She Had a Secret

She Had a Secret

By Kerri Jensen 09/04/17

"I had been stuffing my feelings since I was 10 years old. That night it was like a dam breaking. It just all came out...I was sure everyone would shun me."

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Susan hugging Kerri

I had not spoken with Susan Washington in a long time. Talking with her again would be the highlight of my week. Her voice poured out of the phone, cheerful and bright, like the sunshine streaming through my windows. I listened as she told me her life's story. It is a miracle because only 12 years ago, Susan had a secret.  

I met Susan in 2004 through our children. The first time Susan came to my house, she was nervous and suspicious. She looked at the floor and avoided eye contact. Her hair was askew, her tired eyes had dark circles, and she walked as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders. When she left, I remember thinking, "This poor woman is hiding something from me." 

I tried desperately to befriend Susan; I invited her to coffee, to church, to dinner, but she wanted nothing to do with me. It was only after my family experienced a tragedy that Susan let me in her life—just a little. She agreed to attend a Bible study at the home of a mutual friend. One evening the discussion turned serious and suddenly, she did it—she revealed her big secret. Susan was a recovering meth addict on parole for a drug conviction. 

Susan recalls, "I had been stuffing my feelings since I was 10 years old. That night it was like a dam breaking. It just all came out. When I quit talking and came to my senses, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I just told all these people?' I was sure everyone would shun me." But the group didn't shun her. They listened and accepted her, and Susan says that was the beginning of her path to recovery. 

Susan grew up with the cards stacked against her. Her parents were functioning alcoholics. But when she was 10 years old, her older brother committed suicide, and her mother's drinking spiraled out of control. Susan’s older sister had already left home, and her father coped by retreating to the family's lake house. She was left alone with her mother. Most days Susan came home from school to find her mother passed out. If her mother ran out of vodka, she simply drank anything with alcohol in it: perfume, cologne, Nyquil, mouthwash, even rubbing alcohol. 

Susan started drinking in high school. I asked why, given her parents' alcoholism, didn't addiction scare her.

"I always said I wasn't going to be like my parents," she admits. "But I never said that I wasn't going to drink. I didn't even recognize that my dad was an alcoholic. In my mind my mother, who drank perfume and stuff like that, that was my definition of an alcoholic."

Despite her drinking and dysfunctional home, Susan excelled. She was popular, head cheerleader, and an honors student. Neither of Susan's parents were there to see her graduate high school. A few weeks later, her mother died from alcohol poisoning. Heartbroken and numb, she left for college. 

Susan met her future husband, Warner, in college. The two partied together, but she never experimented with drugs. After college, they married, and Susan became a special education teacher. They started a family, and things were good—for a while. 

Susan gained weight, and her doctor prescribed diet pills. She loved how the pills made her feel and often took extra. Eventually, she tried cocaine but didn't like it. "Then came meth, and it was something I loved," says Susan. "You felt on top of the world and invincible: you could get a lot done, and you could drink a lot of alcohol and not get drunk." Initially, her drug use was only occasional, but it was about to become a crutch.

In 1999, Susan's sister, Kathy, died of cancer. Kathy was Susan's only support, and losing her was more than Susan could handle. She coped by using more drugs. Before long, both Warner and Susan were addicts and dealers. Drugs have a nasty way of twisting reality; you believe you're fine when you're not. 

"I remember being in my bathroom smoking meth, and it dawned on me that I didn't need alcohol anymore. And I smiled at myself in the mirror thinking, ‘I'm not like my parents. I don't drink anymore.'"

Warner and Susan were both arrested in 2001. Susan lost both her job and her teaching license. In 2002 she entered prison, and Child Protective Services took her children. Her life and her family were destroyed.

Susan entered prison feeling utterly alone, but it didn't take long for her to meet other women with similar stories. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nonviolent drug offenders account for 46.4% of all federal prison inmates. Over 23% of those in jail for drug trafficking are there because of methamphetamine. In Susan's home state of Texas, between 1999 and 2012, meth was linked to more than 1,600 deaths. Texas cracked down on domestic meth production, but soon Mexican cartels began to meet the demand. DEA officials estimate that 90% of meth now comes from Mexico, much of it flowing through Texas. 

For years, the law has been three strikes, and you're out for drug offenders. Behind bars, society doesn't see them. When they're released, society ignores them. This is why Susan didn't trust me. She assumed that I would never accept her if I knew that she had served time. 

Susan made parole in 2003. Her children were excited to have their family reunited, but rebuilding trust was a long and frustrating journey. Warner was released first and was caring for them. Before prison, the kids went to Susan for everything, but now they went to Warner instead. Suspicion ran high. The kids interrogated her if she so much as took a Tylenol. But Susan was determined to never let them down again. 

She took the only job she could find; cashier at Dickey's Barbeque. After sharing her story with the Bible study group, Susan developed a sense of freedom and confidence. One day, a regular Dickey’s customer approached Susan and offered her a better job. Susan told the woman her entire story. To her amazement, the woman still hired her. Today, Susan works as a sales consultant for a home builder in the Dallas area.

Susan began to share her story with schools, and civic groups. It wasn't long before she was invited to speak throughout North Texas. Prisons are her favorite place to speak, including the prison where she was once an inmate. One of her favorite projects has been writing her life's story. In 2015 her book, From Pom Poms To Prison, was published. 

I asked Susan how second chances have played a role in her life. Thinking a moment, she said, "Without it, I couldn't have achieved anything. If no one gave me a chance, then I couldn't change. We have to have opportunities to rebuild our lives." 

Susan stresses the power of kindness, but she isn't looking for a handout. "We have to prove ourselves," says Susan. "Where I think a lot of people don't get it, is they don't want to prove themselves. And you have to be humble. I counsel people who get out of prison to take any job. You've got to prove that you're willing to work. You're not too good for any job." 

Her audience changes, but her message remains the same: hope. Susan tells prisoners to learn humility and remain hopeful. Her desire is to see communities give others like her a second chance. Susan encourages communities to, "remain open-minded. Be encouraging and give them a chance. Hold them accountable, but give them a chance."

Susan is living proof that with support and a second chance, people can change.

Susan Washington is a wife, mother, grandmother, and recovered meth addict. She is a motivational speaker and author. Her life story, From Pom Poms To Prison, was published in 2015. Susan’s desire is for others to experience the freedom that she has found through her relationship with Jesus Christ. Visit her website at http://frompomponstoprison.squarespace.com

Kerri Jensen is a student at San Jose State University where she studies English Professional and Technical Writing and the Humanities. She is a wife, mother, and loves writing real stories about real people and places. Visit her website at https://www.clippings.me/goingdutch18

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Kerri Jensen is a student at San Jose State University where she studies English Professional and Technical Writing and the Humanities. She is a wife, mother, and loves writing real stories about real people and places. You can find Kerri on Linkedin, Facebook, and Instigram.

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