“I am the student here. These women teach me how to live.”

Sister Martha Neiman – Journey House staff

Sister Martha and Journey House resident, Cameron, have wildly different stories of addiction. Ninety-one-year-old Martha’s addictions were kept at bay, unrecognized even by herself, within the confines of the convent. Thirty-one-year-old Cameron’s addictions thrived during three self-destructive decades of free fall.

Martha and Cameron’s tales have come together in my mind such that the “Drive Home” is offered at the conclusion of both stories.

There is a regular buzz around Martha parked in her usual spot in the Journey House living room where she watches the drama and constant comings and goings. She’s a vital and rare presence — a bona fide elder who is currently reading "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. That’s Martha - always “becoming.” I’ve observed that her presence is a constant invitation for the other residents to do something nice. “Can I get you a muffin or a drink?” or “Here… let me change the channel for you” or “What do you think of my new coat, Martha? Isn’t it great?”

And, when the action gets too much, Martha is grateful for her book and her hearing loss!

This afternoon is my turn with Martha. She wheels her walker into the dining room with an open, anticipatory expression. She checks her watch and smiles. “I’ve been so looking forward to this,” she tells me.

“Me too!”

Martha Begins

 I don’t think I told you this earlier, Barbara, but I did not want to be a nun. I was dating a man I loved and was all ready to marry but he just up and ended our relationship! My parents decided their children, my sister and brother and I, should have a stronger Catholic education than could be offered in our little town, so our aunt found two different homes in Kansas City where my younger sister and I could earn our room and board by babysitting and cleaning and go to Catholic school. 

 Our brother started as a freshman at Rockhurst College, which was nearby. I did his laundry and helped him with his schoolwork because he started showing some strange symptoms. We finally took him to an ear doctor who discovered he had a brain tumor. My brother had surgery for it but died in the hospital a week later.

 He was only eighteen…

Like so many of the women here you were moved out of your home and you had early heartbreak and loss of loved ones.

 Yes, and I was avoiding the convent. I just wasn’t capable of joining it. I didn’t approve when my younger sister entered. It was brick and gray and looked like a prison! But God had His finger on me. The Mother House where my sister lived allowed very few visitors, but I went one day to see her. The novices were down in the basement saying prayers as they cleaned chicken eggs, I mean right there praying and they weren’t even in the chapel! I said to myself: “This is exactly what I’m looking for.”

Are you saying that seeing them praying in the basement with the dirty eggs is the reason you became a nun?

 (Smiles). Yes. A feeling of peace. I needed peace. So, I joined the convent at twenty-three, which is much later than most girls do. After becoming a nun, I worked twenty-five years as a medical technologist. Then I became a hospital chaplain for another twenty-five years. Then I trained and became a mentor for newly released prisoners. I am drawn to the struggles and emotional pain in people. 

 Then…  in my seventies I realized that I myself was an addict! 

 It started with food - sugar and sweets. At the convent I cleaned up the food on everybody’s plates after dinner. The Sisters I lived with at the time said I was more attracted to food than to people… 

Martha shakes her head. Looks off, remembering.

 In the late 1990’s I went for dinner at a restaurant at the boats with another Sister. I heard the jingling and buzzers in the casino area so I walked over to the machines. The music pulled me in, caught me up, took me by surprise. I felt more and more need to punch those machines. I used up all the money I had for my budget for the month! Gambling distracted me from my losses and pain and sadness. 

 I told my spiritual director about these compulsive signs. So, at seventy-nine I spent seven months at an in-patient treatment center in Michigan for addicted Catholic clergy called Guest House. Many on the staff are former addicts themselves. They said, “We think we can help you. It is a sickness, an illness like diabetes. Receptors in our brains are lacking. We don’t have the same pleasure effect. We can learn to control it but we never tell ourselves we are cured.” 

People might think of nuns as either not having these types of problems or keeping them well hidden. Have you observed this?

 Oh, yes. People trade off addictions - quit one thing and start another. I’ve seen it. Compulsive eating. Alcohol. Painkillers. Gambling. Hoarding. Drugs. My grandfather bet on the futures in the marketplace. I myself was quite a collector. My dad had a shaving mug I kept forever. I can still see it. It broke my heart to let it go. I still struggle letting go of things, letting go of the past.

Trying to let go of grief and pain, seeking peace by hoarding things and using substances.

 Yes. I know that drugs and alcohol go into the blood stream quickly. But I wasn’t around them except when I had a car accident. I slid my car on the ice. I overcorrected and went into a ditch on the opposite side of the road. I had a T11 fracture and was in a brace for two months. I told everybody about my addiction problems so I wouldn’t get hooked on painkillers. 

