A tale of growing up too early.

by Kathleen Grassel

"A life is never about one person but rather a tapestry of many lives."

Alicia is under house arrest at a shelter for pregnant girls. An old rambling house in down-town Albuquerque with big rooms and plenty of light it may be the best place Alicia has ever lived. At 17, she's been homeless most of her life, running away from an abusive home, then running from the law, always with older men, only to find a new "home" in another gray, windowless jail. I pick her up on Sunday afternoon for a late lunch at Einstein's Bagels. She can go out for an hour at a time under supervision. I first met her last year when she was in the county youth detention center. She was an attractive, quiet girl in my Saturday morning T'ai Chi class. My class is aimed at teenagers with alcohol or drug addictions. Alicia was one of the most hard­core, addicted to methamphetamine since 14.

We drive around at her request. She is starved for attention and wants to talk. Her grandfather is dying of some alcohol-related dis­ease. She wants to visit him, tell him about Jesus. She would feel at ease if he were in Jesus' care. Alicia is deeply religious, storing her beat-up Bible in the same cache as needles and spoons-the paraphernalia of her addiction. Her mom picks her up for church Sunday mornings. This is their weekly contact. Alicia  rarely misses Sunday services, not so unusual until you know that she started ditching school in the fourth grade, drinking and smoking with some classmates. She's gotten her education since then at detention homes and other correctional facilities. "There's where I'd go when I was homeless," she says, pointing at a graffiti covered house, a site of frequent drug busts. "There's Denny's," she points across the street. "That's where I would sit up all night tweaking and drinking coffee." I ask her what tweaking is. "Doing meth," she replies absently.

 All I knew about meth was that it's a powerful, addictive stimulant that badly jolts the central nervous system. Alicia told me how it's made. She rattles off the recipe, the ingredients of which sit on the shelves of drug stores, hardware stores, animal feed stores; stuff like cold pills and fertilizer. Easy as making burritos, which Alicia can also do. This much red phosphorous, that much ephe­drine, so much iodine and lye. Add water  and simmer for a few hours. The efficient meth cook stays away from the finished product, though, which Alicia never could do. If she knew that $1,000 of ingredients could turn a profit of$ 15,000 or more, it probably would not matter. Alicia has been injecting the stuff for years, as an aside claiming her use of the drug let her cut back on chain-smoking and drinking. But she's not kidding her­self. "Once the needle went in, it never came out," she says matter-of-factly; I marvel at the poetry of her insight.

 Alicia went to court shortly after en­tering the maternal shelter. The judge sentenced her to six more months house arrest at the shelter-about the time her baby is due-and following that, two years probation. In some ways, Alicia has lived a charmed life. She has been in front of a judge some 20 times since she was 13, and always gets a break. She's pretty, though carrying a rough look after so many years of drug abuse. She's charming and lively, with a life-embracing sense of humor. "I knew I was pregnant when I craved milk in­stead of meth," she said, not trying to be funny but laughing anyway. The judges, attorneys, probation officers and counselors-as   much a part of her life as the bad company she keeps-seem to like her, and she likes them.

This time, though, the judge threw in a bitter pill. As part of her probation, he disallowed her any contact with her "old man." Alicia's  "old-man, "perhaps a more appropriate term than "boyfriend" since he's 42, is the father of her upcoming child. She says she loves him and would do anything for him. She writes him every day, and her eyes brim with tears of frustration and longing every time she thinks of him. "I'm going to be there for him," she says. "He needs a lot of support." Maybe so. He's in jail awaiting trial for manufacture and operation of a meth lab, illegal possession of firearms, and a host of other crimes. Most likely, he'll plea bargain and get five years-maybe enough time for Alicia to raise her baby and forget him. Alicia was with him when the FBI raided the remote trailer house where they manufactured the stuff. He was cooking meth and she was cooking supper when they started beating down the door. She immediately sprang into action, pouring bleach into the chemi­cals and over the equipment and light­ing the whole works on fire to spoil the evidence.

