How A Life Unravels On Heroin

Over the past year, the Globe spent time with an East Boston heroin addict as she struggled through recovery and the prospect of losing her children to the state. Nearly every key moment was witnessed by a Globe reporter or photographer. Brave, broken, loving, at a loss, this is Raquel and her story.

Raquel Rodriguez paces around her cramped East Boston apartment, chain-smoking Newports in the early evening darkness.

Her two daughters race toy shopping carts across the living room, shrieking with delight as they clatter past.

A failing smoke detector beeps. The smell from the overflowing litter box fills the air. Santa and snowmen decorations crowd the coffee table.

Tomorrow, when she takes her first dose of methadone, Raquel will take a step toward recovery. But tonight, she’s still a junkie. And she’s scared. Scared of withdrawal. Scared the state will take her girls anyway.

Raquel has tried to quit heroin many times in her 47 years, mostly to please probation officers. This time, though, she wants to quit for good, she says, determined to do right by her daughters, ages 4 and 5.

With the door locked to keep her daughters out, Raquel leaned over to snort heroin inside her apartment. Moments earlier, Estrella had tried to block her mother’s way into the bathroom, and now the girls were crying outside of the door as she got high.
Mimi went into her parents’ room to watch television the night before her mother started treatment at a methadone clinic. The older of the two children, Mimi is silly but also sensitive and responsible, often helping Raquel with small things like pulling up the socks she can’t reach or swooping in with a hug when she can sense that her mom’s mood is about to take a turn.

The odds are against her. She hangs out with junkies, counting many as friends. She is bipolar and severely overweight. She has no job, no teeth, no degree beyond the GED she earned in prison. She gets by on Section 8, food stamps, and disability checks for mental illness.

Her dealer, a fellow user, is moving into Raquel’s place with his wife because their apartment has no heat. So there will be easy access to what she is so desperately trying to avoid.

Drugs have been the one constant in Raquel’s life. Born poor in Chelsea, the daughter of an addict and an alcoholic, Raquel is haunted by memories of sexual abuse and drug use as a child. By 19, she said, she was pregnant and selling crack.

“I never wanted to stop using drugs. That’s what my life was,” Raquel said, her voice husky. “I was a junkie, a rundown, a whore.

Between stints in prison for prostitution and drugs, she got pregnant again, and then twice more. Her oldest daughter, now 29, was raised by her grandmother; the next three — a girl and two boys — were relinquished to foster care.

The two decades that followed were a blur of selling drugs and using drugs and sleeping with men to get money for drugs. Then she got pregnant again in her early 40s, and vowed to do things differently. In 2009, she had Mimi, a funny, wide-eyed girl; less than two years later, Estrella was born, a shy, serious tomboy — both born drug-free, Raquel said. Estrella’s father, a Salvadoran landscape and construction worker named Jose, was different from the other men. He drank too much, but he didn’t do drugs. He was quiet, supportive. And he stuck around.

Raquel’s life on the streets wasn’t over though. A few months before giving birth to Estrella, she was picked up for prostitution in Chelsea. “I was trying to make some quick cash,” she told police, according to the arrest report.

That arrest, coupled with a probation violation, led to a year in prison. Jose, by then a steady presence in Raquel’s life, took care of the girls while she was gone.

For the next few years, Raquel says, she continued to steer clear of heroin. But then she let an addict stay with her. And just like that, she was a junkie again.

Jose met Raquel at the pharmacist to fill her nine prescriptions. Jose, Estrella’s father, was different from the other men Raquel had met. He drank too much, but he didn’t do drugs. He was quiet, supportive, and he stuck around.
Estrella laughed as she ran ahead of her mother and sister as they all walked home from school.

She started taking the bus to Chelsea to buy drugs in the square. She had a little extra money from her Uncle Bobby, an Army veteran, who thought he was just helping her get by. On a gray morning at McDonald’s, a few weeks before she geared up to quit, the transaction was almost invisible. Sitting at a table, the dealer handed Raquel a bus pass, drugs concealed underneath. The bathrooms were closed, so Raquel asked the man to watch the girls and headed to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to get high.

The children, unconcerned by her absence, continued playing with a toy doctor’s kit.

Their mother reappeared 10 minutes later looking alert, almost refreshed. Her mascara was smeared, but her green eyes were clear.

Raquel is a woman of rapidly shifting moods, quick to anger and quick to laugh. She is demanding and dramatic, but also affectionate and generous, giving away cigarettes, opening her home to friends in need. And she is remarkably organized — budgeting around the arrival of benefit checks, juggling welfare appointments, always arriving early.

Above all else for her are her daughters. She frets over them constantly, and relies on them to take care of each other and, sometimes, her. When Raquel starts to panic or cry, as she often does, they comfort her with back rubs.

Watching the girls chase each other around the apartment the night before she started on methadone, Raquel worries that she can’t do it. Drugs are too much a part of who she is.

But she must. If she relapses, she’ll lose them.