We Are Here: Amanda Graves on City Gospel Mission and the Beautiful Struggle

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We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.

Interview by Maggie Heath-Bourne. Photography by Stacy Wegley. | Amanda Graves graciously invited us into her home, a warm, farmhouse-themed apartment in West Price Hill, in July. What began as a conversation on living and learning in City Gospel Mission’s Women’s Recovery Program quickly became a story of Amanda’s life – a life that began anew four years ago. Here she shares with us her faith, dreams, decorating prowess, bucket list, and, above all, spirit.

Tell us about how you came to City Gospel Mission.

I went to City Gospel Mission in 2014. I’m from Indiana, so it was a geographical move. I’d been to one program before that. I prayed for something to change in my life, so it was like the moment I prayed, things started falling into place. The moment I walked in, I felt like I belonged more than I’d ever felt like I belonged anywhere, even with my family. When I went there, there were a lot of things I needed to work on. It wasn’t just getting sober and staying sober. It was learning how to grieve things and let them go.

This is a residency program, right?

Yes. The housing was pretty cool. When I first got there they didn’t charge me. When I got a job, I started paying rent, which I’d never really done. It was like being an adult for the first time, and I was 35 years old. I’d always lived with my parents, and it was a small town. I was finding my way and being a new person, being sober.

What role does housing play in the recovery process?

The housing taught me a lot. They started out teaching structure, routine, and chores. You keep it neat and you take care of your things. It’s taught me to appreciate my job and be thankful for the work to keep my house up and pay my bills. When you love yourself, you love the things around you.

It’s really nice, actually, the way the housing has gone. At City Gospel, you start out in the first building, where there are seven women, and staff stays in that house. When you get to a certain phase and you’re ready, you go to a middle house. That’s where you spend most of your time. I was there for about a year. I believe there are 16 beds in four rooms. As you go on, you get into housing with one or two other women, where you have a kitchen and you cook and it gets smaller as you go through.

What are the implications of not having the housing when trying to get sober?

You might end up with someone who’s still using or who isn’t as into your sobriety as you are. Maybe they’re functioning, but you aren’t. You’re put into a lot of difficult, high-risk situations. Having your own place is huge.

One time I was arrested, in a space where I was using and couldn’t be sober. There was a guy who told on me and my boyfriend. He had overdosed at our house and we called the EMTs. They brought him back, but he ended up telling on us. Everyone in my life was praying for me, because I looked horrible. I was using heroin every day and doing whatever I had to do to get it. When that guy told on us to the police, looking back, I know that was God answering everyone’s prayers. And when God answers prayers, it isn’t always what you want or what you think it will look like. I believe that saved my life. Looking back, I didn’t use drugs that night because he overdosed and we called the EMTs. But I feel in my heart I would have been the one that died that night.

What has having your own housing meant for you?

I’m really excited about my place. I always lived with my parents, and it was their decorations and their rules. It’s been amazing. I know no one likes paying bills, but I like paying bills. I pay my rent and I say, “Woohoo, another month! A fresh month!” I love having my own things. A lot of times I have gratitude, because I’ve been to jail and their showers are terrible. So sometimes I’ll be in my shower and say, “Yes, this is my shower!” It’s amazing to me, because I never thought I’d leave my parents’ place. I’m pretty proud of myself for that.

It’s full of personality. Tell me about creating your space here.

I love the farmhouse theme. At my parents’ house, there were things that didn’t go together, so here I wanted to make everything go. I think it’s homey and comfortable. I’ve tried doing some of my own woodworking, too. I only have one piece here that I made, but my brother got me a saw and drill for Christmas so I can make more.

Now that you are in your own space, what do you do?

My work history was always kind of sketchy, with long periods of unemployment or [jobs] didn’t last long. I got a job with Nehemiah Manufacturing when I came here. They’re a Christian company. They offer second chance hiring, so for people who might have a felony or inconsistency in their work history, they give them a chance. I worked for them for three years. I began to pay rent and pay bills and go to work every day on time, which was huge for me.

A lot of times I’d be in awe of just being able to go to work without drugs. I always just wanted to be normal, and that’s what normal is: You go to work every day; you pay your bills; you get to places on time and you do what you need to do. I never thought I could love life sober. Now I’m in a place where I love trying new things; I love life; I love going to work every day. I just recently started working at City Gospel Mission, so I work with women now.

I imagine it must mean a lot to be back.

It’s amazing to be back, and the women really pay attention because I’ve done it. I’ve been through the program. I have to be careful to be living my life as an example, even if it’s just something like coming to work on time. They’re watching me every step of the way. My job is administrative, but we can minister to the women and help them through a crisis or whatever may be going on; pray with them. Whatever they’re going through, you help. Life happens, so not every day is the same setup.

Is it stressful to be back in an environment of crisis?

