Ep. 8: Keri Blakinger

May 29, 2020

Whatever Keri Blakinger puts her mind to, she excels at. She has incredible focus. But that worked against her when she got into heroin. Hear Keri's journey from the edge of athletic stardom, to the depths of addiction, to a new career in journalism that puts her in the national spotlight for something entirely different.

Transcript

Vic Vela:
Hey, it's Vic. Want to let you know that today's episode includes graphic descriptions of a suicide attempt and some strong language. In three, two, one. Keri, how did figure skating become a part of your life?

Keri Blakinger:
When I was about eight or nine, my mom saw an article in the local newspaper about people figure skating and there's one rink in town at the time. And it was just a complete dump with—it was actually like a converted factory and there was rust dripping onto the ice. It wasn't even heated at all. It was one of the coldest rinks I've skated at, and it didn't even have real bathrooms. There was like port-a-potties. But somehow at eight or nine, I was not deterred. And by the time I was in high school, I was commuting every day about an hour and a half, to one of the major training centers, which is the University of Delaware.

Vic Vela:
So you were getting pretty good.

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah. I skated pairs, which is where the guy throws you around and it looks dangerous. And I left school every day around 10 or 11 to go to the rink and train and I would come back at 6 or 7 at night and do all my school work, my independent study. So it was pretty much my whole life.

Vic Vela:
Keri Blakinger describes herself at this time as an overachiever, in case that wasn't obvious already. It takes so much focus and dedication for a teenager to compete with this level of intensity. And on top of her figure skating training, she was a standout student and wrote for the local newspaper. Keri and her skating partner were really good too. They competed at nationals two years in a row, where they took fifth place, and they were on track to try to make the Olympics. But one day, Keri's skating partner decided he needed a change.

Keri Blakinger:
I just fell apart. In figure skating there are so many more women than men that it's really easy for a guy to find a new partner and for a female, it might be days, weeks or never. And at that point, figure skating was my whole life. It was what I envisioned as my future, it was my social circles, and I was 17 and dramatic and just couldn't envision a life after skating.

Vic Vela:
Keri's parents wanted to help her find a new passion or at least a distraction. So they sent her to summer school at Harvard. But what happened was not what any of them expected.

Keri Blakinger:
I went away to Boston and was basically entirely unsupervised for the first time ever. They had RAs in the dorms or whatever, but this was the first time that I was just hanging out with a bunch of normal kids who were not spending eight hours a day training to be an elite athlete and were just doing normal kid things and drinking. And I pretty quickly went from zero to heroin.

Vic Vela:
Figure skating is all about conditioning your body to this ridiculous level, right? And then you get to a point where you're shooting dope. That's such an extreme.

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah. But I think that in some ways it's the same sort of intense drive and obsessiveness that made me a good figure skater. When it was turned inward towards more self-destructive means, it just made me a very dedicated heroin addict.

Vic Vela:
I'm Vic Vela. I'm a journalist, a storyteller and a recovering drug addict. And this is “Back from Broken,” stories about the highest highs, the darkest moments and what it takes to make a comeback. Today, how someone headed for stardom instead found herself on the edge of death. That's until she discovered something else to turn her obsessive drive towards, something that would help people and bring about systemic change.

Keri felt totally lost after her skating career ended. She worked odd jobs, lived on and off the streets and did whatever she could to support what had become a heroin addiction. And yet the same quality that pushed her to be a nationally competitive figure skater helped her when she decided to apply for college. She made it into Cornell University, an Ivy League school. But despite the accomplishment, she didn't find any happiness there. It just wasn't the right time. She still felt way too self-destructive.

Keri Blakinger:
I wasn't fitting in, I wasn't making friends. I didn't have any drug connections initially. So I was sort of trying to, or forced to do a little less in the way of drugs. My grandmother died that semester. I just felt like I didn't know what I was doing in life. I didn't know why I was going to college, what I was going to do afterwards. So it all seemed a little bit pointless. And then I also got into a bad, abusive relationship that semester. And he told me that I was worthless, or something like that, and I was just like, "You know what? I am done with this. My life is a train wreck. I don't know how to clean this up."

Vic Vela:
So Keri was dealing with a lot of depression at this time and she was just kind of going through the motions at school with no direction and no drug dealers around to take the edge off.

Keri Blakinger:
Early one morning, I went out to one of the bridges in Ithaca. Ithaca's known for having gorges, some of which have high bridges over them. And I jumped off one of the bridges. I was standing at the side debating, like I was pretty sure I wanted to do this, but I had not totally made up my mind, I guess. And then I heard the sound of police sirens and I was like, "Oh, hell no, I don't want the police involved."

