Growing up, my mother was a divorced alcoholic and I didn’t know my biological father. My mother was known as the town drunk, so I was always ridiculed in school due to her neglect. I started drinking at the age of 10 just to numb the pain from abuse.
As I got older, I started hanging around drug users and it made me feel like I was part of a group. Finally, I belonged. I started with marijuana and then progressed to angel dust. Drugs let me forget all the stuff that was going on at home. I took to the streets in Forest Hills, Queens. There was an area known as “the dome,” where people sold every kind of drug. I gravitated there. There was a priest named Father Costello who used to walk through the park reaching out to all of the addicts and trying to get them into treatment. But I always said, “Leave me alone. I don’t need help!” I got arrested for possession when I was 13 and then I was released to my mother, which was the worst thing that could have happened because I just went right back to the streets.
Eventually, I started freebasing cocaine and then, from the age of 16 on, crack became a cheaper option. My alcoholism also progressed during this time. I was thrown out of high school. My mother had remarried and my stepfather was the most wonderful man. He worked so hard to give us what we needed; he even tried to put me in beauty school, but I was thrown out of there, too. At one point, I was physically beaten and hospitalized.
My life was a mess when I became pregnant at age 21. It was my daughter who made me realize that I had to change. When she was two and a half, I remember sitting on the kitchen floor drinking Marsala cooking wine. That was one of my lowest points. I thought, “My God, history is repeating itself!” I had always visualized a better life, but I realized that my daughter was growing up in the same environment I did. I loved my daughter so much, but I could not stop using. I asked my aunt to take care of her and immediately she said yes. Then I went back to find Father Costello, the same priest who had tried to help me years earlier. He was the one who helped me get into Phoenix House.
I went into treatment at the age of 25 and I haven’t used since. I had such low self-esteem when I arrived. My stepfather always told me, “You’re a smart girl,” but I never believed it. As I started feeling better about myself, I realized that he was right and I realized I wanted more in my life. He came to visit me in the program one day and right before he went to leave, he turned to me and said, “Hey Jules.” I said, “Yeah, Dad?” He then looked at me and said, “It’s very nice to meet you.” I had been high every day of my life, but he could see that I was a totally different person in recovery. He died a week later. Those were his last words to me and they were so profound.
After I completed treatment, I went to work in a nursing home where I stayed for nine years. One day, I was asked to check in on a new patient and it turned out to be one of my counselors from Phoenix House. Now, I had to take care of him. During that period, I confided in him that I really didn’t like nursing. He asked, “Well, what do you like?” I told him that what I really felt passionate about was recovery and how I believe in it with all my heart. That’s when he told me to call Phoenix House and apply to be a counselor.
I started as a junior counselor in 2000 and I’ve been back ever since. In 2005, I started working in our mental health program — and I realized that this was my true calling. I grew to be the director of Phoenix House’s Mental Health Services. And, as of a year and a half ago, I’m the vice president of Mental Health and Military Services. Now, I sit in the same courtroom where I was arraigned and the judge asks me for advice about our military program. I feel like my story has really come full circle.
My personal life has also changed for the better. I met my husband at 38 and had my second child at 43. Being able to start a family again has been incredible. My older daughter is back in my life and I’m so grateful to my aunt for raising her to be a beautiful, strong young woman.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet my biological father. He said, “Julie, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to save you and take you away from all that when you were a kid.” And I looked at him and said, “Well, I’m not, because if you had, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.”
I truly believe that no matter how painful my experience was, it was all part of my journey. Today, I have 23 years of sobriety. During my addiction, I was broken, scared, and desperate for love. Now I have the greatest gift — to help others see that people can and do recover