Down, Never Out: Finding a Path that Leads Away from Rock Bottom

Cropped shot of a man and woman holding hands in comfort on a table

Written by United Way

July 1, 2019

I sat across the table from the woman I’d been called in for. “Her name is Nikki,” my contact had told me over the phone. “She’s dealing with some tough times, not too dissimilar from you a year ago. Addiction, domestic abuse, homelessness.”

A year ago, I thought. An eternity that felt like yesterday.

Looking at her now, I could tell Nikki was angry. It was in the eyes. The distrust, the suspicion. Stemming from years of one raw deal after another. My contact was right. It was like looking into the mirror of my past life. I knew just how alone in the world Nikki was feeling.

“What am I supposed to say?” I’d asked on the phone.

“Just tell her your story, Samantha. I think you could reach her. It will be good for you, too. To see how far you’ve come.”

So I went to Ruth Ann’s House, the transitional housing program I’d entered a year ago, and met Nikki, the woman with the hard-as-nails stare, and started talking.

“You hear people talk about rock bottom all the time like there’s no place left to go but up.” Nikki scoffed and looked toward the door.

“I know,” I said. “But we know different, don’t we? It always feels like you could go lower, sink below the pavement and find new lows to mine. Because rock bottom isn’t some event you can identify in the present tense. It’s only after you’ve stood over it for a while that you can say for sure.”

“I’m guessing this is the part you tell me about your rock bottom,” Nikki said. 

I told myself not to take her anger personally. Maybe I’d acted the same when I’d first walked through these doors?

“It’s been a year since I woke up face down on the sidewalk,” I said. “Eye-level with the coins that had spilled from my beggar’s cup sometime during the night. I was bleeding from a cut on my forehead I don’t remember getting. Yeah. This was my rock bottom. I was down.

“Down and out, it felt at the time,” I said. “With no place left to go but further down.”

Nikki remained silent, so I continued my story.

“I suppose I could start when I was a kid, fresh out of high school. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Or, I could go back further. Talk about the abuse. My father hadn’t hit me since I was in sixth grade, but the verbal abuse never stopped.”

Nikki made eye contact with me for the first time.

“I had a boyfriend,” I said. “And I was in love. He slapped me once when he saw me talking to another guy at a party, but he apologized and promised it would never happen again.”

“Promises, promises,” Nikki said. She fidgeted in her chair.

“He got a job and we moved into a small apartment together. He drank a lot. He started drinking more.” I continued.

“When did you get pregnant?” Nikki asked.

“When I was twenty,” I replied, as our eyes connected.

“I was twenty-one,” she responded, looking away.

Feeling our connection growing, I said without hesitation, “I was excited at the idea of giving the child a happy family life” 

“The kind you’d never had,” she said, then paused. “Until the beatings started.”

We continued on like this, our stories increasingly melding together. We both dealt with the abuse we’d suffered in similar ways — for me it was the needle, for her the bottle. We both wound up on the streets. I kept my composure, keeping the past at arm’s length, a story I was there to tell for inspiration. Until she asked me about my child.

“A daughter,” I said. “Gwendolyn.” I felt the ache as it rose from my stomach to my chest, and I fought to hold back the tears. This was not why I was here. I closed my eyes and tried to gather myself, then felt a hand on mine and looked down. Nikki’s skin was rough, calloused. Her fingernails long and dirty. It was the most welcome gesture I’d felt since I’d first come to Ruth Ann’s House a year ago.

“This place,” I laughed, and wiped my eyes. I told her about Gwen. How she was going to be six in a month, how I was in the process of getting full custody of her from my ex’s parents. I’d gone through chemical dependency treatment and moved into Ruth Ann’s House. I’d found a job nearby and still went to DAA meetings. Eventually I was able to move out on my own, and was recently promoted to a management position at work. That’s the program, I told her.

Nikki told me about her son, Calvin. He was in foster care.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “Please tell me I can get him back. Please tell me there’s a way I can see my son again. I don’t know which way is up anymore.”

I clasped her hands tight in my own. When I’d woken up on the sidewalk a year ago, strung out, thinking about my next fix, a woman stopped and helped me sit up. She gathered my spilled coins back into the cup and told me about Ruth Ann’s House. Said she’d take me there herself, that she’d been where I was sitting. “You’re down,” the woman had told me, offering her hand to help me up. “You’re down, but you’re not out. You’re never out of opportunities to improve your situation,” she had continued as we slowing started walking down the sidewalk–the path that was to lead me away from my own rock bottom.

I squeezed Nikki’s hands and nodded my head. “Stay, accept the help. Go through the program. In time, you’ll recognize up from down, and your rock bottom will be far behind you.”


*This blog post is based on a true story / success narrative from United Way of Ottawa County. All identities of submitted success stories are anonymous for privacy and story details have been added in order to provide a better understanding of the individual’s successes and struggles.

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