Vic Vela:
And that's when you'd made the final decision.

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah. And it was about a 98-foot fall. I remember so clearly the leaves and the trees. It was like everything seemed frozen on the way down. And then I hit a rock that was covered in moss and maybe a quarter inch of water.

Vic Vela:
Wow.

Keri Blakinger:
And I hit it feet first and slid and actually got up and walked to the edge of the gorge. And there's a cop at the top of the bridge being like, "Don't move, don't move," and I gave him the finger and walked to the edge of the gorge.

Vic Vela:
Oh my goodness, Keri.

Keri Blakinger:
And then I was flown to hospital. I don't know. I told them that I fell and obviously they can't have believed me, but they didn't press me too much on it. Then I was in a back brace for nine months, got prescribed some pain medication and used that to parlay back into heavier drug use.

Vic Vela:
Keri, do you think you actually wanted to die when you jumped?

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah, totally. It was a 98-foot fall. It was not some half-ass attempt. I definitely meant that. I remember being deeply disappointed when I hit the bottom and stood up.

Vic Vela:
Keri did recover from that suicide attempt, but her lifestyle really didn't change that much. That's something I can relate to as an addict. When you're using, consequences just don't matter. Often we just keep living the same hell over and over again. For Keri, well, she dropped in and out of school and kept using and selling drugs. Then one day, about three years after she jumped off that bridge, Keri was at a house where she and her friends kept their drugs. It actually wasn't far from the bridge. She was supposed to move the stash that day so she put six ounces of heroin in a clear Tupperware container and left the house. And as she walked down the street, the police pulled up.

Keri Blakinger:
I tried tossing the drugs under the nearest car. And somebody saw them and retrieved them and brought them over to the officer. And they were like, "Are you looking for this?" And I was sitting there going, "Oh God. No, he's not looking for it. He doesn't know it's there."

Vic Vela:
Were you carrying any other drugs, like in your pants or anything?

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah, at the time of my arrest, aside from the heroin, I also of course typically had a sort of motley assortment of other drugs on me. And the officer is like, "Empty out your pockets." And I pulled out, I had some coke in one pocket, pulled that out and handed it over. And as I was doing that, I pulled out a bunch of pills from the other pocket and just ate them all on the spot.

Vic Vela:
You ate them all on the spot.

Keri Blakinger:
I did. It was a handful of Oxycontin. I knew I was going to go to jail and I was probably going to be dope sick. And so I thought that I would stave that off by ingesting a large amount of drugs. But it actually made the getting arrested easier. That first few days was so foggy. I sort of gradually came to in jail, like over a period of days. And I think it made the whole thing less of a shock.

Vic Vela:
Keri, when you first started using drugs, how did you think the drug use was going to end compared to what the reality was, which was you going to prison?

Keri Blakinger:
I don't think I really thought that prison was—that wasn't an outcome I thought about. I was of course scared of the police. I of course hallucinated cops raiding my house when I'd done too much meth or whatever. I was cognizant that that was a possibility. But one of the things in an active addiction is that you tell yourself that odds don't apply to you. You tell yourself, "Yeah, you can use dirty needles. You're not going to be the person that gets hepatitis or AIDS. You're not going to die." These are the lies that you have to tell yourself in the course of many years of drug use.

Vic Vela:
That's exactly right. Keri, talk to me about what that first day of prison was like?

Keri Blakinger:
That first night was not representative of prison in a lot of ways. But then in the morning, they shackle us and they load us on to a bus to go to Bedford. And the thing that was most shocking from that day was as we were waiting to get on the bus and I was overhearing two officers talking and they were talking about someone who'd been in solitary and she'd allegedly taken a dump on a tray and pushed it back out the slot at the guards, which is not uncommon. But in retaliation, the guards turned off her water. And one of them was like, "Well, what's she going to drink?" And the other guy was like, "Ah, she can drink out of the toilet. If it's good enough for my dog, it's good enough for her."

Vic Vela:
Wow.

Keri Blakinger:
And that sentence stuck with me so much. I was just like, "What have I gotten myself into?" I was in solitary a couple times. And it was just such a terrible experience, of course. I say “of course,” but I guess that isn't obvious to everyone.

Vic Vela:
No, but I'm glad you said that because help listeners understand — most listeners have never been in solitary confinement — why was it hell?

