Services for the UnderServed (S:US) is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in the health and wellbeing of more than 37,000 of New York City’s most vulnerable individuals and families each year, helping them overcome complex and challenging life circumstances. At S:US, we understand that for there to be long-term social change, we must invest in people and communities. We work to eliminate the root causes of inequity and poverty, while addressing people’s unique needs—needs that are compounded by the challenges people face due to a lack of opportunity. We give people hope, providing a path to a bright future for themselves, their families, and communities, a future that is not defined by challenges, but by opportunities for all.
S:US President & CEO Jorge R. Petit, MD conducted an interview with S:US Advocacy & Research Associate Kristin Streznetcky on the challenges her family faced as impacted by mental illness and substance use disorders. Kristin is also a person served by S:US, living in one of S:US’ supportive housing apartments and receiving mental health supports and services.
Jorge: Thanks, Kristin, for so openly sharing your personal and family story with us; by telling your journey of recovery, you are a powerful voice in eradicating the stigma and taboo that still exists around mental health and substance use issues. At S:US, we are committed to righting societal imbalances and creating opportunities for all. I truly believe that these core values are embodied in your recovery journey and what respect, caring, dignity and creating a life of purpose can do to help someone, like yourself, on their own path to recovery.
Kristin: Thanks Jorge and I am honored to share my story with you. This was originally going to be a mother/son interview, but my son regretfully declined at the last minute, as the subject had dredged up some emotions that he isn’t ready to revisit. I decided to disclose this because I feel humbled by the man my older son is becoming. Sometimes we think people get over things when they truly aren’t. His feelings may have subsided, but the hurt and pain that I have caused my son, during my active addiction phase, has been a far deeper scar than I could’ve ever imagined. As you read my story, please remember, that it’s possible to accomplish anything you want when you set your mind to it!
Jorge: Why don’t you start by telling us about yourself and what you are currently doing?
Kristin: My name is Kristin, and I have been blessed to be in recovery for the past nine years after struggling with mental health and substance use illnesses for 36 years. I had my first taste of illicit substances when I was 8, at the hands of my cousin who babysat me regularly, and thought it was funny to watch an 8-year-old confused and disoriented from smoking marijuana in front of her friends. I didn’t start regularly using other substances until I was 12, trying to deal with multiple traumas—like being molested by a “family friend” who was supposed to be like an uncle to me—but I didn’t begin experimenting with hard drugs until I was 16, eventually noticing that harder drugs drowned out the hurt and pain so much better. It was also a bonus, that by self-medicating, the mental health challenges I was suffering from would also subside. After high school graduation, I went to beauty school and became an amazingly successful hairstylist, even working behind the scenes at NYC Fashion Week towards the end of the ‘90s. But soon I realized that functioning as an addict lasts for only so long before I had succumbed to the inner demons of my addiction, causing me to stop working for some time.
Eventually, I started to have severe mood swings and became emotionally unstable on a regular basis. But it wasn’t until my fifth rehabilitation program, at age 21, when I was formally diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder with Manic Depression and Extreme Anxiety. I knew nothing about these conditions but getting diagnosed help make a little more sense to me about why I was the person I was. The more I learned about my mental illness, the more I understood that my feelings of hopelessness, the insomnia, feeling worthless, with every part of my life falling apart, plus my constant, over the top irritability had all been part of a mental disorder I hadn’t known I was suffering from.
Jorge: We all know about the high rates of mental health disorders, exacerbated by COVID-19, but we also have significant lag time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis/treatment as well as a challenging time accessing needed services. It seems like this was something that you experienced.
Kristin: Yes, even once I started getting help, over the next 10 years, I was put on one medication after another by a multitude of doctors through the many programs I’d entered, trying to balance my mental stability, unfortunately to no avail. It wasn’t until I met my first husband and became pregnant in 2002 that I took my recovery seriously and began to regularly take my medication, that I found finally controlled all the symptoms that I had suffered with my entire life. Everything was great for the next 8 years, until November 27, 2011, when my husband unexpectantly died from a Grand Mal seizure at 30-years-old, and looking into my 7-year-old’s crushed eyes, after telling him that daddy was gone forever, triggered an episode of depression. This led to a relapse not even a month later and regretfully abandoning my son when he needed me the most!
