“It’s important to me to share my story because if I can help just one person, just one, it would have all been worth it.”

[CONTENT WARNING: This article contains content that may be difficult for some readers, including instances of domestic abuse, gun violence, and drug use]

SOUTHSIDE — In the Southside, you’re liable to run into Alexandra Dee. She’s a God-fearing wife and mother of two toddlers who recently finished cosmetology school. She’ll keep you laughing with the escapades of motherhood, and will fix you up all pretty when it’s time for a new ‘do. 

Looking from the outside, it’s easy to imagine she’s experienced rainbows and sunshine every day of her existence. Her reality, just five years ago, couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

In the summer of 2016, Dee (Alexandra Dee is a pseudonym we agreed to give her to protect her identity) had recently left a mentally abusive and controlling relationship on the premise that the couple were young and simply not meant to be. Although the relationship wasn’t progressing in a positive way, Dee felt like the breakup was a betrayal to her family and friends, who were scheduled to attend the ex-couple’s pre-paid wedding a mere two months later. 

Despite the challenges, being on the other side of such a difficult time gave the woman, who at the time was in her early 20s, an opportunity to explore her newfound freedom. For the first time in quite a while, she could make new friends and pursue her personal goals. 

“While that sounds amazing to be able to do what you want, sometimes you end up running into more roads than just a crossroad,” Dee said. “I ended up just wandering around lost, really not knowing what to do next. And I ran into a ‘friend’ that I had lost contact with, but had known for years.”

At the time, both Dee and the person who posed as a companion were struggling with anxiety, among other issues. The two started dating, and everything was fine at first — until it wasn’t.

“One day on a trip we had taken, he laid out these thin little white lines — cocaine,” Dee said. “He offered, and I said no. He said this was how he kept the anxiety and demons away. He said this was his big secret. And if I loved him, if I wanted to escape just for a minute and stay with him, I would just do one.”

Addiction 

Still feeling guilt about the marriage that didn’t happen, she gave in. One line turned into 10, and before long, Dee and her friend turned beau moved to a new city — which also came with new challenges. 

The relationship turned controlling fast, as did the addiction.

“Every morning, he brought me lines — at work, when I got home,” Dee said. “[It] didn’t matter about the time of day.”

Dee also struggled with other things in tandem, like weight loss. She recalled looking like “skin and bones” at just 21 years old. The young woman was also the sole breadwinner in the relationship. She worked as a bartender to support both her and her boyfriend’s drug habits, but the money didn’t keep up with their addiction. Dee started selling cocaine to amplify her cashflow, and often sold to a cook at the restaurant where she was employed. The cook asked if Dee had needles, which she denied. 

“He said it was a whole new rush,” Dee said. “So he showed me how to do needles.”

When Dee’s boyfriend found out, he became furious. His anger then turned to violence. The controlling aspect of the relationship also got worse — he started going to Dee’s workplace and sitting at the bar both day and night to monitor her interactions. 

“He made me stop selling,” Dee said. “So that made our money run short, and the drug supply also ran too short.”

Fast forward to October. Dee and her boyfriend attended a party. Desperate, he gave her a set of instructions: find drugs by any means necessary. She approached the bartender to ask if he knew where she could find any. Instead, he offered something else — help.

“His reply was this: ‘Baby, we don’t do that here, but you look like you need help. If you are in some type of situation and need help, come back here and I will help you,’” Dee said. “I thought so hard about his offer, but still said no. I went to my boyfriend and told him the party was dry, so we left.”

Spiraling 

In May 2017, something inside of her snapped. Dee had started doing methamphetamine instead of cocaine – they looked the same, and at that point, she said she didn’t care.

“I looked in the mirror and saw nothing. Literally nothing. Who was I? What happened to my dreams? My skin? Who was this person? I just broke down in that bathroom,” Dee said. “I packed all my stuff up that I could grab and snuck it out to my car. And I told him I was going out.”

Dee’s getaway didn’t go as planned. The boyfriend got in the car as well, and the two drove in silence. Eventually, Dee told him that she was leaving and that she planned to check into a rehabilitation center. He didn’t take the news well. 

“He was furious. He hit me,” Dee said. “While I was driving, I pulled over at a bank because I knew they had cameras. I jumped out and started to run. He caught me, threw me in the car, grabbed his gun, put it to his head and then mine. He said, ‘If you’re leaving, we’re leaving together.’”

Through tears, Dee convinced him that she would stay if he would calm down. He took out some drugs, and while he was distracted, Dee got a text out to her father’s friend, a state trooper. She gave her location, said that there was a gun to her head, and told him that she needed help.

A few minutes later, her boyfriend needed to use the restroom. He stopped at a gas station, which gave Dee an opportunity to get a text out to a friend. It was her best friend, who, despite being her oldest and dearest companion, she hadn’t spoken with in quite some time. She relayed her new location and where they were heading next. 

“All [my friend] said back was, ‘I know,’” Dee said. “I knew then I would be safe.”

Approximately 10 minutes later, Dee and her boyfriend arrived back at their house, greeted by the SWAT team, the police captain, and the state trooper she’d texted. She also recalled the reunion she had with two very important figures in her life that night — her parents.

“I just looked at my parents who had absolutely no idea what I had been doing. My boyfriend pretty much kept me from talking to them. My dad, who has been a police officer for over 30 years, just hugged me. My mom held me and cried,” Dee said. “I told them I needed rehab, that I couldn’t do this anymore. In that moment, I would have rather died than [kept] living how I was living. My dad just looked at me and said, ‘Baby, pack a bag. We will help you.’ The next day, there I sat in my own room in the quiet, alone at rehab.”

Rehabilitation 

“It was hard — the hardest thing I ever did,” Dee said.

