My history with addiction goes as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Brooklyn with an abusive alcoholic mother and a younger sister with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. My mother was always very violent, but when I was 13 she threw me out of a window and I finally reported her to the police. Child welfare authorities sent me to some group homes where I was sexually assaulted, and I ran away pretty quickly. I went straight to the streets.
I became involved with a much older gentleman – I was 15 and he was about 35 – and we would drink and do cocaine together. He was possessive and abusive, and when things got too bad I ran away again and this time joined the army. In the military, you’re not allowed to use drugs but you are allowed to drink, so I would drink—so much that I’d often black out. I tried to make the army into a good experience but I never learned responsibility or discipline because I had no support systems in my life. I wound up leaving with honorable discharge; they thought I had potential, but I just couldn’t follow the rules.
By the time I came back to New York I was pregnant, and the baby’s father had promised to marry me. We did get married, but I only saw him three or four times after that. He would send me checks for the baby but there was no relationship, and I never understood why. That hurt me a lot; I had thought he would be my opportunity, my “somebody to love” who would take care of me. But I was wrong. So I took that rejection along with all my other baggage, I gave my son to my in-laws, and I went back to the streets. I stayed there for ten years.
From 1992 to 2002, I never had a real place to stay. I was afraid of shelters so I slept on rooftops, in parks, and in hallways. My drug use went from alcohol to coke to crack, and it wasn’t long before I picked up heroin. I survived by prostituting because I was too scared to rob anybody—I didn’t even look appropriate enough to go into a store. Physically, a lot happened during my ten years of prostitution that should have woken me up, but nothing did. My addictions were always there. I remember crawling out of the hospital in a diaper, trying to find a dealer. I remember limping out, turning tricks, buying drugs, and sneaking back in. I got infections in my buttocks, my hip bone, my leg, my arm, my aorta…my body was resistant to antibiotics. It was probably the blood transfusions that saved my life, but they couldn’t make me stop using.
One day, I got assaulted really badly by someone who was trying to rob me. My head was bleeding, but instead of calling the police or going to the hospital I went out to buy drugs, and I got arrested. Initially they said I could do 30 days in jail or six months at Phoenix House Long Island City Center; of course, I had already been arrested 21 times, so serving 30 days was no big deal to me. But the judge was really phenomenal, he kind of screamed at the courtroom, “Are you people crazy? This woman keeps showing up in front of me and she needs help!” He said to me, “Do you realize the condition you’re in? Do you know you’re about to die?” I was scared, 90 pounds, shaking, throwing up, already going through withdrawal from being in the precinct overnight…needless to say, I went to Phoenix House.
My first six months in treatment, I didn’t do any work. I was wrapped up in flirting with the guys! Sure, I would cry, but I never put words with the tears. On my days off, I would still go out and prostitute. I thought that everything was fine as long as I wasn’t using drugs, but I had no idea. One day, I left Phoenix House, relapsed, and immediately overdosed. I woke up in the hospital and what did I feel? I felt pissed off because I didn’t get to feel that high! That’s when I realized; it wasn’t just my behavior that was an issue, it was my entire mindset. I knew I no longer needed those things – drugs, prostitution, self-destructive attitudes – to survive.
I went back to Phoenix House and I never looked back. I went through a lot of therapy, encounter groups, crying and crawling on the floor and throwing chairs. It was very painful but I learned how to identify how I felt and how to put words with my tears. When I completed treatment, I went to the Phoenix House Academy of Westchester to work as a stipend in the dental department. The program director knew I was a hard worker, and she had faith in me—even though she recognized me from when I worked the street corners in Brooklyn! She promised me I’d never have to go back to prostitution, and she helped me do my training to become a dental assistant. Now I’m the Dental Coordinator for the NY region, and I’ve been going to college part-time for the past seven years. I have degrees in Business and Human Services, and I’m looking forward to pursuing an advanced degree in the near future.
I’m passionate about Phoenix House and I make sure I put myself in a position where I can make a difference. I have a great relationship with the clients; I’m a free spirit, and I try to make them laugh. Phoenix House saved my life; I love everyone here, and I know they genuinely love me. October 14, 2011 marked my ninth year sober. I mean, who would have thought I could even last nine minutes? It feels like yesterday that I was sleeping on a rooftop in a blizzard. I remember going to sleep and wishing I wouldn’t wake up—but I always did. At the time, staying alive was a disappointment, but today I’m so glad I survived.
I’ve found a new family in my wonderful husband (whom I met at Phoenix House), in the dental team, and in my little sister, Crystal. That’s right: I got custody of my sister when my mom died. Crystal was 32 at the time and very damaged, but I got her into an amazing group home two minutes away from my house. Because of her fetal alcohol disorder, she needs guidance and supervision in everything she does, and I’m so happy that I’m sober enough to help her now. She’s been in therapy for three years and she’s come a long way; today she’s social and articulate, she speaks more and goes out. Before, she was afraid of everything. My recovery has done so much for me, but seeing Crystal happy is the icing on the cake.