“Thinking that I wouldn’t live today ‘til 40—I’m darn near 60 now. So I really have superseded anything that I could’ve rejected back then coming on this journey of recovery.”
My name is Robin Horston-Spencer. I’m a person in long-term recovery, and what that means to me is I haven’t used any mind/mood-altering chemicals in over twenty-three years. I’m in my twenty-fourth year of recovery, and besides being in long-term recovery and not using any mind/mood-altering chemicals, I’m also a productive member in society. I’ve been able to achieve several degrees on my journey of recovery as a benefit to recovery.
I run a small, nonprofit organization that supports recovery for other individuals. I’m a person who puts a face and a voice to recovery, not so much as I am the ‘role model,’ but [to show] abstinence from these chemicals can produce a moral productive member in society.
I’m a registered voter. I take great interest in what happens that impacts the community that I support—and those are people who are seeking recovery, those who don’t even know they want recovery, and the family members who are invested in our communities. [I try to] educate on why we want recovery support services, why we want funding for them, [and] why it’s a benefit when we allow people to seek help for a medical condition and not a moral deficiency.
I came from a very loving two-parent family with several siblings and I was the baby; I was loved by all. Being the youngest I didn’t understand at a time in my parents’ life when I lost my oldest brother—actually to a drunk driver— and because of the gap in age, I didn’t understand what was going on.
This was my parents’ golden boy. The first one to go to college in the family and he was well popular. So they had great hopes and aspirations for their oldest son, and when he got killed by the drunk driver my parents were actually offered $12 in insurance for his life. That devastated them. Again I was a child [and] I didn’t understand.
So what also occurred around the same time is an uncle of mine passed away—got killed on the railroad—and he had a large family. When it came to my mother’s siblings—my uncle was my mother’s brother-in-law—her sister had fourteen children, and the next to the youngest was a set of twins. When my father—of course he told me after I was older—brought the twins into my life, they were younger than me and they were adorable. Because we are of African descent they were of different colors. One was dark skin and one was light skin, and their nicknames were ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Vanilla.’
Well I don’t know about you, but having a couple eighteen-month old babies and I’m like about nine, and having to compete with that didn’t sit well with me. Where I come from children were seen and not heard, so this process of my telling you what happened wasn’t disclosed to me until I was seven years in recovery and I had the ability or the wherewithal to ask my father, “How did that happen?”
What he said to me was that he brought them into our lives because I no longer was in Pampers [and] I didn’t need to be watched all day. I was in school the majority of the day and he didn’t want his wife to lose her mind. He needed to help her have some stability and have something to do, and what was more to do than watch [and] take care of two babies in not pampers, but diapers, that had to be cleaned? And that did help my mom. It just didn’t help me quite much, but it helped my mom, it helped my dad, it helped my aunt, and the family continued.
I didn’t realize how much I disliked the twins. I mean I knew I disliked them, but I didn’t realize that that would be the root of my needing to have attention, my needing to be more there, my needing of all these things that actually started my road to active addiction. Even though my road to active addiction didn’t start until I was in my late twenties or mid twenties—and that was after my mom passed away.
I didn’t know how to cope and because of coming from an African American family, we didn’t seek outside professionals like a psychiatrist [or] psychologists. We didn’t do too much talking outside the household. What happened in the house stayed in the house and that was the golden rule. So I didn’t have a way to vent. Acting out became a way [to vent].
Now I wish I could tell you I just got high—I thought people who smoked marijuana and drank were crazy as heck—but it actually came from being in love for the hundredth time. The guy that I fell in love with was freebasing and that’s where my active addiction really started off. It wasn’t like I didn’t try alcohol or try marijuana—I did. I just didn’t like them—not then. I didn’t like none of that stuff then, but after I got caught in the grips of smoking cocaine I really enjoyed that. I found a place where I could go. That was the start.
The end result is being married to a guy who was a drug dealer, selling cocaine, and I become this great entrepreneur, [and] thought that we had rights to cross the states and go places and hand deliver, pick up, and I really thought that would be my lifestyle. Actually I thought that I would die getting high. I just thought that that’s the way that I wanted to live and die. So I understand that terminology they use—“ways and means to get more.”
But I was saved. And how I was saved was I actually got arrested—for the second time. The first time I got arrested, and they clearly made it clear here in the state of Pennsylvania, that they just wanted my husband because they knew he was a drug dealer and I didn’t look like the type that would be a drug dealer. I was groomed properly, so they let me go after an overnight say, and I didn’t have no charges really pending. There was a case pending, but I wasn’t convicted or anything.
