THE LOW OF HIGHS
Facing jail, a drug-addicted grandmother struggles to stop using and start over
Before the September sun splashes through the bamboo shades, the pain strikes.
Down her right arm, her leg, her butt, her feet. Becky Clifford winces. It’s the nerve damage, the two ruptured discs and the 49 staples in her back.
Becky and her husband, Johnny, live with their friend in a quiet, 55-plus community in Belleview, a city in southern Marion County. But the man’s son is moving in, and he needs them gone in two days.
“We’ll wait to the last minute like we always do,” Becky says.
The couple, through a tumultuous 32-year marriage, ran through $98,000 from a lawsuit and lost their house, their cars and Johnny’s job.
Today, she doesn’t bother with a bra. She puts on an oversized white T-shirt, and her brown hair sits in a messy ponytail atop her head.
Their roommate, a tall, stocky man, looks at Becky.
“What’s a matter?” he says, impassively. “You didn’t get your dope today?”
Becky wasn’t always a drug addict.
For five years, starting in 2005, she raised the first of her six grandchildren. When her kids were growing up, she worried. Her sons, J.C. and Ryan, were in and out of trouble for a slew of alcohol and drug-related charges.
Becky worked as a pharmacy technician until she ruptured two discs in her back carrying boxes at work. In 1998, doctors prescribed her oxycodone for the pain. In 2013, she lost her disability and insurance and was unable to fill the prescription. That’s when the 51-year-old started buying pills on the street.
Since 2005, the blue pills have gone from $5 to $30. Becky and Johnny, who use together, can only afford $20. On most days, they buy “H,” a cheaper derivative of heroin.
The Cliffords struggle. In their relationship. In their living situation. To find drugs to get through the day. And now Becky faces a minimum of 22 months in prison, for burglary charges.
Drifting in a small town in Marion County — a county where people are dying close to every other day from a drug overdose — Becky is desperate to survive in the face of addiction.
One source of pride for Becky: Her two sons are now clean. A source of frustration for her sons: They want their parents to do the same.
Becky and Johnny want to be clean. But they don’t know if their relationship can survive on sobriety alone. There are those, even in their own family, who say the Cliffords have made their own trouble. Sometimes, they see it that way, too. But then Becky talks about the pain.
“I wish I could be normal,” she says. “Until the next day … I’m hurting so bad and just miserable and crying; it out rules the fight for the pill — I gotta get it.”
Becky and Johnny lived in the same house in Belleview for 21 years. They owned a house in Lake Weir Gardens for nine before it went into foreclosure in 2012. Ever since, they’ve been drifters.
In one month, they’ve called three different places home. In late September, they returned to another friend’s property.
Essentially, the couple live outside. A small fan gives them some comfort, but the couple douse themselves with men’s cologne to keep the mosquitoes away. They wash with a hose. They burn their trash. Their laundry hangs on a line, and their bathroom is the great outdoors. At night, a family of raccoons scurries through their makeshift home.
Their friend, a bowlegged man with a silver ponytail trailing down his back, shares his property — a couple acres down a dirt road — with the couple. He lives in the small white trailer. Becky and Johnny live in his “barn” — really a wall-less structure, now filled with furniture from the house they lost.
When the couple stayed in the trailer, roaches fell on their heads. They prefer the barn.
“You wonder why I’m depressed,” Becky tells Johnny. She sits on a pink plaid pullout couch.
She had spent eight hours walking around Belleview. Her toes are swollen. Johnny buys them $20 of “H” and $10 of meth; a combination he says is “not highly recommended” but what he needs to stay awake.
“The Mexicans make it the best,” he says as he crushes “ice,” the glass-like meth crystals he mixes with powdered heroin.
He tosses Becky a package of Snowballs snack cakes.
Johnny laughs as Becky opens the package. “I haven’t seen these things in years,” he says. “I knew you’d like them.”
She takes a bite.
It’s the first food she’s eaten in three days.
When Becky and Johnny get high, they argue over how they’re going to buy drugs and where they’re going to get them. When they’re not together, they lose trust in each other. Johnny, a 51-year-old with blue eyes, dimples and a baby face, can’t sit still. It annoys Becky, whose words run together. The couple snorts heroin because it seems safer than shooting up, she says.
Becky knows people die from heroin cut with fentanyl, a painkiller more powerful than morphine. Years ago, she got fentanyl patches for her back pain. Months ago, Johnny did a three-day job repairing an old trailer and the owner gave them a rock of heroin as payment. It was too pretty and darker than normal — Becky joked about keeping it.
But when she snorted it, she gagged and threw up. She stayed sick for three days. The sour, metallic taste in the back of her throat told her the pretty rock was packed with fentanyl.
That is the closest she’s been to an overdose. If she had shot it up, she says it would have killed her.
Out of cigarettes and money, Becky wipes wispy bangs away from her face and sighs. She needs her oxycodone. Or her “H,” which leaves her nauseous, but pain-free. In the last year since she and Johnny made the switch to heroin, six of their friends have died of overdoses.
