Journey through addiction
A three-part series
SUNDAY: Winter. Drugs have a stranglehold on Travis and Mandy.
MONDAY: Spring. Stuck in the cycle of recovery and relapse.
TODAY: Summer. Ups, downs and a turning point.
Coming next week: Clark County's struggle with addiction, from the perspectives of drug detectives and a concerned mother.
Mandy Cooper looks toward the setting sun at a home where she had been using meth. Mandy has since moved from the home and is staying with other friends. She talks of getting clean again.
BRUSH PRAIRIE — June 2013.
Mandy Cooper took a hypodermic needle filled with methamphetamine, found a vein on her arm and injected it. Afterward, she went outside to compose herself with a smoke.
Following Mandy's homecoming from inpatient treatment, her addiction had returned.
She was injecting again; her hard-fought recovery was in shambles.
Hopelessness pervaded Mandy's outlook on her protracted struggle with drug addiction, as well as the potential for reconciliation with her longtime boyfriend, Travis Trenda, 31.
Together, the two had been trying to exorcise their personal demons. But as summer rolled around, they'd split, and Mandy, 21, was feeling helpless to the draw of the needle.
In and out of recovery since returning from a 39-day drug binge in February, the couple had relapsed on methamphetamine toward the end of March.
During that four-day bender, the couple got into a heated argument. Travis stormed out of the Vancouver motel where they were shooting up and endured what he considered his lowest point, sleeping shoeless under the Interstate 205 bridge. It was his birthday.
By June, the two hadn't talked in weeks. For Travis's family, that was a welcome turn. They thought the couple's tumultuous relationship was built on co-dependency.
As Mandy struggled, her mind wandered to Travis.
"I was thinking of him every time I closed my eyes," Mandy said. "Every person I saw on the street, every song that came on the radio, it was all about him."
They were still connected, she thought. And even though they'd gone on divergent paths, their struggles remained similar.
On the run again
Mandy's path took an unexpected turn in June.
She was wanted on a felony warrant for evading police. She had been a passenger in a car, she said, that sped from a traffic stop on Northeast 78th Street in Hazel Dell.
She said the driver, a male friend, was wanted for previously evading police. Spotting the cruiser, he sped through a stoplight and peeled around a corner before the deputy could catch up.
The driver ditched the car and took off running, Mandy said.
"I was freaking out. I was thinking, 'What am I going to say?'" Mandy said. "I wasn't even high at that point. I was four days sober. And I had no idea what was going on or what would happen."
She jumped out of the car, leaving the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition. Through the green plastic slats of the parking lot's fence, she saw a uniformed officer coming. She took off running.
The Clark County Sheriff's Office confirmed the story, but with one significant difference: Mandy was behind the wheel, according to police records. The sheriff's office wanted her for driving without a license, insurance or a breath-testing device installed and for evading police.
Mandy disputed the allegations, saying she was avoiding police so she wouldn't be forced to divulge the name of the driver, a man known to the sheriff's office as a drug dealer. She was staying with friends and would occasionally text her grandmother from one of the two cellphones she felt comfortable using.
She wasn't going to turn herself in.
"I'm not taking charges for something that isn't mine," she said. "But I'm not a snitch, either."
Sitting on a bench in Lewisville Park in June, as the early summer sun waned on the horizon, Mandy said it was the first time she'd shown her face in public in more than a week. She was paranoid, she said, and thinking of running for good — heading south and fleeing to Mexico. She knew folks down there and maybe, she imagined, she could wait out the warrant.
"The statute of limitations is only 10 years," she mused.
Of course, there was another problem: She didn't have a passport.
There have been times when she's thought about ending it all, she said.
Change of heart
For Travis, it was as if a weight had literally been lifted from his chest.
In the two months since he relapsed with Mandy, he'd returned to his intensive outpatient classes, a four-day-a-week obligation that was court-mandated.
Everything was going well, Travis said, until his heart literally gave out.
Travis was lying on his parents' couch, watching the movie "Thank You for Smoking," when he felt an arrhythmic beating from within and a force pushing onto his chest. As his heart began racing, pressure building, Travis thought it felt as if an elephant were crushing him.
