Laura’s Ladder: Emerging from addiction

By on March 17, 2016


“Laura’s Ladder” is the second in a monthly series on the addiction crisis that too many people are battling. The series is written by Janice Ballenger, who works at Retreat at Lancaster County, a premier 160 bed addiction treatment facility in Ephrata. Working closely with addicts, she has a burning passion to raise awareness to addiction and offer hope to all. Part I of this series, “Beth’s Story,” detailed Beth’s life as a once-successful registered nurse who ended up dead at age 38 from a heroin overdose. While some names and locations have been changed for the privacy of her family, “Laura’s Ladder” is also a true story with local ties.

Laura’s Ladder

When Laura was only two days old she was adopted by a loving family that had been on the waiting list for years. Her adoptive parents preferred a baby boy, but when they met Laura, only a few hours old, there was an immediate bond. Scrambling to decorate her bedroom in pink, everything was going to be the best for their baby girl. She was loved deeply by her parents and Grandma Mary. At the age of 12, Laura learned she was miraculously going to be a big sister. She was going to be a sister to identical twin boys, and she immediately fell in love with Luke and Larry. She loved that they both had brown hair, almost the same shade as her hair. They seemed like the perfect family. But with the twins getting so much attention, she felt like the black sheep of the family. She began overeating to feed her insecurity. As her weight increased, so did the bullying at school. She often heard “Here comes Laura, throw her a chocolate baura.” One day a classmate squirted a bottle of glue in her mouth and yelled, “There, that will keep food out of your mouth for awhile.” Laura ran home in tears. She didn’t hate the bullies, she hated herself.

Her parents love was unconditional. They did everything they could to try to help her. After a diagnosis of depression and obesity, her parents decided to move so that Laura could attend Manheim Central High School. Aware of Manheim Central’s football reputation, they prayed she would find an interest in cheerleading and lose weight. But the bullying followed her. One evening, while walking down Main Street to get snacks at the Dollar General, she heard someone yell her name. It was Mark, a rugged senior athlete, hanging out on a porch with his friends. Mark told her he was truly sorry for the bullying. He said he had a few pills that could help her feel better about herself. Mark said there were a lot fewer calories in a pill than in her chocolate bars. Laura passed that comment off as a good intention because she trusted Mark. She swallowed a pill and they chatted for a bit. The more they chatted, the better she felt. She was feeling beautiful. She wanted more pills. Mark told her to meet him and his friends on South Charlotte Street later in the week and he would have more pills for her.

They met Saturday night. Laura took pills, smoked weed, and drank alcohol. Uncertain if it was Mark or the drugs that made her feel so good, she started seeing him every day. Laura discovered her mother had prescription pain pills in the bathroom. Figuring her mother wouldn’t notice, she switched the pain pills with vitamins. She began drinking mouthwash for the alcohol in it. Laura was acting erratically at home. Her parents chalked it up to a stage she was going through. They were certain she wasn’t doing drugs or anything, because druggies were all skin and bones. Luke and Larry barely tolerated her.

Laura was in a toxic relationship. She wasn’t climbing down the ladder of self-destruction; she was taking the elevator to the bottom.

For her 18th birthday she was given her dream car, a brand new, bright red Mustang. Within two weeks it looked like a grocery store had vomited in it. Laura never had to study and still got straight A grades. She was accepted at Millersville University. How she survived the summer following her high school graduation remains a puzzle, even to Laura.

“Mark started going out while I was working at Wendy’s. He didn’t have a car, so I would pick him up after my shift ended. He was always totally trashed. He didn’t have gas money, but he had drugs and alcohol, and that was all I needed. I knew he was robbing convenience stores and stealing from his family to feed our habits, but I didn’t care. One hot, humid Friday night in August, he screamed at me to drive to Chiques Creek. I just wanted to get my drugs, go home, and take a shower. Mark became violent. As I got into my car he slammed the door on my ankle, which now bears hideous scars, pins and plates. I convinced my parents that I had tripped on our steps. Grandma Mary came along to the hospital with us. She slipped me some cash to go buy something nice for myself. I immediately thought ‘Score! Drug money!’ I was out of control. Drugs, alcohol and food controlled me. In my mind, the only person that truly cared about me was my grandma. I had the right to do drugs and drink. I wasn’t even my parents’ own flesh and blood!

“When my blood work revealed massive amounts of various drugs, my family was thrust into a world they never wanted to visit, let alone live in. They had front row seats, watching the life of an addict. It was a performance full of chaos, lies and feelings of helplessness. My parents thought that if I really wanted to stop being an addict, I would just stop. They didn’t understand the assault inflicted on my brain and body by my daily use of opiods and alcohol. I didn’t even understand it. I was now labeled a ‘junkie’. Larry and Luke told everyone that I wasn’t their real sister.

“But I had promised my grandma that I would become a guidance counselor. I would help others being bullied. So off to college I went, with my stashes nicely hidden in my suitcases.

Mark hitched a ride to see me on my fourth day of college. Wearing a new black striped top and black leggings that grandma bought for me, we climbed into my car and went off to escape reality. The rest of that Thursday is a blur. I remember waking up in Lancaster General Hospital’s emergency room. Seeing my parents and brothers crying hurt me. But seeing my grandma sobbing uncontrollably broke my heart. Her tears made me want to die. I was told that EMTs had saved my life by the use of Narcan. I admitted that I was drinking close to a gallon of vodka a day, along with doing other drugs. Hearing myself say it out loud made me wonder how I was still alive.”


The hospital referred Laura to an inpatient rehab facility where she was strip searched. Her cell phone was taken from her. That was the moment she knew this was serious; it wasn’t a joke or a game. She decided that she needed, and wanted, help. She decided to fight for her own life like she had fought for her highs.

Her 60 day program was highly structured. Laura was not only a drug and alcohol abuser, she was also a food abuser. Her new environment helped her make positive changes. Through added counseling by a nutritionist, she started losing weight. She learned that addiction didn’t care that she came from a loving, wealthy family. Laura’s addiction started the same way as many others, with a desperate need to change how she felt. During her inpatient stay, Grandma Mary suffered a stroke. Laura immediately wanted to leave and find some drugs to soothe her own feelings. But knowing that choice would devastate her grandma, she stayed.

Laura learned — through counseling, support groups, a 12-step program, and a lot of hard work — that there are other ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings. Recovery taught her to love herself and take care of her body. Glancing at her ID badge issued to her in rehab, she barely recognized herself, but knew herself too well. Her parents attended a class on the biochemistry of addiction. She regained the trust of her family. Laura was climbing back up the ladder, one step at a time, out of her self-created cesspool. She was on the threshold of recovery. It wasn’t easy by any means. Many times it meant just making it from the present moment through to the next sober moment. Eventually, she was ready to step off of the ladder and step into a serene and sober life.

Returning to college, she was ready, clean and thriving. Attending group meetings in the evenings reduced her odds of relapsing. Her family helped her get a cozy apartment in Ephrata so that she could be close to her grandmother. Planning for her college graduation, Laura made a sign to hang in her anticipated office.

“For anyone out there who hasn’t done drugs, don’t. For anyone who has and doesn’t know where to turn, remember that it’s only too late to get help when you’re dead. If I can do it, anyone can. It’s possible. It’s all possible if you are ready to surrender. Never lose hope. You might not be as lucky as I was to get a second chance.”

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