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Jun. 4—MITCHELL, S.D. — Abandonment. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse.
For nearly 25 years, Millie Miller thought drugs and alcohol were the only respite from the effects of a childhood filled with sadness and pain constantly circulating her brain. Instead, it just zapped the light from her eyes.
While drugs numbed the pain, it created behavior that caused more heartbreak and devastation to those in Miller's life. The 44-year-old Miller sporadically broke the cycle, only to relapse and inflict the same pain on her own children. She just needed a reason to push her into sobriety for good.
Miller's three children were beginning to build families of their own and she was a non-factor in their lives. A bender and subsequent arrest changed everything.
For the first time, Miller attacked her addictions seriously, resulting in two-year sobriety and graduation from James Valley Drug Court in Mitchell, which she considers the biggest achievement of her life. Rather than only being reliable enough to be unreliable, she can be the steady presence her children long craved.
"At my lowest point, I was scared that I was going to die," Miller said. "At one point I tried committing suicide. It was a very unhealthy state of mind, compared to where I am now. I never knew what it was like to be truly happy like I do now."
Feelings of abandonment came early as a 5-year-old Miller was dropped off at St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain without prior knowledge. She eventually returned to Mitchell at 10 years old, but lived with an uncle who was a drug dealer and she witnessed pounds of marijuana on the table before leaving for school. She also saw her mother taking lines of cocaine off the same table.
During the same time period, Miller was sexually abused on more than one occasion. Yet, by the time she turned 18 years old, Miller only dabbled in marijuana. Three months after her first son was born, Miller was offered methamphetamine for the first time and she accepted.
Her initial addiction did not last long due to becoming pregnant again. But after having all three children, Miller was reintroduced and quitting did not come freely this time.
"It didn't take long at all to realize I was hooked on it," Miller said. "I was doing whatever I had to to get it — whether it was selling it or whatever. Back in 1999-2000, it came pretty freely to me. A lot of my friends were trying it and I knew a lot of people that were selling it. It made it even harder to stay away from it because it was everywhere."
Miller was heavily addicted to meth when her mother died in February 2005 and she was arrested for a third DUI, which resulted in a nine-month stay in prison. Through grief counseling, Miller was clean upon release and steered away from using for 11 years.
But during that time, Miller still smoked marijuana and drank heavily. In 2016, she had an alcohol-induced blackout and relapsed on meth. She immediately recognized the feeling of shame and guilt that comes using meth, but this time did not quit.
It masked scars from a toxic relationship and a recent rape. Growing up in a culture where speaking to the police was unacceptable, drugs were the next option in Miller's mind.
"It took me a few relapses to realize they were there for me and believed in me," Miller said. "When I realized they believed in me, it was something I wasn't familiar with because I didn't believe in myself. It took me a while to catch on."
By the time she was arrested again for a parole violation, Miller would go months without speaking to her children. They had grown up in the same environment that led to so much childhood pain.
Tired of waking up to the smell of cigarette smoke, beer cans scattered on the floor and people laying around in an attempt to sleep off the previous night, Miller's youngest son Davyen Garcia moved out at 16 years old.
"I couldn't recognize my mom," said Garcia, who is now 22 with a 10-month-old daughter. "She transformed into a person I never met or even realized that I know. She just sort of looked different, acted differently and treated me differently. There was a point when I was even around her or talking to her."
Miller had been ready to give up meth upon arrest, but was not able to find the strength singularly and was in a relationship that encouraged her addiction. An emotional phone call from one of her sons changed everything, because she could have been with him instead of making excuses to get high.
She went to an alcoholics anonymous in the early 2000s, but it never stuck. This time, though, court-mandated therapy and counseling focused on the trauma experienced as a child for the first time.
In order to graduate from drug court, Miller had to attend counseling, three AA meetings per week and maintain active employment. The biggest aid in her therapy was moral reconation therapy (MRT), which helped confront past actions, build moral standards and construct a positive identity.
"I didn't think I was worth it. I didn't think I had what it takes to make it," Miller said. "I thought my kids had been without me for so long because of my drug use and they had been without me numerous times when I went to jail — I didn't think they would miss me. I definitely went into this with the mindset that I was going to make it, but I did."
Now Miller wakes up with a feeling of happiness and she enjoys her job at Countryside Living retirement community. Oblivious to small aspects of happiness while using, Miller now soaks them in and is now active in the lives of her five grandchildren.
Miller's children now see her as reliable. Once skeptical of her bid for sobriety, they see the effort and the progress. In fact, Garcia sees it in her face.
"I realized she was sober and on that path when I saw life light up her face," Garcia said. "She looked like she had more life in her. Whenever you're around substance abuse, you can really tell."