Seventeen-year-old Nickala and her mom, Rebecca, live in Midlothian. They shared with Richmond Justice memories of the years they spent apart, when Rebecca was in-and-out of jail due to heroin addiction, and how they're growing closer today.
Richmond Justice: What are some of your earliest memories—the good stuff and some of the harder stuff—with your mom?
Nickala: It’s hard to remember a lot of the hard stuff; there have been so many good things. I don’t remember the last time she messed up. I’ve noticed a lot of change, with her trying, being here, being a mother now.
Rebecca: It’s still rough, trust me. Because of my experience with using and all the things I missed, sometimes I still feel like a child. I had her really young—I was 15 when I was pregnant with her.
Nickala: I remember the Thanksgivings; Nana had Thanksgiving at her house, and mom was always there.
Rebecca: There were probably a couple of Thanksgivings when I wasn’t there. But you're like me, Nickala—I block out the bad stuff.
Nickala: I do remember when I used to stay with you and you would be in the bathroom, for hours—
Rebecca: Using. Using heroin.
Nickala: Yeah. I could peek through the hole in the doorknob and see you there. When I saw a few things, heard a few things, I understood quickly what was going on. But I never judged you. I never hated you for that stuff you did. Even when I heard about bad things you’d done, I still really cared for you. People go through things, and you can’t always help what you do. And I’ve always forgiven everything. I might get mad sometimes. I remember, when I was a little kid, we got into a fight and you chased me around the house.
Rebecca: That was a bad time.
Nickala: I thought, you really need to tighten up. But I never hated you. I understood.
Rebecca: Nickala is the oldest sibling of four. She had to step up and take care of herself. I wasn’t there, but she did her homework, washed her own clothes—
Nickala: Yeah, I’ve always washed my own clothes, and now I actually hate washing my clothes with other people’s clothes—I guess that comes from always doing it myself!
Richmond Justice: When your mom was incarcerated, were you able to visit her?
Nickala: Yeah. It was always real good to see her. But I wondered, why does she have to be here? I don’t understand how people could be addicted to drugs or alcohol. I don’t feel like I would ever be that type of person.
Rebecca: I hope you don’t ever have to know. The fact is that alcoholism and drug addiction runs in our family. Also, mental illness—bipolar disorder, depression—and that can be inherited. That’s scary for me, because I often think, if that happens to you, how would I react? I can keep a bit of a tug on that rope, but I know ultimately I have to let go. We all make our own decisions.
Nickala: One thing I’ve always wanted to know—how did you just stop?
Rebecca: I was never the type of person to say, “God did this.” But I've seen evidence over the years that tells me there’s got to be something bigger than me that helped me to get through. I tried everything. I tried Suboxone, other treatments. They helped only for a little while. In 2012, when I had been clean for about two years, I relapsed due to some major relationship issues. I did heroin again for three weeks. But then I watched someone close to me die. And I stopped. I just stopped. I knew I was going to die, too, if I did it again.
At points in my life, I wanted to die. I tried to commit suicide when I was 11. I wanted to die at times when I was addicted. Today, my anxiety has never been worse. But I won’t take anything mind-altering, even prescriptions for anxiety. Even on my worse days, days when I don’t want to get out of bed, the difficulty doesn’t compare to what it was like back then. I already put the two oldest kids through it; I don’t want to put the youngest two through it, too. They know I’ve been to jail. We’ve driven to the jail and let them look at it, explained that I did time there because I broke the law. But they don’t know the half.
Richmond Justice: Nickala, did you ever talk to your friends about what it was like not having your mom around?
Nickala: Yeah. It’s way different not having a mom than not having a dad. Fathers are there for you, but they’re not there for their daughters in the way moms are. I’ve had to be very independent. I never had a motherly talk, especially when it came to boys. So, everything that I’ve learned about life, I’ve learned on my own. I’m a lot like my mom, just without making the same mistakes. I think I’m just smarter than you.
Rebecca: It’s true!
Richmond Justice: When you think about where Nickala could be in five years, what do you hope for her?
Rebecca: My hopes go straight to college. She’s interested in VCU, and in five years she could be almost done. That will be the true beginning of her life. I hope she will focus on a career. And then get married, maybe at age 28.
Nickala: Or 30.
Rebecca: Even better! I’m sure these things are in all parents’ dreams. But I really see it with her. Things are more stable now, so it’s possible. Still, sometimes I don’t know how to be there emotionally.
Nickala: I’m proud of you for not going back to doing drugs, for having a house, for trying. I just hope you never go back to the past. I hope you find a steady job. I hope you don’t die early from smoking cigarettes—I really hope you stop smoking cigarettes.
Rebecca: She hates that I smoke cigarettes.
Nickala: I hope that one day, when I’m an adult, that you’ll help me decorate my house. You’re good at decorating.
Rebecca: And I will, I will. That’s the exciting stuff. I’ll be there when you graduate college, and on your wedding day—that’s what I really believe.
— interviewed November 22, 2016
Reporter, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Daughter and mother
Veteran and mother of two
Procurement Manager, CARITAS
Assistant Manager, Clothes Closet
Attorney, Virginia Poverty Law Center
Director of Access to Legal Services
President, Muslim Chaplain Services
Director, Carrico Center at UR Law
Case Manager, VA Supportive Housing