“We were leasing a Mercedes, we were buying and selling real estate in New York, and we were going to become the first black Ivana and Donald Trump. But we also had another side interest, and it began with him. It was doing cocaine and starting to drink.”
Hi, I’m Janice Ferebee and I am grateful recovering alcoholic. I will celebrate a quarter-century, twenty-five years of long-term recovery from heroin, crack and alcohol use on October 1, 2015, the day after my sixtieth birthday, September 30, 2015. I’m excited to be talking about my journey from addiction to recovery, and will talk to you a little bit about how it was, what things were like and what things are like now.
I am one of four children. I’m one of three girls, and my father had four girls, one from a previous marriage, but my parents were one of the first African-American families that moved into the incorporated village of Westbury on Long Island in New York back in 1957. We built our home, and I tell folks that it was the wonderful white picket fence, Mom-and-Dad family with the Cocker Spaniel, walked to school, ran to elementary school, walked to junior high school, took the bus to high school, was involved in a lot of different activities, band, orchestra, chorus. I was a straight-A student. I wrote for the high school newspaper, cheerleader, all of that.
On the outside, the trappings were successful. I was a pre-med major. I was in the pre-med club in high school. I was also a fashionista in high school. I was on the A&S fashion board, and Abraham & Straus was similar to what Macy’s is today, but it was in Brooklyn. Fashion and medicine were my two big, big things, and everybody knew I was going to be a doctor, but as I said, the trappings for me were Mom, Dad, sisters, great education. I just went to my fortieth high school reunion three years ago and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to take a look at how I grew up. I grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood, which is where I was able to learn a lot about different people, and I feel very blessed to have had that before all this crazy stuff happened.
Saying that, all of the things, being able to speak well, I used to sew so I would make all my clothes, and I was well put-together. From the outside, I looked like I had it all together. “Got it Goin’ On” is the name of my new book and what I’ve been working on, and that’s how people thought of me. I had it going on. A lot of that is what kept me out there for such a long time because the appearances, the perception, and also because my parents didn’t argue around us, so I never knew what it was like to be in an argument and to come back from that, to recover from that, I became a people-pleaser. My self-esteem was, as they talk about in the rooms, lower than a footprint. Even though I looked good on the outside, I was always questioning me. I was doubtful and even though I was a straight-A student, I knew that I was smart. That I did know. I knew I could play the flute, that I did know. I was a good athlete, but there was still something about my self-esteem around just dealing with life on life’s terms.
I didn’t learn how to confront people. I didn’t learn how to stand up for myself most of the time, and it’s interesting that I say that because a lot of how I got ahead was because I was smart and I did speak well, so people expected those things of me, so I didn’t have a lot of confrontations with folks anyway. Where I started finding out about the low self-esteem was when I got older and started dealing with relationships.
My relationships in high school, I think I had one boyfriend for a week. He quit me because I had to come in before the lights came on. Back in the day, if you knew when the street corner lights came on it was almost dark, and I had to be home before the lights came on and he couldn’t handle that. I went with him for a week and then I went with some other guy who was really the school thug, for maybe two weeks, and he quit me because I wouldn’t have s-e-x with him, and that’s exactly how he said it. He wouldn’t even say the word, and I didn’t even care because there was a little part of me that had self-esteem because I was so involved in other activities and organizations, that it was not even on my radar screen.
The fact that he quit me because of that, I didn’t care, which is what I use today with the girls that I work with, which is why I started the program that I do because I know that having programming with a good foundation around social and emotional development is what keeps girls from making bad decisions.
I took all of that and I say that to say that although I looked good on the outside and as I said before, I presented well, the self-esteem and this small voice inside just saying, “You’re not good enough,” was always going on, so I didn’t have a lot of experience with boys. When I grew up, I didn’t have a lot of experience with me, so I achieved professionally so I went on to continue to achieve academically, professionally.
I started out at Johns Hopkins, which was for pre-med. I ended up transferring to a school in Michigan, Michigan State University, where I changed my major to my other passion, fashion. I graduated with a retailing and clothing textiles degree and marketing, became an assistant buyer at Abraham & Straus, first African-American model editor for “Seventeen” magazine, and it is there that I realized that life for me was going to change. It was there, and this is before I started getting crazy, but I started seeing the self-esteem in girls being very lackluster and it turned into the work that I do today. I also started seeing that my self-esteem, I could see myself in these girls.
Fast-forwarding, I moved from the “Seventeen” magazine into AT&T. I started using my marketing background and became an account executive. That’s where I met the gentleman that became my husband. That’s when all hell broke loose. When I met him, I was Ms. Goody Two-Shoes, which is what I was labeled. Brainiac, Ms. Goody Two-Shoes. When I met him, I think at that point in time I might have taken a few drinks every holiday, which was when we were allowed some Manischewitz white concord or grape wine. It never affected me. You know, I could do without it.
