Days into detox, Sue Henson didn’t think she was an addict.
“I was not prostituting,” she said. “I was not stealing. So I thought I wasn’t an addict. That’s for people who are criminals.”
When she entered detox, her plan was to get just healthy enough to return to her old habits. She had pre-paid for her heroin, and the dealer promised to hold the drugs for when she was released.
After seven days and just a day shy of being released, Henson listened to some addicts talk about their recovery from cocaine abuse.
“I had a spiritual experience,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am one of those people. I am sick. I need help.’ I got on my knees and prayed. I didn’t know what I needed to do, so I prayed.”
The next day, a treatment bed opened up at the nonprofit 12&12 treatment program, giving her the continuum of services she needed, including finding transitional living and helping create a plan for support systems once she left.
“Anybody can get sober, but being in recovery is another matter,” Henson said. “That is where serenity starts. My mind was always moving. I’ve learned to take today as today and take my moments.”
It has been almost 18 years since Henson entered detox, and she has been free of all substances since that time.
Henson now mentors some of Tulsa’s most difficult addicts as a team leader in the apartment program for the Mental Health Association of Tulsa.
Many of those she helps come directly from the streets or shelters and have dual diagnoses of mental illness and addiction.
Henson uses a bit of a bad cop attitude with a dash of mother hen and heart full of empathy and determination.
“People make mistakes or don’t do or say the right things and you have to allow for that,” Henson said. “You have to do that, or they will end up homeless or addicted again. I give some tough love and I can sure talk to them the way they are used to hearing someone talk. I’m not going to use words they don’t understand.”
No one has ever thrown Henson a story or reaction she couldn’t handle. She laughs off the occasional threat and knows how to handle someone teetering on the edge of violence.
“You don’t know when someone is going to get it and make up their mind to change their life,” Henson said. “You can’t tell someone they are an addict or alcoholic. They have to accept it. It’s such a spiritual thing. It has to come from a good, clear place.”
Many have changed their ways and continue to check in with Henson periodically.
“It’s amazing to think of how many people she has helped,” said associate director Gregg Shinn.
“There are so many people out there now functioning in our community because of her.”
Henson’s descent into addiction began about age 10 when she started taking her mother’s prescription painkillers. She moved into booze and eventually heroin. She lost her marriage, son and family relationships.
She always held down a job and sometimes two, fueled by uppers and downers to maintain her schedule.
“I worked so I could do drugs. I didn’t know that at the time though,” Henson said.
Lying became part of her daily life in manipulating people and situations to gain drugs.
“The breaking of not having to lie was huge to me and transformed my entire life,” Henson said. “Part of good recovery is being honest and face those things and not repeat them and be stuck in the disease. I didn’t want addiction to be part of what I am.”
Henson’s father was a moonshiner in Tennessee and died when she was 8. Her mother died when she was 14.
“I thought everyone’s mom came home from work and drank Jack Daniels and passed out,” she said. “To me, that was normal.”
Early in her recovery, she brought her son into therapy.
“I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone,” Henson said. “I was trying to preserve that relationship.”
Henson warns against complacency in recovery. She said a person should approach it with the same gusto as the addiction, meaning if a person used every day then a meeting should be attended each day.
She recalls an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where a man 18 years sober made a first appearance in the group.
“He said he forgot he was a drunk and went to a party and drank,” she said. “He drank for three days after. Eighteen years sober won’t keep you sober. It’s just one day at a time. I learned a lot from that.”
Henson remains vigilant about going to support meetings and watching for triggers to her addiction.
“This is something right in front of me every day,” Henson said. “Recovery is a huge part of me not only in my personal life, but in my professional life. By remaining clean and sober, I’m able to help others. Everyone is unique and sobriety and recovery is the same way.”