“Hello! I want to express my excitement at this job possibility. I have a passion for helping other women navigate and live a life of recovery. I have many years of experience in the areas of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse… Since then, God and I have battled the demon and He and I managed to come out on top.”
Jill Hanlin – Essay for job application, Journey House Manager
Jill grins and settles back in her desk chair. “You’re in luck because I am an open book.” I sit on a couch in her office at Journey House. The space is like a cozy living room with lots of windows, a TV, her big desk, a recliner chair and bookcases.
She is instantly likable. Rapid fire would describe her storytelling style. Absorbing it left me reeling. Jill pivots from her promising leaps forward to relentless backward slides. Especially notable is the freezing night when, after hours of cowering barefoot on hands and knees under a pine tree, she crawled onto Jesus’s front porch.
Even though in her fifty years, Jill lost the plot and the main character of her own life story, she now knows, “By sharing my experience, strength and hope with others, I, in turn, get the biggest gift.”
Managing Journey House is actually her second stint running a home. Her first was becoming a housewife at the age of seven. The atmosphere in her childhood home was a chaotic mix of deceit, dysfunction and despair. Journey House, the home she now manages, is the opposite. Our conversation is in two parts: the first is her story. The second focuses on the art of managing Journey House.
I was the first-born to a man, a pillar of our community, who coached high-school basketball. He was very dedicated to his career and my mom was very dedicated to her alcohol and pills. When I was five years old, my younger brother was born. I remember fighting between my parents - my mom doing crazy stuff like throwing a shotgun and breaking the window. I remember them fighting and my dad packing his stuff to leave. I did not want him to leave and thankfully, he didn’t. As a little girl, I had no idea what was happening.
Did your dad have addiction problems?
No, but children learn what they live. Generation-to-generation, it’s handed down. My mother’s mother was an evil woman. Even still, my mom constantly vied for her attention.
An evil woman?
She hated life. An awful grandmother. She called me a bitch. My brother a bastard. She was especially mean to my mom, who was a twin. My mom could never measure up to her sister.
Are you saying your mother poured her own mother’s meanness onto you?
Yes. Onto me, but not my brother. There is a book I read when I was a teenager called: My Mama’s Waltz - A Book for Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers. I began to understand that Mom was jealous of me!
What’s an example of how your mom’s drinking played out?
My first memory when I knew something ain’t right was when I was seven years old. I was already the housewife, the mother figure to my younger brother. I gave him baby baths. I cleaned the house. At Christmas time I plugged the vacuum into an extension cord connected to the Christmas tree lights instead of plugging it directly into the wall. When I was finished, I didn’t know that it’s different pulling two cords apart than when you unplug a cord from the wall. When you unplug from the wall you have some leverage, but when I yanked the two cords apart, I got really shocked! I stuck the vacuum cleaner plug in my mouth and passed out. When I came to, I tried to hide what I had done. I was terrified my mother would be furious with me for shocking myself. In the bathroom I picked some crusty, burned stuff off my mouth. Later that night, at Dad’s basketball game, I looked at my lip in the bathroom mirror at the gym. It was noticeable, festering. I told her I had a cold sore that really hurt. I still have a scar.
(Jill pulls her lip down to show me.)
I knew when she was drinking, she was going to be mean. Whatever was in my mother’s bottle made me need to be perfect. The physical abuse came later.
Did you tell your dad about it?
No! Because she’d accuse me of setting her up and take it out on me! I was a hider. I covered for her. A force in me wanted to make everything presentable. Many days I was afraid to walk in after school. What will it be today?
Very exhausting and scary. How did you take care of yourself, sooth yourself?
Well… the weird thing is… what I did to feel safe was to keep my little brother safe. I still have connection with him.
How did you keep him safe?
I mothered him. We read books in the closet. I blocked him from seeing things like Mom’s men friends when my dad was away at basketball camp. I hid it from my brother and my dad. I’d be the housewife standing on a stepstool making dinner when he got home.
Who were these guys?