Keri Blakinger:
I think a lot of people think, "Oh, I like to spend time alone. Solitary doesn't sound that bad." Well I like to spend time alone, but this is not spending time alone. This is much more like being buried alive. You don't have a clock, you don't know what time it is. You can't control the lights. In that facility, it was a neon white cell. Just the color of the cell felt like enough to drive you mad. I was sort of in a fugue state almost, not really able to sleep, not really fully awake. As soon as I walked in the room, I burst out crying. I looked around and I immediately understood how bad this was about to be.

Vic Vela:
Fortunately, Keri's time in solitary was brief. And when she was in the general population, she says she got through her time in prison by reading, running and obsessively working on crossword puzzles. She made friends there too, and she made a big decision to stop using drugs.

Keri Blakinger:
I knew pretty quickly that I was ready to be done with this. And there were a few moments of clarity for me. One was when someone I was dating visited and came in high as a kite and had clear track marks on his arms and said that he'd fallen into a rose bush. And I was like, "Wow, I don't want to be that person telling those lies anymore."

Vic Vela:
Yeah, yeah. I guess everyone talks about a rock bottom. I think that gets thrown around too much, right? But was being behind bars your wake-up call? Was this your rock bottom, so to speak?

Keri Blakinger:
Sort of. I was at a point where I was ready to see that. I think if I had gotten arrested a year earlier, I wasn't at a place where I was really sick of where I was. So I think a year earlier, I would have just kept getting high behind bars.

Vic Vela:
Interesting. Keri, what was the difference between a year and that moment?

Keri Blakinger:
Part of it is I'd gotten older. I think time makes a difference. The last year had just gotten really bad. Things had been bad, but after almost 10 years of just horrible s---, day in, day out, I was like, "You know what? I am ready to be done with this." And I think that things other than arrest could have been the event that catalyzed that, like, if I just graduated and decided I needed to start anew, if I'd gone to rehab, if someone that I'd been close to had gotten arrested or died. I think there's a lot of sort of life-changing events that could have been the thing. I'm not saying that prison saved my life or anything like that. It was a thing that happened at a time that I was ready to be changed by it, if that makes sense.

Vic Vela:
Yeah, I think it makes perfect sense. We're going to take a quick break and when we come back, we'll learn about the people who benefit after Keri turns her obsessive drive towards something besides drugs. Back in a minute.

Vic Vela:
After Keri got out of prison, she started to put her life back together. She moved to the countryside near Ithaca. And one day, an old friend connected her with a reporter who wanted to interview Keri about her experience in prison. Now remember, Keri had written for her local paper when she was younger. So after she was interviewed, the reporter actually offered Keri a job. She started covering town board meetings and decided it was time to go back to college and finish her degree. So did you ever actually graduate from Cornell?

Keri Blakinger:
I did, yes. After I got out of prison, I was at that point still suspended. I had gotten suspended as a result of my arrest. It was like a three-years-to-indefinite. So I had to apply to get back in. But I did, I applied and they let me back in, but I was still banned from campus. So I had to do my last two classes remotely. One I did as an independent study. So I would meet up with the professor in this weird little pirate themed cafe in downtown Ithaca. And then the other one was an online class on prisons.

Keri Blakinger:
That was the first time probably that I'd read a lot of these theories about mass incarceration and punishment. And I got an A in that class. Well, it's funny because the professor later said that she was worried that I would be the one that thought this class was going to be super easy and I wasn't going to do anything because she knew I had just gotten out of prison. But I got really into it. And actually, I think I still have the required reading sitting on my shelf.

Vic Vela:
That's great.

Keri Blakinger:
So I eventually graduated and then in order to attend graduation, I had to separately apply to be allowed back on campus. And then I finally, eventually did it. I think it was actually on an anniversary of the day that I had gotten clean. It was really great, but I also was very cognizant that this is not a success story, a second chance story that everyone has and that there are systemic and racial and class roadblocks to these things. And this is one of the very real effects of the current criminal justice system.

Vic Vela:
What Keri is saying here about the criminal justice system, this isn't just stuff she read in a book. Since she's been out, Keri has written about jail and prisons for the Houston Chronicle, the Washington Post, NBC News, and now, The Marshall Project. She's a reporter who's committed to investigating things that help people understand what really happens behind bars. Like one story she did at the Houston Chronicle, she got a tip that inmates weren't getting access to dentures. And that can cause things like headaches, jaw pain and even impact people's speech and mental health. Keri threw herself into reporting on this story.

