“I ran away to treatment. Now how many people run away to treatment? Nobody else I know ever has ever run away to treatment.”
I am a child of an alcoholic. I started drinking in fourth or fifth grade—and not drinking every day—I didn’t have access to it every day. But my babysitters were the alcoholic friends of my alcoholic mother, so when my mom would go out drinking, she would have these young people babysit me, and rather than stay home, they would take me to keg parties. So I occasionally drank. Like I said, I didn’t start out obviously spending every weekend [drinking] in fifth grade, but unfortunately I started drinking.
My father had passed away when I was around seven, and I had two older sisters, but they were old enough that they were almost out of the house. So it being my mom and I mostly—and she actually was more of a binge drinker—but I obviously got into that pattern when she would go drinking and I was able to, I would go drinking.
With drinking, eventually I want to say by sixth grade I started smoking cigarettes. I think probably smoking cigarettes and marijuana by the time I was—well, whatever you are in sixth grade.
I think what really hit me was when my son turned the age that I first drank and I realized that I was a kid—a kid in a situation that I shouldn’t have been in. And that made me very sad; it made me really grateful because he was in an environment where that wouldn’t happen. But I also think about—I was a child. That, in one hand, I’m very grateful for because the trajectory of my recovery certainly started earlier, but at the same time it’s sad to think about.
I progressed fairly quickly, which I know working in the treatment field, is very normal when you start at a young age. The earlier you start, the faster you progress, and that’s just typical.
My drugs of choice were primarily marijuana, alcohol and methamphetamine. I got to the point where at 16 I was selling drugs, I had been transferred into a special school because of my behavior—it no longer exists; it’s called Shell Cross. It was a behavioral school in Northeast Philadelphia.
Denial is such that—when I speak to others in recovery, I explain it this way: We have mushroom farms in this area, and they grow mushrooms and manure—and they smell awful. In the summertime, people live in that neighborhood and you’re like, “How can you possibly live here?” And the response is, “Well, I’m used to it.” So I say to people, “I went to my first meeting as a joke—and I got sober.” And when they say, “How can that happen?” I say, “Because I lived in that neighborhood for a really long time and I was used to it.
Using and living the lifestyle that I was living, I wasn’t happy about it sometimes because eventually I would stop using long enough to feel pain about the things that I did, the things that I said, the people I disappointed, the values that I violated—all those things happened. They would catch up to me, but I would go back into being numb enough that I was distanced.
My friend was court ordered to a meeting because she had some kind of an offense—actually several meetings were part of her probation. I was seventeen years old and she asked me to go with her. I actually thought it was funny. I was like, “Ha ha, we’re gonna laugh at the alcoholics. This’ll be funny.” So I went with her and I was really literally like, “Oh my god; I do that. Oh wait; I do that. Oh wait; I do that.” Literally everything I heard was exactly what I did.
My mother’s drinking had progressed to the point where we were living in the projects in Philadelphia. Not the scariest projects—the medium-scary projects, which still have a lot of drug dealing and all those other things.
I have, what I consider, an awakening at that point. What I’m really grateful for is that if you put your hand out, people always respond. So I was like, “I might have a problem.” And people were like, “Oh you think you might have a problem? What’re you doing at noon tomorrow? ‘Cause we’re going to a meeting. Do you want us to pick you up?”
I was kind of like, “Alright, these people are weird, but I’ll go along with them.” And my friend was kind of in it, too, but ironically enough she never got sober. I don’t even, to be honest with you, know what happened to her.
I went to a meeting every day for a couple of weeks and I did manage to stay sober—thank god. At the two-week point, I asked my mom for a ride to a meeting. She didn’t ever inhibit me going to meetings, but she wasn’t like, “Yay! You’re going to meetings.” And she on the way picked up alcohol—and I was kind of pissed. I was offended. I was like, “Really?”
So I went into the meeting and I raised my hand and was like, “My mom just drove me to a meeting and got some alcohol on the way.” There was a guy in the meeting that happened to work for a treatment center, and he said, “You probably should go to treatment. It’s just a suggestion. You might wanna think about it.”