When I met him, it was off to the races. He was an account executive, so we were living quite well. We were leasing a Mercedes, we were buying and selling real estate in New York, and we were going to become the first black Ivana and Donald Trump. But we also had another side interest, and it began with him. It was doing cocaine and starting to drink. Champagne was our drink, but it ended up going from champagne to Grand Marnier, which is what I loved, Kir Royales when we would go out after work. As we got down the line, it became beers at the local store that I could afford.
The cocaine, that was freebasing initially, and if folks remember that, freebasing at parties and then the cocaine and then getting to heroin. I never shot heroin, although I would snort it and it would be laced in either the marijuana or the cocaine, and just new experiences, new feelings, and all of this centered around and revolved around this man. That’s where I learned about just how poor my self-esteem was, and just how I ended up tying my self-esteem to him, and started losing myself because a lot of the values and morals that I grew up were thrown out the window.
When I came into the rooms, I sat and listened to other people before I started talking, and just heard a lot about what they were talking about what they would do. For me, I ended up going from a straight-A student, working and doing well. Both of us were working and doing well, running up the corporate ladder, winning awards, traveling to Cancun for these awards, and being recognized, to getting drunk at somebody’s wedding, starting to not go to work because work got in the way.
There was a colleague of my ex-husband’s who I didn’t really want to have a lot to do with, but as I started doing more drugs, couldn’t wait to get to see that person because they had some of the best drugs. Some of the places that we would end up, Willis Avenue being one of them in the Bronx, well-known, and I remember seeing a newspaper article about Willis Avenue being one of the most notorious drug havens in the country, and how insane it was. I was excited that I knew where that was and I knew exactly what they were talking about, because that’s where I was currently hanging out.
As I said, just going from this living out on Long Island to, we ended up, before things got crazy, we ended up the buying and selling of real estate, we had a home in Brooklyn, we bought a brownstone in Brooklyn. We had some other property in Brooklyn. We bought some other property that we sold, had a co-op in White Plains, and ended up getting thrown out of the co-op, having our Mercedes repossessed. I would tell people that it was stolen because I was so embarrassed, but it was repossessed. Wasn’t paying bills, wasn’t working legally, we were working with some unsavory individuals from some other countries, and just doing a lot of drug deals up and down the east coast. Had some dealings with some individuals where we had some contracts out on people and I thank God that an angel was watching over us that that never happened because that would have been another part of my story.
As I said, stopped working legally, and just went underground. Folks didn’t know where we were, couldn’t get in touch with me. I started losing weight. I’m a cancer survivor and I tell people cancer and crack are the best ways to lose weight, but I would not recommend either of them. I can testify to both of them but I would not recommend either one of them, but it’s part of my story and I talk about how I’ve turned my tests into my testimony, and my mess into the message that I give today.
We were living at that point after we got kicked out of the co-op, not working, our money coming from illegal places, living from place-to-place. I remember living with his brother who lived in a studio. We would go out on the weekdays and because we looked halfway decent on the Upper West side of Manhattan, you could find all sorts of people selling stuff out on the corner. We would take a blanket out there and we would have stuff because I had amassed stuff. I’d sell pocketbooks. I was basically selling my clothes so that we could get money to go to wherever it was we were going to go.
Then I started shoplifting and had a clientele in Harlem, some of the beauty salons, so I would go to steal in Bloomingdale’s or Neiman Marcus or Henri Bendel’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and take my loot and take it up to Harlem to those folks. That’s what we were doing. That was how we were living. Mother and father couldn’t find me, [and] friends, I ended up really stealing from them because I would call and tell them that my house burned down, and I told several people the same thing, so they would wire me thousands of dollars. My mother, she knew something was up but after a while I stopped calling. I’ll never forget one day my uncle showed up on my doorstep in White Plains because he was able to find me, and he at that time told me that I did not need to be with this man. He said, “You all are not good for each other right now. Maybe in the future, but you all right now are not good for each other.” Of course, he didn’t know what he was talking about, so I went on.
We ended up getting arrested for an attempted robbery, got into the car after the attempt was made, got into a car that was stolen. As we were on our way home because he had two children and we were taking care of them. They had come to live with us because we were the better situation at the time. Far be it for us to know that things went downhill and we were the worst thing that could have happened to them because they were at home, we were arrested. The car was surrounded by cops, jumped out, shotguns, because they were given a description of the car and the license plate. They found us about a mile from where we lived, and it was so interesting because I was dressed in a suit. He had five o’clock shadow, leather jacket, jeans. They said, “Are you okay, ma’am? Who is this man?” I said, “That’s my husband.”
Of course, we were carted off to jail and it’s so interesting because my sister-in-law who was a police officer, corrections officer in that jail, when she came in at twelve o’clock midnight, I was handcuffed to the bench outside. She was like, “What happened?” Of course, we made up a lie but these are the kinds of things that were happening.
