The day before I interview Janine (her name has been changed), she speaks to a group of women who are in a specialty court in Columbus, Ohio. They are part of a jail diversion program of treatment for the drug addictions that often underlie their crimes. They are in recovery from substance use, homelessness, and prostitution. She tells them her story, to help provide some hope that change is entirely possible.
“Over 17 years ago, I got high in that very same courthouse and it was just horrible. I was arrested 14 times before I entered recovery. I was a crackhead living in an apartment in a sordid part of Columbus and here I am now,” says Janine. The women in the courthouse nod their heads, identifying with her story. She tells them about her desperation prayers, “if you get me out of this one, I will go home and stop this cycle of insanity and remorse.” “Some women stuck around to talk to me. We rode the bus together and so we sat at the bus stop and talked a little bit more,” says Janine.
Now Janine works with the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services as a Regional Coordinator. Her focus areas are co-occurring disorders, treatment, and recovery. While she does not work directly with women, if women call her, she is there to help facilitate access to services. Her primary role is to assist county boards with placement, technical assistance, training, and location of resources.
In her teens and early twenties, Janine embraced alcohol, crack cocaine, and violence. “I ended up doing things for drugs that I was not accustomed to doing just to get the drug. At age 24, with 13 arrests, I was in and out of the prison system. In 1989, I gave birth to my son in the middle of addiction,” shares Janine. She had sought treatment while pregnant and received regular prenatal care. But she was using during her pregnancy. She told her care providers the truth about her drug use and wondered if there was some way out. At the time, as a welfare recipient, she did not qualify for a treatment center. She wanted help and could not find it. “My mind said, I guess I am just supposed to die this way. I tried to stay away from my family because I could see that I was hurting them,” says Janine.
She was using the day her water broke, December 2, 1989.
“I just happened to be up the street from my childhood home. I was getting high and something told me to just go home. My water broke the minute I walked in the door. I showered and waited for my mom to come home,” says Janine. She believed she had hit bottom, but like many people who become addicted to drinking and using, she would find herself desperate for help again and again. By 1993, Janine had been in and out of treatment and through brief periods of recovery. At that point, she was kicked out of what she describes as “the nastiest crack house in Columbus.”
While she had a long history of what she describes as bargain prayers, Janine simply asked for help and safety. She found it and was welcomed into a recovery community. “I met an older woman who took my face in her hands and said to me, ‘hope is found here.’
She wanted to work during her first year of sobriety, but was encouraged to find a temporary job and focus on her recovery. “I really thought that I should go to work and be fabulous. I knew I could help people, but I didn’t know where. I figured that as a violent offender I would not be able to work with women, children, or the elderly,” said Janine. With guidance from others in recovery she was encouraged to give herself time to heal and understand that the right job would present itself.
“I got a job offer from McDonald’s,” says Janine. While it was not what she had hoped for, she made an effort to invest herself in the work. She was still struggling with an image of herself as a “crackhead,” but her spiritual path was beginning to lead her beyond this negative self-perception. Instead of beating up on herself she began to ask herself, “What can I bring to life? How can I be helpful?” Working at the McDonalds drive-up window, she looked people in the eye, smiled with genuine care and told people that everything they had ordered was in the bag. “Your fries are crispy and golden,” Janine offered. She often found herself in meaningful conversations with people she was serving. She listened to people who were having a hard time.
Eventually she was a hired by a treatment center to work with people with co-occurring disorders and criminal histories. Since entering recovery, Janine has worked, provided for her children, maintained a home, and exited a hopeless marriage.
When a woman who has a difficult past is willing to share her life story, other women may see the real possibility for transformation. Janine is not only changing the perception of women and addiction, but also opening a small window for others. While the light she shares may be just a pinpoint, it can be enough to encourage a willingness to believe in change.
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