It is Hattie Lee Brown’s surprise retirement party. When she walks in, the lights blast on to reveal a sea of faces that light up when they see Hattie’s beaming face.
Music starts to play—“I’m Every Woman”—and bouquets pile into Hattie’s arms. A sash announcing Hattie Lee, First Retiree is draped across her shoulder. Hattie is sixty-eight years old; she’s been at ASCNYC for the last sixteen of those years. Hattie’s worked everything from reception to case management to data entry -- and now she’s ASCNYC’s first retiree.
It was 1996 when Hattie first stepped into the waiting room of ASCNYC. Back then, she wasn’t looking for a job—she was seeking help. Hattie remembers bright lights, a warm atmosphere, and Fulvia, the receptionist – now in upper management – greeting her with a kind smile. I’m never leaving here, she thought. They’re going to have to kick me out of that door.
Hattie learned she was HIV-positive in 1992. She took it as a death sentence. I’m dying, so what? she thought. I’m going out and getting high.
Hattie used drugs for seven years. As a child, Hattie had a vivid curiosity, a desire to experience everything life had to offer. Her mother once told her that experience was the best teacher, and she took that advice to heart. Unfortunately, Hattie’s curiosity led her to try heroin, eager to see what the fuss was about. She loved it. Her body relaxed and entered into a state of euphoria, shimmering in the air like a plane of light. Living in Harlem where she grew up, people were always coming in and out of her house to get high.
After a crack binge in 1992, she hyperventilated. With Hattie’s heart going twice its normal rate, everything outside of her body felt thick and slow. In this moment, Hattie thought she was going to die. She stood in the middle of the room, looked at the ceiling, searching for any remnants of clarity. She prayed, for the first time since her HIV diagnosis, for her life. Please God, she said, please Lord don’t take me now. If you let me live I swear I will never touch that stuff again in my life.
By August 1992, Hattie got clean. She never touched drugs again. She earned a business certificate and stayed sober. She knew it was time to start taking care of her health too, and so she decided to seek help. That was when she went to ASCNYC.
Over the next sixteen years later, Hattie returned the kindness and care that she received at ASCNYC. She started off like any other client, with a case manager who helped her stabilize her medical care and apply for the benefits that would sustain her recovery. She attended groups and eventually enrolled in Cycle 6 of the Peer Recovery Education Program (PREP). Soon after graduating, Hattie got a paid internship at ASCNYC as a Peer Educator. Eventually, the stability she achieved at ASCNYC encouraged Hattie to go to college, and at the age of 60, achieving stability and with ASCNYC’s support, Hattie went to college, and graduated with her Bachelors in liberal arts at the age of 64.
Hattie never felt a desire to go back to drugs, because being at ASCNYC provided all the excitement and euphoria I could ever want, she said.
At the retirement party, people clamor to tell Hattie the impact she’s made in their lives. Finally, Hattie’s son John gets up to speak. He affirms his mother’s two decades of sobriety, and he says how proud he is of her as a living example that it’s never too late to get a second chance to reclaim your life. “Seeing mom get clean and get her college degree in her sixties inspired me to continue going to medical school.”
As Hattie settles into retirement, her youthful joie de vivre shines through the wisdom and strength she’s gained over the years. Even as she ages, her energy seems to multiply. She plans to come back to the agency for educational groups so that she can keep up with developments in healthcare, and has already signed up for a work program for senior citizens.
It’s her party, and Hattie gets up and dances, moving like a girl in her twenties. Watching her feet skip and slide, it’s clear that the journey is far from over. If anything, it’s just begun.