A Woman of Integrity

I have a hero. Her name is Justine.

She is the daughter of a former colleague of mine. Her story is one of overcoming and paying forward. In other words, a “success story”. We are surrounded by heartbreaking stories (“One family loses two sons to opioid epidemic: It’s ‘overwhelming’“) including COVID-19’s “deaths of despair” so we need to celebrate successes (I wrote about another on August 25, 2017).

Justine started using crack cocaine at 13. As she felt the longing to belong to something, she joined a gang and became involved in a lifestyle that included violence, using and selling drugs, etc. A few days shy of turning 20 years old, Justine gave birth to a daughter, was married and attempted to “live life on life’s terms.” However, she wore metaphorical masks and played many roles. She always wanted to be part of something, to be wanted, to feel important, to “feel better in her own skin.” That was mostly because of body image issues, a father that talked down to her, and tremendous insecurity and lack of self-respect. She suffered from survivor’s guilt because of people she knew lost to gang involvement and drug use. To say there was a lot going on in her head and life (psychosocial) would be a massive understatement.

After a failed suicide attempt in March 2015 she accepted the fact of hitting yet another rock bottom in her active addiction and sought help through the fellowship and program of recovery. The next day she joined a Narcotics Anonymous group to seek sobriety. While motivated to do the right thing, she did not confront the psychosocial issues. She then made matters worse by initiating a relationship with a man that proved to be a blockade to her true ability to work on herself.

In October 2015, she relapsed with her boyfriend as he introduced her to IV drugs that included dilaudid, heroin and fentanyl. By September 2016, she had to fight to go to sleep, fight to get up, and was stealing and lying to her family to feed her relapse into addiction. She was facing eviction and lost her job. On the same day the county sheriff posted the 24-hour eviction notice on her apartment door she received a call from a Miami detox/treatment center that offered a scholarship into their facility in an attempt to save her life. She was desperate and willing. However, after two months in treatment with her boyfriend, she relapsed shortly after a successful discharge. After sending her daughter to stay with family while she attempted treatment again, she and her boyfriend began shuffling from one couple’s halfway house to another, routinely being kicked out due to their continued use. Eventually, unable to stop, she found herself homeless, living out of her car. She overdosed multiple times and eventually wished that the next overdose would end her life, thus ending the seemingly non-ending miserable cycle. At that point, everything that meant anything to her had been stripped away.

On February 20, 2017 (a date that will forever be burned into her memory) she was faced with a life changing decision after her boyfriend was arrested. It was either reach out for help from her friends in the recovery fellowship or continue to be homeless and alone on the streets of south Florida. Fortunately, she surrendered and detoxed “cold turkey” with the help of a friend she had for several years in recovery. By the second day she was miserable, at the third day she was even worse, but by the fourth day she started to feel better. Once “clean” she checked into a halfway house. She secured a job as a restaurant waitress, started paying off her debts, and humbly started a “crusade to learn to love herself.” She has since regained her career as a bookkeeper, has been reunited with her daughter, and has moved into her own apartment.

After more than three years of being in a relationship with a man she loved (and still does), she cut all ties with him, ultimately choosing sobriety and peace over the chaos of all they endured in their relationship. It was the hardest thing she ever had to do to admit that she was not only powerless over her own addiction but powerless over the addiction to someone she loved so much. People with the disease of active addiction are a completely different person whose mind and behaviors are controlled by drugs. However, within the freedom that sobriety and working a 12-step program has offered her, she has fought through everything and anything that could prevent her from living a life of her wildest dreams.

And now … She is paying it forward by being a sponsor for other women going thru similar circumstances.

With the assistance of her own sponsor she has worked through the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, attends meetings, and shares her story with anyone that will listen. She is also an active member of a H & I (Hospitals and Institutions) committee of recovering alcoholics / addicts that take the message of “We Do Recover” into detox, treatment centers, halfway houses and institutions where those seeking sobriety are unable to attend outside meetings. That mentality is not unique – I have noticed consistently that those in successful recovery want to help others (the final of twelve steps).

So that’s her story. Here are some quotes during our hour+ conversation that helps explain some of the nuances:

  • The first bad choice (yes, she agreed it started with bad personal choices) was the “warm feeling” of euphoria and belonging
  • Once addicted, use is no longer about the euphoria but about avoiding withdrawal symptoms
  • The addiction and recovery community is “numb” to overdose and death statistics
  • Once in recovery, the motivating memory is how you felt the day before you became sober
  • She became co-dependent upon her recovery, not on the substances or toxic relationships
  • She realized there was a higher power than herself and she was powerless over her disease (steps 1 and 2 of the program)
  • As part of recovery she had to dig into every crevice of every bad memory and bad choice and honestly confront them
  • Recovery was freely given to her and as a grateful recipient she is compelled to give the gift to others
  • She is a woman of integrity

Let that last point sink in. After all that she’s been thru. After all of the bad choices she’s made. After all the hurt she’s caused to herself and those that love her. Maybe because of all that and the humility that came from literally losing everything, she is now and continuously strives to be a woman of integrity. While every story of addiction is unique (the genesis, chronology, impacts), there likely isn’t anything an addict encounters that can’t somehow relate to an aspect of her story. To some degree, “been there, done that.” If someone says it can’t be done, Justine can argue that it can. Because she has. And is.

There are three primary takeaways from the lesson of Justine’s story:

  1. Unless they share their story, people like Justine and her mother could be unknowingly right next to any of us as they’re struggling or as they’re overcoming.
  2. Nothing happens until a choice is made to change. Unfortunately, that’s often at “rock bottom” and requires incalculable loss. But until the individual chooses to change, and is fully committed to change, nobody else’s opinion or actions matter.
  3. For those in the throes of addiction – recovery is possible. For loved ones and friends frustrated with someone in that situation – recovery is possible. For everyone that thinks the outcome from the opioid is inevitable – recovery is possible.

Justine is not only a woman of integrity. She is a woman of great power, persuasion and purpose. While it was a winding journey, she has found her destiny. And she is a hero.

Mark PewThe RxProfessorEducator and Agitator