Student Overcomes Addiction to Write Memoir
By Erin Jayes, Community Engagement Assistant & AmeriCorps Public Ally
Content Warning: This story contains mention of drugs and addiction that some readers might find sensitive.
She struggled with multiple personality disorder and suffered from depression, drug abuse, and thoughts of suicide during the DC crack epidemic – this is not fiction.
Rhonda Johnson, a Byte Back graduate, DC native, and recovering addict, used her computer skills to write and publish her story of addiction and mental illness. Memoirs of an Addict: Fact or Fiction is the story of Mary/Pumpkin, a woman with multiple personality disorder.
The front cover of her book – a picture of Rhonda in front of the Capitol building with a determined expression on her face – is an accurate illustration of her transformation and strength.
“I have so much faith right now,” she says. “Nothing can stop me.”
Rich with local imagery and written with a dynamic narrative voice, Rhonda gives a visceral account of what living with addiction is like. One of the main messages of her book, she says, is that “everyone suffering from an addiction has a backstory.” Rhonda’s story is rife with poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.
Anxiety from a Young Age
Born to teen parents in a family that strongly believed that “you were nothing if you didn’t have family,” Rhonda (known as “Mary” in her book) suffered from anxiety and depression at a young age. She said her father refused to send her to a psychiatrist due to a stigma of mental illness in the black community.
“For black children in the 70s, there weren’t many options for mental health services,” she said, citing the dangers of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which was then a psychiatric hospital in Southeast DC.
Addiction & Alter Ego
At 13, she tried pot for the first time to calm her racing thoughts. By the mid-1980s she was starting high school during DC’s go-go era. “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers was her anthem. She partied at The Howard Theater and Celebrity Hall, dancing to Experience Unlimited and Rare Essence. She began using PCP or “the love boat” – a popular drug that preceded crack cocaine.
She entered cosmetology school at 18 and had her first child at 20, followed by two more children. When her parents suddenly died, her grief and crack addiction took over. “I lost focus. It was like Humpty Dumpty. It was hard to put the pieces back together again,” she tells me. This is when the personality of “Pumpkin” came out, whose militant alter ego took over her life for five years.
Dual personality disorder is a mental illness that usually results from trauma. “It’s a defense mechanism. People on one side of the street knew Mary [Rhonda], but people on the other side of the street knew Pumpkin. They didn’t even know we were the same person,” she explained. When her parents died, Pumpkin the “open addict” was born.
The Takeover of Crack
Rhonda’s memoir is not only about surviving addiction but also a riveting history of a devestating drug epidemic in DC. Crack, a highly addictive form of cocaine, affected people of all walks of life. What made crack so dangerous was the low cost, which led communities of color living in poverty particularly suseptible to it. “People in these poor communities were depressed and didn’t have access to mental health services, so they used drugs,” she says. “It was a way of self-medicating.”
She watched as the drug destroyed families and people she loved perished to the epidemic. DC is still healing from the damage, which affected families, neighborhoods, and schools, Rhonda says.
Choosing to Live
One day a friend that she hadn’t seen in 15 years knocked on her door and said that God had told him to come find her. He took her to a rehab facility where she received treatment, cast out “Pumpkin,” and reconnected with Rhonda.
“Somebody had to die so that the other person could live,” she says.
A New Beginning, with the Help of Byte Back
“If it hadn’t been for Byte Back, I don’t know where I would be today,” she says, and she means it. While Rhonda was taking PC for Beginners 1 and Office Track classes at Byte Back in 2012, she was also going to the Trinity College outpatient clinic. The recovery process was isolating and difficult, but attending classes helped her stay positive.
“The classes gave me discipline,” she says. “Getting up to do something every day helped me stay out of depression.”
At Byte Back, around 12% of students are recovering from addiction, and 39% are homeless or have recently experienced homelessness. Many of these students have lost touch with their families.
“The staff was so good to me,” Rhonda remembers. “I wasn’t talking to my family much, but Kelley Ellsworth, [then executive director], always said to me: ‘We’re your family here.'”
Getting herself to class with depression was a struggle, but she persevered. “Sometimes I thought I couldn’t finish, but the reward – to have your own computer, something that many low-income families can’t afford – is priceless.” When Rhonda finally graduated and received her free computer from Byte Back, she immediately began typing out her story.
Sharing Her Story
When Rhonda finished writing Memoirs of an Addict: Fact or Fiction, Byte Back staff helped her connect with the self-publishing service Creative Space and helped her build a website. “The skills that I learned at Byte Back made it possible for me to write this novel,” she says.
Byte Back also helped her create a LinkedIn account, which allowed her to connect with other writers and market herself. “Learn how to use the Internet,” she advises other students, “because there is a wealth of resources and information out there. Just don’t give up. Believe in yourself.”
After all her hard work, to Rhonda’s delight, her book started selling.
Her Path Forward
Rhonda has spoken about her book at several local venues and plans to go on tour to speak at a rehab facility in every state. Recently, she also gave a lecture about self-publishing and marketing at Byte Back’s Community Computer Day.
Reunited with her family, Rhonda is currently writing a book called Social Issues of African Americans, featuring a chapter entitled “Black Lives Matter.”
The Key to Fighting Drug Addiction
Rhonda acknowledges that DC has come a long way in supporting people with addiction. She is taking classes at the Department of Behavioral Health, where she has studied integrative treatments for addiction patients.
“The key to fighting drug addiction is to end homelessness,” she says. “People would rather live on the street than live in the shelter, and addiction starts in the streets.”
Author’s Note: While writing this story, I was overcome with emotion when realizing all of the hardship our students go through to get where they are today. It required a lot of courage for Rhonda to share her story, both through her book, with me personally, and with the entire Byte Back community. Rhonda, you are an inspiration to everyone at Byte Back – thank you!