A life defined by methamphetamine

Editor's note: In exchange for sharing her story, the Sun-Star agreed not to publish Nanette's full name. The newspaper also promised not to reveal her identity through photographs or print the names of her children.

March 6, 2009 

Nanette spends a lot of time thinking about the way things should have gone. When she does, she shakes her head and casts her eyes toward the floor, disgusted with herself.

She’d always wanted to get married and have a big, loving family. She dreamed about a warm home and becoming a police detective.

At age 51, none of it’s really panned out.

“I guess that’s what happens when you spend 40 years on drugs,” she shrugs.

Nanette is a methamphetamine addict. She’s been using it on and off for almost as long as it’s been around. Before she found meth, she did other drugs. She’s spent most of the last four decades feeding addictions, and if her past is any indication of her future, she’ll probably be doing it the rest of her life.

Sure, there have been good times for Nanette. Take the day she met her husband, their beautiful outdoor wedding and the births of seven children.

But there’s been a lot more, too. Like the first time she got high, before she’d even learned to drive a car. And the first time she had sex, with a man more than twice her age when she was barely 13.

Then there was the day, four years later, when she was raped, and the first time her husband went to jail. Then came her first arrest, then the afternoon he accidentally killed their two-year-old son.

She struggles more than she should to remember the exact order of it all.

When did she deliver her first drug-addicted baby? It takes her a minute to piece it together. How old was her oldest daughter when the government finally took her children? Eleven. No, wait. Fourteen.

And then there are the parts she can’t really remember at all. Long stretches, entire years even, are a blur.

“I did this to myself,” she admits. “It’s my own fault.”

Nanette’s is not a success story. With meth, most of them aren’t.

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For at least the last decade, methamphetamine has been the most widely abused illegal drug across both California and Merced County, according to the state’s Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. Locally, more people enter treatment programs for help kicking meth than any other drug, including alcohol.

At least as addictive as heroin and even harder to permanently quit, meth is an epidemic here.

“Methamphetamine is easy to make, easy to hide, easy to sell and it hooks people so fast,” Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin says. “For us, a lot of the time it feels like a losing battle.”

It feels the same way for Nanette.

Her history reveals how the scourge of drugs ruins lives, generations and destinies. Users lose control of both everyday and longterm dreams. Their worlds orbit around some kind of dope, and nothing else matters as much. The fix is all.

Nannette stands for a lot of Mercedians whose fates have been ripped apart for a few minutes of bliss. What’s happened to her has happened to many. And, chances are, it will keep on happening.

Like bleach poured into water, drug use pollutes a community. Straight-living taxpayers often wind up footing the bill for drug abuse — either through the criminal justice system ($40,000 a year for a California inmate) or in government-sponsored treatment programs.

Social service providers and law enforcement officials say meth is among the most serious and costly problems facing Merced. The story of Nanette’s addiction can help us understand that problem, and it may help deter someone from ever starting the downward spiral.

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Alcohol was Nanette's first addiction. She started drinking at 13, around the same time that a neighbor, a man in his 30s, started molesting her.

She doesn’t remember the first time she took hard drugs, or even what drug she started with, but she was around 14.

“I think it started with pills — speed, stuff like that. And mescaline,” she recalls. “We’d get it cut with that Nesquick chocolate powder. For years after that I couldn’t smell chocolate milk without feeling nauseous.”

Soon she was using cocaine, and eventually heroin. She’s done just about every drug there is.

But it’s meth that has always been her favorite, from the very first time.

“It just makes me feel right. I think that’s the best way I can explain it,” she says. “It makes you feel like everything is going to be OK, even if the truth is the exact opposite.”

Nanette describes her childhood as rough. One of five children, she grew up in Lake Tahoe and dropped out of school in the 10th grade. Her father was a mechanic and an alcoholic. Her mom babysat kids in their neighborhood for extra money.

“It wasn’t like they didn’t love us,” Nanette remembers. “But it was really hard to get attention. There was just always a lot going on — a lot of other kids around. Kids my mom babysat. Cousins. Sometimes people just stayed with us for a while.”

The story of Nanette’s addiction is deeply connected to her relationships with men, even if she doesn’t tell it exactly that way. The neighbor who molested her as a teenager was the one who started her drinking. At 18 she met a plumber named Billy, an abusive man with whom she spent three years drinking and doing cocaine and PCP. He later killed himself.

And it was her husband, Frank, now eight years into a 10-year prison sentence, who eventually introduced her to meth.

Nanette was living with Billy, whom she had followed to Washington state, when she fell in love with Frank. They met in 1978 at a beef processing plant.

“We both worked on the line,” Nanette recalls. “I winked at him one day and that was it.”