Now, it sounds like, “Oh my god, you really must’ve wanted to stay sober.” There was a good fifty percent of me that didn’t want to still that was thinking, “All these people are being nice to me, and things are okay, and yea I kind of want to get out, but I think I’ll still smoke pot probably in a couple months when things settle down.” But I put that off—thank god.
So I went home, and being the good alcoholic mom in denial that I had—I kind of call this ‘the perfect storm.’ There’s a song by 10,000 Maniacs called Wonder. Part of the song says, “Fate smiled at destiny,” and I really feel like it was the perfect storm because how do you get an alcoholic to do something? You tell them not to.
So I went home and I said, “Mom I need treatment.” She was like, “Those people are just—you’re not that bad. You’re really okay. Look—you’re fine now. You don’t need treatment.” So I was like, “F’ you, I’m going to treatment.” I’m serious—I ran away to treatment. Now how many people run away to treatment? Nobody else I know—ever—has ever run away to treatment.
My father was a postman before he died so I had insurance through the federal government. I had social security through the federal government. I literally had money and insurance—not a lot of money. But back then—don’t fall over—Blue Cross Blue Shield paid for 60 days of inpatient treatment for me. And it was my insurance. It wasn’t her insurance—it was something that I was legally entitled to.
So I literally left without her permission. The treatment center sent a car and I went to treatment. My mom actually came and visited me once. I never went home because it was really not a safe place to be. I chose the next thing for me, [which] was a halfway house. It saddens me that the word halfway house means something negative to a lot of people because there are really a lot of good places that are called halfway houses that give people really good opportunities and I happened to be in one.
I had flunked eleventh grade the year that I went to treatment. So in that September I would have gone into the eleventh grade for the second time. In the halfway house I got my GED and I started going to college. I started out in college, but to tell you the truth I wasn’t ready. I had less than a year, I had post-acute withdrawal symptoms, I couldn’t focus [and] I couldn’t concentrate. I never did well in school. Well, I did well in school—when I was in school. I didn’t make it to school very often. So I got a GED and I tried to go to college. For me in early recovery, college was not a safe place. I did not have the kind of support systems available that they have now.
I would say that I was raised by a family in 12-step recovery. I got a sponsor. I got friends. People are always like, “Wow, it must’ve been really hard to get sober when you’re seventeen.” I don’t know if I was conscious of that. I was just trying to get sober. So for me, the decisions I made were life and death. It wasn’t like, “Aw, gee. Now I have to be responsible.” It was, “I either need to get better or I’m not going to live. I need to change my life.”
For me, meetings were essential and they always will be—but there’s a balance. I think sometimes people get the wrong impression about recovery in that they think all I do is walk around and spout slogans and go to 12-step meetings. Recovery for me gave me a life—gave me the ability to live my life. So meetings for me in early recovery were really important to me because they reinforced the things that I was learning and I needed that really big behavioral shift. I needed to learn new ways of thinking. But the biggest reason I believe that I’m sober thirty-three years is really the deep change that the twelve steps created inside. For me, I really had to do what I consider the work of recovery, and that was through sitting with a sponsor [and] talking about those twelve steps.
What’s nice about the twelve steps is you have really easy things. First you have to get a belief—and I’m not a religious person—but I have a belief. So I get a belief and then I look at myself and I looked at the wreckage of my past. I kind of cleaned up the things that were following me around—the things I was guilty about in my addiction. What’s nice about those steps is those last three steps, and the sixth and seventh step, and even a fourth step—they’re directions for change. So what’s nice about that is that I’m never stuck and never have to be if I don’t want to be. If I’m taking a tenth step and I’m going, “Oh, I’m in the same situation again. How’d that happen?” I know it’s me. I’m not looking outside myself. I can take inventory and try to figure out, “Okay, how did I get here?”
