FCYU128 cover image See all stories from issue #128, Spring 2017

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From Addiction to Connection
Alesha M.
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Before the drugs, the social workers, and the much older boyfriend, I was a happy little girl living in Queens with my mother and grandparents. I played outside with the kids on my block, went to school, and looked forward to the future.

My mom played the role of both parents. She would come home every day with pastries from her job at a bakery at the Port Authority, happy to see me. I felt loved and supported. Two months after my 8th birthday, my little sister Zohara was born. She was the light of my life; I wanted to protect and guide her.

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However, things began to change after my mother gave birth. My grandfather lost his job, which meant my mom had to work more hours to cover the rent. She got a new boyfriend and stopped spending her free time with me. Then she lost her job.

My mother started drinking, and she wasn’t my mom when she drank. She became mentally, physically, and emotionally abusive. She called me names and told me I was worthless and unwanted.

Things never seemed to get any better. On her dark nights, she’d look lost and dazed. I knew something was different, but I didn’t know why. Years later, I found out she’d been using cocaine.

I dreaded coming home from school. I’d brace myself for drunken arguments between my mom and grandfather. We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, and I didn’t have my own room, so I was caught in the middle of every argument. My grandfather had a substance abuse problem himself, but he defended me when my mom mistreated me.

My grandmother couldn’t stop the fights, but she made sure my sister and I were always fed. It hurt to watch my family become a dysfunctional mess. By the time I was in 7th grade, my mother was rarely sober.

I fell into a dark abyss of depression, but I tried to smile for my sister. Even though I was only 12, I made her happiness my priority.

I wished every day I’d been born into another family. Anger grew inside me, but I couldn’t do anything about my situation, so I kept it bottled up until I was 13. Then I ran away.

With no place to go and no money, I slept on the subway, in stairwells, or on friends’ couches. Sometimes I ate in soup kitchens or begged for food.

My best friend Antoinette was a pretty girl whose home life was much better than mine. However, when I ran away, she looked out for me, even slept from house to house with me. She’d tell her mother she was spending the night at a friend’s house and we’d go wherever the wind led us.

Washing Away My Worries

Sometimes we were safe and sometimes we weren’t. I met gang-associated older people who let us crash at their apartments. Most of them drank and smoked. By then I was already rolling blunts, but I discovered that I loved drinking. The warm liquid trickling down my throat sent a rush through every cell in my body, washing away my worries. It was also a way of fitting in and feeling accepted.

I felt ashamed of myself for abandoning my little sister, but I couldn’t take the arguing, the name calling, the disrespect, and the powerlessness of being trapped in the middle of the fights. So I stayed away and drank to forget about home. Occasionally I’d go back to check on my sister. If I’d been gone too long, she’d act distant, like she didn’t know who I was.

Sometimes, when my mom was herself, she’d call me crying and ask me to come home. But I just couldn’t, even though I felt like my life was at a standstill. Academically I was OK; I was a smart kid even with the alcohol killing my brain cells. But freshman year I stopped going to school. That led Child Protective Services (CPS) to open a case. Shortly after my 14th birthday, my mom told the police she couldn’t handle me anymore, and I was placed in a foster home.

It was stressful living with strangers and trying to hide my addictions. I’d leave the house to get high and I never formed a bond with a foster parent. Emotionally, I was increasingly unstable. From 14 to 15 I moved around to different foster homes, ran away, and transferred high schools several times. I struggled to catch up in school, and coped by getting high and imagining a life where I lived independently yet had structure and stability.

When my grandmother found out I was drinking and smoking, she was disappointed, but not my mother. When I was 14 and visiting her from foster care, I pulled out a blunt and asked her for a light. We were sitting in our small kitchen, and she was next to the window where a kitchen fan pulled the smoke out. She didn’t look shocked or surprised. “I want to smoke,” she said as she handed over a lighter.

Getting high became our bond. I pushed away the past, and we went in on bud and bottles. My friends all thought it was cool, but I knew I wasn’t going to get my mother back.
By the time I turned 16, I was also using acid, OxyContin, molly—every drug except crack and heroin. (I think I would’ve eventually gotten there.) In the month leading up to my 16th birthday, I drank gallons of alcohol and popped ecstasy pills like Skittles.

Around that time, my foster care agency told me I needed to go to a substance abuse treatment hospital upstate. I didn’t want to go, but my workers, my mother, and even my boyfriend (who I used with) thought it was a good idea.

I didn’t feel ready. I told myself I could stop if I wanted to, but really, I didn’t want to ask for help. Saying it out loud meant I was an addict. So instead of going to rehab, I AWOLed.

