Drug court grads go from addicts to advocates

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldAugust 24, 2013 

Melissa Swanger

Melissa Swanger graduated from drug court in 2006. A user for 5 years, she now shares her story with outreach, addiction and recovery groups hoping her success will help others realize change is possible.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

When Melissa Swanger wanted to lose weight years ago, she turned to methamphetamine instead of dieting or the latest fad.

The Kennewick woman dropped 60 to 70 pounds. She also lost her home, her car and her kids, and gained two felony charges for possessing drugs.

"It ended up destroying my entire life," said Swanger, who had a spotless criminal record up to that point.

Her defense attorneys recognized that Swanger had lived "a normal life" until she got into meth, and suggested she enter Benton-Franklin Superior Court's adult drug court.

Eight years later, Swanger says that was her turning point. She got clean, mended relationships with loved ones and took responsibility for the choices she made.

Swanger is one of 168 people during the past decade who fought back their demons through the stringent program and graduated with a second chance.

Drug court focuses on addressing a person's addiction and getting the participant clean and sober. It serves as an alternative to incarceration or other punishment for people who commit crime because they have substance abuse problems.

Some graduates have relapsed over the years and found themselves back before a judge with new charges. But most, like Swanger, realize they came out "better than we were before," and for them there's no going back.

The community is invited to join with Swanger and other graduates in celebrating the program's 10-year success. An anniversary event is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday in Courtroom B at the Benton County Justice Center, 7122 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick.

"Honestly, (drug court) was the toughest blessing that I've ever had. I ended up coming out of there a new and improved me ...," Swanger told the Herald. "The program is so appreciated, at least from myself and people I know who went through it. It is such a need, and (the team members) are willing to help people instead of saying just throw away the key."

Kathleen C. knew she'd hit the proverbial bottom when she was committing crimes to feed her addiction and only taking seasonal work to cover the bills so she wouldn't be at one job long enough for people to get to know her.

The Kennewick mother started shooting up prescription pills because of "a poor choice of company and curiosity." She says "it was a party thing" that she'd do on the weekends when her kids were away.

Her drugs of choice escalated to heroin and eventually meth.

"It became, 'Well, I will just do some when I come home from work to unwind.' Then, 'I will do some before I go to work,' and pretty soon you don't have a job because you are missing work," she told the Herald, asking that her last name not be used.

The wake-up call for Kathleen came when she faced charges of forgery and theft -- both felonies, after a string of misdemeanors and another felony -- and spent a few months in jail. That arrest was "a godsend" and helped her realized what a mess her life had become, so she asked to get into the drug court.

"I was so sick and tired of being so sick and tired, but I didn't know how to stop," said Kathleen, who continued to shoot meth her first month in the program. "I begged them to send me to inpatient (in Spokane) because I knew I couldn't be here. I admitted everything to them, that I was still using and I didn't know how to not do it."

Drug court staff meet weekly with participants, in addition to requiring treatment, counseling, 12-step groups and random drug testing.

Participants often struggle in the beginning but, with strict yet supportive guidance from team members, can reach graduation. The average time is 16 to 18 months.

Once completed, prosecutors will dismiss the criminal charges that likely were fueled by the participant's addiction and led to their entry into drug court.

Swanger, now 41, graduated in 2006. Her ex had introduced her to meth and she used it for five years, she said. The powerful stimulant worked really well for weight loss but she found she couldn't walk away from it.

"I did it very moderated for the first six months where I would only do it once a day and I wouldn't really eat," she said. "By the end when I was really thin, I looked like I was dead. I've looked at pictures of me ... and it was like there was nothing behind my eyes. It was like an empty body, and that's pretty much how I felt too."

Swanger started the program under now-retired Superior Court Judge Dennis Yule and finished with Judge Carrie Runge, who's presided over drug court for 41/2 years.

Swanger struggled with the program's rules at times, because it was difficult having other people tell her what to do, but she never broke them other than once missing a call-in for testing, she said.

Swanger already had given temporary custody of her daughter to her parents. When she became pregnant with a boy, she arranged an open adoption with a couple and gave him up at birth because she knew otherwise the state would take him. And she later had another girl, whose father she married after they both became clean.

"When I got clean I got clean and I never went back. I just definitely don't want to go back to that lifestyle," she said.

Swanger celebrates her 5-year wedding anniversary this month and the couple is raising her two daughters together. The girls occasionally get to visit with their brother.

"There are repercussions of your choices that will last a lifetime," Swanger said of the adoption.

The program and its accountability helped Swanger regain the trust of her parents, she said. She has been active as a recovery group leader through several churches, while also getting involved in outreach.

She hopes by sharing her story, it will get at least one person to open their eyes.

"It's a humbling thing for me, not an embarrassing thing," says Swanger, who talks openly with her daughters about what the couple has gone through.

"I give all my thanks to the Lord because without him, I would have never had my eyes opened to see the help that was there before me because I was very focused on my own thing," she said. "That's where my strength came from, and these guys (with drug court) just had every tool that I needed. It was a perfect match."

Kathleen, 30, completely wrecked two good jobs, one as manager of a healthcare facility and the other as foreman for a demolition construction company, she said. She got fired from one and laid off from the other, and admits she "was getting loaded" while on the clock.

Her young son has since come back to live with her, but there's irreparable damage to her relationship with her teen daughter because she "hates my guts," she said. She clarifies that her children weren't beaten or left in a dope house, but they were neglected when she'd crash from the meth and sleep for days or leave them a lot with their grandmother.

Kathleen has been clean since Jan. 27, 2011, graduated from drug court in spring 2012 and hit the ground running, she said.

"I've been working my butt off to make something of it," she said. "For the most part I enjoy being the so-called normal. I enjoy my quiet life now, but some days it's easier and some days it's hard."

She's a proud member of a 12-step program and has a sponsor she "wouldn't trade for anybody in the world." The program, the sponsor and drug court saved her life, she said.

She remembers being forced to go to seven self-help meetings in a week at the beginning of drug court. She's thankful for it now, but at the time she had a bad attitude because she didn't have a driver's license or a car to get around.

"I am sure I wasn't their favorite person," she says of the drug court team. "I don't know how many times they sent me to jail in the beginning. I was the poster kid for going to jail."

"I wanted to bust the system still and my way was crap because my way got me loaded," she added. "In hindsight, looking back on it now, I wish I would have known the program was available sooner. I wish more people would be able to get in contact with that program and take it seriously."

Drug court is a little-known asset to the community and is much needed because people "don't realize how much of a seedy underbelly there is in the Tri-Cities," Kathleen said.

She has since earned an associates degree in applied sciences from Columbia Basin College, is in the process of finding work in her chosen field and is engaged to be married in October to a man she met through an online dating site.

"There's a lot of beautiful things in my life today that I wouldn't have thought possible. I never would have thought I would have done any of this ...," Kathleen said. "I know there is nothing stopping me anymore. Anything I put my mind to I can pretty much do."

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