KENSINGTON BLUES

RIP: Debbie Lynn McConnell

Debbie McConnell stands with her mother Laura Bailey Talbert in front of a wall of family photos at their home in Staunton, VA 2017.

Deborah Lynn McConnell, 38, of Fairfax County, passed away unexpectedly Saturday, August 4, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her body was found at the corner of Willard and Hollins Streets in West Baltimore.

The manner of death is undetermined however the medical examiner reports that Fentanyl was found in Debbie’s system.

Debbie was found on August 4th but her family wasn’t notified of her death for an agonizing 7 days, during which time her mother frantically searched the streets of Baltimore and struggled to get her on the Missing Persons List.

Debbie was born August 12, 1979 in Chester, Pennsylvania, a daughter of Laura Bailey Talbert, William and Christine McConnell.

Although Debbie struggled with drugs throughout most of her teenage and adult life, she was also able to maintain extended periods of clean time. Most recently, from 2013 to 2017, Debbie was living drug free at home with her mother in Staunton, Virginia.

In addition to her parents, family members include daughter Cheyenne McConnell, of Staunton, son, Joshua Biondo of Maine, four sisters, Jamie (Richard) Sullivan of Staunton, Gina McConnell of Pennsylvania, Cara (Evan) Yocano of Pennsylvania and Audria McConnell of Pennsylvania, two brothers, Theodore Manna of Staunton and Tyler Manna of Staunton. Numerous nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins. She was preceded in death by a sister Megan Lynn Manna.

A cremation will be conducted by Simplicity Crematorium and Funeral Home. The memorial service is scheduled to take place on October 20th, 2018 at 1pm at Friendship Church, 1601 W Beverley St. Staunton, Va. 24401.

Laura Bailey Talbert writes, “We would love it, if everyone wore something “GREEN” 💚💚 that was her favorite color or sport your Philadelphia 🦅Eagles pride. That would be great.
She would love that. She missed her birthday by 9 days 😰. So we will be having a 🎉BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION PARTY🎉 after the Church memorial service.


The following letter was written by Debbie’s mother, Laura Bailey Talbert.

Dear mothers and daughters,

Like always, we think we have taught them all we can to protect themselves from this great big world… And then we find ourselves wondering what went wrong?

My daughter was the kindest person in this world. She was my best friend and co-pilot in life. She began early in life, getting into some legal problems, and it quickly became the drug scene. She was so bad into them, I asked her to tattoo my phone number on her so if she was found they wouldn’t have any problems getting ahold of me. And if she was in jail, I knew she was safe. Three meals daily and clean. She had been to several rehabs to no avail. I was always on pins and needles when the phone rang, knowing that it would be bad news about Debbie. She had been on the avenue for quite some time. I would go walk the streets to find her. Begging for her to come home, making sure she had clothes, shoes…..sometimes I have even given her money to buy what she needed to get her in the car and bring her home.  

You have to understand our relationship:  we were the best of friends but as her mom there was a line in the sand. She knew disrespect was not an option. There came a time she got into some serious trouble and I would not bail her out. I told her that was it‼️ And that was that. She was on her own. I couldn’t just keep living her demons. We had not spoken for three years. Then her sister passed away at 29 and I had to go tell her that face to face 😢 😢 and that started our relationship over again. But Debbie had a different outlook on life & family after that.❤ We visited, talked, and had quality time to figure out what path we were going to take. Things just fell into place 😇 and our relationship got to the point that I trusted her again.

When Debbie was released, (the last time she ever went to jail) 😇 🌹 I think the death of her younger-sister really made her think & she chose her family. I trusted her and let her come home. We have always been close. But the drugs masked the “BEAUTIFUL” (my nickname for her) person she was inside. I’m sure all of you mom’s out there going through this, know exactly what I mean… 🌹 You still see your little girl in her eyes but her appearance was not the girl you knew at all.  

To the daughter’s out there who are still on the avenue, or wherever you are, please know, that no matter what, your mom loves you with all she has ❤.
Or a family member, who has been a mom to you🌹.

We’ll never give up looking for you, even if you think that’s the case 💚.  If you haven’t called home, please do so 🙏😇 because the person on the other end, loves you, needs you and will help you. They just need to know your alive ✨💚 and to hear your voice, will be the best day of their lives 🍀.  Because they pray everyday for that 🙏🙏😇.  And know there is a chance to save their babies. Call your mom please 🙏🙏. You’re both feeling the same way, just on opposite sides: lost 💚 lonely 💚 scared 💚 a hole in your ❤ where each of you belong, and can only be filled by hearing each others voices. Because I know the pain, sleepless nights, uncontrollable emotions that comes with not hearing my (BEAUTIFUL) daughter’s voice ever again 💔😢.