During her rehabilitation process, Dee refused methadone. She said that she wanted to feel the withdrawals, likening the experience to a child wanting to touch a hot stove, thereby learning to never do it again. 

“Finally after weeks of endless withdrawals and meetings, I found comfort and peace within myself,” Dee said. “I was proud of [myself] for the first time in forever.”

The day she left rehab, Dee got her cell phone back. She checked her messages and saw a familiar face. It was the bartender at the party that asked her if she needed help several months prior. 

“That bartender is now my husband of five years,” Dee said. “We have two kids, and I graduate cosmetology school on the 14th.”

Through the experience, Dee also learned some valuable lessons: one, it’s important to love yourself, and two, it’s equally important to ask others for help when needed. 

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to contact your family, an old friend, someone, anyone, and get help. I promise, even when you think you have no one, there is someone willing to help you find you again,” Dee said. “Yes rehab is hard. Getting clean is hard. But everything that is good never comes easy, and if you work hard and actually want it, and believe in yourself, it will happen.”

Commonwealth In Crisis

Addiction impacts thousands of Virginians each year. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) publishes a quarterly report on fatal drug overdoses in the commonwealth. The most recent report provides data from the fourth quarter of 2021, noting that the numbers represented are preliminary, subject to change, and are most likely slightly under reported at the time of publication. 

According to the current numbers, there were 2,656 deaths by fatal drug overdose in 2021. Comparatively, there were 2,309 of the same cause of death in 2020 and 1,627 in 2019. 

The report also found that fatal non-opioid illicit drug overdoses were on the rise. In 2021 compared to 2020, fatal cocaine overdoses increased 23.2% and fatal methamphetamine overdoses increased 41.5%. However, there’s another crisis in Virginia — opioids.

Fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013, surpassing motor vehicle collisions and gun-related deaths according to the report. Fentanyl — including prescription, illicit, and/or analogs — caused or contributed to death in 76.5% of all fatal overdoses in 2021.

There’s now legislation in place to help combat the issue. In 2018, the year following Dee’s rehab, US Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) worked together to help pass the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, offering provisions to:

  • Expand tele-health services for substance abuse treatment
  • Make clear how Medicaid funds can be used for substance use disorder treatment through tele-health
  • Help ensure children suffering from substance use disorders receive the assistance they need through tele-health services
  • Improve data collection on substance use disorders among Medicaid recipients
  • Give states the resources and guidelines to ensure recovery homes are effectively helping residents sustain recovery from opioid and substance use disorders
  • Incorporate job training into drug addiction recovery programs
  • Afford schools the opportunity to apply for grants to directly offer trauma support services to students impacted by the opioid epidemic

Dogwood asked Warner about the impact the act had on the commonwealth over the past several years.

“This puts money directly into communities [that face] a lot of the challenge on trying to deal with opioids. And particularly, as some of the opioids merge into, particularly, fentanyl, I think we’ve seen a dramatic decline in abuse of prescriptions being written,” Warner said. “That is the good news, and a lot of that has come from greater oversight at [the] state level, local level, and federal level.”

​​A similar circumstance happened in Martinsville. In 2015, the small city in Southwest Virginia made its mark on the map, but not for a positive statistic. That year, STAT, a health, medicine, and life sciences resource, found that more opioids were prescribed per person in Martinsville than anywhere else in the country. Clinicians prescribed approximately 4,090 morphine milligram equivalents per person, while the national average at the time was 640 milligram equivalents per person. By 2020, Martinsville ranked third — behind two other Virginia locations, Salem City in second and Norton City in first.

Unfortunately, where there’s a positive change, there’s often a negative reaction. Warner noted that some individuals addicted to opioids went to the black market to purchase drugs when their prescriptions ended, and the illegal drugs were sometimes laced with fentanyl. In other words, there’s still more work to be done to combat the drug crisis in Virginia. 

“There Is Someone Rooting For You”

Once Dee realized there was an issue, she was afraid to tell anyone. She convinced herself that her loved ones would be deeply disappointed and would hate her. The two texts she sent that fateful May night proved differently.

“They still ran to my rescue, and brought a whole village I never knew I had. They still loved me. The state trooper checked on me quite a few times after and my best friend called me every day in rehab. She stayed with me all this time, even though I never made it easy. She still saw something in me and stayed. This past year, I was her maid of honor in her wedding. When she asked, I was very surprised because of the fact I never made being my friend easy. That was such an honor, just being asked that,” she said. “The point I’m trying to make is even when you think no one is there, there is someone rooting for you.”

In some ways, Dee wished she could go back and root for herself. 

“I think about ‘that girl’ often. She had dreams. She had dreams of being a teacher, a cosmetologist, having a family. She had all these plans of how she was going to do it. She knew what her next move was. But she let actions of others dictate her life. She was a people-pleaser. She cared more about making everyone else happy rather than herself. And if I could just go back in time and hug her, I would. Because that’s what I needed back then was to love myself, and I didn’t. I thought I needed the love from others to validate myself, but all I really needed was a little self-love,” Dee said. “After all this time, I finally found that. I have kept the right people in my corner to boost me up, to help me learn how to love me again. By doing that, I became a teacher. I went back to school for cosmetology, all while working a full-time job and raising two children.”

When it came to telling her story, Dee wanted to share hope with others who may find themselves in a similar situation. 

“It’s important to me to share my story because if I can help just one person, just one, it would have all been worth it,” Dee said. 

“That girl,” now a woman who has been sober for five years, had the final word. 

“My advice would be this: look in a mirror and find that last bit of hope you have, even if you think you have none left. Find it. Pray for it to be seen,” Dee said. “Ask God to show you that last mustard seed of faith inside of you. And plant it. Plant it on the rock bottom floor you just hit. And let it grow.”