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Shedding her mask: Rekha Luther hopes to one day help others in recovery

  • Rekha Luther in her Manchester home last month. She lives with her father and has been concentrating on her recovery through a twelve-step program as well as other spiritual practices. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther prays at Manchester Christian Church on Wellington Road last month. The church is close by and she attends with her mother. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther stands outside the Manchester Christian Church on Wellington Road on Sunday.

  • Rekha Luther sits in her home in Manchester last month. She lives with her father and has a job and her recovery takes most of her time and energy. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Flashing her signature smile, Rekha Luther wears it as her true self now after nine months of sobriety. Luther can celebrate her two grandnephews Jenai, right, and Jaiden with her niece Sanam Qureshi at her parents’ home in Manchester on Wednesday, July 31, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther says she understands she must take it one step at a time and prioritize her own needs before extending a hand to others seeking help. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Now sober for nine months, Rekha Luther is focusing on her recovery and the joys of family life with her two new grandnephews Jenai, and Jaiden with her niece Sanam Qureshi at her parents’ home in Manchester on Wednesday, May 31, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther focuses on recovery after her jail release with daily mediations at her favorite spot at Lake Massabesic near her home in Manchester on Wedneday, May 31, 2018. Luther has also joined a church nearby. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther focuses on recovery after her release from prison with daily meditations at her favorite spot on Lake Massabesic near her parent’s home in Manchester. Luther, the former Pembroke Academy dean of students, has also joined a nearby church. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Rekha Luther focuses on recovery after her jail release with daily mediations at her favorite spot at Lake Massabesic near her home in Manchester on Wedneday, May 31, 2018. Luther has also joined a church nearby. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Monday, June 04, 2018

The mask Rekha Luther used to conceal her opioid addiction has slowly lifted. Now, she recognizes how she hid behind her infectious smile and affable personality, hoping to keep her daily struggles from public view as the dean of students at Pembroke Academy. All the while, she was injecting heroin behind closed doors.

“I’m just now understanding who I am because I’ve worn a mask for so long,” Luther, a once successful educator, said from the living room of her parents’ Manchester home. “I’m learning that I don’t have to be strong all the time, and that I don’t always have to have a smile on my face. I’m learning that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Nine months sober, her desire to use is gone, but she recognizes the difficult road ahead to achieve lifelong recovery. Staying on the right path is a daily fight, one that recently intensified with the court process behind her and her jail sentence now served.

She is one of the many faces of a drug epidemic that has scorched New Hampshire, leaving a path of death and broken families. Luther, 39, is emblematic of what experts have said for years – this plague of addiction cuts across all socioeconomic classes and education levels. Luther, who has her master’s degree, earned a $73,000 annual salary, but like so many others, she was controlled by a dependence on opioids that started with prescription pills.

Admitting to difficult days does not come easy for Luther, especially after she became so accustomed to putting on a brave face while secretly in the throes of her addiction. Her recovery counselors have taught her that she must proceed cautiously and prioritize her recovery before she can achieve her end goal of helping others do the same.

“I feel like I have to fight even harder sometimes to stay in recovery because my family says, ‘Okay, jail is behind you, court is behind you, so you’re cured. You’re recovered.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh no, no. I am still very sick.’ I have to say, ‘Do you not see that I got into this addiction when I was doing what looked like the right thing,’ ” Luther said. “Social acceptability does not equal recovery. Let’s face it, I was socially acceptable. I had a career in a very public area and I was still an addict.”

Exposed

When police arrested Luther on Feb. 17, 2016, she was living her dream as an educator. She was the newly-appointed dean of students for Pembroke Academy, a high school that serves Allenstown, Chichester, Epsom and Pembroke.

That morning, her boss had told her “what a great job I was doing.” She had routinely begun her days early and stayed late, hoping that if she was a model employee, no one would see beyond the public facade.

But on that day, her public and private worlds collided. Police officers found fentanyl in her desk and testosterone propionate in her car parked at the high school. She was immediately placed on paid administrative leave.

Luther had misplaced a small plastic bag of hypodermic needles that had, without her knowledge, fallen behind a drawer in her teaching desk. In a panic, she told school administrators she had found the bag in the hallway. She said she had placed it in her makeup pouch, gone into the bathroom to apply her makeup, and then returned to her classroom to secure the makeup case in her desk before a meeting. But when she returned, she found the needles missing, and therefore filed a report with the school’s headmaster.

“I think as addicts we are in such denial, so truly when that happened I wasn’t even panicking about myself getting in trouble. At that point, I was just petrified that there was paraphernalia and a student was going to get ahold of it,” Luther said. “Even after the arrest, the reality hadn’t sunk in because I was still in active addiction. I was convinced that nobody still knows I have this problem, and I’ll work it out.”

One month later, Luther was forced to submit her resignation. That’s when her addiction snowballed – she failed to appear in court multiple times because her only options were to show up high or sick. When a judge lost his patience, he sent her to county jail where she finally hit rock bottom.

Luther said she had worked hard to maintain some sense of order in her life because of her career. When she lost that, she lost all hope.

Addiction

The first time Luther used heroin she injected it intravenously. She was introduced to the drug after being kicked out of a pain clinic for abusing prescription painkillers.

Luther had suffered from a lymph node and skin disorder that required her to have several surgeries. Doctors tried every possible treatment over the course of several years only to find no clear cause or effective treatment. They told her the best thing to do was manage the pain with medication.

