Growing up, my mother was a divorced alcoholic and I didn’t know my biological father. My mother was known as the town drunk, so I was always ridiculed in school due to her neglect. I started drinking at the age of 10 just to numb the pain from abuse.
As I got older, I started hanging around drug users and it made me feel like I was part of a group. Finally, I belonged. I started with marijuana and then progressed to angel dust. Drugs let me forget all the stuff that was going on at home. I took to the streets in Forest Hills, Queens. There was an area known as “the dome,” where people sold every kind of drug. I gravitated there. A priest named Father Costello used to walk through the park collecting addicts and trying to get them into treatment. But I always said, “Leave me alone. I don’t need help!” I got arrested for possession when I was thirteen and then I was released to my mother, which was the worst thing that could have happened.
Eventually, I started freebasing cocaine and then, from the age of 16 on, crack became a cheaper option. My alcoholism also progressed during this time. I was thrown out of high school. My mother had remarried and my stepfather was the most wonderful man. He worked so hard to give us what we needed; he even tried to put me in beauty school, but I was thrown out of there, too. At one point, I was physically beaten and hospitalized.
My life was a mess when I became pregnant at age 21. It was my daughter who made me realize that I had to change. When she was two and a half, I remember sitting on the kitchen floor drinking Marsala cooking wine. That was one of my lowest points. I thought, “My God, history is repeating itself!” I had always visualized a better life, but I realized that my daughter was growing up in the same environment I did. I loved my daughter so much, but I could not stop using. I asked my aunt to take care of her and immediately she said yes. Then I went back to find Father Costello, the same priest who had tried to help me years earlier. He was the one who helped me get into Phoenix House.
I went into treatment at the age of 25 and I haven’t used since. I had such low self-esteem when I arrived. My stepfather always told me, “You’re a smart girl,” but I never believed it. With the help of my counselors and wonderful treatment groups, I started to realize that he was right. He came to visit me in the program and right before he got back on the train, he turned to me and said, “Hey Jules.” I said, “Yeah, Dad?” He then looked at me and said, “It’s very nice to meet you.” I had been high every day of my life, but he could see that I was a totally different person in recovery. He died a week later. Those were his last words to me and they were so profound.
I continued to do well in treatment because the staff at Phoenix House’s Long Island City Center really got it. Many of my counselors were in recovery, so they understood what I was going through. Even the founder Mitch Rosenthal made a point of engaging with clients. After I finished treatment, I went to work in a nursing home where I stayed for nine years. One day, I was asked to check in on a new patient and it turned out to be one of my counselors from Phoenix House. Now, I had to take care of him. During that period, I confided in him that I really didn’t like nursing. He asked, “Well, what do you like?” I told him that what I really felt passionate about was recovery and how I believe in it with all my heart. That’s when he told me to call Phoenix House and apply to be a counselor.
I started as a junior counselor in 2000 and I’ve been back ever since. In 2005, I started working in our mental health program—and I realized that this was my true calling. I grew to be the director of Phoenix House’s Mental Health Services. And, as of a year and a half ago, I’m the vice president of Mental Health and Military Services. Now, I sit in the same courtroom where I was arraigned and the judge asks me for advice about our military program. I feel like my story has really come full circle.
My personal life has also changed for the better. I met my husband at 38 and had my second child at 43. Being able to start a family again has been incredible. My older daughter is back in my life and I’m so grateful to my aunt for raising her to be a beautiful, strong young woman.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet my biological father. He said, “Julia, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to save you and take you away from all that when you were a kid.” And I looked at him and said, “Well, I’m not, because if you had, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.” I truly believe that no matter how painful my experience was, it was all part of my journey. Today, I have 22 years of sobriety. During my addiction, I was broken, scared, and desperate for love. Now, I have the greatest gift—to help others see that people can and do recover.
If you or a loved one needs help for substance abuse, call us today at 1 888 671 9392 or send us an email.