Recovery: ‘A part of this forever’


From the outside looking in, Jordan seemed to have everything a teenager could have going for her. She went to a notable high school, where she was a cheerleader for three years, and had good grades. She had a kinetic energy infused in her personality that people wanted to be around, gaining her a significant social circle. And she had a strong household: She was close with both her parents and siblings.

“All I wanted to do was get high or drink, because the essence of it just seemed better than normal living and the social life was just so enticing then,” Jordan said.

It’s normal in Wayne, Pennsylvania, to start drinking and smoking pot at the end of middle school, Jordan said. She started, too, when she was 13, trying a bevy of different pills and substances she came across. To her, it was just another part of adolescence — and it was fun.

“Honestly, the first time that a substance went into my body — I don’t remember what it was or when it was — but I remember that was it. Not even like I found myself, but I found what I liked to do. This is freeing, this is fun, this is numbing,” Jordan said. “‘Why do I like being numb? I don’t really care about those questions right now because I’m young… and I can do this and I’ll be fine later.’ You know what I mean?”

Yet amid the partying, what Jordan showed the world on the outside didn’t always reflect what was happening inside her head. In her junior year, a lingering depression set in at a time her peers were applying to college. She self-medicated more to make it go away. But then she had an accident: She got a concussion at a football game after falling during a dance routine, leaving her confined to her bed for months and taking her away from the social scene in which she thrived. She couldn’t go to school but still wanted to get high.

“I remember calling it a black cloud, and that's how I just started describing it to people. 'Cause they'd be like, ‘What's up? How are you?’ I'm like, ‘Honestly, that black cloud is still here. I can't even talk without wanting to throw up, cry or die,’” Jordan recalled. “And that's scary. I don't wanna feel like that.”

Her depression grew severe over time, and she started contemplating suicide. “I had amazing parents. Not their fault, you know what I mean? I never blame them,” she said. “They raised me well and I knew that killing myself wasn’t [necessarily] an option. For me it was, but it wasn’t.”

Having these thoughts terrified Jordan, sending her into hyperventilation and panic attacks. She told her parents she had contemplated killing herself, after which they promptly checked her into a psychiatric ward, where she was prescribed a multitude of antidepressants. “[My parents and I] would try to fix the outside things,” Jordan said. “We’d try to get healthy and get me back into exercising and whatever. Nothing ever worked.”

As Jordan recounted her story, she constantly made clear: “It’s not their fault.” She loved her mother and father so much that the thought of wanting to hurt herself — and what that would do to them — made her fall even worse. “Self-harm is a part of my story,” she said. “I don't even think my parents knew that, but it was.”

Jordan kept telling herself the concussion was the culprit, not the drugs — that the drugs were saving her from the depression. When she left treatment, she began taking more pills — benzodiazepines, opioids and other painkillers. Friends at parties would remark how she often looked out of it, but at least she was there. Nobody seemed to notice what was really happening.

“I would have nights of just crying at parties, just walking around crying,” Jordan recalled. “And everyone’s like, it was just a normal thing. ’Cause we’re all feeling it. Everyone’s feeling something, but for me, I was just fucked up.”

Dameon, 37. After he graduated college, Dameon, whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons, looked like he had it all: a brand-new car, money, a great job. But not everything was what it seemed: He skipped car payments, had no valid registration and spent most of his money scoring dope. "Every lie you tell, you're selling a bit of your integrity,” he said.In recovery, Dameon went through the same process Jordan has, successfully entering detox, living in one of Enlightened Solutions’ sober living homes and working in the recovery community. “The stigma and stuff, man, it needs to be gone,” Dameon said. “'Cause no one wants to get help when you're afraid.”

The first time Jordan’s mother Iris realized the extent of her daughter’s addiction was when she checked her recent bank transactions: $12,000, which had been given to Jordan for the typical college-related costs she was bound to accrue, spent in just two years. At the time of her concussion in high school, Iris knew Jordan had been drinking and smoking pot — something that she said she “chalked up to being a high school kid.” But after seeing her daughter’s copious spending, everything changed.

Iris was no stranger to addiction: Her father was a longtime alcoholic and her brother had lived with the disease. She knew she couldn’t convince either to stop, but vowed to be there if they needed her when things got out of hand. She just never thought she’d say the same about her own daughter.

After taking account of how much money she had given to Jordan over the years, Iris faced an internal conflict: continue to show her daughter that she’d support her no matter what, or confront her about her lingering suspicions of addiction. “I think I was in denial,” Iris said. “I didn't want to believe it because we were so close.”

“I was naïve about it, but I couldn’t believe it was her…. I thought that I was bringing up and rearing a smart, strong child,” Iris said, pausing in between thoughts. “A black queen. I always taught her to be a queen and [to] be treated like one. Go out and get what you want. Nothing is gonna come easy. And I will always be here for you, and so will your father.”

Jordan’s father’s voice was the first thing she remembered hearing after waking up in a hospital bed in May 2017 from overdosing at a music festival in Atlantic City. “My dad was like, ‘You could’ve died.’ I was so afraid. I woke up, and I was like, ‘I know,’” Jordan recalled.

After she finished high school, attending a summer program at a top-ranked research university convinced Jordan that, despite her pitfalls, everything was fine. She arrived as a freshman that fall, and the distance from home sent her “off to the races,” as she puts it: drinking every night, misusing pills she had been prescribed and sometimes ending up in dangerous positions. She was robbed at gunpoint one night after leaving a football game with friends; an encounter that left her traumatized and set her up for an even steeper fall.

Jordan dropped in and out of school, hanging out with people who were shooting up and overdosing all around her. She woke up in places she didn’t recognize and tried to make money any way she could. “The way I felt was either I was gonna die from using drugs or kill myself,” she said. “Or something was just gonna happen to me and I’m gonna die.”

