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SSJ Spirit of Courage Honoree
More than a Survivor
Life is often described metaphorically as a journey, but human existence could never be defined and explained merely by time, place, arrival, and departure. The familiarity and popularity of the comparison suggests much more, celebrating a person’s individuality and potential, and recognizing the complexity of life’s trek. Physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually each person grows and develops, influenced – and sometimes even challenged and hurt – by environment and heredity. Miraculously, experiences often lead individuals to choose surprising and seemingly unexpected, yet ultimately, successful and meaningful paths.
Juanita Allen, as a youngster in Tucson, Arizona, had always, with her family, lived a life centered on religion and music. As time passed though, her mom and siblings suffered years of abuse and molestation by her father. Finally Dad was imprisoned; Mom worked three jobs to make ends meet. Juanita, at 16, sought to escape her pain and loneliness in marijuana, partying, and relationships – often abusive – with older men. Although Mom truly loved her daughter, they constantly argued; Juanita vowed to leave home when she turned 18. Finding relief in drugs and relationships, Juanita’s choices ultimately led to her life’s path; ironically, she discovered her destiny on the road she took to avoid it (Jean de la Fontaine). Most importantly, though, on her journey, she found herself.
The Journey Begins
True to her word, at 18, Juanita landed a job and moved away from home; continuing to party, she began a relationship with a 19 year old man in her apartment complex – her rescue when she couldn’t find her way into the building after late night binges. When he shared his plans to move to Pennsylvania, Juanita agreed to accompany him, to leave Tucson…the only home she’d ever known. Packing all their belongings in a Ford Escort, they traveled three days before reaching their destination, the home of her companion’s mother. The couple’s party life continued for about a month, so Juanita didn’t really worry about her new Pennsylvania home – a backyard tent – until police arrived to arrest her companion on past charges, charges expected to require extradition to Texas and extended jail time. A day later, Juanita – advised by the police to return to Arizona – discovered she was pregnant. Terrified, ashamed, and penniless, she longed for her childhood, remembering the comfort and safety of her mother’s arms. Instead, clinging to the hope that her boyfriend might be released early, she stayed with one of his friends, a man she barely knew. A drug dealer, he took advantage of Juanita and introduced her to narcotics and bar-hopping despite her pregnancy.
Unexpectedly, Juanita’s boyfriend escaped extradition and was released early, so the couple reunited, planning to make a life together. Their drinking and drug use soared and led Juanita’s boyfriend to become increasingly controlling, demeaning, and abusive. She was “allowed” to go to Arizona for her daughter’s birth but now regards herself as having been “brainwashed,” for she soon returned and even married this abuser; on their wedding night, Juanita recalls that he struck her and even pointed a gun in her direction. On another occasion, he locked Juanita in the basement for two days because the house wasn’t as tidy as he expected and because she’d asked for help with their infant. He convinced her that she was worthless and undesirable; Juanita’s escape? Alcohol and drugs. Pregnant a second time, she vowed and struggled to remain drug free, but after the first few months, her cravings were too strong. Juanita’s boyfriend was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover agent after the birth of the couple’s second daughter, in essence freeing and yet frightening this young addicted, insecure, and lonely mother.
Shortly after her husband’s incarceration, Juanita began a new relationship with an older man reputed, she later learned, to be one of Erie’s most notorious and successful drug dealers. Conditioned by her past, his business did not disturb her; she continued to party in earnest, often leaving her baby girls with random people in random residences. During one of these nights on the town, Juanita, a bystander to a shootout, was wounded when a bullet entered her back and exited her stomach. She was lucky to survive, but the pain of the wound led a physician to prescribe oxycontin, eventually leading to Juanita’s addiction to opiates.
Since her new boyfriend also hustled opiates, Juanita had a ready supply of her new drug of choice. The couple lived together, and Juanita gave birth to another daughter. After the pregnancy, the couple upgraded to heroine and also married, making Juanita officially “the hustler’s wife.” In this role, Juanita monitored sales during her husband’s periodic jail stints for child support or other legal issues; this “business” was the couple’s only means of support – providing funds for bills and drugs. Still, the couple was caught shoplifting and placed on probation. Additionally, Juanita’s former husband was released from jail and took custody of their two daughters; Juanita had visitation rights, but nothing more.