Debbie was clean for years after she was released from jail. Together we got her back on track. Alimentally (she had to do the work herself) but knew she had a family that loved her💚a cheerleader mom💚who at times was pretty tough on her😘, but always had her back💚. There were times she would tell me to back off, she was a grown woman and didn’t need me to be a mom🙄🙄. But I’m fierce as a mom‼️

And Debbie did not always make the best choices, when it came to men & friends😐. If she had a date and I didn’t like the on line dating thing anyway because people are not going to tell you their real story… And when it came to Deb she almost always believed what anyone told her 😱. So I would sneak out take a picture of the car and plates so if I didn’t hear from her, I knew I could track down the person she went on a date with📸

One day she needed my phone, and was scrolling thru my pictures 😱 and discovered the pictures I had taken of the cars😜. At first she was like (MOM REALLY)‼️ I said “YUPPERS”. No one is going to take you away from me‼️ I brought you into this world, and I’m the only one who gets to take you out‼️ We laughed our asses off….. to the point of tears 😄😂😅. She hugged me and said “ONLY YOU WOULD THINK TO DO THAT” 💚💚💚 and maybe that was true 😍💚😇 but I’m sure that all of the moms out there, that have walked the streets of addiction to hell and 🍀 enough to find their daughters, have done something like that. So they knew where to start if their daughters were not home by the next day ✨✨.

Debbie and I were very close, co-pilots, partners in crime, best friends. We could finish each other’s sentences. We were rock stars in the car, singing & being silly. There was not a subject we couldn’t talk about (but had to remind her occasionally) that there are somethings I didn’t need to know as her mom 😱. She didn’t care…. She said we’re both grown women, and you’re the only one I tell everything too 😍.
We went and did everything together.

But she needed her own life also. She didn’t like that she couldn’t have overnight company, a house rule but respectful, and to set the example I never had anyone over, or spent the night. We had some pretty heated argument at times. Mostly because I didn’t like the people she was hanging out with. Because I could see she was being used by these people….. I knew she would be the child that was always going to live at home, because she spent more time of her life in the system & on drugs. She struggled with how to conform to the rules and ways of communicating with the outside world. She said what was on her mind, no matter who she spoke too. It was difficult for her to keep a job, because she would call you out if you were not doing your share of the work, and it always came out like she was being bitchy, because of her tone. And 99% of the time she was just trying to express her opinion, not in a mean or nasty way but in the only way she knew how– blunt & to the point.

In November of 2017. She met a man and moved in with him. She lived just 1 mile from me so we talked and texted everyday. It was like she lived at home but slept there 😂😇. We had coffee together most days. Nothing really changed except her address 😂. She had slipped up a time or 2 but came clean to me about it and we found a doctor to help and went to a meeting. I went with her sometimes when she wanted me to so she knew I was in her corner 💯% of the time. But in March I saw the change in her eyes…. New names popped up?? And communication was only text & she was becoming distant. I went to her house to see her and knew immediately that she getting high again. I called her out about it and she told me it was the Suboxone and Seroquel that she was prescribed that was making her loopy. Her boyfriend was evicting her, she was out of control, in trouble and needed to get help immediately‼️‼️. And she knew it. We talked about it and found a place for her right away. But the day we were to go she had a million excuses to put it off. So I went to her house, packed up the rest of her things, put them in the car and said “LETS GO.” She said she wasn’t going, she was a grown woman & I couldn’t make her go‼️ I said I trump that because I’m the mom‼ and could care less how old she was‼

She needed cigarettes, but I refused to move my car so she could not get her car out. I said fine get in the car I will take you to get cigarettes and bring you home. If you want to throw away all your hard work over the years that gave you your family & life back, so be it. But I’m not going to watch you go down that road. She was withdrawing and a bitch on wheels because at that point so was I‼️‼️ I couldn’t & wouldn’t let her fall down that rabbit hole again. So she got in the car. We went to the store. And I just started to head for the rehab she was going to. To say that she was not happy was an understatement. She was pissed I tricked her 😡. But she would have to get over it. We arrived. I unpacked the car and told her she either goes in and gets with the program or she could sit outside. Either way I was going home without her. She got up, and asked me to go in with her 😇💚. She knew she needed help and I was so proud of her. And told her that she did so well and looked as “BEAUTIFUL” as ever. She even extended it for 2 extra weeks. She liked the area she was at because there were people her age, more things to do. She came home to get her car and her things that were here. She found a place to live, worked a crappy job to pay her rent, but continued to look for something better 💚🎉. She had been living in Northern Virginia for 3 months by now and was very proud 💚she was clean 💚 living on her own 💚 making her own money 💚.  And I was very proud of her for really giving it her all 💚❤.

