Niki Tartal once lived on the streets of Palm Beach County, hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol. The Lake Worth Beach mom shares how her Christmas miracle unfolded, one step at time.
Niki Tartal’s Christmas story begins with Christmas past.
One in which the twentysomething was sleeping rough, just beyond Lake Worth Beach’s main streets, in abandoned apartments or a van fitted with an old mattress. It is a story of routinely tempting death by feeding a heroin addiction two, three or four times a day — an addiction several years in the making.
When others were making their lists and checking them twice, Niki’s Christmases were consumed by thoughts of acquiring something other than gifts.
“My only concern was whether or not my drug dealer was going to answer the phone.”
She took her first drink at 13. Her first hit of heroin was six years later.
The tug to answer that craving efficiently sped her from high school cheerleading captain and aspiring mathematician to college dropout and homeless prostitute. Her time on the street, both in Lake Worth Beach, where she once unsuccessfully rehabbed, and in New Jersey, where her family lived, was spelled mostly by short stints in jail. Possession. DUI. Theft.
By the time she was 27, Niki’s mom and little sister mounted a last-ditch effort to save the girl they no longer recognized — now a woman, it turns out, just weeks away from giving birth herself.
It’s an effort that anyone who Googles her name can witness for themselves, immortalized in the archives of Dr. Phil footage. (Go ahead, she’ll tell you, Google away. That was Niki of Christmases past. You’ll have to look hard at the listless, glassy-eyed guest to recognize her.)
Niki credits Dr. Phil’s staff for putting her on the road to recovery and the people at Hanley Center on 45th Street for standing by her as she took her first steps — on Christmas Day 2016.
That day she woke sober and ready for Christmas present, she says. Few thoughts of drug dealers, more of making memories with a newborn daughter.
It was a Christmas that also opened the doors wide to Christmas future.
Holidays and booze
The nation’s health experts report that nearly 21 million Americans, or about one in every seven, struggle with addiction. Only a fraction — one in 10 — will get treatment.
And in the world of addiction, the holidays are never slow.
“We generally see more people enter into treatment around the holiday times,” said Deborah Kuzmin, clinical director at Hanley Center at Origins and a 22-year veteran of the recovery business. “I always anticipate this. This is the time we don’t take off. This is the time our people tend to struggle.”
Why? Because the holidays can serve up so much more than good food.
They are synonymous with a never ending parade of festive feasts flush with booze. (For those in recovery, Kuzmin advises keep a full glass of sparkling seltzer or the like to deter well-meaning offers.)
And family togetherness is typically at its height.
People tend to relapse over emotional stressors, Kuzmin says, and when relationships have been damaged … “in general, that’s difficult around the holidays.”
‘Why do I do this?’
Sometimes family gatherings turn into interventions when relatives get a first look at each other in months, or years, and a call to get help follows.
Other times, someone comes to that “aha” moment on their own.
As Christmas 2016 rolled into view for Niki, the holiday had lost all meaning.
“I felt there was nothing redeemable about myself. My plan was to go into labor on the street, have my baby taken away from me, never tell my family,” she said. “I felt like I was being strong because I would bear that burden on my own.”
It had taken years to get to this point.
She had gone through detox and in-patient treatment seven times from 2009 to 2013 — three times she stayed more than 20 days. But sobriety never stuck and after so many tries, she’d given up.
“I’d been searching for a reason for 10 years, like ‘Why do I do this?’” she recalled.
Her mother told Dr. Phil, she had some guesses. Niki’s dad had lost his finance career in the wake of a federal investigation and then drank himself to death, she said. Mom supposed that traumatized her grade school daughter.
That happened, but was that the source of Niki’s addiction? She wasn’t so sure.
“I always thought I would sit with a therapist and they would tell me why I drink and why I use. Niki said. “That never happened.” Without a “why,” Niki kept on using.
When her family got word from Niki’s boyfriend that she was pregnant, they hoped that would be reason enough to quit. But Niki turned even that into an excuse. She couldn’t quit, she told Dr. Phil and his audience, because detox would harm her precious cargo.