During this same period, homes of other dealers were being raided; the couple feared they’d be next, so to protect themselves, they enrolled in a methadone program and walked to a clinic each day to receive their “fix.” Juanita always needed more drugs; she had become a hostage to an ever-increasing habit. She supplemented her meth program – even though she’d received increasing doses – with benzodiazepines. As a result of this combination of drugs, these years – these days – were a blur, leading to unimaginable experiences such as three hit and run accidents in a single 24 hour period! Still, Juanita became pregnant again and finally gave birth to the son she’d always hoped for, an addicted newborn who needed to remain in NICU on a morphine drip for two months before he could be safely weaned off the drug.
Life turned bleak when, just a few months after the birth of their son, the Office of Children and Youth (OCY) removed their two children from the couple’s home and forbade Juanita visits with her older girls. Her husband binged on cocaine; Juanita continued on meth and doubled her intake of valium, leaving her dazed and apathetic even during visits with the children…and even when, nine months later, she discovered she was pregnant once more. Life turned even more dismal when six months later, her husband was arrested on previous warrants and, just two days later, Juanita’s parole officer jailed her for using cocaine, a charge she totally denied.
Although Juanita was incarcerated, she still experienced her daily “high” as she needed to be taken to the methadone clinic every day; foregoing this drug so far in her pregnancy could have killed her baby; willingly she visited the clinic each day in her prison garb, caring more about her child than the stares of staff and patients. Although she worried about her own withdrawal from the drug following her baby’s birth, the nursing staff assured Juanita that she, like her child, would be humanely weaned from the drug.
On October 15, 2007, Juanita began labor and, because of an infection, required an emergency Caesarian section, her first surgical delivery. Her second son, born with some serious medical concerns, was immediately rushed to Neonatal Intensive Care and placed on a ventilator. Juanita’s only comfort during this frightening birth – she was hand-cuffed to the bed – was the hand of one lone sympathetic guard. In excruciating pain, Juanita had no opportunity to hold her newborn son. Finally, at this point, Juanita turned to God, pleading that her baby would be safe and yearning to hold him just once before her return to her cell. Four hours before her scheduled return to prison, Juanita was blessed to hold her son, a precious gift. God, she felt, had heard her prayer.
The next morning Juanita pressed the button for her usual transport to the methadone clinic only to be informed that she’d receive no more of the drug even though she had been taking 200 milligrams daily. Clearly, one of her worst fears had become reality. Writhing in the pain and sickness of withdrawal – muscle spasms, diarrhea, and vomiting – she ripped her surgical stitches. Again, in less than a week, she turned to God, imploring help to endure this misery and promising never to use again. For seven days the agony of withdrawal continued; Juanita was regularly checked every eight hours, but was given no palliative support. Though she could not contact her husband, who was still incarcerated, or anyone else during her incarceration for the next few months, with prayer and determination, Juanita began to edge her way towards the life she now celebrates. Gradually she could eat and walk beyond her cell for short periods of time. She cherishes October 18, 2007 as her clean date, sharing that “without God’s help, I most likely would have died in that jail cell.”
New Paths, Continued Roadblocks
When she was released to Gaudenzia Crossroads, Juanita had nothing; she wore shoes that were two sizes too small. Physical discomfort, however, wasn’t the worst of this experience, for here, she was finally forced to fully examine herself and her life. She was scared, but made her way through the residential program and moved on to Community House where she struggled, alone, with little sense of worth or self-esteem and no support or contact with family. Juanita had begun to find her way, but she still faced the reality that not only had three of her children been taken from her, but also that her husband was still incarcerated. She had been told, furthermore, that she needed to “let him go” because they weren’t good for each other. Overwhelmed, Juanita had no idea how to live “a normal life,” so she tried to fake “appropriate” behavior, hoping to return to the lifestyle she’d known as soon as possible. She didn’t focus on her recovery. Although her rights to her children were in jeopardy, she didn’t fight for visitation or custody. Jailed again, she admitted, with some uneasiness, that she found comfort in this “home.”
Eventually OCY petitioned the state for termination of Juanita and her husband’s rights to their children. Finally, beginning to understand that this potential could indeed become reality, she vowed to make life better for herself, husband, and children. As time for her parole neared, Juanita needed to submit a home plan, but she was unable to propose family or friends willing or able to fulfill the responsibilities of this obligation. After looking into a variety of alternatives, Juanita opted to be paroled into a 6 to 12 month program with House of Healing, a facility known to be strict, but also recognized for supporting and defending residents’ parental claims.