I became very ill in July and it was a touch and go situation but I pulled through it and told Debbie she had nothing to worry about. She needed to work. That I was good to go. Then a week later I was back in the hospital 😱. Wild horses couldn’t keep her away this time. She came to the hospital to see for herself, that I was TRUELY going to be ok ❤❤. She had to get back to work though but came home on July 31st because she had a court date on the 1st of August. It was nice having her home for a few days. I was still not 100% well so she was in nursing mode 😱 making me crazy. I couldn’t move at all without her following me, making sure I wasn’t doing anything 😂😇💚.

Debbie left to go home on the 3rd…. With plans to be back for her birthday on the 12th. I gave her kisses and hugs and for her to let me know she made it home safe. She sent me a text around 8pm.  She made it home ok………💔 that would be the last time I would ever hear from her‼️‼️

I text her the next day & she didn’t answer?  I thought she was sleeping in. She mentioned something about Baltimore before she left my house to go home but didn’t elaborate so I didn’t know if she went out or not at this point. I called and texted her all day & nothing. Not like her at all, we communicated 10x’s a day or more. I was concerned that I didn’t hear from her at all on Saturday. Sunday I was calling and texting 😱 still nothing. I was in panic mode, something was wrong I could feel it.  Every Mom has that built in mechanism that you feel it when your child is in trouble‼️ I called her roommate and she said she was concerned also because she had been trying to get ahold of her also. She last heard from her was at 3am on Sunday and Debbie was in Baltimore then.

Clearly Debbie had not returned any messages, her phone went right to voicemail. She would never leave without her make-up if she was not coming home‼️ I called the police to do a safety check on her, however, they did nothing. She was old enough to go where she wanted, did not have to tell anyone, so the Fairfax police would do nothing. I called for a second safety check, this time her roommate was there. She told them the last time she communicated Debbie, she reiterated what I had been explaining to them that Debbie wouldn’t leave for 3 days without taking some things with her. Her car, clothes, make-up, toothbrush…. everything was at her house but her‼️‼️

So at the 2nd check the police said they could not search the car without a warrant (REALLY‼️). She is missing, 2 calls to check on her, and they needed a search warrant even though I gave them permission‼️‼️ So while the police were there, Debbie’s roommate searched the car and her ID wallet and a receipt from McDonald’s was found inside‼️‼️ So clearly she was a missing person‼️

FOR ALL OF THE MOMS OUT THERE THAT KNOW WHAT THAT SICK FEELING IS TELLING YOU, THAT YOU KNOW THE OUTCOME BUT WILL NEVER STOP LOOKING, BECAUSE YOU NEED TO SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT‼️ Three of my sisters all turned into private detectives, and were relentless in calling everyplace in Baltimore to see if she was hurt or….anyplace they could think of.

We tried like hell to get her on the missing persons list. Fairfax wouldn’t do it because they suck and are lazy. They said it had to come from where I live because I was making the report. At this point I was going to call the national guards if that’s what it took to make someone get off their ass and listen to the facts. Her sister had had enough of the BS and come hell or high water was getting her on the Missing list. And she did‼️‼I have no idea how she worked that miracle but she was an angel with powers that be. So we know Debbie was in Baltimore and still missing. Me, Debbie’s sister and brother walked the streets in search of anything we could find out. To no avail. No one there wants to talk. But we were not deterred. We kept asking. And we found the woman that found Debbie. So when the police showed up at my house, we at least knew where she was at. AND WOULD HAVE KNOWN SOONER IF DETECTIVE MASON HAD GOT OFF HIS ASS and went to Baltimore to identify her the first time 😡 the coroner called him. She did a tremendous job & research. She found my news cast and Debbie’s picture in the Kensington Blues book. She called detective mason again and told him she had my baby and he had to come identify her.  But he blew her off again so she made a call…. and poof. There he was. Identified her and washed his hands of it.

I could go on and on…

Moms alway be there for your daughter. Keep the lines of communications open, that’s so important 🙏.

And go & get her out of the hell hole even if you just don’t know what to do to get out. But you need to be the one to find her and be patient, it’s a struggle. Please don’t give up.

We had a great relationship before she was taken from me 🙏💚‼️😇❤.

For the moms out there your daughter is looking for you to find her, love her and help her get through issues. I feel 🍀💚 to have had years of clean time to really know her as a person 💚.

I love you my “BEAUTIFUL” baby.

Sincerely,

Laura Bailey Talbert

Your Story: Family Matters

My half brother and I share the same father and are 18 years apart. I looked up to him all my childhood and for a little while wanted to be in the army just like him. My brother served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He met his wife in the military and once they came back home  they got married, had a child and settled in Kentucky.

My brother kept serving until he was medically discharged with a back injury. Up until then my brother looked like he had made it. However, with a mix of the back injury and undiagnosed PTSD, he started to abuse opioids and pain meds. It had become so severe that after only a couple years, he and his wife divorced, he lost custody of his daughter and was living with opioid abusers like himself.