The no-nonsense Texan wasn’t having it. He told her, “You’re circling the drain.”
Back in treatment
Trying to avoid jail once again, Niki agreed to giving rehab another shot. But following through was tough.
The place in Texas where she sought help after the televised intervention couldn’t keep a soon-to-be mom, she said. So Niki packed up to deliver her baby at home in New Jersey.
When Adley was delivered into Niki’s arms that October, the new mom thought she too had been delivered.
Niki chucked her rehab plan. Adley was all the inspiration she needed to stay sober. A sip of champagne at Thanksgiving proved her wrong — again.
Recognizing the downward spiral to come, Niki got a line on rehab in her old stomping ground, Lake Worth Beach. The night before catching a plane to South Florida, she OD’d. One for the road wound up to be one for the hospital. By the time she arrived, it was Christmas Eve. She was wrecked and in need of supervised detox — she remembers none of it.
She woke Christmas Day and was taken to the women’s floor at Hanley.
In a letter reflecting on that day, Niki wrote:
“I remember how filled with fear and shame I was that I was missing all these milestone ‘firsts’ in my daughter’s life. … I remember being a trembling ball of nerves with no purpose or direction and feeling all alone on that Christmas day until a kind woman took my hand and made me feel a part of the celebration that was taking place on the woman’s unit.”
Her Christmas miracle unfolded one step at a time.
She still remembers the warm leftover lasagna. The women who, not knowing her, still received her with hugs and a gift — a palm-sized pewter-and-glass turtle inscribed with “Never, ever, ever give up.”
Christmas future, however, wasn’t revealed until the next day, during a group session led by a staffer.
“I didn’t want to keep living the way I was,” Niki said. “But I couldn’t imagine a life that was different.”
A sober Christmas
Until the man leading the group began to speak. Until that moment, her story had been the most chaotic and hopeless she knew. Until he told his story.
“That was what got through to me. I finally met someone who could totally relate to me and say, ‘This is me now and this is what I did to get here,’” Niki recalled. If he could live sober, she could, too.
Niki discovered she was never going to get that “aha” therapy moment. The key to her recovery, she says, was her newfound understanding that addiction was more than a mindset. She was also up against chemistry and biology.
Her counselors taught her the practicalities of navigating the world with that immutable fact.
“That was the first time I believed what someone told me about living sober and working a 12-step program,” said Niki.
“I spent the holiday season in treatment, 90 days total, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to begin a new holiday tradition. I celebrated my 27th birthday, the first sober one in as long as I could remember, surrounded by people who were actually happy to celebrate me!”
Recovery wasn’t instant. After a three-month stay at Hanley, Niki spent another two months in outpatient care and followed that with living in a sober home before landing her own home. And a job — as a counselor in a rehab center in Delray Beach.
She still had other fights, including a more-than-yearlong effort to regain custody of her daughter and to rebuild a relationship with her sister. But along the way she also found love, a man to whom she is married and with whom she’s built a family. In a thank you to the folks at Hanley this Christmas, Niki wrote:
“It’s been almost three years since then and by the grace of God I haven’t picked up a drink or drug since. I have been able to be present for the first time in years at family gatherings, where I look forward to nothing more than being in good company. …
“I’m blessed with the opportunity to wake up and do Christmas morning with my daughter every year now. But after the presents are opened and we share a huge Christmas lunch, I get to do something amazing. I go to work.”
“I have the opportunity to share my experience with people who are struggling with the same feelings I was when I got sober.”
This month, that was an 18-year-old making a call home. Crying and homesick, the girl was certain her mom needed her at home. But Niki assured her, she too had been in treatment over the holidays and that the teen was exactly where she needed to be.
“Conversations like this, that’s why I work,” Niki said.
“I didn’t think happiness was a thing I could really experience,” Niki said.
But on Christmas Day, she was proved wrong.
Article by palmbeachpost.com