“The first person I saw was a dope fiend—a person like me. A person with big hands, tracks—somebody that I could relate to that had been shooting dope for years. She hugged me and she said, ‘Welcome! We’ve been waiting on you.’ I was like, ‘What? You’ve been waiting on me?’ I thought she was a patient there like me. She said, ‘I’ve been working here two years—I’m clean.'”
Hello, my name is Carol Ramsey and I’m a person in long-term recovery. What that means to me is I haven’t used alcohol and/or other drugs for over twenty-two years—twenty-two-and-a-half years as a matter of fact. My clean date is 9/11/92, and I always say it was an emergency for me to get clean—911. I’m a person
I was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the Hill District. I came up in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and back in those days Pittsburgh was kind of like little New York. It was a lot of bars and clubs and excitement in the street, and the lifestyle looked glamorous to me. Also in my neighborhood everybody drank. We had socials, parties on the weekend, and we were in and out of each other’s houses and things like that.
I’m the oldest of seven children and I was raised with my mom and my stepfather at that time. Two of my siblings didn’t live with us and we didn’t meet up until later in life because my mom chose to let other family members raise them for whatever reason. So being the oldest I was always looking out for my brothers and sisters.
My mom and stepfather were alcoholics—undiagnosed—and also my stepfather was a violent person. He was in the Marines, the Army, and different things like that, and he had some mental health issues. I didn’t know that at that time, but I learned later [and] found that out. It was a lot of fighting and arguing and different things like that going on.
When I was about eight years old my stepfather started molesting me until I was about fifteen. I was just scared to tell anyone because he said he would hurt me and my mom if I did, and him being the violent person that he was I believed him. So I didn’t tell anybody for a long time. One time I did try to tell a police officer because what I would do is I would run away from home a lot. One day I ran away from home and I ran right back into my stepfather in an alley behind the police station. So I was able to run in there and I tried to tell them what was going on, but they didn’t listen. They took his word. He said that I just ran away and that I always said stuff like that and they let me leave with him. So I figured if the police don’t believe me, who will?
How I probably first started using mind-altering chemicals is when there would be parties at our house. I started draining beer bottles or drinking the leftover drinks; I just liked the soothing feeling that it gave me. After a couple of drinks I really liked the feeling of just not worrying about anything. So I [hung out] with a group of girls and boys, and back then we didn’t have gangs like they have today, but I guess we were sort of a gang. We all [hung out] together all the time, and we were blood sisters and blood brothers. Back then you would cut your finger and put blood on it. Of course we didn’t know about HIV and stuff back then.
We started drinking wine and we used to drink Thunderbird. It was “What’s the word? Thunderbird! What’s the price? About thirty twice.” I guess through those years I went through all the drugs that we were using at that particular time—acid, LSD. I was the type of person that would try anything. I would say I would try anything once—and I did.
One of these times when my mom had gotten beaten up by my stepfather, I told her that he was molesting me. At the time she said she didn’t believe it, and I was so hurt about that. I left home and I stayed at different friends’ houses. I went from pillar to post for about a year and I was able to get a job with the neighborhood youth court back then and ended up getting my own apartment. So I thought I was very popular, but I think I was popular because I was only one who had an apartment. Everybody came to my house. It was the party house, and I was continuing to use. But the drug of my choice was heroin. I started using that when I was about seventeen years old, and wow—that took me on the ride of my life.
At first when I started using I thought it was fun. I was young and I was nice looking and I was built kind of nice and guys would give me things. I didn’t have to get it on my own; they would give me drugs and things like that. I would be the center of attention, which I liked because I never had that at home. So I was very promiscuous, too, in my teenage years. I guess I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I did that for a while—went from guy to guy—and did a lot of things I’m not proud of with these guys.
After that I just started focusing on using the heroin because it would allow me to be in a world of my own where I didn’t have to worry about what was going on with anybody really. It was just all about me. I started going in and out of treatment programs. I was in the methadone program several times. I was in long-term behavioral modification treatment a couple times, and numerous amounts of detoxes and short-term rehabs.
When I was about twenty-five my sister called me and said our mom was sick. I went home and we went through the processes of taking her to doctors and everything like that, and they ended up telling us she had cancer. She had a brain tumor and lung cancer. Back in those days—that was in the maybe mid-70s—parents, well my parents, they didn’t like hospitals and they didn’t go. She had never taken care of her health, so by the time we went they told us she had six months to live.
So she asked me to come back home and help out with my brothers and sisters—and I did. That was one of the times that I got on the methadone program because I was trying to be stable to be able to take care of my brothers and sisters—and I did that to the best of my ability.
She ended up dying in about six months—six months or eight months or something like that. After that I guess my disease really took off. I started drinking along with using heroin and just trying to not feel at all because I loved my mom. Like I said I had a love-hate relationship with her, but I was so hurt that I didn’t get to talk to her about these issues that we had.