I remember vividly in the summer of 2015 when I was 16 years old my parents fighting in the kitchen because my mom didn’t want my dad to fly to Kentucky and bring my half brother home, thinking he’d have a negative impact on me. On that August day I thought my family had just fallen apart. The fight they had was so bad. My dad was planning on moving out and I thought my brother was going to die. I cried in the shower because I didn’t want my parents to know how sad and nervous I was. Fortunately, my parents did not get divorced but I still can’t believe how my father forgave my mother after saying all the mean and nasty things about my brother. My father and older sister flew to Kentucky and brought my brother home.

I have never had a deep conversation about how I felt about my brother’s addiction. The truth is I didn’t want to talk about it and my brother didn’t want to talk about his problems either. I’ve never had real closure because I haven’t been able to express how I felt and why. I come from an upper-middle class ex-military family living in the suburbs so I thought that if I talked about my brother’s addiction people wouldn’t care because people would think I was just trying to complain about something. Everyone has problems. I have a friend whose dad left him, I have a friend who doesn’t know his real father and I have a friend who doesn’t have a steady home to go to right now. They don’t really talk about their problems so why should I? Why should I be the one who gets special treatment and attention? I only told a couple friends about it but I never went into detail. I just wanted to let them know whats up but I wanted to be a man about it and fight the feeling. I especially didn’t want to talk to my parents about it because I didn’t want them to worry about me more and I didn’t want them to make special arrangements with shrinks or tell my teachers or friends or whatever. So for the most part I buried my feelings but if I could have an honest conversation about it I would say this…

My brother’s addiction confused me. He was my childhood hero and I used to want to grow up like him in a way. But after what happened I was confused about how I felt about him. I was mad about him for making our family almost tear apart. I mean how selfish could he be for not thinking how it would affect other people in his life? But I was also mad at myself and my parents for not helping him enough sooner before he hit rock bottom. He was so far away from home at that time. I wanted to help him but I couldn’t do anything for him. If he was an addict back when he lived at home with me I think I could’ve done or said something sooner to stop him from throwing everything away. But I never saw him when he was on drugs because he lived in Kentucky and I lived up in New England.

It’s the worst feeling when you know someone you love is hurting so bad on the inside and is hurting themselves because of it, but you can’t do anything to help. You just get updates with bad news. All I could do was pray, asking for my brother to be saved so he wouldn’t die so far away from home. So that’s what I did.

Flash forward to now, it’s been three years and my family is stable again. My brother is self-reliant, has a steady job and a serious girlfriend. He’s able to see his daughter for months at a time out of the year. It’s as if his addiction never happened which confuses me a little but I’m very happy for him. I have seen the opioid crisis take shape and complete full circle from relapse to recovery. I haven’t told many people about my story because I don’t want them to talk about me and my family’s problems when I’m not around. But if I had just two words to describe that summer it would be this— Family Matters.

BBC Interview with Jeffrey Stockbridge

Follow Up: Debbie McConnell

Debbie McConnell, at her mother’s home in Staunton, Virginia, 2017.

Edited Audio Transcript

Debbie McConnell: So, this is from my first Christmas home.

Jeffrey Stockbridge: So this is a wall of photos here of your family?

DM: Yeah, this is my brothers and sisters. And as you’ll notice, I’m not in any of them because I wasn’t here. 2014 I got out. I’ve been out since 2014. June 16th I got out.

My name is Debbie McConnell, and I am living in Staunton, Virginia now and I have 7 years clean.

I don’t remember exactly what I clicked on online to find, you know, the Kensington Blues page, but I saw something and I said let me click on this. I remembered a guy taking pictures down there.

I remember writing in a journal, but I don’t see my journal entry. But I remember writing something. So, I was like let me look through this and see what it’s about. So, I watched a little short video of the documentary and then I was like, you know, I know all the people on it. And so I went clicking down all the things and I found the archives. So, I just started going through every single person and when I clicked on Justine I was like, that’s me, haha. But my name is not Justine, I guess I said it was, but I was just like wow, that is so crazy.

I didn’t email you right away, I guess it had been like a month before and then I figured well, let me see if there is a way to get in contact with him because I thought well, there is not a lot of the good stories coming out of some of the people, because I know a lot of them have passed away and um, so I said I thought it would be neat to at least have some good, you know, following that… Um… You know, the one girl Corrine had just passed away in a terrible way, I don’t know if you had heard about that but she’s in there and her journal is and um she was a good friend of mine for many, many years. We were in jail together, we were on the street together. We fought each other, I mean it was- we, we had been through hell and back, so that was sad to see.

JS: It must be pretty crazy um, you know having been there on the avenue been close with a lot of people on the avenue who didn’t make it, but you made it. Why do you think you made it?

