STACEY SOLT/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Lauren Daderko Buscher sits outside of her mother's Lansford home. She is now a successful businesswoman living in California, but just a few years ago was struggling to overcome an addiction to heroin.
When you speak with Lauren Daderko Buscher, her smile lights up a room.
On the surface, Buscher could be considered a successful young woman. Just 35, she owns Body Rehab, a nutrition, fitness and boot camp business in California. She is also a newlywed with an adorable 7-month-old son.
What you won't see is the Lansford native's uphill battle for this successful life. Buscher overcame a long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. She has been sober and drug-free for five years.
"Before I got sober, I knew that some people in my situation had stopped using drugs or alcohol. But I thought I would be trapped forever. I really couldn't see myself being able to stop," she said, noting that she hopes sharing her story will encourage other addicts to get help.
"I went from a college graduate with a master's degree to homeless in Philadelphia. That's where it will take you," she said. "That's where it will take everyone, if they do it long enough."
"It seemed normal"
This country has a serious drug and alcohol problem. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 45 percent of high school seniors have tried marijuana at least once, and 23 percent have used it in the past month. More adolescents have admitted to using marijuana than to smoking cigarettes.
Prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse also remains popular. While underage drinking has decreased, nearly half of high school seniors have consumed alcohol in the past month.
Buscher began experimenting with alcohol at 13. She was found drinking in the woods with a friend and received a stern talk from area police.
"I didn't recognize it as a problem," she said. "It seemed normal, having a drink on the weekend. But not at the age of 13. That's not normal."
Her mother, Louisa Sarge, thought that drinking alcohol was just a phase, something most teenagers will try. She saw her daughter excel in school and socially and thought there was nothing to worry about.
"We're from the coal regions. You go through a period of time when kids will get in a car and go to drink," said Sarge. "At the time, I was totally naive. I never used drugs, so why would my kids? No one around me used drugs. I just never thought that my kids would, either."
Over the next decade, Buscher would graduate high school and continue on to college. She earned a master's degree and began working in a local school as a physical education teacher. But her success was hiding the fact that an early brush with alcohol had turned to experimenting with marijuana, then cocaine and prescription pills. By 2005, her drug of choice would be heroin.
That year Buscher hit an all-time low. She was arrested for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia and driving under the influence. She eventually lost her job and teaching credentials.
"I lost everything my job, my health insurance, and any means to get help," she said, noting that this is a common pattern. Without health insurance, it can be difficult for addicts to afford help, even if they do want to get better. Buscher moved in with Sarge in Lansford, admitting she had a drug problem but making no attempt to change.
"It was horrible, living a nightmare like that," says Sarge. "You're wondering if when you walk into her bedroom, if she'll be alive." She noticed strange things around the house, like silverware turning black from being used to dissolving heroin over high heat. She was also missing money and blank checks.
It would take the efforts of her entire family to get Buscher help. Sarge contacted the producers of the A&E Network series "Intervention," asking them to stage a professional intervention and save her daughter from drugs and alcohol.
The 45-minute episode, which aired in 2008, featured Buscher's attempts to deny her problems with drugs and alcohol and a slow fall into oblivion, moving from occasional drug user to suicidal drug addict.
The episode ended with the intervention, in which her parents, sister and family members read letters sharing good memories of Lauren before drugs, and asked her to accept help.
The intervention was organized by a licensed interventionist, who encouraged the family to offer Buscher a choice: go to rehab immediately and accept help, or lose everything. Family members promised to call law enforcement and cut off all contact and support if she refused.
Buscher chose to go to rehab that day. She attended detox at the Pat Moore Foundation and a 90-day treatment session at the Oasis Treatment Center in California, learning to deal with the physical and emotional effects of drug addiction and withdrawal.
She realizes now that tough love was probably the only way she could have broken her addiction.
"People like myself, we need to be put in a large amount of pain," she said, adding that if a person with an addiction has food, shelter, and access to money, they don't need to get better. Taking away those necessities was the only way she would accept help.
"You need to be at the bottom, in the worst possible situation, so that the only place to go is up. Nothing changed for me until (my family) turned their backs on me.
"If I said no and took off, things were going to get worse. I knew that things were already pretty bad," she added. "That moment of clarity, plus a few ultimatums, got me to go."
The intervention offered her a brighter future. It may have also saved her life. While in rehab, her childhood friend died from a heroin overdose.
Setbacks and relapse
After spending three months in rehab, she found work as a counselor at a nearby treatment center. It was a good fit for her, but she still hadn't been forced to deal with the real world outside of recovery.
She would be thrust into everyday life after losing her job at the rehab center. Buscher was devastated by the loss of her job, recovery friends, and support system. That day, she took her first drink of alcohol in a year.
"Almost immediately, that nasty person in my head came out," she said. She quickly returned to alcohol and prescription drug abuse, and within three weeks was using heroin. But this time, there would be no slow fall into self-destruction: it took just a few weeks before she was incarcerated for six days.
"As soon as I took that first sip of alcohol I thought, 'what did I do?' I lost everything again, and quickly," she said. "Relapse doesn't have to happen, but it does. It's not easy to get back out of."
Buscher immediately went through the steps she had learned in rehab. The physical craving of drugs might be back, but she now had the tools to deal with them.
"I did everything that they told me to do. I did not lie, I did not cheat, I did not steal," she said. "Everything that I had learned came back fairly quickly."
Turning a corner
Buscher has been sober and drug-free for five years since her last relapse. She is busy building a new life and a new family, but makes educating others about drug addiction a priority.
"I stay involved with treatment centers, especially the center I was in. I like to help people out as much as I can," she said, noting that she hopes her story helps others facing a drug addiction. She also speaks regularly with teens, parents and college students and is a trained interventionist.
"By doing the things that I did, I was just giving my life away. I found myself under a huge mountain of horror," she said, noting that in one year she lost her job, her apartment, and faced serious legal problems.
"You can't see the light."
She continues to deal with loose ends relating to her addiction, including pleading guilty last year to a DUI charge from 2005. She was unable to get a job because of pending criminal charges on her record, and had to forge her own path and become a business owner to earn a living.
"It's a consequence of my actions. I don't have anybody to blame but myself," she said.
While she considers herself on a successful, productive path, it's not the life she imagined living. She still has days when it's tempting to turn back to drugs, but realizes that this is not an option and strives to remain sober.
"If I gave in to the urge, I'll go from having a life to being a jerk," she said. "It will not fix my problems. It will just make them worse."
Perhaps more importantly, she has a new family to think about. It's difficult to maintain relationships with loved ones when you're focused on a drug addiction, and she values her relationship with her husband and son more than the temporary relief drugs might offer.
"I have a little boy. How could I ever go back and still be able to take care of him?" she asked. "Now that I'm a mom, I can see how hard it was for my mom to turn her back on me. Parents will love their kids to death," she added, noting that an addict will never get better without tough love from family members.
Today she is able to look back on her struggles with hope for the future. Perhaps the first corner she turned was in the first 30 days of rehab, when she became aware of just how beautiful life can be without the fog of drugs or alcohol.
"I realized that the sun was shining," she said. "There were little birds hopping around. It was almost like I woke up and thought, 'Where have I been?'"