Journey through addiction
A three-part series
TODAY: Winter. Drugs have a stranglehold on Travis and Mandy.
MONDAY: Spring. Stuck in the cycle of recovery and relapse.
Comfort came at the end of a needle.
As the New Year approached, Travis Trenda and his girlfriend Mandy Cooper were holed up in a rental house along East Mill Plain Boulevard looking to tap their veins.
Their lives, a series of exhilarating highs counterbalanced against harrowing lows, had just come crashing down.
It was nearly a year to the day since Mandy overdosed on an injection of heroin Travis had administered. The episode sent Travis to the Clark County Jail and he ended up with a deferred sentence.
It was a blessing Mandy was even alive. She'd flatlined twice.
But as she sat in her room last December reading Facebook messages and texts congratulating her on a year of clean living, the only thing running through her mind was going on a three-day methamphetamine jag.
She was done trying, or caring. Life without meth seemed unfathomable. She'd reached a point where she didn't care about anything or anyone.
There were perhaps two exceptions: drugs and Travis.
His family had cut contact with him before Christmas Eve because he'd relapsed. He'd used heroin again. Travis took shelter with Mandy at that little house on Mill Plain. And it was there that they would spin what was intended as a short, three-day drug frenzy into a 39-day odyssey through the county, hustling for money and drugs.
By summer, it would consume them.
On the streets, Mandy recalled, "it was just one thing after another."
"There's always a new bottom ripped out from under you," she said.
Clawing above that bottom is something thousands of Clark County residents grapple with daily, as hard drugs continue to invade the streets. And they're not hard to find. Last year was a banner year for drug busts, law enforcement officials say.
In 2012, Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force officers confiscated nearly 10 pounds of heroin, 38 pounds of cocaine and 95 pounds of methamphetamine, including a single bust resulting in a massive, 74-pound haul of crystal meth. For each drug type, the numbers represent a five-year high. Clark County is one of 14 in Washington that the federal government designates as a high-intensity drug trafficking area.
Although the figures illustrate an uptick in policing activity, they don't offer a clear picture of who's using, dying and trying to get clean. The Clark County Sheriff's Office estimates there are currently around 5,000 drug addicts in the county who cycle through the legal system.
Addicts have three choices: get clean, move away or die.
Travis, 31, and Mandy, 21, don't consider themselves typical addicts, but that's because they don't know what a typical addict is. Perhaps, they ponder, there's no such thing.
At prior stages in their lives, Travis and Mandy held jobs and cared for families.
Travis comes from a solidly middle class home. His mom, Taryn, is an associate pastor at Faith Center Church in Battle Ground and his father, Allen, is a wiring supervisor with the city of Vancouver. He grew up playing sports, got married and worked construction.
Mandy's family is also middle class. She graduated from Evergreen High School. Her grandmother, Louise Cooper, is the most important person in her life.
But both have events from their childhoods that mar otherwise normal upbringings. Confronting troubles head-on is complicated, they say.
"I'm a runner," Mandy said. "Problems happen and I want to run."
She often grapples with moments of self-reflection. Running doesn't help the addiction, she acknowledges. "It gets me into trouble."
Together, Mandy and Travis found momentary solace, but it came with a cost.
On the streets
Shortly after New Year's, the couple was on the run from what they perceived as their biggest problem -- their families.
Travis's family didn't approve of Mandy. She wasn't a good influence on him, they said.
They also disapproved of his addiction, and he hated them for that. "They were my enemy," he said.
There were times, at the house on Mill Plain, when Travis would go to great lengths to avoid family and friends.
His father came to the door one day while Travis was high. He answered the door, not expecting his father. The two got into a heated argument, during which Allen gave his son an ultimatum: Clean up, or else.
"Once you have a child, and you have a greater love for them, and you see them self destruct, it's heart wrenching," Allen said. "And that's the hardest pill to swallow, that you have to leave the ball in their court."
When family friend and pastor Bill Smith had a dream that Travis had died with a needle in his arm, he rushed to the house on Mill Plain. Bill and his wife Vicky run homes for people in recovery through their church.
Travis ignored Bill's knocks on the door. The dream the night before wasn't too far from the mark: Travis had recently shot up and didn't want to be bothered.
When Travis and Mandy started increasing the amount of meth they were using last winter, they ditched the house on Mill Plain and disappeared. In the process, Travis missed a court date.
Surfing from couch to couch, sleeping in cars, they stayed in touch with their parents by text message. Travis made sure to tell his mom he was still alive, that he was OK. Meanwhile, she pleaded with him to come home.
Taryn Trenda fluctuated between bouts of anger and worry. Some days she swore at Travis. Other days she pleaded. She tried to have him arrested.
