More than 25 years after being pressed into a life of addiction and prostitution, Ann Battle thinks she may have found a better path.
Battle, 38, says she was only 11 when an adult she doesn't want to identify rented her out to support his own drug habit. Soon, she was trying heroin herself, acquiring a taste for narcotics that later drove her to sell sex on the streets. Along the way, she contracted HIV.Now, after numerous attempts at drug rehabilitation, Battle is celebrating four months of sobriety and contemplating starting treatment for HIV. She lives in a transitional house with women facing similar struggles and is a paid assistant on a van that shuttles rehab patients to medical appointments.
"It's a blessing," she said of her progress. "It's truly a blessing."
Still, nothing is assured about her recovery. She has cycled through rehab many times before and is struggling to resist a trade that she says is as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
"Even though I'm clean and sober, I'm still addicted to prostitution, to getting clients," she said last spring after a previous stay at a treatment center. "Sometimes I think there's something wrong with my brain because I can't turn it off."
Battle has a world-weary face that often droops into a frown but is capable of breaking into a wide smile that puts people at ease. She has a soft voice but admits to a fierce temper that has caused her to strike out at people she loves.
Raised amid alcohol and drug addiction, Battle recalls a childhood cut short by abuse. She soon started using heroin and gave birth to the first of seven children when she was 12. None live with her today.
For years, Battle worked a stretch of West Baltimore Street and was often homeless. Sometimes, she stayed with a former customer whom she describes as one of the few men she knew who didn't expect sex in return.
It's been a dangerous life. Last spring, she staggered up the front stoop of YANA, a drop-in center on West Pratt Street, and said she had been beaten and robbed each of the previous two nights. One man threw her against a wall and stole $15.
Other attackers have been after sex, not money. Most have pretended to be "johns" but then forced themselves on her without using a condom.
"That's how I caught HIV," she said. "I'm not even sure who I caught it from." Nor is she certain that she caught the virus from an attacker. Battle said she had a "boyfriend" who paid her for sex, at some point revealing to her that he was infected.
Last year, he died of AIDS.
Battle learned she was HIV positive four years ago after giving a blood sample at a city Health Department van that offered shopping vouchers as an incentive to get tested.
Still, she continued a lifestyle centered on selling sex for drugs. An entry in her medical records at Healthcare for the Homeless described her as "living in an abandoned building, no income, no benefits," according to medical records she agreed to share. It also said "prostituting to support drug use and for housing. Intermittent condoms."
Last March, she entered a treatment program in Park Heights. There, she endured vomiting and convulsions as the last traces of heroin left her system. She spent hours in group therapy and rose at 4 a.m. to begin chores.
Emerging from the live-in program with a glow that erased years from her face, Battle stayed clean for several days - walking past dealers who practically forced heroin samples into her hands.
A short time later, however, she succumbed not only to drug use but prostitution. "It's the contact with men, the feeling," she said. "Some are strangers. Some are men I know."
By late spring, her face had taken on a look of desperation, the product of nights spent in abandoned buildings and days begun with shots of heroin.
She found a spot in another program, Baltimore Behavioral Health, declaring that this time she was doing it for herself, not for others who had harped on her to stop using.
There, she again rode out the sickness of heroin withdrawal and graduated to a transitional house.
Battle said she's finally considering entering treatment for HIV, a move she has resisted in the past. She wonders whether the virus explains her propensity to catch colds that lead to pneumonia or the fatigue and body aches that she can't seem to shake.
Her halfway house is located in the heart of the Pennsylvania Avenue drug corridor, so staying clean will be a challenge. It won't be the only one.
Drug treatment experts say that addicts often return to prostitution before they relapse into drug use. For many women, it's the only way they've ever made a living.
There's an emotional pull as well.
"If you're a female who's been raped and raped so many times, your self-esteem is low and you've learned to be submissive to others," said Sharon Kearson, a group therapy leader at Baltimore Behavioral Health.
"Many want acceptance. And for many, it's the only way they've gotten acceptance all their lives."