The music festival overdose didn’t stop her; she still threw herself a party for her 21st birthday, though she barely remembers who showed up. The days began to blend into one and her cravings intensified. One night, she asked her friend where she could get heroin — she hated needles, but figured sniffing it could put her overwhelming thoughts to rest. Her friend refused to tell her, saying instead that Jordan’s chance of recovering was growing slim.

Like her suicidal thoughts in high school, the idea of resorting to opioids sent Jordan reeling. Over the next few days, Jordan packed her things, checked herself into a detox program in New Jersey that her friend found and told her family she had to go. They didn’t stop her. She was in the throes of full withdrawal: constantly sweating, shivering, and experiencing paranoia. Even ending her detox medication was a struggle. She still couldn’t escape the heroin that was all around her.

“Being so depressed [and thinking] there is something that can numb me more? I had dreams about it,” Jordan admitted. “I know what works and what doesn’t and what I’m interested in. I would’ve died if I tried it once.”

Erin, 25. Like Jordan, Erin, whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons, was long resigned to the fact she had — and always would have — a problem. “Heroin, crack, anything I could get my hands on, I did. I've overdosed multiple times,” she said. “And I thought, like, I'm an addict. Like, that's me.” Erin and her fiancée came out of heroin addiction together. Now they have a child and a date set for their upcoming wedding. Erin works at Serenity Houses and is training to be a nurse to give back to those who fell, like her. "You see the look in their eyes that they're getting something and somewhere, and they're becoming a person in recovery, in life,” she said. “They're becoming a mom again. They're becoming a real person in the world.”

When Jennifer Hansen first started the Serenity Houses 10 years ago — which would eventually lead to a full recovery program with Enlightened Solutions — she set out to create a place that felt like home. Every inch of the houses and facilities is designed with recovery in mind, she said, from the paint colors to the furniture.

“I think a lot of the focus is often placed on [the sterile] feeling. These people, you have to know where they come from, and I was there,” Hansen, who is in long-term recovery from heroin addiction, said. The setting is apt, as heroin makes up 55% of all substance abuse treatment admissions in neighboring Atlantic County, beating out alcohol, according to a New Jersey Department of Human Services report from June 2017. “When you’re going from the streets into this sterile environment, that doesn’t feel comfortable,” Hansen said.

While serving on the Hansen Foundation and the New Jersey Alliance of Recovery Residences, Hansen has been able to expand her recovery network — even after a litigious battle over regulation with the state of New Jersey — to include a number of sober houses, a sprawling main campus, a farm, a detox center and a café. And she’s been able to bring her close friends along, too: She met Rob Snyder, another founder of Enlightened Solutions and recovering addict, at counseling certification meetings; Terri Burns, a recovering addict who now serves as the executive director of housing operations for Enlightened Solutions, while she was running an adolescent program at a sober living home nearby; and Melissa Angelo, who runs the detox facility, had first met Hansen during her own recovery at an early Narcotics Anonymous meeting. In conversations, the four throw out the different histories and connections they all have with each other, almost forgetting at points just how many there are.

Angelo had been the one to help start the Enlightened Café, an organic eatery and resource center on a main strip in Ventnor City, New Jersey, where many graduates of their treatment facilities go on to work. That’s when she hired Jordan: “What it has done in the community and for people in recovery that are working there, it’s so cool,” Angelo said. “Jordan was one of our first employees.”

“I used to think that me not being able to keep a job was my problem, not drugs,” Jordan said. “I can't keep a job, what’s wrong with me? I was not employable. I always called out. When I was there, I was high.” More than a year into her recovery, Jordan started managing Enlightened Café, an organic eatery where recovery program graduates come to work.

Jordan was still in early recovery when the café first opened in July of 2017. She was in and out of housing each week, finding difficulty adjusting to her new living arrangements. Her anxiety attacks were still constant; on her first day working at the café, her hands couldn’t stop shaking at the register. “I’ve had... panic attacks here,” she said. “I’ve been late, I’ve learned not to be late. I’m accountable. This place has taught me how to be who I am today.”

A smile grew across her face as she reflected on how far she had come: “And now, I’m managing it.”

“I always wanna connect with someone to help them know that it gets better, because how I was doomed, I didn't think this was possible,” Jordan said. “I didn't know it was. I didn't believe.”

On a late afternoon in June, Jordan’s mother drove to the café from Pennsylvania, and Jordan stopped mid-conversation to welcome her with a big hug when she arrived. At a table off to the side, Iris talked about what it was like to see Jordan there — no longer using or asking for money and on her way toward long-term recovery. She glanced over at her daughter, who was as spritely as ever, greeting customers and talking with friends.

“I do talk to her about [at what] point are you going to... move on? But maybe I’m wrong for saying that,” Iris said. “’Cause I think about it a lot. I’m saying, what do you want to do? What are you doing? Are you going to go back to school? You don’t have to come back to Wayne, but what are you gonna do?”

But looking at Jordan, it’s hard not to see how beneficial the café job and Enlightened Solutions itself have been. “She’s enjoying this, though,” Iris admitted. “I think she’ll do and be a part of this forever. She likes to help.”

While one can never know the future, at some point you just have to take a person at their word and believe them when they say something is working.

“I just want her to be happy,” Iris said, “I mean, I’m a mom.”

Iris sometimes thinks of alternate universes: What if she stopped giving Jordan money? Would she have stopped then? “No one's perfect. I think when you fall, you choose to get up. It's your choice, but only you can do that,” she said. “I don't think there is anything I could have done to make her stop. She had to want to do it herself.”
Photography by Cole Wilson, video by Romke Hoogwaerts