Charlotte was born an addict. Her mom got her hooked on heroin in utero. She spent the first eight years of her life on methadone, a non-addictive heroin replacement, only to get hooked again at ten when her uncle shot her up with cocaine in his first step toward controlling and abusing her. She never told because she wanted to protect her siblings and cousins.
Charlotte’s years of addiction eventually led to a life of crime. Today she is mid-way through a three-year sentence at a halfway house, which is where she was living when we hired her. As she approaches her 30th birthday, Charlotte has been clean for 18 months – the longest period ever in her life. And, for the next several months Charlotte is one of my co-workers.
I work at a place called Women’s Bean Project. At the Bean Project we believe that all women have the power to transform their lives through employment. So we hire women who have been chronically unemployed and we teach them to work while making nourishing products. They learn to stand tall, find their purpose and break the cycle of poverty.
I’ve been the CEO of Women’s Bean Project since 2003 and I’ve seen that every woman we hire comes with a story, and while Charlotte’s is tragic, it isn’t necessarily unique. I’ve met countless women who have taken what life has presented them, some of it their own making, much of it not, and created a mess that they are working to correct. Even as Charlotte works to create her new life, just like every other program participant at Women’s Bean Project, she stands out because of her tenacity, determination and generosity of spirit.
I recently asked Charlotte about her plans when she leaves the halfway house. She talked about her hopes of living with her mother and the challenges of that household, with drug use and drinking rampant. I asked whether she thought that was her best option, if she’d really be able to stay clean while surrounded by others who were using. Her answer surprised me. “There’s no way I’d go back to using. I know what’s it like to feel things now,” she said. “I never had a choice before. Now that I have a choice, I’ll never go back to that life.”
She went on to talk about her family members who abused her and took away her childhood. “I can’t be angry with them or hate them. I don’t know what they went through that led them to act that way.” She confessed that it had been challenging, but she had forgiven them.
I was humbled by Charlotte’s response. In my view she had every reason to be hateful and fearful that others would pull her back. But somehow she found her way to forgiveness. Instead of focusing on what others had done, she focused on what she could do, what she could become.
As I walked away from our conversation, I pondered how much better the world would be if we all had Charlotte’s spirit.