Interview by Allison Chawla
I think some of the most important stories to tell, are the stories of survivors. I met Felecia Pullen years ago when she came to speak in one of my classes while I was getting my Clinical Masters in Social Work. Felecia stood in front of me and my former classmates and told us of her survival and recovery from drug addiction. I was immediately taken aback by her strong will and bravery and wanted to share her story with others. Felecia was born and raised in NYC. She is a married mother of two; a daughter who graduated from Wellesley College, and a teenage son who she describes as ‘extremely, smart creative and compassionate.’ Not only has Felecia overcome addiction and raised two children with grace and success, but Felecia is also the Founder and CEO of Pillars NYC, a holistic recovery and support center and the founder and President of ‘Let’s Talk SAFETY, Inc. a non-for-profit which includes SAFE in Harlem. SAFE is a teen-led coalition, designed to prevent teens and youth from drug and alcohol consumption.
Felecia is now a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University and has been recognized by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as a luminary in her field. She has also been appointed to an NYC substance abuse and mental health subcommittee. She refers to her as a superwoman is an understatement…please enjoy some of Felecia’s story.
Tell me a little bit about your children and family?
My son and daughter have different fathers. My Daughter was not even two when I met my now husband, and I am so blessed to have these two amazing men in her life who helped her shape what a worthy man is. My daughter has far surpassed where I was at her age, and what my ideas were for life at her age. I did not have the capacity to dream about life the way she did so young.
I was raised by a single mother really tried to reconcile with her own abandonment issues relating to her own mother. I think those issues led her to places of pain that she had her own difficulty in dealing with. When looking back at family photos, my mother is in the background smoking a joint.
Was there a lot of drug use around you as a child?
Of course, we are talking about the ’70s where “sex, drugs and rock and roll” was the mantra, but my mother’s abuse and my father’s alcoholism were still colliding forces in my life early on. I can remember my father, who was an entrepreneur and NYC math and electronics teacher, carrying a satchel to work that had vodka and juice in it. So, that was my normal. Growing up in that in the household gave me the idea that drugs were not only alright but that they were sanctioned.
What was it like growing up with your mother?
She physically abused me. And when I say abused, I can recall her coming into my fourth-grade classroom and slapping me in front of the entire class. One of my friends said, “she didn’t just slap you, she kicked your ass.” I don’t even remember why. My brain protected me into only remembering a slap, but my classmates remember it, too.
She had a white belt with stones and squares that she would beat me with. The physical abuse was very painful to deal with. I remember as a 3-year-old the first time she slapped me in the face because I was standing in the hallway at home and said “OH MY GOD!” She said, “don’t ever say that again.” She slapped me so hard that I can remember it like it was yesterday.
Verbal abuse was there, too. I clearly remember her saying things like “you are backward” because I wouldn’t do things like iron how she would iron. A lot of little stuff like that making me feel like nothing I did was good enough.
Did you feel resentment towards your mother growing up?
Not really. I felt it was my job to defend her because I knew that her mother had abandoned her at a young age. Sometimes it upset me. It was in the house in abundance. I knew at the age of nine how to roll a joint and smoke it. My mother thought the dog was eating it, but it was high up on a shelf in a bag. How was the dog eating it?? How does a mother deny that her 9-year-old was stoned? I didn’t resent her denial; it simply made it easier to continue to smoke.
When would you say your addiction began?
As a teenager, I was already beyond the ‘safety’ of using soft drugs. I lived in an urban environment where drugs were everywhere. From marijuana to acid, to cocaine, the next step was already there, what was going to be more intense? And, when crack hit the streets, that was it, so I began to smoke crack, too.
Did you ever find yourself homeless and on the streets?
No! That was the ironic thing! I had a 25-year career on Madison Avenue in advertising, working for some of the most prestigious magazines in the world, and yet, I was addicted to crack! The ‘functionality’ of it allowed me to do it only on the weekends, but the nature of the addiction is that the disease escalates. Once I went a year without smoking it at all, then I would come back to it and do it occasionally. I did hit rock bottom twice in my life.
When did you hit rock bottom?
The first time I hit RB I was down to about 115 pounds (I am 5’9”) and I was still smoking crack, BUT, keep in mind, I was still at that Madison Avenue job. I was wearing mink coats and driving a Mercedes Benz, but I was a MESS.
Do you think you acted as a good mother while you were using?
I did when my kids were young; I was a fantastic mother to them! I would do ‘The three Bs’” Bath, bedtime and books after dinner. I was even the mother who made the homemade baby food and NEVER added sugar to it. I seemed like a great mother to them and to others, but after I put them to bed at night, I would use.
Then I ‘pulled myself together’ and people thought everything was okay. But I never dealt with the issues. So, a few years later I found myself writing notes to my mom, my father’s wife (who became my rock), my son, my daughter, and my husband. Then I drove to the nearest pharmacy and got 100 capsules of Tylenol pm and half a gallon of orange juice. There I am standing at the counter in tears when the woman at the counter asked if I was ok, and I said, “I’m fine” and she sold it to me and I left.
I took almost 100 Tylenol pm with that orange juice. Knowing I wasn’t well, my husband called EMS, who broke down the door and found me unconscious in my bed laying in my own vomit.
There is no progression. My last leg of active addiction was emotionally draining on my husband, but also bewildering to my children. They did not fully understand what was going on because I hide it. But, maybe, more importantly, it was life-threatening for me. I was at the point where I would take a hit, overdose, and immediately blackouts.
At this point, I could no longer call myself a good mother. One day my son got off the bus and couldn’t find me. He came to the house and banged on the door, but I didn’t hear him because I was so high. Finally, I came to and realized he wasn’t there, and that it was late so I panicked. But, I panicked like an addict…
So, my addict brain told me to continue to get high, and that’s what I did. I didn’t call the police or anyone; I went home and I got high. About an hour later, my son knocked on the door again. My husband, who was at work, called me saying, “He is outside, don’t you hear him!!?” I said I did. Minutes later, I went to the door. Like any child, he was just happy to see me. I knew at that moment that my addiction was in control of me and I was not in control of my addiction.
Finally, I went to rehab. In order to keep up the smoke and mirrors, I told people I was going to an institution. Because in my crazy head it was better to be mentally ill than to say I had addictions. I was an In-patient for 57 days (which I thought would be 28) and came home on my son’s 10th birthday and I have been sober ever since. I go to self-help meetings to this day. I always will.
Do you attribute your sobriety to the love for your children?
My children and my husband. He has always been able to see in me more than I have been able to see in myself. Which I still struggle with to this day, seeing those things in myself, that he sees in me. He has always pointed out my strengths when I feel weak, and he never let the chatter in his ear from other people change his love and his thoughts of me.
Do you regret this part of your life?
Sometimes I still have this wonder in my head of what I would have been like had I not gone through this. But, then I realize I never would be who I am, and I wouldn’t where I am had I not gone through this journey. I had to go through everything to get where I am now. This journey was my gift and I am supposed to share this gift. I am not supposed to keep this gift to myself. How could I be so selfish and so self-absorbed that I would deny giving someone else the chance at the gift of life? I would be denying my destiny.
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Author: Allison Chawla
Allison Chawla is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Certified Life Coach, and Writer.
She holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Fordham University, and has a private practice in New York City.
She is a devoted wife, and mother of two girls.