Making it to FRONTLINES
(*Trigger Warning* – mentions sexual abuse and trafficking)
This month, a member of our FRONTLINES team Heather, shared her recovery story with us! Heather is an absolute joy to be around, one of her many gifts is that she lights up any room she walks into. This light is obvious in her story, as it carries her through many difficult years and into recovery. To read her full story, click the link below! TW – mentions of sexual assault and human trafficking.
I know why they call Heather; she has an incredible sense of empathy that makes you feel seen. I ask her how she got to HRC and she smiles. “I met Angel.”
I see Heather’s sweet face pop up on Zoom, all smiles from our Sobering Center. We chat for a while, catching up about the Holidays and transitioning into 2022. I’ve heard bits of her story, but was excited for today, having always wanted to know where her innate joy comes from. “Let’s get started!” I say, and Heather laughs and launches into the story, from the beginning. “Well, I’m the daughter of two alcoholics. I saw so much of my parents drinking and fighting. They got divorced when I was 8, and my mom couldn’t stop drinking. She had men in and out of the house all the time, and that’s how the trauma started. I was molested by them.” Heather goes on to explain to me that her family was one that preferred to sweep difficult subjects under the rug. “They weren’t really one to talk about that stuff, it was better to ignore it. This got worse, because at 16 I was at a birthday party, and I was raped by two men. I held on to that, because I couldn’t talk about it. It was my first time, and I grew up thinking that I was supposed to marry that person. So, I felt dirty.”
This sort of trauma isn’t uncommon in those who struggle with Substance Use Disorder. About 66% of those with SUD have had a traumatic experience. Heather tells me that despite all of the difficulties, she was a great kid with great grades, who graduated early at just 17. “After that, I moved to Austin to get away, that’s where I met my son’s father.” Her face shifts a bit as she remembers the first night she used, after her new boyfriend gave her ecstasy. “It was off to the races after that.” she says. “For the next 15 years, I used all sorts of drugs, but mostly meth. My boyfriend and I would move drugs across the border. He was incredibly abusive. I was forced to be with other men, I knew that if I didn’t, that he would beat me so I never had a choice. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that I was being trafficked. But I loved this man.” Heather’s face tilts a bit, and she’s quiet for a moment. We talk a bit about how often the love you see growing up is the love you mirror in your adulthood. “Screaming, fighting, yelling. It was normal to me. That was love.”
Heather switches subjects, telling me that she was in and out of rehab at the time, and that she made the choice to give her first son up for adoption. “It’s an open adoption, so we have a great relationship now. I’m really grateful for that. In 2012, my boyfriend went to rehab in Florida, and I went to rehab in Waco. I wanted to go with him but I knew we needed to be separated. I let him have the car, and I stayed.” Heather smiles and tells me that she graduated from the Waco rehab the next January, it looks like a happy memory. “But then, I got a call from my friend. She told me that my boyfriend had died in a drunk driving accident in Florida. I thanked God I hadn’t gone. If I had, my son and I would’ve been in the car. I only made it 15 days after I heard that news. Then I started using again.” We both smile a little, two people in recovery who know that that kind of grief makes it nearly impossible to stay sober, especially fresh out of rehab. “ I didn’t know how to feel, everything built up. At this point, I’d been to prison once, and was on parole. But there was a weird scheduling issue and I missed a meeting. I went back to prison. God knew I needed to sit down.” Heather describes her release, how she met a man right out of prison who once again became her pimp. “I caught another charge because of him, and went right back to prison. This time, I prayed to God to either take me out entirely or take me out of this situation.
That was December 18, 2018. This time, I had a real connection with God. In prison, I got involved with Pathway to Recovery. I only really went at first because the Chapel had AC, and the dorms didn’t. But the recovery leader, she told me her story and I cried and cried. I was ready. She promised me that when I was done, if I came to Houston, she would have my back and take care of me. I didn’t trust her to pick me up. I didn’t trust anyone. The day they released me and I realized that she’d actually come to meet me, I lost it. I went to a temporary shelter for two weeks, and then moved into the Paschel Recovery House in October of 2019. I wanted to be surrounded by people in recovery. As soon as I could, I took the recovery coach training. I stayed connected, I could scroll through my contacts and every person was in recovery. After that, I became a member of the Peer Advisory Council at Santa Maria, and then I was on the council, and now I’m Vice President.
We are present for the clients at Santa Maria, they call when they need me. “I know why they call Heather; she has an incredible sense of empathy that makes you feel seen. I ask her how she got to HRC and she smiles. “I met Angel.” she says. Angel works for our HEROES program, in partnership with UTHealth. “She said she loved my energy, and that positions were opening up. She told me to send in my resume, I didn’t even know how to make one, so my niece helped me. I thought at first that they wouldn’t want me, because I had all these gaps. But I knew they understood this disease, and they would understand me.” They did.
Heather tells me that she went through a series of interviews, and was ultimately placed at FRONTLINES. “It’s a great fit. I’ve been the person in the hospital who’d overdosed. I knew if I had had that person who told me that there was a different way to live and given me their card, I would’ve used it. I’m just like them. I’m here to reach out and do this together. They walk their own path, but we walk it with them. We just celebrated my 3 years, and 20 people came to the party. I looked around and thought, these people really love me. And they really do. It’s just a gift.”
Author’s note. HRC places recovery coaches into community settings to engage with people who are actively using substances. Their similar life experience helps people bridge the gap from using to taking steps to change their lives.