Rather than teach her how to cook dinner, Kayla Wilks-Willford’s mother taught her how to inject methamphetamine.
“That’s all she did, so that’s what I wanted to do too, I guess,” Kayla said.
Seven years later, following her most recent visit to jail — from July to October — Kayla said her mind is set on a drug-free future.
At 25, Kayla is just learning to lead a stable life, she said. Working full time, washing dishes, making dinner, sleeping in on weekends and restoring a car with her husband, she also is hoping to regain custody of her son, who will turn 3 in January.
“You can change,” she said. “It takes a lot of dedication, devotion and hard work, but it’s so much better being sober and being high on life.”
In two years of living in Franklin County, Kayla discovered how methamphetamine plagues the area. Local authorities say it’s one of the most widely-used illegal drugs, along with marijuana.
Methamphetamine can be smoked, injected, snorted or eaten. Bought from a drug dealer, it comes as crystalline shards or powder commonly known as meth, glass, tweak, crystal, chalk and ice. The drug’s promise of euphoria makes it agonizing for users to quit.
Of the people who try meth, 95 percent become addicts, Rick Geist, Franklin County undersheriff, said. For comparison, five percent of people become alcoholics after drinking alcohol, he said.
“They’ll be the first ones to admit that they can’t get away from it,” Geist said of meth users. “You have no idea the power this has over you.”
Wake up, shoot up, sleep, repeat — this seemingly inescapable cycle is most of what Kayla remembers about the first seven years of her adult life.
“Life is so sporadic and crazy,” she said. “It’s like, I can’t even really tell you honestly what I’ve done for the last year and a half.”
Memories of the first night she used the drug, however, are crystal clear.
In a desperate attempt to reconcile with her mother who had just been released after nine years in prison, Kayla stopped trying to be the good one in her family, she said.
She gave in.
Surrounded by her mother and her mother’s friends in a garage in Arkansas, 18-year-old Kayla inhaled from a glass meth pipe. Energy pulsed through her body, making it impossible to sleep, she said.
“You just kind of have to wait until you wind down and, you know, just crash because you can’t go anymore,” she said.
The next time she got high, her mother showed her how to use a syringe to inject the drug’s liquid form straight into the veins of her arm, a method she was told was cleaner.
Statistically, the children of parents struggling with substance abuse are three to four times more at risk for developing their own addictions compared to other children, whether they’re living together or not, according to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.
For Kayla, meth rapidly became a remedy for everything — weight loss, an instant social circle and the hope that she’d feel whole having a relationship with her mother.
Staying employed was infeasible, but the meth supply was steady because her parents were dealers, she said.
Kayla was able to get sober and stay on the right track for brief periods, she said, but then something always would tempt her to return.
“Just one more time,” she would try to convince herself.
“One is one too many,” she said. “If you entertain that one craving, then it’s going to trigger and it’s hard to bounce back.”
Addicts yearn for a repeat of their first euphoric episode, known on the streets as “chasing the dragon,” even if that means losing everything — a job, children and a spotless record.
Three years into addiction, in 2011, Kayla went to prison on what she said should have been charges leveled at her mother.
Since Kayla had less of a criminal record, she said, her mother begged her to take the blame for writing fraudulent oxycodone prescriptions because she thought Kayla would get off easier. Instead, the dutiful daughter was sentenced to four years in a Fayetteville, Arkansas, prison.
Compliance in a drug treatment program minimized her time to a little more than a year — until she was transferred to an Oklahoma jail and charged with an earlier offense of seven counts of drug trafficking (also partly her mother’s doing, she said).
On the day of her release about two years later, Kayla said, she was kicked out in the cold with only a few belongings stored in a plastic bag.
“It wasn’t a good thing to me,” she said. “I was scared to death. It wasn’t like I had planned for it or anything. I almost questioned it like, ‘Do I have to go? Because I don’t have anywhere to go.’”
She went to work in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she met her husband, Dan Willford, who had grown up in Pomona. Soon after, they moved to Ottawa.
Drugs didn’t enter her veins again until almost a year later when life proved challenging.
She got high. She even got high with Dan, who was a consistent on-and-off user. But in her sobriety today, she said he’s her biggest advocate.