DM: Only because I’m not there no more, because I feel like if I ever went back I am sure it would be the death of me. I remember just sitting there thinking I can’t do this anymore. I can’t, I just can’t do it. I’ve been raped like four or five times, I only got beat up once, thank God. I don’t think you have Marlo in the book. Is she in the book? Do you know who Marlo is? Ok, I didn’t see her on there. But I remember when she got beat bad, by I think it was the Kensington Strangler, and like they found her, with her face out to here, just in a bra walking down the street. And she didn’t get clean and, you know, you always think, whats the bad thing that’s going to happen to make you do this?

Debbie McConnell, Kensington Ave, 2009.Journal Entry by Debbie McConnell, 2009.

Well, anyway, I got locked back up. The cops came there for an unrelated thing, they ran my name- I had been wanted here, in Virginia, since 2006. So, this was December 1, 2010, they extradited me out here. I did three and a half years and in that time I just, uh, my sister passed away. Um, she’s on the wall over there. She’s up there with graduation thing. She, she passed away and I hadn’t talked to her in like five or six years. And, um, I hadn’t talked to my family, none of them, except my littlest sister, and they showed up at the jail to tell me that my sister had died.

Then they never stopped coming, my mom kept coming, and kept coming and said like life’s too short, and I just realized… that it is and I don’t want to ever go that much time without my family or die that way. And not have talked to them and… then I have nieces and nephews now I have kids, I have six kids, but I have my one daughter that I talk to all the time. And you know my dad use to come up there and be like, ‘I am going to drop her off up here with you if that will get you straight… and, um, but I love my, I love my, my family you know… That’s the biggest thing. I don’t want to lose my family again. It’s just so important, um, it’s just me and my mom. I feel that my mom needs me. And I need her. And so, I just said I wasn’t gonna go back. And I did go back, to visit, I took the train two years ago for my birthday because I wanted to see my daughter. And I got down there, and I got in a fight with my dad, and he hit me. And he put me out on the street and I wasn’t Philly, we were in a suburb, in Montgomery County. And he was like ‘Oh your just picking a fight, you want your friends to come pick you up because you want to go back down to the Ave.’ I had no such intention, I wasn’t even thinking about the Ave. But I didn’t, I just caught the next train home and just came home.

It was just something in jail. While I was just sitting there, I just thought to myself that it was it for me, like you know, just, nothing great happened, you know, it wasn’t a grand realization or anything, I just thought about it and thought about it and just, it just kinda went away for me, the desire to live that life because I, I just, just, it just went away. Thankfully, because I never thought it would.

Debbie McConnell, Kensington Ave, 2009

Debbie McConnell, shooting up in an abandoned house, 2009.

And you know, it’s funny because when I first started getting high, the girls would say, all the girls in Bucks County jail were always like, ‘you’re a wannabe addict. You, you want, you know- you’re not really an addict’. Like, I don’t know why, they thought I just wanted to be that person for some reason. I just was. But, I came from a good family, and a good neighborhood. I didn’t live in Kensington, I lived in Bucks County. And it was just a boyfriend and his sister, and um, that’s just how I got started. And just ended up down there, because that’s what she did. So, I was just, like, I’m just going to go down there, and I just went down there one day and I just never left, I got stuck. And that was from 2001 to basically 2010. Now, I’ve been in the jail more than I been on the street. I have 95 charges on my record. So, that’s my biggest struggle now, is, you don’t realize what you’re doing to your life. Whenever the day comes that you decide you don’t want to do that anymore. You create a lot of hardship for when you are trying to get right. Like, as far as jobs, and gettin’, gettin’ somewhere in life, you know. I’ve had jobs, you know, I’ve been out three years and I’ve been working. But I haven’t been able to get into a decent job that pays decent because of my record, and Virginia can go back your whole record, so it looks really bad, I have 95 charges.

It was a struggle getting out, but I didn’t think about getting high. I mean, I have days now, today, where I think about it but the good outweighs the bad. You know I can’t, I never want… I can’t even picture being on Kensington Ave. That weekend, when I was there, after I had been locked up for a year, when I went out there, and I am pretty sure that picture is from that weekend, and I remember saying I can’t do this, I just cant. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t even imagine what it would be like today to be out there.

And I had a picture of myself… I had sold my hair. My hair was down to here. I had sold it and it was up to here, and I looked horrible. I was skinny, and just, I didn’t look right. The days that I had bad days, I would look at that picture. I showed it to mom, she starts crying. She’s like, ‘Oh my God’, because she had been down to Kensington a million times looking for me and trying to get me to come home. And I would never go.

JS: You say the good outweighs the bad… What’s the good?

