After recovering from a heroin addiction at a So Others Might Eat treatment program in West Virginia, Debra Swangin is learning to be a medical assistant. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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A “once-in-a-while thing” is how Debra Swangin describes the way her heroin addiction began.

“And then I liked the way it made me feel,” she said. “And then it got to a point it wasn’t a few times a month, it got to be weekly. Then it got to be daily. And then it got to the point where I had to have it when I woke up in the morning. If I didn’t have it, my body would ache for it.”

Swangin tried to hide her drug addiction from her children. She never used drugs at home, going instead to a friend’s or relative’s house to snort heroin.

“I thought I was very smart,” said Swangin, 57. “But my whole demeanor changed, my attitude, everything. They knew.”

And then, two years ago, she overdosed.

I met Swangin at the Conway Center, a new building on Benning Road NE that’s part of the nonprofit So Others Might Eat. She was dressed in colorful medical scrubs adorned with Garfield the cat. It was her uniform for the class she was taking at SOME’s Center for Employment Training (CET).

“I like cartoon characters,” Swangin said.

More than 20 years ago, when her now-grown kids were little, Swangin first turned to SOME for help, visiting it to receive donated Christmas presents when money was tight. She didn’t realize then how big a part the charity — a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand — would play in her life.

Swangin survived her overdose thanks to the quick thinking of her brother-in-law, who grew concerned when she didn’t answer her phone. Her family had stuck by her through her addiction, especially her younger sister.

“I’ve hurt my family so deeply,” Swangin said. “But they knew that I had a disease of addiction, and not once did they ever turn their back on me.”

After her overdose, Swangin decided it was time to turn her life around.

“I wanted to change,” she said. “I had to change. Or I’d die.”

In 2017, Swangin headed to West Virginia to enroll in SOME’s addiction treatment program. She stayed four months.

“It was intense, but I got to know me again,” she said. “I found myself again, actually.”

It was hard for Swangin to leave “Miracle Mountain,” a nickname inspired by the program’s rural setting. When she returned to the District, she found a home in the Conway Center, which has efficiencies and single-room-occupancy apartments for clients. (For now, Swangin pays no rent.)

The Conway Center is also home to SOME’s continuing education programs. Swangin has worked throughout her life — including long, backbreaking hours cleaning hotel rooms — but every job had seemed like a dead end.

“I can always get a job, but this time I want a career, and CET is giving me that chance,” she said. “And, you know, the process is long, but it pays off in the end.”

Swangin enrolled in classes to become certified as a medical administrative assistant. She passed those and then set her sights on being a medical assistant.

She practiced drawing blood and giving injections, first on an artificial arm and then on her fellow students. She performed glucose readings. She took — and passed — her phlebotomy exam.

Swangin completed an externship in the hospice ward of a local hospital, surprising herself at her ability to care for patients at the most extreme moment in their lives.

Said Swangin: “I had a conversation with my two oldest sons, and they were saying, ‘Mom you’ve come a long way.’ ”

I asked Swangin if it was hard to talk about this personal stuff — the addiction, the overdose.

“You know, I share my story because I would like somebody to learn from what I’ve been through,” she said.

You can help

“I have a second chance of getting it right this time,” Swangin told me. SOME is giving her that second chance. Can you give something to SOME?

So far, Post readers have donated $92,975 to Helping Hand. We need to double that — and more — to reach our $225,000 goal by Jan. 4. Please consider making a donation.

To give, simply visit posthelpinghand.com and click on “Donate.” To give by mail, make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

Thank you.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.