Phyllis Lawson recently returned to Phoenix House to share excerpts from her new memoir, Quilt of Souls, and took the occasion to impress upon the audience how writing can aid the healing process. From 1997-2002, Lawson worked first as a clinician at the Phoenix Men’s Program, then at Deep Run Lodge, now the Girls Recovery Lodge. As part of her 30-day national book tour, Lawson made a point to visit the Phoenix House Counseling Center in Arlington, Virginia. She wanted to tell the clients of Girls Recovery Lodge and Demeter House about her inspiration and resilience that led to her book.
At the age of four, a black town car arrived at Lawson’s home in Detroit and drove her to Alabama to live with her grandparents. With the innocence and naivety of a four year old, she didn’t think much of the mysterious trip in the beginning, but when she saw buildings turn to trees, and paved roads turn to dirt roads, she wasn’t sure what was coming next. Due to trauma and fear of the unknown, her young body shook constantly, even in the Alabama heat. Her Grandma Lula would say, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do to keep you warm, girl.” One day, Grandma Lula brought out a quilt she had made from the clothing of their deceased relatives and wrapped it around her. From that point on, the shaking disappeared. Lawson explained that the sense of calm and comfort came directly from the souls of the family members that once wore the clothes.
Lawson’s family history includes tragic deaths, poverty, slavery, and indescribable emotional pain, the driving forces behind the resilience impressed upon her by her grandmother. As she recounted stories of what it was like growing up with grandparents in the South, many of the clients in the audience nodded in agreement.
At age 12, a second black town car arrived, returning Lawson back to Detroit. There she was severely physically abused by her mother day and night. By age 15, she discovered that marijuana and alcohol helped her feel better; taking away pain and confusion. She ran away and found herself homeless in Pittsburgh, sleeping in bus stations and eating out of dumpsters. At this point she called upon the power of her grandmother’s quilt, finding inner strength so that she could get sober. “I was being selfish with my pain, so I decided to write it out,” recalls Lawson. She shared how being open to write helped her heal from the pain and substance use that had led her to her “rock bottom.”
George Knoerlein, Director of Clinical Operations at Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic was proud to host such an event. “It’s always refreshing for clients and staff to hear someone speak so openly about their life,” Knoerlein shared. “Ms. Lawson’s story is a true example of strength and resilience that can be inspiring for clients to hear while they’re going through treatment and focusing on recovery.”
After sharing the chaotic story of her childhood and adolescence, Lawson opened up the floor to clients. many of whom expressed their appreciation for Lawson sharing her story. It seemed that many could connect to her story in some way: the desperation, pain, poverty, family chaos, confusion, or homelessness. In closing, Lawson strongly encouraged all in the room to begin writing. “I know one of you in here will publish a book one day. You all have incredible stories that should be shared,” she said. As she signed books for the clients, she gave each one a hug and said, “Write your story.”
Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic’s nationally accredited programs provide residential, transitional, and outpatient treatment with gender-specific programs available for both adults and adolescents. Also available is a Spanish-speaking men’s residential program.