For the next three years, after hurting and disappointing myself and everyone that loved me, I had found myself homeless on the streets of NYC. In order to survive daily, I was sleeping on park benches throughout the East Village, or in subways, also stealing and having to panhandle. I eventually made my way to a harm reduction center, joining the daily groups to get MetroCards, eating lunch and getting a dinner bag when needed. Plus, it was the only place a homeless addict could take a shower and wash clothes once a week.
Jorge: That sounds really challenging. We are currently seeing and hearing a lot about the growing homelessness crisis. How did you manage that period in your life?
Kristin: After many months of this rut, I was in, I finally met my current partner and the father of our younger son. But I was homeless and became pregnant, which made me feel even more hopeless and stuck than ever before. I didn’t want to disappoint another child and I didn’t realize what “rock bottom” was until I was faced with having to be responsible for another human being again. I already saw myself a failure as a mother and there were moments when I thought I’d be better off dead, which I sometimes felt might be a better alternative than going through life the way I currently was. At that point, we decided to get help by moving into a NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Family Shelter, with hopes of living a better life for us and our new child. I decided to go back to that harm reduction center every day to stay out of trouble and was asked to participate in a 12-week, women’s empowerment program, which unknowingly became the long but rewarding journey that I will be on for the rest of my life.
Jorge: So, it sounds like at that point in your life you felt the need to change and found a program that helped you start the process of recovery. Can you tell us more about the program and how it helped you?
Kristin: By working through the curriculum in this program, I was able to learn how to face the causes of the pain I felt inside, how to not feel ashamed for things that happened to me that were not my fault, how to talk about my issues honestly and without judging myself, and so many more great things. But most importantly, that program taught me how to love myself unconditionally! It wasn’t until then, that I could look in the mirror again and didn’t hate who was looking back. Without those breakthroughs, I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am in my life now. The confidence and determination that I found within was pushing me to fight back. I decided that my children and I would never be ok with settling for less than what we are worth, and since I could never put a value to that, I will never stop fighting to accomplish the goals I have set to accomplish in life.
Jorge: Can you tell us a bit more about your recovery journey?
Kristin: My recovery journey was difficult; after 27 years of substance use, I had been in 14 detoxes, 7 different 30-45-day rehabilitation centers, and 1 long-term program that I ran away from only 6 months in. I began attending these programs from the young age of 17, and now at age 48, it’s been a total of 36 years of a fight that I’ve been lucky enough to have survived, even after overdosing from heroin use 5 times. The last nine of those years have been the best years of my life thus far. From addiction support groups to homeopathic remedies, my family has tried to “heal” me with every kind of help, but nothing worked until I was ready to stop using. Sad to say that neither my son nor my career was enough to make me stop getting high and I couldn’t understand why, because I loved my son more than anything in this world. But even that love couldn’t drown out the emotions I didn’t want to feel, leading to relapsing many times throughout the years. No matter what type of program I was put in, none of them helped me face the root causes of my problems, which were made worse due to my Bipolar Disorder and would stay with me forever, unless I figured out how to get past the guilt that I felt from the traumas I had experienced. The boredom of talking to different therapists, counselors, and medical staff over and over again, throughout the numerous programs I attended was inevitable, and I “fool” the caretakers that would believe everything I told them, especially because I knew exactly what they wanted to hear, after becoming a career patient in the dual diagnosis world.
Jorge: What do you think changed?
Kristin: There would never be enough programs or groups that were going to help me stop, unless I was finally done, which I wasn’t for 27 long years. But I finally found the strength and courage I needed while participating in that women’s empowerment program I spoke about earlier. There, I had the realization of what my “rock bottom” was, finally realizing that desire and need to drown out the feelings I wasn’t comfortable dealing with. I had been reminded that I, too, deserved happiness in life and that I was punishing myself for things that had happened to me that weren’t my fault at all. Between this empowerment program and relating to professionals that actually had lived experiences similar to mine, has helped to change my way of thinking, which finally ignited a fire within that has since burned brighter with each passing day. We were still living in the shelter when I graduated the 12-week program and was offered a peer educator position at that same harm reduction center but I felt I could do more and help others, so I started to seriously think on becoming a lawyer. A goal that caused many family members and friends to laugh at, but as soon as I heard my older son tell me he believed in me, this was all I needed to hear to become determined to make that dream come true. Proudly, I am currently halfway through my 10-year success plan.
