The Journey Back from Gone

Hope is the companion of power, and mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles.

~Samuel Smiles

I happily snacked on a rare Lunchables between the two sets of sliding doors at Kmart, trying to stay warm. My black fake leather coat and spiked hair didn’t do much to keep me warm in the Michigan blizzard, but I wasn’t allowed to go back to the homeless shelter until 5:00 p.m. I hunkered down so the store manager wouldn’t see me as she passed; she knew I was a homeless teen trying to keep warm and would call security to shoo me away.

There had been a time when I was a privileged boarding school student, and for all appearances, I had everything going for me. Beneath my family’s smiling Christmas card, though, lay abuse, fear and control. When I graduated high school, my father put me in a Catholic seminary to keep track of me. Too afraid to defy him, I began classes in the seminary he chose. On the second weekend, I had my first drink, then was drugged and raped. After my discharge from the hospital, the school asked me to withdraw.

I had no other choice. I flew home. That Halloween, I mustered up the courage to tell my father what had been done to me. He played with his fingers, not looking at me as I wept, recounting as much detail as I could so he understood it wasn’t my fault. His expression was inscrutable. After I finished delivering my message, there was a long pause before he spoke.

“Let me get this straight. As of right now, you have run away from home, picked up smoking of all things, drank alcohol and now you’ve slept around? You have screwed up your life in every way except using drugs, but I suppose you’ll go for that, too, soon enough.”

He kicked me out. Numbly, I found an apartment on the crime-ridden side of town. Eventually, I met the neighbors, who were hardened addicts. My drug use with them escalated into a full-blown addict lifestyle in less than a month. “I’m too far gone,” I would tell myself any time someone told me I needed to fix my shattered life.

After nearly a year of silencing my pain and rage with every substance I could hustle into my body, I experienced a miracle. Lying on a filthy couch in front of the television with a newly emptied needle playing between my fingers, a children’s services commercial began. A parade of children excitedly told the camera what they wanted to be when they grew up. Confused by the high, I waited for my turn to announce what I wanted to do. Dark panic crept across my heart as I realized I didn’t remember what career or life goals I’d had. The realization sobered me quickly from my high and I began to plan.

I decided to join the military. When I told my parents, they chuckled at me. I quit drugs cold turkey and my new hope tempered the withdrawal. My roommates, however, grew concerned that I would soon be an informant and threw me out with only a sad little backpack containing two changes of clothes. All at once, I was a homeless teen addict with little more than a wisp of hope.

I checked into a homeless shelter after begging my father fruitlessly for help. He had laughed again, enjoying the moment and telling me I would never survive on my

own. For years, his derisive chortles would fuel me to push through the months of rape, beatings and sometimes starvation following that final conversation with him.

As I sat, content to warm myself and eat my Lunchables in the safety of Kmart, a woman dressed in a long, teal coat stopped by on her way out of the store.

“Have you had anything real to eat? You’re so thin. Let me get you something better than that.”

It was the first time I’d been spoken to with kindness in years, and I nearly fell out of the handicap cart I was occupying. The manager spotted me and came over.

“I told you to leave! Unless you are buying something, you can’t loiter here. Next time I see you, I am calling the cops.”

I was too ashamed of my clearly homeless state to accept the kind woman’s offer so I quickly scrambled out into the blizzard. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gang member waiting by a corner to jump me. I doubled back and took her hand.

I don’t remember her name, but that woman changed my life. She ignored the stares from all sides as she led me to a table in a nice restaurant. She asked me about my passions and goals, and when I told her I was trying to join the Air Force, her face split into a warm smile. She believed in me; beyond my spiked hair, cheap hoop earrings and the piece of string I utilized as a belt, she saw potential. “Maybe I’m not actually too far gone.” I thought. The realization was as fresh and life-giving as each course she ordered for us.

The moment we stepped out of the restaurant, the sounds of honking cars coupled with shouts from the alley grounded me. I fell from cloud nine and the dignity I had gained smashed onto the sidewalk. Suddenly full of shame, I fled. I never saw her again.

The mysterious woman had given me a new addiction: hope. For the next two months, I coordinated with a recruiter and went through military enlistment processing.

In April 2010, I left for basic. I went through rigorous counseling and physical training, but the most powerful transformation was left on my growing heart by a parade of one soul after the next, tossing love into the abyss of my self-worth with the same message: “You’re not too far gone.”

The love that was heaped into me over the years began to spill over; finally I had an abundance to share as well. I began to teach life skills classes to homeless teens. On occasion, friends would ask me how my heart could handle seeing so much brokenness and despair. “No one is too far gone” had become my mantra.

Six months ago, I decided I wanted a bag of Fritos. Locking up my house, I hopped in my car and rolled to the corner store. What I found changed my life.

The cashier, who was trying to sell to a teen girl, panicked and asked if I could take his “friend” to the homeless clinic. She was collapsed on the floor by the register. Not comprehending the situation, I asked the girl if she was all right. Her clothes were caked stiff in filth and bodily fluids. In spite of the meth sores encircling her lips, she looked to be around fifteen years old.

I packed her into my car, assessing the situation. She was too ill to go to the clinic, I decided. She introduced herself as Paloma before passing out. I rushed her to the hospital.

For the sake of her privacy I will say only this: Statistically, she should have died from the profound abuse that made her so ill. I lived with her in the hospital for a week. As she improved, word spread and soon she had a stream of visitors, filling the holes in

her heart with love. They joked with her, played with her hair and supplied her with clothing sporting her favorite bands. During her last night in the hospital, I kissed her goodnight on the forehead and turned to leave for the evening. Her sweet voice piped up: “Night Mom. I love you.”

Paloma is now my daughter because I know no one is beyond hope. I placed her in a nearby transition home where she has counseling and tutoring to help her learn to read and write. She loves to play with our puppy and cranks the car radio with the same smile as any other kid. Last month, as we drove to a hiking trail, she filled me in on the latest drama with her new friends. One of the friends she described made me nervous, worried she would cause trouble for Paloma, so I cautiously asked her if she felt the girl would do well in the home. Her smiling answer, for the hundredth time in my life rocked my world: “Mom, no one is too far gone.”

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