With a blue marker, Isabella Williams traces an outline of her mother’s hand onto a sheet of construction paper. Their collaborative piece of art could not have been made as effortlessly just a few weeks earlier.
Isabella moved in with her mother, Zalika Williams, at the end of November, as part of a trial discharge from the foster care system. Previously, the pair saw each other twice a week during supervised visits.
“It’s been a journey,” said Ms. Williams, 29, of Isabella’s return. “It’s been so exciting.”
After her birth in early 2016, Isabella was taken from Ms. Williams’s custody by hospital staff because of her mother’s substance abuse. Ms. Williams said she started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana at 16.
“I used to be happier,” Ms. Williams said of her early high school years. “After a while, I wasn’t doing the things that I really wanted to do, that I dreamed I would be doing.”
After graduating, she attended Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for a semester. A certification she received in high school allowed her to find work as a nursing assistant, but she quit after a few years.
“I didn’t really think about my future,” Ms. Williams said. “I always thought I would go away to college or something. That was the idea, that things would fall into place, that things would come together. But as I continued into the abuse, it never happened that way.”
No matter how much or how often she drank, she never did it alone, which masked the severity of her problem.
“I was in with a few different crowds,” Ms. Williams said. “I would spread myself out. If I wasn’t feeling them, I would go to the next crew who would enable me.”
Her self-destructive behavior accelerated, and she brushed off the concerns of family members, spending her rent money on partying.
“When I would get the urge to go out and drunk or use pot, nothing would stop me,” Ms. Williams said.
In 2014, a doctor told her she had anxiety and schizophrenia. Ms. Williams met the news with denial, despite experiencing symptoms of each illness: extreme mood swings, panic attacks, even hearing voices. She said she believed alcohol had been the cause. Medication did not help, she believed, so she stopped taking it.
But giving birth to and then losing custody of Isabella changed Ms. Williams’s outlook.
“I wanted to have a life, I wanted my daughter to have a life,” she said. “I have dreams, I have ambition. It was beginning to dwindle. It was going away.”
In late 2016, Ms. Williams admitted herself to Gracie Square Hospital, which offers care for patients with psychiatric disorders. After two months, the hospital connected her to Serendipity II of New York Therapeutic Communities, a residential program for women. Ms. Williams stayed for 22 months.
New York Therapeutic Communities is a member agency of F.P.W.A., one of eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
At Serendipity, Ms. Williams participated in the Recovery Through Entrepreneurship program, which received a $20,000 grant in Neediest Funds last year. The yearlong program helps those in recovery use entrepreneurial skills to acquire skills in vocational readiness, networking and personal finance.
Ms. Williams has been sober for two years, she said.
“Just thinking about it makes me emotional, because I don’t ever want to be back there again,” she said. “I don’t want to make excuses to drink or to get high.”
In the last couple of years, Ms. Williams returned to college and earned an associate degree in paralegal studies from the Mildred Elley educational organization. She is looking for work and hopes to continue pursuing her education in law. But right now, Ms. Williams has more immediate priorities.
“Trying to bond with my daughter is the first thing on my list,” she said.
As part of her recovery, she also attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and she herself uses the aftercare service at Serendipity. Ms. Williams said she has learned to confront her mental illness head on, diligently taking her medications.
“If you don’t get it, it’ll get you,” she said, adding: “The more comfortable I feel about it, the better off I’ll be.”
Ms. Williams is candid about her fears of relapsing. There are moments when the lifestyle calls to her, she said. She has tricks to staying the course, like never meeting people at a bar and always having a destination in mind when she leaves home.
“You have to have somewhere to go. You have to have a life, a busy life to really do this sobriety thing,” she said.
Now that Isabella is home with her in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, Ms. Williams plans to spend time with her daughter, watching movies, drawing and singing together. “Ring Around the Rosie” is a particular hit. The bonding moments put Ms. Williams’s past in stark contrast.
“It’s been a lot of bad days, mostly bad days, just trying to get through those days,” Ms. Williams said. “I saw how bad my life had gotten, and I don’t want to take myself down that road ever again.”
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