DM: Just my family. Just I know that if I ever got high again I would never be able to see my niece and nephew again. I don’t think my mom would stand by me again through another, you know, prison sentence, or whatever. I’ve never, I’ve been on probation since 2001. I still have two more years, I’ve never given a dirty urine, I’ve held a job, and I mean that’s, that’s something to me- Thats a big accomplishment for me because I haven’t accomplished anything… So… And so I’ve been a cab driver for a year, so I’ve talked to a lot of people, and there are drugs here too. And most of the people that I know are on drugs, the big drug out here is Meth. I’ve tried it before, years ago and I don’t like it. Um, and I try to help them, like I try to tell them, they have no clue though, it’s not the same here, they’re…they don’t have… they have no idea. When I tell them some stories, they think I am talking about a movie or something, they can’t even comprehend that that was real life.

My mom tells me I am too open with people, but I feel like, if I go and apply for a job or something, and if I tell them about who I am or who I was, and how far I’ve come along, changed to be who I am now, that you know… some people can look past the record part of it and, and give me a chance because, I’m a hard worker, I don’t miss work, I can’t afford to, I need money. You know, you need money to live, so.

JS: So you think that like physically removing yourself from Kensington was an absolute necessity?

DS: It’s a big part of it. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is heroin here, people are dropping like flies here because of the fentanyl in the heroin, which I know it’s bigger in Philly, but it’s just, it’s just not worth it. It’s just not worth it to me. To just loose… I mean, I’ve come so far- Everything I have in my room I, I worked for. All the clothes I wear, my perfumes, my jewelry, I bought that stuff. You know, so to own things that you actually pay for, you know, I can’t imagine how much money I made in Kensington, but I had nothing to show for it. And I got lucky- I have no tracks, if I don’t tell somebody that I was a drug addict they would never know. But… I looked like hell, haha, you know, I looked like hell and when I show people pictures they’re like ‘that’s not you.’ I’m like, that was me.

JS: I think it’s awesome that you… You’re not trying to hide from your past and that you offer that information to people, as well. That you tell them about your past to try to you know let them know who you are, and that you, in spite of your past, you’re still a good person. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DM: Well yeah, even like when it comes to dating, like I’ve been single forever. But like, I try to date, but every time… I never meet, or I’ll meet a nice guy, but I have, I have too much for him. You know, they, they don’t, they’re like, they’re running because they’re like, holy shit, you know, hahah. But….You know, that’s not me anymore. I don’t live that life, you know, but when you tell people sometimes, they’re like, if you say you were a prostitute or you shot up drugs you know, automatically they assume you have diseases and all kinds of things, and so, um, I think I sometimes, I’m maybe too forthcoming with information. But that was my life, for a really… ten years. You know, ten years is a long time, So I don’t, I still, to this day, don’t know what I like to do for fun without being high, because I was always high.

But I feel like I’m a better person because of what I lived through and, like, I know a lot of things that I can teach others. Like, that’s what I initially asked probation, if I could go to like the juvenile detention center and talk to those people that are just thinking about getting involved in drugs. I mean, I know they’ll never  be as bad as what that is down there in Kensington, but, you know, if it could help them just a little bit, to deter them, like, oh my God, I would never want to go through things like that, you know, …. (Phone rings) Let me just get that real quick.

DM: Hello. Hey, what’s up? What are you doing? Ok. Ok. Love you. Love you, bye.

JS: Was that your mom?

DM: Yeah. She just got finished getting her hair done. I need to go buy a shirt, cause I do start a waitressing job tomorrow, which I’ve never done, and the manager knows me from eating there and complaining about, haha, the drinks. So, he said, ‘You have to be nice to people Debbie.’ That’s another thing, it is very different here, people don’t get me here. I am very obnoxious to them because I’m just blunt, say it, whatever. They don’t do that here. So, they look at me like I’m kinda mean or rude, but I don’t mean it to be that’s just what I’m used to, that’s just how people are in the city, they’re not like that here. So, I kinda stick out.

Laura Talbert, Debbie’s mom, at home in Staunton, Virginia, 2017.

Edited Audio Transcript

Laura Talbert: My name is Laura, I am Debbie’s mom. Um, Debbie and I have had some issues, um, since she was young, quite young. Um, you know, it started out with a little bit of legal trouble here and there, um sadly it turned in to her addiction. Um, as a mom, it’s very hard, very hard, to watch your child go through this. Um, I have been to Kensington, I have walked the streets, I have begged her to come with me, back home. Um, made sure she had shoes on her feet, um there are times I went down there and she wouldn’t, she just wouldn’t leave, and you know she was of age, I couldn’t make her do it but made sure she had food and clothes or shoes, whatever she might need. And you know, my heart breaks. My heart now, even thinking about, um, those days because for her not to come home, and there were a couple times you know, I’m gonna be totally straight up and honest, that I have gave her money for drugs to get her in my car, to get her to my home, and out of Kensington. And, she did that and that very next day- If she was in jail I knew she was safe. Three meals a day, she wasn’t on drugs. So, as a mom, I had to make that decision. What do you do? She’s not gonna come with you and it’s only gonna get worse, and how long can you watch your child go through this, and I made the conscious decision as a mom, to buy the drugs for her, to get her… Trick her, actually is what I did, and made sure that she ate and what have you, and slept and… but the next day I called the police and you know turned her in, and I knew, I knew she was safe then. And she hated me, she hated me, there were years went by- we didn’t talk. Um… the death of her sister- She was in prison, I had to go there and tell her, you know, her sister had passed away.

