North Medford High School senior Cara Graca will start on an academic path to becoming a nurse. It’s a big change from the depths she languished in just two years ago. - Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune

Grads Against the Odds: Learning another reality

Two years ago, Cara Graca was sleeping under a bridge in California during a methamphetamine bender.

On June 9, the 17-year-old graduates from North Medford High School with ambitions of becoming a nurse.

"I can't believe I'm graduating," Graca said. "My mom (Heidi Graca) can't either. I showed her my gown, and she cried. There was a time when she thought I wouldn't be around."

Graca's flirtations with substance abuse began at age 12 when she started drinking alcohol.

At age 14, she tried methamphetamine for the first time after drinking alcohol at a party.

A few months later, one of her friends committed suicide.

"I wasn't able to take hold of reality, so I took another road," taking more methamphetamine.

During her freshman year at Oakmont High School in Roseville, Calif., she repeatedly skipped class and was sent to an alternative school, where she was expelled for being defiant and wearing revealing clothes.

"Mostly I was so skinny from doing meth that my clothes were dropping off of me," she said.

After being expelled, she left her home for three months and wandered from town to town in pursuit of drugs, sometimes sleeping under a bridge, and sometimes with friends.

"The memory I recall most vividly is being under a bridge I had once slept under," Graca said. "I was dehydrated and hadn't eaten or slept in five days. I was delusional and hallucinating and basically running myself into the ground in response to the hallucinations."

Police who noticed her strange behavior, swollen eyes and leaking sinuses took her to a hospital emergency room. Doctors sent her for a psychiatric evaluation at a hospital in east Sacramento.

"I remember only portions of that time," she said. "My mom said I had a little cloth and said it was my baby. Her biggest fear was that I was pregnant."

Graca remained at the psychiatric hospital for a week undergoing group therapy.

"From my room I could see the adult wing of the hospital where people smoke," she said. "Seeing them made me think I didn't want to be like them. I thought about all the addicts I had known who had ended up in institutions. I didn't want to become that. I could see that I was, and it scared me a lot."

She committed to overcoming the addiction.

But the road to sobriety was not without pitfalls.

She returned to live with her parents. Within 23 days, she had relapsed.

"My heart was in it, but I couldn't follow through yet," she said. "Rebuilding the relationship with my parents helped a lot.

"I started to think about my little brother and that I was a role model for him. I didn't want him to take that path because I knew where it was taking me."

Instead of drugs, she began turning to her friends, family, nutrition and yoga.

"I learned if you have stable nutrition, your mental health will probably improve," she said.

In September 2005, her parents decided to move to Medford to give the family a new start.

Graca enrolled at North Medford High School, where she faced the task of making up credits she missed in her sophomore year, including chemistry, English and biology.

To do so, she took courses during an early morning optional period.

"That hasn't been easy," she said.

This year, she took her first advanced placement course studying literature.

As people in the community learned about her experience, she was invited to participate in the Southern Oregon Meth Project, which seeks to show the public the destructiveness of methamphetamine.

She also began sharing her experiences with middle school students and drug treatment patients at OnTrack Inc. to aid in the effort to reduce the spread of methamphetamine use.

"One eighth-grader came up to me after one of my talks and said I stopped her from running away from home," she said.

She recently won a two-year scholarship from the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation's Fairy Godmother Program, meant to help low-income women attend college.

She plans to attend Rogue Community College in the fall to earn some prerequisite credits toward a nursing degree.

At the same time, she wants to volunteer at a local hospital and continue her volunteer work at the Arc of Jackson County Family Respite Program, where she works with children with disabilities.

"Overcoming my drug addiction was my foundation for wanting to help others, and nurses are needed," Graca said.

On March 13, she participated in a panel on issues facing women in the region for the Rogue Valley Women's Alliance.

"Getting to be a speaker was huge in comparison (to where I was) and sharing my opinions on the wreckage I had come from and not being shunned by the community for the drugs I was doing, having a life and motivation and a journey."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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