As she contemplates where to find today’s $20, her eldest son, the 10th in a generation of John Cliffords, pulls up to the wooden trailer in a red Dodge Neon.
“You got money I can borrow, J.C.?” she calls from the porch.
“I have 20 bucks,” he says.
“We getting cigarettes?” she asks.
Becky’s son J.C., a lanky man with a shaved head, drives to the gas station on the corner. In the back seat, Becky lights a menthol L&M cigarette.
J.C. has been sober nearly a year now and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse and addiction counseling. But when he sees his mother, he occasionally gives her money for drugs — just to spend a little time with her.
He says he worries that one day he’ll lose his parents to addiction.
It’s either it destroys your life, or you’re in so much pain you want to kill yourself.
Back home, Becky pulls out a yellow saucer, unfolds the corners of the tin foil and lets a tan powder spill onto the plate. She breaks the heroin up with a Winn-Dixie card. Two lines. One for her, one for Johnny.
“Not like he would leave one for me,” she says.
If he were here, they’d fight about whose line is bigger. She snorts the first line through a short straw.
“Woo-wee! That was a strong one.”
Nausea settles in. “That means it’s good,” she says.
When Johnny gets back from his work repairing trailers, his asthma acts up. He blows his nose and coughs violently into a tissue.
“There goes half that,” he says with a chuckle, showing his wife the blue remnants of morphine on the tissue. “That shit don’t stick.”
“John!” she says. “So you don’t need that little line of heroin I got in there, do ya?”
“I wish you did have one,” he says.
“It’s in the drawer — be careful, it’s on the plate,” she calls.
Wired on meth and heroin, Johnny cuts pieces of carpet for the barn. He rolls out electrical wire. He washes all the dishes with a hose.
Becky, on heroin, gets drowsy. She sniffs constantly. She fights with Johnny. She drinks from the hose to remedy her dry mouth and chapped lips.
She spritzes herself with Chanel No. 5, a perfume she found during one of her many trips to the Belleview dumpsters. The couple finds everything they need in the dumpster, Johnny says. What they don’t need, they sell. Becky cleans their haul. The couple sometimes finds cold, packaged food in the Winn-Dixie dumpster. Once, the two found canned raviolis. They lasted months.
“I don’t get too attached to things, it’ll be here one day and sold the next,” Johnny says. He pauses and says to no one in particular, “One day, we’ll be normal again.”
That night, they hit several thrift stores in Belleview, hunting in dumpsters for donations that didn’t make the cut.
“Anything’s worth a dollar,” Becky says. Five dollars will get her a line of heroin. They know an older man who will buy anything, and he’s never asked Becky why she needs the money.
Outside The Shepherd’s LightHouse thrift store, Becky hoists herself into the red dumpster and starts digging.
“I’m working here,” she says, tossing out Tupperware without lids.
“Ain’t no good unless you got the lids,” her husband says.
Broken glass slices Becky’s finger. As it bleeds, she continues to dig. Coffee mug, no cracks. Speakers. Beads for the grandkids. An amplifier. Disposable diapers. A stereo. Brand new Nikes. A watch. As the couple works, the sky turns pink and a train rumbles past, shaking the ground.
Holding up a sweatshirt with a Gator logo, Johnny smiles. “I’m gonna wash the shit out of that and use it,” he says, folding it and putting it in a box, “‘cause I’m not proud.”
As they leave, Becky sighs.
“And to think, I used to be a normal housewife.”
On the drive home, Becky points out local shops where she pawned their stuff in 2012 to pay the bills. Johnny was in jail at the time, for charges related to driving under the influence. They’d sold their white Ford Explorer the following year to pay $600 rent.
The couple stops at a Kangaroo convenience store. Becky wants menthol cigarettes.
“Just get the cheap cigarettes,” Johnny begs.
“Why get cigs when you can’t enjoy them? Maybe I’ll give a blow job and get some,” she jokes.
“Oh, that’s real pretty talk, Becky.”
They buy two fountain sodas and come up short for 305’s cigarettes. The woman behind the register charges the extra 69 cents to her own card.
Becky says she never imagined their life to be the way it is now. In high school, Becky was a cheerleader at Lake Weir, east of Belleview; Johnny was the class clown. They went four wheeling and got drunk at the drive-in movie theater. After two months of dating, she got pregnant at 18. A couple months later, they married for $27 at the Marion County courthouse. Becky wore a turquoise dress covered in white dog hair; Johnny still had braces.
They raised their two kids. Her sons, J.C. and Ryan, now 32 and 29, say Becky was a good mom. She smoked and drank and fought with Johnny. But there was a lot of love, they say. Becky worked for three months at K-Mart every year to make sure they had a good Christmas.
After nearly 15 years of addiction, J.C. got sober over a year ago. He remembers his lowest moment: in his late 20s, living with his mom in their foreclosed home. No power, no running water. Shooting up by candlelight.
Ryan got sober over three years ago after spending almost six years in prison, on and off, for drug-related charges. His nickname, the “Clifford runner,” came because he ran from law enforcement. Now, he runs the family’s auto repair shop.
