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Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch Celeste Pierce is the first woman in the WEAR program.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a periodic series of articles examining the lives of people who have battled with addiction to drugs.

HUNTINGTON - With more than a year of extensive supervision, counseling and treatment, drug court is harder to complete than a prison sentence for most. While many addicts in the program have varying stories, they all seem to start the same. Celeste K. Pierce, the first woman to enter Cabell County's WEAR program, is no different.

Pierce was the first woman accepted to the Women's Empowerment and Addiction Recovery program, which was added in November as an extension to the Cabell County Drug Court.

With three prostitution convictions and a misdemeanor drug conviction at 37, Pierce finally started the path to recovery from addictions she said started when she was just a teenager.

The downward spiral

Pierce, who is now more than seven months sober, said she was 16 when she took her first drink of alcohol.

"(I) and one of my girlfriends went out with two older guys and they had beer and we got drunk," she said. "The very first time I drank I got drunk."

She said she started taking small Lortab pain pills, but as her tolerance grew she took stronger pills.

Pierce said she would steal pain pills and Xanax from her mother. When she could not afford the pills, she moved on to injecting heroin. At her mother's funeral, she said she did heroin in the bathroom.

In 2006, Pierce enlisted in the National Guard, one of her proudest moments, but she lost her military career after four and a half years, and her life went downhill from there. She started working as a stripper in Huntington. After losing that job, she started prostituting on Huntington's 6th Avenue.

She said it was easy money, and some of the men who came to her were nice.

"They (were) just having family issues, their wives won't listen to them or their wives are sick and can't do nothing," she said.

But she still had worries as some men tried to hurt or rob the prostitutes. She also ran the risk of getting arrested, a lesson she learned very early.

"The very first time I got into a car (it) was Corporal Craig Preece, an undercover cop," she said. "(That) should have taught me (it would be) better not to do it."

She said it was even more embarrassing when Preece took her to Det. Paul Matovich, her sergeant in the National Guard, for processing.

She was sentenced to 60 days in the Western Regional Day Report Center and failed four drug tests during that time. She left the center, but a year later, she was picked up again and was sentenced to the day report center for six months. She left after two months, but was soon arrested again and put in jail. When she got out, the first thing she did was call her dealer from the parking lot.

The situation became dire for her when she attempted to take her life, believing death would be better than jail. She was admitted to River Park Hospital where she received medication and therapy until she was transferred to the Women's Healing Place in North Carolina.

Pierce spent six months in treatment before returning to Huntington where she once again started using after a court date was rescheduled. Pierce said she missed the next hearing because her sister was in the hospital and dying of bone cancer.

Pierce washed her sister's matted hair as her sister gave Pierce her dying wish.

"She said 'Celeste, I know I am dying. I wish you would go into detox and rehab,'" Pierce said. "So I did."

Getting better

This past April, as she battled with depression and addiction, Pierce checked back into River Park Hospital. She said she has remained sober since then.

River Park sent her to a program in Beckley. She said her father dropped her off on April 27 and told her not to come back because he was embarrassed of her being arrested. Her sister died two days later.

She said she failed a drug test three weeks into the program, and an arrest warrant was issued, though she said she had proof the medicine was prescribed to her. She was arrested May 22 and was not released until Aug. 14. That is when her recovery started to progress.

Today, she is part of the WEAR program, which is designed specifically for women who are involved in prostitution to support a drug habit. It follows the same one-year model as drug court. She goes to meetings every day and has a job for the first time in years. Her father sometimes attends meetings with her.

She credits her sobriety to various people, including those who arrested her.

" Paul Matovich, I resented him," she said of the detective who once arrested her. "I really did. Today I give him credit for my life."

Huntington Police Officer Dakota Dishman, who arrested her the day before her birthday in 2014, gave her a personalized Bible and highlighted his favorite verses for encouragement.

She credits Josh Parlier, a drug court probation officer, Huntington Police Sgt. Ernie Blackburn, and Necia Freeman, who runs the Brown Bags and Backpacks outreach ministry that provides meals and hope to prostitutes, for helping her get to where she is today.

"God put her in my life for a reason," Pierce said of Freeman. "It's good to have that rapport with people like that; people who aren't there to be jerks, but are actually there to save somebody's life."

Pierce now attends church with Freeman and has found, what she says, is a God of her understanding.

Rebuilding relationships

What Pierce said she is the most excited about is mending her relationship with her father and family. Pierce comes from a family of eight children, seven sisters and one brother.

"My dad told me he was proud of me," she said. "He told my parole officer he was proud of me. He shook Ernie and Paul's hands and smiled and said, 'Thank you for saving her life.'"

Pierce said she truly understood how her dad felt when she was listening to Michelle Perdue, project coordinator of the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, speak about losing a loved one when President Obama spoke in Charleston in October.

"I was lying on Dad's couch and I looked at him and said, 'Daddy, is that how you felt?' He said, 'Celeste, the only thing that didn't happen that could have happened is that you aren't dead.' He loves me unconditionally, and why? I don't know."

Pierce said she spent her first holiday in seven years with her family over Thanksgiving after accepting an invitation from one of her sisters. She said it was a big step in the program.

"I've put my family through a lot. It's hard to sit there and hear the pain and misery you've put someone you're very close to through, but pain is growth and if it hurts and you don't want to do it, it's because you should do it," she said.

Pierce has new goals for her future, like getting her own home and paying off her debt to the court. She said she did not dream big outside her realm because she has to continue her process to set a good example for the future women of WEAR.

"Statistically, I'll have another relapse. Statistically, I probably won't make it back. I know that and I know I don't have another recovery in me," she said. "I have to live in the moment. I can't regret the past, but I can't live in the future either. The simple fact (is that is) grounds for relapse, and I really am not in the mood to relapse today."

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/HesslerHD and via Twitter @Hessler_HD.

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