LAKELAND — Some of Kristie Cere’s former friends might not recognize her today.
The 35-year-old brunette has an easy smile, clear eyes, clean skin, dresses modestly, and talks about her love of Jesus and gratitude to God.
“I work at Chipotle on South Florida and so I go to work for eight-hour days and Sundays, I go to church,” Cere said. “I’m part of the welcoming team at Grace City and really grateful for that.”
It has been a very long road — filled with self-care and the hard work of facing the inner demons of mental illness and addiction — from where she was a year ago: the Polk County Jail on the latest possession of methamphetamine charges, along with driving with a suspended license.
“I have lived a long life of drug and alcohol addiction,” said Cere. “You know, on paper it looks like crime, but it’s always been the addiction.”
Now she’s getting the help she has needed for decades in a program that is one of the success stories in Polk County.
Her addictive personality showed up as shoplifting and skipping school at an early age, which turned into smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
“I used to get a really big adrenaline rush from that,” Cere said. “I mean, I liked doing it, I liked the thrill of doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to and not getting caught. I loved it and I fed off that.”
And then she started using hardcore drugs when she attended Lake Wales High School.
“I started using, before methamphetamine was crystallized meth, I started using crank when I was 15,” said Cere, referring to powder methamphetamine.
According to serenityhousedetox.com, crank “is a deadly ticket to despair.” It causes “intense mood shifts, from positive and happy moods to dark, violent, and angry ones. Using crank causes high blood pressure and rapid breathing.
“Crank causes paranoia for many people using it. They also scratch and pick at their skin. They suffer burns on lips and fingers from smoking it, abscesses, or other sores from injecting and they age very quickly. Meth mouth is one terrible effect of crank, leading to lost teeth and damaged oral structures,” the Serenity House website states.
“I would go to school high on meth and take alcohol with me to school and things like that,” Cere said, now adamantly taking responsibility for her actions. The only times she stopped was when she was pregnant and when she was in jail or prison.
“I mean the second I walked out the door, and I was able to do it, I did it. I kind of made this really unhealthy lifestyle out of it very quickly without even realizing it and it just consumed my whole life and everything that I believed in,” she said. “I knew I was a good person. I just didn’t know how to stop doing the things that I was doing.”
Law enforcement run-ins
Her first run-in as an adult with law enforcement in Polk County came when she was 25 for misdemeanor shoplifting from a Dollar General Store in Lake Wales. It escalated in 2014 to grand theft and burglary when she and a man she met at a homeless shelter broke into an old roommate’s Winter Haven house and stole her washer and dryer, microwave, 55-gallon aquarium, two bicycles and some lawn equipment. Cere pleaded guilty and spent more than a year and a half in prison.
In November 2019, she was spotted repeatedly driving around a Winter Haven neighborhood. An officer approached her and she said she was looking for a friend, but he discovered that she was driving with a suspended license and, when he searched her car, found a baggie containing .3 grams of meth. She was found guilty and placed on community control, but later violated her probation in late 2020.
She was sitting in jail, facing three years in prison and knew something needed to change.
“I was never offered any help throughout my addiction until I, for the first time, asked for it,” Cere said. “In December, I remember sitting in jail and I was just so, I was so tired of living like this. I knew I wanted help, I knew I wanted something different, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it.”
She talked to her public defender, Carmelita Lall, about getting help. The director of New Beginning Women, Sheila Perdue, went to the jail and interviewed Cere for the program, asking her about her addiction and the things that she has been through in her life.
The next month, she was moved to the East Lake Parker Drive facility, a complex of townhomes, which serves as an office and homes for the participants. Four women share one townhome, with a maximum capacity of 14 in the New Beginning Women program. A mobile home serves as a community center for group therapy sessions and meals. There is also a playground, donated by Publix Charities, for when the women are gradually allowed to have visitation with their children.
“I prayed so hard about it and God gave me exactly what I asked for and I just, I’m so grateful, you know, for the power of prayer and somebody believing it, somebody greater than me believing in me for me to be here,” Cere said.
Tri-County Human Services
Tri-County Human Services’ New Beginning Transitional and Treatment Centers is another one of the success stories and solutions to the mental health crisis in Polk County.
