Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series produced by the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. The entire series will be published online at www.nlrtimes.com. Next: State Take-Back program aims to eliminate access.
FORT SMITH — High on painkillers and anti-anxiety medication, Cherre Thompson considered abandoning her daughter when a cashier accused her of stealing from a local restaurant.
It wasn’t uncommon for Thompson to nod off from a cocktail of Soma, Xanax and Roxicodone, whether it was at a traffic light, at a restaurant or even when she was driving — often with her daughter Kyyah in the vehicle.
On this day, it was just an old-fashioned black-out at Catfish Cove, where she’d taken her daughter for crab legs.
"I was so lost and so messed up and high, when she (the cashier) said she was calling her manager and the cops, I almost left without her (Kyyah)," Thompson, 44, said. "I was in the frame of mind and so high and scared of going to jail, I thought about leaving my daughter (at the restaurant)."
The cashier threatened to call the manager and police when Thompson argued with the cashier, who accused her of stealing crab legs, which Thompson denied until her daughter pointed to the crab legs sticking out of her purse.
Kyyah, now 18, was around 9 years old when she noticed her mom was acting "different."
"Different" could include falling asleep at a red light and other drivers having to honk and wake Thompson when the light turned green, the Catfish Cove incident, Thompson cussing out a teacher or the principal, or other behavior that left Kyyah too embarrassed to ask friends from school over to her house.
"Mom told me at one time I told her I hated her. I don’t remember that, but I hated the way she acted and what she did," Kyyah said.
Thompson said she was so out of it on pills that she didn’t recognize the damage she was doing to her relationships.
Following a traffic accident, Thompson said she was prescribed 120 Roxicodone, 120 Loracet, 120 Soma and 120 Xanax, medication she said she didn’t really need but accepted and discovered they made her feel good.
Thompson said her use started to spiral out of control as her marriage failed, and she took more and more pills to cope with that.
To keep up with her increasing need for more pills, Thompson said she would rotate visits among the emergency rooms at Mercy Hospital, Sparks Regional Medical Center and Summit Medical Center in Van Buren — until the staff at each facility identified her as a drug seeker and cut her off.
She also would go to the doctor and claim she lost or someone stole her pills, but then doctors started asking for a police report before they’d refill the prescription.
Thompson said she also would buy prescription drugs off the streets and eventually established a relationship with one person whose prescription she would trade for food from Taco Bell, where she worked for 12 years.
Addicts will get creative to feed their habit, Thompson said.
What Thompson calls creative, her sister, Koscha McCurtain, calls "conniving."
McCurtain said she’s not sure how long her sister used drugs because she started to avoid her, worn out by her negativity about everything. Although McCurtain’s daughters loved their aunt, McCurtain said they didn’t really want to be around her.
And when McCurtain figured out Thompson was hooked on prescription pills, she didn’t allow her children around her sister.
‘Last Chance’ Turns Life Around
Thompson’s food-for-pills scheme was her undoing, but it likely saved her life, Thompson said.
Her bosses, who suspected she was stealing, caught her on tape giving away food and stealing cash.
Facing a third felony conviction, Thompson said local attorney Carl Bush represented her for free and helped convince the court to allow her into Sebastian County Drug Court.
Thompson said prosecutors resisted at first, but once she got in, she made the best of her "last chance" and finished the one-year court program and one-year aftercare program without a single sanction.
While in drug court, she also got a job at Gateway House, where she first visited as a client. Thompson worked there for eight years until she was recently laid off. She recently started taking college courses online through Kaplan University and is selling nutritional supplements.
"Drug court is a blessing to anyone if they work the program. It can change your life. I look at life totally different now," Thompson said. "Drug court gave me a second chance at life again … it taught me how to love myself, to look in the mirror and not see a sick pill head who threw her life away."
It also gave Thompson a chance to rebuild the relationships she almost destroyed.
"Everything I touched I destroyed, but through drug court and a relationship with God, I was able to repair relationships," Thompson said.
It certainly wasn’t easy. Thompson graduated from drug court in 2006, but she said it still took several years to win back her daughter’s trust.
"I distinctly remember telling her (after graduated from drug court), ‘I’m not going to say I’m sorry anymore; I’m just going to prove myself by my actions,’" Thompson said.
Kyyah watched like a hawk, looking to see if any old behavior was creeping back in and honestly wondering when the chaos would return.
But it hasn’t, and after she saw her mother at church, Kyyah said she knew Thompson’s transformation was genuine.
McCurtain wasn’t ready to say her sister has made a 180-degree turn, but said she’s a much better sister, she loves God, is genuinely involved in church and no longer has a violent temper.
She believes Thompson is still getting over her past, because Thompson is convinced some people still see her past when they look at her now.
Thompson said she’s moved forward, while not forgetting how easily her life spiraled out of control, and is determined to meet a challenge posed to every drug court participant, "live to make a difference."
Thompson said she ultimately wants to be a hospice worker.
She wants to do what she can to encourage and comfort hospice patients, whether it’s leading them to Christ or simply assuring them they’re loved and special.
"To me that brings hope and peace to someone’s life at an important time … (while other people take care of physical needs) I want God to use me to make them comfortable spiritually and mentally," she said.