Katrina Davidson said she drank her first beer when she was 16, and with that first sip began a fall into the throes of addiction.
She was snorting cocaine by 18, using crack cocaine by 20.
And pregnant by 22.
"I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My dad was absent, so my mom was mom and dad. As soon as I got a free break, I went wild. My mom used to tell me to go to school and stay in school, I'd go in the front door and out the back door, and one bad choice led to another and another, and before I realized it I was so far gone and it was like being at a place of no return," Davidson said.
For 20 years, the Nashville native did whatever it took to feed her addiction. She had sex with men for money, slept in abandoned buildings and roughed up her body getting the drugs into her veins.
She watched as her "friends" — the women she got high with — fell victim to murder, their bodies found in ditches or along the side of the road, she said.
And, she contracted the HIV virus.
Just as her own death seemed imminent, Davidson ran into a friend who told her about Nashville’s Magdalene House, a program dedicated to helping women with histories of prostitution and drug abuse, where she was turning her life around.
"She said, 'You got to do it,' but I said, 'Oh, no, not another treatment program.' I had been in and out of them before and none worked," Davidson said. "But when I looked at her she was so vibrant and pretty and glowing. When a bed became available, I was able to get in."
Coming in ‘shells’
Magdalene House was founded by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, as a two-year resident community and safe haven for women to break free from the demons that bound them to the streets — drug abuse, prostitution, poverty and criminal records.
The women come in shells of themselves — often plagued by diseases like AIDS or Hepatitis C, without any possessions and haunted by criminal records.
They are given a free place to stay for two years during which they learn to live autonomously. Their lives are structured by a full schedule of individualized therapy sessions, 12-step program meetings, post traumatic stress groups and spirituality classes as well as classes that teach fiscal responsibility and financial planning.
When Stevens started her ministry in 1994, she said she discovered there were no programs in place in Nashville or that she could find anywhere in the southeast that helped this cross section of women.
"There were halfway houses, but I knew that didn't make sense. If you are coming out of jail, how would you have money for a halfway house? So I came up with this idea," Stevens said. "I wanted to help a small group of women and help them the way I would want to be helped — in other words, how I would want to be treated if I were coming out of jail or off the streets — gracefully, lavishly and with dignity."
When Davidson first met with Magdalene staff members, she said her first impression was just that.
"It was too good to be true — they welcomed me in like they had been knowing me," Davidson said. "They took me to the house where I was going to be staying. It was a home. It was a clean, fluffy bed. They flourished me and gave me everything: love, support, all the material things I needed like soap, deodorant, clothes. And for the first couple of months, the staff said, 'Just rest.' And my mind started clearing up. Then I was able to attend outpatient programs."
Celebrating 10 years of love
Stevens began Magdalene House in 1997 with four women. On Wednesday, the program will celebrate its 10th anniversary and can boast that roughly 100 women have completed the two-year program, kicked their habits and transitioned into life on their own. Currently there are 22 women staying in Magdalene's four houses plus a handful of graduates living in a fifth house.
Since its start, Stevens has been committed to giving the women two years to turn their lives around because she feels that's how long it takes to digest and overcome the trauma they've endured throughout their lives.
Statistics on the women at Magdalene show that they average approximately 100 arrests and 10 years on the streets prostituting, homeless or both, Stevens said. Additionally, many of the women were sexually or physically abused between the ages of 7 and 11, she said.
"In the 10 years we've never had to charge a woman a penny for the services we offered or take any federal or state money,” Stevens offered. “It's all been gifts given to us by the Nashville community that we pass on to the women. And none of our volunteers are paid. We come in and we do this work because we believe in the work and we want to be witness to the truth that in the end love is more powerful than all the forces that drive women to the streets."
Farming out success
To make the program successful, Stevens said the women have to be accepted into a community and at Magdalene House there are two the women belong to.
First, there's the internal support and love they receive from staff and each other. The program's tag line is, "Love heals."
"We constantly say over and over and over again to the women, 'You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.' Then when someone new comes in, we hear the graduates say, 'You are loved, you are loved, you are loved'," Stevens said.
Second, there's Thistle Farms, the nonprofit business operated by Magdalene House residents. Thistle Farms products are handmade, natural bath and beauty products, and the women are involved in every step from their making to their marketing and selling.
"These women are healing their bodies, so it was a really great idea to have the women make healing body products," Stevens said. "You know the saying, 'You preach what you most need to hear'? So they are making what they most need — they need to be healing their bodies, and about 30 percent of our women are HIV positive or Hepatitis C positive, so it's long term body healing."
Where stays at rehabs had failed at treating Davidson, Magdalene House worked for the woman.
"Usually I'd get clean and rest up for a while and then I'd hit the streets again, but it was like there was a magnet holding me and keeping me there," Davidson said. "Whatever [the Magdalene staff] suggested, I did. I participated in intense therapy and all the groups they suggested even on days I didn't want to or didn't understand why, because I knew whatever I was doing before wasn't working."
That was two years ago.
In two weeks, Davidson will turn 40 and she said she's prepared to live what she believes will be the best years of her life. With saved money she bought her first car, and then recently she purchased her first home. She's a sales representative for Thistle Farms and manages its accounts in 30 Nashville stores and 20 across the country.
"I never would have thought I could go from being homeless and sleeping in people's cars and abandoned houses and staying up four and five days at a time and now be a homeowner. That's real big," Davidson said. "And, I have a 17-year-old daughter named Ebony. She's in high school. She graduates this year. I missed that part of her life, but I am going to be a part of the next stage of her life. I am going to help her transition into college, stay in college, stay focused and make good grades."
For Stevens, with each life that she helps save, a lesson is presented.
"I met a woman who lost everything and all she had was one skirt and she gave it away to another resident who loved it, so I learned generosity through that act. I met a woman who walked in and said, 'This is exactly what I prayed for,' and I finally got that my actions might be the result of someone else's prayer. I met a woman who had been in solitary confinement — an 8- by-12 cell for 24 hours — for five years, and I finally got what freedom was like," Stevens said. "I had a woman who once told me that she was having such a bad day she wanted to throw herself in the Cumberland River again. I told her I had never heard someone who had survived doing that once. I honor that struggle."