A little before 5 a.m. on Friday, May 6, a couple of hours after shooting up what she thought would be her last dose of methamphetamine, Karen Hilleary prepared to kill herself.
She drove her '88 Olds Toronado up 27th Street toward the airport, then onto Airport Road, heading east. She turned off Airport Road to the undeveloped parkland on top of the Rims, then drove slowly toward the edge of the sandstone cliffs overlooking Billings.
It was beautiful, she said, looking at all the lights. She backed up a little to get a good run, put the Olds in gear and gunned it. Flying toward the lights, knowing she was going to die, was a bigger rush than meth ever was, she said.
But it wasn't her time to die. Her car hit something, a rock or an outcropping, as soon as it went over the Rims. The driver's side door flew open, and Karen flew out. The car was destroyed but Karen lived.
"To be honest with you, I landed straight on my ass," she said.
"I cussed. I was mad. I was like, how dare you? I was trying to kill myself, and you're giving me my life back?"
After getting her life back, Karen finally decided to turn it around. She survived the plunge off the Rims with some internal injuries and numerous scrapes and bruises, and after spending a couple of days in the hospital she was admitted to the psychiatric center at Deaconess Billings Clinic, where she started the long process of weaning herself from meth.
For Karen, who is now in the Thunderchild Treatment Center in Sheridan, Wyo., part of her recovery is telling other people how dangerously seductive meth is.
"They didn't tell me I would lose my desire to work," she said. "They didn't tell me I wouldn't sleep. They didn't tell me I'd lose my job. They just told me it would make me feel good. It's completely destroyed me, inside and out. I want people to know how bad it is."
Karen's life story comes out in bits and pieces. She jumps from year to year as one story reminds her of another, sometimes contradicting herself and confusing dates. A couple of weeks after she tried to kill herself, when she was still at the psychiatric center, she kept talking about how she'd been addicted to meth for seven months.
Later, after she'd moved into the Women and Families Shelter in downtown Billings, she said she may have been doing meth seriously for only about seven weeks. Later still, she said it must have been seven months. The details escaped her.
"They weren't kidding when they said it puts holes in your brain because I'm having trouble remembering where I was before this last month," she said.
She smiled, though, as she recounted her memories of Alaska, where she was born on Dec. 22, 1968. Her parents are natives of Alaska, and Karen is part Aleut Indian and part Haida. Her family lived on the little island of Hydaburg, near Ketchikan.
"I remember the smell of smoked salmon," she said. "I remember sand and crabs. I remember my grandmother."
When Karen was 3, her father, a Navy man, took seven of his nine children with him to San Diego. Her mother took the other two, Karen and her 1-year-old sister, to Seattle.
She gave the children up for adoption, and they lived in foster homes until Karen was 7, when both girls were adopted by a white couple in Olympia, Wash. As soon as Karen turned 18 she moved to Seattle, where she spent six months tracking down her birth mother, Dolores Douglas.
When Karen found her, Dolores was a heavy drinker. Karen had already had drinking problems of her own, but her mother introduced her to a new addiction. Soon after their reunion, Karen said, her mother offered her a joint without telling her the marijuana was laced with crack cocaine. It was Karen's first experience with that drug, and she quickly became hooked. Why would a mother do that to her daughter?
"I don't know," Karen said. "I guess it's just the mind of an addict."
Karen said she spent two years doing little more than smoking crack and hanging out in Seattle. She had her first child, a girl, when she was 21. The father was a Norwegian fisherman she met in Seattle.
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She later married a man from New Jersey, and they lived in Seattle for a time before moving to Chicago and then to Minneapolis, where he worked as a repo man. Five years ago last May, having decided to move back to Seattle, they were riding a Greyhound bus that stopped in Billings. Their infant son had been crying and fidgeting, and Karen didn't want to get back on the bus. She suggested to her husband that they stay in Billings.
"I thought this was a good, clean, small town," she said. "And it is a good, clean, small town. You just have to know where to go and where to stay away from."
She and her husband found jobs at a bar, working opposite shifts so one of them was always home with their son. Her husband died two years ago this coming November, basically from drinking too much, Karen said. She continued living here and was doing fairly well.
She had an apartment near Fifth Street West and Broadwater Avenue with windows that looked out on St. Francis Primary School. She dreamed of sending her son there someday. Last October, Karen got a big windfall, a $10,000 payment from her tribal trust fund. She paid several months' rent in advance, spent $1,000 on day-care bills that had been accumulating, bought some furniture and purchased the car she would later drive off the Rims.