So I started drinking and using more heroin—and that’s how I met my husband. He was the guy that was really popular and I was the kind of person that was kind of laid back [and] wanted to be in the background. He was a real sharp dresser, [with a] very charismatic personality. How we got to talking is because he knew my mom and he was trying to comfort me after she died. We ended up getting together and he was an addict also. He was a heroin addict. Whew, that was a ride, too. He was a little older than I was, but I was already caught up in my addiction and so was he.
He asked me did I know how to boost, and for those that don’t know what that is, that’s stealing. I said, “Yes,” wanting to fit in with him. We were kind of like the Bonnie and Clyde of boosting. We went around the tri-state area—West Virginia, Ohio, Pittsburgh—boosting. We started out with leathers and furs and all that, but by the end we were stealing anything that we could get our hands on—toothpaste, razorblades—anything that we thought would sell.
In this process I got pregnant. One time we were in a program together, and back then they didn’t really want couples in programs together, but we pleaded so much that they let us be in the program together. They had this little apartment—it was called the guesthouse—and you could get different points and earn to be there on the weekends and that’s what we did. I ended up getting pregnant, and after I got pregnant I believe we stayed there a few more months, but made excuses and we both ended up leaving and went back to using again. [We] went back to boosting and using my pregnancy as a shield, thinking that the people in the stores might not think we were boosting because we were pregnant.
I ended up having my baby premature. I had him at six months. I had a son and a daughter, and my son ended up dying at four days old. I have a daughter today and she’s the love of my life. The pain of losing my son still haunts me today because I really believe in my heart that if I wasn’t using he would’ve had a better chance. So that’s something that I have to live with. It’s getting better but it’s still painful. After that we didn’t stop using. I think it just made me want to use more to cover up the pain.
I continued to use until my daughter was ten years old, when I got clean. I was in and out of Muncie State Prison in Pennsylvania and rehabs. I was just tired—sick and tired of being tired and sick.
I have always been on probation or parole. From 1968 up until 1996 I was always on paper. I couldn’t get off because I would always do something to get it extended or something. So I had judges, some of them for seven years. This last judge that I had—I had her for about seven years—and she knew me better than I knew myself.
I had been to Muncie for my third time and I came home and I had to have a violation hearing—a violation of my parole. The last amount of time I had was four to twenty-three months at Muncie. I had did a year and a half before eleven-and-a-half months, but this last [one], that was four to twenty-three. I got home on June 10, 1992, and I had that violation hearing June 30th.
When I was in jail I never said I was going to stop using altogether because I really didn’t know people that stopped using altogether. If I stopped using heroin I thought that I was clean. So I said, “Well maybe I’ll drink some beer or something, but I’m not going to use heroin.” But of course I did [use heroin], and by June 30th when I had to have the violation hearing I was hooked again.
So I had to go in front of my judge and she just looked at me, you know? She said, “What do you have to say for yourself?” And usually when I went in front of judges or anything, I didn’t say anything. I would let my attorney talk or I just wouldn’t say anything. Then I would get in jail and I’d say, “Dag! You should’ve said something. Maybe it would’ve helped.”
So this time I said something, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what I said. But whatever it was, she looked at me she said, “It’s just something different about you this time and I’m not going to send you back to prison. But what I want you do is give urines and start going to twelve-step meetings.” And I said, “Okay.” I said, “Okay, Your Honor.” But when I got out in that hallway with that PO (parole officer), I was like, “Who she think she is? I’m not doing this that and the other.” And he said, “Well you wanna go back in there?” And I was like, “No! Maybe I’ll try it.”
So on July 1st they gave me the meeting list and on July 1st I started going to some twelve-step meetings. And oh my—I was scared. I was nervous. I didn’t think that I could stay clean. I had been using so many years—thirty years or something—but when I walked in the place I felt at home. People loved me, so I kept coming back.
For a while—like I said, my clean date is 9/11—so I continued to use for couple months. I’d stay clean then use, and so finally I was getting scared feeling like I might go back to jail. I asked a friend, “What do I need to do?” And she asked me this question. She said, “Do you believe in God?” And I guess by the look on my face she said, “Never mind.” Because I was angry at God. I believed that there was a God, but I didn’t believe that he cared about me. Because if he did, why did he let me go through everything I had went through?
So she said, “Well don’t worry about God right now. Just believe what I’m telling you.” And I said, “Okay.” She said, “You need to go to a detox because you’re a heroin addict. And when you go, get on your knees and pray and say, ‘God, or whoever’s out there, could you please remove the obsession and compulsion to use from me.’” And I said, “Okay.”
That next day—my husband’s birthday was on 9/12, my sister’s was on 9/10 and we hung out together. So it was 9/10/92 and we were hanging out at this place—
It’s called a shooting gallery where you use drugs. We were in there and we had been out stealing all day doing all this stuff, and they were high and I wasn’t. And I was like, “This is just not working for me.” And I told them, “I’m getting clean tomorrow.” And they was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You blowing our high.”
