Project LINK is run by Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County, a grantee of the Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) program of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. The SSH program funds grantees to provide intensive services to prevent or reduce chronic homelessness.
For Cheryl A. Bushman, sharing her story comes without hesitation. “I have learned that no matter where you come from, you can recover from substance use. Today, I have hope, and I share it by telling my story,” she says.
Cheryl is a service provider who leads a Life Resources Group for people in recovery at Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County’s Project Link in Texas. “I was brought up in an upper middle class white family,” she says. “To look at us from the outside, you would say it was the perfect American dream. But there was an underbelly.” Cheryl was sexually abused by a family member for most of her childhood and began drinking at age fifteen. “I still managed to get straight A’s,” remembers Cheryl. “I did all of the things that made my parents happy, and to make them think that I was fine.”
But she was far from fine. Eventually, no longer able to juggle these two worlds, she attempted suicide. What followed was a shallow attempt at healing and counseling with her parents, who, she explains, wanted nothing to change.
At age seventeen, Cheryl left home to get married, but her marriage lasted only one month. Soon after, she started using crack cocaine, a habit that nearly destroyed her. “It was just like you see in the movies,” recalls Cheryl. “I always chose men who abused me.” She lost a child during those years of domestic abuse and substance use.
That was the start of her awakening. “I considered myself a horrible mom, and a horrible daughter. I believed everyone would be so much better off without me,” she says. On her last day of using, Cheryl had a moment of clarity through her haze of whiskey and cocaine. She saw herself dead on the floor, and she saw her son coming down the stairs to find her. She could see in this vision that he would never get over it.
That was enough for Cheryl. She stopped using and told her grandmother, “I cannot do this anymore; please help me.”
Today, Cheryl runs a life skills group for people in recovery who are living in permanent supportive housing as part of her work for Project LINK. Project LINK uses the evidence-based practice of Program for Assertive Community Treatment (PACT). She understands that the one thing that matters most in recovery is to know that others care if you get up in the morning. In her view, that is what makes people want to improve their lives.
Cheryl’s personal interpretation of the PACT model is to “relentlessly pursue.” “I have a core team that truly cares,” she says. “People are so used to having others write them off, but we will never write anyone off. Where people used to hear, ‘You’re a crack whore,’ they now hear, ‘I believe in you every step of the way, even if you walk two steps forward and four steps back.”
Cheryl’s relentless team has been extremely committed and successful, which she attributes to grace. “People can come here and see that we really care,” she explains. “When you relapse, I am going to knock on your door until you let me in.”
The Life Resources Group is a place for community connections. Cheryl describes it in this way: “It is like coming home, if home were a good place to go.” People socialize, share food, write in journals, and discuss different topics every month. “Ultimately,” she says, “we talk about real-life issues.” Cheryl often provides examples from her own life to get the group started and describes the group as very connected.
At first, participants were expected to attend the Life Resources Group for one year only. When the first cohort of participants completed a year in the group, they felt so strongly connected to the group that they asked if they could continue attending. Now, participation in the Life Resources Group is time-unlimited for all participants.
One woman in the group strikes a special chord with Cheryl and reminds her of her own story. This woman is fifty-two and had been living a lifestyle defined by drugs, alcohol, and abusive men. She had just exited a homeless shelter into transitional housing when she was referred to the Life Resources Group. But she was still drinking.
Cheryl told her story to this woman. And one day, the woman said, “I just don’t want to do this anymore, and I don’t know how to stop.” Finally, after ending up in the hospital, she left her abusive relationship. Now, she is sober and has returned to school to earn her GED as a step toward attending college. “We help her with her math, but she doesn’t need any help with English,” says Cheryl.
As a service provider, Cheryl believes it is critical to see people as human beings, to really look into their eyes, to see who they are, and to help them understand that they are special. She hopes that all service providers can learn to see through this lens. Cheryl wears the scars of her life like flowers to provide hope to others. She still has private moments where life happens and hits her in the present like a storm. But she is giving back a narrative that heals. Often, the hardest parts of our past can be the greatest assets to others who feel desperate to find a way out of the dark.
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