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Drug Addict Gets Horses' Stalls, And Herself, Clean

Helen Ubiņas

November 09, 2008

People do all sorts of things in search of redemption, voluntary and court-ordered.

They pick up garbage on the side of the road.

They surrender themselves to God.

Some, especially if they want to stay out of prison, enthusiastically report for manure duty.

It was hard to get used to the smell, Deborah Flickinger admitted when we met at the Keney Park stables.

Some never do, but the pungent odor's not what sends the women charged with prostitution running.

It's the quiet. The stillness that comes when, as Patricia E. Lawson-Kelly puts it, the women leave the chaotic pace of the streets behind, and "it's just you, the horse and manure."

As the founder of the Ebony Horsewomen, Kelly's watched plenty of women come through the program in the last few years and then go when they were unable to confront themselves in that stillness.

To be alone with some john, ready to strip you of favors and dignity, is nowhere near as frightening as it is to be alone with your thoughts. You learn fast that you better get numb if you're going to survive.

But by the time 50-year-old Deborah found herself back inside Hartford Community Court, she was done running.

"Something happened," she said. "I didn't want it anymore. I was mentally and physically exhausted from 35 years of getting high."

And so for the first time in a lifetime, she didn't turn to drugs to silence the sadness and fears and regrets.

Of squandered chances and promises.

Of children lost to DCF and then returned and then finally lost for good.

"I just gave up all hope for myself," she said. "I just didn't have the strength to get them back and stay clean. I was angry for allowing myself to get back into drugs. The boys were angry, too."

There is something about the way Deborah tells her story; the heartache and guilt live in every word, every inflection.

Long after you've left her, you find yourself haunted by a woman who more than anything wants to redeem herself in the eyes of her children. They are grown now, with lives and kids of their own, but it's their love and respect she seeks.

How do you convince the people whom you've hurt the most, who've heard a million times before that this time is for real?

You give them time; you try to prove yourself in small, everyday ways.

With her job at the stables. With 15 months of clean living.

By helping other women in the program, who discover while working in stalls that seem miles away from the city that they are finally ready to rebuild their lives.

And with the apartment she has in East Hartford, furnished with castoffs that, for her, add up to a home. The red drapes, given to her by Lawson-Kelly. The ballerina picture she got from her sponsor.

She's had other apartments, of course. But this place, she says, is her first home. The difference? "I'm different," she says. "When I was running, I used to leave everything in my apartments. My son was 12 when he figured out that when you move, you take your stuff with you. He thought new people got your stuff."

Things are coming slowly. Two of her sons recently spent the night at her place, staying up all night watching movies. She visits them every Sunday. But they're cautious. And who can blame them?

"My sons have seen me so many times getting clean and then getting high. They're just waiting on me to not stay clean because that's what I do."

She'd like them to believe this time's for good; she wants her place to be where her kids and grandkids can say, "'I'm going to mama's house; I'm going to grandma's.'"

But if there's one thing she's learned on her journey, it's that you can't rush redemption.

And so she's here, in the middle of forgiving horseflesh, shoveling, pushing a wheelbarrow, earning her way back.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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