They married a year later. Frank was 19. Nanette was 22. She was still drinking a lot then. But she says she wasn’t using drugs, at least not heavily. She remembers it as one of the happiest times of her life.

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Things changed fast.

A few months after their wedding, Nanette became pregnant with their first child, a girl. She was a few months old when Frank was arrested for the first time.

Nanette was in Tahoe showing off the baby to family when the call came: Frank was accused of participating in a murder. With his brother he had beaten an acquaintance accused of raping their sister. The man died a few days later. Frank got manslaughter and four years in prison.

“He watched his first child learn to walk from county jail,” Nanette remembers. “I’d sit outside on the grass and play with her, and he’d watch out the window from his cell.”

As soon as Frank was out, Nanette was pregnant again, with their second girl. Their third girl came two years later in 1986, shortly after they moved to Montana. A fourth was born six years after that.

Frank was earning their living as a grocery store meat cutter. Sometimes Nanette worked nights in bars and restaurants for extra money. She confesses she kept drinking for years, even during her pregnancies.

“For a long time I’d have to have a beer every morning, just to start the day,” she admits. “I’d drive drunk, too. There were times when I’d go somewhere and when I’d get there, I wouldn’t be able to remember the trip at all.”

Nanette says Frank rarely drank, though they both did drugs on occasion, mostly cocaine and mostly on the weekend. “We weren’t out of control then,” she remembers. “It was more like we just did it to relax.”

In 1993, Frank went back to prison on a parole violation. While he was in, Nanette cheated with a man she describes as a close friend. She got pregnant. Ashamed to visit Frank while carrying another man’s baby, she told him she was moving the kids from Montana to Tahoe to be near her family.

She delivered her first boy and her first drug-positive baby in 1994. He was less than a week old when she gave him to her sister to raise as her own.

Frank came home to Tahoe soon after Nanette delivered the baby, but within months he was back in jail, this time on charges of over-collecting welfare in Stanislaus County, where he and Nanette had lived for a few months in the late ‘80s. Nanette explains it as the county’s mistake. When the county asked for some of the money back, she and Frank couldn’t pay.

The old warrants caught up with them in Tahoe. Authorities arrested Frank first, then Nanette a few weeks later, after Frank had been released.

Nanette isn’t exactly sure what happened at home in Tahoe while she was in jail in Stanislaus, but soon after her arrest, Frank took off. He has told Nanette he only left the girls to come get her out, but the kids remember it differently. He told them he was going out for cigarettes. A week passed before their children — then ages 14, 10, 8 and 2 — finally called Nanette’s sister.

By the time Frank showed up in Stanislaus for Nanette, the government had taken their children. They eventually placed them with Nanette’s sister, the same one who was already raising her son.

Nanette says that’s when she and Frank began to lose what little control they had left over their lives. It’s also when they started using meth.

It was 1994. Nanette was 37. She and Frank had no money, no car and nowhere to go. Frank had relatives in Turlock, so they decided to stay there while they fought to get their children back. Frank eventually found work loading trucks.

Nanette says it was Frank’s sister who introduced them to meth. “She was using it, and she gave it to Frank, and then I started using it too,” she recalls. “Meth was everywhere in Turlock. I’d never really seen anything like that before.”

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For Nanette, drugs have never really been about getting high. She says they’ve mostly been about trying to feel normal. And meth seems to work better than anything else she’s tried.

She recalls smoking it with an acquaintance once. “She was totally high, and I was just sort of normal and calm,” Nanette explains. “She looks at me and she says, ‘I know we just got loaded together so why aren’t you acting like it?’ That’s just how it’s always been for me.”

For a long time Nanette has suspected she suffers some kind of chemical imbalance. She’s never gotten it checked, but she’s clings to the idea that she’s the victim of a biological predisposition. She insists she’s not looking for an excuse for her addiction; she just wants something that helps explain it.

“I don’t think I’m better than any other addict. I know I’m not,” she says. “But I think I’m different from a lot of people who use meth. Even when I’m using a lot, I still sleep at night. I still eat. I still go to work. That’s unusual.”

She is partly right: In many ways, she is far from a typical meth addict. She holds down jobs, often for years at a time. She hasn’t lived paycheck to paycheck in quite awhile. She has a savings account. Her health is fair. She’s never stolen anything to buy drugs.

And physically, at least on the outside, she bears none of meth’s hallmarks. No rotten teeth. No skin sores. No scabs from picking after meth bugs, the creepy-crawly hallucinations meth addicts often imagine are insects wiggling under their flesh.

Instead, she has a clear, pale face, soft red hair, bright blue eyes and a slight frame. She dresses fashionably and doesn’t like going out with no makeup, even though she looks fine without it.

It isn’t that Nanette hasn’t felt meth bugs. She has, and she has imagined that trees were people and that strangers were trailing her when they weren’t. But she says she can talk herself out of paranoia and hallucinations.