Keri Blakinger:
For the next year, I put in records requests and tried to track down prisoners who were not able to get teeth and get their medical records and realized that this was a broader issue and that if you had no teeth, they would typically not give you dentures unless you were actually starving to death as a result. It needed to be medically necessary, and their standard for what was considered medically necessary was very limiting. So instead, they would take your food and blend it up, pour it into a cup and serve it to you that way.

Vic Vela:
That sounds awful.

Keri Blakinger:
It does. And so I wrote about that and afterwards they went and bought 3D printers that they could start 3D printing teeth on site. It's still been a slow process. I still get a lot of letters from guys that are saying they haven't been able to get teeth. And I don't know how much that is just about the overwhelming need when you haven't been giving people dentures for 15 years and how much of that is about to what extent they're still being stingy with it. But it hasn't been that long. So I think time will tell, but they made the investment to get the 3D printers.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. That's progress.

Keri Blakinger:
So I have to think this will continue. Yeah.

Vic Vela:
And did you meet anyone who benefited?

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah, I did. When I went to watch them print dentures, I got to see guys putting in teeth for the first time. So that was really cool.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. I bet. You went through hell and you're talking about it and I just want to commend you on that. A question I have for you is really what gets asked to me a lot, and that's what would you say to other drug addicts, heroin addicts who are still using and feel hopeless today?

Keri Blakinger:
You can't make someone care about themselves. I can't give someone advice that will solve depression or whatever trauma went into this and led them to this place. But I can say that it may not be clear what it looks like. It may seem like everything is a train wreck right now, but there is a possibility of life afterwards and that can look like a lot of different things. And I know that I was lucky that I came from a very privileged place, but there are also people who did not come from that place, who are able to build second chances, and able to build new lives. And I don't know if someone who's using right now cares to hear that or not.

Vic Vela:
Yeah.

Keri Blakinger:
But it's on the table and it's interesting, I actually never get asked that. You know what I usually get asked? It's usually family members that are like, "What can I do?"

Vic Vela:
Oh, sure, yeah.

Keri Blakinger:
Yeah. I get that one a lot.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. Well you could answer that too.

Keri Blakinger:
The best thing you can do is to be there for them, let them know that you'll be there for them after all of this. I know that I'm personally very grateful that during the years that I was using, most of the time my parents paid for my college. They weren't giving me spending cash, they weren't supporting me in other ways. But that is the thing that helped me have anything to build a life from afterwards when I got clean. And I know that a lot of people would consider that enabling, but it was probably the only thing that kept me from getting a lot worse because I did have to show up at classes. And through it all, I still cared about not failing out of school.

Obviously, it would have been great if it didn't take me, whatever, more than 10 years to make it through.

Vic Vela:
Yeah.

Keri Blakinger:
But that was the thing that gave me tools to build a life afterwards. So I always say you don't have to let the person be close to you, you don't have to be like, "I need to have a heroin addict living in my garage." No, you don't. You can do what's right for you. Let them know that you're there to support them, and support can look like a lot of different things.

Vic Vela:
Keri Blakinger continues to report on criminal justice for The Marshall Project, which reports in great depth on the U.S. criminal justice system. Keri's actually The Marshall Project's first reporter to have been incarcerated herself. She's also working on a memoir. Keri says reporting stories that have a measurable impact is deeply and personally meaningful for her.

Mark:
Hi, my name is Mark from Denver, Colorado. In my recovery, I've been living a life of gratitude and integrity. That gives me hope that basically anything is possible, even a path back to my children who haven't spoken to me since I devastated their lives with addiction.

Carrie:
Hi, I'm Carrie. I'm from Denver. I work in a recovery community and we're coming up on our graduation from our two-year program. And this year we're going to have the largest graduating class we've ever had. And it gives me goosebumps. I'm just so proud of everyone who is battling addiction and has made it through and is in recovery and work in their program.

Vic Vela:
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Back from Broken is hosted by me, Vic Vela, and it's a production of Colorado Public Radio's Audio Innovations Studio and CPR News. Thanks to the people in recovery who helped us develop this podcast, Ben, Matthew, Shawn, and Mateo— thank you so much for your guidance.

The show is produced by Rebekah Romberg, Jon Pinnow and Matthew Simonson. Rachel Estabrook edited this episode. Our executive producers are Brad Turner and Kevin Dale, music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Thanks also to Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Hart Van Denburg, and Kevin Beaty. Please subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people find it. And thanks for listening to Back from Broken.