Writer Sosha Lewis comes from a long family line of substance abuse, and she writes about her past struggles and present joys on her blog, “It’s Not Sasha.” This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Sosha about the woman who most inspired her to break the vicious cycle of addiction.
My great-grandmother, Conley, was 100 pounds fully dressed—and that’s with shoes and a heavy coat! She was five feet tall before the sclerosis hunched her even smaller. Conley lived through the Great Depression. She bore 13 children and buried three: two sons and a daughter. She endured a hard-drinking husband and a poverty-filled nomadic lifestyle. Several of Conley’s children and grandchildren suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. However, she kept her family together despite everything—even when one of her sons shot and killed her grandson during a drunken brawl. She was the strongest woman I have ever known.
My mother was one of Conley’s grandchildren who suffered from addiction. My mom and Conley shared a special bond as well as a middle name, Juanita. After my mom was arrested for selling narcotics, she didn’t want to face her grandmother, but when she did, Grandma Conley gave her a hug. She told her everything was going to be ok, that she just needed to get her back life together—and that she had to do it, for the sake of my sister, my brother, and me.
When my mom got out of prison, she did get her life together for a while. She was clean and functioning when my great-grandmother passed away. My mom spent many of those final nights sleeping in a recliner in Conley’s hospital room, rebuilding their relationship. But only a couple of months after Conley’s death, I found syringes hidden in my mother’s bathroom. Her descent back into drug use was quick and violent; she lost her job, she violated her parole, and she was sent back to prison. She would never get clean again. At least my mom’s true, sober self was the one my great-grandmother died knowing.
Grandma Conley was my safe haven throughout my childhood. She was where I ran when my world was swirling into chaos. She lived above our apartment when I was little, and we would go for daily walks and get hot dogs at a local lunch counter. Then, on the day when the federal agents raided our house and carted my mother off to jail, I filled a Hefty bag with clothes and books, threw it over my shoulder, and ran – literally – to Conley’s small duplex, willing myself not to cry. I crawled straight into her giant bed and got under the covers. She patted my hand, handed me the book she was reading, and said, “My eyes are a little tired. Why don’t you read to me for a bit?” So I did. I read to her until I fell into a sound sleep.
My great-grandmother was one of the greatest women who ever lived. She wasn’t just my great-grandmother; she was my escape route away from drugs, away from fighting, away from the vicious cycle of addiction. Her name was Ida Juanita Null Conley but I just called her Conley. When our daughter was born, my husband and I didn’t have to think twice about what to call her; we named her Conley. It was the only name we agreed on, and we know our daughter will grow to be just as strong as her namesake.
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