It’s not, but I take it one day at a time. It’s the same in recovery. I try to let God lead it. I’m growing there, too, and I tell the women that. I’ve connected with a lot of the volunteers, and I believe that’s what’s kept me grounded in my sobriety. Having connections with them is important. A lot of times, people don’t have positive people in their corner. The volunteers and the people at City Gospel are nurturing. I know God brought me here to grow further in my relationship with Him and the community of believers.

Was God a big part of your life before going through this program?

He was not. I was raised Catholic, but it was religion, not relationship. It was like, you go to church on Sunday and look nice, and then you leave and do whatever and come back again on Sunday. I never really knew God. I believed in Him, but never had Him in my heart.

I gave my life to Christ when I came to City Gospel. The volunteers taught us, but they also showed us through their lives. They loved us when we couldn’t love ourselves. I remember a lady not even knowing me when I came to the program, and she said, “I love you, Amanda.” I remember thinking, “But you don’t even know me.” Through God, though, she could love me.

Other than ministering, what do you think made this program the best fit?

They teach you about how to cope with life. They have some core groups that you do, like anger management and relapse prevention. They really dig deep and make you think about why you continue to go back, and pinpoint your triggers. They talk about a thing called “relapse mode.” They make you go back to previous relapses or times you used and think about what happened and why you used and the feelings you were having. If those feelings or triggers come up, you will know you’re in relapse mode and you can stop it.

It sounds like tearing down to build back up.

It is. It’s difficult to go through. You have to look at things you did in your addiction. Where you got the money, if you stole it, if you slept with men to get it, going to the dealer, setting your stuff out, how much you used.

Was that new to think about?

Yeah, when you’re using, it’s just kind of like survival mode. I’d stolen from my parents.

Has your relationship with your family changed since the program?

Oh, yes. I’m very close with my family. I have a son named Chandler. He goes to Indiana University. Our relationship is getting better. We were really close when he was little, and then I started on pain pills and thought I was this super fun mom that had all the energy in the world to go to the park and play.

When he was 9, he wanted to move in with his dad because I couldn’t wake up in the mornings to get him to school on time and I was late for his games. He moved in with his father, and that is the best decision I could have made for him. His dad and his stepmother raised him well. He’s a great kid. Since he’s been in college, he’s written essays on the hardest things he’s dealt with in his life, and he’s shared them with me. While it’s very tough to hear, it’s good for him because he’s finding an outlet. I’m glad that he feels that he can be vulnerable and can share that with me.

Like there’s a new side of you to talk to?

Exactly. My family is constantly telling me they love who I am now. I’m even better than who I was before I was using drugs. Old Amanda was shy and didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I’ve always suffered from severe social anxiety and I believe God has delivered me from that, too. Before I came here I shook at life. I was scared of everything.

God has allowed me to stop dreaming of the perfect family and allowed me to love them where they’re at. Through God, He’s changing the dynamics of the family and making us closer-knit. I have a grandmother who is my absolute favorite person in the world. She’s 92 years old, and so I’m trying to find out her bucket list so I can make memories with her. Life’s too short not to enjoy the people you’re around – just to be able to love people where they’re at and do the best with what you have.

How cool! Have you started on the bucket list yet?

We went to a movie together, which we’d never done before, and that got the ball rolling. I’m glad that God has put it on my heart to make memories with her. She’s my absolute best friend. She’s been my number one cheerleader, even when people were saying, “Don’t mess with her,” or “Don’t let her in your house.” They were tired of me taking advantage, and I’m just glad to be trusted now. For a long period of time I only went there for money, and I don’t know if this is a living amends to her, but I just want to spend as much time with her as I can. I know she loves seeing me sober.

Is there any advice you would give to someone contemplating a recovery program?

Quit being fearful. That first step is the biggest step. You can do it, and you’re worth it. Surround yourself with positive people.

I would see people and hear their stories and think, “I can’t do that.” Life is so much better on the other side. If life stopped today, it’s okay, because in the last four years, I’ve had the best time.

Are there things about addiction and recovery you wish others knew?

I always feel like calling someone an addict is never a bad thing. Especially with the epidemic now, I’m never afraid to share it. I feel empowered by it. To get through something so hard that a lot of people don’t really struggle with… God has delivered me. I don’t have cravings. Using is not attractive. Being new in recovery, it’s still attractive, but now it’s not. My biggest downfall now is craving chocolate.

As you look ahead, what’s next?

I would like to take a hot air balloon ride. Strengthen my relationship with God. I never thought I could do what I’m doing now, and I’m excited for what’s coming in this new chapter and what He has in store for me. Even with my son and where our relationship is going, I’m excited. This is the only life I have, so I’m taking advantage of it.

Is there an influential woman in your life who’s helped you?

I have a friend named Kim. She’s amazing. I go out with her and do ministry. She’s started seven outreaches in Clermont County feeding people, loving on people, and letting them know about God. She helps a lot of people and goes above and beyond. She always tells me how much she loves me and how amazing I am, but really, it’s her.

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