Former drug addict overcomes the past to become nursing school honor graduate

From drug addict to honor student with a nursing degree, her incredible journey flashed through Skyla Nieves’ mind on graduation day.

She remembered the years of smoking crack with her mother, shooting heroin and living on the streets.

Things got so bad at one point that instead of fearing death she was afraid of not dying.

The odds were against her, but Nieves, 29, turned her life around and on May 3 graduated with honors from the nursing program at Catawba Valley Community College. A member of the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa and vice president of the Catawba Valley Association of Nursing Students, she’ll start working in June at a state psychiatric hospital.

Her goal is someday being a nurse at the Julian F. Keith Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Black Mountain, where she’d spent time as an addict in rehab.

“I want to take the experiences I’ve had in life and help people,” Nieves said. “If I can help one person find a different way of life, everything I did in the past was not in vain.”

She had much to overcome on the way to becoming a nurse, but, Nieves said, “you never know if you can reach your dream if you don’t give it a try.”

Catawba Valley nursing instructor Peggy Bloomfield said Nieves was “probably one of the best students I’ve ever taught. ... Thank God she was not lost to society.”

Growing up in Hickory, Nieves seldom saw her father and said her mother was a drug addict.

At age 7, Nieves started smoking marijuana. Her first drink of alcohol came two years later.

During the week, Nieves stayed with her grandparents and behaved, she remembers. On weekends, she drank and did drugs with her mom.

“In my eyes, she was cool – she was awesome,” Nieves said of her mother. “All my friends liked her. Me and my friends would go there with their boyfriends and we’d smoke weed and drink.”

By the time Nieves was 12, she was popping prescription pain pills. At 14, she was smoking crack with her mother. IV drugs would come later.

High school didn’t interest Nieves. Getting high and partying had more appeal.

In 2002, Nieves’ mother died of an overdose at age 36. “It was really hard for me,” Nieves said. “But I didn’t quit drugs. It got worse.”

Nieves straightened up long enough her senior year to graduate, she said, but “that was just to appease my grandparents.”

Then, her life spiraled downward even more. She got in trouble with the police and got picked up for driving while impaired.

Nieves said she landed in drug treatment facilities seven times. In Delray Beach, Fla., after she’d left a rehab center, she started inhaling heroin. Soon she was homeless and injecting the drug.

She returned to North Carolina and landed in jail on a variety of misdemeanor charges such as driving without a license.

“I couldn’t see the beautiful things in life,” she said. “I was soulless.”

She tried to quit drugs but relapsed. “I wasn’t ready to get clean,” Nieves said. “Everybody reaches their own bottom. For me, I just saw I couldn’t live like this anymore. There had to be a better way. If not, I’d rather die. ... Words can’t describe what a dark place I was in.”

In August 2008, she hit bottom. And, Nieves said, had a moment of clarity. She took a good look at her surroundings and then went to the emergency room at Frye Regional Medical Center. Nieves said she walked in and told the male receptionist, “If I do not get help, I will kill myself.”

“He didn’t judge me or look at me with disgust and turn his back on me,” she said. “I saw concern in his eyes. He said, ‘OK, honey, we’ll do all we can to help you.’ ”

That one small show of compassion stuck with her on a road to recovery that led to detox at Catawba Valley Memorial Hospital, the Black Mountain treatment center, support groups, counselors and nurses.

Nieves married, worked as a waitress, took college courses and became a certified nursing assistant, working at the Black Mountain treatment center. Nurses there encouraged her to enter the same profession. Nieves didn’t think she was smart enough.

But she decided to try. Throughout nursing school, Nieves worried that the N.C. Board of Nursing would deny her a license because of her criminal background. In March, after providing references and explanations for each charge, Nieves got the clearance.

On graduation day, she remembered that moment and the other doors that opened to her along the way.

“I was thankful people gave me a chance,” Nieves said. “I knew I was doing the right thing. God kept me alive to be a nurse.”