Susan Condrey found herself on the streets after a battle with drugs and alcohol that she says totaled three decades. Condrey says she started using because, at 21 years old, she wanted to fit in with her co-workers.
"It just progressed to marijuana to hash to PCP to amphetamines. It seemed so simple and innocent at the time," she says.
But what started out innocently turned into a vicious loop. "Drugs did something for me that nothing else had ever done. It made me all right inside myself. I was no longer shy. I wasn't afraid of people. I felt smart and pretty," she says. "It just became this insidious thing that keeps rolling. The fun stops and the physical addiction starts, and you've got to keep up with it or you'll be sick, and the fun is gone. But you keep hoping it will come back."
For a while, she found sobriety. It lasted seven-and-a-half years, until her father died and left her about $100,000. "I thought it was the best thing happening to me at the time, and it turned out to be the worst thing ever," she says. "When I got that money, my dependence changed immediately to money. I didn't need recovery and I didn't need God. I had Merrill Lynch."
She laughs. The humor is genuine, but it also seems to be a way of handling the horror of falling back into drugs. "I hated myself for doing it," she says. "I slashed my wrists. I tried to kill myself with pills."
When Alzheimer's disease disabled her mother, Condrey gained control of her mother's money, about $200,000. Then Condrey's husband overdosed and died, and she came into another $300,000. Add to that a home almost completely remodeled, antique furniture, nice cars and a rental house almost paid for. Most people would be sitting pretty. But most people don't have a heroin addiction to siphon away their lives.
"It all went in my arm," she says of her money and assets.
That's how Condrey ended up evicted from her home, with only her two dogs, Hanna and Sliprock, and the clothes on her back. She spent about a year and a half wandering the streets with a boyfriend, crashing at drug dealers' homes. She'd pick cigarette butts off the ground because she couldn't afford a pack. Sustenance was a 99-cent hamburger every other day or so. "It was a nightmare I could not make stop," she says.
But the cops did, and a judge sentenced her to treatment.
She entered Dove's Nest in 2001. The picture taken of her on her first day at the recovery program run by Charlotte Rescue Mission still motivates her. "I had a dirty T-shirt and a dirty pair of jeans on me, and that's all I had. I didn't have a toothbrush, I didn't have a pair of underwear," she says.
Four-and-a-half months later, she moved to the YWCA's Women in Transition program, which provides up to two years of transitional housing for single women. An anonymous donor paid her deposit. Each month's fees range between $310 and $380. The deal: She had to get a job to earn her way, and she had to accept guidance from YWCA staff. "I got a simple job, enough to pay the Y and have a little bit a money. I got to live in a little tiny room they give you, but it was heaven to me," she says. "This little tiny room was mine, and I could close the door."
She learned about budgeting her money, which always had been a foreign concept. (Even today, she admits that she has difficulty separating a want from a need.) She also got the first haircut she'd had in years. An eye doctor prescribed glasses. She learned the rudimentary computer skills that later allowed her to become the facility manager at Dove's Nest.
"They just went on and on and on to help me get my life in balance: 'OK, you're sober now, we're going to teach you these basic living skills,'" she says.
After six months, Condrey moved into her apartment. And she got back the dogs she'd had to ask others to care for. "Addiction had cost me everything in my life, and I would not let it cost me those dogs," she says. "If I knew those dogs were just out there somewhere, probably put to sleep, or God knows what, I knew I could never get sober again with that kind of pain in my heart."
Two years later, the joys of sobriety still have not worn off, and she delights in the everyday pains others begrudgingly endure. "I filled out my own taxes this year, and without Women in Transition, I would never have done that," she says. "I'm like, 'Thank you, God.'"