She's been clean for 28 months. At 57, it's the longest period in her life since she took her first drink when she was 16.
"Alcohol is not my vice," she told me from where she sat across from me in my office. Her blue eyes are intense. Her streaked blond hair held back from her face in a ponytail at the top of her head. Her face is lined with the wear and tear of life on the street. She is in constant motion. Fidgeting, shifting position, crossing her jean clad legs, unfolding them. "I was addicted to heroin in my late twenties. Replaced it with cocaine and then crack."
She's managed to give birth to two amazing children, now 37 and 35. "I hadn't started the hard core drugs at that point," she said. "Mostly pot. I remember when my kids were in their teens. I used to tell them I couldn't wait for them to grow up and move away." She looks down at her hands. The nails are broken and chewed. She picks at a piece of dead skin along the edge of her thumbnail. "It was the addiction talking. Having them there interfered with my use." She sighs. Smiles slightly. "I've let go of my shame and my guilt. But I still have remorse. I've apologized to my kids for those lost years. I guess if there's a blessing in all of this it's my kids. They don't drink or do drugs. They're good parents."
She pauses. I wonder if she's going to add, 'not like me' but she falls into silence, her eyes lift up, she stares at the ceiling. I wait.
"There are so many people I need to make amends to."
She grows silent again. There's a sheen of tears glistening on her bright blue eyes as she looks straight at me. "An addiction is like a suicide mission. I spent most of my life trying to kill myself. Now, I just want to live without dying everyday."
She's moving out of the shelter where she's been living for the past three months. "You know, sobriety is really different this time." She smiles. "I can walk past places where I used to use and suddenly, they're just places. Some of them are even places I want to go visit in the spring when the weather's nicer. I want to see them through clear eyes."
She describes a park where getting high was part of the experience of being there. "I love that park now as a place of quiet, calmness. A place to just be." Pause. I can almost feel her thoughts turn inward. "I like being sober."
It was a remarkable hour spent listening to one woman's story of life on the darkside of living.
It is what inspires me everyday at the shelter where I work. Individuals waking up to the truth of who they are as they shed the addictions that have kept them mired in the filth of believing they are unworthy.
For Shelly*, that truth is in her commitment to staying sober and to helping others. "Once I'm settled in my new place, I want to come back here and volunteer."
I assure her we'd love to have her as a volunteer. "What are you dreams?" I ask.
Without hesitation she responds. "I want to work with the younger women. The street girls. I want to help them get back on their feet. Stop using." Her words flow in a steady stream. Ideas pour out. She's thought about this a lot. She knows what she needs to do.
"I can't make anyone stop using," she says. "But I can be there for them when they fall. Like this place was there for me."
Twenty-eight months ago she was almost dead. "I had so many drugs in my body I should have died," she tells me. "I remember wanting to die. And then, someone found me and brought me here. A staff member asked if I wanted to go to Detox and I said yes, whatever." She laughs as she remembers those first days of sobriety. "I stayed in Detox ten days instead of five, I was pretty wasted. When I sobered up, I came back to the shelter and one of the counsellors got me a bed in Rehab. You guys saved my life."
Twenty-eight months. Not long in a lifetime, but for Shelly, being stoned is a lifetime ago. "I never want to use again. Don't even feel the urge. Living means too much to me."
From suicide mission to life. She's done her time, served a sentence she never wants to repeat. "My addiction was a prison of my own making," she says. "And now I'm free."
Twenty-eight months of taking one step at a time, one day at a time.
"You know, when I first got sober I went to live in another town, just so I could surround myself with serious AA folks. In the town where I was at, there was a guy who had forty-eight years of sobriety." She shakes her head in awe. "He had a pin with a big diamond in the middle circled by rubies for every five years of sobriety. I don't want anything that elaborate, but I'm going to get me one of those pins."
I believe she will.
The question is: What inspires you every day?