When I got out of jail, I could not say anything to my mother about the truth. We lied to her but my sister’s daughter, who lived in Atlanta, saw an article, because nobody knew where we were, saw an article about the arrest. That is how they found out where I was, told her a lie, they got me out of jail. My uncle then came to see me again. I did not realize my uncle had been thirty years sober. This is why he was able to do what he did and was able to tell me what he told me.
Well, again, I told him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re going to be okay. I’m getting it together.” I do remember before we ended up leaving, before we got kicked out of the place, I ended up calling a twelve-step program because I knew my life was out of control. This was not how I was raised, even though I was living on North Broadway which was a great location. What I was doing was not how I was raised, and I was doing some dangerous things, not taking care of myself, not being responsible, all because I wanted to be with this man and I felt like I was spiraling out of control and I didn’t know how to get myself back.
I called, there was a meeting across the street but I would not go for the same reason for so many people. I didn’t want to be recognized. It was in the neighborhood. I didn’t want anybody to think that there was something going on. When we get into the rooms, we find out we’re the last people to know. Everybody knows what’s going on. I dropped twenty-five pounds and for me that made me look so sick, but I thought I was looking good. Just the perception of what we think is normal just goes way out the window. After that, we ended up getting kicked out of the co-op, the car was gone, we were living here and there.
We ended up living in a room for forty-five dollars a night at the corner of 45th and 9th in Manhattan, and I remember going out to make some money selling. I get a call from the guy at the front saying, “Your husband has been arrested.” I proceed to go out the next day and get arrested in Bloomingdale’s because I’m going out to get his bail money. I get arrested in Bloomingdale’s, get taken down to the Tombs in New York City, lower Manhattan, and I’m handcuffed walking through the jail cell to get to my cell and I pass him in his cell.
When I get to my cell, I am in with, I mean everybody that’s been thrown in that night, women of the night, other folks, young lady who came in for murder because she killed someone in a blackout. She didn’t even know. She told us, “This is what I was told I did.” That was when my life started to change. It was like they were angels in the jail cell. Wouldn’t let anything happen to me. I was able to talk to a bunch of the women but they wouldn’t let anything happen to me.
When I got out, I was still, like I said, things started to happen for me but I still wasn’t there yet. When I got out, I had to get my husband out of jail because he was still there. I went, proceeded up the West Side Highway with a butter knife. I was going to stick somebody up. I ended up going into a hotel, went into a hotel room with this man, and hit him over the head with a bottle of some liquor. More angels, thank God he did not black out because I was going to steal his money, and I feigned insanity. “Oh, I don’t know what happened!” I feigned insanity and was able to run out of the hotel.
I could have been arrested just for assault, ran out, got a cab that took me to Garden City. I knew Garden City because I grew up in Westbury which was just the town next door. Garden City was a very poo-poo, chi-chi town on Long Island, but I had them take me to the Garden City Hotel because I had gone to, my ex-husband and I had gone to a black-and-white ball for about five years in a row where we would be all dressed up with this African-American organization, but I knew my way around the hotel. I told the driver, “I’m staying here. I’ll be right back.”
I was able to get out through the back, went, laid on a slab [in front of] Saks Fifth Avenue. As soon as Saks Fifth Avenue opened, now mind you I’m just out of jail, so I have on the same clothes that I had on in jail. I’m sleeping on a slab in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, go into the store and proceed to steal stuff. I get caught. The gentleman said, “If you ever want to go to Hollywood, just ask them for the tape because we have a tape from the moment we walked in the store.”
More insanity. We think that nobody knows what we’re doing or sees us. I was so out of place, even though this was where I used to shop, next town from where I used to live. He had me sitting in a room, I guess that they keep people before they take you to the police station, and out the door, the door was open. I knew how to get home. I could run home. He said, and it was like he knew what I was thinking. He said, “Try it and I will shoot you.” I was like, “Oh my gosh.” First of all, how could he talk to me? Doesn’t he know who I am?” That’s how bad it had gotten.
[They] took me to the police station. I sat there talking to the policeman about real estate, and he said, “Ma’am, what are you doing here?” He said, “If you can get $100 or something, you get out,” because I had a felony at that point. He said, “We’ll release you because you do not belong here and you don’t belong where you’re getting ready to go.” Life was changing.
A friend of ours, his father came to get me and when I sat with him, he said, “You and (my then husband) were two of the people, places and things I was told I had to leave alone,” because he was now three years in recovery. So all of the angels, the angels in the jail cell, the angels, even that gentleman in the hotel that I hit over the head, the policeman who told me he was going to shoot me because I was thinking about it. Then the gentlemen who said, “If you can get a hundred dollars in an hour, we can let you out of here.” Then this man who comes and says, “You know, I’ve been waiting for you all.”
