When Heather Spiker graduated recently, there was no cap and gown, no pomp and circumstance. But for the first time in her adult life, Spiker said, there was hope.
Spiker, 37, was one of nine people to complete Howard County's drug and DUI court program during a ceremony in District Court. The program was set up in 2004 to give nonviolent repeat offenders a chance to rehabilitate themselves rather than go - or return - to jail.
"We see them when they're sick, down and out," said Bobbie Fine, a former defense attorney and prosecutor who has coordinated the program since its inception. "This program saves the state money [in terms of incarcerations] and it's given these people a life, self-worth."
According to Fine, Spiker is one of the program's biggest successes.
It has given the Baltimore native an opportunity "at life" after years of what she described as an addiction to alcohol and drugs - including heroin - that resulted in nearly two dozen arrests since 2000 and as many incarcerations of varying lengths in detention centers throughout the state.
Asked when she was in jail, Spiker said, "When wasn't I in jail?"
Through court order, Spiker said, she spent 15 months getting treatment, first at the Shoemaker Center in Sykesville and later at The W House, a Hagerstown residential halfway house for women in the early stages of drug-addiction recovery.
She has reunited with her two sons, ages 18 and 14, whom she said she hadn't seen in five years because of her addiction.
The celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas this year have special meaning to Spiker, who spent many previous holidays either in jail or homeless.
"Holidays and having family around, and friends and a network and being on the way to recovery, that's a pretty special thing," she said. "You're really in touch with reality and spirituality and just with life. When you get all of that back, and you have time for love, it's a pretty special thing."
Though Spiker twice relapsed after starting the program after an arrest in Howard County in 2007 for possession of heroin, she said that the difference between this program and others she had been at came from the compassion she felt from District Court Judge Neil David Axel and the support she received from Fine and others involved.
"It wasn't just to lock me up and throw away the key," Spiker said. "I would get arrested and there was no help available, at least not through any kind of court. When I reached this program, it was like they had faith in me way before I had faith in myself. This is a hard program to go through, especially for an addict. Structure is what I needed."
The program is set up to take a year, but Fine acknowledge that many, including Spiker, take longer because of their continuing battle with drugs and alcohol.
"It's very difficult to say to somebody, 'From this day on, you'll never use [drugs or alcohol],' " Fine said. "You won't say they will [relapse], but there's a good chance they may. We don't throw them out the first or second time if they're doing everything else that we require of them."
As for Spiker, who was chosen as the program participant to speak at the graduation ceremony, Fine said, "We knew how hard Heather was trying, and she proved us right. We had faith in her, we thought she could do it. She had been doing so well, when she did relapse. But she had the determination. We didn't want to give up on her."
Spiker said that her problems with addiction began shortly after graduating from high school in Woodstock, Va., where she had gone for her senior year after leaving Catonsville because her mother was having her own problems with an addiction that would eventually kill her.
"She died in my arms when she was 44," Spiker said.
Returning to Baltimore, Spiker got a job doing clerical work, but to earn extra money, began bartending on The Block. Spiker said that the bartending job led to her becoming an exotic dancer and later a prostitute. Her first arrest came when she tried to buy drugs while she was a prostitute.
"The last 10 years were pretty crazy," she said. "I lived on the streets in Baltimore. I worked Wilkens Avenue, Washington Boulevard, all those areas, for years. I lived in abandoned houses, in alleys in the summer, wherever I could. I was going in and out of jails and institutions."
Kerri Robinson, the lead addiction counselor at The W House, said that Spiker had "hit rock-bottom" when she arrived and was "ready to surrender, knowing that she was totally powerless to overcome her addiction by herself."
Since her graduation, Spiker has moved to Jersey City, N.J. She starts a new job in New York on Dec. 15.
She knows her battles aren't over, but she is confident that she will not relapse. Spiker knows what the alternative is. "There's no going back. If I go back, I will die," she said.