Frightened by a judge's threat to take her infant daughter, Denise Walker sought treatment for her methamphetamine addiction. On Oct. 11, 2005, she entered the Pasos de Vida residential treatment program for pregnant women and mothers in southern San Luis Obispo County. After eight years of abusing meth and losing everything, it was time to confront her addiction and the guilt of hurting her three children.
A month earlier, social workers had placed Walker's 7-month-old daughter, Natalie, in foster care after law enforcement officers found a bag of meth in her apartment and a pipe in her purse during a raid. The judge had told the 33-year-old mother that she had six months to turn her life around or Natalie would be placed for adoption.
When Walker checked into treatment, her cheeks sunk into her gaunt face. She had only the clothes she wore.
Years earlier, she had given her two older children to their father in Paso Robles. She had lost her job and her apartment. She had vowed to quit using meth but never did. What made this time different?
"I hit my rock bottom," Walker said.
A new life
Cleaning up meant Walker had to divorce her old life. She had to learn to live without meth.
First, her body needed to rest and heal. From the day she entered treatment, there were no more cigarettes, no more men and few comforts --not even sugar.
Over eight years, meth had rewired her brain to crave the high the drug delivered. She needed to retrain her brain to overcome the triggers that sparked her cravings. At first, nearly everything sparked her desire to use. Just hearing the word "meth" made her sweat.
Withdrawal from meth does not cause immediate physical side effects like withdrawal from heroin or alcohol. But the intense physical cravings for the drug occur for months.
With time and intense counseling, Walker's cravings lessened. Her memory improved, and her thoughts became more rational.
After a few sober months, she began to think realistically about the future. That future revolved around getting Natalie back and rebuilding a relationship with her older children.
And, if Walker followed all the rules, the judge would let Natalie live with her at the treatment house she shared with 11 other recovering women and their children. Almost all the women were recovering from meth addictions, the director there said.
In treatment, Walker attended individual and group therapy, parenting classes and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
In therapy, she got to the root of her addiction by working through emotional scars from an abusive childhood. She learned strategies to overcome her cravings for the drug and healthy ways to handle her depression, such as reading to Natalie, praying and going to church.
Eventually, she learned to forgive herself for the pain she caused others.
While in treatment, Walker saw a dentist for the first time in eight years. He filled cavities and pulled a rotted tooth. She gained weight, and her complexion brightened. She began to wear makeup again and, for the first time in a long while, her reflection made her smile.
A portion of the treatment was paid for out of Walker's monthly welfare payment. Government grants also subsidized the program.
In November 2005, a judge rewarded Walker's progress and returned Natalie to her. To make up for lost time, Walker kept Natalie on her hip constantly and had long conversations with her.
Nearly a decade of meth abuse had left Walker with permanent scars: a missing tooth, a foggy memory and the stigma of being a former drug addict.
But she had avoided committing a felony or contracting HIV or hepatitis C. And her daughter was healthy.
"I thank God every day that Natalie is as perfect as she is," Walker said.
Relying on God
God became the center of Walker's recovery.
At Oak Park Christian Church in Grover Beach, she found a congregation that welcomed and supported her. There, she attended weekly women's Bible study classes, where she discussed Bible verses and how to apply lessons in obedience, discipline and humility to her life.
Walker preferred prayer to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She hated rehashing her story and reliving the life she wanted to put behind her.
"It's about letting go of my past but always remembering it ... you know what I mean? It's like, keep it on the shelf for reference, but then move on," she said.
After 10 months of testing clean and completing the program requirements, Walker graduated from treatment in August. Balloons and streamers decorated the residential house for the celebration. The women still in the program made Walker and another graduate a giant poster with messages that said "You are my inspiration" and "You are a wonderful mother."
At the graduation, Walker had freshly dyed reddish hair and impeccable makeup. She tried not to smear her mascara as tears rolled down her cheeks. She held Natalie and thanked the counselors, social workers and friends who helped her through recovery.
Her two older children, ages 14 and 11, attended the ceremony with their father. Walker told them that she had never stopped loving them and now hoped to be the mom they needed. She thanked their dad for raising them.
Dee Krogh, the program director, applauded the graduates' commitment to their children.
"They are by far two of the finest mothers we have ever had come through this program," she said.
Walker had been clean for almost a year, but the treatment center where she lived was a protected environment. Now, she had to find a place to live, a job, day care and a car. She had no family to help, and her most reliable partner, meth, was no longer an option.
She had to hope her faith could sustain her to stay clean and create a new life.