Editor’s Note: Although the facts of this story are accurate, we have used a fictitious name to protect the anonymity of the subject.
SOUTHERN OCEAN COUNTY, NJ - Donna Caggiano never intended to share her story publicly. At 43, she doesn’t really care who judges her past. However, as a recovering addict, Donna is well aware of the stigma associated with her struggles. She worries that others will treat her adolescent daughter differently and that she’ll potentially shame her parents. Donna credits their love in helping her to get where she is today.
That said, Donna feels her journey brings a compelling message that she needs to pass on. Donna moved to the Southern Ocean County area for the second time five years ago. It wasn’t just about changing “people, places, and things.” Donna recognized the importance of being near her support system. Meanwhile, it’s somewhat enlightening to understand how it all began.
“I started with cigarettes by the time I was 12,” says Donna, who grew up in a large city in Union County. “By the time I was 14, I was smoking weed.”
Meanwhile, Donna denies that either cigarettes or marijuana acted as the gateway drug for what was yet to come. “I remember people shooting up heroin when I was that age,” she shares. “I thought it was disgusting.”
First Encounter with Drugs
A year after Donna graduated high school, she began working as a bartender in a local establishment. Now 19, Donna also started weekly meetings with a therapist. She suffered from both anxiety and depression as a result of childhood trauma. Donna finds it hard to talk about what hurt her in the first place but stresses that it had nothing to do with her parents.
“Working in the bar exposed me to a lot of drugs,” Donna admits. “It wasn’t just that I enjoyed partying; they made me feel better. Additionally, cocaine made it easier to open up to my therapist.”
In the beginning, Donna snorted Coke and used Special K and Ecstasy. She chugged down pills that would seemingly make her life more bearable. Of course, she also tricked herself into believing she was functioning without anyone realizing the harm she was doing to her physical and mental well-being.
For the majority of her life, Donna has worked in the food and beverage industry. Whether she serves alcohol or coffee, Donna manages to maintain a warm and pleasant demeanor. A slight and attractive woman, the pain in her eyes contradicts her smile. Customers have always liked Donna and tipped her well. For a long time, the bigger tips meant more money for drugs.
Contributing Factors to her Addiction
Donna takes complete responsibility for her role in her addiction. However, this is where the message of her story adds a cast of characters from medical professionals to pharmaceutical companies to rehabilitation facilities.
By the time she was 28, Donna had taken the first steps to an opioid addiction. There was the dentist who gave her multiple prescriptions for Vicodin. From there, Donna found a doctor who would write scripts for anything she wanted.
“Medicare and Medicaid paid the doctor less than $10 for visits,” Donna shares. “All I had to do was show up with $500 in cash, and he’d write me prescriptions for Oxycontin.”
Chain pharmacies didn’t even carry the drugs, and Donna had to fill the prescriptions in Mom and Pop drug stores. Ultimately, it wasn’t just that it became too expensive. Donna became so addicted that it took more pills to get her high.
She moved on to heroin. “It was easier to get and cheaper,” says Donna. “It gave me the same high.”
Donna lasted on heroin for six months. On her own, she decided to detox. At one point, rehabilitation included replacing the heroin with Methadone. Her treatment plan also included a move to Suboxone.
The irony strikes Donna. “They changed me from one addictive drug to another.”
Just because she stopped heroin didn’t mean Donna was finished with other drugs. She needed something to deal with her emotional pain. Of course, it didn’t help that she became romantically involved with someone who also enjoyed partying.
Motherhood and Donna’s Sobriety
“We had a baby together,” says Donna. “He brought me Special K in the hospital after I delivered our daughter.”
The birth of a child made Donna see things in a different light. In 2006, she quit drugs entirely and left her boyfriend. However, since he was her daughter’s father, they remained in contact.
It was then that Donna made her first move to the Jersey shore. She proudly started work at a local church. However, four years later, she relocated again to live with her boyfriend. It also meant a return to using drugs.
While not blaming her baby’s father for her relapse, Donna says his attitude was to keep her happy by keeping her high. He came up with a way to forge scripts to get Oxycontin and Xanax. After he was convicted of a crime and went to prison for doing so, Donna decided she needed to do the same. After all, she knew she would feel sick if she was forced into withdrawal.
In 2011, the police arrested Donna and charged her with using a forged prescription to obtain a controlled dangerous substance. Fortunately, it was a day when Donna’s parents had agreed to babysit for her daughter. Donna found herself confined to county jail.
“My parents refused to come and bail me out,” says Donna. “I had no one else and sat there for two weeks.”
As she reflects back, Donna remembers being angry. However, she credits a bunkmate for what happened next. The other inmate encouraged her to pray. During her jail stay, Donna says she remembers New Jersey experiencing not only a hurricane but also a tornado and earthquake.
“I figured God was trying to tell me something,” says Donna with a tear in her eye. Since that time, Donna remains a faithful member of Bayside Chapel in Barnegat.
Life didn’t suddenly get easy when Donna left jail. While she subsequently received a suspended sentence, she’s left with a criminal record. Her parents assumed custody of her daughter. It was a hard fight that involved interaction with Child Services in getting her back.
Returning to the Jersey Shore
Eventually, Donna moved back to the Jersey shore to be near her parents. She began steady work at a local restaurant. On the outside, all seemed well. However, Donna continued to wrestle with depression and anxiety.
“I spoke with some friends in Europe about how I was feeling,” shares Donna. “They told me about an over the counter anti-depressant that provided relief.”
Donna refuses to provide the name of the drug as she doesn’t want others to learn about it and seek it out. Meanwhile, it’s not like Donna didn’t check with a doctor before taking it herself.
“I was told that it was okay to use and started it about four years ago,” Donna says.
As it turns out, the medication was addictive, and once again, Donna became hooked on another substance. “It’s every opioid addict’s dream,” concludes Donna. “It gives the same energy and doesn’t show up in a drug test.”
As she realized that she was increasing dosages to get the same effect, Donna recognized she needed to detox. She checked herself into rehab. And just as they did in the past, the professionals attempted to move her to another substance.
“They asked me at least three times to start taking Suboxone,” Donna shares. “I refused.”
Once again, Donna found inspiration from someone else. “I met an 82-year-old woman who is the picture of health,” she says. “She even does yoga.”
When Donna asked the older lady about her secret, she said she takes absolutely no medication of any kind. The admission strongly impressed Donna.
Back on the road to recovery, Donna says she plans to go back to school. She’s considering a new life as either an ultrasound tech or a park ranger out west. The love for her daughter serves as a major motivator.
“I’d just like to wake up every morning with her to God’s glory,” says Donna.
Stephanie A. Faughnan is a local journalist and Director of Writefully Inspired, a professional writing and resume service. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.