By: John Otis
Original Source: nytimes.com
For 17 unholy years, Mary Woods, 56, called the streets of Manhattan her home. Crack cocaine was her sustenance, prostitution her trade. That all changed in 2009, when an arrest for the criminal sale of a controlled substance put a more permanent roof above her head: that of a jail cell on Rikers Island.
The arrest reversed the course of her life. For the better.
“They were going to give me 12 years or Greenhope,” she said, referring toGreenhope Services for Women, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide alternatives for women facing incarceration.
Ms. Woods eagerly chose the latter, and in February 2011, after spending nine months behind bars, she entered Greenhope’s Alternative to Incarceration program, where she completed a comprehensive treatment program. She has now been clean for two and a half years.
Her prison stint not only illuminated a path to sobriety, Ms. Woods said, but also allowed an ever-growing reservoir of life-negating thoughts to finally dissipate.
“I needed to be locked up to change my mind frame,” she said. “A lot of people I was dealing with were doing really slimy, greasy things to me. And I was getting very dangerous in thought about what I could do to them. Getting locked up made me change my whole demeanor, and how I looked at people.”
Her life-changing introspection, in addition to Greenhope’s counseling and vocation services, proved crucial to her rehabilitation, but Ms. Woods cites her 10-year-old grandson, Ajanee, as her primary impetus for change. Just days before she was arrested, Ajanee spoke to her, and Ms. Woods’s memory of that moment transforms his voice into that of a loving angel, quelling her addiction demons.
Ms. Woods recalled the exchange: “He told me: ‘God didn’t make you to do drugs. He’s a good person. You need to get off them drugs, Grandma. Because I love you and I want you to be here for my graduation.’ And I keep hearing that over and over in my head when I feel that I’m falling. I hear Ajanee, and I just keep on going.”
Not surprisingly, Ms. Woods’s lengthy addiction had placed a powerful strain on her relationships with family members, especially her three children, whom she had left in the care of her parents after she left her home, in Montclair, N.J., for Harlem. It was there that she began living on the streets, trading sex for crack money.
Family members made multiple attempts to locate her, and brought her back to New Jersey on a few occasions. Ms. Woods said she refused any offers of help and always returned to New York after a couple of days, though she valued knowing that she could still go back.
“My addiction never got me to the point where I took something from my family,” she said. “I had other means of getting what I wanted. Because I can’t imagine my mother telling me I can’t never come back and step foot in her house. I could never push her to the point of saying something like that to me.”
There were other severe consequences of her actions. Ms. Woods said that while homeless, she was raped four times. In 2001, she learned that she was H.I.V. positive. It wasn’t until Ms. Woods entered Greenhope that she started receiving consistent treatment for the condition.
Life has improved vastly for Ms. Woods since she got clean. Most of her relationships with family members have begun to heal, and she said she was able to be especially supportive to her mother after her father’s death in May 2012.
She began an internship in the Bronx preparing meals in the kitchen at CitiWide Harm Reduction (now called Boom!Health), which serves homeless people with addictions and chronic health problems. To help keep her on track, Greenhope assisted her with the cost of getting to work by contacting the Community Service Society, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. The society provided Ms. Woods with $336 for three monthly MetroCards. That internship led to a full-time position as a peer kitchen coordinator.
At CitiWide she met her fiancé, a former addict, clean for seven years, who understands her struggles. The couple share an apartment in Washington Heights.
“I have a strong support unit,” Ms. Woods said. “I used to keep everything in. I used to think I could fix everything myself. But now I know you have to bite the bullet sometimes and ask for help