“In February 2021, I wrote my brother a suicide note from the car I had been living in for two years,” Nicole S. shares in the teen lounge at Beit T’Shuvah. The journey to that terrible moment was a decades-long odyssey that saw the highest of “highs” and the very lowest of lows for the sensitive and intelligent girl from Clearwater, FL. Spending most of her childhood living with her father, stepmother, older brother, and younger half brother, she would, on occasion, spend periods of time with her maternal grandparents when her mom would return to Florida. Sadly, during some of these visits, she began being molested by another family member. “I thought it was something I did wrong. I just wanted to escape, but I didn’t know how,” Nicole relates.
Thankfully, aside from that brief but terrible period in her life, her childhood growing up with her father was somewhat normal. But her relationship with him was more transactional than emotional. “He was never present emotionally with my brother or me. Instead, he would take us shopping and buy our affection,” she recalls. But there was a bright and lovely connection she shared with her stepmom, Mary Ann. “My stepmom was an angel,” Nicole says. But that positive and uplifting relationship was cut short by a bone marrow cancer diagnosis for Mary Ann when Nicole was just sixteen. Having survived breast cancer when Nicole was very young, she declined chemotherapy in favor of a more holistic approach. Sadly, that choice did not work either. To add salt to the emotional wound, Nicole wasn’t even allowed to mourn her cherished stepmom properly as she recalls, “Dad called me at work and said it didn’t look good, but when I got there, she was already dead.”
Following that loss, Nicole turned to drugs for the first time to numb the pain. “My brother grew pot in his room, and I would break in and get my weed fix,” she recounts with a giggle. Around that time, she also met a twenty-one-year-old guy, and as she remembers, “He introduced me to ‘everything,’ and that’s when I began abusing drugs for the first time.” The two dated for a while, and along with this drug-laden downward spiral, she also got pregnant for the first time. Her father would have none of it and forced her to get an abortion. However, to lessen the blow, he gave her his credit card and told her to go buy whatever she wanted. “This purchased affection became a huge theme in my life,” Nicole explains. Amidst all of this tumult, Nicole managed to graduate high school but immediately moved in with the man who would become her husband. And within six weeks of knowing each other, he expressed the desire to have a baby with her. The duo was living with his mother and her partner at the time, and, despite that unorthodox arrangement, Nicole agreed, and within nine months, her first child, Dominic, was born.
His mother insisted that he go back to school while Nicole stayed at home to raise her young son. Around that time, the couple began having issues in the marriage, but instead of addressing them, Nicole got pregnant again, and their daughter, Alyssa, was born. Not long after that, her third child Andrew came along in the couple’s continued efforts to use procreation as a salve for their marital troubles. Yet, despite the strain of living with her mother-in-law while experiencing matrimonial difficulties with three young children in tow, Nicole relays, “I became the perfect PTA mom. I volunteered for every school activity.” However, a few years into that “Perfect Mom” life, Nicole began complaining of anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. Her doctor prescribed a relatively strong combination of Percocet, Xanax, and Ambien to treat these ailments. “That’s when my true ‘drug addiction’ began,” Nicole says. Not surprisingly, shortly into this treatment, she began developing stronger tolerances for the drugs. As she explains, “I began looking up on the internet things to say at the hospital to get morphine and Dilaudid when I ran out of my pills.”
In 2010 her mother-in-law moved to North Carolina, and because “My husband had to be as close to his mom as possible,” the whole family moved as well. Separated from her doctor’s ability to prescribe drugs in North Carolina and with no reputable doctor there willing to provide her with the ridiculous amount of pills she had become dependent upon, not surprisingly, she began to withdraw. To help her deal with the pains of withdrawal, she was directed to a methadone clinic, and as she explains, “I stayed on it for the next twelve years.” By 2018 Nicole had added cocaine to her drug cocktail while working at a car dealership. When the clinic found out, they began cutting her off from her methadone dosage until she was clean. The first time this occurred was around Christmas of 2018. The pain was so excruciating that she describes, “I was in so much pain I was literally crawling to my car.” A man sitting in his car in the parking lot saw her in distress and came over and said, “You look really sick. I can give you something that will help.” Desperate and in agony, she agreed, and as she remembers, “I went to his car and snorted heroin for the first time, and that was ‘the end.’”
To add further fuel to her escalating drug abuse, Nicole was experiencing zero happiness and affection in her marriage. So to fill that void while also getting her drug fix, she began cheating on her husband with the man who had introduced her to the “dark horse.” Embarrassed and humiliated by her children’s strong disapproval of this betrayal, “I moved to L.A. to escape the pain of my children’s refusal to speak to me,” Nicole sadly explains. And, as mentioned at the beginning of this Spotlight, two years into that precipitous fall, she reached the point of no longer wanting to live. Fortunately, her big brother wouldn’t let that happen. He was also living in L.A. at the time and was able to locate his baby sister. They met in the R.E.I. parking lot in Burbank, and as she says, “He and his wife set me up in a hotel and told me they were going to get me help.”
Having already contacted Beit T’Shuvah and been accepted, with the caveat of having to detox before admittance into the program, Nicole began a nerve-wracking trek through a couple of detox centers. However, she finally landed at Miracles, per the recommendation of Beit T’Shuvah, and five days later, on April 5th, she was finally allowed to enter the doors of BTS. And as she simply explains, “It changed my life.” She began meeting like-minded people for the first time in her life and was also given a treatment team dedicated to her recovery and healing. She was able to pinpoint why her addiction had started, and as she says with a little tear in her eyes, “Rabbi Kerry and Karen (Strauss) were so very instrumental to my healing process. I don’t know where I’d be without their help.” Four months into her stay, she began an internship at the front desk and, shortly after that, she heard about an opening interning in the kitchen preparing the salad bar and jumped on it. “I started to learn how it would be on the outside,” she explains. She then added breakfasts, lunches, and dinners to her culinary intern experience. As she tells it, “It made my recovery process deeper and more meaningful knowing I was contributing to my community.” Having no days off, Nicole is a fixture when meals are wheeled out to the community three times a day, and she would have it no other way. She concludes by sharing, “I feel blessed to be at BTS because I actually feel like I’m cared about, and I’m not just a dollar sign.” There’s no amount of money to quantify the value of the mother of three from Clearwater, and all of us are blessed to receive nourishment not only by her kitchen expertise but also her spirit of survival and redemption.