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Cayla Pearson

‘It’s like a miracle’

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The cards were stacked against Cayla Pearson from birth. After years lost to trauma and addiction, the drive that kept her alive is now fueling her aspiration to become a lawyer.

WARNING: This story contains material that may be upsetting to some readers. Please exercise good judgment and self-care in choosing whether to read it. If you or a loved one need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Listen to Cayla’s Story

When Cayla Pearson entered this world 29 years ago, the hand she was dealt was anything but fair.

Her mother, mentally ill and addicted, was just 19 when she gave birth to her daughter. Her biological father, whom Pearson never really knew, died when she was 5. When her mother remarried, it was to someone who was also addicted and the union ended in a traumatizing divorce.

Money was always scarce, health care non-existent and housing a constant shuffle, with Pearson and her younger brother attending multiple schools in a single year. When she tried to invite her friends over, their parents took one look at her living situation and refused to allow their children anywhere near Pearson’s home. Worst of all, from the age of 4 to 8, she was molested by her step grandfather, abuse she told no one about and buried deep in her subconscious.

“My childhood was very chaotic,” says Pearson, now 29, who flips a mass of wavy, thick, waist-length hair over one shoulder as she speaks. “I had an idea my family wasn’t like other families, but I did not really understand what was going on. I remember thinking my grandma must be the richest person in the world, just because she owned her own house.”

By the time she entered her teens, Pearson was, by her own admission, “not the most well-behaved kid,” regularly drinking alcohol and smoking pot. She also began having obsessive compulsive feelings that led to routine self harm.

“I couldn’t’ go through a day in school without going into the bathroom and cutting myself,” she recalls. “I knew it was not OK or normal, but it just spiraled and I couldn’t stop.”

The cutting became so extreme that on several occasions it bordered on suicidal, requiring hospitalization and stitches. Eventually, a student at the arts school Pearson attended noticed the scarring on her arms and reported it to a teacher. Rather than being offered counseling or other treatment, she was ordered to leave the school because she was considered “a bad influence” on her peers.

Between 12 and 15, Pearson was involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation through the Baker Act “I don’t even know how many times…upwards of 15.” Among the multiple diagnoses she received: post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorders I and II, oppositional defiant disorder and borderline personality disorder. The list of powerful psychiatric medications she was prescribed is far longer.

“Every time I would go to the hospital, I would see a different psychiatrist who had a different ‘guess’ about what they thought was wrong with me,” Pearson says. “There were point where I had to set alarms in the middle of the night to wake up to take medications so I could go back to sleep. It was crazy. I was zonked out cold all the time and it was awful.”

Eventually, she unearthed the memory of her step grandfather’s abuse and shared it with her first boyfriend. He reported it to Pearson’s mother, who revealed for the first time that she had been molested as a child as well and went into “Mama Bear” protective mode. (“I’d never seen her like that,” Pearson recalls.) The grandfather was arrested and imprisoned and Pearson was offered state-funded counseling that began to help — for as long as it lasted.

“I was able to start talking about that and realizing it was something traumatic that had happened to me I hadn’t realized was traumatic,” she says. “I think it was really affecting me subconsciously and causing me a lot of internal pain, but I’d just brushed it off and moved on, not realizing that’s where my pain was coming from.”

Unfortunately, the allotted counseling sessions ran out long before her need for them did. At 15, too groggy from her medications to wake up for school, she dropped out and moved in with a “significantly older” man. It wasn’t until after she married him that she realized he was addicted to heroin.

Her alcohol and pot consumption soon gave way to hallucinogens – acid, mushrooms and Ecstasy. Pearson took a job as a cocktail waitress at a gentlemen’s club to support her habit, but it wasn’t long before she joined the girls who were strip dancing because the work was so much more lucrative. She made fistfuls of cash every night but could never figure out why she never had money when she needed it. She was so strung out, she didn’t realize her husband was stealing it from her to feed his own habit.

One day – she guesses it was when she was somewhere between 22 and 24 but that’s as close to pinpointing the time frame as she can come – she woke up in the Sarasota County jail with no memory of what had put her there. According to a police report she read later, she’d been found sleeping in a park and was combative and uncooperative when officers tried to intercede.

She spent nearly a year in jail – first in Sarasota County and then in Manatee County for a past probation violation. During that time she received no counseling, medication or addiction education, “nothing therapeutic of any kind,” she says. Instead, she turned to her jail mates for advice and was vaguely frightened, but also intrigued by their stories of “the corner they hung out on, the drugs they did, the people they knew.”

As soon as she was released, she confronted her husband about his heroin use and gave him an ultimatum: “If you’re going to ruin our lives over this, I want to see why it’s so awesome. Give me some.” He and a friend injected her with Dilaudid, a painkiller.

