AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Two summers ago, we met a woman who went by the name Teacup.
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ANDREA TOWSON: I'm an active heroin user. I am - 33 years, as a matter of fact.
CORNISH: We were in West Baltimore reporting on a city-wide effort to stop a growing opioid crisis. Public health workers were training people to use these anti-overdose kits, and they were trying to get them into the hands of, well, just about everyone - police, medics, even the addicts themselves. And that's where we found Teacup, then a 51-year-old grandmother and heroin user for more than three decades.
TOWSON: I've been in treatment a few times. I've stayed clean eight years and just recently relapsed. Well, I ain't going to say I relapsed. I changed my mind.
CORNISH: Now, Teacup wasn't just an active heroin user. She'd been on the streets so long that other users would ask her for help when they had trouble hitting a vein. She called herself a doctor. Her real name is Andrea Towson. And for the next few months, we tried to keep in touch with her. It wasn't easy. Her daily routine consisted of waking up, trying to make money for heroin, looking for heroin, buying heroin, shooting it and then starting that process all over again. Finally, about four months later, we found her on a cold winter day. She was sitting on a park bench not far from where we'd first met. Her face was drawn, and she seemed listless. And she told us she was just so tired.
TOWSON: I want this chapter of my life to close - just end. I'm just - I'm done. And it's not happening fast enough. I just want to be able to wake up and eat breakfast and be normal, whatever that might be.
CORNISH: What followed may sound familiar to people who struggle with addiction. Towson sought treatment only to find herself on a waiting list. Other times, she missed appointments with rehab centers. And for many months, we didn't know what happened to Teacup until now.
CORNISH: Ms. Towson, how are you?
TOWSON: All right.
CORNISH: We met with her on a sweltering day last month just across from the recovery center known as Penn North, where she's been since last fall.
TOWSON: Oh, God, I'm sweating to death.
CORNISH: I know. It's so hot.
TOWSON: Yes. My little fan even was blowing hot air.
CORNISH: This stretch of West Baltimore hasn't changed all that much, but Andrea Towson has. As Teacup, she was skin and bones, wiry and dressed like a teenager in a T-shirt and acid wash jeans. As Andrea Towson, she's nearly unrecognizable in a good way, wearing a slim, black dress, straw hat and sunglasses. Her hair is tomato red with a wave styled at the right side of her face. And she smiles a lot, especially when I ask her how her days have changed.
You said that you wanted to just wake up one day and have breakfast and be normal.
CORNISH: Have you had a day like that?
TOWSON: Abso-damnit-lutely, yes, several. I eat bagels now with cream cheese - Philadelphia Cream - vegetable - yes.
TOWSON: Yes, yes, yes, I do.
CORNISH: The small yard outside of the Penn North building is overflowing with people sitting on metal folding chairs, fanning themselves and chatting in the heat.
TOWSON: That's the resource center down there where you see all those people down there.
TOWSON: All those people down there are recovering addicts.
CORNISH: Wait; so all the people you were just sitting with are recovering addicts...
TOWSON: Everyone, yes, yes. And there's a whole building full of them in there in a meet.
CORNISH: ...'Cause there's, like, 25 people out there.
TOWSON: That's nothing. It might be 75 in that room. Then maybe they got two classes going on there. So it's at least 150 people in that building alone that's not even outside. That's recovering addicts.
CORNISH: In a way, that's a good thing.
TOWSON: Yeah, yeah.
CORNISH: Demand for addiction treatment is high in Baltimore, as it is in many cities and communities across the country. Towson says she thinks the reason is the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful than heroin. Dealers often lace their products with it.
TOWSON: Nowadays, everybody's scared. That fentanyl - that's death. Like, the people that I used with before I got clean - when I see them, I cry 'cause they didn't look like that when I was getting high. I thank God that I chose when I did - or he appointed me to be chosen - to change my mind when I did 'cause I don't - I know I wouldn't have made it 'cause I was greedy. I know I wouldn't have made it. But thank God for another day.
CORNISH: Andrea Towson had her own near-death experience with fentanyl. It was more than a year and a half ago.
TOWSON: It was when we had that blizzard last year, the first blizzard we had when the snow was, like, up to here.
CORNISH: Towson was getting high with a group of people. She and another woman ended up with the task of testing a new batch of dope. And frankly what happened next is why drug users test their dope.
TOWSON: When I opened my eyes again, I was being lifted in the air. All I kept saying was, I'm so cold. They had set us outside in the snow and left. They didn't call an ambulance or nothing.
CORNISH: Andrea Towson OD'd. The people she was with - they left her in a snow bank.
TOWSON: That was my first and last taste of fentanyl.
CORNISH: Towson was lucky. She says a police helicopter spotted her and called an ambulance. By the end of the night, she'd been revived twice and hospitalized. Still, even after she nearly died, she didn't stop getting high. It took more than six months and seeing more and more people around her die of overdoses for her to finally commit to treatment.
TOWSON: This is my truth. When you ready, you ready. And when you not, you not. And only you know that. Can't nobody measure desire of how bad you want to stay clean. They just can't. You need your mental health taken care of just as well 'cause who in their right mind would put needles in their body. Something's going on, and all of that has to be addressed.
CORNISH: For Towson, treatment meant a raft of prescription drugs - Suboxone and Ativan to ease withdrawal from opioids and alcohol, Vivitrol to help prevent relapse, plus counseling and support group sessions. She also gets visits from her son and his two kids, though the kids don't know she's their grandmother. They call her by her first name. Then there's the relationship with her own mother. None of these have been easy to mend. For example, Towson tells us that even in her darkest days of addiction, she never stole from her family to buy drugs. But her mother told her she took something else.
TOWSON: My mother sat me down just the other day and told me, you stole our peace. And that was, like, real hard for me to understand. But when she said it, I was like, wow. So yeah, you stole a lot. We couldn't rest. We watching the news. When - every time they told a black female dead, we'd look and see if it's you. So, yeah, I did a lot of damage in that area. However, the times that we spend together now is priceless.
CORNISH: Andrea Towson says she has been clean before. Yet she believes this time is different. Now, there are still a lot of challenges. She needs to find a place to live. She needs a stable job. She has to stay off of drugs while living on her own in the same neighborhood where she spent so many years getting high. I ask her what's her plan to protect her recovery.
TOWSON: Stick to my routine. Actually, I'll be working with the health department. That will be what I do during the day. I still - I must always go to a meet - have to, even if it's just one.
CORNISH: Well, Ms. Towson...
CORNISH: It's nice to meet you.
TOWSON: I'm a complete opposite from Teacup, ain't I?
CORNISH: It's different.
TOWSON: Yeah. This is me. I'm still silly as hell, though. On any given day, I'm just silly. But it's good to be able to be silly. And it's real as long as I can stay clean.
CORNISH: Well, thank you for being willing to tell us about it.
TOWSON: Sure. Somebody else need to hear it - a whole lot of somebody elses (ph).
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CORNISH: Andrea Towson is a resident of Baltimore and a resident of BMORE POWER, a group that provides education and support to people trying to quit drugs.
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