When her mom came to pick her up for drug court that morning, Stacy Nicholson was still high.
She staggered to the door, fumbled with the bungee cord that kept it closed, blinked back the sunlight.
"You ready?" asked her mom.
Stacy and two of her cousins had been holed up for months in this rundown house, shooting crushed-up pain pills. Used syringes littered an end table. Stacy's mom had kept telling her: Someone in this house is going to die.
Stacy, then 28, knew she was right. Days before, she had told her mom she was tired of stealing and doctor shopping to get pills. She was in trouble for skipping her last court date, so today, she planned to turn herself in.
"Okay," Stacy said. "Let's go."
She twisted her long, honey-colored hair into a knot. Zipped her sweatshirt. Underneath, she was wearing two bras, a tank top, two white T-shirts and three pairs of panties.
She wanted to be sure she would have a change of underwear in jail.
COURTROOM 10 WAS PACKED when Stacy and her mom, Sherry Alkire, slid into the back row. It was Feb. 1, a Tuesday.
More than 100 women, most 20 to 40 years old, filled the wooden benches. Some were visibly pregnant. Others trailed toddlers. Many of the women struggled to hold up their heads.
Just before 9 a.m., a thin, chestnut-haired woman in a black robe strode through the back door. "All rise!" called the bailiff. "The honorable Judge Dee Anna Farnell presiding."
The judge raised her arms and smiled. "Welcome to Ladies' Day," she said. America's first all-female drug court was in session.
Soon the judge called Stacy's name. Stacy slouched down the aisle, clasped her hands behind her back and hung her head.
Eighteen months earlier, she had been arrested for using a fake prescription to buy oxycodone, the painkiller she had been snorting or shooting for four years. The charge carried a possible five-year prison sentence.
The judge had offered a deal: Plead guilty and go on probation. If you go through rehab, if you go to 12-step meetings and get a job and stay sober, you can stay out of jail — and have your felony record wiped clean.
For a while, Stacy had tried. But then she failed a drug test, stopped going to counseling, started skipping court. Now she faced a sentence of 10 years instead of five.
The judge could send her to a long-term treatment facility or halfway house. Or she could put her in prison for violating her probation.
Farnell asked Stacy about her children. Stacy said her 12-year-old daughter had been staying with her paternal grandparents for almost a year. Her mom was taking care of her 2-year-old son.
"What are you going to test positive for today?" asked the judge.
Stacy shuffled her Air Jordan slides. "Well, I've been smoking and drinking. So marijuana and alcohol." She paused. "And benzos. And maybe …"
The judge shook her head. "Okay," she said. "What do you want to do? Do you want to opt out? Or keep trying?"
Stacy wanted what a lot of addicts want: to get clean, but also to get high. She wanted to have her kids back, but also to have no responsibility. She wanted to feel better, and to feel nothing.
She wiped her nose on her shoulder, looked up and said, "I want to keep trying."
PRESCRIPTION DRUG abuse kills 40 Americans every day. That's more than a threefold increase in the last decade, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oxycodone is the deadliest drug of all. An opiate found in such painkillers as OxyContin and Percocet, it's prescribed after surgeries and car wrecks, and to people in chronic pain.
Others take it just for the high. The drug works by blocking the spinal cord's pain receptors. It doesn't make the pain go away, but prevents people from feeling it, creating a sense of euphoria. Soon, they need to take more to get the same pleasurable escape.
Oxy makes junkies out of people who would never buy from a street dealer. It is everyman's high, heroin in a pill.
Of all the oxycodone prescribed in America in the first half of last year, 98 percent was dispensed in Florida. According to the state medical examiner's office, an average of seven Floridians die from prescription drug overdoses every day — more than from car accidents.
In recent years, Pinellas has lost more people to prescription drugs than any other county in the state — 249 just last year. That's an increase of 60 over the year before.
"Everyone knows someone who has gone through this addiction and you just feel so helpless. It's a horrible, vicious disease," said Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
"These aren't Dumpster-diving drug addicts," she said. "These people are getting their pills from doctors. It's the person in line beside you at Publix, the woman next to you in the pew at church."
A few years ago, drug court Judge Farnell started seeing more and more women charged with prescription drug abuse. By 2009, almost half of her drug court defendants were women.
That year, Pinellas County received a $900,000, three-year federal grant to fund substance abuse treatment for women in drug court.
That's how Tuesdays became "Ladies' Day."
Instead of punishing the women, the judge offers them a chance to start over. They come to court once a month. She creates incentives for them: Do yoga, run a 5K, quit smoking, and we'll waive your $52 monthly probation fee. She makes sure they know how to get a bus pass. If she gets a bad vibe about a boyfriend, she'll order a woman to steer clear of him.
She tells defendants, "You can do this. It's going to be hard. But it will be worth it."
When a woman slips, the judge scolds her and sends her back to jail to detox. Then she offers another chance.
About 500 defendants came to court on Ladies' Days this year. St. Petersburg Times journalists attended week after week. They interviewed dozens of women. They followed addicts as they bounced between jail and treatment, stayed in abandoned houses, looked for jobs and stumbled toward recovery or relapse.
One woman let the journalists follow her all year.
Stacy Nicholson grew up in St. Petersburg. A streetwise, Southern-fried tomboy, she loves the Florida Gators, Chevy pickups, Lil Wayne and Toby Keith. She believes in dream catchers and her Gemini horoscope, craves Cocoa Puffs and smokes Newports. She never wears makeup, always spritzes on Victoria's Secret body spray. When it comes to men, she likes the smell of trouble.
Her history of drug use and dysfunction stretches back to puberty. She tried marijuana at 13 and alcohol at 14, had her first baby at 16 and her second, with a different man, at 27.
But the pursuit of the oxy buzz erased any chance of a productive life.
For addicts, using quickly becomes a necessity, not a choice. Getting the next pill becomes more important than work, friends, family, even food. The addict's values shift to justify whatever it takes to get more oxys. Hard workers can no longer hold jobs. Smart students drop out. Good moms neglect their kids, drain their bank accounts, steal from family members.
If addicts stop using, they suffer horrible symptoms: vomiting, headaches, intense bone pain. That's why many are afraid to even try to get sober. They need to stay high so they don't crash.
After Stacy got hooked, she lost her personality, spark, motivation. Every new boyfriend was a red flag, but she never saw it. She dragged her kids from bad apartments to cheap motel rooms, and finally gave them up.
In Judge Farnell's court in February, Stacy entered what everyone agreed was a fight for her life. She could get better, or she could become one of Florida's seven a day.
She had a lot going for her: a mother who supported her even after all the times Stacy had broken her heart. Two children who desperately needed her love and attention. A treatment program backed by almost $1 million in taxpayer money. Drug counselors who wanted her to succeed. Other recovering addicts eager to share their experiences at 12-step meetings. An empathetic judge who was willing to give Stacy chance after chance, if only she would try.
Working against her: a little blue pill and Stacy's need to numb herself with it.