My memories of active addiction come back to me in snapshots. Very rarely do I have a fully formed memory that I’m able to place on the messy timeline that makes up most of my life story. A lot of these isolated images are ugly and lonely and sad. But some are of unwarranted kindness and generosity.
One such memory is of me sitting on a cold pavement by the corner of Kensington and Lehigh Avenues when a woman drove up to offer me a platter of food from Boston Market. If that were all I could say about the memory, it would not be particularly noteworthy. It didn’t become significant until much later, when I came full circle with it.
Meantime, in the years between those two moments, I left an abusive relationship, took a few trips to jail and a few more to rehab, could not stay clean for more than a handful of weeks, spent many days in various emergency rooms and hospitals, overdosed both unintentionally and intentionally, slept under overpasses and in abandoned houses, and hurt everyone who -- even after years of this cycle -- still cared enough to be near me.
Finally, I found myself in yet another treatment center after a particularly frightening overdose. My body was giving out, my spirit was beaten, and for the first time, I felt afraid of what was to come if I did not make some changes.
So I stayed for as long as they allowed me to, and when I left I actually followed the directions and suggestions I had been given. I moved into a recovery house in an area of the city that didn’t have temptation and regret attached to every corner. I joined a twelve-step group, faithfully got myself to daily meetings, and began to form connections with people who knew I was an addict and still wanted to be around me.
One of the meetings I regularly attended was held in a church basement that was shared with the Sunday Love Project, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding anyone in need. When I would arrive to the meeting early to set up chairs, I found myself getting to know the group’s founder, Margaux Murphy, as she was often clearing away food and dishes when I got there.
From the day we first chatted, I was convinced I’d met her before but could not remember where or when. And then one day it clicked: She was the woman who had fed me years before, on that desolate Kensington corner.
At the time, I had no idea that it was Christmas Day, or that it was the first time Margaux had ever brought food to the neighborhood. The experience so moved her that she returned, again and again, to feed hungry people in need. From that humble beginning in 2014, Sunday Love grew into an organization that has fed thousands of people from all walks of life.
I began volunteering for Margaux every week. I celebrated six months clean, then nine months, then one year. My life was messy, full of hurdles, damage, and a warehouse of baggage, but when I showed up every Tuesday night at Sunday Love I was able to forget about that for a little while. I began to understand what people meant when they told me that helping others is the best way to help myself, and that I didn’t get clean to forget about those still suffering.
I spent those nights at Sunday Love with a varied cast of amazing people, made some of the unlikeliest friendships, and would stay late to polish the silverware just to squeeze in some extra time with them.
I began to feel part of a community of people who were looking to better themselves and the lives of those around them. Some of these people became friends I will have for a lifetime. (When the woman who cooked every Tuesday turned 70, Margaux and I had the privilege of taking her to get her very first tattoo.) Others I met lost their battles. Some have been pulled in other directions by moves, new careers, and parenthood and are not able to volunteer as often as they once did.
My life became so full it was overwhelming at times: I went to school and started a new career, moved into my own space and adopted a dog, got married, and now have a baby on the way next year. I was not able to be as involved at Sunday Love as I had been -- and yet, when I got laid off earlier this year, one of my first calls was to Margaux so I could fill that unexpected free time in service with people I love.
I do not know what exactly made my last attempt to get clean, 3½ years ago, different from all of the other times I tried to turn my life around. I am not sure it even really matters. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I wouldn’t have succeeded if not for the kindness of others and the hope people had for me, which went against all logic and reason. It’s easy to feel invisible when you’re living in those circumstances, to believe that the world would either be better off -- or not even notice -- if you were no longer part of it.
But each time someone offered me help, a few kind words, a smile, a willingness to listen, or an unexpected meal on a day I didn’t even know was Christmas, I was being offered a lifeline -- even though I was unable to recognize those acts as lifelines until long after they’d been offered. Cumulatively, I believe they were what both led me back -- and reminded me of what was worth coming back for.
Today, I feel bottomless hope for those who are still dealing with homelessness, mental illness, and active addiction. I can only encourage all of us to live with a generous spirit, for the impact spreads farther than we can ever know.
Amy Nieves-Renz, who works for a facilities management company, lives in West Philadelphia with her wife. They are expecting their first child in February.