I was in the National Enquirer in my recovery—I’m not kidding. The guy who was filling the ATM machine that I went to left a stack of money on the ATM machine and I found it and I turned it into the police—obviously—because what choice do I have? Today I’m able to in my recovery—because addicts by nature because of this disease we’re compulsive. There’s thought and then nothing in between—thought action. Like A goes—there’s no B—there’s only C. Thought. Action. Thought. Action.
In recovery I get to think things through like, “Gee, this isn’t really mine.” That kind of stuff. “Gee, I just used the ATM. I wonder if the guy who left it there might think to look at who used the ATM after they left the money there.” So I don’t think it’s any big deal, but apparently other people think it’s a big deal because I found money. So my sister called the newspaper and it was just very surreal. The National Enquirer called me and they were like, “You wanna be in the National Enquirer?” I was like, “No kidding!” It was really funny.
But somebody said, “So what! What’s the big deal if you’re thirty-three years in recovery?” First of all, I do believe this is a disease that I’m powerless over. So thirty-three years is a big deal. I don’t mean that in, it’s my big deal. It just to me demonstrates the power of recovery and that recovery works.
I go back to people saying, “Wow, it must’ve been hard at seventeen.” Recovery’s hard for people in early recovery. It’s a challenge. People do it and people do it all the time and it takes a lot of courage, but it truly to me is a miracle when an addict doesn’t do something that they’re so driven to do. So every day that somebody’s in recovery I think is a miracle.
How recovery has evolved in my life is that it continues to be a mechanism for change. I am not the person that I was at five years in recovery. I am not the person that I was at ten years in recovery. Year five to ten I had a shaved head, I wore combat boots (Doc Martins), and sported a Mohawk, and then I had to grow up. Growing up happens. Then I became a mom.
The twelfth step talks about having had a spiritual awakening. I think that if you just turn that around and say, “having had your spirit wake up”—that to me is recovery. That is probably the biggest—other than my son—the biggest freedom is that I am conscious of my life and I am present in my life and I have all kinds of adventures. Like I’m horribly addicted to cruising, specifically with Disney—I’m actually a little addicted to Mickey Mouse and I own stock in Disney. But I can have fun and I can enjoy myself.
I tell people—because part of my job is speaking to the young people at work—I tell that that, “If there’s a point in your head where you get like, ‘Recovery’s boring,’ it’s not recovery. You’re boring. You’re boring. Get a life. Go do something. Paint, do sports, do art. Do whatever you do, but find things that you love.”
So in early recovery I was like purple Mohawk, Dead Kennedys. Now I’m Pitbull because I teach Zumba. So I’m like, “How do I get to Pitbull from Dead Kennedys?” Only in recovery, right? But I teach Zumba so I’m like, “I’m a fifty-year-old Zumba instructor. God knows what the hell I’m gonna do next.”
I believe in the twelve steps as a way to live. I think that so many people could benefit from that because I do know people that are just kind of stuck in their life—people that aren’t addicted. I’m grateful that I get to self reflect and go, “Okay, this is working. This isn’t working.” And then go from there. So that to me is what represents recovery.
Sometimes I think that my definition of a higher power is so not higher power-ish, but it works for me. So I continue to use it. I don’t even think you can touch it. You can’t define it. To define something like that is just like defining the universe. I don’t even bother. What I actually think is that spirituality is for living. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t matter what I believe—it matters how I act. For me my belief is, “How am I acting? What can I work on that to me makes a difference in this world?”
I know that my story is unique. I mean it’s a little funny I was seventeen and I run away to treatment, but still everybody who gets there gets there—and their story is unique in how they got there. I think that if you’re just willing to do the next thing sometimes that’ll get you to the point. It took me about two years to go, “Oh, this doesn’t suck.” Then it took me another three years to go, “Oh, this is really decent.” Then eventually, “I’m sorry for people who don’t have this.”
So I think it’s a process and I think that everybody’s journey’s important. But what I talk to the young people about is, “Do you want to do it now or do you want to do it when you’re forty?” And I think about how lucky I am to have a whole lifetime that I remember. To be able to live consciously in a recovery fashion all this lifetime—to be given that opportunity is a real gift.
Photographs taken at Joi’s home in Reading, Pennsylvania.