Sometimes, when Dana Brown flips through the book she wrote about being so “Desperate for a Fix” that she sold her body on the streets of New York City, she feels like she’s reading about someone else.
Then, she realizes how lucky she is to have that life behind her. She says God delivered her from the need for drugs, that her “freedom” came in an instant after years of all-consuming cravings and gut-wrenching withdrawals.
“It doesn’t happen that way for everyone, and when I hear stories about families [who have lost loved ones to addiction], I have an unimaginable amount of guilt,” she said. “It fuels a fire in me, and I am not going to let this opportunity I have go to waste.”
Brown, 51, and her husband, Mark, are opening the Zoe Freedom Center in Spotsylvania County next month to help addicts and their families. The Browns have rented a building in the strip mall off Bragg Road, across from Costco, and have taken a two-year leap of faith. They plan to cover expenses with donations; so far, about $5,000 per month has been pledged for all of this year from donors, locally and nationwide.
Their faith-based program focuses on giving those in recovery the life skills and employment assistance needed to make a fresh start. They have volunteers lined up to lead therapy, family support programs and to help other addicts who, like Dana Brown, lost their self-esteem along the way.
“There needs to be a safe place for people who are caught up in this opioid epidemic, a haven where people welcome them to come in as they are,” said supporter Tamara Martin. “I truly believe in people being set free from their addiction, and Dana and Mark have the full force of heaven behind them.”
The Browns married almost 16 years ago, and they represent different sides of the spectrum. He’s spent his career in emergency management, bringing needed resources in a time of disaster, and she spent almost as much time, living in crisis.
About two weeks after their first date, she confessed the details of her past, and he shrugged and said, “So? You don’t do any of that stuff now, do you?”
When she said no, he moved onto more pressing subjects.
“OK, well then, do you want some ice cream?” he asked.
‘SCUM OF THE EARTH’
Dana Brown grew up in rural North Carolina in a good home among a loving family, but she felt unattractive and insecure, and the bullying at school only made things worse. When she was 14, she took her first drink—and that same year met an older man who paid attention to her.
She rode her bike to his home one day after school, and he raped her. She never told anyone about the incident, but it launched a downhill spiral into drugs and self-loathing.
Brown moved to New York City, in part to prove to everyone that she could make it on her own. She did, for a while, until the cocaine that made her the “life of the party” morphed into her master.
She didn’t care about jobs, rent or friends; she was laser-focused on chasing the high. She came to believe she deserved the life of a homeless, hooked-on-heroin prostitute.
“I was, in the eyes of many and myself, the scum of the earth,” she wrote in her book.
Her parents sometimes came to the city, looking for her, and Brown always hid from them. She didn’t want them to see the bag of bones she’d become, wearing clothes out of a Dumpster, with filthy hair and a pock-marked complexion “ravaged by five bags of heroin a day.”
At a recent local forum on addiction, Brown stood in front of more than 300 people and shared her stories, as she does at churches, jails and colleges. Some in the crowd gasped when one of the mugshots from her past appeared on a jumbo screen.
One policeman, who went looking for her after he heard her father’s mournful plea for help, said she looked like a beauty queen compared to what she was like when he first saw her.
‘LIKE SHE WAS DEAD’
Former Detective Billy Burns sounds exactly like the tough-talking guys on TV who portray New York’s finest. In fact, he’s done some acting, and he tosses around F-bombs like business cards.
He and his former partner, Billy Foley, had gotten calls from Brown’s father, who explained that Dana had gotten mixed up with drugs. He was afraid she’d overdose and be buried in some unknown grave. He wanted the policemen to notify him if they found her.
“At the time, my youngest brother was a raging drug addict on the streets of New York, and I felt like I was talking to my own father about my brother,” Burns said. “I was hooked.”
He checked her record; there were 16 warrants for her arrest, and she had been in and out of jail, rehabs and detox facilities. Burns created a spreadsheet of places where she’d been arrested on the Lower East Side and started looking for her.
He eventually caught up with her, by phone, and demanded that she be in his office at 8 the next morning. When he arrived at work, he found her sleeping on a precinct bench.
“She was a complete mess,” Burns said. “She looked like she was dead and forgot to go to sleep.”
‘SHE’S THE MIRACLE’
Burns called in a lot of favors to get her into rehab, and when Brown bailed a few days into the program—as she’d done repeatedly in the past—he tracked her down again. He was ready to throw her into Rikers Island, where she’d already served time, and bring all the outstanding charges against her when she begged the judge for a second chance.
The judge released Brown into the custody of the police detectives, and her family, who took her back to North Carolina. Her mother insisted she go to church every time they went, which was three times a week.
On her first night in church, Brown was still going through withdrawals and was in and out of her seat, heading to the bathroom or outside to smoke cigarettes. Toward the end of the service, when the pastor asked people where they’d end up for all eternity, if they were to die that night, Brown was pretty sure she wouldn’t be going to heaven.
She came forward to pray. She asked Christ to forgive her, then went home and slept soundly. That surprised her, because she hadn’t slept through the night in ages. She got up and made her bed, another first in a long time.
There was no vomiting or feeling like her skin was crawling, no craving for drugs.
“I also realized I didn’t have the desire to steal the TV and run out the door,” Brown said, something she’d done regularly in the past.
There’s only one way her husband could describe what had happened.
“She’s the miracle,” he said.
‘WHAT CAN HAPPEN’
Brown started working at the local church and eventually got into event planning. After she and her husband married, they came to Fredericksburg when he was transferred to Quantico Marine Corps Base.
They moved into a five-bedroom home in Idlewild, and she eventually convinced him the house was too big for just the two of them. He’d had a vasectomy after having children with his first wife, so the Browns became foster parents in 2012 and adopted three kids the following year. Their children are 22, 13 and 11.
“We’re not beyond drug-testing in our home to save our children’s lives,” she said, adding that she also stresses her kids are not to be alone with adults. “I know what can happen, and I don’t want them to walk the road I did.”
She stays in touch with the New York policemen who got her off the streets, and she also volunteers with a jail ministry and regularly talks with addicts struggling with their recovery.
The center she and her husband are opening is the next step in the process. Burns is amazed that someone who almost died on the streets is reaching out to help so many others.
“We saved her life, and then she turned her life around and now she wants to pay it forward to people who are in the same predicament she was,” said Burns. “God works in strange ways, man.”