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In addiction parlance, it’s often said that an alcoholic or drug user must “hit rock bottom” before they can finally lift themselves to sobriety.
For Teresa Peratt of Sioux Falls, the trauma throughout her life was so great – and her addiction and drug use so severe — that it’s nearly impossible to pick the lowest point.
Did it come in 1968, as a 10-year-old girl growing up in San Diego, when she huffed gas fumes in an attempt to escape the horror of being repeatedly raped by a relative?
Maybe the low point was in 1989, when she showed up to give birth in a hospital and doctors refused to give her pain medication after seeing IV needle tracks up and down her arms, in her neck, between her fingers and toes and behind her knees?
Other possible bottoms came the time she was strung out on meth, working as a topless dancer and so desperate over her husband’s infidelity that she made a detailed plan to kill him and their son. Or another occasion when her husband got sober and tried to leave and she attacked him with two butcher knives and cut him about his face and hands as their frightened son clutched at their legs, begging her to stop. Later, there were incidents when she was so desperate for drugs of any kind that she burglarized homes and strong-armed neighborhood children by stealing their Ritalin and threatening to beat them up if they squealed.
No, none of that trauma and pain inflicted on herself and her family were enough to spur Peratt to change because meth had become her master, the motivation for everything she did or did not do.
From Peratt’s viewpoint, the lowest moment of her addiction – the incident that finally led her to seek sobriety – came when she was in intensive drug treatment in Sioux Falls. After incidents in which she secured a bag around her head and passed out during a suicide attempt, and another in which she tore a pay phone off the wall in a fit of rage, Peratt finally hit rock bottom. She fled treatment with stolen drugs, got high and used a shovel to break in and steal money from the home of a friend and fellow church member, leading to her arrest on felony burglary charges.
Peratt still recalls with clarity how, after being convicted, she went back to detox amid threats by her husband to take the kids and leave. She was treated by a medical technician whose tough love reached deep into her soul.
“A guy from Narcotics Anonymous was the overnight tech, and he said, ‘You’re a stupid bitch, when are you going to get honest? You just need to get out of my sight, go into your room and pray.”
Peratt did just that, falling to her knees and asking God again and again that night “to either kill me or heal me.”
The next day, she awoke with no withdrawal symptoms and a sudden sense of clarity that her life so far had been laid waste by heroin and meth, and that there must be a better way forward.
“It was just such an overwhelming conversion experience that I was in fear of it almost,” Peratt remembers. “I thought, ‘If this is what it can be, I don’t want to lose it, so what do I have to do to keep it?’”
After enduring unspeakable childhood trauma, she had lived the life of an addict in all its dangerous forms. She aided in a scheme to swallow balloons filled with drugs and carry them across the Mexican border, and smuggled drugs in her shoes on planes. She purchased heroin and meth from biker gangs and homeless street people. She had abandoned her children emotionally, and nearly lost her husband. She got clean for more than two years before relapsing with a vengeance. And she had left her body in a state where withdrawal meant sleeping for days amid coughing, sweating and shaking.
For Peratt, now 60 and sober since March 3, 1996, sharing her life story with News Watch was a painful and surrealistic experience, marked by moments of embarrassed laughter but more often tears of regret and guilt.
Obtaining and holding onto sobriety has not been easy. For three years, she refused to eat in restaurants where alcohol was served, even though drink was not her main addiction. She studied, went to church, worked in treatment and reestablished loving relationships with her husband, children and now grandchildren. She reminds herself that she is always one hit or injection away from catastrophe.
Peratt is now a counselor at Keystone Treatment Center in Sioux Falls. She has been married for nearly 45 years to her husband Al, well known in South Dakota as “Pastor Al,” the church and prison minister who was pardoned of his felony drug crimes in 2011 by President Obama.
Teresa Peratt wants people in the throes of addiction to know that they can recover and live happy and fruitful lives, and that they can absolve themselves of the guilt and pain of prior trauma. She believes that letting Jesus into one’s heart can build emotional bonds with others and lead to the realization there is something greater and more powerful than oneself.
Peratt believes she is an effective counselor because she understands both the destructive power of drugs and the damage done by reliving trauma that won’t heal.
“I always wanted to alter my reality in extreme ways, because I never got high or drank for fun or social reasons. I did it just completely to numb out,” she said. “I had a tremendous inability to have empathy or compassion or any kind of real feelings.”
Looking back on her own struggles to be a good parent while addicted, Peratt said she has come to grips with the fundamental ways in which drugs, particularly meth, altered her moral compass and inhibited her maternal instincts.
“I was completely self-focused; it’s why I continued to use when I was pregnant, because I couldn’t think of anything but the addiction,” Peratt said. “Meth gave me energy, and I could stay on top of my mothering, but the emotional capacity is completely absent. You can make breakfast and get your kids off to school, but you can’t be genuinely emotionally present with a child, and that’s the crime in that.”
Once sober, it took some time for Peratt to understand the damage she had done to herself and others, and to end the rationalizing and denial that accompanied her addiction.
“Meth for me, meth screamed in my head so loud 24/7 that even if I went to 12-step meetings, or tried to do something different, the loudness of the craving, the insanity of meth addition, it just screamed in my head,” she said. “That’s the thing with meth, it doesn’t give you room for anything else.”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.