Jo Kernohan encountered plenty of occasions in which a caring hand could have helped her take a healthier path. Years before receiving a two-year prison sentence on a drug sales conviction in California, she was routinely spending short periods of time in county jails for possession, only to be cycled back to a life in which heroin controlled all.
At one point she had been ordered into a 30-day treatment program, but the staff barely had a chance to learn her name. “I stayed two hours and left,” Kernohan recalls. “I didn't want to do it.”
It was only after serving half of her two-year prison sentence and being weeks away from a conditional release that Kernohan became anxious about what she'd be returning to. Even the people who'd be picking her up on her scheduled release date in 2002 were immersed in the substance-using world and all the lies that went with it.
A meeting with the woman who ran the correctional facility's treatment and employment program for female offenders led to Kernohan's placement at El Dorado House in Stockton, California, a residential treatment center for women involved in the criminal justice system. Gradually this would lead her to a better life, though by most measures not an easy one, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“I was shell-shocked when I arrived at El Dorado House; it was a gated facility. It was kind of like going back to prison,” says Kernohan. She recalls bucking the system at first, and not being ready to open up as fast as staff members wanted her to. “I wasn't ready to talk to people, especially in groups.”
She credits the attention she received from a staff member in recovery for helping her engage in the program. The woman, known by many as “Granny,” would have her sit with her in her office. “At first she'd say, ‘I don't care if you talk. I just want to keep an eye on you.’”
She also began to see women come and go from the program because of relapses or certain program violations. “It was always for stupid reasons, like they didn't like the way their counselor was talking to them,” she says. “It was all ‘me, me, me.’”
Kernohan, now 48, believes that what truly sustained her through periods of doubt was her desire to build a better relationship with her three children. She says all three have dabbled in a substance-abusing lifestyle, and her only son continues to struggle with it.
Kernohan spent 16 months at El Dorado House as a condition of her parole before relocating from California to New Mexico in 2003. One of her daughters also lives in Las Cruces. It has not been an easy time for Kernohan, who more than 15 years ago was diagnosed with hepatitis C and participates in a local hepatitis C support group. She has worked in a variety of jobs over the past couple of years, most recently taking leave from a position at a local hotel.
But comparing the present to what she had gone through for many years before (her drug using began at age 9), Kernohan sees no negatives. She hopes she will be healthy enough next year to pursue studies in phlebotomy.
“Everything I've encountered since my recovery has been new to me,” she says. “The first time I drove a car since my recovery was the first time I drove a car sober. It's been a real learning experience.
“At one time I thought I would die a heroin addict,” she adds. “El Dorado House taught me that there are choices. I'm not afraid to go ask for help now.”