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Tale of Two Houses

The place looked the way she felt–seedy, debased, stripped bare. But something was pulling her out of there, toward a new life.

By Debra Person, Syracuse, New York

As appeared in

This is a story of two houses. Just a few miles apart, but the distance between them couldn’t have been greater. One was my downfall, the site of my spiritual abandonment. The other was my redemption, the light needed to overcome the dark places, my saving grace.

The old brownstone on Ferry Street was supposed to be a fresh start for my husband, Perc, and me. I’d just gotten out of rehab. Perc had kicked his crack habit too. We quit running hustles for money and settled down in legit jobs.

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We moved into the brownstone’s top-floor apartment in September 1996 and were turning it into a real home–nice furniture, silk curtains, antiques Momma gave me. But addiction is a demon that doesn’t relinquish its hold without a fight. All it took was one setback to send us both back to the pipe.

I talked Perc into it, just like I’d turned him on to crack in the first place. “We need an escape,” I said. “Just for one night.”

I should’ve known better, known how easily one small slip spirals into full-blown relapse, considering Daddy was a heroin addict who OD’ed, and I’d been in and out of rehab 16 times.

Our one night bled into days, weeks, months. Perc and I lost our jobs. Sold off our prized possessions to feed our addiction. The only thing that mattered was the next high–until I saw what rock bottom looked like one December morning in 1998.

I woke, my eyes glazed, a nasty taste in my mouth from last night’s binge. Where am I? Perc snored loudly beside me. I winced. It was like I was seeing our bedroom for the first time.

Stained walls. Rodent droppings. No furniture except our filthy mattress, the floor around it littered with soda cans and tire gauges we’d used for pipes. The place looked the way I felt. Seedy. Debased. Stripped bare.

If I stay here, I’m going to die, I thought. Panic rose, mutated into hysteria. “I can’t live like this anymore!” I cried, shaking Perc awake. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”

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Even lost in his own addiction, this man would do anything for me. Perc remembered a place he’d passed once. Serenity House, a shelter for women. He called them up for me. They had one bed left.

And one condition–no drug use allowed.

I went there that same day. The house was beautiful, a well-kept two-story. I raised my hand to knock on the door. A brightness came from inside, warm and welcoming. Still I hesitated. Was I ready to leave Perc? Could I kick my habit? I’d failed 16 times. Why would this time be any different?

The door opened. Before I could take a step, a force tugged me over the threshold, gentle yet irresistible. A voice–one that I sensed rather than heard aloud–said, This is where you’re supposed to be.

And it was. For the first time, I really listened to my counselors and to the other women rebuilding their lives. I talked too–about how I’d been molested as a child and raped as a teenager, how surviving made me hard on the outside but left me hollow inside, how I turned to drugs to fill, or at least escape, that void.

They heard it all, and they didn’t judge me. They loved me, and they told me that God loved me even more. I wanted to believe it, wanted to believe that his was the voice I’d heard.