JUNEAU, Alaska — Rayda Tegen had a husband, five children and a $40,000 a year job in Tooele, Utah, for the nearly 20 years she was clean.
It’s a stark change from where she sits now, wearing a yellow prisoner outfit and shackled in handcuffs inside a no-contact visiting room at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau.
“It wasn’t that I woke up one day and said, ‘I have a beautiful family, why don’t I screw that up?’” she said. “I didn’t say, ‘I have a beautiful marriage of almost 20 years, why don’t I throw that down the tubes?’ And I didn’t say, ‘I have a great job and a great life, I’m really sick of living like this.’ Some stuff happened, and I relapsed.”
Tegen, 46, is serving a three-year prison sentence for trying to bring about a pound of methamphetamine and heroin into Juneau. She was arrested at the Juneau International Airport.
If that makes her reviled in the capital city, which is battling an alarming and deadly heroin crisis, she wants you to know she feels the same way about herself.
“It’s a good thing I got arrested,” she said. “Because maybe someone would have died from something I brought in, and I couldn’t have lived with that. I couldn’t live knowing that I gave someone something that killed them.”
She added matter-of-factly, “Or, I could have ended up dead.”
Tegen’s story about why and how she turned to drugs and the battles she’s faced since is one that rings true of many drug addicts in Juneau, even though she’s not from Alaska. She’s wracked with guilt, remorse and embarrassment, and now must figure out how to go on as a convicted felon — in a state where she has no one.
“I would take it back in a second, I would take it back in a heartbeat,” she said, sober now for the year she’s been behind bars. “I lost everything, and I’m not talking financially — you lose that as well, but I lost my family. My kids still love me, I’m still a part of their life, but I destroyed the life we had.”
Back in Utah where she was running a Best Western motel in the mid-to-late-2000s, a police officer walked into her office and asked if she had watched the news on TV that day. She hadn’t.
He told Tegen that one of her son’s elementary school teachers had been arrested for molesting multiple students in his class. One of the victim’s was her son.
For Tegen, it was too much to handle. All of a sudden traumatic memories of her own childhood sexual abuse — perpetrated by a trusted family member, every summer since she was 8 years old until she was 13 — came rushing back.
“I thought I didn’t have problems with it,” she said. “I thought, you know, I’ve heard people say they have flashbacks, they have nightmares. I didn’t have any of that until my son got molested. Then I had flashbacks, I had nightmares.”
When Tegen learned about her son’s molestation she had been clean for 18 years, her former crack addiction well behind her. She began using the street drug at 16 years old.
The consequences of childhood abuse can have lasting negative psychological and metal health impacts, which can lead to hard drug use, alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, suicide attempts and eating disorders, all well into adulthood. Victims of child abuse and neglect are also more likely to commit crimes as juveniles and adults.
Tegen just recalls not caring about anything at that time and wanting to party. That’s how she met a guy — eight years older than she was at 16 — who introduced her to crack at a party.
She spent the next six years getting off of it, with help from her parents — both of whom are drug and alcohol counselors. She’s the sixth of eight children, raised just outside Salt Lake City.
She was able to get off drugs and was in a stable place by her early 20s. At 21, she met a man in the Air Force who had never used drugs; by 23, they were married. She never touched the stuff again.
“I married him, and I stayed clean for 18 years, 12 of them I didn’t smoke a cigarette,” she noted. “I didn’t even drink caffeine.”
But news of her son’s molestation shook Tegen, then 39, to the core. She went to see a counselor, who then referred her to a psychologist who prescribed her with two anti-depressants and sleep medication such as Ambien and Lunesta.
“Suddenly, I’m taking all these drugs, which are OK because it’s a doctor giving it to you,” she recalled.
Tegen said she made it through her son’s teacher’s legal proceedings — the teacher pleaded guilty and is serving a 30-year sentence, according to news reports — but shortly afterward, things fell apart. Her husband was deployed to Afghanistan, leaving her alone with her children. One night, she went out drinking with friends. One of them offered her methamphetamine and she tried it.
“And I loved it because guess what?” she asked. “I could stay up all night long. I could stay up for days and days and days, and I didn’t have to worry someone would come in our house and hurt me or our children while I was asleep.”
She smoked meth a couple more times that year, but things didn’t get too bad until 2010. Her husband had returned from overseas and they began having issues at home and decided to separate. She moved in with a person she had smoked meth with, a huge mistake she realized too late.
She began smoking meth regularly, touching off an addiction that would ravage her life for the next five years, landing her in jail multiple times, and in and out of treatment.
At the time she began using regularly, Tegen lived paycheck to paycheck — she had moved jobs and was working as the office manager of the Tooele County landfill, where she was in charge of hiring, firing and a $2 million budget. She’d buy drugs in bulk to make sure she never ran out. Sometimes, she’d sell it to her friends for cheap.
She was able to hold on to the county landfill job for about a year. Then, they announced they would begin drug testing. She resigned, knowing she would fail.
She continued using, even when her 11-year-old son found a baggie of drugs in her jewelry box, which led to a family confrontation.
“I remember the first year, and you would think that it would have stopped me, I remember so many times my kids saying, ‘We just want our old mom back,’” she said, crying. “That should have been enough to stop me.”