One guy was Wally. My mother got valium and Xanax from him. I am being blunt and honest and raw in telling you this. I was 13-14 years old. I walked in on them and saw oral sex with pornos on TV. Wally clearly realized that I saw what I saw. When my dad got home the next day, he took us kids to the State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. My brother blurted out in the car: "Why does mom have men and naked people on TV?" My dad whipped the car around and drove straight to the car lot where Wally worked. He beat him up. Then, we just drove on to the State Fair! Dad and I discussed this incident years after mom died. She was a person who didn’t know the truth from a lie. I learned it too. I lied my way through my own life. Here’s another story. Mom got into a thing called "black beauty" concoctions which were pills plus speed. We had a little Toyota truck. I was in the passenger seat. She had been drinking and so she announces, “You have to drive.” I was scared to death. But from then on, starting at the age of thirteen, I was the driver. And another story. On my sixteenth birthday Mom was in a decent mood and gave me $100.00. I immediately bought some clothes. Mom switched and was suddenly furious. She slapped me and said she was going to get her money out of me. I grabbed my new clothes and ran to my friend’s house across the street. They had a birthday dinner for me there, but I knew bad things were happening at home. I called my dad and he came back from work. Every single solitary thing I owned was burning in a pile on the garage floor.
The police showed up and my mom went to jail.
Did that bring social services into your life?
No. I think stuff like that wasn’t that big of a deal in the mid 80’s. Played down. Just crazy folk’s stuff. Plus, my dad was a reputable, respected person in our community. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and was even awarded a key to the city. That book, "My Mama’s Waltz", helped me then. Today, I pray my way through my problems, but back then, Mom wanted me to be taking Xanax and klonopin so she could strong-arm me into giving them to her. Next came the era of my boyfriends. (Jill shakes her head.) Mom didn’t come on to them, but she had inappropriate conversations with them. I became very promiscuous.
Somebody to love you?
Yes. But I cheated on my boyfriends in high school.
So maybe you cheated and lied in the way you’d learned at home?
Yep! Like I said, kids learn what they live. I lied all my life. Lying was my reality. But, somehow, my dad stayed faithful to my mom. We begged him to divorce her, but he said he couldn’t. He was Catholic. The next significant thing I can tell you is how I started drinking. I have always been outgoing - the class clown. So many roles. So many coats. So many people inside my skin. And remember… I knew how to drive. I had a car all weekend. I needed people to like me. I went in a liquor store and stuck alcohol in my backpack and walked out. I began smoking weed. Now everybody loves Jill! I wore a good kid façade all day and then after school I had a bad reputation. A split personality - one like my mom, one like my dad. Fast forward again. I graduated high school and now I’m eighteen and working at an insurance company. I am also pregnant. I tell my mom and I have to tell my dad. His reaction: “You are not keeping it. It will ruin your life.” My mom and I went to Planned Parenthood. I didn’t want to have an abortion, I felt forced into it. I talked with a counselor who was a former nun! I asked, “Is it going to hurt more to have a baby or to have an abortion?” She said, “It’s going to hurt much more to have a baby.” So that sealed the deal for me. I told my dad, “No abortion for me. I’m doing this my way. I want to have my baby.”
Were you surprised that your Catholic father wanted you to have an abortion? Was it keeping up appearances?
Yes! There was definitely that! And, he had such high hopes for me. I was his baby girl. I was smart and had somehow gotten through high school. But I was desperate for somebody to love me. I wanted a baby I could love back, be genuinely connected to a person of my own. Now, fast forward again several months. I am clean, being the perfect pregnant person. At my 35-week mark my mom said, “Jill, how are you still wearing your jeans? You should be bigger than that.” My measurements were off. I had a sonogram and the technologist said, “It’s a very poor image because there was so little amnionic fluid.” I stayed overnight for observation. I wasn’t dilating, but I felt some contractions. Eventually, I was in terrible pain. I was rushed to the delivery room and I gave birth to a boy who was completely blue. They immediately took him away. (Jill pauses, holds up her hand.) Okay… this is the first of the three times in my life when I absolutely knew God existed. Proof that God exists. Anyway, I was back in my hospital room. They said, “Your baby is passing away in the NICU.” They wheeled me down there. (Jill is teary. We sit quietly a long moment.) I move through this tunnel of incubators. My son is at the end of a maze. “Do you want to hold him?” they asked. I did. They gave him oxygen. He lived on my love and God’s love for thirteen hours. My dad took it as hard as I did. He paid for Zachery’s burial. My baby had Potter’s Syndrome. No renal tissue formed. We didn’t know it then, but the baby’s dad had the gene for Potters Syndrome.
What did you feel then?
