Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

By Karen Collazo   

The night before I left The Orchid, I paced back-and-forth in my apartment anxiously anticipating the moment I was to step out the front gate of the treatment center and enter the real world. In treatment, you learn and grow in the safety and comfort of an isolated self-esteem boot camp. You’re afforded the luxury of practicing morale-boosting drills, as a means to reverse the negative thinking that led you to abusing drugs in the first place, without the outside influence of life on life’s terms. I knew that once I returned home that was when the real work would begin.

We were all sitting in the TV room of the apartment complex, doing our morning round of “Goals and Gratefuls,” when my therapist announced to the group that this was to be my last day at The Orchid. I nervously addressed the room with a tearful speech of gratitude and expressed to the women how I was forever changed by the experience because of each and every one of them. I said I could never repay the women for teaching me important life lessons and wished them all the best of luck. I remember singling out Rachel, Mandy and Ashley – three of the ladies that I had developed a very strong bond with.

Rachel was from Illinois. She was an attractive young mother of three with a newfound addiction to Suboxone. Like most of us, she was terrified to be her true self and got high to be able to fulfill the role she had carved out for herself – one that was based on everyone else’s expectations. She was a prisoner to a life she didn’t want, unable to break free from the weight of what turned out to be self-imposed ideas about what it meant to be a good wife, mother and daughter. She had a crippling fear of hurting others, a kind soul, was extremely encouraging of everyone and was always quick to remind me of how beautiful of a person I was. Rachel taught me to accept myself for who I truly was, regardless of the negative beliefs I had adopted over the years.

Mandy was from Virginia. She was smart, gorgeous and caring; she often looked after some of the younger girls at The Orchid. Her father had been her best friend and when he passed away, unable to cope, Mandy turned to alcohol to help with the grieving process. We connected the way only two women who have lost their parents at a very young age ever could. Anyone can sympathize with an event like that, but unless you’ve experienced it you could never truly understand what it is like. Mandy had a lot of conviction. She carried around meaningful amulets that worked as reminders of important people and events in her life – giving her the strength to go on another day. She reminded me of how important it was to have faith. This was something that I had lost long ago.

Ashley was a very witty girl with an amazing fashion sense. Everyday she took particular care of dressing up and donned stunning makeup, which had the caliber of a professional makeup artist’s work. Ashley was very quiet in group activities and always receded to the background, in the shadow of other more vivacious characters. But one-on-one, she had an incredible sense of humor. She reminded me of how debilitating a lack of self-worth could be. She was a sweet girl who was deserving of love and happiness, although she didn’t believe she was worthy of it.

I felt such a strong connection to these women, because they embodied a little piece of me that I didn’t even recognize existed. Before I left, I gave each one a token of friendship to remember me by. During my stay at The Orchid, I learned a lot about myself. Some of the issues that were exposed were not necessarily new news, but I was alarmed to uncover the impact they had on my life. Most importantly, I learned to accept that I had a disease, but that I was not just my disease. Coming to terms with this fact, allowed me to break free. It was okay for me to be traumatized, in pain and broken. These things didn’t make me less than. Experiencing heartache wasn’t going to be the end of me.  And denying this out of fear was a betrayal to my genuine self. When I finally told the truth to someone else, I revealed lies I had lived with my whole life – allowing hope to spring again. There is nothing as liberating as being faced with a new reality that makes sense of your past and frees you from the hurt that you have caused yourself. Now, I was free to deal with the pain that was not totally in my control. Now, I was going to be able to grow from my past experiences, instead of remaining stuck in a self-inflicted purgatory. Now, life was in sharp clear focus.

After we said our goodbyes, Erin approached me with a basket filled with sweets. The night prior, all the women had rummaged through their kitchen cupboards for cookies, cakes, chocolate and candy to create a mini gift basket for my sendoff. It was a very touching moment, especially because it included a handmade card with lovely thoughts of encouragement. But the best gift I received that day was the ability to give a fellow addict the strength to admit to the group that she was not only in treatment for alcohol abuse, but for cocaine addiction as well. Nicky had been so ashamed of this fact that she had hid it from everyone for a month. She told the group that because I had been so open during my time in the program, she finally found the ability to admit this aspect of her disease. This was the most inspiring gift of all. It was proof that I was significant.

The last thing I did before leaving The Orchid was to leave behind a bottle of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume in Tina’s locker. A few days prior, a group of us were standing in line waiting for access to our meds, hairsprays and perfumes, when Tina got a whiff of my Chanel as I dabbed a little on my wrists. She told me that in her 50+ years, she had only owned one bottle of perfume. It had been given to her as a gift and she had cherished it so much, she kept it long after the contents had run out. I asked her if she wanted a little and her eyes lit up like the sun at high noon. Soon, I found myself spraying all the ladies in line, who were all so excited for the chance to feel beautiful if for just that one moment. As I collected my things on my last day, I asked one of the techs to place the bottle of perfume and a note in Tina’s locker. The note read:

Dear Tina,

Thank you for teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I learned while being here. You are amazing and courageous, and I’m honored to have been trusted with your story. I leave you this gift because every woman deserves to feel beautiful, especially you.

Love, Karen.