‘We are the unwanted’
At 41 years old, Tegen got her first criminal conviction since she was a teenager. She was driving in an unlicensed, unregistered vehicle and had a $200 warrant out for a few parking tickets she hadn’t paid. The police officer pulled her over, searched her car and found a baggie of drugs with residue in it, enough for a possession charge.
She spent six weeks in a Utah county jail, but only lasted two weeks in a court-ordered drug treatment program.
“It took me a month to find the way to that (detox) place that was 15 miles away,” she smiled, shaking her head. “I did stupid stuff that made myself end up in prison. They found a syringe in my jail cell, so then the judge just had enough of me. He was done. I was an idiot. And I deserved it.”
The judge gave her seven months in the slammer. When she was released, she found herself woefully unprepared for sober living.
“The whole time I was in there, all I could think was when I get out, I just want to hug my kids, I want to be home and cook some spaghetti, or you know, you think about everything you want, and life is going to be perfect the minute you get home,” she said.
Instead, she stayed in bed for days. Her kids worried, and told her they feared they would find her there dead.
“I was so depressed,” she said. “I kept thinking I wish I was back in prison! I was happier then.”
“Nothing prepares you for the fact that you’re going to get out, and you are now a loser,” she said with a straight face. “You’re a felon. People used to come to me offering me jobs. Nobody’s going to do that. Even worse, my children have friends whose parents no longer want them hanging out at our house because ‘she’s been to prison.’ Suddenly, you see yourself through other people’s eyes, and maybe even more critical than they do.”
In an interview at LCCC, she threw out a hypothetical: What if your sister came home, and said something like, “I just met this great guy! He works with me, and he’s been out of prison for eight months, and he’s doing really good.”
“What are you going to say?” Tegen asked. “You’re going to say, ‘Hell no, what is wrong with you?’ You’re going to slap her upside the head. We are the unwanted. You go to prison, you go to jail, everyone forgets you but the ones who truly loved you.”
Depressed after her stint in prison, Tegen began using again. After a while, she came clean to her kids (three of whom were grown, one who was still in high school, and the youngest in junior high) and told them she had relapsed. They rallied behind her, and the family moved to a small town in southern Utah, close to Tegen’s mother.
But things didn’t get better.
The school system found out that Tegen was a meth addict, and had left her 16-year-old daughter at home for two days alone while she traveled to northern Utah with one of her sons.
Tegen lost custody of her children. She said she didn’t feel like she had anything to live for anymore.
“I don’t even know how I survived the next two months after that,” she said. “I was doing massive amounts of drugs.”
She went on a “drug binge from one end of the state to the other” during that time in 2013, and eventually realized she was going to end up in prison again or dead. She took one of her brothers up on an offer to stay at his ranch in Oklahoma. It was there she got clean again.
But then, she got a call from an old friend — one who lived in Juneau with his two daughters. He was undergoing knee surgery. Would she mind coming up and helping him recover post-surgery?
Tegen arrived in Juneau with one of her sons. Long story short, her friend was using pills and she began using meth again. They got engaged, which was a bad idea, she said.
She began to realize she needed to leave Juneau, but she didn’t have any money left. An opportunity presented itself — someone offered her money to fly to Utah, pick up drugs and bring them back to Alaska.
It would have gone according to plan. With the drugs stuffed in her purse and in her bra (“I’m chesty, so they didn’t notice,” she said), somehow she made it through security in Utah and Sea-Tac.
But unbeknownst to her, someone else had been arrested four hours before she was and tipped the authorities off that Tegen would be importing drugs to Juneau that day.
Law enforcement officers were at the airport waiting for her. Her friend was waiting for her at the airport and watched. He later sold all her stuff and used it for drugs. Her 17-year-old son was stranded here. The family retrieved him shortly afterward.
At first, Tegen was in denial.
“I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll be out of here in a minute,’ … and then I realized I wasn’t going to be out of here in a minute.” she said of her time in jail. “It takes a little bit before you start thinking with a clear brain.”
Reflecting, behind bars
During an interview at Lemon Creek, it’s clear Tegen is smart, educated, charismatic and funny.
But she struggles with an overload of emotions. She said all addicts have a hard time loving themselves.
She said she feels guilty about what she put her family through, especially her children, whom she said she “exposed to a world they never should have been exposed to.”
“I’m 46 years old,” she said. “I mean, come on. You should have it all together by now.”
She has low self-esteem and is hard on herself. She refers to herself constantly as a “piece of crap” or a “s — head.”
Still, she’s also optimistic about her future. She writes and receives letters from her parents and children almost every day, talking to them on the phone when she can. Her family never shut her out.
“I’m lucky, I’m truly lucky I have family that is still reaching out to me, and is still willing to love me in spite of myself,” she said.
Tegen said now that she’s had time to reflect, she realizes she has a full-blown addiction, one that she will have to deal with for the rest of her life.
“If you put a dog in this room,” she said, “and you’ve starved them for two weeks and you put some rotten meat up there and you open the cage with that rotten meat sitting right there, what’s he going to do? He’s going to go eat that rotten meat. Even though it doesn’t smell good. That dog has been starving for two weeks. He’s going to tear apart anything in his way and go eat that. That’s what a drug addict is. That’s what it feels like.”
She said she’s confident she can stay clean — she’s done it before.
“I chose to use,” she said. “I can honestly say this: I really loved to get high. I really do, but I really love my kids. And so, I will just have to spend every day, for the rest of my life, fighting for my life.”