Lucy and her daughter

Lucy Mendoza and her daughter Adama.

“It was as if God came crashing into my hopeless life.”

How do you explain, in 900 words or less, how a life can be turned around, how despair is transformed into hope, resentment into forgiveness, self-loathing into self-acceptance?

How can mere words depict the miracle of Lucy Mendoza?

They can’t, of course, but I’ll tell the story – the short version – and hope that some of the wonder will shine through.

Twenty-five years ago, when Lucy was 11, she used marijuana for the first time. “It was fun,” she remembers. “I thought I looked cool, and I felt grown up.”

In sixth grade Lucy started drinking. Sometimes she’d take alcohol to school, mixing it in her juice bottle.

In high school, Lucy smoked marijuana regularly — during her lunch break, in baseball dugouts and empty fields, at parties with friends.

She used a lot her freshman year, and she used even more when she was a sophomore. At times, feelings of hopelessness and despair overwhelmed her.

“I felt so sad,” Lucy remembers. “The worse I felt, the more I used drugs. The more I used drugs, the worse I felt.”

Spring semester of her sophomore year, Lucy got four F’s in her academic subjects. She was also arrested on a minor in consumption charge. Her blood alcohol content was 0.29 — the point where most people are staggering and out of control.

“I didn’t act or feel drunk,” Lucy recalls. She had no idea that her high tolerance could be a red flag signaling the possibility of addiction.

Lucy’s blood alcohol content was so high that a probation officer referred her to chemical-dependency counseling. She started outpatient classes, but after a few weeks, she was drinking again. That’s when she became seriously depressed.

“I was drinking a lot and sleeping or crying all the time,” Lucy recalls. “People kept telling me I was an addict, but I thought I was just depressed and needed to take more drugs so I wouldn’t feel so sad.”

She began taking pills, sometimes by the handful — aspirin, Benadryl, prescription drugs, anything she could find.

Was she suicidal? “I don’t know if I wanted to die,” Lucy says. “I wanted attention. I wanted to stop hurting. I wanted people to know I was hurting.”

Frantic with worry, Lucy’s mother called a doctor who recommended psychiatric help. After a week in the hospital (“They realized I had a drug problem, not a psychiatric problem”), Lucy began a 52-day stay at the youth addiction-treatment program at Sundown M Ranch in Selah, Wash.

But still she didn’t believe she was struggling with addiction. “I thought I could stop if I wanted to,” she recalls. “I just didn’t want to.”

In her second week at Sundown, Lucy was telling her story to her therapy group when her fellow group members confronted her.

“Have drugs completely taken all the shame from you?” they asked her. “You talk about your mother’s feelings, and you act like you could care less. Where’s your emotion? Do you even care about what you’ve done to the people who love you?”

That was the epiphany, the moment of enlightenment when Lucy finally saw what drugs were doing to her life.

“It was as if God came crashing into my hopeless life,” she remembers. “I broke down and started crying. And I promised myself that I would never use drugs again.”

“The first year was hell,” she admits. She had to give up her old friends because they all used drugs. She made new friends, got a part-time job, joined the high school band, studied hard. Her grades steadily improved, along with her self-respect.

“I’m a good person,” she said, simply, humbly. “I make mistakes, but I have a good heart, and I know the Number One thing I have to do every day is stay clean. Then everything else will happen for me — work, school, life. I just need to stay clean.”

To help herself stay clean, Lucy volunteered at the Juvenile Justice Center, talking to other teenagers who were struggling with drug problems and addiction. She shared her story and answered their questions, relating to them as a fellow struggling human being.

Lucy graduated from Walla Walla High School and went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Today she is a Tribal Behavioral Health Administrator with the Washington State Health Care Authority.

“I would not be where I am without the many, many people who have inspired, coached, led, and even financed me along the way,” she says. “Now I want to give back to others what was freely given to me.”

Best work yet

Most miracles start small. Maybe we don’t even notice them, at first, or we hold our breath, fearing that the miracle will disappear, a celestial comet burning out in the atmosphere of real life.

But sometimes the wonder keeps growing, eventually moving beyond “you” and “me” to light up the world itself.

Lucy asked me to add a sentence about her 13-year-old daughter, Adama, who has vowed never to use alcohol or other drugs. Adama actively participates in a local prevention club and focuses her extra time on social justice issues.

“She is beautiful,” Lucy says. “My best work yet.”

Kathy Ketcham has written 17 books, 11 specifically on addiction and recovery. In 1999, she began leading educational groups at the Juvenile Justice Detention Center, and in 2009, she founded the local nonprofit Trilogy Recovery Community, where she continues to volunteer. To find out more visit katherineketchambooks.com.