Once addicted to heroin, and with 17 felony convictions on her record, Ginny Burton has a message for those battling addiction or other life issues: It’s never too late to change.
Ms. Burton, a 48-year-old resident of the rural Washington state town of Rochester, graduated in May from the University of Washington’s Seattle campus with a bachelor’s in political science. She plans to study for a master’s degree, a move aided by a 2020 award from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, a federal agency.
The story is common enough, but it was the before-and-after photos of an emaciated, addicted Ginny from 2005 contrasted with the smiling, healthy Ms. Burton in graduation regalia this year that went viral on Facebook, sparking news media interest from outlets in the U.S., Britain, and Germany.
She’s hoping to build on her unexpected fame, starting a private Facebook group for goal-setters, working on an inspirational memoir and speaking out on the ordeal chronicled in those two photos.
Ms. Burton told The Washington Times Monday that she drafted her husband of seven years, Chris, 42, away from his work as a house framer to help manage the nascent V. Ginny Burton online collection of Facebook and Instagram pages.
Ms. Burton‘s newfound success seems all the more surreal when considering her life story, one that appeared to offer no promise of happiness — or even survival.
One of seven children raised in Tacoma, Washington, Ms. Burton began ingesting drugs at age 7, when her mother, an addict and a drug dealer, shared marijuana with Ginny and her siblings. From there, the path grew more dangerous: methamphetamine at age 12, smoking crack at age 14, and heroin at age 21, with full-blown addiction two years later.
She racked up numerous criminal convictions over the years, serving time in county jails and state prisons. While the incarcerations helped her appreciate sobriety, the time behind bars did not give her the tools to remain clean.
Ms. Burton hit bottom in 2012, when she faced a fourth prison sentence after being arrested on several forgery warrants. The arrest came while she was in “a domestic violence relationship,” she recalled, “and using [drugs] seemed to be a better option for me to be able to blot out the reality I was living in.”
But unlike the majority of criminals who might view an arrest negatively, Ms. Burton said she saw her capture that day as “essentially a rescue.”
Thanks to connections with prisoner-aid groups and an experienced private attorney, Ms. Burton was able to defer her charges in favor of a six-month jail sentence that included drug abuse treatment. That was followed by three years of a treatment program, which she said taught her “how to navigate [the] challenging things” that made her want to use drugs.
The drug program’s lessons led her to college, to medical treatment for a 26-year case of hepatitis C, and to following a plant-based diet, exercise and meditation. All that — plus counseling from a mentor with whom she could closely identify — has kept her sober, Ms. Burton said, even when old urges resurface.
“I dream regularly about drug use,” she conceded, “because it’s been such a part of my life for so long. I just recognize that it’s a part of my DNA, it’s a part of my normal makeup. I’ve spent more years on drugs than off.”
The diet, which Ms. Burton now said includes meat because she was wary of what she called “processed protein,” is meant to help undo the damage years of drug use did to her body. The meditation, done at home or when exercising, is something she compares to “listening” to God following prayer.
Ms. Burton was baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2017 and, along with her husband, regularly attends the group’s worship services. Although she said she tries to keep her recovery meetings and her church life separate, she did “give a testimony” in her new, local congregation “a couple of weeks ago, and it was really wonderful.”
Calling her church involvement “a really fantastic experience, Ms. Burton added, “One of the biggest things that I’ve gotten from the LDS Church is [what] I’ve learned about families. I learned about being connected to a community of people that really love you and are there for you. I’ve really gotten a lot of things that could have been present in my life had my mom chosen a different path. I really feel like it’s never too late.”