So I go out of state, get busted coming back, and the state of New Jersey, actually whoever that judge was I can’t tell you, but he was my lifesaver because they came around during that time [and] had what they call a pretrial intervention. And all I wanted to do was after spending four nights and five days in jail? I never wanted to see a jail cell ever again. Not with me wearing a suit of any kind. I just knew it wasn’t the life for me. I wish I could say I didn’t want to use anymore, but that would be telling a lie.
What actually happened was they allowed me to come back to the state of Pennsylvania and mandated me to take outpatient treatment, which I didn’t have a clue that I was going to. I just knew that I had to do what they said or I was going to jail, and I’m a person that didn’t like that consequence. So I did what they asked me to do.
They also told me to go to twelve-step meetings and I’m like, “I don’t wanna do this.” So of course I didn’t do exactly what they said and I had to have urinalysis. And of course I did everything I could until I finally got busted again with the urine thing. And the fact of going back to New Jersey—it seemed like there was something about them threatening me to go back to New Jersey—and I was like, “Mm-mm. I don’t wanna do that.”
So I started cleaning and I learned how to switch my addiction. I switched my addiction from cocaine and heroin to drinking, and for whatever reason drinking was acceptable for my urinalysis. I didn’t like drinking, but it was what I did. It was finally after going back to court—and they never said anything—but going to these 1twelve-step meetings I heard one day that alcohol was a drug. And I was like, “You got to be kidding me. This stuff is legal.”
And then I didn’t like going to those twelve-step meetings because they were all happy joyous and free—I didn’t understand that either, and I didn’t understand how somebody would identify themselves as an addict. All those things went against my religious beliefs that I’m saved, sanctified, [and] filled with the Holy Ghost. So I’m not admitting to none of that because it just went against all these spiritual principals that I learned as a child.
So after learning that, I literally went home and I called this woman who said she would sponsor me in the twelve-step program. I told her that I had a fifth of alcohol in my home and I asked her, “What do I do?” She said, “Honey, you get rid of it.” I said, “But do I drink it?” And she actually walked me through the process of literally staying on the line with me while I poured it down the drain.
I went back to that meeting where I just loathed all those people. I did not like none of them, but I stood up and got a twenty-four-hour key tag and said, “I think I’m an addict.” And my process began there as far as abstinence. Actually my process of recovery started when I got arrested. I learned that through staying clean and being in the field.
What was really, really significant to me was I had been clean two years, and when I celebrated two years I was like, “Wow. What happened? I haven’t used a mind/mood-altering chemical in two whole years.” And it was something about acknowledging that, and what was relevant to me was the fact that I was no longer under that pre-trial intervention. I was no longer court appointed to attend nothing. I wasn’t court appointed to see no therapist or psychologist or counselor—none of that. All that was done. My fines were paid. There was nothing left for me to do except use if wanted to, and I finally lost the desire to use.
It’s been since that point that I’ve been able to move forward in life and understand that recovery is a journey and not a destination. That two-year mark told me that I was on a journey after that, and not that this was like the judge no longer wants you—you’re not going to jail.
Someone actually [had] seen me on the journey of recovery and told me, “You know? You could go back to school.” And I had been to school and wasted my parents’ money many times and all that stuff. I was like thinking I was too old. They said, “You can go back to school.” And in the process of going back to school, getting hired to work with people like myself, I felt very valuable to society. Someone actually believed in me, besides the twelve-step group, but someone in society made me feel like I was again a part of it.
I remember my father and my siblings telling me that they were glad that I was back. I didn’t know I was gone, but to them they had lost that girl that they knew—that young women that they knew. They knew the disease of addiction had robbed me, but I was back.
Having a son that I didn’t raise—[I started] building a relationship with him. I was young when I had him, my parents raised him, and then by the time my mom had passed I was off to the races. So I was never was a real parent to my only child and now I’m a grandmother, getting to spend time with my grandchildren and supporting them in their endeavors. I didn’t get to do it for my son, but God gave me a second chance to do it with my grandkids—that’s awesome.
I said I was able to go back to school. Today I hold three masters degrees and that’s an overachiever. It also helped me go through a painful divorce. I needed to feel like I could excel in something when I felt like I wasn’t able to stay married. But through that I achieved these degrees, I became an executive director of a recovery community organization, and I’m still on the journey.
There’s so much more and I love life. I love it now more than ever. Thinking that I wouldn’t live today ‘til forty—I’m darn near sixty now. So I really have superseded anything that I could’ve rejected back then coming on this journey of recovery.
Photographs taken at Robin’s office in Pittsburgh, where she runs Message Carriers of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit dedicated to providing advocacy and recovery related services to individual and family members impacted by addiction and/or mental health disorders.