Cheryl first went to N Street Village in 2003. Carol, 54, is a more recent graduate, arriving at the Village a year and a half ago. Together, they tried to explain to me how some people end up abusing drugs — and how they were able to quit.
“Most people who are on drugs, it’s something traumatic that happened to them,” said Cheryl, who like Carol asked that I not print her last name.
In Cheryl’s case, it was sexual abuse that started when she was a child — and that she had repressed for years.
“I grew up in a home where mental health wasn’t talked about, where alcoholism was prevalent,” Cheryl said. “I had my first drink at home, my first drug at home. I was first molested at home. I was first beaten at home.”
A place that was meant to be safe and welcoming was anything but.
“We were not allowed to express emotions,” she said. “We were taught you were seen and not heard.”
Cheryl said she was not allowed to cry when she was being abused.
Turning to drugs, Cheryl said, isn’t just a simple matter of “picking up using.” And quitting isn’t simple either.
“It takes so long to get to the ‘why,’ ” she said.
Carol nodded. “I relate, because I went through the same thing,” she said.
Carol grew up with trauma and experienced abuse during her marriage.
“That’s why I used drugs, because of all the pain,” she said.
Eventually, Carol’s life started spiraling downward.
“I lost everything,” she said. “I lost my place. I lost my job. I lost my car.”
For a few years, Carol was homeless.
“I just stayed at people’s houses,” she said. “You go from couch to couch until a person gets tired of you being there, and you’ve got to move to another location.”
Getting high, she said, is a vicious cycle. “You want to get out of it, but you need somebody to go to,” she said. “You need a place you can go and tell your problems to.”
Said Carol: “It just got to a point where there was no hope. I reached out and had to get help for myself.”
That sounds simple: Need help. Get help. But as Cheryl described it, when you’ve lived a life where the people who are supposed to help you actually harm you, knowing where to turn can be hard.
“I think that has a lot to do with why some people stay stuck,” Cheryl said. “What are you going to do when you’re living in a house and everybody’s doing the same thing and there’s nobody there who’s listening?”
Cheryl decided she needed to find a place where she could go to talk about the issues in her life, the things that her family didn’t want to hear about.
“N Street provided me that safe place to come and sit still,” she said.
Cheryl lived at N Street Village for four years. She immersed herself in the life of the community, working in the clothing room, where homeless women can get such things as coats, and working in the dental clinic.
She saw a therapist. She went to school and studied counseling, a way of understanding the forces that had shaped her life.
Cheryl now has her own apartment in Prince George’s County and is driving for a ride-sharing company. “I enjoy being out, having my freedom, talking to people,” she said.
Carol came to N Street Village in 2018. She lived on the fifth floor with other women in recovery.
“We shared our experiences,” she said. “That kind of helps you grow. You learn about yourself. You learn about others and how your life affects other people.”
With help from the MARJ and MAK Vocational Center at N Street Village, Carol worked on her résumé and has landed a job as a pharmacy assistant.
“I got all that from being here at N Street,” she said.
Carol now lives in a single-room occupancy unit in housing managed by another Helping Hand partner, So Others Might Eat.
“My experience living here, it helped me a lot,” said Carol.
You can help
What struck me from talking with Cheryl and Carol is how hard it can be to find others who understand your problems when you don’t understand them yourself. The people at N Street Village understand.
You can help support their work by visiting posthelpinghand.com and clicking “Donate.”
To donate by mail, make a check payable to “N Street Village” and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.