“I can say to myself, ‘It isn’t real. You’re fine.’ I guess I’m not as weak-minded as I tend to think I am.”

In other ways, however, Nanette fits meth’s profile: She started on drugs young. She’s been arrested more than once. She has tried to quit and failed more times than she can count. She has experienced her share of trauma: molestation, rape, the death of a child.

And she admits she lies about her drug use, even though it makes her feel sick. “That’s the worst part about being an addict, the lying,” she says. “I can’t stand it — always having to worry about covering your tracks. I don’t want to be a liar. Nobody wants to be a liar.”

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Less than a year after her children were taken away, Nanette was pregnant with her sixth baby. Desperate not to forfeit another child, she cleaned up fast. He was born in October 1995. By then she and Frank had moved into a trailer in Hilmar.

“I was totally clean with (him),” she says. “I was so proud of that.” At just under eight pounds, he was her biggest baby.

Soon a neighbor began inviting Nanette to services at a conservative church nearby. She started attending regularly. “I liked it right away,” she recalls. “The church was sort of everything I’d always wanted to be. They’re good people.”

In 1996 Nanette and Frank had their last child, another boy. He arrived months early and tested positive for drugs, but the government allowed them to keep him.

A few months later, while Nanette was at the grocery store, Frank accidentally struck their second-youngest child with a forklift, killing him. Frank had been moving pallets, trying to clean up the property where they parked their trailer. Their toddler had wandered outside alone. Frank didn’t see him.

“It was the worst feeling you could possibly imagine,” Nanette recalls. “Frank never got over it. He’s still not over it.”

Unable to cope, Frank started smoking meth every day. Nanette was using too, though she also found comfort in the church.

In 1997, one of their middle daughters, then 12, came to live with them. Nanette cleaned up again, and she and her daughter were baptized into the church the following year. Encouraged by church members, Nanette enrolled in courses to become a certified nursing assistant and got a job at a local nursing home.

That lasted until 2001 when her employer asked her to submit to a drug test. When it came back positive, she was fired and expelled from the church. It was a low point. All she could think was that she’d screwed up again.

She estimates she was smoking meth two or three times a week then, far less than at some other points in her life. But Frank was using more than ever. He was still holding down a job, driving a silage truck, but he was gone most nights. He was also spending a lot of time feeding another of his addictions, gambling.

“I was on his ass all the time trying to get him to quit, or at least to slow down,” Nanette says. “Now he says he wishes he’d listened.”

Soon Frank started spending more and more time in the garage. Then strangers began showing up at the house at all hours. Nanette knew what it all meant: Frank was cooking meth.

“I probably should have left him,” Nanette allows. “But I just couldn’t.”

On a Thursday morning in April 2002, half a dozen drug agents busted in with guns drawn while Nanette was in bed asleep. Her youngest son, the only one of her children still living with her, thought they were Power Rangers.

Nanette was arrested at the house. They handcuffed Frank later that day at work. Their son went to live with brothers and sisters he barely knew at his aunt’s house in Tahoe.

Nanette and Frank both took deals. He got 10 years for manufacturing and selling meth and is scheduled for release next year. She got 15 months for child endangerment and spent most of it at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

Nanette remembers prison as one of the scariest times in her life, but she figured out quickly how to cope. She made a good friend who she could trust. She learned to light cigarettes using an electrical outlet and to curl her hair using tampons, and she voluntarily enrolled in the prison’s substance abuse program.

She was released in August 2003 and chose to go straight to a residential drug treatment program in Stockton paid for by the state. When she left 12 months later, she’d been off drugs for nearly two and a half years.

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For all she’s experienced, Nanette is a deeply sensitive person. She cries at the drop of a hat, and she finds herself feeling sorry for people a lot, even people she doesn’t really like.

And she has a hard time declining favors, even ones she knows will get her in trouble. She jokes that she’d be rich if she could somehow get back all the $20 bills she’s loaned to friends, usually for drugs. When someone asks for a ride — also usually for drugs — most of the time she says yes.

“When someone calls you up and says they need a ride to Turlock, you know what they’re going there for. You know you’re ending up at some house you shouldn’t be at,” she says. “I know I should say no because it’s just another temptation. But it’s just hard for me to tell people no.”

She forgives easily. “I’m good at making excuses for people,” she shrugs. “I guess it’s a flaw.”

Perhaps the person for whom Nanette has made the most excuses is Frank. She defends him, even without being asked. She insists he’s a good father before the question is raised. And in the eight years he’s been in prison, Nanette hasn’t been with anyone else. She says she never even considered not waiting for him.