The Day I Met Tina

By Karen Collazo   

The day I first heard Tina’s story was the day I learned the true meaning of hope and courage. Tina embodied the drug addict stereotype and while I initially felt that we may not be able to share anything in common, I was mostly terrified about exposing myself as someone who was undeserving of her own pain. In her sunken and dull eyes, you could see the years of abuse, hurt and heartache. Before she uttered her first word, I could tell that my story would pale in comparison.  In that small community of women who were seeking redemption, we were true polar opposites.

Tina’s looks betrayed her youth. She had saggy alabaster skin and black shoulder-length hair. She was missing teeth and always wore a pair of washed-out ripped blue jeans and a simple t-shirt. And when she spoke, a southern regional twang came out that stretched the a's and added r's to words that had no business ending in r.  She was rough around the edges; a don’t-take-shit-from-no-one bitch, with the aching heart of a lost little girl. She was lovely, as lovely as they come.

Tina had been molested as a child. Along with her siblings, she had been held captive in a dog cage and was only allowed inside the house when it was time for her father to throw himself on her. To make some extra cash, he rented her and her siblings out to the local men. She was a fighter, she said. But even if she hadn’t mentioned it while telling the story, I knew right away. I pictured her kicking and screaming and scratching the skin of whatever grotesque man was punishing her with his dick. She was probably loud too. Demanding that they stop and trying to run away until it was over. So because she was a fighter, Tina’s dad started injecting her with heroin. The heroin calmed her down and took her far away. It gave the men the ability to do what they pleased without walking away injured by the clawing of a six-year-old.

When she was ten, she ran away from home. She found a tiny hidden nook in the top corner of an overpass, under a quiet highway. There, she slept, ate, urinated and defecated for one year, while dreaming of a better life. An older gentleman from the neighborhood, who walked past her secret hiding place on a daily basis, noticed her and began to bring her food. Every day, the man would leave a bag on the sidewalk, without uttering a single word. At first, she’d wait for the man to leave before climbing down from her spot to retrieve the food. But soon, she mustered up the courage to wait for the man out in the open and eventually they began to talk. He took to the spunky ten year-old and invited her to live with him.

With nowhere else to go, Tina accepted and soon after found herself working for the man. He was a local dope dealer, but treated her with respect and loved her like a daughter. At ten years old, Tina finally experienced love thanks to heroin. She dealt dope for him for eight years. At nineteen, she decides to move to Arizona to start her own business. Dealing dope like a redneck gangster in the dry desert, she quickly rose to the top of her game. She grew her empire and bought a house with cash. Then, a man came along. He noticed this young girl with tricks up her sleeve and decided that he wanted in.

One evening, as she approaches her house, she receives a powerful blow to the head and gets knocked unconscious on her front door step. Hours later, when Tina finally comes to, she finds a strange man in her home rummaging through her belongings. Tina does what she knows best and puts up a fight. A neighbor who hears the ruckus calls the police. When the police arrive, the man claims to be Tina’s husband and insists that the noise was just the two of them having a marital dispute. Tina pleads with the officer. She tells him that this man is a stranger and that he had forced himself into her home. She wants him arrested. But it was the 1980’s and there weren’t very many laws protecting women from domestic violence. The cop, convinced that these two were just having a quarrel, eventually leaves the scene and Tina’s captor beats and rapes her until the sun comes up and she could no longer move a muscle.

The very next day, he binds her arms and legs with a metal chain and moves in. For years, she is held prisoner in the home she had worked so hard to buy. He takes her dreams and meager success and squashes them like a tiny insignificant bug. He terrorizes her, keeps her doped up and never allows her to go outside. She has six rape babies – all of them born addicted to heroin. Two of them die at birth. The one’s that survive don’t feel like anyone’s babies; Tina certainly didn’t see them as her own. They were just these things that cried and pooped all day. They distracted her when she was lonely and were a nuisance when she was high.

Then one day her youngest son comes crying to her. He tells her that his butt hurts. Suddenly, Tina’s maternal instincts kick in. Her blood boils at the thought of this innocent child suffering the same way she once did and decides it’s time to run away again. Over the next few weeks, she studies her abuser’s movements and patterns, and carves out an escape plan. She puts on the best act, follows all the rules and is on her best behavior so that he begins to let his guard down. One afternoon, he leaves to go sell dope and forgets to lock the front gate. When she is sure he has left, she grabs all the kids and runs over to a neighbor’s house for help. She makes it out of town with only the clothes on her back and a few days later finds herself back to where she grew up.

By then, her parents were both dead and most of her siblings had moved away – except for one brother. Living nearby, she tries to start a new life by pan-handling and prostituting herself and contracts HIV. Her children grow to become juvenile delinquents and follow in mom’s footsteps: stealing, dealing and committing crimes. One daughter is incarcerated for murder, while the other struggles with drug addiction. After years of being attacked by the hand she had been dealt, Tina decides it’s finally time to get clean. In her 50’s, afraid but still determined, she found herself at The Orchid.

Each chapter of Tina’s story started and ended with running. It reminded me of my running. We both had very different reasons for why we ran, but we shared one thing in common; we both had a light inside that so many circumstances could have blown out. And yet, through it all we found ways to keep the light aflame. We moved forward. We continued to hope that something better was about to come. Tina’s story taught me that there is always room in your heart to believe and try. If she could do it, so could I. I finally grew the courage to put my truth down on paper and tell it for the first time.