He remembered ripping his shirt off and rushing to the bathroom. His breath was escaping in gasps. His one thought: "Dude, something's wrong."
At the hospital, doctors found that Travis's heart wasn't firing properly. The skipped beats caused blood to pump erratically.
Travis's drug use — he abused both heroin and methamphetamine — wasn't helping his malfunctioning heart. Whereas a healthy heart beats around 60 times per minute, Travis's would speed along at 155 per minute.
He was outfitted with a device, like a tiny EKG, attached to his chest, which could read the electric signals from his heart.
Doctors also gave him a sobering prognosis.
"They told me that probably, in like 15 years, if I don't take care of myself, that I'd have to replace my heart valve or put in a pacemaker," Travis said. "But I haven't skipped a beat or anything, so I believe I'm healed."
But Travis ended up relapsing, shooting up methamphetamine while his parents were on a trip to California. He almost immediately turned himself in and spent another three days in jail.
It was a dumb decision, he thought. "It was a tiny amount," Travis said. "It didn't even really get me high."
As July arrived, it was as if he'd been given a new lease on life, despite the persistent heart problem and the relapses. He spent the Fourth of July on the Oregon Coast with his family, playing with his 6-year-old son, Parker, on the beach. Parker lives with his mom, Travis's ex-wife, and is allowed to see his father when Travis is clean.
During Travis' worst moments, his mom Taryn said she worked to sever her son's ties with Parker. But she knew that if it weren't for Parker, she likely would have already buried Travis.
"Travis knew I would help take custody away, that I would do whatever I had to protect Parker from Travis's self-destruction," Taryn said. "Now that I see him with Parker, Travis is an amazing dad. He loves his son with all his heart."
There's an ending point — a time when Travis won't have to go to court-mandated drug classes — and he wants to make it there, he said. Even with his moments of weakness, he said he's gaining the upper hand over his addiction.
The road ahead
The road to recovery for Travis and Mandy is far from over, experts say. Scott Sims, program manager of Columbia Treatment Services in Vancouver, said it typically takes a year for a heroin user's brain to recover from addiction. For a methamphetamine addict, he said, it can take two years.
"It depends on the individual," he said. "But the recovery rate is really low, and the relapse rate is really high. When you're using substances like methamphetamine and heroin, and you're using intravenously, the success rate is even lower and the relapse rate is even higher because the immediacy of the gratification is something our brains are looking for."
Recidivism rates for people in treatment will always be high, said DeDe Sieler, program manager at the Clark County Alcohol & Drug Program. Almost every addict falls back on drugs at some point, she said.
"In recovery, relapse is not seen as a failure," she said. "People relapse and they have to go through treatment again. What we're trying to help people understand is addiction is a chronic brain disease. Relapse is a part of the recovery."
While drugs' obstinate hold on fragile psyches leads to a frustratingly repetitive cycle of addiction, it's also why treatment professionals tend to view their work less as a War Against Drugs and more as a policy against addictive behaviors.
Pastor Bill Smith, who runs recovery houses in Clark County — including ones Travis and Mandy briefly stayed at, before they were booted for using banned substances — said Travis was making progress, but needed to make more. There were times, Bill said, when it seemed as if Travis was merely jumping through hoops.
Bill's wife, Vicky, said they wanted the best for both Travis and Mandy. They've invited Mandy to rejoin Grace Lodge, a women's sober living facility, as long as she clears up the felony warrants hanging over her and stays clean.
"We still care about both of them," she said, "and we want them to continue on this path."
After two months of avoiding the police, Mandy said the offer was appealing. She said she was contemplating turning herself into the police. She was done running, she said.
And a week ago Monday, Travis started a seasonal job with the city of Vancouver. Travis hopes to use the experience as motivation to stay on the path to full sobriety — if not simply for him, then also for his beloved son.
In less than a year, Travis and Mandy have ridden the roller coaster of drug recovery.
It never ends, said Sims, a former drug addict. On his smartphone, he has a countdown of exactly how long he's been clean and sober — 27 years and counting. Each second ticks away.
It's a reminder, he says.
Addiction doesn't end so easily and it's always waiting to take over.
Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; email@example.com