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Just a little more than three years ago, even Haley Johnston would've told you she wouldn't be where she is today, that she might not even be alive.

On Wednesday evening, she'll be one of about 300 people recognized for earning a graduate equivalency diploma at the the Billings Adult Education graduation ceremony, and she's on her way to enrolling at Montana State University Billings to earn a counseling degree.

The 33-year-old Billings woman has been fighting addiction in one form or another — alcohol and then methamphetamine — since the age of 12. While she's been sober since November 2009, it was a constant struggle in the nearly 20 years leading up to her success today.

"What I want to be heard, the most out of anything that I've ever said in my life, is that anybody can do it," Johnston said. "I was nothing. I was living out of garbage cans. That's where I got my clothes. So if I can get out, if I can do it, anybody can."

Diagnosed at age 12 with bipolar disorder, Johnston lived in "institution after institution until I was 18 years old" beginning in seventh grade.

She said that early in the process, she started experimenting with alcohol and was quickly hooked. While she'd tried harder drugs during that period, she dove in headfirst once she was out of the system at age 18.

"As soon as I could, I started to use those drugs," she said.

That lead to a heavy, intense meth addiction that dominated her life for the next decade or so.

Along the way, she had three children: two girls, now 13 and 8, and a son, now 5. The oldest girl's father gained custody of her while the state took custody of the younger two early on.

"To be 100 percent honest, my two youngest kids, I didn't really know them at first," Johnston said. "I was just so out in my drug addiction."

While she never got into any serious legal trouble during that time, although she did get in trouble for a traffic incident, Johnston's breaking point came in 2009.

Her meth addiction was deep and at its peak when a close friend died from meth use and something woke up inside her.

"That was the end of it for me," she said. "I needed to go to drug court. I called my attorney and begged him to get me into it. I knew I had to do this because I knew that I was going to die if I didn't do something."

She was soon accepted into a drug court program, which sets strict guidelines and rules to help addicts kick their habits and begin to rebuild their lives.

Johnston stayed in the program longer than was needed because she didn't feel ready or confident enough right away to re-enter the world, working on herself and her addiction issues the whole time.

Since, she's regained custody of her two youngest children and shares custody of her oldest with the girl's father.

"They have been my everything since then," she said. "They keep me going. We go to counseling and we work on it. What I did to them does affect them, even if it's hard to admit."

Her probation officer told her she had to do something, either go back to school or get a job, and Johnston chose school.

She said that at first, going through the Adult Education program was tough. A handful of educators, including Char Hurd, the program's head counselor, helped her overcome those fears while learning.

"Those people in there, they gave me the self-esteem, the confidence I needed and they wouldn't let me put myself down," she said.

Hurd described Johnston's work in the program a little differently.

"She went through drug court and, you know, that's a pretty big deal," she said. "She just did the right things. I know things were difficult for her, of course, but she hung in there."

That perseverance is a big reason why Johnston will be one of two recipients of the Faculty Award at the graduation ceremony.

"This program, it allows participants to find their voice and to be able to advocate for themselves and I really like that about Haley, that she figured that out," Hurd said. "There were days of tears and frustrations, but I'll be danged if she didn't hang in there."

Johnston is now in the process of enrolling at MSUB, where she plans to study counseling. She said that wants to share her experience in dealing with and recovering from severe drug addiction in hopes that others will be able to learn from her mistakes.

"I want to help people like I've been helped," she said. "If you can touch just one person, that's tremendous, and I know that through personal experience."

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