She told the pain clinic where she was referred that she did not want to take oral painkillers. Instead, she started on a fentanyl patch, but it burned her skin. She next tried Suboxone, but that too had its side effects, including a severe rash and irritation to her mouth. She was left with one option: prescription pills.

“It was a very quick progression,” she said.

The second time she admitted to overusing her pain medication, she was kicked out of the clinic. Then, she followed a predictable cycle for addicts: She turned to the streets for her supply. When her dealer was arrested, she didn’t know where to go; her network was limited.

“I met this guy and he said, ‘well, there is this other thing.’ In that moment if someone had said, ‘here is some cyanide, it’s going to make you feel better,’ I would have taken it.”

For roughly seven months, she shot up with the man who’d introduced her to heroin and with whom she’d begun a relationship. On the last day of her skin flare up, her partner died of a drug overdose. She knew little about how to inject heroin herself and so she turned to online videos to learn.

“I was by myself, behind closed doors, hating myself every step of the way. Literally, every single night I’d go to bed and say, ‘I’m not going to use tomorrow.’ ”

But each morning she’d wake up and use again. She knew she needed help but detoxing terrified her. She said she never considered herself suicidal but would have rather thrown herself in front of a bus than experience the withdrawals.

All the while, she worked her way up the ladder as an educator, having held a position in Nashua prior to advancing at Pembroke Academy. She said she was an “active addict” while working, and never felt comfortable asking her employer for help, in part, because of the stigma surrounding opioid abuse.

Rock bottom

Seventeen months after her arrest, Judge Richard McNamara ordered Luther to jail pending her acceptance into an inpatient treatment program. She had failed to appear for jury selection in Merrimack County Superior Court on July 10, and was taken into custody three days later on a court-issued warrant.

At her bail hearing, her father, Neville Pereira, pleaded with McNamara for help for his daughter.

“This drug does not discriminate,” Pereira said. “She is highly educated. She is a productive community member. She has done wondrous things in her community. The drug comes, it takes control.”

Luther had never made it more than a day without heroin, and she’d never spent any real time in jail. The only thing she feared more than detoxing was detoxing in jail. But that’s exactly what happened.

She was placed in a “dry cell” where prisoners are often housed if they’re suspected of having swallowed contraband. They don’t have access to plumbing facilities, such as a toilet or shower, to dispose of drugs, and therefore must use facilities outside the cell with supervision.

“I ended up in the emergency room three times during my first five days in jail in July because I was so sick and anxious, I’d pass out. When I passed out, I’d end up slamming my head against the cement, and it was causing me to have seizures.”

Luther said each time she had a spell, jail officials thought she had overdosed.

“That is when I said, ‘it can’t get any worse.’ For me, that was absolutely my bottom.”

Luther spent about 20 days incarcerated in Boscawen before she was transferred to a 28-day inpatient treatment program at the Phoenix House in Dublin. She said jail got her clean, but every single day she was inside she could not wait to leave and use again.

Clarity

Little did she know that it would be the kind words of a county sheriff’s deputy transporting her to rehab that would help set her on the right track.

“I know there are a lot of people saying bad things about you, but there are a lot of people who are rooting for you, too,” Luther recalled the deputy telling her.

Once at the Dublin treatment facility, he continued, “I’m going to let you take off your shackles now so you can walk in with your head held high.”

In that moment, Luther gave herself a day to see if she could make it through without relapsing. When she succeeded, she set a new goal for herself: another day. And then, one more.

Her desire to use heroin gradually began to fade. Her mind was clear for the first time as she met with people who understood her because they too had struggled. Strangers weren’t there to judge her or criticize her mistakes; rather, people who genuinely cared were there to embrace her.

“Just the relief of that burden alone allowed me to start to be myself and to heal,” Luther said. “If I’d left jail and come home, I would have returned to the same pressures.”

When Luther left the Phoenix House to begin her 90 days in transitional living, she was asked about her goals for the future. One word immediately came to mind: redemption. She wished that not only for herself but for her family, her former school and the community at large.

Higher calling

Not yet a year into her recovery, Luther understands she must take it one step at a time and prioritize her own needs before extending a hand to others seeking help. That’s been a hard reality for her to face as she now feels an obligation to give back and make right on her mistakes.

Education remains Luther’s passion, but her felony conviction for having drugs in a safe school zone prohibits her from returning to a traditional classroom. However, her time in the recovery community has opened new doors and ignited new dreams. She envisions mentoring young addicts in recovery and helping women access the resources they need to be successful long-term. She also isn’t ruling out a job in state government.

“I thought I’d destroyed my life, but I realize now that maybe this was really my calling. This is about saving lives. What higher calling could there be?”

Luther said that while she will always be an addict, the label doesn’t have to define or limit her. She acknowledges, though, that her progression must be slow and thoughtful.

She spends her week days doing interior and exterior painting for a company that hired her during her time in transitional living. At night, she attends meetings as a participant in a 12-step program, and she remains active in the Aware Recovery Program, which provides customized at-home treatment for recovering addicts throughout the state. In her down time, she meditates in nature and regularly attends local church services with her family.

“A lot of my time is spent with people in recovery. Probably part of that is a little bit of fear, but I’m working on that,” she said.

Her addiction and ongoing recovery brought her closer to her parents, with whom she now lives. Although she has no regrets, she wishes she could have spared them the years of pain and heartache. Her family struggles with the embarrassment of her case, which was compounded by the widespread media attention it received. Strangers were quick to say horrible things and to judge, she said.

Her hope for the future is a community better educated on the realities of addiction, and the breadth of people it affects.

“This could be someone in your family,” Luther said. “You never know who addiction is going to hit next.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)