Brian Mittge Commentary: From Addict Child to Inspiring College Grad

By Brian Mittge / For The Chronicle

“Stop selling yourself short. You don’t know what tomorrow might bring, so you might want to consider starting today.

– Virginia Burton, eight years without drugs, who will graduate this week from the University of Washington at 48 years old

The photographs stop you dead in your scroll.

On the left, a police ID photo of a woman with a hollow, sick face. His protruding, half-closed eyes droop with dependence and exhaustion. Her dark hair is cut almost down to the skin, except for a strand of pink tinted bangs hanging above the sunken eyebrows.

On the right is a woman who you can hardly believe is the same person. She beams with satisfaction and health, smiling with her arms folded confidently in a crisp black dress. She wears a black college graduation cap, with a 2021 tassel, sitting on long golden hair.

The photos 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 will graduate next week with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Washington after being abstinent for more than eight years. This is a major turnaround, as the photos clearly illustrate.

Most of her life has been a wreck, thanks to the drug addiction that began when her mother introduced her to marijuana at the age of 6. At 12, she was using methamphetamine and cocaine. She smoked crack cocaine and got drunk when she was 14.

“At the age of 15, I was a full-fledged drug addict,” she told a reporter in Columbus, Ohio this week.

She was in and out of juvenile detention. She has been incarcerated three times – twice with her mother. The whole time she wanted to quit using drugs, she said, but couldn’t.

She thanks the police for helping her arrest. After her fourth arrest, she was referred to a non-profit organization that helped her avoid jail.

“They stood next to me as I made 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 college and enter a masters program. It also aims to obtain a law degree. Ultimately, she wants to help change the prison system, which she says doesn’t help rehabilitate people or prepare them with the skills they need to be successful once released.

She would like prisons to require courses in treatment, therapy, education, vocational training, parenting, finance and conflict resolution. This would reduce recidivism and create a safer community, she said.

As she marks a milestone in education, Burton decided to pair her graduation photo with her drug addict police ID photo.

Two weeks ago, she posted the two photos side by side saying, “And that for motivation? Honestly, I thought I would die on a park bench with a needle in my arm or shot in the head. I never thought, in a million years, that my life would look like it is today.

This Facebook post has now been shared over 5,000 times. Burton said she was thrilled that her life story could inspire others to change.

“I haven’t lived my life in vain, everything was meant to bring others to a new place on their path,” she posted earlier this week. “It’s not me … All alone I’m destroying my life. I got help. Divine intervention.”

Virginia Burton plans to get her masters degree at age 50. She will be ten years from the despair of addiction. Her story shows us that whatever challenges you face at this point in your life, the future is always yours to shape and celebrate.


Brian Mittge has written about life in the greater Lewis County area since 2000. His column appears in The Chronicle every Saturday. Contact him at [email protected]

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