Entering House of Healing in 2008, Juanita received mail regularly and was able to see her two older daughters on the weekends. As their visits continued, Juanita found hope as she realized that the girls still loved her despite her many shortcomings; she longed to be a better mother for them. Sandi, a staff member and mentor at House of Healing and one of the first female friends Juanita ever had, remarked that Juanita’s girls needed her, an observation Juanita treasures. Such realizations compelled her to really consider her life; she began to plan and hope, taking classes in employment education and financial aid. Eventually, opting to become a certified nurse’s aide, she enrolled in a winter program requiring her to trek through Erie’s snow and cold for her 7:00 a.m. bus. Meeting these responsibilities was challenging and yet exciting, giving Juanita a sense of humility she hadn’t experienced since participating in her high school band, an activity she loved.
Soon after moving to House of Healing, despite her ongoing progress, Juanita experienced a devastating shock: she received a letter from OCY stating that her rights to her three youngest children had been terminated. Juanita credits Sandi, her mentor at the house for saving her life: hugging Juanita, crying and hysterical, Sandi prevented this distraught mother from leaving the residence in search of habits of the past. She gently reminded Juanita of her two daughters waiting in the next room, wondering why their mother was so upset. Sandi urged Juanita to be strong for her two older girls and encouraged her to put herself in the hands of the Almighty. Devastated, Juanita actually hid the only photos of her three youngest children, but a changing woman, her faith led her to “let go, and let God.”
Paths of Promise
During her 10 months at House of Healing, Juanita began to rediscover her former self, her character, purpose, and personality. Prior to addiction, Juanita had found her “high” in music, playing the saxophone in her school band and composing music on a keyboard. With her addiction and loss of her children, however, Juanita shunned music, feeling that such joy and beauty showed disrespect to her lost family. The staff, knowing Juanita’s passion, urged Juanita to play when the facility was given a piano. At first, returning to the keyboard was very difficult, but in time, Juanita’s love of music became therapeutic, a time to center, focus, and meditate. Music became a way to give back to the staff and other residents as she began to play at holiday functions at HOH and later with some church bands as well.
Eventually, Juanita knew it was time to move on. She found a job as an aide in a nursing home and her first “almost home of her own” in the basement of a friend in her newfound support system. A month later she was thrilled to find an apartment she could really call her own – happy despite the puddles that formed during particularly intense rainstorms. With the help of her first movers – friends who’d moved her just weeks before – Juanita embarked on a new adventure, buoyed by well-wishers who gave their time, as well as furniture and appliances, to get Juanita on her feet. Making the move even sweeter was the appearance of her mom who came all the way from Arizona to help. While burdened with fines and bills from the past, Juanita was overjoyed with a real home of her own.
The promise of a good life, however, seemed short-lived when Juanita lost her job at the nursing home a few months after moving to her apartment, attributed to her sometimes boisterous and forthright manner. She was devastated, but determined to succeed and to remain free of the lifestyle and people of her past. Juanita reached out to her newfound network of strong women. To pay bills and earn bus money, she raised cash by doing odd jobs for these companions: raking leaves, organizing and cleaning their homes. She networked with staff at House of Healing. Meanwhile, she was constantly on the lookout for employment, submitting application after application, well-qualified but understandably hampered, she felt, by her police record. Still, she kept looking: without a car, she walked and depended on EMTA to fulfill her obligations: job interviews and get-togethers to support her recovery.
Finally, she received a call from HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital; nervous about the interview, she was open and honest about her struggles and achievements. Because of her honesty, motivation, and job skills, however, Juanita landed the job, her first position paying more than minimum wage! She was advised to open a savings account, so, when her mother arrived for another surprise visit, they investigated this possibility. In the past, Juanita had been denied a bank account because of credit issues and charges; however, this time, she was successful…leading to tears of joy, much to the surprise of the tellers!
A month after her mother’s visit, Juanita’s husband was released from jail, a time to celebrate, but also a time to worry as his freedom brought beer and liquor into their home. He drank while Juanita worked and when she was home, summoning her past, testing her resolve. Afraid she was weakening, she reached out to her friends, and with their help, remained strong. She has been instrumental in supporting her husband in his recovery. Committed to their marriage, the couple has been building their life together one day at a time, focusing on themselves, his son and Juanita’s two daughters (whom they see on a regular basis as she shares custody with her former husband), and their new dog.
For two years, Juanita continued to work at HealthSouth; secure financially, the couple moved to a better apartment in the city. She still rode with friends, took the bus, or walked even when the suspension on her driver’s license had been lifted. She was content. Still, she had become a bit uneasy as co-workers often asked her to join them for cocktails after work; she always declined, unashamed to admit that she was in recovery. The staff learned not to include her in their outings, and that realization troubled Juanita, isolating her and also putting her on edge; she’d been clean for four years and did not want to risk this success.
The Road to Victory
Then, as Juanita says, “God intervened.” A family friend suggested she apply for a position at Gaudenzia Community House, her first residence post incarceration. Dubious, she applied. Called for an interview, she was terrified and recollects that her skin “crawled,” remembering her rudeness, defiance, and anger in those offices. When asked for a second interview, she was appalled to recognize her interviewer, a staff member who had thrown her out as a client! Surprisingly, this staffer indicated that she had come precisely to discover if the interviewee was the same Juanita Allen she recalled, and further, to congratulate her on her achievements. She hired Juanita, exclaiming “I am so proud of you! How dare I not give you a chance to give back?!”
Since becoming a residential manager at Gaudenzia, Juanita too has been nurtured in her recovery: bolstered by education and experience, she has both gained and shared hope and strength. Additionally, the environment provides an ongoing reality check and source of power, an omnipresent reminder of the promise, pain, and reality of recovery. She has been invited to give motivational speeches for women, and, during a recent seminar on defeating addiction, she shared an original piano composition, demonstrating how music centers and completes her life. Imagine how surprised, blessed, and thankful Juanita was to be gifted with a real piano from someone in the audience! Clearly, she had touched the hearts of her listeners.
Juanita has still faced challenges, some initiated only by chance. About a year ago, for example, in the early morning hours, she and her husband awoke to a crash in the apartment above theirs followed by insistent pounding on their door. Responding, she found a man bleeding profusely from a neck wound. Guiding the injured man to their couch, Juanita sat him down, applied pressure to the cut, and comforted him while her husband called 911. Turning to Juanita, the victim whispered, “Everything will be okay” just before going into shock and apparent cardiac arrest. Medics arrived shortly, attempted to resuscitate the man, and then transported him to the hospital where he died less than an hour later. Needless to say, this experience was traumatizing to Juanita and her husband, but instinctively, she had reached out to care for someone in need. A few weeks later, Juanita met members of the man’s family who expressed their gratitude, having thought the man had died alone on the streets. That experience, as well as a prayer service by Sister Rosemary O’Brien at the apartment helped Juanita to lessen the pain of this trauma and to focus on the grace of consoling another in his time of need.
Destination: Peace, Prosperity, and Hope
Juanita and her husband have since moved to a beautiful apartment in a comfortable and safe family neighborhood. It’s the perfect place for the couple to welcome family: Juanita has reconnected with her mother, brother, and sister. She and her mom, who has remarried, talk every day. Juanita shares partial custody of her older girls with her ex-husband, and she and her husband have enjoyed cheering the girls’ soccer team to victories. The couple takes pleasure in regular visits with her husband’s son, too. On the piano in the dining room, Juanita has found the strength to display the photo of her three “lost” children; when they turn 18, she prays they will find her. Also Juanita has displayed the Serenity Prayer and plaques proclaiming her belief in the power and beauty of music: “Music can change the world,” and “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Juanita, harkening back to her childhood, has also taken yet another step in reclaiming her true character. Encouraged by friends in her support group, she and her daughters recently attended a church service. Mindful of her long and painful detachment from God, she was naturally hesitant; however, encountering a number of supportive acquaintances in the congregation, she experienced both comfort and tranquility. Juanita felt she was definitely in the right place at the right time when the minister spoke of “humility,” a message she embraces, seeking to move ahead, spiritually renewed and refreshed.Clearly, Juanita has made many significant changes in her life, supported by her husband. Still, he had not committed himself to recovery as Juanita had, causing her anxiety for them both. Upon reading the preliminary script of this story, however, he too has whole-heartedly embraced the path to recovery. Recognizing and honoring Juanita’s struggles and achievements, and realizing the importance of conquering addiction for himself, his wife, and children, he too has pledged himself to recovery. United, Juanita and her husband can now move ahead, hand in hand, supporting each other in times of need as well as cherishing and celebrating their shared victories.
As a young woman, Juanita Allen chose to abandon the life and passions that had centered her very being: music, family, and God. Years later, after pain, struggle, and surrender, she has centered herself and rediscovered love, purpose, strength, and security. Juanita’s journey has been difficult and filled with detours, but with faith, she has discovered her unique destiny. Five years clean, she proclaims “I am a beautiful, recovering, talented child of God.” Indeed!
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