Victoria Worden’s story is the one addiction experts have been warning about for years — the one that shows that the dark spiral from prescription opioid use to illegal heroin abuse can happen to anyone.
“I mean, I lived a normal life with a house and a husband and little girls,” Worden said. “And then I didn’t, you know.”
Drug addiction cost Worden her home, her marriage and, for a while, her kids.
But now she’s been off drugs for 18 months and she’s building everything back up from scratch with the help of a nonprofit that is unique in Kansas City.
Worden lives in Amethyst Place, a horseshoe-shaped complex of brick apartments at 2735A Troost Ave. It’s the only facility in the metro exclusively for women in addiction recovery where they can live long term with their kids while they receive round-the-clock support.
Families accepted into Amethyst Place get case managers and on-site therapy in a supervised, drug-free environment. The women get individual treatment plans and help in getting an education or finding a job. The length of their stay is based on meeting goals they set with staff and case managers, not arbitrary time limits.
But the best feature of the program, Worden said, is that she has her kids with her.
“It’s huge,” Worden said. “Because when you don’t have them and you’re trying to get clean, you don’t have a lot to live for.”
The leaders of Amethyst Place say it’s a model that works, with a 60 to 80 percent success rate. But the opioid crisis, on top of substance abuse standbys like alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine, has made it harder for people to get in.
“I think it’s put a strain on already-stressed resources,” said Elizabeth Glynn, the chair of the Amethyst Place board of directors.
After starting with seven apartments in 2000, Amethyst Place has steadily grown to 38. But executive director Kim Davis said that’s as big as she wants to get. Part of the program’s success, she said, lies with its personal nature: All of the staff and residents know each other.
Instead, Davis and Glynn want to spread the word about Amethyst Place’s model in the hopes that it can be replicated in other parts of the Kansas City area.
Right now, the program takes in people from all over the metro, and the increasing demand has created a waiting list that Davis said stretches three to six months. That’s a lot of time to relapse for someone coming out of detox or inpatient rehab.
“Six months is probably closer to it,” Davis said. “But to give people hope, I always say it could be three months.”
Davis opened the door of a second-floor unit during a recent tour of Amethyst Place to reveal a three-bedroom apartment with wood floors and worn but clean furniture.
There was art on the living room walls and card games stacked on an ottoman. The unit was ready for a mother in recovery who would move in the next day with her four kids.
“I don’t know one woman who has set foot in one of these apartments that hasn’t burst into tears,” Davis said.
Thanks to donations, all of the apartments at Amethyst Place are fully furnished when a new resident moves in. Well, almost fully furnished.
“She still needs pots and pans,” Davis said, peering into one of the cupboards. “Nobody gives away pots and pans.”
Most of the people who come to Amethyst Place come with only a few trash bags of clothes, Davis said.
They’ve hit bottom, and most were living on the streets or couch surfing, their kids in foster care or with relatives. Then they ended up in a hospital or inpatient treatment facility.
After they’re discharged, Amethyst Place helps them get back on their feet and stay clean, whether that takes a year or more. Davis said their best results seem to come in residents who stay two to three years.
When residents move out after completing the program, they take the donated furniture with them — one more incentive to stay on track and one less thing they have to worry about as they transition to full independence.
None of that comes at any cost to Amethyst Place. All other costs, including staffing and programming, average out to about $7,500 per resident per year.
Having private apartments is what allows the program to place kids with their parents. At the same time, residents know that the apartments are subject to inspection by staff at any time, to check for drugs or to make sure they’re following rules about things like cleanliness and visitors.
That’s where the 20 percent range in the program’s success rate comes in: 80 percent of residents stay off drugs; 60 percent stay off drugs and are able to follow all the other rules, too.
Amethyst Place also provides child care during the day, which is key because all residents are expected to be working or going to school.
Worden is doing both. She’s working at a health services clinic and studying for a degree in social work as part of the KC Scholars program. She’s also raising three kids.
“I have long days, every day,” Worden said.
A long road back
She’s not complaining, given where she came from.
Like many people who have struggled with heroin addiction, Worden said her problems started with a legal prescription for opioid painkillers.
After a car wreck when she was 20, a doctor gave her, in retrospect, “an insane amount of pain pills.” She got hooked.
“He lost his license while I was going to him, and I ended up buying pain pills from my friend that was on my kid’s dance team,” Worden said.
Things spiraled from there. She got divorced, lost custody of her kids and didn’t have a permanent place to live.
But the worst part, she said, was when she got pregnant again and struggled to find prenatal care while addicted. Rock bottom, she said, was when she could feel her baby writhing inside her because it was experiencing opioid withdrawal.
“Nothing makes you just want to give up more,” Worden said.
She said she felt stigmatized by doctors and nurses when she tried to seek help during her pregnancy. Even some who said the right things to her face gave her looks that betrayed disgust.
“I’m not from a family of drug addicts,” Worden said. “I know what they say (behind your back), and I know how they feel about it. You can’t maintain a lot of dignity that way.”
The turning point came when she connected with a social worker from Children’s Mercy Hospital’s Team for Infants Exposed to Substance Abuse, or TIES, program.
She arranged for Worden to get good prenatal care, then get into a methadone clinic, then into rehab, then into Amethyst Place.
Having stable housing in Amethyst Place helped convince the Children’s Services Division that she could again take care of her two older kids, whom she had not seen for more than a year at that point. They were 6 and 9, and Worden credits Amethyt Place’s in-house therapist with helping her regain their trust.
“I explained to them that mommy made some bad decisions and I was going to try very hard to make up for those choices,” Worden said. “It was really emotional, but she helped me a lot, Jessica, our therapist here. So we still work with her every week.”
Worden knows the journey is not over. Relapse is always possible. But she said she has no desire to use drugs now because she’s in such a supportive environment.
“My life is so great,” Worden said. “It’s so fulfilling. But before I lived here and before I got my children back, it’s so much easier to use. Because for a little while, you feel like everything is OK. But it’s so temporary and it’s so depressing when it’s over.”
Julie Carmichael, the director of programs at Amethyst Place, said the children at Amethyst Place benefit just as much from having their moms around and that watching them work hard and get results helps break cycles of poverty and addiction.
“They’re seeing a mom get up and go to work and go to school and stay sober and decorate the house for Christmas and make cookies and have an Easter egg hunt,” Carmichael said. “That’s the impact we’re making.”