“Stop selling yourself short. You don't know what tomorrow might bring so you might consider starting today.”
- Virginia Burton, eight years clean of drugs, who will graduate this week from the University of Washington at age 48
The photographs stop you dead in your scrolling.
On the left is a police mug shot of a woman with a hollow and diseased face. Her baggy, half-closed eyes droop with addiction and exhaustion. Her dark hair is cropped nearly to the skin save for a lock of dyed-pink bangs hanging over sunken brows.
On the right stands a woman you can hardly believe is the same person. She glows with satisfaction and health, smiling with arms crossed confidently in a crisp black robe. She wears a black university graduation cap, with a 2021 tassel, sitting atop long, golden hair.
The photos do show the same person, but certainly not the same life.
The woman’s name is Virginia Burton. She recently moved to the Rochester area and next week will graduate from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in political science after being clean for more than eight years. It’s a major turnaround, as the photos starkly illustrate.
Most of her life was a wreck, thanks to drug addiction that started when her mother introduced her to marijuana at age 6. By age 12, she was using methamphetamine and cocaine. She was smoking crack and getting blackout drunk at 14.
“By the time I was 15 years old, I was a full-blown drug addict,” she told a news reporter in Columbus, Ohio this week.
She was in and out of juvenile detention. She was incarcerated three times — twice with her mother. All the time she wanted to stop using drugs, she said, but couldn’t.
She credits police for helping her quit. After her fourth arrest, she was directed to a nonprofit organization that helped her avoid prison.
“They stood beside me as I clawed my way out of my past,” she said. “On my own, I wouldn’t have stopped.”
Now after eight years and five months without drugs, she is ready to graduate from university and enter a master’s degree program. She also aims to get a law degree. Eventually she wants to help change the prison system, which she says does not help rehabilitate people nor prepare them with the skills they need to succeed when released.
She’d like to see prisons require treatment, therapy, education, job training, parenting, finance and conflict resolution classes. That would reduce recidivism and create a safer community, she said.
As she marks an educational milestone, Burton decided to pair her graduation photo with her drug-addicted police mug shot.
Two weeks ago she posted the two photos side by side, saying, “How about that for motivation? I honestly thought I'd die on a park bench with a needle in my arm or by gunshot to the head. I would've never in a million years thought my life would look the way it does today.”
That Facebook post has now been shared more than 5,000 times. Burton said she’s gratified that her life story can encourage others to change.
“I did not live my life in vain, it was all meant to help bring others to a new place in their path,” she posted earlier this week. “It is not me ... On my own I destroy my life. I had some help. Divine intervention.”
Virginia Burton plans to graduate with her master’s degree at age 50. She’ll be a decade removed from the despair of addiction. Her story shows us that no matter what challenges you face at this point in your life, the future is still yours to shape and celebrate.
Brian Mittge has been writing about life in the greater Lewis County area since 2000. His column appears in The Chronicle each Saturday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.