Hitting Bottom

Then, one day last October, I woke up in the afternoon after spending the night at my family’s house. I jumped out of bed and smoked a cigarette. My sister sat on the living room floor watching a movie, my grandma cooked in the kitchen, my grandfather slept on the couch, and my mother was passed out from drinking all night. I tossed the cigarette butt into the sink and took out the small baggie from my back pocket and a dollar bill. I sniffed the last bit of coke I had, and then disappeared through the door to meet my friend Jasmine.

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We spent a few hours smoking and drinking with a few people. When the sun went down, I went back to mom’s to get ready to go out. I could feel the liquor hitting as I went upstairs. I popped a Xanax, threw on a green jumpsuit, and went back out with a big smile on my face. I felt happy to be accepted by a crowd, happy the drugs were hitting. As we walked around the neighborhood, I swigged Hennessy from a ginger ale bottle. Around 9 p.m. I popped a molly and drank from a cup that had molly crumbs at the bottom, and that’s the last thing I remember.

I woke up the next morning naked in the house of a guy I knew in Queens. My ankle was throbbing. I felt helpless, afraid, and alone. The guy told me to get in the shower. I just wanted to be back in my foster home, all the way back in Staten Island, to lie down in my own bed and act like this had never happened. Instead, I went to my mom’s house and called my social worker.

I often contacted the agency before I could face the disappointment of my foster mom. My social worker felt like a friend; I trusted her. That morning I told her everything that had happened up through the drugged-up night before. I told her I was tired of running and of feeling alone. I only spent time with people doing drugs, and when I sobered up, I realized our connection wasn’t real. They weren’t my friends. I told her I was ready to get clean.

Every inch of my body wanted some type of drug to take away the pain. Despite my cravings, I limped onto the train on my hurt ankle and headed for the agency. They’d already packed my clothes for the treatment hospital. During that van ride I reminisced on my whole life. I wanted to go back to the happy girl from my childhood, and I realized I needed to be clean to find myself again.

After admission to the hospital, Four Winds, I was put into a substance abuse therapy group. Although I was anxious about it at first, being in the hospital gave me a chance to reflect on who I was apart from the drugs. I had to figure out what I liked to do and what my goals were.

New Priorities

“Why are you here?” my therapist asked me.

I honestly didn’t know: Was I crazy for using drugs to cope? Don’t all teens hit this phase?

I had to put pride aside; I was tired of being alone. “I need help,” I said.

I didn’t know this lady from a can of paint, but I could tell her intentions were good. I poured my heart out. I was vulnerable.

“You’re very mindful,” she said with a smile, before wrapping up.

I was mindful, yes, but I was also impulsive.

The hospital routine was: Wake up, shower, eat breakfast, and walk to school. The structure re-molded my mornings, until my first waking thought wasn’t about drugs but about getting to the bathroom before the floors were soaked.

I went to school with other patients my age in the mornings. After lunch was group therapy. Everyone had their own issues, but most were easy to relate to. The first couple sessions I stayed to myself, but eventually I began to speak in group.

I met lots of different people of different races with different problems. Four Winds took my mind away from the drugs and brought me back to enjoying simple activities. Overcoming my addiction seemed less difficult with the support from staff. I stayed there a whole month.

New Joy in Small Things

Once I left Four Winds, I was determined: No more drugs for me. The reality hasn’t been so straightforward. I still smoke weed three or four days a week and I drink on occasion. Even so, my social workers are proud of the progress I’ve made. They see more stability and effort in my life, and so do I.

I’m not going to lie, though: I never feel good enough. I fear relapsing. I know I’m not ready to stop completely, but I hope one day to be completely clean, free from all addictions.

It’s been more than a year since that terrible October night when I went from licking up molly crumbs to a random guy’s bed. I’m not clean yet, but I’ve learned better ways of coping, like writing, going to movies or amusement parks, or even ice skating.

Letting go of my drug life took a weight off my shoulders. I can feel myself maturing when I don’t take wrong paths. I enjoy small things like watching movies, laughing at corny jokes, and building bonds with people.

When I came out of the hospital I wanted to start fresh. I moved back to an old foster home that I’d lived in when I was younger. I slept a lot and didn’t go out. My foster mom realized something was wrong and told my therapist, who I’d been seeing for almost three years. My therapist got me into dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which teaches you to look at your own thoughts and assumptions, and shows you how to use coping skills, like deep breathing, to help manage your emotions. My foster sisters also stepped in and started taking me out to do fun things.

My relationship with my mother is getting better, too. She’s cleaned herself up. When we see each other now, we talk about the progress we’ve made, about her new job or my future plans. My sister is getting more attention than I did: I’m happy that she might get the childhood I didn’t.

My life isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than it was. My goal is to finish high school, attend college, and build a career as a therapist. I’d like to help other people through experiences that are hard to overcome alone, using what I learned about asking for help.

(FCYU-2017-04-08)