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Alcohol was never part of Michelle Spaeth's drug arsenal.

Marijuana was her thing, starting in the fall of her freshman year in high school. She loved everything about marijuana -- the high she got, the smell, even the finger burns from handling the cigarette butts. But above all, she loved how all her stress and worries went up in marijuana smoke.

"I really loved weed," she says now at the advanced age of 17. "I just made it my life. I worshipped it."

Like many teenagers on drugs, Michelle graduated to more subtle choices. At one point, she took eight Coricidin tablets a day; for six months, she never paid for them, stealing them from three Niagara Falls drugstores. Later, she went through OxyContin and morphine, any painkillers she could get her hands on.

But then Michelle got into trouble, her murky lifestyle dominated by Family Court appearances, petitions through the Persons in Need of Supervision program, even visits to a probation officer. The legal system scared her.

So last July 22, Michelle began the longest journey of her life, with just a few steps into the front door of Stepping Stones, the West Seneca facility for teenage girls addicted to drugs and alcohol.

All she remembers is how terrified she was:

"I felt like I was walking to my death, when in all reality, I was heading towards becoming alive. I was greeted by a group of girls who I then described as overly sober. I returned their welcoming with a raised eyebrow and a crooked smirk."

Eight months later, on March 31, Michelle graduated from Stepping Stones, on the Renaissance House campus. On Sunday, she will be one of the success stories of the 18th annual Kids Escaping Drugs telethon, airing from 4 to 11 p.m. on WGRZ-TV, Channel 2.

The telethon will mark 15 years since the first clients walked into Renaissance House. Last year's event raised $526,864.

Michelle knows how far she has come, in the last year, from the days when marijuana and then painkillers defined her.

Marijuana even framed her life goals, modest ones for the former honors student from Niagara Falls.

"My goals for my life were to get a minimum-wage job, live in the projects and make enough money to smoke weed," she says.

She was stealing from drugstores, flunking court-ordered drug tests, developing bleeding ulcers and hanging out on Niagara Falls' toughest streets.

One day, she even smacked her mother.

"I started asking myself, 'Who are you? Why am I doing this?' This isn't me."

Her legal problems -- and her fear -- got her to Stepping Stones, where she has learned all about trust and honesty and friendship. And she has learned all about herself.

"I've learned that I don't have to run with the crowd," she said. "When I go to bed at night, I'm happy with myself. True happiness you can only find within yourself."

She last used drugs July 18. She smoked her last marijuana joint two months earlier, on May 10. But she knows about the daily battle she still faces.

"It's never beaten, ever," she said of her addiction. "It's always inside you, no matter what."

She tells her story openly and doesn't ever want to forget what she had become.

"If I forget who I was, I'll forget the pain," she said. "I'll forget how much I hurt others and myself."

Michelle earned her general equivalency diploma and hopes to enter Niagara University next fall. Someday, she wants to be a biology professor. And she hopes to support the Renaissance House campus for the rest of her life.

Fifteen to 20 years from now, how will she remember it?

"It gave me a new life," she said. "It gave me air to breathe."


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