By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
“Drug addiction is so powerful. It manipulates your thinking. It convinces you that you don’t have a problem; that you don’t need treatment; and that you can do it one more time.”
And Susan Miller did time and time again.
For 37 years, her life revolved around her drug addiction. She has been in and out of prison four times. She stole money from her mother to buy drugs. She wasn’t able to hold down a job, she abandoned her son and at one time was homeless, sleeping on park benches in Chicago and Rockford.
It has been a vicious cycle for Susan since she was a teenager. A cycle she was unable to break away from.
“I always thought I wanted to get clean,” she admitted. “But my lifestyle had control over me. My life was about drugs and drugs alone. I didn’t know how to quit and I really didn’t want to quit. I always thought I was in control.”
But she wasn’t in control. The drugs were.
Thankfully, this is the story of a 53-year-old woman who has escaped that terrible cycle of drug addiction. There are many that have played key roles in helping Susan turn her life around – from the local Drug Court program to a tough decision by her mother to a kind lady that wrote letters to Susan in prison to employers willing to give her a chance.
Yes, there are numerous people that have maintained hope for Susan even when Susan didn’t have much hope herself. But the combination of that hope, plus a determination to be a good mother, daughter, sister, aunt and employee, have helped give Susan strength to finally escape that bond of drug addiction.
Today, Susan has her own home, has a job and is establishing a true parental relationship with her son Jay, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for drug-induced homicide.
And, she has been drug-free for 28 months.
“I’ve been clean since January 6, 2016,” she said proudly. “That’s the longest since I first started doing drugs.”
That was when Susan was in eighth grade.
She was actually born in Colorado, but raised in McLeansboro, graduating from high school there in 1983. She has five siblings; one is deceased.
“I was molested as a child and our home life was chaotic,” Susan explained. “My mother was fantastic, but my father was an alcoholic.
“I started doing drugs as a form of escape from the things that had happened in my childhood,” she added. “It was a coping mechanism.”
But Susan continued doing drugs through high school and into her adult years. She started with pills, but soon escalated to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates.
She was sent to prison for the first time on Meth charges. She has also served time for forgery (to support her cocaine and pills habit) and heroin.
“There’s a euphoria about being high that’s hard to explain,” Susan said. “My life was so screwed up. It allowed me to not think about how bad things were. As long as I had drugs, I thought things were OK.”
The low point came on December 20, 2014. She was arrested for stealing money from her mother. It was her mom that turned her in.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Susan admitted. “I was living with my mother and I stole thousands of dollars from her to buy drugs. I was arrested at her home.
“I knew God had done for me what I couldn’t do for myself,” she added. “He gave my mom the strength and courage to turn me in. It saved my life.”
After spending 4½ years of her life in prison, Susan didn’t want to go back.
She was put in the county jail and went through withdrawal for three weeks. During one spell, she had seizures and had to be taken to the emergency room at HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.
“I felt so alone. I knew I needed to do something different. And this time, I wanted to do something different,” Susan recalled. “I finally asked for help. I had never done that before. I always thought it was a sign of weakness.”
Even though there was a long, challenging road ahead, that was the prompt she needed.
Soon after, she met with an attorney and admitted what she had done and asked to be put in Drug Court.
“I wanted to turn my life around and quit hurting myself and my family,” Susan said.
It was a struggle. She relapsed twice in the following months.
“My thinking was distorted,” Susan noted. “I had become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I lived in fear of the unknown.”
Despite those struggles, Susan gradually began to become the woman she wanted to be. She credits Chris Winters and Judge Sanders for believing in her during her time in Drug Court.
“It was a great group of people,” Susan said. “These people really cared and I didn’t want to let them down. I had always felt like an outcast and never felt like I measured up. But once the fog started to lift for me, I began seeing things clearer.”
She attended the 12-step fellowship meetings on a regular basis. She was kept busy throughout the week and called in seven days a week for 22 months. There was counseling, meetings and drug testing throughout. She got a job and stated paying her bills.
Susan started taking accountability for her life.
“I started making that transition into functioning as a regular citizen,” Susan remembered. “I had to work on just showing up and telling the truth. Those things can be difficult for people in recovery. It was a slow process.”
On Dec. 16, 2016, Susan graduated from Drug Court.
“I felt like I had some integrity and self-worth,” she admitted. “I gained some materialistic things, which were nice, but not what I appreciated most. I started giving back, being a mom and building healthy relationships. I see Jay once a month and he calls every week. These are things I cherish.”
Another thing Susan has done is start Hope Line. She writes letters to other women in prison.
“Prison is a lonely, cold place. But I encourage them to never give up and always have hope,” she said. “I tell them my story. I tell them I was an active addict for 37 years. I tell them they can turn their lives around; they can be the miracle. They don’t have to let their past define them.”
How did Susan come up with this idea?
“It was done for me when I was in prison,” she quickly answered. “Donna Zerrusen used to write to me. She knew me through my sister. They worked together.
“She reached out to me,” Susan added. “Finally, I felt like somebody cared for me and wanted to see me do well. It gave me hope.
“Donna is an amazing lady. We will always have that bond.”
Susan has corresponded with about 10 ladies and will welcome one of the ladies into her home after her release from prison.
“I think it’s the right thing to do and, hopefully, will make a difference,” Susan explained. “I think we need a women’s recovery home here in Effingham. This might be the start.”
Today, Susan works at The Handyman Can in Effingham. Doug Murrell is her boss.
“He’s fabulous,” she said. “He sees hope in the program and is willing to give people an opportunity. He’s a really good guy.”
And what is in her future?
“I think about that all the time,” Susan said. “I’ve taken several classes to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor. But I go back and forth about that. I’m not really a desk person, but I want to continue working with other recovering addicts.
“Yes, I still get tempted. There are days I think about throwing everything away to get high again. But returning to my old behavior scares the hell out of me. And I’m not willing to do that and put my recovery in jeopardy.”
One thing that really helps Susan is her Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“It’s part of my therapy,” she pointed out. “It’s something I always wanted but never got. All my money went to buy drugs. I find pleasure being on that bike. It’s like a spiritual experience. It helps me realize how much I’ve accomplished.
“My goals are simple. I just want to stay clean each day, grow spiritually and emotionally, and be there for others going through the same lifestyle I did. I’ve worked through a lot of shame and guilt, but I don’t live in those days anymore. Today is where I am.
And for Susan Miller, that is a good day.