 Alicia wants to be domestic: to cook and clean and raise babies and serve a man. Her choices in men have been atrocious: always decades older than she, always connected to drugs. She seems to want someone to protect her and, at the same time, to get her high. In return, she loves them with all her heart and very quickly lands in deep trouble. She stands by them arid they throw her away.

 She ran away to Seattle at age 14 with one of these guys. When he got busted, she concocted a plan to break him out of jail. It worked. As he escaped, she got caught hut lied her way out of jail, then hitchhiked with truckers back to Albuquerque. Pursued by police another time in Denver, a different "old man" let her fend for herself as he jumped from a moving vehicle they'd just stolen. She had just shot up a “75-uriit blast," as she describes it, getting her­self caught with a quarter ounce of meth, spoons, needles, the works, wrapped around her midriff. For that she was transported to the emergency room and put on an IV drip to rehydrate her badly abused 82-pound (37kg) body, then transported, in shackles and tears, back to New Mexico, again ending up at the detention center, and later in my T'ai Chi class where T first met her. Some months later, on probation, she fell in drug love with another "old man," got pregnant and hosted. Back she came to the D-home and again to my class.

 “Hi, hello," she chirped. “Remember me?" "Of course I do, honey," I replied, giving her a hug. "I'm going to have a baby," she said. "I'm going straight." Then she burst into tears.

 At the detention home, the girls aren't permitted the makeup, jewelry, and clothes that so heavily define them to their peers. Everyone wears the stand­ard blue T-shirts, sweatpants, and Nikes. On the outside the girls dress in short, tight dresses to show off their tattoos as much as their bodies, paint their lips and eyes and nails, and lacquer their hair up and out beyond belief. But on the inside they resume a childlike demeanor that belies their tough, saucy personas. Only when I met Alicia at the shelter did I realize that she, too, was one of those girls. She swung her body with the confidence of an adult who has lived a full life.

 A life is never about one person but rather a tapestry of many lives. People at the end look back, remember untold, forgotten or discarded stories, trying to understand their lives. Alicia, at 17, de­termined to change, is like those old people. "I don't remember half my life,” she says, referring to alcohol abuse from age 10 and drug addiction from 14, hav­ing blotted out the scorched psychic landscapes of all she's seen. She remem­bers her parents divorce when she was three, a disturbed brother who strangled the family dog in front of her, sexual abuse by Mom's boyfriend, changing schools as one or both parents moved, her first boyfriend blowing his brains out in front of her and everyone at an all-night drug party. "I want you to drink my blood when I die," he told her sec­onds before covering her and every­one with blood and bone shards and somehow the party went on.

 Neither her mother or father noticed or cared when she left home; at least that's what she says. Her relationship to her father, and uncovering his history, could reveal the cause of her fatal attractions to older men. She is anxious to make contact with him. It's been a year and a half since she last saw him, and now, after a half dozen times standing her up, he's finally kept an appointment.

 Many of us, as we grow older, lose the will to take risks. We just follow patterns. Alicia, by going straight with all the firm determination she can muster, is taking the most radical risk of her life. 'My addiction has already taken me," she says. "If it took my baby, too, I couldn't live with it." She's resolved to get healthy for her baby, and in doing so, is starting to understand that she can save her own life, too. And, most important:  "T want my child to be a child till she's 12 even. I want to cry. Alicia has no way of knowing that one can be a child long after the age of 12.  

 I drop her back at the shelter with a hug goodbye. I think of karma, how under the law of karma there's only complete justice. Then I think of grace. Yeah. Something, somebody will make an exception for you. Alicia believes in grace. So do I

Kathleen Grassel lives in New Mexico, where she works as a technical writer, editor and graphics designer at the Institute of Public Law at the University of New Mexico. She is also working on a Masters degree in Water Resources Management.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 9, No. 1, issue 27