Courtney Allen remembers the first time she saw the color green. She was 22 years old, a mother of two, and just a few months in recovery. She turned towards one of her oldest friends and said, “Have the trees always been this green?”
Courtney’s color-blindness set in at age eleven when her grandmother died of brain cancer. By then, “generational poverty, substance use, physical and sexual abuse” had placed her at the mercy of a mother plagued by mental illness and two aunts who shot up regularly in the bathroom. “My family did not know anything different and could teach me nothing different,” says Allen. She did what she had seen everyone else do. She dropped out of school and began to drink. “I became instantly alcoholic,” she remembers.
With alcohol came drugs. With drugs came correctional facilities, psychiatric wards, the experience of homelessness — at age fifteen, with a baby. “We heard the rent was cheaper in Augusta,” says Courtney, who left her life in Rockland for a circus act in Maine’s capital balancing two jobs, a child, and an addiction to opioids and cocaine. She got pregnant a second time. She learned of the existence of Suboxone at a needle exchange and was able to give birth to a healthy baby, but the weight of so much untreated trauma knocked her back into the hole of addiction within
The turning point came after a night of drinking, with foggy memories of a knife fight but a clear image of blood splattered on the walls of her apartment.
“I didn’t know where my children were and I was terrified,” she says. She scrambled out of bed and ran to her children’s room. They were playing videogames. Says Courtney, “I looked into their eyes and I saw the same look I gave my family members when I was a child.”
In active addictions, Courtney believes, “a door to a new life opens for just an instant.”
She checked herself into detox and to this day asks herself what would have happened if there hadn’t been a bed for her. “That was my moment,” she says.
What followed, Courtney says, was a life filled with “privilege and luck.” Every time she asked for help, “there was somebody there to welcome me in.” She had lost her children to the state, her life was in shambles, but when she got to Family Treatment Court, Judge Eric Walker told her to approach the bench. “I’m crying. I’m shaking. I can’t put two words together. He smiles at me and he says: ‘Tell me about your children. This is your chance to brag them up. I know you want to.’”
Courtney told him about Wyatt, how quietly intelligent he was for an eight-year old, how he loved to draw. She told him about Aimin, a redhead with all the inner fire of a redhead. His third birthday fell precisely on that day, February 28th 2015.
It took just shy of one year, checking in every morning, being open and vulnerable, working a twelve-step program, facing the feelings she had numbed herself to her entire life, but the day she got her children back, the courtroom was packed to bursting and shook with the applause. She’d woken up that morning early. Her children were already under her roof. Like that morning a year before, there was the sound of videogames.
She’d wrapped Aimin in a bear hug, and said to him, “Today is the day I become your mom.”
That burst of applause in court scattered the seeds of many more. Courtney recently graduated at the top of her class from the University of Maine – Augusta with a degree on the intersection of justice, substance use, and public policy.
She spent the spring interning on Capitol Hill in Senator Angus King’s office and is now the Lead Research Assistant at Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College for a project on the obstacles to long term recovery faced by women in Maine.
Her plans for the future? “I’m heading to Muskie in the fall for a master’s in public policy. I plan to purse my doctoral degree,” she says, “I am going to go from a sixth-grade dropout to Dr. Courtney.”