The separate men’s and women’s facilities provide them with the social tools and life skills to re-enter the community and maintain a lifestyle free from drugs and alcohol. The center also addresses any untreated mental health issues. It usually lasts 8-10 months. They undergo:
- Group and individual therapy
- Case management
- Daily living, life, and coping skills groups
- Vocational development groups
- Linkage to employment
- Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings
- Family reunification
- Services like yoga, Bible study and other activities
Nelda Jackson, Tri-County residential program director, said they concentrate on behavior to end the cycle in and out of the court system.
“What she would do is she would exit probation, immediately use, show up at her probation officer – of course she’s going to test positive,” Jackson said. “So we have that vicious cycle in the revolving door, so we really do address the criminal activity and criminal behavior (and) criminal thinking in this program.”
Cere agreed that her behavior needed adjusting.
“Well, turns out, I thought drugs was just the main problem in my life,” Cere said. “I really, really thought that if I could just stop drinking and doing drugs, my life would be absolutely perfect and then it turns out that I take me wherever I go. So, you know, the character defects started showing, the behavior, the addict behavior, started showing. So that was definitely something that I had to work through.”
She also had to deal with the trauma she has endured as a female drug addict, the manipulation and violence she went through, and also the manipulation she exerted on others, including her own family.
“I really had a lot of issues, a lot of mental issues that I had to deal with and to kind of reframe my mindset and how to live a positive, healthy life,” she said.
Cere has been diagnosed as having general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of figuring out where she would get her next bag of meth and how to pay for it, her days are now filled with structure, chores, therapy, work and church. Each day, Cere gets up, makes her bed, gets dressed, puts on some make up, and goes to work, therapy or church.
From Wednesday through Saturday, she works at Chipotle, on Sundays she goes to Grace City Church, Mondays, she and the other residents clean house and do group therapy and Tuesdays is nap day and another session of group therapy.
There is curfew for residents that can be adjusted depending on where they are and what they are doing – for instance if Bible study is running late at church. But Cere has to be home by 6 p.m. because she is on community control and wears an ankle monitor.
The cost of Cere’s care is estimated at $30,000, most of which is covered by a grant from the county through a special half-cent sales tax. Cere paid about $2,000 out of pocket for her care.
“I slowly, gradually would watch my life change, like I started making good choices on my own, even when nobody was looking,” Cere said. “I’ve learned how to budget my money and be responsible. I paid my entire way here by myself, nobody helped me, and that’s a big thing for me. I found, in my addiction, to be kind of codependent towards men to take care of me, you know, and I had an opportunity to have help and I chose not to, and I’m really glad that I did that ’cause my self-esteem has gone through the roof being self-sufficient.”
The cost is high because it requires counselors to be on hand at all times, Jackson said.
“All of my supervisors work so hard,” Jackson said. “Residential is 24/7 and we’re on call all the time, so it’s a very interesting, different kind of world. In residential, we become a family.”
Cere said she has needed help at all hours and appreciates the support of staff and the women around her.
“It’s so cool to have such a strong group of women back you up and believe in you,” Cere said. “It really helps when you know somebody that’s had 13 years of sobriety is telling you now, ‘I’m so proud of you — I see the changes that you’re making.’”
Continuum of care
Jackson said many of their clients come into the program through detox services, a medically guided withdrawal from alcohol and/or drugs.
“We have a really exciting continuum of care in Tri-County because a lot of people, most of our people, do start at detox and if I just looked at women services alone, because that’s kind of what we’re capitalizing on now, we have three different residential facilities located across Polk, Highlands, and Hardee counties that treat women,” Jackson said.
In addition, there is step-down program, where they continue to get treatment and receive group therapy. There is also a transitional living facility, with apartments where mothers and children can begin a reunification process. And there is a sober living facility, where five women live together and support one another.
“Many times … that gap has happened between them and family members, so they’re able to go there and build an extended family and it’s a lot of support for them,” Jackson said.
Tri-County’s total revenue and expenditures is about $18.4 million, with the funding coming from the county, state and federal programs.
New Beginning Women and Men is funded by a sales tax through the county, which provides $3.9 million for NB and also jail treatment programs. Adult and Adolescent Substance Abuse treatment programs cost $7.4 million, while adult and adolescent mental health cost nearly $2 million.
In 2021, New Beginning treated 67 men and 32 women.