"I felt like I was a hostage to my own son," she said. "No matter where I went, or what I did, he was on my mind. You never get free of it yourself."
When money ran low, Travis would use his entrepreneurial skills to earn more. He'd buy a $20 bag of smack, cut it down into a $10 bag, then turn around and sell it for $20. "You just keep doing that," he said.
But on the streets, the couple felt they had no choice but to keep using. It kept them even-keeled; without the drugs, they felt helpless.
It's something law enforcement officials see daily. The vast majority of the county's property crimes and thefts are drug-related, they say.
Cmdr. Mike Cooke of the Clark County Sheriff's Office has worked drug cases for two decades, in both San Francisco and Clark County.
"The life for an addict is they wake up every morning knowing they're going to be dope sick and have to get high," he said. Methamphetamine doesn't affect the body the same way heroin does, creating waves of sickness after it leaves the system, Cooke said, but it can wreak havoc on the mind. So a cycle of crime takes place.
As much as the couple's 39-day journey took a toll on their bodies, with Travis dropping close to 75 pounds, its grip on their minds was even stronger.
"The drugs take hold of you pretty soon," Travis said, "and you're just lost."
The addiction begins
Travis's story of heroin addiction starts, like most, with a needle, a spoon and a fresh vein.
It was four years ago, following his divorce. Friends had introduced him to the drug. At first he smoked it off a wrinkled piece of tinfoil, but he didn't get any satisfaction from that, something he chalked up to his high tolerance. He'd been using prescribed opiate painkillers because of an accident he'd suffered while working construction.
So he upped the ante by shooting up.
He remembers the first time being great. With a gentle push, the needle tip punctured his skin and glided into his arm. And as he eased the plunger down with his thumb, a tingling sensation ran up his body, like pinpoints dancing on newly sensitive skin.
A spark ignited in his head, the flicker of a drug-fueled pilot light, and he felt heat.
And as the heroin lapped over him, in waves upon waves, Travis's eyes rolled into the back of his head. He felt at peace.
"I wasn't depressed anymore," he said. "I actually felt pretty good — like I was floating."
In contrast, Mandy began using methamphetamine shortly after leaving high school.
There was something appealing about the drug. It made her feel good in a way nothing else could.
Louise Cooper, her grandmother, remembers a bright but troubled teenager. It took years before signs of drug addiction became evident.
"In her early teens, she would get really moody," Louise said. "I don't know if she was unhappy or what was going on, but she would get really moody."
There was a noticeable transformation when Mandy was in her late teens.
"We'd be having a family get-together," Louise said. "She'd start out happy, and all of a sudden she'd just put a damper on everything."
There were no signs that Mandy was heading down a path of addiction, she said, until it became abundantly clear.
Mandy is a loving person, her grandmother said, despite her predilection for stretching the truth. Her undoing is her inclination to run away.
"I think with Mandy, it's a mental addiction," she said. "Yeah, the drug has a good hold on her, but for her, for whatever reason, it's kind of an escape."
Nothing but veins
Back on the streets, days bled into weeks.
Desires evolved into urges.
And as the paranoia and physical cravings grew stronger, all Mandy focused on were people's veins. Tear away the skin, and there they were, pulsating.
It was part of a fascination with her veins, and the blood pumping through them.
"The needle itself is half the addiction," she said.
Travis agreed. With heroin, half the high comes from preparing the needle. The smell of the heroin, like vinegar, and the feel of the hypodermic in his hand — the anticipation of shooting up also made him high.
It was toward the end of January, and Travis and Mandy were in a parked car, reeling from drugs. After nearly a month on the streets, their minds were addled.
They saw a man in the parking lot — perhaps homeless, they weren't sure — and he was looking at them as if he knew something was amiss. Perhaps it was all in their heads, paranoia manifesting itself, but they knew he knew they were junkies.
He came closer.
And as he sidled up to the car, they listened as he spoke, both of them hearing what he said: "You better go to church on Sunday."
They were sure he'd said it — they'd both heard it — but they can't say why. All they could do was take the words as an omen.
Later, as the two prepared for a shower, they caught a glimpse of their bodies in a mirror. They were gaunt, nearly skeletal. It was as if they were looking at a funhouse mirror that stretched reflections vertically.
And that's when they had a moment of self awareness. These weren't their bodies — not how they saw them, at least.
Mandy thought they looked like sticks. Together, they'd lost nearly 100 pounds. The two had barely eaten in the past month, and when they had, it was something small, like a candy bar.
It was Feb. 3, Super Bowl Sunday. And as 164 million Americans watched the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, Travis and Mandy decided to stop running and go home.
But their journey had just begun.