I grew up in Queens, in a very dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic, and there was domestic violence as well as sexual abuse. So I turned to drugs to cope; first alcohol and then crack came into the picture. I was about 12 or 13 when I first started drinking, and the cocaine use started in my late teens and early 20s. I was actively using for 22 years, moving from welfare hotel to welfare hotel, after my father finally kicked me out of the house due to my drug use.
My journey took me to Staten Island, where I was homeless for a bit in my 30s, living in welfare hotels and abandoned buildings. At one point I called home, only to find out that my father had died and was already buried. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been there for my family. That knowledge sent me out on my last drug run, after which a shelter I was staying in made a call and connected me with Phoenix House. They secured a bed for me at Phoenix House Long Island City Center. I call our house “LIC, the house to be!”
I was 34 when I entered Phoenix House. In the beginning it was very vague and fog-like; I didn’t buy it for a second. I thought, “I don’t understand what I’m doing in this place with these people.” But pretty soon the induction director made it very clear why I was there—because I was a crackhead, that’s why! At some point something clicked, and I realized the truth: I was a crackhead, but that didn’t mean I had to be one forever.
I was at Phoenix House for 18 months. It was my only treatment experience, but it worked. After I graduated, I started working there as Facility Administrator. I met my second husband at Phoenix House, and we moved to the Bronx together. First he was diagnosed with HIV, and then I was; we both got it just from all those years of being out there, using. When he died I went into a deep depression, but I got through it thanks to therapy and the community I found at Transfiguration Lutheran Church down the block.
The pastor at that church saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She kept nudging me towards positive things, empowering me within the congregation and encouraging me. She was always talking about my worth. Every little step of the way, she’d say, “You can do this. Do you think you can do this?” Of course every time I said no, she’d say, “Yes you can.” She was my own Nike commercial—just do it! So I did it! I moved here to Philadelphia, went to seminary for four years, and I’m now a pastor of a congregation. Being ordained was a wonderful moment, but my best was speaking to a youth gathering of 33,000 senior high students in New Orleans. It was part of a year-long process that taught me many lessons about humanity and support.
Today I have 25 years clean. In addition to my responsibilities as a pastor, I also do a lot of HIV activism work, lessening stigma, particularly in the church. I tell people to get tested, know your status. Knowledge is power. These days I talk to my family all the time—my siblings and my mom. But I’m also still in touch with the folks from Phoenix House; they’ll be my “family” forever.
If you or a loved one needs help for substance abuse, call us today at 1 888 671 9392 or send us an email.