“The second he did it, I instantly knew this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” Pearson says. “It was instantaneous. It relieved every kind of pain – all the issues, jail, the unfairness of life, my parents’ addiction. None of that mattered anymore.”

Things swiftly spiraled from bad to unfathomable. She left her husband, got fired from the club and, feeling she had no other option, turned to “the only other way to get the money I needed to get what I needed.” The connections she made with strangers over the Internet regularly put her into life threatening situations.

“No one knew where I was besides me and this random person,” she says. “It could have ended very badly. I don’t know how I’m not dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Most of the time she was either homeless, or at the mercy of others’ generosity. She slept wherever she could — “on a bench, on the ground, in the back yard of a crack house when I could convince the dealer to let me stay there.” For a while she stayed outside in a half-constructed house in Tampa, rolled up in blankets in the back yard.

By the time she landed in a homeless camp in the woods, she weighed less than 100 pounds and was violently ill from withdrawal. Though she says there was no “rock bottom,” in the spring of 2017, she called her stepfather, who had recently managed to get clean through a 12-step program, and told him “I’m done.”

“If I don’t do something different, I’m going to kill myself,” she told him. “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.”

She’d barely hung up the phone when she got her hands on some more heroin. By the time her stepfather and his fiancé arrived, they took her directly to a detox facility. She was still so sick after she was released that her stepfather felt sure she would relapse. So he took her to work with him and “made a really difficult choice” to convince a coworker who was receiving medically assisted treatment for addiction to part with a dose of medication for his daughter.

That was March 28, 2017. Though so much of her earlier life is lost in a fog, that is a date Pearson will never forget — her “clean date,” the last time she used drugs or alcohol.

She started her rehabilitation at the Salvation Army, but the heavily faith-based focus of the program there made her feel “like I was being dishonest to myself and my spirituality.” Instead, she moved to a brand new halfway house for women operated by the nonprofit Bridge to Life, which provides support to “bridge the gap between addiction and recovery.”

There she painstakingly began to learn “how to do all the normal grownup stuff I’d never learned how to do before,” from making her bed to brushing her teeth. She got a job that “wasn’t in a bar or club and didn’t involve me wearing a bathing suit” and began settling into a routine. To someone used to highs and rushes, it was difficult and, in many ways, mind-numbingly dull.

“It was hard,” Pearson confesses. “I knew that if I stopped doing drugs, there was this possibility that life was just going to be really boring. But everything before had been so terrible that I just went on with it, because boring was better than awful.”

She began working a 12-step program less traditionally religious at the halfway house, working with the house owner, who eventually became her sponsor. She got a restaurant job and was soon promoted to a managerial position. Her recovery and stability proceeded without relapse , but she remained stressed out and unhappy.

One day, her new boyfriend – a man who has “made a career out of working with people who are addicted and who is the most patient and supportive and caring partner I could ever imagine” — asked her why she was so unhappy and what she really wanted to do with her life. She made a joke of saying “I kind of want to go back to school,” figuring it simply wasn’t an option.

“Do it,” he said. “I will support you 100 percent.”

She started classes at State College of Florida with the goal of becoming a paralegal, something that seemed more attainable than her unrevealed aspiration to become a lawyer. She graduated two years later with an associate’s degree and the college’s “Outstanding Graduate” award. And, though she “thought it was something that someone like me could never do,” her advisors encouraged her to pursue a law degree. She’s now a third year student at the New College of Florida, concentrating in political science and anticipating a summer internship with the Manatee County Public Defender’s office.

“It will be cool to be on the other side of the justice system and to advocate for people who are in the situation I was in before,” she says. “I never got the feeling that any of the public defense I received really understood or looked at the deeper issues. So who knows? This might be my future.”

Pearson’s stress these days comes from the fullness of her schedule, which includes continuing to work on her recovery and volunteering for Bridge to Life, as well as a weighty pre-law college course load. She lives in a home she purchased with her partner not far from her mother, who became clean the year after she did and whom she sees often. In November she will celebrate her stepfather’s remarriage and continuity sobriety.

“Never, ever, ever, in a million years did I think this was how my life could or would end up,” she says. “I think a big part was seeing my Dad get through it. He just seemed so happy and I was like, ‘How? Show me how you did this.’”

Now, even on her worst day, her gratitude for having left her nightmare past behind seems magical.

“Just going into a roomful of people who used to do drugs and have figured out how not to do drugs is like a miracle,” she says. “There was a point when I did drugs even when I didn’t want to. Now I know I don’t have to, it doesn’t have to be an option. I know that sounds so simple, but I’ve taken that drive I used to put toward getting more drugs into doing something good. And it’s amazing.”