+ By Brenda Wintrode + Photography By Allison Zaucha
In 2015, Izelle Van Zuylen lost everything to her opioid addiction. Her car was seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. She was fired from her teaching job and lost her apartment. “After the felony charges happened, that’s when I realized I needed help,” she says. After a brief stay in an addiction treatment center, she remembers feeling exhausted and depressed. Living with her parents was a trial for everyone. Her life turned around when she found Serenity Sistas, an Annapolis-based housing program for recovering addicts.
Van Zuylen, now over two years sober, sits on a soft leather couch at her new job and jokes about the first time a friend in recovery recommended Sistas: “I thought, ‘I’m not going to live with 10 girls in recovery. That’s insane.’” She not only went through early recovery, living in one of the five houses, but also, since last spring, she has been working alongside Sistas’ founder and director, Angel Traynor, as the organization’s program manager. Van Zuylen’s perspective has, of course, changed. “It’s the best thing I ever did by far,” she says.
Since its inception six years ago, Serenity Sistas has taken in approximately 500 referrals from various sources—Anne Arundel County’s Mobile Crisis Team, the courts, the detention center, and local rehab centers such as Pathways or Hope House. Sistas provides resources to reintegrate a recovering addict back into the community, providing a necessary and often missing link between the treatment center and resuming a productive life. It houses roughly 46 residents in its three all-female residences, one all-male residence, and one residence for mothers with young children. The current age range of most residents is between 19 and 26, while the oldest resident is 70. “Addiction does not discriminate. A lot of people think, ‘Not in my family, not my sister, my brother, my mother.’ That’s not true,” says Traynor. “It starts with a tooth extraction or a sports injury. They get a prescription of OxyContin or Percocet, and once they become physically addicted, they have lost their choice,” she explains.
Traynor’s staff lovingly urge her to take a break from picking up her phone. It’s Friday afternoon, and they know their boss is drained after a long week of intakes. Traynor pulls back her blonde ponytail and settles her head back into a lounge chair. She doesn’t like shoes; her trademark bare feet barely graze the floor as she speaks plainly about her own recovery. “I don’t mind getting up in front of 100 people and saying, ‘I’ve not found it necessary to use heroin since September 6, 2007,’” she says. “I just want to do whatever I can do to help.” Ten years of sobriety and two college degrees later, Traynor runs the nonprofit with two employees, consults on the county’s Not My Child initiative, and knows the latest county overdose statistics as well as she knows her social security number.
“When an addict gets out of rehab, they don’t have any money or anywhere to go,” says Traynor. She emphasizes the importance of recovering addicts paying their own monthly rent and insists on them finding work and getting involved in the community. “We [addicts] have taken from our communities and our families for a long time,” she says. “I encourage everyone in my houses to give back to the community.” Residents must adhere to a curfew, attend 12-step meetings, and do chores. Van Zuylen attests to the challenges of early sobriety. “My first year was about learning how to deal with emotions without substances,” she says. “I found out I cry a lot. I never cried when I was using.”
Bearing witness to the range of the human experience is an inevitable part of Traynor’s job. Heartbreak, disappointment, self-sabotage and sadness co-exist with the struggle for health, both physical and mental. Traynor emphasizes the need for radical self-care while doing this work. She attends Al-Anon meetings and goes to hear live music whenever she can.
Van Zuylen and Traynor have experienced a life with drugs and have worked at creating new lives for themselves after drug use. There is no magic wand waved in the space between the last high and the first day of sobriety. Both women feel that the common element in their sustained sobriety is a renewed sense of purpose and connection to others. “The thing that keeps me going is the connections I have with people and the love, and that’s not to say I was not loved as a kid, because I was,” says Traynor.
Van Zuylen is grateful for the trials of the past few years. She now has a full-time job at Serenity Sistas and a car. “I appreciate the hard work it took to get it all back,” she says. Once you get a little bit of your self-worth back, you don’t want to lose it again.”
Traynor and her staff celebrate the long-standing sobriety of many former residents as much as they celebrate the first days, the redemption of relationships, and the reconnection to community. Says Traynor, “I try to open as many doors for them as I can. Ultimately, it’s their choice whether or not they walk through it.” █