ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It started with a fall off a horse when she was 5.
She was 11 when she further injured her spine tumbling into a tide pool to save her cousin from being washed away into the sea.
“And then it was all bones healing the wrong way, discs herniated and infused and compressed, bones degenerating,” Aleth Morales said. “I’ve been in pain most of my life.”
But the pain in her back was almost secondary to the pain in her heart from a lonely childhood in southern California, separated from her young mother, barely knowing her father.
“It felt like abandonment, and I couldn’t understand it,” she said.
To ease her pain and calm her mind, she found solace in snorting methamphetamine and sucking down alcohol, becoming, she says, an addict at age 16.
“It was just to numb myself, to keep my ADHD mind from spinning, to not be in reality,” Morales, 40, said.
It was something she could turn on and off then, something she could hide.
But as her addiction deepened, she could no longer control or hide it.
It took losing her children in 2018 for her to realize that. And then it took until this month for her to break free from two decades of addiction, to stabilize herself in sobriety with the help of the rigorous Substance Use and Treatment Options Program, or STOP, one of Metro Court’s newest specialty courts.
The voluntary program serves offenders charged with non-violent felony substance-related crimes that are pleaded down to misdemeanors. It consists of five phases, including two 90-day stays in inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, weekly group therapy sessions, additional treatment as needed, frequent meetings with a probation officer and Metro Court Judge Jill Martinez, who presides over the program.
Morales is the third STOP graduate, starting as a test case months before the program officially began in October 2018.
Her graduation ceremony Feb. 14 in Martinez’s courtroom was a day she had worked hard to make happen – and a day she did not always believe would come.
“We’re not just addicts,” she said. “We had dreams. We had hope. We had life inside of us, but life kept throwing obstacles in front of us and we were not strong enough to handle them. We’re just lost people who need help.”
Morales is candid about her past as she details the downward spiral that took away her dreams, her hope, her life, little by little.
She graduated from high school in 1998 in Montebello, California, as a cheerleader, a member of the school color guard, a fairly good student and a secret addict. That year, she enlisted in the Navy but received an honorable medical discharge after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing a suicide, she said.
She studied culinary arts, gave birth to Angel, her first child, with a man who turned out to be both abusive and an undocumented immigrant. He was deported in 2009; she continued to cope with drugs and booze.
In 2010, she met Robert Cabrera, whom she calls the love of her life, and moved to Albuquerque with him, her son and his daughter, Samantha, for a fresh start.
Soon, though, she found fresh suppliers for her meth fix.
“By this time I was also heavily drinking,” she said. “I drank vodka to wake up.”
She stayed clean during her pregnancies with sons Josiah and Elijah, but resumed her meth and alcohol use afterward, still maintaining her job working the service deli at Albertsons and, she thought, keeping her addiction under wraps.
But maybe she hadn’t been as successful as she thought. She and Cabrera began having problems, and in May 2016 he left her and took the children.
“That just broke me,” she said. “I was using, drinking at work now, crying in the bathroom. I couldn’t stop.”
In March 2017, she was arrested after being caught driving a stolen GMC Yukon she said a friend had lent her. The arrest led to losing her job, her home, her dignity. On April 25, 2017, she woke up with bruises and could not remember what had happened. A medical exam indicated that she had been sexually assaulted. Heroin was found in her system.
“I hadn’t been awake to feel what heroin felt like, so I did more heroin to feel it,” she said. “The moment I did I was addicted.”
She tried to kill herself five times with large “hot shot” injections of heroin.
“I wanted to die,” she said.
Other criminal charges followed. Breaking and entering and possession of drug paraphernalia in September 2017. Forgery in November 2017.
In March 2018, she had her two youngest children visiting her when she showed up high with them at a stranger’s house. Police found syringes of meth in her children’s diaper bag and arrested her on charges of criminal trespassing and possession.
Her children saw her being led away in handcuffs. They were led away into foster care.
She remembers every word a social worker told her then: “You are not a bad person or parent. You are just lost in your addiction and you need help.”
Those words, she said, broke through.
The day after she was released from jail she entered inpatient treatment for the first time. In May 2018 she agreed to be one of the first test cases for STOP rather than face prison.
Things didn’t go well.
“I fought it and was not very cooperative,” she said. “I was high the day I met my probation officer.”
But like that little girl who fell off the horse years ago, it was time for her to get back on.
“I had to learn to trust,” she said.
Funding for STOP comes from Metro Court’s general fund and federal grants. Currently, there are seven participants in the program, but court officials say they hope to increase that number as more attorneys and defendants learn of success stories like Morales’.
“Aleth is a perfect example of why we started this program,” Martinez said. “Her offenses weren’t making the news, but her criminal behavior was quickly escalating. The program intervenes during this critical period.”
Morales is back home with Cabrera and her children. She is back at work at Albertsons and enjoying her 20th month of sobriety.
She hopes someday to undergo surgery to repair her spine. And she hopes to become a peer support specialist to help others like her find their way back.
“I have a dream again,” she said. “I have a purpose again. I’m showered with countless blessings.”
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.