 I think drugs are worse than anything else. The women here can smell drugs on each other. They know what is going on. That’s why we need Sher here. She is an amazing House Manager and she doesn’t miss a thing.  

Many of the women here were born with drugs in their systems at birth or in their houses growing up.

 Yes. Drugs and alcohol are so easily available now. People like me with a gambling addiction can now do it on the computer 24-7! I use distractions to keep me from that - puzzles, solitaire, and other games. I am an avid reader. I’m just about finished with Michelle Obama’s book about becoming who you were meant to be.

 I started a weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting here at Journey House every Wednesday at noon - a small but faithful group. They can call me anytime. And there’s an Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step meeting here every Wednesday night. They have been a huge help to me. Women today know much more about addiction than I did, but I do understand the struggles they are going through.

Why did you decide to live here in your retirement? It’s a challenging environment!

 Early on when the vision of creating Journey House came up among a group of us, I was the first one to raise my hand. “I’m in!” Like I told you, I am drawn to the emotional pain in people. This isn’t eight-to-five. This is a twenty-four-hour job. There’s always an open door here. If people need to go to the ER in the middle of the night, Gabe takes them. If they need to talk to somebody, they come right to our door. We don’t close them at night so the dog (Lily) can go back and forth. One night a woman was having a panic attack and another was walking in her sleep, going up and down the stairs and trying all the doors to get back in her room. 

 Rose is like the mother of the house. She feels for everyone’s pain and is also a talented businesswoman. She is on lots of community boards. Very busy. Georgia is a visionary and a businesswoman with a sharp sense of humor. She pins you down until you say what you really mean to say. She can make you see how reactive and childlike you’re being, but she is not at all authoritarian. She has a gift for giving examples that make these women see themselves in a new light, see what they aren’t doing but could be doing like pausing to thoughtfully respond in certain situations instead of just instantly reacting. 

 Gabe and Rose and Georgia and Sher are so kind and charitable. They are often just the opposite of what I am feeling like when somebody here just won’t stop talking, repeating the same thing a million times. (Martha holds her ears. Smiles.) My poor hearing can be a blessing! 

 These women come from prison with so many worries they don’t always remember things and have trouble concentrating. I have these same issues. This place, these women, are helping me find my true self.

 We say, “We see in them the things they don’t see, until they do!” These ladies soak up every positive thing you say. At dinner I say thanks to all of you for helping me with something and the next week they’re even more helpful. They say, “I love to take care of you.” And I love it when they come up behind and give me a hug. 

 I realize that my receiving their help is a gift to them too.

Yes, I’ve heard many say - I love taking care of Martha, bringing her a muffin, sitting with her. It’s a new feeling. She’s always there. She listens. She’s the grandmother I never had.

 What they have been doing is surviving in this world despite not having the help they needed as babies. Their mothers didn’t want them or couldn’t care for them, gave them away. We accept them immediately as part of our family.

Survival against great odds

 We don’t dwell on what any of them were in prison for. We have the information, but we don’t hang onto their crimes. They are not just numbers, just offenders. They have a future. I only see people for who they are, not for what they’ve done in the past. 

 The diversity here - opposites complement each other. This is what I think when somebody new comes in the door - Well… here comes another person I will get to know and love. I have never been afraid of any of them. I imagine they feel that I am sort of a "delicate dish" that needs extra care. They see me as an elder, an opportunity to try doing something nice. They take care of the garden... weed and water. They watch the example of Sher mothering her little granddaughter...kissing and loving her. They learn to mother each other. 

Your presence brings out the best in these ladies.

 I see the good that’s been suppressed in them. Their life foundations were secrecy, isolation, and death. But… a shock of hope can get instilled here. They realize that we are doing this for nothing but the hope we hold for them. It’s vitalizing. A game changer. We are a force behind them when they go back and visit where they came from. It is a rare privilege to watch joy arise in someone who has been especially hurt. 

 I would not mind dying in this place.

 But God has his finger on me and soon I will be going to a retirement center. One of the women here asked me -  ”How do you feel about moving out?”  I said, “I probably feel a lot like you felt coming here for the first time.” It’s scary. I dread it. But I have seen their example – women coming here, getting their feet under them and moving on.

 For them this is the first step into a new life.

 For me it will be my last stop. 

 I will go there and I will never get out. My life sentence!

How do you know this is what God wants for you? Do you hear Him?

 Through meditation, like there’s a path out there where Jesus might be waiting for me.

You have enormous courage, Martha.

 I have learned so much from all these women.  They teach me with their own struggles - like me, grieving about the past and leaving here. I will take my educational materials about addiction with me and offer help to anyone.

 We are teaching each other how to start over…

The Drive Home:

A combined Drive Home for both Martha and Cameron is offered at the end of Cameron’s story.