When the men broke into the New York City apartment, they pointed the gun at Karen’s mother, demanding money and drugs. But it was only when they turned the gun on six-year-old Karen that her mother reached into her clothing and handed them a little baggie—betting it would be just enough to keep them from pulling the trigger. Karen’s mother kept large stashes hidden around the apartment—many that Karen helped package. The men grabbed it and left.
Her own daughter held at gunpoint was not enough to stop the addictions that consumed her. She was in too deep, using and selling drugs in front of Karen and her siblings in their own apartment. Karen remembers being asked to bring her mother and her guests drinks and cigarettes, and bagging drugs when she was little. “They didn’t hide anything from us,” she said, “and we did everything for them.”
Experiences like these were so normal that at eight-years-old, Karen picked up her first drink at one of her mother’s parties. Guests laughed while she stumbled around them.
Born in a Harlem hospital in the 1960s to a father unknown, Karen was forced to grow up fast. She never owned a baby doll to play with. Instead, she was expected to care for her younger baby brother and sister. “She [her mother] wanted me to be the grown up, she saw me as someone who could help her,” she said. Her older two siblings had already been sent to South Carolina to be cared for by their grandmother. Eventually, Karen and her younger siblings would eventually end up there, too.
“I was laughing on the outside and crying on the inside about how much I wanted to get away from my family.”
Arriving in South Carolina, it was clear that wherever Karen’s mother went, she brought the same lifestyle with her, being in and out of institutions and being arrested. “The same things happened with her,” Karen said.
Karen and her siblings had different fathers. “I felt like I needed to try to fit in with my family,” Karen said. Growing up, they called her “too dark, too tall.” Joining her older siblings in drinking and abusing drugs seemed the way to get her older siblings to accept her.
“I was laughing on the outside and crying on the inside about how much I wanted to get away from my family,” Karen said.
Even as she continued drinking and using drugs, she learned to wear different masks to blend in. At school, she had a lot of friends and got along well with her teachers. She was active in both basketball and softball. Looking back, Karen said, “God had his hand on me in order to accomplish all that I did.” She was the first in her family to graduate high school, and in the top 25 of her graduating class.
Wanting a new life, Karen got herself clean and joined the United States Air Force. She served for 11 years and during that time had two sons. But after leaving the service, she and her children moved back to New York City, where old habits crept back into her life. She started using drugs like cocaine and eventually her sons were taken from her. “I gave up my kids to use,” she said.
Doing The Work
Her wake-up call came in an unexpected way—while she was “getting high” with a friend. Her friend told Karen about a VA rehab program. If she completed the program, she would get her life on track and get her kids back. Karen didn’t want to hear it. But the next morning, she remembered that conversation. “I needed that prompting,” she said. “God gets us right where we are.”
“God had his hand on me in order to accomplish all that I did.”
Karen checked herself into a two-year VA rehab program. “Once I went into rehab, I felt God telling me he has me. ‘You don’t have to do this no more,’” Karen said. She was assigned a sponsor to encourage her and help set a foundation to stay clean. Thanks to advocates like her sponsor, Karen was able to see her boys, then ages 9 and 11, regularly. As she shared special moments with them, meeting at places like the mall for ice cream, she hoped they could see her love, and the progress she was making to be with them permanently. “They served as an inspiration, they always believed in me,” she said. After two years, Karen was awarded custody again in 2001.
Karen continued attending Narcotics Anonymous (NA) after her two years in rehab and worked through the 12-step program.
It Starts With Forgiveness
When she moved back to Charleston, SC in 2012 to help care for the children of a family member who was going through the same situation that Karen had overcome, Karen started attending Seacoast’s North Charleston Campus. During the time she’d lived with her grandmother, they’d gone to church every Sunday. At church, she began to see that she could bring hope to people who are hurting, and fighting addiction—like a young woman, one-year clean, who couldn’t forgive herself.
“When you don’t forgive yourself, you can’t forgive others,” Karen said. “You can’t feel free, you’re still using, and feeling the hurt. It still ties you back to where you were.” Karen had to forgive herself in order to forgive her mother—who had passed away before they could reconcile. But forgiving her in her heart was a huge part of setting herself free.
“I thank NA for giving us the God of understanding. He reaches me internally and the blessings show externally,” she said. On August 24, 2020, Karen celebrated 20 years of sobriety.
“When you don’t forgive yourself, you can’t forgive others.”
Karen dreams of opening a building in an underserved area where volunteers can provide support for anyone coming in off the street looking for community, as many do not have phones or internet access. “They need to establish accountability relationships to help them beat addiction,” Karen said.
Healthy relationships are vital to battling addiction. Not only was Karen’s sponsor by her side for 18 years, but she also met her future husband, Alexander, at an NA meeting. They have been married for seven years. He is now 10 years clean. They both volunteer as 12-step program leaders. Together they are using their breakthroughs to help others experience theirs.
- If you are hurting and battling addiction, attend Celebrate Recovery at our Mount Pleasant and Summerville Campuses.
- Help people thrive in community by volunteering at the North Charleston Dream Center. This organization provides valuable resources and opportunities to low income, homeless and under-served individuals and families in North Charleston and Hanahan.