PATERSON, NJ- In few places is the scourge of the opioid epidemic more visible than in Paterson. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to drive from one end of the city to the other without seeing some evidence of the ugly prevalence of drug abuse.
Despite the best work of law enforcement, the launch of a nationwide effort by St. Joseph’s Health, and the tenacity of community leaders who refuse to let those caught in the throws of addiction disrupt their quality of life, the problem seems like one that just won’t go away.
When both traditional media outlets and our own individual social media feeds continue to be filled with terrifying statistics regarding this 21st century plague, and disturbing images of users passed out where children should be playing, on church steps that should be reserved for praying, or at bus stops and in storefronts, disrupting the flow of commerce, it is easy to lose hope.
Thankfully, the story of Anita Rogers, born and raised in Paterson, caught in the grips of addiction for nearly half of her years on this planet, now living clean and helping others do the same, shows that there is life after drug abuse.
Anita started using drugs at just 16 years old, a bad habit that grew and grew. Before long, and despite her mother’s best efforts to stop her, she told TAPinto Paterson over breakfast, “the more I went out the worse it got.”
Before long, she revealed, she was using heroin, crack, cocaine, and, in her words, “anything else I could get my hands on.” Soon there was only one way to feed the habit, by working Paterson’s streets as a prostitute.
It’s during this time, and soon after another prostitute was murdered in Paterson, more than a decade ago, that she ended up, unwittingly, or at least unable to make a reasonable decision, she says now, part of a news story by another publication showing the underside of the city’s growing problems.
Despite the embarrassment of being seen by her four children, at the time being cared for by her mother, irregardless of the fact that she was rendered nearly immobile by an infection on her spine, and even with a string of 22 arrests, all she thought about was “how to get the next one,” her next high.
“I was raped, beat up, and thrown out of cars,” Anita said. “I just picked up and kept going.”
Then an arrest came on a warrant out of Bergen County, where she was offered the chance to spend her sentence in the county’s Drug Rehabilitation Center (DRC). Opened in 1995 the DRC is described on the Bergen County Sheriff’s website as “the first of its kind in any New Jersey County Jail, an intensive 90-day inpatient substance abuse treatment program for inmates” that meet certain criteria.
For Anita, the lure of the DRC wasn’t to get clean, rather it was more a matter of comfort, it houses only 12 inmates at a time. The truth is, Anita revealed, she was only looking to get through her time so that she could “go back on the streets to get high.”
Then, “something clicked,” Anita said. “I started going with the flow.” She credits the change in attitude to being in the smaller group setting, to realizing no matter her story she could always relate to the others around her.
“There was nothing I had done that others hadn’t done,” she said.
Anita ended up graduating from the program and then moved to Integrity House, a living facility in Secaucus “committed to helping individuals and families through comprehensive, integrated addictions treatment and recovery in a manner that brings about positive, long-term lifestyle change.
That “lifestyle change” is evident in Anita, now nine years substance free.
Anita’s story, Councilman Luis Velez interjected, “inspires others to do good,” it is, he continued “a story that can change lives by giving people hope.”
Once clean and sober, Anita revealed, there were still plenty of challenges. Pending court cases had to be adjudicated, her license had to be restored, and she continues to live on Franklin Street where, instead of being able to adopt an out of sight out of mind mentality to drug use, she “sees it every day.”
During the first years of her recovery, she said, Anita “felt the need to give money,” to those that she knew were using. A compassion maybe for those with the same disease she spent years, and still is, battling.
“I knew what it was like to be dope sick.”
During her stay at Integrity House Anita lost her mother. “I think she just got tired,” Anita said with a tear in her eye. “I promised her I’d stay clean.”
Anita knows that despite nine years without drugs it can all be wiped away in “two seconds,” but is confident in herself.
“I have come too far.”
Not content to just help herself, Anita now is helping others find their own paths to recovery as a monitor at a halfway house in Bloomfield. Her jobs their include observing residents take their medication, monitoring how they are spending their money, going food shopping, and at times, just providing counsel from someone who has been in their position.
“I can approach them from a different level,” she explained. When she sees someone in recovery falter she can offer them a kind of tough love that those who have never gone through the same ordeal can.
“You did this and you have to deal with the consequences,” she has told those that have had setbacks, reassuring them that all is not lost.
“Give yourself a chance,” she suggests sagely. “If you’re not happy with your situation, change it.”
Asked for her thoughts on how the crisis can be tackled on a large scale Anita offers a realistic view, “if they’re not ready there’s nothing you can do about it, but sometimes people need that extra push.”
Her story, with a reassurance that there is help available, is, she hopes, is that “extra push.”
Councilman Luis Velez will recognize Anita Rodgers at the City Council meeting on Tuesday. The meeting begins at 7:00 p.m.
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