Meet Vanessa

Vanessa was raised in an upper middle-class family and stated, “on the outside my family had all the stuff that signifies success in America”. Vanessa’s mother was an immigrant from Vietnam, and the culture that she was raised in denied talking about one’s problems as it was an embarrassment and showed weakness. Vanessa claimed, “I was raised to feel secretive and judged and this lent a lot to my initial pursuit to drugs and alcohol”. At the age of 12, Vanessa was sexually abused by a family friend and after disclosing this to her mother who did not believe her, she started exhibiting drug seeking behaviors. By the age of 17, Vanessa had flunked out of high school and was homeless. Around this same time, Vanessa was diagnosed with bi-polar, post-traumatic stress and mood disorders. Over the course of this time she dabbled with over a dozen different psychiatric meds.

Vanessa’s claimed “how I looked out the outside was important, I focused on how I could manipulate people into seeing me the way that I wanted them to and I used this to get away with the failures from my drug and alcohol abuse. I never had strong consequences”. By the age of 20, Vanessa was addicted to heroin. Like most addicts, Vanessa had overdoses and started smoking crack cocaine because heroin did not get her ‘high enough’ anymore. Following years of substance use, Vanessa had tried to detox with methadone, suboxone, and naltrexone an opiate blocker. Although it helped her initially gain recovery from hard drugs, Vanessa said she never received any in-patient treatment. She attended AA, but she never kept contact with her sponsor, nor did she work any of the steps to gain a full recovery.

In her 30’s Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a full mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Due to her pain, Vanessa was prescribed morphine, which aided in her relapse. She found that once her cancer treatment was over, she did not know how to do life again. Thus, she returned to the use of crack cocaine and began sex work as a way to pay for her drugs. Vanessa was unable to sustain a home, a job or any of her relationships. At a last attempt for sobriety, Vanessa moved to Hawaii. Instead of recovering in paradise, she was living in a tent city, still using drugs. Like a ‘good addict,’ Vanessa could score drugs anywhere, which led her to move to Vegas to further seek out hard drugs at cheaper prices, and with less criminality on prostitution and sex work. After Vegas, Vanessa moved to Richmond where she found REAL LIFE.

Vanessa had a friend who knew of a peer counselor at REAL LIFE and gave her the number to get into the program. Initially, Vanessa said she was not ready to quit, therefore she stopped returning phone calls from REAL LIFE. After persistence from REAL LIFE and her friends, Vanessa came into the program and met pathway navigator, Tauchanna. Through Tauchanna, Vanessa was enrolled into the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA) to get intensive mental health and substance abuse counseling. This was the first time Vanessa had done in-patient therapy and she described the experience as overwhelming and frustrating, but as equally motivating and supportive. While doing in-patient therapy with RBHA, Vanessa was still working on her recovery with Tauchanna at REAL LIFE. Vanessa was invited to the motherhood program. Vanessa stated that the “relationships with women while I was in recovery was one of the most important things for me. I had a complicated relationship with men, and I needed to feel safe with people during my recovery and I realized how important it was for me to be surrounded by women”. Vanessa felt that the REAL LIFE Community Center encouraged those kinds of relationships and provided her the resources to grow personally. Vanessa also worked with REAL LIFE’s Quick Start to Employment Manager, Sydney, who helped her gain employment. Sydney coached Vanessa in preparation for the challenges involved in finding a job while experiencing legal issues and having a criminal record. Sydney was enormously helpful in getting Vanessa into a place in her life where she could improve her self-esteem, increase her responsibility and accountability in life and become more self-sufficient. Following the release from RBHA and REAL LIFE, Vanessa has moved home with her sister, who she has had a relationship with for the first time in 30 years. Even after her release from the program, Vanessa says she stays connected with Tauchanna who has taken an active role in her recovery. Vanessa recognizes Tauchanna as the first reliable person in her life and has tried to draw on that in her own formation of recovery.

Since her recovery began, Vanessa has moved to Washington D.C. with her sister where she works at a doctor’s office. Vanessa states that part of her life today is cleaning up the wreckage of her past. She has taken accountability to address her outstanding warrants from her previous years of substance abuse. Vanessa claims “what a shame to do all this work on myself and my recovery and not address the anxiety I have for the things I had done before. I must face them and take accountability and sometimes I do not know how those things will play out, but once I do, they are over. I know if I run, they will chase, and I am working on putting those things to rest”.

Today, Vanessa has relationships with other women, she goes to therapy once a week and is committed to showing up. She takes her medication every day and shows up for work even when she does not want to. She is learning how to be uncomfortable and move through life without drugs or alcohol. As of today, Vanessa is over 8 months sober. Vanessa stated “saying I’m a success story is difficult for me in my head because I realize this is a lifelong process for me and that can be overwhelming, but it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life”. At 42 years old, Vanessa claims this is the first time in her life she truly feels happy. Vanessa’s focus now remains on overall healing and living her life in gratitude.