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Return to the World of the Living

By Ann K. Williams

October 21 -- Three years ago, Lynn Johnson had what seemed to be a picture perfect life.

She’d been married to the same man for 22 years, owned her own house and a business, and got to be a stay-at-home mom to three children. There was nothing, at least on the face of it, to indicate that she was headed for homelessness.

All that changed when she came home to find her 20-year-old daughter Julia dead.

Photo of Lynn Johnson

“People do not intend to become homeless,” wrote Lisa Fisher, director of the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition (WSHC), in the organization’s 2008 yearbook, “but through a series of unforeseen circumstances someone’s mother, bother, daughter, grandfather or friend can end up on our streets with no place to turn.”

Certainly, Johnson didn’t expect to become homeless as her life started to unravel.

“I spiraled into the deepest, darkest place,” said Johnson, who was one of 22 courageous people honored last week at the Celebrating Success awards breakfast sponsored by WSHC Friday.

“Grief left me incapable of parenting and separated me from my husband,” she said. “I used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, but the sadness did not go away.”

Photo courtesy of Charles Haskell

In fact, before Julia’s death, Johnson had been struggling to help her daughter, who was afflicted with bulimia, addiction and a mental illness that compelled her to self-mutilate.

“I tried to save her,” Johnson said. “I knew she was sick, but I didn’t know she was going to die.”

As her depression worsened, Johnson lost her grip on the things that had defined her and given her life meaning.

“Every friend I had, every family member I had, I alienated. I felt abandoned. It was just me and my addiction,” she said, as she described that downward spiral that led to life on the streets.

Eventually, she ran out of money to stay in hotels and had to leave her children with a friend.

It was only after that, that her life turned around.

She was taken to Brotman Psychiatric Ward where she spent a few days in detox. From Brotman, she was referred to New Directions, a residential treatment center on the Veterans Administration grounds.

Before she even made it to the front door, she was welcomed by a couple of women staying there.

“I was very scared, but completely willing to be directed,” Johnson said. “I had to trust.”

The first thing she remembered about entering the New Directions house was smelling the food cooking.

“It was a home like my home,” she said.

Once into the program, she got busy rebuilding her life.

Johnson’s first order of business was to get treatment for her depression. She gives Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center high marks for the help they gave her.

“New Directions treats the individual wholly and completely,” explained Rachel Feldstein, Associate Director at New Directions. “It’s not enough to treat addiction. That’s just the symptom.”

Feldstein rapidly ticked off a list of some of the ways her program helps: jobs, housing, mental health, legal issues, taxes, money management, yoga, parenting classes and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment.

While Johnson was healing at New Directions, her husband was also getting help.

During their worst days together, he’d hit Johnson and threatened her with a gun.

It’s taken a lot of work and introspection to come out of that nightmare with insight and acceptance, said Johnson.

“He had his own grief and pain,” she said. “The pain was too much for us to handle together.”

Today, their children are living with him.

“My husband is learning how to be a parent,” she said. “It’s nice to see my children just on the weekends.”

She said she’s learned to let go of the “should have, could have, would haves.”

New Directions has “given me the opportunity to take a look at my life, gain a lot of courage, become a strong woman,” she said.

“At 44, I needed to learn how to change. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.”

“It’s all Lynn. Lynn did all the work,” Feldstein interjected. “It doesn’t just come by not drinking and using.”

Today, Johnson works as the receptionist at New Directions. She’s proud of her job.

“I’ve learned to be unselfish,” said Johnson. “I learned how to be of service to others lovingly.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the people that were here, the people that are still on the streets.

“I don’t mourn my life now.”

Ted Winterer for Santa Monica City Council

Dr. Margaret


Vote # 158


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