I lost it. Suicidal. I went into a psych hospital. But, after a while, cocaine made the pain go away… So now, fast forwarding again, me and my (air quotes) outgoing personality climbed to the top - using and selling cocaine. I worked at a sport’s bar in Westport in Kansas City. I went headfirst into anything that numbed me, even though I swore I’d never be my mother. But, with the coke comes lots of promiscuity. I got pregnant and gave birth to Ezekiel (Zeke). I was a good mom, overprotective because his older brother, Zachery, had passed away. I got a job at a childcare center and took him to the baby room there. He was perfect. Things were good. Zeke was about three. I graduated from Certified Medical Assisting School... a nine-month program and got a job I was really good at. I also got a HUD town house. I’m doin’ it! I got an even better job… until I lost it. I cannot stay clean. I go down a wormhole. More guys. I am pregnant again. I stop all drugs. I give birth to my beautiful daughter, Tori.
As if on cue, our conversation is interrupted by a call Jill receives from Torry who is now in her twenties. She reports to her mother about her two-day-old son, Knox. He is Jill’s first grandchild. After much laughing and many I love yous, and “Kiss my Boo Boo,” etc. etc. the call ends. Jill tells me she was Tori’s support person during Knox’s birth and had the privilege of cutting his umbilical cord.
Our conversation resumes.
When Tori was a baby, I got caught shoplifting! I could not stay clean. My parole officer can’t believe me! He is banging his head. Sick of me. He says what the hell is wrong with you? You are articulate. You are smart. I mean, I believed him. I knew I could walk into a room and make conversation with anyone - from the person puking on the floor or a billionaire.
When things were going too right, did you create chaos?
Yep. I always appeared to have it together. My mom taught me how to create a façade , but I was on a locomotive to the end. I had a physically abusive relationship with another guy. (Jill looks off) Such vivid memories. Zeke witnessed it. He also got abused by the guy. I put my son in a snake pit. He’d ask, “Is it my fault, mommy? What did I do?” (During this period of years Jill gives birth to another son, Trent. She collected a wide-range of charges for drug possession and sale, forgery, stolen cars, and multiple city and county offences. “I mean, finally, both my mother and my son, Zeke, flipped the script and pressed charges against me!”)
Speak about your jail experience…
I was the only white girl in the jail. The black girls went to church in jail. They felt the Holy Spirit - yelling and praising - but did I feel the Holy Spirit yet? Not yet. My dad brought the kids to see me on the weekends. Although my mother was often ill, they were well cared for. The maternal bond that was supposed to happen between me and her and my children happened between me and my dad.
What about your prison experience?
Prison in Missouri was actually easy, a cakewalk. My dad sent me money. The kids visited. I was clean in there and also after I got out. But one day there are two detectives are at my door with a federal indictment ! Seven counts. They had built a case against me. I was terrified.
What made it a federal crime?
A gun in my car plus the materials, including ephedrine, to make meth. Off I went. Possibly twenty-five years to life at federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut! My life was over! Dad took care of my kids, took them to daycare - a saint! I turned their legal stuff over to him. Eventually my mom was in a coma in the ICU - diagnoses of severe chronic pneumonia and arthritis. I saved up my phone money for Sunday night and spoke to my mom’s twin sister, my aunt. I tell everybody at Danbury, “Help! Please pray for my mom. She’s still my mom no matter what happens. Pretty soon, she’s out of ICU. We talked. (Jill smiles, shakes her head.) Mom says, “Oh, Jilly, it’s so good to hear from you. They’ve got the best drugs here. I’m not feeling a thing!” I said, “I’m praying for you, but don’t hold on for me. You know I’ve got resentments, but if you’re ready to go, I’m ready to say goodbye.” That night I slept like a baby. The next day I stood in front of an open window by the prison yard. There was a little gust - Mom’s perfume. It was her. Dad called, “Your mom just passed away.” Fifty-nine years old. (Jill looks off, as if re-hearing the news from her father.) A strange moment of relief. My first direct encounter with God was when I held Zachery. This was my second. I get released from prison and take the bus from New York City to Kansas City. I surprised the kids. They were elated. I became very serious about my recovery. I went to an AA meeting my first day in the free world. I embraced motherhood and my receptionist job at a marble factory. I climbed the company ladder. Finally! I’m contributing! But not for long… It’s January 2011. This was the biggest show God gave me. Snowing, dark, and icky cold. I had stolen a vehicle earlier that day. (Jill pauses, rolls her eyes.) Anyway… using