This last time in jail I told her this is it. You know. I made sure she had what she needed while she was in there, um, she at least had food, could make phone calls, what have you, but the day she got out of jail I told her, ‘The next time you go back to jail, we are back on that tough love train, because if you are helping yourself, I’m your mom and I will help you.’ But I’ve seen so much heartache and so much tragedy, and she has seen it now herself, because so many of the people that you have interviewed or even talked to, have died, or when the strangler was down there, that was like, to be the mom of… and you know…and I will tell you one thing that I asked her to do- Please tattoo my phone number on your body. That is how, how worried I was, how concerned, because if I thought I was going to burry a child I really thought it was going to be her. And I didn’t want her to be one of those people, in Kensington that they found and couldn’t get a hold of family or what have you. So I did, I begged her.

Now, I couldn’t be prouder of her. Um, she’s worked very hard, very, very hard these past two years.

That’s where we’re at, we’re just, you know, buddies at this point. We’re just two fish in a fish bowl but you know… We lean on each other and we yell at each other, and we laugh with each other, um, but she looks great. She’s doing great. Um, I just, I’m really, very proud of her. Even though I figure she’s my one child that’s never gonna leave home… So, everything I do is, my thoughts are in twos, which is fine. She’ll find her way at some point, but you know it doesn’t matter how old you get, um, your mom’s your mom.

Debbie and Laura, 2017.

Finding A Way Into Recovery At The First Stop

By Courtenay Harris Bond | Photos by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

Jennie C., 32, had been abusing drugs for nearly 20 years before she recently stepped into the First Stop recovery house in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

“The first time I actually injected it [heroin] I was 17,” said Jennie, who did not want to use her last name. “I had just graduated high school, and it was done from that point forward. Life just became different. I didn’t know it was going to end up the way it did. It was every day going forward.”

Living in the Poconos at the time, Jennie would travel to Kensington to buy drugs and then return home. Eventually, however, her parents kicked her out, and Jennie found herself in and out of jail, shifting from one person’s couch to another and sometimes sleeping on the street, and turning to sex work to pay for drugs.

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“I’ve had some bad experiences on the streets,” Jennie said. “I’ve been taken advantage of. I’ve been robbed. I’ve been jumped. I’ve been raped. It’s not ok, but maybe it’s something I haven’t fully embraced or really, really thought about. But it kind of comes with the territory.”

Finally tired of ripping and running, Jennie landed at the First Stop about a month and half ago on a friend’s recommendation. There she stopped shooting heroin and smoking crack cold turkey. She had a rough week of withdrawal. And now she is complying with the recovery house’s time-honored 12-step fellowship program and becoming part of a community that is desperately trying to lift itself up without any government money or medical interventions such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid-use disorders. At a time when MAT is expanding across the country and being touted as the gold standard for getting people off of opioids during this crisis, the First Stop still promotes abstinence as the only way to go, despite vast evidence that MAT works.

The First Stop is not licensed to dispense Suboxone, methadone, or Vivitrol. Nor does its proprietor, Tony Gardner, a chiropractor from Bucks County, want to offer MAT since he sees it as “trading one addiction for another” — a view generally held by his residents but not by many other people in recovery, clinicians, and other centers of treatment.

“I did it cold turkey,” said Leanne Sharkey, the First Stop’s new house mom. “It means something more to you when you can walk through that struggle because really, it’s not a pleasant experience. That’s why everybody here is so harsh about cold turkey withdrawal, laying on the floor, because at the end of the day it will mean something to you. The easier, softer way is not always a good idea.”

Leanne Sharkey in her room at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

Gardner bought the four buildings and back lots that comprise the First Stop’s dormitories and clubhouse about a year and a half ago. Ever since, the First Stop has been breaking away from the Last Stop, another 12-step fellowship, which has moved to Kensington and Somerset. Gardner and his administrator Bonnie Ibisi, who scrambles each month to piece together enough money from residents’ rents and alumni donations to cover the bills, have dreams of transforming the First Stop into a community that sustains itself without outside aid and sends more people into recovery than its peers.

Their dreams seem like fantasies when touring the First Stop’s unfinished bunk rooms and chilly clubhouse with its cement floor and exposed piping. But they are dreams of self-improvement that are cohering this community of approximately 40 residents and the countless alumni who circle in and out each day for meetings or to help with renovations and repairs.

“We’ve got a ton of skilled labor,” Gardner said. “We’ve got master plumbers, master electricians, master carpenters, masons, all that kind of stuff. So once we get them cleaned up and back functioning in society, then eventually what I’d like to do is start our own construction company.”

