In Her Own Words  – “Out of the Woods” by Nichole

My name is Nichole, I’m 44 and was born and raised in Fairfax County in the Mount Vernon area. I have one sister who is three years older than me. Both of my parents were active alcoholics and addicts when I was growing up. They were abusive physically and mentally to each other and my mom was abusive to my sister and me.

My dad worked nights at the railroad and many mornings he didn’t come home. Mental illness and addiction run rampant on both sides of my family, yet when I was growing up it was never talked about. My sister was a quiet child, who always wanted to be with adults and boss around other kids. I was into everything. To keep me calm and quiet, my mother fed me alcohol. I remember drinking chocolate milk at home and wanting to go to sleep. I noticed when I drank chocolate milk at my grandma’s house it tasted different and didn’t make me sleepy. I found out when I was in high school that my Mom’s chocolate milk was Kahlua and Vodka.

I remember feeling different all through elementary school and into high school. I felt very nervous, scared and, at times, angry, but never knew why. I tried talking to my mom about this but was brushed off and told its normal and to suck it up. When standing in front of my class for a book report or science project, I would feel sick to my stomach. Those feelings only got worse as I got older. I took special education classes until my freshman year in high school. I had trouble with reading comprehension and math. I still don’t know my multiplication tables. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by chaos. My mother had me smoke cannabis with her starting in 6th grade. She dragged me with her to see her boyfriends who she would meet at the bars.

I found out in high school that alcohol and other substances eased my anxiety and mood swings. I took up cosmetology classes during my sophomore and junior years of high school and became a licensed cosmetologist and worked in a shop during the summer of 1991. I was also working at the Hair Cuttery as a shampoo girl and they brought me on as a stylist. I loved that job. Unfortunately, by this time I had joined my mom in the bars. My senior year was chaotic and I barely graduated in June of 1992. This was the time my parents split up for the last time and both went on to settle down with different

I started dating the doorman from a bar I went to with my mom. This was the start of my abusive relationships and daily drug use. He rode in a motorcycle club and I wore a “property patch” and was subject to all the conditions required of someone who is “property”. It took me five years to escape from him and his friends.

Unfortunately, I ran from him straight into the arms of another abuser. At this point, I’d had enough. I started my sobriety journey and learned more about mental illness. The journey has been a long one with many stops and starts. When I first sought help in 1997, I learned I was bi-polar with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and social anxiety disorder. I entered substance rehab in March of 1998 and moved into Oxford House, a communal rehabilitation home.

While this was a first step, I still wanted to just be “normal”. For the next seventeen years, I went on and off my medications, was in and out of psychiatric facilities, and in and out of abusive relationships. Each time learning more and more, but still not ready to fully accept the truth. In October of 2009, I was working on almost three years clean, driving and working again as a veterinarian technician. Also, I was dating a nice guy for once. I was living with my AA sponsor and getting my life back on track. Disastrously, I had a major setback. I was out one day sitting off a path on the river journaling for my mental
therapy when I heard a twig snap behind me. The next thing I knew I felt a gun to my head and I was tragically raped by a stranger. Sadly, I had been raped before, but never in sobriety. This sent me over the edge. I became dissociative losing track of time and running away for days.

During this time, I was hospitalized three times and attempted suicide where a last-minute intervention saved my life, but I ended up in ICU. While I was hospitalized, my boyfriend dumped me and my AA sponsor kicked me out. Both said I was too hard to love. Now began my homeless journey in January 2010 with 18 inches of snow on the ground. It was just me and a tent in the woods in Woodbridge VA.

I held onto my sobriety for about 90 days and then lost it. I spent the next five years homeless in snow, ice, hurricanes, and with abusive men. I wanted to try to get help, however, was too embarrassed to follow through. In 2013, I came back to Fairfax County, still homeless, still actively using and met another abusive man. My physical health also began to decline. I had been a physically healthy child growing up and in my early adulthood. After being homeless, I developed asthma, learned I had fibromyalgia and tested positive for Hepatitis C. I had come to accept that I would die in the woods.

Thankfully, in January of 2015, I met with a volunteer with FACETs who connected me with Pathway Homes. I met with a Pathways’ supervisor in February and two weeks later I met with the supervisor and counselor to look at what may be my new apartment. I was very nervous. The apartment was clear and bright when I walked in. There was a foyer which I just felt too nervous to step away from to look at the entire place. The Pathways folks encouraged me to come all the way in and look around. I accepted the apartment and had to wait until March 1 st to move in as it needed a new carpet. Until I moved in, I stayed in a hotel hidden away from everyone. I moved into my new apartment on March 12, 2015.

Looking back, I don’t know how much longer I would have survived on the streets. I was mentally and spiritually broken. I prayed often to not wake up when I went to sleep. Being given this opportunity restored so much of my faith. Having a clean environment, a real bathroom I can use whenever I want, a working kitchen, a place to store my groceries and a bed to sleep in has been a blessing.

Pathways helped me manage my mental and physical health. The counselor comes weekly and helps me with my tools such as breathing, mindfulness and my gratitude list. I have an orange tabby cat which helps so much with my anxiety. I have gone through the Hepatitis C treatments and manage my medications in support of my mental and physical health. I feel like a simple thank you will never be enough for all Pathway Homes has done for me.