- Detox — $1,248,208
- Florida Center — $2,316,212
- Adolescent Mental Health — $381,606
- Adult Mental Health — $1,581,186
- Adolescent Substance Abuse — $1,118,806
- Adult Substance Abuse — $6,312,793
- U.S. Housing and Urban Development — $79,447
- DUI Program — $496,690
- County Funded Programs, including new beginnings and jail programs — $3,904,408
- Medical/Support Services — $948,768
- Fundraising — $20,991
TOTAL — $18,388,124
Cere is hoping the reunification program with family members is something in which her mother and 13-year-old son would want to participate. She said it has been at least four years since she has seen her son and her mother won’t speak to her, which she said she understands.
“I was such a monster in my addiction — I was such a horrid (person),” Cere said, becoming emotional talking about it. “I manipulated people that didn’t deserve it. I took advantage of people, especially my mom. You know, I just put her through it. I put my mom absolutely through it, and I finally was able to forgive myself for that.”
Cere said she hopes her family sees her differently, now.
“I’m a product of what recovery could be for somebody and if I can do it anybody can do it,” she added. “I’m truly sorry for the hurt that I’ve caused in their life and I hope that they can forgive me and know that I mean it this time and I’m gonna do better and I’m doing better. And I will not, I will just, I won’t stop fighting for them.”
A year into the program and now Cere is someone helping the new women who have arrived. She sat in on a group therapy session about a week ago during which they discussed cognitive fusion and diffusion — a fancy way to say recognize your thoughts and change the negative ones.
One technique they use to change their thinking involves distracting their minds by concentrating on something outside of themselves. They name:
- Five things they can see
- Four things they can hear
- Three things they can touch
- Two things they can smell
- One thing they can taste
“Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time,” Jackson explained.
Cere said she likes to put her feet on the cold floor when she does this in order to engage her brain and senses.
“I’m learning how to do it and learning how to help people,” Cere said. “I’m a positive role model for the other girls here, you know, that are struggling to stay, that don’t have any obligation to be here, that are, like, every day it’s a fight or flight, whether they wanna stay or they wanna go. I’m able to encourage them.”
Her next step is a sober house in Winter Haven after the New Year, where she will have more freedom, but still live in a structured environment with four other women trying to maintain their sobriety. It will have a curfew, rules and chores, and is walking distance to AA and NA meetings.
“I’m really excited — I’m really blown away that I made it this far,” Cere said. “I’m actually for the first time in my life, I’m super proud of myself and just (have) an attitude of gratitude.”
A suggestion for the sheriff
Cere also had a suggestion for Sheriff Grady Judd and the jail: She’d like them to make inmates aware of the programs offered to help people off drugs and to find a path out of mental illness.
“I spent a lot of time in jail and, you know, they don’t offer help to people and I’ve learned, spending so much time in jail, all these girls have mental health problems or addiction problems,” she said. “I think it would be really, really cool if, you know, maybe a group of people or somebody could come in there, into the jails, and talk to these girls and tell them about these programs and that there is a better way. You know, I would even be more than happy if I would be allowed to go back in there — and come right back out — but I would absolutely do it, you know, share my testimony.”
Judd said some changes have been made in the jail since Cere’s last visit.
“We now put the programs on the kiosk…that they use to text and communicate,” Judd said via text. “Thanks for the heads up.”
Cere said she doesn’t want to blame her childhood or anyone from it for the choices she has made.
“That kept me in my addiction for a long time — ‘I am the way I am because my childhood, because this, because that.’ I am the way I am because I chose to be, you know, it was me, you know, it was just things that I needed to work on inside me to change,” Cere said.
She added that years ago she thought that this was the way she was, the way she was always going to be, and that she would be stuck in this lifestyle forever. Through New Beginning, she said she realized that wasn’t true.
“There is a better way. I never in a million years thought a person like me could ever change,” Cere said. “I’m so grateful for God and so grateful for this program. This program has changed my entire life. There is a better way, you know, you don’t have to live like that. You don’t have to do the things that you’re doing.”
Cere said there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“You just have to make that first initial step,” she said. “You can’t keep saying, ‘Well, I’m going to go to rehab after, at the first of the year. I’m gonna go after this, I’m gonna go after that.’ You have to do it right now and the help is available. These people — they devote their whole entire lives to help us, and that’s just — they’re angels. They’re, you know, God’s own angels.”
To get help
If you are in immediate crisis, Polk County’s Peace River Center offers a 24-Hour Emotional Support and Crisis Line: 863-519-3744 or toll-free at 800-627-5906.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.