In the midst of his addiction, Ryan remembers walking into a store, stuffing a DVD player down his gym shorts and walking out. He sold it for crack cocaine.
While using, the boys pawned their mom’s tennis bracelet. Her diamond necklace. The family’s go-karts. When they got clean, they tried intervening in their parents’ drug use. They drove them to rehab. But nothing worked.
Johnny first dabbled with marijuana and cocaine in the ’90s. But shortly after that, he got into a car accident when a grapefruit hauler slammed into the back of his truck. He ended up with a herniated disc, he says. That’s when he started using pain pills.
Becky didn’t use hard drugs until she was 36. She was at a party with Johnny when she first tried cocaine. Back then, she weighed 206. Now, she’s 123, her face hollow and her jeans sagging.
Red Hots rotted some of her teeth, she says. A seven-year crack binge and nerve damage destroyed the rest. All that’s left in her mouth are 22 pieces of teeth.
One morning in 1998, after working her job as a pharmacy technician, Becky woke up and couldn’t stand. Two surgeries left her with nerve damage, a six-inch scar down her back and a metal spinal cage. In 2005, she was awarded $98,000 in a lawsuit to pay for her prescription and surgery. The money was gone in four months. She hasn’t worked a job since.
With the boys grown and their drug use intensifying, Johnny and Becky’s relationship hit the rocks. She said he cheated on her. When she disappeared to get high, he said she cheated on him. High on crack cocaine, he threw a skillet at her and sliced her head open.
Becky says she still loves Johnny, but, “there’s so much hurt, I’ll never forget it.” She starts to cry and quickly wipes her tears.
It’s the start of October and Becky says she does not want to get out of bed. They have moved again, this time to a white camper owned by a family friend. They pay $100 a week, but if Johnny works on the vehicles on the property and Becky does yard work, money is taken off rent.
Becky decorates the camper with framed pictures, sheep figurines and other treasures from the dumpster. She stocks the fridge with cheese sticks and frozen pizzas thrown away at a Winn-Dixie dumpster. But she fears losing their camper. She has a court date on the 26th.
In April 2015, Becky was charged with burglary. That day, she was riding in the car with a friend when she saw a package on the front door of a home in Lake Weir Gardens. The owner’s security footage shows a tan Chrysler pulling into the driveway. Becky can be seen walking to the front door and picking up the cardboard package — an oil extractor valued at $53.77. She got $20 for the package and spent it on gas and cigarettes. The next day, deputies arrested Becky.
The case is her first criminal offense, aside from a 2013 charge for driving on an expired license. Now, Becky faces a minimum of 22 months in prison. Prosecutors offered her 60 days in jail with three years’ probation, but she declined. When she was arrested, she spent 15 days in jail, she says.
She doesn’t want to go back. Every day, her mom calls from her home in Lakeland. The thought of Becky overdosing scares her. The thought of Becky going to prison scares her.
Becky wonders if Johnny will wait for her. She waited for him, she says, when in 2012 he was sent to jail for six months. She stayed high the whole time.
“I stood with you through the needle in your arm when your arm blew up,” Becky tells Johnny before her pretrial hearing. “When you have a wife, you stay with her unconditionally.”
Johnny won’t divorce Becky while she’s in jail, he says.
I’ll always love her, no matter what happens… But our relationship is just so damaged.
If Becky is convicted, Johnny plans to stay at the camper and save money working his new job as a farm mechanic, bringing an average of $75 a day. He wants to work to pay off court fees to get his driver’s license back. He hopes to save for a future.
“With or without her.”
At her hearing, Becky sits in the back. She folds her hands in her lap and looks straight ahead, waiting. She’s wearing her new black pantsuit and a vest. She scratches nervously at the red, nervous welts on her arm. She scratches until she bleeds through her blouse. Her makeup is done, and her hair is clipped back, two curly tendrils falling down her face. Johnny didn’t come home last night, Becky says. He sits on the opposite side of the courtroom, in brown Converse high tops and jeans.
Becky watches as an inmate in a red-and-white striped jumpsuit talks to Judge Robert Hodges.
“I don’t think I’ll look good in red and white,” she whispers.
Her name is called, and she stands next to her public defender. The prosecuting attorney recently filed a motion to allow Becky’s arresting officer to testify in her trial over Skype.
“Do you object?” the judge asks.
Becky’s lawyer doesn’t.
“Do you understand that if you get convicted, you’re facing a minimum of 22 months?” the judge asks Becky.
“Do you understand you’re on tape?”
Becky asks her lawyer if she can speak to the judge, but the public defender silences her. She will appear in court again Jan. 11 for another pretrial conference.
Back home, Becky feeds her new cat, a Calico with yellow eyes she named Tabby. She found the cat at her dealer’s house when a group of men abused the skinny feline and tossed her over a fence. She snatched the cat up, gave her a bath and pulled three fleas from her fur.
Becky bends down to feed Tabby dinner.
“I hope Johnny will take care of her while I’m in jail.”