BY Justin Sayers, @_JustinSayers –
Editor’s note: The Courier-Journal is chronicling the drug crisis gripping the Louisville region. Nine journalists spent 72 hours in April on the front lines of the fight against addiction, revealing the impact of the heroin and prescription pill crisis. Today, we launch an occasional series of stories on recovery that will continue into the fall. The first focuses on Christi Embry, a heroin addict readers met in April who is now struggling to stay sober. Later in the year, we will have stories about preventing drug abuse and protecting the next generation.
Christi Embry pulls back her shoulder-length blonde hair, wipes her tears, and kneels before a statue of Jesus.
She mumbles a prayer to herself in the glare of the summer sun before retreating to a shady bench next to a picture of Christ on the cross.
She comes to this religious and historic landmark — a rugged, enclosed brick grotto and garden at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Infirmary — when she needs to clear her mind.
“I haven’t been here in three days and I can tell I’m spiritually off,” says the 34-year-old mother of two, breast cancer survivor and recovering addict.
She paints the nail on her ring finger silver to signify her bond with God. Faith — along with addiction support programs — are the only things that have kept Embry alive over the last two decades.
Her last heroin binge landed her in jail and led her to detox and a stint at a Germantown recovery home.
She says she hasn’t used drugs or alcohol in the 87 days since. It’s her longest stretch of sobriety since 2014.
But it’s a delicate, chaotic time.
Embry recently left the home in search of a better fit for her recovery but quickly found that the uncertainty was not good for her.
She’s been couch-surfing for the past week and is scared that feeling vulnerable will eventually lead to a relapse in her battle against drug and alcohol addiction.
So she turns to God, speaking to Him in prayer and poetry.
Come on God, Christi’s down. God, I’m covered in bruises. … My heart’s running on empty …, she writes in her poem “Struggle.”
“It scares the crap out of me,” she says. “I’m scared I’m going to be in a position I won’t be able to get out of. I hope something good comes out of this.”
Before leaving, she props up a one-foot tall angel statue lying on the ground because of a broken wing.
“That angel is like me,” she says. “Broken.”
God showed me the truth about the unloyal disciples. The delusional thinking created this beautiful beast. The rejection of this world forced me to stand alone.
Embry’s drug use began with moonshine and marijuana in her late teens. It progressed to pain pills in her early 20s after surgery for complications from childbirth. Pills quickly gave way to heroin.
“One day I was sitting there sniffing. Next thing you know, I had a needle in my arm,” Embry says.
When she was 4 years old, she says, her father killed himself. She later had trouble building a relationship with her stepfather. She says she was kicked out of her Shively home at 17.
Outside her home, she remained a good student and basketball player. An outgoing teen, she says she “excelled at everything” — including substance abuse.
By her late 20s, she was drinking and using meth, heroin, painkillers and the anxiety medicine Ativan. She admits locking the kids in the bathroom while doing drugs. They now live with her sister.
At her worst, she was shooting a half-gram of heroin five times a day.
“It’s a mental obsession,” she says of addiction. “We have this ego that we’re invincible.”
Spending the majority of her adult life around addicts and dealers, she’s been shot at and robbed during drug deals. She’s been convicted of crimes twice — once in 2010 after she hit a Louisville Metro Police officer while driving without a license and a second time for stealing in 2011.
She clung to faith even then.
When she was using, she prayed every day — sometimes pleading with God to take her life, other times asking Him to give her a different one. She calls God and her faith “everything.”
In 2012, she moved into Women in Circle, a recovery home on Preston Street in Germantown. She lived there for eight months and left, staying clean for 18 months.
At 31, doctors diagnosed Embry with breast cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy helped her beat it in three months. But the pain medication doctors prescribed caused her to relapse.
“Beating addiction is harder than beating cancer,” she says.