Gardner recently acquired the adjacent grocery store and is in the process of renovating it and putting in a pizza oven. He is adding a new kitchen to the clubhouse because St. Francis, across the street where First Stop residents currently get meals, is closing soon. Gardner wants to put aquaponics systems on the rooftops to grow fish and vegetables, and he and Frank Aikens, the First Stop’s director, encourage alumni to take residents under their wings and teach them new skills.

“We’ll take anybody,” Gardner said. “If you have a police record or a warrant for your arrest, we don’t care. The first thing is we get you in here, get you cleaned up, work on your sobriety. Then we can work with you on your arrest record, on your warrants, and get all that stuff cleared up.”

Frank Aitkens at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

For the first 30 days, residents don’t pay rent, and they focus exclusively on getting sober under the watchful eye of Aikens, 56, a Kensington native and fixture, 30 years clean himself. Then he encourages them go out and get jobs.

Some people have lived at the First Stop (and in its former incarnation as the Last Stop) for years. But that’s not the goal.

Frank Aitkens at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“It’s not just to come and they get detoxed and go back on the street again,” Aikens said. “But come in here, get clean and sober, go get a job, and become productive member of society. Get their own places, their own families.”

It’s a tough love, no frills system that doesn’t suit everyone but has been working for many people, such as Johnny Pipewrench, who has lived sober at the First Stop for nearly two years, earning a paycheck as a plumber.

Originally from Deptford, New Jersey, Pipewrench, 32, started messing with drugs in his early teens. But it wasn’t until he was hospitalized for a staph infection he contracted during a mixed martial arts fight that he became addicted to Percocet and eventually turned to heroin because it was cheaper.

“Everybody I hung out with, they all shot through needles and everything,”Pipewrench said. “I would always look at it like those guys are drug addicts, not so much me. But the thought would linger because they were saying this, they were saying that. So I was like ok, I’m going to try this once. The first time I tried it [injecting] was the last time I sniffed anything because all the other drugs can go through the needle too.”

Soon Pipewrench was homeless and involved in gang violence in Camden. Eventually despairing, and with enough money in his pocket to post himself in a motel with a hefty stash of drugs for several days,Pipewrench made a desperate plan.

Johnny Pipewrench at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“I didn’t really see a way out at the time,” said Pipewrench, who had already tried a few rehabs. “I said when this money runs out, I’m just going to jump off of this thing and hang it up.”

Luckily, an acquaintance in recovery found Pipewrench and convinced him to come to the First Stop.

“I got to the point where I was just like I can always kill myself later. What do I have to lose?” Pipebranch said. And so he was introduced to Aikens’ no-nonsense approach to getting clean.

“This wasn’t like anything I’d ever really been through,” Pipewrench said. “When you come off of the streets, and you come in here, some people would be thankful just to have roof over your head. But the way I grew up, sleeping on the floor and eating at a soup kitchen across the street was a lot of humility, and it really hit me hard because I always felt entitled or something. They told me I was a selfish person. They said you can either go hit the door whenever you want or you can buckle down and get through this.

“There were a lot of times where I thought I should leave,” Pipewrench continued. “I did walk in here with a little bit of money. I had the option to go take the rest of this money and go spend it on drugs and then maybe I can drop off the El or something like that.”

Instead, Pipewrench stuck with the program, got sober, and learned that “there ain’t nothing more productive or more positive for yourself than to help others.”

Sharkey, 39, is striving to do just that by watching over the other women in the program and making sure they get what they need — while also trying to stay sober herself.

“I’ve been struggling with this [addiction] since I was in my teens, on and off for many years,” Sharkey said, folding laundry in the women’s dorm. “I’ve had huge bouts of sobriety. I’d do really good, then I’d fall back. The runs kind of get shorter and less intense, but it’s sad. It really is a roller coaster, and you can’t say who’s done when they’re done, because there are people out there 60-, 70-years-old doing it.”

Right now, Sharkey is feeling hopeful about her future. She gets to see her son, 11, and her daughter is self-sufficient in college. And Sharkey likes her position at the First Stop, helping others understand some of what she has learned through decades of drug abuse.

Leanne Sharkey in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House, 2017.

“The beauty of being down here is that you’re really not alone,” Sharkey said. “You think your stuff is really major and that you’re the only one. But down here you quickly realize that you’re not the only one, and there’s a lot of support.”

Jennie is leaning on Leanne and others at the First Stop as she ticks off each new sober day, saying she’s still “wet behind the ears when it comes to life.”

Overall, though, Jennie says at this moment that she feels “good. I feel hopeful. There were a lot of blocks in the way of me getting clean in the past, and maybe it just wasn’t me being honest with myself. I feel I can do better, but it’s a process.”

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

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