It was Dec. 18, 2006. Katherine “Kat” Ranko ducked into a Connecticut convenience store, grabbed Norelco electric razors and teeth whiteners, and ran out.

Ranko, a 20-year-old heroin addict at the time, intended to sell the stolen goods to a fence.

She didn’t get far.

Ranko was caught in front of the store and was sentenced to one year at York Correctional Institute in East Lyme, Conn., a maximum-security women’s prison.

“You have everyone from jaywalkers to people serving time for DUIs to murderers,” said Ranko. “There were people in there who had killed a girl I had gone to high school with. There I was, a drug addict, a young person housed amongst some of the scariest people I had ever encountered. That situation was really enough, so I thought, to halt the destructive behaviors for me. It was a terrifying experience.”

It would take Ranko another six years, and the help of Washington County mental health and drug addiction agencies, to dig herself out of the hole she landed in as a result of substance abuse and mental illness.

Today, Ranko, now 33, is a certified peer specialist and facilitator of psychiatric rehabilitation at AMI Inc., which provides recovery services for adults with mental illness and co-occurring disorders.

“I feel like I have a purpose in this world, and I never felt that before,” said Ranko.

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, Ranko, a mother of three daughters, now finds contentment in three things: providing hope and treatment to people with mental illness diagnoses and drug and alcohol issues; being a mom; and fly fishing.

Ranko said she began drinking and smoking marijuana at the age of 13.

Her parents, she said, abused drugs and alcohol, and Ranko was placed in foster care when she was 11.

She was “constantly in trouble” in high school, frequently getting suspended for getting into fights and verbal altercations with classmates, teachers and administrators, and impulsively jumping into unhealthy relationships.

Doctors told Ranko’s parents she had behavioral issues and ADHD and prescribed medications that “dulled my personality and my spirits, or changed my personality completely.”

Ranko got married when she was 17, and became legally emancipated from her mother. She gave birth to her oldest daughter in 2003, but began drinking heavily.

Three years later, her first husband asked for a divorce and gained custody of their daughter.

“That fueled a fire in me, and that was my justification for years afterward to medicate myself,” said Ranko.

After she served her one-year jail sentence, Ranko went to a halfway house in Connecticut where she remained clean and sober for about six months.

“But my visitations with my daughter through Children and Youth Services were not frequent enough for me, and I started to regain the chip on my shoulder I thought I’d left behind in prison,” recalled Ranko. “The minute that one of my visits with my daughter was canceled was reason enough for me to go out and use. Thank God, I never went back to heroin, but over the following years I continued to use any other substance I could get my hands on, and I’d justify it by saying, ‘I’m not using heroin.’”

In 2007, Ranko’s mother asked her to move with her to the Philadelphia area so that both could have a fresh start and get clean.

But they continued drinking, and in 2009, Ranko gave birth to her second daughter, Isabella.

The relationship with Izzy’s father was abusive, Ranko said, which “was reason enough for me to keep using.”

The turning point, Ranko said, was April 2012, when she was arrested for driving under the influence following an accident in which she blacked out while driving a friend’s car at 70 mph. The only injury she sustained was a bruised liver.

Ranko decided, for the sake of her children, to try rehab again.

She spent six months at Pyramid Healthcare in Altoona, a drug and alcohol detox rehabilitation treatment center, while Izzy was placed in a foster care home in the Poconos.

Ranko believed she had turned a corner, but her plans to go to Gaudenzia Vantage House in Lancaster – one of the country’s best facilities for women struggling with addiction, which permits them to live with their children during their recovery – fell through when she lost her insurance.

Her counselors at Pyramid researched facilities that would take her, and they found a place with an opening: Avis Arbor Women’s Shelter in Washington. But she couldn’t bring Izzy.

“So I moved across the state to little Washington,” said Ranko.

She remained clean and abstinent, but grew complacent and fell into a pattern of breaking curfew, missing morning Bible readings, hanging out with the wrong crowd. She was asked to leave the program.

A counselor at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services recommended Ranko look into Fresh Start transitional housing for domestic violence victims.

She spent two months at Fresh Start, and landed her first job, at a Subway restaurant in Washington.

“I said to my boss, ‘I’m newly clean, I’m new to the area, I’m trying to get my daughter back. I have a lot of issues, but I’m a hard worker. Can you please give me a job?’” recalled Ranko. “He said, ‘You’re hired.’ I worked very diligently, and I walked every day to and from Subway and opened it at 6 a.m. I felt such humility and gratitude.”

She moved into an apartment owned by Fresh Start, and in November 2012, CYS contacted her to schedule a visit with Izzy.

They spent a week together, and at a court hearing in Allentown on Nov. 30, 2012, Ranko regained custody of Izzy.

“And that’s where my recovery really took off. I said, ‘OK, I am meant to be a mom, and I am going to be OK, and I can do this,” said Ranko. “It gave me the confidence I was lacking. Something clicked.”

She participated in SPHS’s intensive outpatient program for four years, and began taking college classes when someone mentioned she should apply for a peer mentoring position that opened up at AMI.

It was, she says, the “missing puzzle piece in my life.”

“The day I got my first referral for one of my peers, I can remember seeing the other agencies my peer had involvement with – CYS, SPHS, parole, Justice Works – and I thought, oh my gosh, I think I can help this person. And the caseload started to grow and grow and grow,” Ranko said. “And every day I get to tell women that I’ve been there and I know what it feels like to not be able to slow those racing thoughts down, and I know what it feels like to think that nobody understands, and to lose absolutely everything and to feel like there is no reason to even exist.”

On July 16, Ranko and her husband, Rob, a recovering heroin addict and a camping department supervisor at Field & Stream in Washington, will celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary.

The pair have a 1-year-old daughter, Lucy May, whose middle name is in memory of several of the Rankos’ friends who, over the years, lost their lives to drug overdoses in the month of May.

It was Rob who got Kat into fly fishing, which she calls her “personal medicine, my all-natural Zoloft.”

“I was not an outdoor girl when I met my husband. Now, I’ve learned that casting, that being in nature, the sound of the water, the birds, it all grounds me. It helps calm me down. I still have my days where I struggle immensely. When I’m struggling, we grab the kids and head for the mountains where I fish and I hike and I do everything and anything to bring myself back to earth,” said Ranko.

Ranko hopes that someday she can establish a relationship with her oldest daughter, whom she last saw and spoke to three years ago on a Connecticut beach on Mother’s Day weekend.

“The horrible reality of the stigma associated with mental illness is that sometimes people don’t understand that people can change and heal and grow, which is unfortunate because I have so much to offer my child these days. All I can do is pray that someday she’ll come find me,” said Ranko, an advocate for mental health and drug and alcohol programs. “I’m in a good place. Motherhood and my job, together, have put me back together. It’s pieced me back together. I’m whole again.”

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