If we're lucky, someone enters our lives at this time of year to remind us of the joy and renewal that are the true meaning of the holiday season. This year, that person for me was Janelle Bell.
I first met Janelle seven years ago in a homeless shelter that had been started by my church. She was a petite African American woman--her skin a rich, chocolate brown--with an unusual gift for what's known on the streets as "talking trash." She scared off many of the volunteers, but I liked her. And though she was wary of showing it at first, I think she liked me too.
On the coldest night of that winter, Janelle came to me with a sudden demand. Her best friend at the shelter had been smoking crack earlier that day. That was against the rules. "David, you've got to throw her out!" she said. I mumbled something about how cold it was, and how we'd investigate the incident and deal with it in the morning.
"Do it, now!" Janelle said. It was almost a scream of desperation. "She broke the rules. If you don't get her out of here, then none of us stand a chance." I hadn't realized until that moment that Janelle was a recovering crack addict herself, and that she was literally fighting for her life. My liberal temporizing about her friend was, for Janelle, potentially deadly.
So I ordered the other woman to leave that December night. Despite the bitter cold, she didn't protest. She knew she'd broken the rules, and I think she wanted her friend Janelle to escape the monster that still had its grip on her.
Over the next months, Janelle worked hard to overcome addiction and homelessness. She was studying to become an emergency medical technician, and that winter she got her certification. When spring came, she left the shelter and found an apartment near the church. A year or so later, she landed a job with the D.C. Fire Department. And for a long time, she was an exemplary employee. She used to come visit me at The Post, dressed in her crisp blue uniform. She was making nearly $30,000 a year, and I let myself think that she had escaped for good.
But nothing in life that matters is that easy. Many weeks passed without my hearing from Janelle, and then one day I got a call from Texas. She had bolted suddenly from her job at the fire department and headed west. She wouldn't admit it at first, but it was obvious she'd had a relapse. She returned to Washington, but she was caught tight in this city's horrifying drug culture.
Late one Sunday night, the phone rang. It was Janelle, calling from a pay phone in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Northeast. She had been beaten by another addict, and she needed help. I took her to the D.C. homeless shelter for women on Seventh Street, where they gave her a bed and medical attention.
As I looked into her ravaged face that night, I realized that she would die soon if she didn't get help. There are few drug treatment programs in the District, but fortunately she was an Army veteran. So the next day, we went to the VA hospital, where she was admitted as an inpatient.
That day Janelle began the long road to recovery. There were many twists and bumps along the way. She spent many months at the VA hospital in Hampton, Va., the city where she had grown up, and months more in halfway houses and recovery programs.
Three years ago, after she had again slipped to the bottom, Janelle admitted to herself that she was powerless to control her addiction without real help and embraced the 12-step program of "Narcotics Anonymous." I've attended some NA meetings with her since then. They're easy to parody, with their sing-song, ritual exchanges--"I'm Suzy, and I'm an addict." "Hi, Suzy!"--but I've seen that the 12-step process works.
Janelle has attended an NA meeting nearly every day for the last three years. I know, because I've been collecting the tokens she gives me as she passes each anniversary marking how long she's been clean and sober. She's been helped, too, by some wonderful counselors--including Chante Head at Rachael's Women's Center, Melvena Boykins at the VA's "Compensated Work Therapy" (CWT) program and Donnell White, the resident manager at the Sarah McClendon House on 16th Street, where Janelle lives.
I tell this long story so that you will appreciate the joy I felt two weeks ago when Janelle asked me to attend a holiday party at the VA hospital. At the party, she received an award as CWT employee of the month and also won a special certificate for raising her typing speed to 60 words a minute from 20 words. She wanted me there, to witness what she had accomplished.
The guests at the party were mostly recovering addicts and alcoholics--people who, like Janelle, had served their country in the military but fallen on hard times. Perhaps it was just me, but I thought a special cheer went up when this tough, proud woman stood to receive her award.
A man named Roosevelt Thompson spoke for the group when he said the VA program "saved my life." Five years ago, he was living in parks and abandoned buildings, "homeless and helpless." The work-therapy program taught him job skills, and for the last three years he has been working for Xerox Corp. He's now a senior associate at Xerox, managing the company's account at a big D.C. law firm.
Over these last seven years with my friend Janelle, I've learned that recovery really is "one day at a time." This isn't a world where there are always happy endings. Human fallibility is on display every day, but so is the determination to get better.
When I think of what it takes to overcome addiction or other afflictions, I remember Janelle's words on that freezing night seven years ago. Do it, now. Take responsibility for yourself and the people you love. If we don't enforce the rules of decent behavior, none of us is going to make it.