Sheila’s story originally appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.
It’s hard to imagine the direction Sheila’s life has taken. If I told you she was a beautiful, introspective woman with a warm, humble personality… would you also believe she spent most of her adult life in prison? What an amazing contradiction to the belief that people cannot change. Sheila is living proof that change is possible and honestly, quite humbling.
Sheila spent her 20s and 30s in and out of jail, using drugs and alcohol, and stealing to get by. In 2000, Sheila went to prison for the first time. Over the course of the next 12 years, Sheila experienced freedom only twice: once for 7 ½ months and a second time for 11 months. She admits, “I had five children and just lived off welfare. I just kept having babies by men thinking they loved me. I was searching for something.”
But what was she searching for? Sheila’s answer came to her while serving her last prison sentence – the reason it all kept happening – “I was lying on my bunk and it was like a lightbulb went off in my head… the drugs and alcohol are the problem. That’s why you keep coming back.” Finally acknowledging her substance abuse issue was a huge turning point for Sheila, but there was more. Her need to self-medicate came from a traumatic incident she experienced when she was just 14 years old. Sheila had spent her entire adult life burying this traumatic experience and had been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“That’s the number one key, once you understand what’s going on with you then you’re able to change it around. Because I didn’t understand about PTSD, I didn’t understand why I kept using drugs and drinking. I didn’t know anything about recovery. I just knew that I was very hopeless. I felt like my life wouldn’t go anywhere.”
Armed with her realization, Sheila began digging, asking questions and reaching out for help while serving her final sentence. “I started going to the library there and pulling books out about anxiety and depression. It’s hard when you’re in prison; you have to carry this personality like you’re down with everybody. But I knew in my heart what I was trying to do. I was so relieved the day I got out of there.”
Sheila has spent the last two years since her release rebuilding her life. First, utilizing Catholic Charities’ Second Place East Homeless Shelter and then finding permanent housing through Catholic Charities’ Gateways Community Living Program. “I remember walking down the street and I kept calling Gateways, I kept calling Sharon, to show her I had motivation and that I wanted to change my life. Sharon said, ‘we’re going to have a meeting and there’s no opening yet.’ So, I said a prayer. It was probably two hours later, she called me back and she said ‘you’re accepted.’ And I remember standing there and saying ‘thank you, God.’”
Now stably housed, Sheila’s made amazing strides from her sobriety to her relationship with her children. She has been off Public Assistance for over a year, she continues to work through her PTSD and has sought and won joint custody of her youngest son, who will be ten years old very soon. “He’s just my little guy,” Sheila says brightly and smiles warmly. “I teach him a lot of things, he teaches me stuff too. I love him, I love him so much.” Sheila hopes to rebuild her relationships with her older children who are now teens and adults. “We’re not as close as I hoped we would be, but I’m hoping over time.” Sheila doesn’t look at the challenges she is facing with self-pity, she understands that it is her responsibility to make it right. “The way I look at it, that’s my consequence for the things that I have done, because I wasn’t a nice person in my addiction. I didn’t care. I didn’t care if I took from a child’s mouth because the obsession was so strong. And I just wanted to get high.”
Sheila is truly a changed woman on a whole new path in life; one where she can finally love herself and the people around her. “I think the main thing is to recondition your mind. I guess when you grow up in an environment that’s not healthy and then you go on to start using drugs and alcohol, it’s like ingrained in you. I had to turn things around – my belief system, my morals, and my values.” Change is possible and honestly, quite humbling.