LACONIA — Carrie Conway was 12 when she first started using substances but, in other ways, drugs had ruled her life since she was born.
“My family was drug addicts, alcoholics, it’s all that I knew growing up, the chaotic lifestyle,” she said. Conway, now 40, was born in Laconia, where she still lives. Yet, in many ways, it’s like she’s seeing the city for the first time.
Conway is marking 16 months into her recovery. She is holding a job, living in a sober house and volunteering at Navigating Recovery. It’s only since she got sober that she realized how unusual her childhood was.
“All the people in and out of the house, it was crazy, I don’t know how to explain it. There were a lot of drugs in the house, a lot of secrets.” She said she knew there were things about her home that she couldn’t talk about, but her friends were also the children of her parents’ associates, so they had similar living circumstances. “When you live that life, as a child, that’s what you think is normal,” Conway said.
When she was 12, Conway said her mother had outstayed her welcome in Laconia, so the family moved to Pittsfield. There, she fell in with a crowd of friends that was older, and had already developed a particular set of habits. If she wanted to be part of their group, she felt she needed to keep pace.
“I wanted to fit in. They were into drinking and drugging, so that’s what I did,” she said. For the first few years, it was alcohol and marijuana. Her new friends were old enough to buy alcohol, and they kept her supplied. At 15, she legally emancipated herself from her parents’ home, and shortly thereafter, she became pregnant. Her boyfriend was 27.
Conway said she never considered ending her pregnancy. “I was an out-of-control teenager, I thought having kids would fix me,” she said. She had her first child at 16, and a second child a year later.
But having children didn’t change her lifestyle. Instead, she found herself heading down the path to opioid addiction.
When she was 17, she was riding as a passenger in a joyride when the car, traveling very fast, crested a hill and became airborne. When it landed, the car bottomed out, and the impact broke three bones in her spine. She was given a prescription for the strongest Oxycontin available, as well as fentanyl patches. When she decided to decline surgery, the doctors wouldn’t prescribe more painkillers. No matter, Conway found other ways to feed her newfound opioid addiction.
“I had to find it on the streets,” she said. It was easy at first, because that was before doctors and pharmacies started to crack down on people fraudulently getting prescription pills that could be sold on the black market. Soon, though, that easy supply became restricted, and any available opioid pills commanded a higher price. “So I turned to heroin.”
For most of her life, Conway was an active drug user, and a single mother – her kids’ father was frequently in prison when they were young. Conway loves her children, and she said that they insist that she was a good mom to them.
“Everyone said I made it look so easy. My kids and I, they’re like my best friends, they were like my buddies. And it’s still like that today,” she said. While the children were growing up, Conway had a lot of help from her sister, and from public assistance.
“They always had a place to live, they always had clothes on their back. They had what they needed,” she said, “But they didn’t have me.”
And they, like their mother, had children early. Conway became a grandmother – she prefers the term “Memé” – at 31. She now has three grandchildren.
Not long after becoming a grandmother, Conway heard that she wouldn’t have withdrawal symptoms if she used methamphetamine. She saw a chance to end her more than decade-long opioid addiction, so she started using meth. “Just to get off the heroin,” she said, “but that’s not what happened.”
At first, it seemed as though the meth use was fine. Instead of nodding off, as she would with heroin, Conway had plenty of energy to play with her grandkids. But then she started mixing heroin and meth, and she started overdosing. She overdosed four times in the space of a month, and in the last OD there was so little blood flow to her brain that it was a while before she could walk and talk normally again. That was too much for her daughter, who gave her an ultimatum: get clean, or never see her grandchildren again.
In the moment, Conway was outraged. “You don’t do that,” she said, but now she credits that stance with her sobriety. “I see things differently today.”
Still, it didn’t cause an immediate change in Conway. She was still living in her sister’s place, still using, but without contact with her grandchildren or daughter, or her son, who is serving a prison sentence.
“I had nothing,” Conway said. “My son, I had lost him to drugs and I didn’t know if he was going to make it. My family, they had had enough. And I had had enough, too. I was ready to die.”
And she was reckless. Even though she didn’t have a valid license, and was on parole, she agreed to be the driver for a group of her friends. There was meth and heroin in the car, and her friends knew that if she was caught, the courts would come down hard on her.
So, when flashing lights appeared in the rear-view mirror, her passengers offered to “keep the cops busy” so that she could make a run for it. But Conway had no run left in her.
“It was a relief when the handcuffs went on, to be honest,” she said. She went to the Phoenix House, in Dublin, for a 28-day detox program, then to prison for violating her parole, and finally to the Belknap County Jail, where she had agreed to enroll in the CORE Program, which stands for the Corrections Opportunity for Recovery and Education. It’s a five-day-per-week course which, as Conway explained, was where her recovery really started.
“That’s when they dig deep – that was huge,” she said. “They try to figure it out, where is this all starting from? I think it was all family issues, wanting to feel loved. I didn’t get that growing up… I just wanted to feel accepted, I guess.”
It has been a year and four months since she last used substances. To stay sober, she’s learned that she has had to say good-bye to her ex-boyfriend and all of the other people that were part of her old life. She now lives in a sober house in Laconia, and surrounds herself with people in recovery.
And that’s been an eye-opener for Conway. Even living in her native city, she never realized that there was a vibrant, supportive recovery community in Laconia – until she stopped using. She now volunteers at Navigating Recovery and attends as many classes and meetings as she can – more than one per day, if she’s not working.
Conway works as a cashier at Shop Express, a convenience store at the corner of Gilford and Union avenues. Her boss, who she said supports her recovery, warned her she would likely see people from her past life there. When she does, she said it’s like looking into a time-lapse mirror; she sees the cage that she was finally able to slip.
Now free from that trap, how is her life?
“Amazing,” she said. “I actually have real friends, people that actually care about me. I have my family, they’re a huge support for me.”
Conway is working toward her G.E.D. – she dropped out of high school when she first got pregnant – and is exploring photography through the Creative Recovery program, which offers people in recovery the chance to learn visual arts.
“This is all new to me; work, goals… I was an addict for 29 years. I’m just trying to find myself,” she said.
What’s one thing she’s learned since becoming sober?
“There is help, you just have to reach out. I never thought in a million years that I’d be here today, talking to people about recovery, that it is possible. And it is possible.”