Serenity House: The Program That Saved Her from Addiction

The only force more powerful than her addiction led her to a bright future.

- Posted on May 27, 2014

An open doorway in a darkened room looks out on a lovely home in the distance.

This is a story of two houses. Just a few miles apart, but the distance between them couldn’t have been greater. One was my downfall, the site of my spiritual abandonment. The other was my redemption, the light needed to overcome the dark places, my saving grace.

The old brownstone on Ferry Street was supposed to be a fresh start for my husband, Perc, and me. I’d just gotten out of rehab. Perc had kicked his crack habit too. We quit running hustles for money and settled down in legit jobs.

We moved into the brownstone’s top-floor apartment in September 1996 and were turning it into a real home–nice furniture, silk curtains, antiques Momma gave me. But addiction is a demon that doesn’t relinquish its hold without a fight. All it took was one setback to send us both back to the pipe.

I talked Perc into it, just like I’d turned him on to crack in the first place. “We need an escape,” I said. “Just for one night.”

I should’ve known better, known how easily one small slip spirals into full-blown relapse, considering Daddy was a heroin addict who OD’ed, and I’d been in and out of rehab 16 times.

Our one night bled into days, weeks, months. Perc and I lost our jobs. Sold off our prized possessions to feed our addiction. The only thing that mattered was the next high–until I saw what rock bottom looked like one December morning in 1998.

I woke, my eyes glazed, a nasty taste in my mouth from last night’s binge. Where am I? Perc snored loudly beside me. I winced. It was like I was seeing our bedroom for the first time.

Stained walls. Rodent droppings. No furniture except our filthy mattress, the floor around it littered with soda cans and tire gauges we’d used for pipes. The place looked the way I felt. Seedy. Debased. Stripped bare.

If I stay here, I’m going to die, I thought. Panic rose, mutated into hysteria. “I can’t live like this anymore!” I cried, shaking Perc awake. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”

Even lost in his own addiction, this man would do anything for me. Perc remembered a place he’d passed once. Serenity House, a shelter for women. He called them up for me. They had one bed left.

And one condition–no drug use allowed.

I went there that same day. The house was beautiful, a well-kept two-story. I raised my hand to knock on the door. A brightness came from inside, warm and welcoming. Still I hesitated. Was I ready to leave Perc? Could I kick my habit? I’d failed 16 times. Why would this time be any different?

The door opened. Before I could take a step, a force tugged me over the threshold, gentle yet irresistible. A voice–one that I sensed rather than heard aloud–said, This is where you’re supposed to be.

And it was. For the first time, I really listened to my counselors and to the other women rebuilding their lives. I talked too–about how I’d been molested as a child and raped as a teenager, how surviving made me hard on the outside but left me hollow inside, how I turned to drugs to fill, or at least escape, that void.

They heard it all, and they didn’t judge me. They loved me, and they told me that God loved me even more. I wanted to believe it, wanted to believe that his was the voice I’d heard.

But after two months of living drug-free, I felt the stirrings of an old craving. For Perc. He loved me too, enough to let me go. I had to see him, hold him, ease my guilt for getting him hooked on crack. I went back to the place we’d tried so hard to turn into a home, the old brownstone on Ferry Street.

I climbed the stairs. The door to the apartment was hanging off its hinges. “Perc?”

He wasn’t home. Disappointed, I wandered from room to room. Eyed the empty spaces, the bare closets. In the corner, I spotted the old toothbrush I’d used to clean a pair of shoes I sold for a hit. Perc’s leather couch, the antique turntable Momma had given me, the silk drapery, dishes and silverware–all of it gone.

I scanned the bedroom. Makeshift pipes–broken glass tubes that used to hold fake roses–were scattered on the floor. I scooped up one, soiled by residue from a previous smoke, and ran my fingers along the length of it.

There were footsteps on the stairs. Perc.

I peered around the bedroom door, saw him go into the kitchen. Just as I was about to call out to him, he pulled a rock from his pocket. Then came the familiar click of a lighter, the suck of breath against a wire filter, a piece of steel wool.

I stood frozen, watching Perc inhale what made us believe we could fly straight to the moon together. My wanting for it wet my mouth.

My throat and lungs seized up, the demon of addiction suffocating me. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back. Call out to Perc, tell him you’re here.

“Help me, God,” escaped from my lips instead.

Slowly I opened my eyes. I couldn’t see the kitchen anymore. Or Perc. Darkness shrouded me, as if I’d entered a tunnel. The pitch black blinded me to everything but the light at the end. The front door, hanging open.

I felt that same irresistible force that tugged me over the threshold of Serenity House, only this time with more intensity. It carried me out the door, down the stairs, out of the brownstone, like some kind of divine gravity. When my feet finally touched the ground, I was standing on the corner. I looked back, hoping to see Perc.

He wasn’t there.

Someone else was, though. The only force more powerful than my addiction, the only love greater than the one I was leaving behind. Someone I could release my guilt to, and put my trust in completely. That day I walked away from my past and through the doors of Serenity House again, toward the light of my future.

Editor’s Note: Now this has become a story of three houses. Debra earned degrees in social work and community organization and publicpolicy administration. In 2012, she founded Exodus House, a nonprofit faith-based women’s shelter in Syracuse, modeled after the program that saved her. Perc got clean not long after Debra did. They’ve been drug-free for more than 15 years, and are raising four children and running Exodus House together. To learn more, visit

This story first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of Mysterious Ways magazine.

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