In late April 2015, Chloe Carvalho found herself at a crossroads.
At just 20 years old, she was addicted to heroin and sitting in a Pierce County jail cell after she was caught stealing a car.
She also faced a choice. She could serve a 90-day jail sentence and leave with a felony on her record, or she could enter the Pierce County Felony Drug Court Program with the understanding that if she successfully completed it, she could emerge a free woman with a clean record.
Carvalho, who spoke in opposition to a safe injection site in Federal Way at a City Council meeting in August, also knew it was a one-time deal. If she entered the program and failed, she would never get another chance.
Carvalho decided to take the deal. The Federal Way resident spent an extra month in jail to wait for treatment, completed a 90-day drug treatment program and spent the next two years in the drug court program. While she had sought treatment for substance abuse before, this time she had a breakthrough.
“It saved my life,” Carvalho said of the program.
While she appreciates programs like the drug court and treatment for addicts, Carvalho is strongly opposed to safe injection sites, where addicts could receive supervised, measured doses of the drug, and spoke out against the possibility in Federal Way at an August City Council meeting.
Carvalho’s descent into drug addiction and later criminal behavior didn’t start with heroin, however. She said she started smoking cigarettes and using marijuana at age 14.
At age 15, she went over to a neighborhood house with a friend for cigarettes, and she saw somebody smoking methamphetamine. Curiosity got the better of her. She asked if she could try it.
“I remember my first high on methamphetamine,” Carvalho said. “I got all my homework done, that’s for sure.”
She smoked meth for a year or so, but moved on to smoking Percocet pills with a boyfriend. She was 17 when she smoked heroin for the first time.
“I remember not being able to keep my eyes open,” she said, adding she also became nauseous and started vomiting.
Nevertheless, she did it again.
“I guess it was just the high that it gave me before the bad feelings came,” Carvalho said.
Things only got worse from there. Soon she was asking her parents for money and then stealing from them to support her habits. She also panhandled and stole items from stores, then returned them for money. Before long, she was going into different neighborhoods and to prowl vehicles and steal car parts. She said there are businesses that buy used tires and car batteries for cash.
By that time, Carvalho, who had also been smoking crack, could not stop.
Carvalho said she eventually sought treatment after the drug dealer she was dating beat her so badly she decided she wanted out and called her parents and asked them to send her to treatment in California.
“I spent the next five to seven days withdrawing. It was the worst feeling in my life,” Carvalho said. “You can’t die from heroin withdrawals, but it sure does feel like it.”
After two weeks at the treatment center, however, Carvalho called her mother and demanded she come pick her up, threatening to disappear in California if she didn’t. When she returned home, she said her parents had taken away her phone and forbid her from doing anything unsupervised or even closing any door behind her.
Soon, however, she fell back into her old ways, surrounding herself with the wrong people and doing drugs again.
Then she stole a car — ironically from a drug dealer ex-boyfriend — and landed in jail.
Carvalho admits that at the beginning of the drug court program, she was still thinking with an addict’s mind. She expected to leave the program with a clean slate and go back to her old ways.
Halfway through, however, she said she had a breakthrough. As part of her requirements, she had to volunteer, which she completed at homeless and animal shelters. The point, she said, was to get her to start thinking about others. This volunteer work — as well as the tools she acquired during her the drug court program — broke the spell.
“It makes you dig deep and makes you relive everything you did,” she said.
Carvalho said speaking with her parents also changed her perspective. During her rehabilitation, they shared how her drug addiction had affected them.
“They were waiting for that phone call to come identify a body,” she said, tearing up. “My parents are absolutely amazing parents and the pain I put them through …”
Now, Carvalho, 22, is at a completely different point in her life. She has a phone and transportation, and she is paying rent. She is completing her GED, working part time at Poverty Bay Cafe in Federal Way. She plans to attend Pima Medical Institute-Renton and explore the medical assistant field.
While she feels strongly that safe injection sites are not the answer, Carvalho said she does not think there are many good solutions to combating the opioid crisis because, in the end, an addict has to choose to change.
She does suggest drug prevention education for youth should include the harsh realities of what happens when a person gets addicted to drugs. Carvalho said if young teens heard stories such as hers, they might be more inclined to listen.
Milena Stott, Valley Cities chief strategy officer, said the opioid crisis is multi-faceted.
A major problem, she said, is that access to “low-barrier treatment” — services for drug addicts who want help immediately — is not available.
“We know when people decide to get help and are ready to get help that day, they can’t get help that day,” she said. “There are all sorts of hurdles to get access, even if you have insurance.”
One of the problems, Stott said, is primary care physicians, who could qualify to prescribe medications to combat opioid addiction, but do not choose to do so. Some, she said, don’t want to because they are not comfortable with the idea and don’t want to put their practice at risk, while others don’t because they don’t have the ability to offer follow-up care or services.
Stott said Valley Cities is exploring ways on how to break down these barriers by educating community physicians and also strengthening rehabilitation support networks and services.
“A lot of it really is about education and understanding the roots of the issue,” Stott said. “When [addicts] come in to get help, it’s not about your ideology, our job is to find out what they need as a way to engage them, and that’s the start of a therapeutic relationship.”