I didn’t mention it before, but my mother told me to stop calling her because I was killing her and, “The next time you call me, you need to call me when you want some help.” When I did call her, she said, “Either you’re crazy or you’re on drugs and alcohol, and I hope that you’re not crazy because there’s nothing I can do about that.” I told her that I was tired and I needed help, and between the two of them, got me back to New York, Manhattan. My husband at the time was still staying with his brother. I went to get my stuff, but I really didn’t want to leave. I really didn’t want to leave. There’s still that pull, the co-dependence, that’s what I learned that it was, the co-dependence. I finally got down to Maryland where my parents were staying. My mother told me, “You need to take two weeks because that’s all you’ve got to find a treatment center, and you need to go. We’ll pay for it, but even after that, you can’t come back here.”
I found Mountain Manor Treatment Center, went there for twenty-one days. I was kicking and screaming, spitting at them when I left. I still had this man that I was still concerned about but I was going to work on me. I was going to do something. Another angel’s haven because I was able to start seeing what the disease of addiction had done to me. I saw it in other people, who told some of the same stories, just how crazy and insane our lives had became, and saw how crazy and insane my life had become because this was not the trajectory that I know that my life was meant to be on. I know now today that that detour was meant to be because it is only because of that, that I am doing the work that I do today, and that I am in the mental, emotional and physical shape that I am in today. It’s a blessing.
When I came into the rooms, I couldn’t understand what the people were talking about, blessings, but this being in recovery is a blessing, and that was just what I had to go through. I went to treatment, went to an Oxford House. My first Oxford House, I ended up getting thrown out of because I was not using but because of my behavior. The Oxford House which was a community of recovering women, was a great place for me. Then I ended up going to another house that I stayed at. That house ended up being featured on “60 Minutes,” but I learned that I could be responsible again. I learned that I could be employable again. I learned that I did not have to like everyone.
This was where the other work started coming in, learning about just how Janice is. Started going to meetings, back in treatment, but starting to go to meetings on a regular basis. Living in the Oxford House because there were some requirements that we had, and at this point I was so desperate for help and wanting to get my life together, that I would do anything, and that’s kind of what happens when you come into these rooms. You are so desperate. For those of us, you can have low bottoms, high bottoms, but most of the time regardless, it’s what a drink or a drug does to you. So there are functioning folks out there, but it’s what a drink or drug does to you.
I was able to start working and start getting back into community and relationship with my family. Then also starting to see what I needed to do to take care of Janice. I was able to listen and hear. Now I was able to hear people when they talked about I needed to separate myself from my husband. I needed to take a look at what was keeping me attached to this man, and that’s when I learned about co-dependence and started going to meetings around that. That’s when I started to learn about love and self-love, which was what I was lacking.
I had respect for the things that I could do but I didn’t have the love of myself and valued myself or felt that I was worthy until I came into the rooms of the twelve-step programs that I’m in, dealing with my drug addiction, alcohol addiction, the disease. Also what I learned about is that this is a disease, and that just like cancer, it is a disease that needs prevention because there are things that you can do to help prevent it. There are things that you can do to get treatment which is what I did, and things to do to help you stay in recovery, which is what I do today. Going to meetings on a regular basis. Getting a sponsor, someone who has time, a sponsor who has a sponsor, reading our literature, talking to individuals, and then getting really honest, and that’s what I had to do. Becoming brutally honest about what my life had to, you know, what led me to the things that I was doing and then making some changes.
Today, because of recovery, I’ve been able to write a book that turned into a program that was featured on “Oprah.” Won an Essence award as a result of that. Have now traveled to South Africa and expanded my program because I have not taken a drink or a drug, and because I’ve learned about what the disease of addiction is about, and because I’ve also learned to love myself, which is the work that I do. Empowering girls, giving them tools, tools that I had but didn’t use, so that they can not have to go through all the things that I went through.
I went to graduate school, University of Pennsylvania, finally did my Ivy League thing. I had gotten in before but ended up not going. I’ve battled Stage 2B Fallopian tube cancer, so was able to use visualization, creative visualization, and the rooms to be able to talk about what I was dealing with and get the help and support.
Most of all, I learned about being able to learn just who Janice is, learned to love her. I don’t like everything but I love the person that I have become today, and because of that and the joy that I have found and the peace that I have found, I refuse to allow anything or anybody to take me off of that center. I don’t care how good looking you are, how much money you have. If you don’t align with the things that are in my heart today, you won’t be in my life for that long because I do respect myself today.
As I said, the work that I do today, “Got It Goin’ On,” the program that I’ve started, the business that I’ve run, and the speaking that I do, is all around empowerment. I am enough and that is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Thanks for letting me share.
Photographs taken at Janice’s home in Washington, DC.