Former addict speaks out against meth
Karen Gaskill Baker knows a meth addict when she sees one.
The sunken eyes, rotting teeth, thin physique and most of all, the pain behind their eyes.
When she sees an addict walking on the street or in the grocery store, she gives them a hug because she knows that pain. She knows, because she was once an addict herself.
At 28 years old in 2002 and a single mother of four children, Karen had hit rock bottom. But then, she found what she thought could be a solution.
“I was very depressed, and I got turned on to this drug called methamphetamine,”she said. “It took away all my problems. It helped me pay my light bill. Helped me put food on the table for my children. I was 250 pounds and I dropped down to 150.”
The first time she used, it was by force from an acquaintance. But it didn’t take long before addiction set in and the lifestyle took over.
She worked with a network of about 14 people in Haywood County using and selling meth for about a year and a half until a federal investigation caught up to her.
But once arrested, she refused to reveal the names of those in her inner circle who provided her with the drug.
“I couldn’t tell where I got my stuff from because I did not want to watch over my shoulder for the rest of my life because they would not come after me, they would come after my children,” she said.
The result was a three-year sentence in federal prison.
While Karen says she never used or sold drugs in front of her children, the addiction tore her family apart. After her arrest, all four kids, including her 4-year-old daughter, were placed in foster homes.
“They railroaded me, and they used me as an example. They stripped my kids from me and everybody in my family,” she said.
As painful as it was to be without her children, Karen said prison changed her life for the better. As part of her sentence, she was sent to a 28-day rehabilitation center in Charlotte.
“Getting caught turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Karen said.
It took determination, but at the end of her sentence, she was clean from drugs and was able to once again care for three of her children. Because of the young age of her daughter at the time she went to prison, she was adopted by a local family.
Karen is now able to visit her several times a month, but she says if it weren’t for jail, she never would have gotten clean.
The cycle of addiction
Paulette Camp, owner of Eagle’s Nest Grocery in Hazelwood, says she and her employees witness the county’s drug problem on a daily basis.
She’s watched as children whose parents frequent the store grow up to be drug addicts just like their family members. She’s called police after seeing drug deals right in her parking lot, but by the time they arrive, the criminals are gone.
“If they (police) sat in the parking lot at our store they could bust them right and left. If you own a business in Haywood County that has a parking lot, you’ve got a drug problem,” Camp said.
Like Karen, many addicts choose the lifestyle because they feel there is nothing else left.
“The reason people are turning to this drug is they have no hope. They are doing it because they don’t have a job. They do the drugs to numb the feeling of helplessness and also, there is income,” Camp said.
For many, even in Haywood County, drugs are a lifestyle from childhood, and the addiction is a cycle.
That’s what happened in Karen’s family. Her mother was an addict, she later became an addict and now her 22-year-old son, who has been using for four years, recently had open-heart surgery.
For years, her oldest son told Karen he would never do drugs because he saw what addiction did to his mother.
But on Dec. 4, Karen had to rush him to the emergency room because he was severely dehydrated, delirious and couldn’t walk.
Doctors said he either used a dirty needle or an airborne germ entered his bloodstream while he was using drugs. As a result, stapf infection vegetated the aortic valve in his heart.
“You could see his heart fluttering because it was working so hard,” Karen said.
He underwent six weeks of antibiotic treatment before a successful surgery last week.
Following the surgery, he broke down when he told his mother that he would never use drugs again.
But Karen fears that the right treatment for her son might not be available locally.
“The doctor came in and said to Dakota that he would not do the heart surgery unless he agreed to get treatment,” she said. “The problem of it is, there is nothing around here.”
Even when an addict is willing to quit, the cycle continues because help is not readily available nearby, she said.
“There’s nowhere to go. It’s jail, institution or death,” Karen said.
For a common citizen, the rehab center Karen attended would have cost $8,000 — money that she didn’t have to make herself clean, she said.
Karen has been clean since March 14, 2003, and it’s her hope that a better resource, such as an affordable treatment center or a halfway house, opens up in the county for addicts who want help.
“We want to be part of the solution here," Camp said. "I love Haywood County and I’ve lived here most of my life and it’s breaking my heart to see what’s happening here.”
Some addicts might just need a little encouragement and support.
Recently, Karen met a young woman in the gas station who was a recent recovering meth addict only a week clean. Instead of turning away, she offered what little help she could: a hug and a ride home.
Five days later the woman called and told Karen she was still clean, had gotten a job and her two children were back in her care.
“All she needed was a hug. It’s the little things,” Karen said. “God placed me where he needed to and it’s not because I was a bad person before I got on drugs. It’s because he wanted me to be a better person,” she said.