Jorge: How do you think your mental health, substance use, and homelessness impacted you directly and how did it impact your child and his development?
Kristin: I came close to dying multiple times because of my mental health and substance use issues. Sadly, not one of those times scared me enough to stop getting high because the drugs were making me feel normal, it led me to believe I could never live without using drugs. To say that every aspect of my life was impacted would be an understatement. Untreated mental illnesses are horrible to deal with but when adding substances in the mix, it’s even more impactful. I was always surrounded by people that loved me, but still I always felt alone. No one could figure out why I couldn’t deal with life on life’s terms, supposedly like every non-addict did, and the ups and downs of my personality would give everyone around me whiplash to say the least. Once I was diagnosed properly, it became easier to understand why self-medicating had been so successful in my eyes, but still couldn’t explain why I suffer through addiction rather than getting help.
Surprisingly, being homeless on the streets was a blessing in disguise. I ended up in a place where I needed to be to finally realize that I was destroying my life and slowly killing myself, all for nothing! I lost everything I had ever worked for in life, from the house my first husband bought me, to our beautiful Bayliner boat, cars, and clothes, all which are replaceable. But most importantly, I lost the rest of my soul when I lost my first-born son. I was on my way to being a world-renowned hairstylist, my husband then was a firefighter, but when I had the chance to be a great mom to an amazing son, I let the mental illness and addiction turn my heart cold, in order to pull me back in its grasps after my first husband’s death. Looking back now, I can say that I am stronger for all the pain and anguish I went through and that I am a survivor with the drive to persevere through anything that comes my way.
Today, I can admit that my oldest son has been impacted the most by the issues I suffered with my entire life, and I have been fortunate that my youngest has avoided the same heartache I had caused his big brother. The impact on my oldest was nothing short of cruel. No 8-year-old child deserves to lose a parent, let alone be deserted by their mother less than a month after their father died. And that’s exactly what I did without batting an eye. Everything from his behavior to his schoolwork was impacted negatively. Although I am lucky enough to have a great family that always took care of him, no one can replace a parent.
Jorge: Do you recall when you had your first conversation with your son about the impact of your challenges on him? What was that like? How did he respond? How did you process what you heard?
Kristin: The very first time I told my older son that I was an addict, he was 8, and I think that was a harder conversation to have than telling him his dad had died, but he was still too young to understand the gravity of what I was telling him. It wasn’t until I started my recovery in 2014, when he was 11, that we actually sat down to talk about how my mental illness and substance use affected his life. I can still remember the pain I saw in his eyes when he told me about some of the things that he saw and experienced when he was with me during my active addiction. We cried together and bonded like we had never bonded before. But no matter how apologetic I was or how remorseful I felt for the hurt I caused him–I could never give him back those precious childhood years that I had robbed him of. No amount of time could give him better memories to share with his own children that will call me grandma one day. He never turned his back on me and still wanted me to be a part of his life. His love was unconditional, and he was there to accept me back into his life with open arms.
Jorge: How would you describe your relationship today? How much work/effort did it take to get you two to this point?
Kristin: I don’t think it took long or much effort to regain that special relationship that we have today. I couldn’t fathom why he still wanted to be my son, but he did. No matter how much I hated myself for what I put him through, my son would constantly reassure me that he didn’t blame me for anything and promised to stay by my side, whether it be good or bad, throughout my recovery process. When I opened up to him about my issues, this was the moment I knew our relationship would be the envy of almost every mother and son in the world. I also knew I had to stop beating myself up for the horrible mother I used to be or I would never become the mother he needed and deserved. From that day, nine years ago to now, he calls me twice a day and is my best friend, which I am truly grateful for. We have no secrets from each other because we talk about everything, even things I don’t want to know, but I am delighted that he confides in me anyway. I can’t tell you how many people tell me they wish they could have a relationship with their kids like I have with mine, if they only knew. He is an amazing son, both of my kids are, and thankfully, my older son did not follow in my footsteps, unlike so many children of substance users usually do. My son goes to school, works full-time, stays out of trouble, and I couldn’t ask for a better role model for his younger brother.
Jorge: What advice do you have to other parents with children who are struggling with mental health, substance use, and/or homelessness that you wish you had received?