my infinite intellect , I also have $2000.00 that I obtained in unsavory ways. So, wow! I am set for the day. Me and my boyfriend at the time get all dressed up and get high. I’m wearing my fancy slip-on, clog-style shoes. I think I look really cute. We head to Harrah’s Casino. Mind you… both of us have outstanding warrants. A cop appears behind us in our stolen car. After a highspeed police chase, even over a bridge, I turn off the headlights and turn the wrong direction down a one-way street. Lose the cops. Both of us run in separate ways. I dive under a huge fir tree in Budd Park. Officers using flashlights and spotlights, find the car, but they don’t find either of us. I’d left my purse in the car with all my id and records of the checks I’d forged. Adrenalin kept most of me warm - sort of. But not my feet. I’m on the bare ground with bare feet and a thin Carhart jacket. I think of prostitutes around Independence Avenue getting killed and thrown into the Missouri River! I am not totally sure where I am. I start walking. I see a guy warming up his car to go to work. He lets me use his cordless phone. I called friends to come and get me. I sit on the curb on a corner and they drive past me a block away. I have one quarter in my pocket. I need a dime for the pay phone! I’m screwed. I ask God’s help. With every minute, my prayers are more insistent. I made more and more promises to Him. For the first time, I heard His voice in my heart. - Get up and keep going. Get up! So, I did. I walked to this lighted house with a screened in porch. Through the oval glass on the front door, I saw people working inside, rehabbing it. I bang on the glass, but nobody comes. I hear voices, but can’t see anybody. I am crying and praying very hard. A foxhole prayer. I see a makeshift table on the porch – two sawhorses with a plywood top and a pile of dimes! I make another call. I do not die. My friends get me. I’m in the backseat of the car. I look back as we drive away. There is not a light on in that house. Only an aura, the silhouette of Jesus floating over the yard. Christ.
(Smiles.) But God had to wait! I did not do everything I promised Him then.
(During the next ten years Jill’s incarcerations, relapses, losses and hook-ups with abusive, addicted men continued. I have not included all the details here)
I was an absent mother to my now-grown children. It took so long for God to go from being out of reach, to being inside me. During one stretch of sobriety, I got on a committee called Stand Up Safe in Blue Springs, Missouri. It consisted of School Board Members and Police Officers and me! I went into area middle schools educating students on the dangers of underage drinking and drug use. But I quit, because my son Zeke is using . I mean, what am I doing? I can’t save my son! Zeke has been incarcerated more times than not since he was thirteen years old. He is currently in prison. Drug-related offenses. Since March 2012 he has only been out for 26 days! (Smiles) He calls me almost daily. Twice on Mother’s Day. His release date is in September 2021. He will be 29. Being a multiple-timed convicted felon, it was hard to have a decent place to live. I became a professional interviewer. Aced every one of them. I worked the night shift in a plastics plant. I got a better job fielding calls for a South Carolina Employment Office. It was good, but after five weeks they fired me. “Unfortunately, we are so sorry, but because of your background check we can’t keep you.” Some years later, after more incarcerations, I lived at Healing House post-prison. (Healing House is recovery housing and support for substance use disorders.) I recognized it instantly. It was "the house". The place with the front porch and the dimes. The place God guided me on my dark night of the soul. Remember, Jesus was a carpenter. (Jill smiles. Holds up a hand.) But that wasn’t my last time to get out of prison. That happened about a year ago. Anyway, at Healing House, they tell you, “Don’t leave here five minutes before the miracle happens.” But… I did.
Your miracle took years, not minutes.
(Big grin.) Right. It sure did. (Jill stands up, stretches and spreads her arms.) Can we hug, Barb?
The Drive Home:
“Remember, you are not alone in this room and you are not alone across time,” says Bryan Doerries in reference to his public health project, The Theater of War. In this work he brings the essence of ancient stories to present-day homeless shelters and prisons. He believes universal myths, that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with and healing of present wounds, longings and callings.
It has triggered my own revelations and compassion for friends and family past and present who disappeared behind secrets of substance use, mental health disorders, PTSD, and suicide.
For Jill, storytelling is a catharsis. It is an energizing relief of her demons -the struggles, experiences and emotions that for most of her life had had no place to go. In part two of her story, we will explore the ways she puts her hard-won perspective to work as the Manager of Journey House.