For the first time in years, 20-year-old Haley Warren is enjoying the holidays.
For starters, she’s no longer living on the streets or crashing on strangers’ couches, wondering where her next meal is coming from. Nor is she worrying about scoring her next fix, sharing dirty needles with other addicts, or when she might be hauled back to jail on an outstanding warrant.
Now, for the first time in her life, she goes home to a family who genuinely cares about her and who are rooting her on. Recovering addicts themselves, they know about the demons Warren is facing as she continues to find her footing and put in the hard work to turn her life around.
The early years have taken a toll, Warren said. Looking down at her coffee mug at the The Local last Thursday, she candidly talked about her past and the trouble she’d been in for most of her life.
Originally from West Virginia, both she and her sister were removed from their family home at ages four and six, respectively. Their mother, a drug addict, was deemed unfit to properly care for her children, after which, the girls were put into foster care until they were eventually adopted by abusive parents and later released back to the state. From there, Warren was cycled in and out of foster care and group homes where she stifled her anger and got into a lot of fist fights. Five years ago, at the age of 15, she wound up at a group home in Gillette, where one of her roommates shared her prescription drugs, specifically, opioid downers, and introduced her to the local underage drinking and partying scene.
After eking her way through high school, Warren enrolled at Gillette College, where her partying took deeper root. She did well in school despite the chaos of her social life, which involved smoking pot, drinking and popping prescription pills. Although she had some run-ins with law enforcement and received infractions for underage drinking and other minor offenses, she was able to do just enough to stay in school for some time, until she was eventually kicked out of the dorms and found herself moving into a basement apartment.
On her 18th birthday, she was introduced to methamphetamines. From there, it was a steep downward trajectory, where she eventually started shooting up. Meth intertwined with heroin became her new drug of choice. Within months, she was homeless and spending the night at various houses of drug dealers or “friends,” tuned out to the mess her life was becoming.
“I wanted to stay off meth,” she said, shaking her head, but the temptation was always stronger than her will.
Looking back, she sees the toll it had taken.
“I was always buying, cheating, stealing,” she said. “It was a stressful life.”
Finally, she reached the end of the rope. Last January at age 19, she and her then-best friend and another girl were arrested for using a stolen credit card on which they charged about $2,500, mostly food from a number of local restaurants. The card had been given to them by her friend’s mother in Salt Lake City. All four were charged, and her photograph and arrest were plastered across the headlines. She spent a week in jail before being let out on bond as she awaited trial.
It had briefly felt good to be sober, and she contemplated turning her life around, until she was once again released and fell back into the same old pattern. Failing mandatory urine tests, being written up by her probation officer, going back to living on the street, and using.
After several more failed chances, Campbell County District Judge John Perry gave her an ultimatum: go to prison or do intensive rehab.
She chose the latter, and at 19, began one of the toughest periods of her life as she tried to get clean and reclaim her life. Back then, she was skin and bones with a face full of sores from intensive meth use. Sadly, her newfound sobriety made her life even harder to face.
“My life fell apart,” she said. “When I came down off drugs, I was suicidal and depressed.”
She tried to kill herself, she said, cutting her wrist one time and attempting to overdose another. It was through the help of a new best friend, Allison, and Allison’s mom, Jenny Nell, who despite her mistakes, never turned their backs on Warren. Instead, the ladies reached out to help her time after time. Warren knew that the next relapse would be her last, so she started making the hard journey toward sobriety.
Instead of letting her out of jail on her own recognizance, Judge Perry chose to keep her in the detention center, which she now credits for saving her life.
Had she been let out again, she wouldn’t have had the will, she said. Inside, she met a former drug addict, Heather Johnson, who had spent two years in prison at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk and was now living a successful, sober life in Gillette. Johnson frequently visits the detention center to counsel other women who are struggling with addiction and became a mentor to Warren, calling her every week until she made it through the intensive recovery program. Prior to her release, Johnson invited Warren to live with she and her husband Shawn, until she was able to get a job and save the money to afford her own place.
Nearly four months later, Warren now works at Arby’s, where she’s recently been promoted to shift manager in this second phase of her life that feels like a new beginning. She’s staying with the Johnsons through March, she said, when she anticipates she’ll have enough money saved to get her own apartment.
There’s still lots of rocky terrain for her to traverse, she said, and she’s not kidding herself that it’s going to be easy. After living on drugs for years, where she weighed 50 pounds lighter at times, she’s having a hard time adjusting to her new healthier weight, which admittedly she still struggles with. The Johnsons have been helping her with that, she said, and also with feeling like she doesn’t constantly have to be doing something. That’s the hardest part, in many ways. After years of constantly being around people and spending her days high or on the go, sitting still in a quiet room inside of an actual home was challenging at first. As was living with rules and the semblance of a real family, who cares enough about her to hold her accountable and ask that she live up to her word.
Recently, she was in trouble with the Johnsons for lying about smoking in the car they’ve loaned her.
“I forget she’s just a kid still,” Heather Johnson said, “and she’s still trying to get the hang of this life.”
Warren agreed. She’s still finding her legs, but this new life feels solid. She’s had to get rid of many former friends and ask them to stop calling her. Right now, she doesn’t have much of a social life but has learned the pleasure of staying home with the Johnsons to watch TV or play cards. She’s talking about maybe going back to school; her grades were never the problem. For now, she’s celebrating her first sober holiday in years on top of the recent promotion at work.
It feels like a lifetime between now and then, and she’s still taking it one step at a time as she looks forward to the promise of a new year.