"I got pregnant. Quit sports, quit school. Quit all my dreams."
Brenda looks fit and handsome, despite the scar running down the middle of her face. At six feet tall, she commands respect, even though her sweet, high-pitched voice belies her imposing physique.
We are sitting in a circle: Brenda, six other women and me. Most are in their thirties and forties, and in their fourth or fifth month of sobriety. They look professional in the suits they've assembled from the donations closet of our inner-city recovery center.
No one is surprised when Brenda says that, twenty years ago, she trained for the U.S. Olympic volleyball team.
"Did you ever compete again?" someone asks.
Brenda shakes her head. The group gives her a moment to think about it, to grieve the loss.
"Later, I took up tennis. I was pretty good! Won lots of tournaments. You know, local stuff."
Brenda pauses, then continues. "The people I played with, they were doctors, lawyers, people like that. Which was kinda cool. But this was the Eighties, and everybody was using powder cocaine. You know what I mean?"
The older ladies do know what she means. They nod and cast glances around the room.
"And something else happened." She takes a deep breath. "I met this man."
Everybody perks up. They're hoping against hope for a good love story.
"And you fell in love with him?"
"Oh no! I ain't THAT crazy."
"Falling in love ain't crazy."
"He was seventy years old. I was twenty-five."
"Yeah. So why are you telling us about him?"
"Because I married him."
"Girl. He had money and a four-bedroom house. That sounded soooo good."
More nods and smiles and glances. "And?"
"Was it worth it?"
"Four bedrooms is a lot of real estate."
"He was this LITTLE man."
"This was his fifth marriage."
"I could put up with a lot for four bedrooms."
"He was a sicko."
"Girl! What could he do to YOU?"
A pregnant pause. Brenda starts to look angry. "He could beat me. He could belittle me."
"I don't see how."
"I was fucked up. Hooked on his money. Hooked on his cocaine."
Brenda looks around the room, then up. She talks to the ceiling: "After I left him, I couldn't afford no more powder. So then I did something REALLY stupid. I got hooked on crack."
She lowers her gaze. "I told you I was fucked up."
The ladies begin commiserating: "Like WE wasn't fucked up? At least you knew where to come to for help."
"Sure! It only took me fifteen years!"
She's angry, mostly at herself, but also at the others for trying to cheer her up. "I wasted fifteen years."
She stops talking, but no one dares speak. The only sound is her breathing. She's trying to figure out some way to redeem those fifteen years.
Suddenly, she perks up. "Hey! Maybe you ladies can learn from my mistakes."
One by one, they respond: "We're listenin'." "We're learnin'." "You've helped me see somethin'."
I'm supposed to be leading this group, but so far I haven't said a word. All the ladies appear engaged.
Except for Sabrina.
Sabrina is eighteen. She's the youngest, the group mascot. Unlike the others, she's wearing a tight skirt and showing cleavage. A few weeks ago, when the group began, she told us that she's tired of living on the street. This morning she's been quiet, taking it all in. Finally, she speaks.
"You said 'sicko'--your husband was a sicko. What do you mean, sicko?"
"He had a lead pipe. He covered it with rubber padding. He just liked to walk around holding it in his hand."
"Whoa," says one of the ladies.
"Hmm," says another.
"He didn't scare me, 'cause I was a LOT bigger than him."
"So what's the problem?" Sabrina asks.
"He hit me--hard. He put me in a coma. For five days they didn't know if I'd wake up. And what would be left if I did."
"You do see the scar--right?" It was wide as a pencil and ran from her hairline to halfway down her nose.
Finally, they begin talking: "I always wondered how you got that." "I was afraid to say anything." One woman reaches out to take Brenda's hands: "Oh baby, he hurt you bad."
"I was the type..." Brenda's eyes begin to water. Someone hands her a tissue. "I had to learn my lesson the hard way."
A quiet understanding fills the air. The other women have been there themselves. We let it all sink in.
I'm the one who breaks the silence. "You said you learned your lesson the hard way. From the feeling in here, I'm sensing that this was a really important lesson." Nods of recognition around the room. "How would you put it into words?"
"Never marry a man for his money--it ain't worth it," says Brenda. "If ever it was worth it, it would have been with this man. He had a ton of money."
The chorus responds: "I hear you, darlin'." "You sure got that right." "Oh yeah." Then from the other side of the circle: "Amen. We love you, baby."
Except for Sabrina, everyone has spoken. All eyes turn to her as she stirs to attention.
"This man, is he still alive?"
Brenda puts her hand on Sabrina's shoulder and leans forward to face her, nearly touching forehead to forehead. "Honey, I don't think he'll EVER die!"
The other women laugh and shake their heads. I relax, thinking that's the end of the session.
But Sabrina has more to say.
"Hey! Tell me where he is. I'd like that money."
I sure didn't see that coming. I want to be her father--to tell her, "Stop looking for quick fixes! Don't depend on men to take care of you!" and to remind her of all the life lessons she's heard in this circle so far. Which, of course, would only drive her in the other direction.
Fortunately, I'm too stunned to speak.
With sad smiles and shrugs, the older women give Sabrina the feedback she needs: a warning against following in Brenda's footsteps, plus resignation at her lack of insight.
Although Sabrina clearly doesn't want to seem like she's taking their advice, I know that it's registered. Even if she doesn't say so, she'll think about it. I hope she'll let it sink in--either now or after her next mistake.
It's nine o'clock, time for our break.
And, feeling as wrung out as I do between my concern for Brenda and my anxiety for Sabrina, I need one.
About the author:
Warren Holleman PhD is a family therapist who worked for many years in a recovery program for homeless women. He currently serves as the director of the program on faculty health and well-being at the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center, and he is also the coeditor of Fundamentals of Clinical Practice, a textbook for medical students. "I grew up in eastern North Carolina, pretending not to listen to the rambling stories my father and uncles told me. Then I moved to Texas and found my way into a profession whose primary job requirement is...listening to stories. And now I enjoy tellingstories--those of my elders, and those of my own--to all comers, whether they listen, pretend to listen or pretend not to."