Kristin: After overcoming substance use, I was able to get help with my mental health issues and eventually homelessness, with the help of S:US. So, I decided to go to college in the fall of 2018 in order to give myself and my sons the kind of life we deserve to live. Currently, I’m on track to graduate college with a bachelor’s degree in criminology, a minor in psychology, and a dispute resolution certificate. I will start law school in the fall of 2023. I am also employed by S:US in a new unique role as their Advocacy and Research Associate, which helps to bridge the gap between S:US and the people we serve. Today, I’m proud to say that not only am I sober, but I have become the mother my two amazing sons, Skyler and Robert, deserve to have.
The advice that I would give other parents struggling with mental health and substance use issues, including homelessness, is to truly take care of yourselves, and not to be afraid of letting people help you! Visit your doctor frequently, follow their orders, and take any medications they may prescribe on a regular basis, not sporadically like I used to. Another big mistake I’ve made in the past has been thinking I don’t need to take my prescriptions anymore because I felt so good that I thought I was cured. Ridiculously not realizing that it is the prescription medications that are working to help keep me feeling good. Look in a mirror, even if it’s hard, look deep within yourselves to find the real reason you keep using and find a way to either forgive yourself or work through the issues you’re having. Look back at yourself in that mirror and tell yourself that you love yourself. It’s so much easier to move forward with your life when you can accept that no one is perfect, and it’s ok to make mistakes as long as we catch ourselves right away. I could say so many things, but the most important is to set goals, small ones first, because they’re easier to obtain. Once you’ve completed those goals, it becomes easier to accomplish the bigger goals you set. Also, don’t ever get discouraged by someone else’s words, as misery loves company and miserable people will always try to bring you down. Recovery is a bumpy road and sometimes you may fall, but when you remember to pick yourself up right away and continue to move forward, it’s easy to restart your day at any time. Lastly, we are not alone, so don’t be so hard on yourself. There are millions of people that struggle with the same issues daily, so remember you’re never the only one. Finally, life is a journey of learning experiences. We all fall but not everyone gets back up to try again. Always remember that anything that’s worth having in life is worth fighting for!
Jorge R. Petit, MD is a community psychiatrist and the President and CEO for Services for the UnderServed (S:US). S:US drives scalable solutions to transform the lives of people with disabilities, people in poverty, and people facing homelessness: solutions that contribute to righting societal imbalances. Founded in 1978, S:US works with more than 37,000 individuals and their families every year to create pathways to rich and productive lives by offering housing, employment, skills-building, treatment and recovery services.
Prior to joining S:US, Dr. Petit was the President and CEO for Coordinated Behavioral Care (CBC), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of care for individuals with serious mental illness, chronic health conditions and/or substance use disorders, through a Health Home, an Independent Practice Association (IPA) and an Innovations Hub.
Dr. Petit was the Regional Senior Vice President for New York State for Beacon Health Options and before that was the Founder and President of Quality Healthcare Solutions, a consulting firm that provided training and consulting services for healthcare systems including community-based behavioral health agencies, hospital systems, and local and state regulatory entities. He was the former Associate Commissioner for the Division of Mental Hygiene in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Dr. Petit has been the primary lead on several large-scale grant-funded implementation projects including Integrated Care Models to Improve Health Outcomes and Reduce Poverty funded by the Robin Hood Foundation; the Depression Care Management in Primary Care funded by Forest Laboratories; the Behavioral Health Care Collaborative (BHCC) funded by NYS OMH and the BHCC expansion grant funded by NYS OASAS.
Dr. Petit sits on the board of Primary Care Development Corporation (PCDC) and Mental Health News Education (MHNE); is a Distinguished Fellow in the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and a member of the Committee on Psychiatric Administration & Leadership in the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) as well as a member of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s Medical Director Institute.
Dr. Petit is the author of Handbook of Emergency Psychiatry and The Seven Beliefs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help Latinas Recognize and Overcome Depression and the recipient of the Schiff Community Impact Award from The Jewish Board, the 2017 Greater Good Honoree, Corporate Social Responsibility Award, 2018 Heritage Healthcare Organizational Leadership Award and the Community Partnerships Award, Virtual Community Partners Award from Federation of Organizations (FOO), Crain’s New York Business 2022 Notable LGBTQ Leader, City & State New York 2022 Nonprofit Power 100, and City & State New York 2022 Responsible 100.