But I was so serious. I went home, I called up detoxes, and they told me I could come. And God I believe has a sense of humor, because when I went to that detox he knew he had to show me something real quick because of the nonbeliever that I was. So the first person I saw was a dope fiend—a person like me. A person with big hands, tracks, somebody that I could relate to that had been shooting dope for years. She hugged me and she said, “Welcome! We’ve been waiting on you.” I was like, “What? You’ve been waiting on me?” I thought she was a patient there like me. She said, “I’ve been working here two years. I’m clean.” And I just couldn’t believe it, but I needed that.
So that night before I went to bed I got on my knees and I said that prayer that my friend told me to say: “God, or whoever’s out there, please remove the obsession and compulsion to use from me.” And I was in that detox only about five days, but when I came out I didn’t have that overpowering obsession that I had had for so many years in my life. I knew it was God.
They had people come in from twelve-step groups when you’re in detox and they’d tell you what you need to do. When I got out they told me that I could go to aftercare if I wanted to and that’s what I did. I went to outpatient treatment for about six months and twelve-step meetings.
It’s just been an awesome experience. I haven’t found it necessary to relapse since that day. I know that I’m responsible for my recovery, so I participate in it. I try to find gratitude in everything because I don’t have to be here—I really don’t have to be here. I’ve overdosed so many times. The last time I overdosed the doctor told me, “Ma’am, your heart can’t take it. You’re coming in and out of here too much.” So I’m grateful to be clean.
My daughter—her and I we have a wonderful relationship. My husband—let me talk a little bit about him. His name was Cisco, and when I got clean I thought that he was going to get clean, too. Fantasy—I was always living in fantasy. I thought he’d get clean and we’d live happily ever after, but that’s not what happened right away.
He wasn’t ready to stop using and if an addict’s not ready to stop using they’re not going to stop. So it took six years before he got clean, but I knew he was going to get clean because God told me he was. Sometimes I would say, “But when, God? It’s taking a little long.” I probably did everything wrong in trying to help him get clean. I had people calling him, I put literature under his pillow—all kinds of things—whispered in his ear, “This works.”
After a while I still had to end up asking him to leave our home. It just took me a while because I was used to being one of those ‘ride or die’ chicks—‘stick by your man’—and all that. And ‘it’s my husband’ and ‘he didn’t bring the drugs in the house,’ and ‘he wasn’t violent.’ It was all these reasons why I stayed for those six years, but finally he ended up stealing something out of the house and I was like, “This is it now,” because I had started doing some work on myself. I had started loving myself just a little bit more.
So that’s exactly what I told him. I told him, “Baby, you gotta go. It’s not ‘cause I don’t love you—I do. But I’m loving myself a little bit more, and you gotta go until you can get yourself together.” My daughter cried and she was sad and we were sad, but fortunately his mom didn’t live far from us and he was able to go stay with her.
He was gone for about two months and then he called me one day and said, “I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready to get clean.” Through meeting people and everything I knew who to call and I helped him to get into rehab. He stayed about a month and he got clean.
I was so happy. It’s an awesome feeling for your spouse or your family member or somebody to get clean. So we were in this together and then when I think I had about eight years clean, we were going to the doctors. You know, when you get clean you can take care of your health—do things you didn’t do. I had gone to the doctor first and found out that I had Hepatitis C, which is a disease that a lot of intravenous drug users get. I was able to take the medication, which was Interferon back then. I don’t have it anymore in my body. It cured me up—thank you, God.
Cisco, he ended up getting tested, and he had Hep-C, too. They monitored it for a few years. He took the medicine once, [and] it didn’t work for him, [and] took it again, [and] it didn’t work for him. His Hep-C ended up turning into liver cancer. They told us on August 25, 2008 that he had liver cancer. By May 4, 2009 he died of liver cancer.
That was the most devastating thing that has happened to me in my recovery. We were together for thirty-two years and it was just like losing my arm or something. I was so devastated, but the good news is I didn’t use. I didn’t use; I didn’t hurt myself or anybody else.
He was at home; he was on hospice. I called one of my friends and people were in my house. Thank God I had gotten insurance on him, and all I had to do was do that part. They cooked the food and everything else and supported me through that process.
Yesterday, March 15th, would have been our 39th anniversary. I was missing him yesterday. It was kind of a sad day, but I was surrounded by my friends and I got through it. I guess a loss like that is just ongoing. I must say the pain is not as intense. It’s almost been six years, but it’s still there.
Through it my daughter and I have gotten closer and she misses her dad a lot, too, but we have our memories. We have our memories. I’m a part of a volunteer agency and so I was able to ask about getting an award in Cisco’s name, and so we were able to do that. So each year now since 2012 a person is honored that does outstanding volunteer work throughout the year. They get the Cisco Award. I was able to get the first one and that was such an honor.
I’m blessed and I’m just living a simple life and trying to do what the God of my understanding wants me to do. [I] just try to be a message of hope for someone else that it’s never too late to get clean, it’s never too early, but you have to want it. Nobody can make you; nobody could make me.
Photographs taken at Carol’s home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.