse while growing up.
“Eating is how I got to my pain,” she said. “I became overweight and have been overweight most of my life.”
She became involved with the father of her children at age 16, and it was a relationship Barrows said did not end well. It was following this breakup that Barrows was convicted on an assault charge that netted her a jail sentence of two- to 10 years.
“I had never been in jail and I had never been away from my kids before,” Barrows said.
She said her life took another wrong turn when she was ordered, by the Vermont Department of Corrections, to reside in Rutland following her release from prison. She had hoped to return to Addison County to be near her children and other family members. In Rutland, she met the man who would get her started on a heroin habit that escalated to drug dealing and more jail time.
She got to a point where she was using 30 bags of heroin per day.
“I would have to inject 10 bags just to get out of bed,” Barrows said. “At that point I wasn’t getting high anymore; I was just maintaining.”
LIFE OF CRIME
Sustaining such a habit drove her to a life of crime. There was a period during which she would travel to Massachusetts every other day to pick up 300 bags of heroin to meet the growing demand in Vermont.
“I was the middle man,” she said of her drug runs. “To treat my addiction, I had to do something.”
Police put an end to her drug running in 2002.
“I was caught in Massachusetts with 300 bags (of heroin),” Barrows recalled. “I stayed in jail for nine months.”
She returned to Vermont after leaving the Massachusetts prison and was promptly jailed again for violating her conditions of release. Barrows acknowledges her history of incarceration and is not making any excuses.
Between stints in rehab and in jail, Barrows said she was involved in a car accident in which she broke her collarbone. This led to her being prescribed a variety of painkillers, she said, including opiates like Oxycontin. She admitted to exaggerating the pain she was experiencing in order to extend the painkiller prescriptions.
“Two years (after the accident) I was still getting all these pills,” Barrows said.
A silver lining to jail time was that it forced Barrows to stop taking heroin or prescription painkillers. But once she got out, she often lapsed back into bad habits.
“I was so well-known in Rutland,” Barrows said. “As soon as I got out (of jail), they would want me to get more stuff.”
So Barrows said she sought out various rehab facilities — such as the Brattleboro Retreat — and pushed for the opportunity to resettle in Addison County. This past spring, she moved in with a relative in the county and was accepted for treatment at Bristol Internal Medicine.
Porter Hospital and the Counseling Service of Addison County recently joined forces to expand the county’s only suboxone program at the Bristol physicians practice to serve 80-90 patients, up from the previous 25. Dr. Emily Glick is now one of three physicians at the practice currently prescribing suboxone to qualifying patients. She said the office is gradually ramping up its number of patients, and things have been going smoothly.
“It’s good to have a bigger team to problem-solve,” Glick said.
Barrows said she has had good luck with the Bristol Internal Medicine program, which includes regular urinalysis screenings and check-ins with medical staff.
“The way I look at it is, I will always be an addict,” Barrows said, adding the key is not to relapse. “But I could walk down these stairs and someone might offer me a bag (of heroin). I might say ‘no,’ or I might say ‘yes.’”
Looking into the future, Barrows said she hopes to share her personal story as a cautionary tale in hopes of preventing youths from becoming addicts. She said addiction has tragically reached some in the next generation of her own family.
“Heroin doesn’t pick or choose; it doesn’t care,” Barrows said. “You can come from the best family or the worst family.”
She agreed with Vermont Agency of Human Resources studies showing that an increasing number of Vermonters are becoming hooked on opiates.
“It’s gotten 90 times worse than when I started doing it,” Barrows said. “The kids out there doing these drugs don’t understand. When they are 30, they’ll look like they’re 60 — if they make it that far.”
But the pull of addiction is so strong that it defies common sense, according to Barrows. She recalled days when she would take a shot of heroin and suffer ill effects that would send her to the toilet to vomit.
“As soon as I could get away from the toilet, I was doing another shot,” she said.
Barrows claims to have been brought back to life twice following drug overdoses.
And she’s not yet ready to die.
“I’m living life one day at a time,” Barrows said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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