“I think people take advantage of her,” says Nanette’s friend Christina. They met 10 years ago when Nanette was regularly buying meth from Christina’s husband. “She’s not like most people I know. She’s a real giving person. I think people take it as a fault and they try to get one over on her.”

But for all her mistakes, Nanette is thoughtful, introspective and self-aware.

She knows she’s a pleaser, often to her own detriment. She knows she’s forgetful. She tries to compensate with a small datebook where she records important appointments. She knows she rambles in conversation and loses her train of thought more than she should. She apologizes for it often.

And she knows she makes bad decisions. “A lifetime’s worth,” she says, shaking her head. “It makes you hate yourself. The drugs make you hate yourself. Not being able to change makes you hate yourself.”

She says she’s spent a lot of time thinking about what causes people to become bad decision makers. She’s never really figured it out though.

“I’m pretty sure people aren’t born that way,” she says. “I don’t think I was born this way.”

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Nanette jokes that it’s a miracle none of her children use drugs. She says she has decent relationships with all of them, even if they aren’t conventional. “I think with all of my kids they see me more as the child, and they’re the adults.”

Her middle daughter, now 23 and a mother herself, is the only one of Nanette’s children who lives close to her. She is married and has a 20-month-old son.

“It’s strange for a kid to feel like they need to keep tabs on their mom, but I do,” she says. “I worry about her a lot.”

She says she can tell when Nanette is using because that’s when she usually stops calling. “As long as we’re talking and I’m seeing her, I know she’s not doing too bad.”

She doesn’t make excuses for her parents, and she doesn’t sugar-coat what she experienced as a child. She says she knows exactly where her dad went when he took off for that week when she was 8 years old: he was gambling, and he was probably high.

“When I look back, the way I see it, my whole childhood was one big battle,” she says. “A battle to feel safe. A battle to go back to my mom and dad. A battle for attention and for stability ... I think I’ve blocked out some of the worst stuff, as a defense.”

But she is persuasive when she says she doesn’t blame her parents: “I’m not angry. It’s hard to accept some of the choices they made. But I blame the addiction. I know what it does to people.”

And she insists her parents were good teachers. “I learned first-hand the consequences of making bad decisions,” she says bluntly. “They taught me exactly how not to be.”

Nanette admits some of her other children harbor much more resentment. “I think my oldest, she had it the hardest,” she says. “And I have to live with that.”

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Since Nanette left rehab in 2004, every day has been a battle to stay clean. Sometimes she wins. Sometimes she loses.

She has spent most of the last five years working as a live-in caretaker. After rehab she moved in with an ill, elderly woman in Atwater. That job ended after about a year and a half when the woman died.

In 2006 she began living with an elderly couple in Livingston to care for the husband, who suffered from partial paralysis, among other serious health problems. He died in February, and Nanette cries when she talks about him. She still lives with his wife, but is planning to move out soon. Her services are no longer needed.

She says she loves and hates working as a live-in caretaker for the same reason: It has kept her days so busy and so structured that she’s had almost no time in the last few years for a life of her own. In short, her work has made it harder for her to fall back into drugs.

Harder, but not impossible.

In 2007, after her father and a sister died within two months of each other, Nanette started using meth again regularly.

She worked diligently to hide it from her employer, going out for drugs on her breaks and at night after she’d put the man she cared for to bed.

She is adamant that he never suffered because of her meth use. “He was always my first priority,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life, but that’s not one of them.”

She thinks his wife, who knows about Nanette’s past, began to suspect she was using drugs again when she started staying out late. “I’d make up excuses and she’d say she was worried about me,” Nanette explains. “It gets so exhausting keeping up the facade.”

Still, it’s easier than admitting the truth. “I don’t think I could handle disappointing her like that.”

In August, Nanette was arrested for meth again. She avoided prison but will begin a 10-week, court-mandated drug program this month. She also must submit to drug tests anytime she’s asked. If she fails, she goes to jail.

As much as that thought terrifies her, she admits she’s smoked meth since the arrest. But she claims she’s cleaning up again. She’s attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and she’s trying, as she puts it, to get right with God again.

Frank will be out next year, and Nanette is already counting down the days. She has one goal between now and then: kick meth for good.

Her friend Christina thinks she can do it. “Maybe she’s relapsed, but she’s a hard worker, too. She really wants a good life,” she says.

Another friend, a sheriff’s deputy who has kept tabs on Nanette since her last arrest, is less optimistic. “Meth is her crutch,” he says. “I think she’ll be using the rest of her life.”

But Nanette is convincing when she says she thinks she can quit. The way she sees it, this is her last chance.

“I have to get straight by the time Frank comes home,” she says. “Because if I’m using, he’ll fall right back into it. And I don’t want that. I don’t want that life anymore.”

She starts to cry.

“If we’re going to have any kind of a chance left after all this, there can’t be drugs.”

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.