Hope Nisen has a new apartment.
There’s a yard where she will be able to keep a small garden, and Nisen is especially excited about the claw foot bathtub. It reminds her of one her family had when she was growing up.
But the apartment is special for another reason. This is the first time she will have her own space since she got out of prison and off drugs two years ago.
Nisen, a bright 31-year-old with frizzy blond-ish hair and an energetic way, is blunt about her background. She is a convicted felon and a former drug dealer. But she says she is also trying very hard to carve a fresh path.
Getting clean is just the first of many steps for recovering addicts. As Nisen has learned, the next steps are very difficult, too. Recovery depends on certain building blocks, like a steady job and a safe and comfortable place to live. But for someone with a criminal background and a history of addiction, those can prove elusive.
Drug addiction recovery is not black and white. Now, as more people move through Vermont’s treatment system, landlords, employers and communities are still feeling out how to help those who are trying to recover.
Nisen was born in Barre and grew up in central Vermont.
She says she began drinking when she was 15. After alcohol, Nisen tried marijuana. When she was 18, she began using cocaine. It picked up from there.
Pregnant at age 19, Nisen says she cleaned up while she was expecting her son. He was born in 2004, but she began using again and racked up charges of driving drunk. In 2011, the Department for Children and Families became involved. Nisen says someone reported she was using drugs in her son’s presence and that he had started a fire in a trash can in their home.
After that intervention, DCF took custody of her then-8-year-old son. He went to live with members of his father’s family. Nisen spiraled.
“From that point until 2013, it was a big, big struggle,” she says.
Nisen was using a lot then, mainly crack cocaine and alcohol, she recalls. She was shooting heroin and using pills. She was selling drugs too, mainly crack cocaine and heroin, to support her habit, she says. “It was my job,” she says. “I did it for six years.”
Then, one day in September 2013, she got arrested.
Following reports of an assault, law enforcement went to a motel room in Barre, where they found several types of drugs as well as weapons. Nisen was in the room with three men. She faced three felony charges — two related to possessing and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and one for carrying a firearm while committing a felony. Nisen pleaded guilty. She describes that period of time as “my bottom.”
“I lost everything and everyone, and I was sitting in jail, detoxing, with three felony charges,” Nisen says.
She went to prison for 88 days, then to rehab. She got out Dec. 31, 2013. She relapsed that same day.
According to Nisen, the next five months were a blur. She unsuccessfully went back to rehab in May, then went back to prison and served about another month and a half.
But this time when she got out, things went differently, she says. She went to Serenity House, a residential recovery facility in Rutland County where she spent 28 days. From there, she moved to Grace House, a sober living facility in downtown Rutland. After several months there, she moved back to Barre.
“It’s true for everybody in recovery. They come into it and they really have no clue what they need to do,” says Bob Purvis of Turning Point Recovery Center in Barre.
Purvis, a soft-spoken man with a mop of white hair, sits in his office at the center on North Main Street.
“It’s a good thing in certain respects, because if you knew all that you would have to do, you just would go back out,” he adds. “You wouldn’t even try.”
One of the difficulties, he says, is that the pieces of the puzzle that are critical for success in recovery are very hard to put in place with a criminal background. It can be discouraging for people who are trying to live a drug-free life when they can’t find housing and they repeatedly get turned down for jobs.
“Through this insane drug war, we piled all the sanctions on the back end,” Purvis says. “Once a person’s trying to go straight and be a productive member of society, that’s when we impose the penalties.”
Purvis says Vermont has done a good job of expanding treatment services for opiate addicts in recent years, but changes still need to come. More effort and resources should be put into recovery, he says. He also notes that criminal backgrounds are common among recovering opiate addicts.
“When you’re addicted to opiates or crack, crime becomes part of that lifestyle in a way that it doesn’t necessarily with alcoholism, and so you’re going to accumulate certain violations in the course of your addiction that are serious, but in the case of the addict don’t necessarily reflect their being a criminal,” Purvis says. Read more…