Support is essential in any addict’s recovery, addiction specialists say. At Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based nationwide program organized 7 p.m. Thursdays at Ottawa Community Church, 824 W. 17th St., Kayla and Dan said they’ve found a community. Group leaders share their own stories of alcoholism, domestic abuse and even losing family members to addiction.
“Nobody dreams about being an addict as a child,” Lesa Liggett, one of the support group’s leaders who lost her son to drug addiction, said.
The purpose of meeting is to unearth the root of the pain — hurts, hangups and habits — that often lead to addiction. Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery’s 12 steps are centered on Bible verses.
“We give it all to God,” Sherry Lewis, another group leader, said. “He’s the one who can heal you on the spot.”
Lewis, who helped relaunch the program two years ago, said she hopes to welcome more people by playing host to an informational movie night early next year. In envisioning the community’s future, she said, there have even been conversations about organizing year-long living accommodations where people like Kayla can start over.
Renewed family focus
Kayla has been consecutively sober for almost four months in tandem with her mother, who checked herself into a year-long rehab facility, she said. But that change only came after Kayla told her mother she was prepared to cut ties.
“I just pretty much wrote my feelings on paper and told her … ‘When I get out, if you’re not clean and you’re not doing something better with your life, then you might as well just consider that you don’t have a daughter anymore,’” Kayla said. “Two or three weeks later, I got a letter from her saying that, you know, my letter had really changed her heart.”
Kayla said her mother wants to be a family again and to see her grandson, who is in the care of Dan’s parents in Pomona.
The anger she holds toward her mother for choosing drugs gives her even more incentive to change and set a positive example to help ensure her son doesn’t walk the same road, she said.
“She didn’t, so that’s why I need to,” Kayla said.
Kayla and Dan see their son for one supervised hour every week at KVC Behavioral Healthcare, 416 S. Main St. No. 2, Ottawa, only after they’re drug tested and shown to be clean and sober, she said.
KVC Behavioral Healthcare serves children and families in the Kansas City metro and eastern regions. KVC provides ongoing case management, therapy, family education and support, as well as transportation and aftercare services.
In 2014, KVC supported 5,003 Kansas children who had experienced abuse, neglect or other challenges that resulted in their removal from the home, according to a 2015 annual report.
Eventually, Kayla and Dan’s KVC visits will be unsupervised, she said, then their son will live with them on weekends and finally for a 30-day at-home trial period before fully reintegrating him into their newly stable lives.
“My love … my life,” she said in the caption of a recent photo with him posted to Facebook Monday.
Rebound or bust
Part of rebuilding her life means stable work, but the re-employment process provides challenges for felons. Kayla said she started last week at the American Eagle distribution center, 1301 N. Davis Avenue, Ottawa, because she was fired from a different job when they completed her background check. She and Dan both wonder how are people supposed to change if they aren’t given the chance, she said.
“You can’t get a job, so you might as well get high with your buddy,” Dan said.
If she ever had the hankering again, Kayla said, she could simply walk through her backyard to a house where she once was buying methamphetamine. Dan said there’s a house like that on nearly every block.
“Within walking distance you could go, any time, day or night,” Dan said.
But Kayla said she doesn’t need to be high to feel happy anymore.
At the gas station, when she has seen former friends high, she said it both disgusts her and breaks her heart.
“I’m sure I looked like that, but I don’t look like that anymore,” Kayla said. “I don’t want anybody to ever look at me in that state ever again.”
Though the drug-induced paranoia has faded, Kayla said she worries every day that her spotty criminal record will give law enforcement a reason to level suspicion and pin her as a drug addict.
“No matter where we go, if we get pulled over, I’m probably going to jail for something because they’re going to find a reason,” she said.
To someone who isn’t strong in their recovery, Kayla said, a thoughtless or judgmental comment like, “What’ve you got on you that’s gonna stick me this time?” could trigger the person to feel unworthy of change.
If Franklin County wants to be successful in its fight against drugs, she said, it will take the whole community — law enforcement, the court system, outreach teams and people who have never touched drugs — treating drug addicts as people who need help.
“You have to start with the people,” she said “You can’t just stop the meth.”