"It was a nice car, too," she said. "It took me a week to find that thing." She remembers going to Wal-Mart and buying $600 worth of housewares. She was drinking and gambling some back then, but nothing she felt she couldn't control.
The first time she did meth, last fall, a couple of people she knew were using it and offered to let her snort some. Karen was working at another bar at the time, and she thought maybe with meth she could get more work done and put in longer hours. She says there was no particular rush the first time she snorted it, maybe because of all the drinking and other drugs she'd indulged in over many years.
Karen said she had done speed in high school, but that old-fashioned variant of methamphetamine was not nearly as intense as what she snorted. Even so, she didn't try meth again for some weeks. When she did, she liked what it did to her.
"No aches, no pains, no energy loss," she said. "I basically felt like an alcoholic - the life of the party."
It was November of last year when she really got hooked. She smoked some meth for the first time, and though she still didn't get the infamous crank rush, it was a powerful high.
She soon learned that they don't call it speed for nothing. Everything seemed to get faster after that - the rush of events, the frantic days and nights, the downward spiral of her fortunes. In January, she started mainlining meth, injecting it directly into her bloodstream.
She spent the whole month of January high, still managing to work but barely eating or sleeping. Almost all her free time was spent with two friends, a man and a woman, both users. They would get high, shoot pool, listen to music, hang out and talk for hours.
"Believe it or not, we did talk a lot about things that were going on in our lives, things we didn't normally talk about," Karen said. "But we had to get high to do it."
By February, she was working as a cook. She was barely able to work, she said, but her motivation was earning enough money to buy more meth. Her son by this time was living with his day-care provider, who was a friend of Karen's, and knowing the trouble she was in, offered to take care of her son.
Sometime in February or March, Karen stopped paying her rent and was evicted from her apartment. Where did she go then?
"You know, that's a good question. Here and there. I was always driving around." She'd stay at different friends' houses for a night or two, or she'd stay up all night or just drive around in her car. She remembers spending two or three weeks in a motel room on North 27th Street with as many as eight other people, all of them meth users. The deep conversations had stopped by then.
"I would shoot up, no rush, and play solitaire," Karen said. "And they would just sit there." Nobody would talk, and everybody was afraid to leave the motel room, immobilized by the paranoia that almost invariably infects meth addicts.
"I thought, what's the fun in that, and why am I still doing it?"
She remembers being disgusted with herself. She ticked off the signs of the meth user: "bad teeth, bad hair, greasy, big-eyed, shifty." She somehow managed to shower regularly and she obsessively brushed her teeth, trying to get the smell of meth off herself. But she knew the chemicals used to make meth oozed out of her pores and there was no escaping it.
The odor, she said, was "a sweet, sick smell. It's like when people get sick and have that sweet, infected smell."
In February, she thinks it was, she tried to kill herself for the first time. She parked her car in Riverfront Park and attempted to overdose on painkillers. She got sick, but she didn't die.
"That's twice this year I should have been dead," she said.
She eventually got fired from her job for failing to show up for work, "and I don't even know when that was, to be honest." She started pawning her belongings until a few clothes and her car were all she had left. She used the car to get drugs, trading rides for meth or helping run drugs - relatively small amounts, she said - for dealers.
She said she never traded sex for meth. The people she hung around were usually too strung out on meth to care about sex. "It's not even an interest," she said. "It's not even brought up. They just want to get high."
She grew fed up with herself.
"I didn't care anymore," she said. "What pissed me off was that I didn't care that I didn't care. Meth hardened my heart. It really did. And I didn't think that would ever happen. I learned the hard way."
After her second suicide attempt, after the weeks she spent in the psychiatric center and the shelter, Karen was accepted into the Thunderchild Treatment Center, where she is undergoing a program to beat her addiction. She knows it will be hard. Meth is even worse than crack cocaine, she said.
"Meth is a lot more addicting," she said, "a lot more - what's the word? - cunning, I guess."
Her goal now is to stay off meth and get her son back. He is still living with her friend, and Karen is supposed to see him on Sept. 7, for the first time since she left Billings.
She is scheduled to be released from the treatment center on Sept. 17, and her plans are to stay in Sheridan and continue her education. If she finds work and a place to live, she'll be reunited with her son.
"My mom chose alcohol over me," she said. "I'm not going to do that with my son."
"That's why I'm glad I'm in here," she said during an interview in the psychiatric center. "Right now, I don't think I'm strong enough to stay away from it."
She won't have much help staying clean. She said she has only two or three friends who aren't addicts.
"The others are meth users," she said. "There are no friends in the meth world."