From the Podcast: Morgan Pagels: Heroin and Homelessness – The Aftermath of Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home
In Episode 27 of The Courage To Change: A Recovery Podcast, Morgan Pagels shared her story with podcast host Ashley Loeb Blassingame. We’ve edited and condensed it here for a fast read. You can listen to the entire interview here.
Predictably Unpredictably – Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home
Morgan grew up in what she describes as an “alcoholic zip code” in a small town just south of Baltimore, Maryland. Morgan was raised by two alcoholic parents. On the outside, they lived what she describes as a “normal” life: single family home with two cars and a dog. But inside, she said, “it was unknown if my dad and mom were going to be fighting, if a plate was going to get thrown, and if I was going to get spanked a little too hard.”
When Morgan was 10 years old, her parents got pregnant with her brother. Morgan shared, “as soon as my brother was born, my mom brings him home and my dad says, ‘I’m having an affair and I’m leaving.’”
“I have very little memory of my childhood. I think that’s part of coping.” (call out)
Change is A’Coming
After her father moved out, her entire world changed as she knew it. She visited her dad a handful of times. In those times, he began to emotionally, physically and sexually abuse her. To cope with the shame she felt, she sought after what she calls, “my first real drink.” Not only did alcohol give her the desired effect she was looking for, but she also received approval from her dad for the first time. He would laugh and say, “you’re a funny drunk.” For the next few years, Morgan began to experiment with alcohol and marijuana.
When Morgan was 14, she burned her hand badly and went to the emergency room. She was high and wanted hot-brew tea. She added, “only somebody who’s high thinks like that.” Morgan poured boiling water into a pitcher, and the pitcher slipped. When she arrived at the emergency room, the doctors prescribed her with hydrocodone to relieve the pain. She took one pill, and after about 15 minutes, she said, “it isn’t working. Let me take another one.” She loved the effect that it gave her, and by the end of the day, she took the whole bottle.”
“The whole bottle was gone in a day.” (call out)
Turning to Street Drugs
Morgan shared “I was using pills as often as I could get them. Buying them as often as I could.” Hydrocodone quickly became Percocet, which soon became Oxycontin. She added, “when that became expensive, because it does, those pills became heroin.”
“There is something about a prescription, the dosage, the officiality of it that makes it feel safer than heroin on the street. But what happens is that the risk and reward cycle gets stronger to the point where it is no longer an option. It becomes necessary to get street drugs. It becomes necessary to turn to heroin.” (call out)
At 17 years old, Morgan graduated from high school. However, the things that had kept her accountable as an adolescent including school, sports and work, were no longer there. She was rebelling and trying to push the envelope with her family as much as she could. Eventually, her mom found out about her drug use and kicked her out of the house.
She ended up meeting a guy who was a high school dropout from Baltimore City. They didn’t have anywhere to go and decided to go “camping.” Ultimately, she was sleeping in a tent under a bridge in South Baltimore. She continued to “camp” for the rest of the summer until October, when the weather began to shift drastically dropping in temperature. Then she began to seek out other housing.
From that point on, “[she] was sleeping in abandoned houses, seedy motel rooms that you could rent by the hour and Carroll Park.” She shared, “I knew that I had a substance abuse problem because I was using heroin and crack cocaine all day every day.”
She was also stealing to fund her drug habits, “breaking into cars, breaking into houses, stealing purses on the street.” Morgan shared that nearly five years after she had her first bottle of opiates on May 10, 2005, she broke into her mom’s house and “took everything.” Morgan’s mom knew it was her who broke into the house, reported the issue to the police who then issued a warrant for her arrest. Morgan shared, “I had no intention of that being the last day that I used, but it was.”
Getting Arrested and Going to Jail
As the nurse did her intake upon arrival at the jail, she was asked, “do you ever think about hurting yourself?” To which Morgan replied, “well, I’m a drug addict and I’m using heroin and smoking crack every day. It’s not really that fun to live.” The nurse didn’t take this lightly. She put Morgan in seclusion on suicide watch. That meant, “I had no clothes, no bra, no underwear, no shoes, living in a holding cell with a rip proof blanket and gown.” She added, “that is how I detoxed. I detoxed in jail on suicide watch without medication.”
She stayed in jail for about six weeks, and in that time, she signed up to go to an AA meeting. After all, she said, “[she] was dying to get out of her cell.”
After those six weeks, her family finally spoke with her, after having ignored her since her arrest. Her mom got her an attorney and bailed her out of jail. Her family’s caveat for bailing her out of jail was for her to go to rehab. Then, from jail to the Phoenix Recovery Center in Edgewood, Maryland, Morgan continued to seek treatment through AA and therapy.
“The biggest lesson in my recovery is that you don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.” (call out)
Morgan’s mom continued to drink over the next year. In the summer of 2006, her mom was in a relationship with a man who was an alcoholic. Morgan, Robbie and their mom moved in with this man, and shortly after, her mom and her then-boyfriend broke up. They had nowhere to go. Her mom and Robbie were sleeping in the back of her mom’s car.
One night, with Robbie asleep in the backseat of her car, Morgan’s mom was driving over the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Maryland, pulled over, got out of the car, and thought about jumping. The next day, Morgan’s mom called her and said, “I need help.” Morgan took her mom to an AA meeting, as “it was the only thing [she] knew how to do.” Her mom became a home group member, and has been sober ever since.
For about five years, Morgan had been attending AA and Al-Anon, as her 12 step treatment moved toward co-dependence therapy. She had also met her now husband in AA. Both Morgan and her husband are sober and living in recovery. When they became pregnant with their first son, Morgan shared, “it was the most immense amount of joy that I’ve ever felt in my life.” It also became evident to her what she had missed out on as a child. It brought up feelings she didn’t know she had.
In 2019, Morgan’s sponsor introduced Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) to her and shared, “I think it’s time we take a look at this.” Morgan has been in ACOA for over six months, in addition to continuing treatment with Al-Anon and AA. She shared, “it’s been incredibly painful, but I feel hope for the first time that I found the solution to that problem.”
Morgan and Ashley discussed how important it is to find people who have been through similar experiences to you. Morgan shared, “I’ve found that just in the short amount of time that I’ve been involved in this different aspect of my recovery (ACOA), my responses have been dramatically different. I’m already starting to see that change in myself.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity.