Small Steps Become Big Strides

Lisa and Emily, her case manager, smile are meeting at a desk and smiling at the camera
Addiction Grabs Hold at an Early Age

Lisa* was nine-years-old the first time she tasted a sip of beer. “I have been an alcoholic, I would say, since that first drink. I shared a beer with my sister and one of our friends. I immediately wanted a second beer. I remember that very vividly.”

“I have been an alcoholic, I would say, since that first drink. I shared a beer with my sister and one of our friends. I immediately wanted a second beer. I remember that very vividly.”

By 14, Lisa was drinking whenever she could, which was often. Alcohol was always available. “As children, mom and dad would go to the bar, and they’d bring us. I wasn’t of age, but I was served. They’d have parties at home. Plus, at 15, I started working as a waitress at a resort, which had alcohol. My bosses let me drink.”

Drinking provided a way for Lisa to escape a home life that she says was very dysfunctional. “I was never sober. Never. Because home life wasn’t happy. Alcohol. Marijuana. There was incest involved. Mental health. Domestic violence. And while I always loved my mother—neglect. She loved me and my sister, but she didn’t really have good parenting skills. She wasn’t very aware.”

Finding Help Someplace New

All of these factors led Lisa to leave home at the age of 17. Before high school graduation, she left her hometown, population roughly 400, and moved two hours south to St. Paul. Over the next 35 years, Lisa rotated in and out of shelters, treatment centers, prison, and a string of abusive relationships. One relationship was so bad that she endured a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and permanent nerve damage. Still, she continued to support her abuser by holding signs on the street; he’d take nearly everything she earned. Looking back, Lisa says, “I don’t know why I did that except I just did not want to be alone. I was always fearful of being alone.”

In August, 2017, Lisa came to Our Saviour’s shelter for the first time. Her experience there was different from any other place she’d been. “You didn’t want to mess up at OSH. You had a room with a roommate—one roommate! And it didn’t take long. I had my own apartment in two months. So they’re fabulous. They’re hard workers, and they’ll get you housed.”

“You didn’t want to mess up at OSH. You had a room with a roommate—one roommate! And it didn’t take long. I had my own apartment in two months. So they’re fabulous. They’re hard workers, and they’ll get you housed.”

Learning to Live at Home

Lisa was able to move into her apartment through Our Saviour’s Permanent Supportive Housing Program. She quickly learned, however, that getting housed was just the beginning. She then had to learn how to be in her apartment. She was alone most of the time. For someone who was afraid of being alone, this was a difficult adjustment. She kept her door locked at all times and booby trapped the windows at night. Sometimes, she’d bring friends from the street home, and they would drink—until she had her rent money stolen. “That was the last time I had anybody at my house,” she says.

Taking care of her place after being homeless for so long was also a learning curve. “I would trash it. There would be food on the floor. I wasn’t supposed to smoke in the apartment, and I did. There’s cigarette butt burns all over my apartment. That depresses me sometimes because then I start the self-loathing. ‘Why did you do that, you dumb, you know?’” Slowly, though, Lisa is working on getting the place cleaned. “I actually did my oven! This is the second time, but I did a much better job. I work on forgiving myself the cigarette burns.”

Gradual Changes Begin to Take Root

After nearly two years in stable housing, things are beginning to shift for Lisa in other ways. A couple months ago, she passed out from drinking. “I never pass out right in the open, but when I woke up—I don’t know what time it was, 2am—I was on Franklin and Cedar. The buses were no longer running, and I walked [three miles] home. I was extremely grateful because I beat the lightning and thunder.”

Since then, Lisa has gradually been making changes. “For about two months now, very slowly, my attitude towards drinking is changing. I drank enough to kill a person, but I’m abstaining much more. Working on my emotions and thoughts, going to group, asking for help. It’s getting stronger every day.”

Sometimes, Lisa wakes up very pleased with herself. Other times, she thinks about the past—all the mistakes—and falls off the wagon. “When I feel negative, I do negative things.” But she gets back on again. “I was so full of self-pity. Self-loathing. It was terrible. That self-loathing is going away slowly, but the self-pity, it’s not really there anymore. I want to feel better about myself. I need sobriety.” The alternative isn’t an option. She’s seen too many of the friends she drank with on the street pass away and says she’s, “too old to continue to do this.”

Signs of Progress Shining Through

Lisa’s starting to see positive outcomes for her efforts. Although the physical effects of withdrawal are difficult, she’s benefitted from reduced inflammation. “My arthritis and nerve pain have decreased because I haven’t been drinking. I’m not limping. It doesn’t hurt at all!” She’s also been able to start saving money. Earlier this summer, after her rent and bills were paid for the month, she had ten dollars left in her bank account. This is big for Lisa. “That is not normal. Usually, it’s fifty cents by this time. I’m changing. I’m actually changing, and that’s really encouraging.”

“I’m changing. I’m actually changing, and that’s really encouraging.”

The road ahead, Lisa knows, will be hard and far from perfect. It’s fitting that all these changes are starting to happen after two years of stable housing. We know that it takes an average two years of stability before the human brain can function at its previous capacity after experiencing prolonged, acute trauma (such as a year or more of homelessness). As Lisa continues to heal and her confidence grows, she’s drawing more from her own strengths and building support systems. She’s learning new ways to be in relationships, working towards employment, and starting to practice her own native spirituality.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

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