A League of Her Own
‘You don’t belong here…you were made for better things than this.’ That’s what the stranger on the street told her. And so it began. It would take Deena finding out where she didn’t belong, to discover where she did. And it would take a hardened street guy who had given up hope for his own life, to inject hope into Deena’s. When Deena finally grabbed hold of it, she refused to let go…trading in a lifetime of fear and bondage for a life she never thought possible.
“It’s a hard knock life.” The fictional character of Little Orphan Annie sang it—Deena Helberg lived it…for real. For her, life was not a Broadway show filled with precocious little orphans, quirky characters, and a hummable music score. Far from a charming musical, it was a dark and deviant drama, filled with abandonment, addiction, and close encounters of the violent kind.
Deena’s first painful memory was of her mom beating up her dad. “There was blood everywhere,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t fight back, because he wouldn’t hit women. So, he just took it, while my mother screamed and beat and punched him. From then on, I remember being scared…of everything.”
When Deena was two, Deena’s mom abandoned the family. It wasn’t until she was about eight-years-old, that she learned why her mother had left.
“I opened up a drawer and found this letter from my mom. It was to my dad. She told him she had to ‘get on with her life.’ And man, reading those words—that devastated me. No child should have to see that. I wish I had never found that letter.”
Deena wished a lot of things. She wished her mom hadn’t been a drug addict. She wished that her dad hadn’t been drunk all the time—physically present, but emotionally absent. She wished a relative hadn’t sexually violated her when she was just eight years old.
Most of all, she wished she hadn’t gone down that same path—becoming an addict, hooking up with abusive men, having her children taken away, and eventually, living on the streets.
It was very scary—and it was even scarier because I had suffered a traumatic brain injury during a softball game. It’s called a TBI. So, my brain was really messed up.
I’d be walking the streets at night, all night. People would drive by and call me nasty names. At one point, I was down to about 90 pounds because when I was high I didn’t want to eat. That’s another reason why I used meth—because I didn’t have money for food. Sometimes I would go to the Mission to eat a meal. And sometimes I would just bum food off people. Or just plain beg. That’s how desperate I was.”
Bat Girl Begs for Love
Deena had been used to begging. She had spent her childhood begging for her drunken father’s attention. She found it the only way she knew how: through competing in sports, particularly softball, where she excelled.
“When I was younger, I was in sports, and that became my identity. I was popular because of that, but more important to me was that my dad paid attention to me. The problem was when I had sports, I was somebody, but when I didn’t have sports, I was a nobody. I just didn’t know who I was supposed to be. So I turned to drugs and that made me somebody, you know…I felt loved.”
Later, when Deena was living on the street after losing her children, she’d carry around a baseball bat to protect herself. They even had a nickname for her: “Bat Girl.” Eventually even that bat was stolen—taken as she laying sleeping in a park. It was the only thing left of her fragile identity…the one thing that made her feel like a somebody.
Meth-Fueled Days and Cardboard-Bed Nights
“When you’re doing meth, you’re happy for that split second. You don’t care about nothing or no one. I mean, you just get this feeling of what I would call, ‘likable energy.’ And so all that fear I had, and that lack of confidence, well, that all went out the window. It just all magically fell away. I could fall in love, and I could talk to people. I could talk to men. So that’s when I started having relationships with men—lots of them. And yes, I do regret that…doing things I shouldn’t have. But for me, it was all about surviving.”
Dog eat dog. Look out for #1. Survival of the fittest. That was Deena’s life on the streets. Frenzied, meth-fueled days and cold, cardboard-bed nights. A wasted, rail-thin frame punctuated by sores and bloodied, fungus-filled feet from walking, walking, always walking, yet going nowhere. Trading sex for drugs—callous, perfunctory affection from men who were content with a warm body—any body would do—one that at least resembled a woman. Both got something out of the deal. Both also lost—more than they knew.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
But that wasn’t the worst of it…
There was the day Deena met a guy in a broken-down trailer at the edge of town. After getting his part of the bargain, he stood and watched with indifference as the broken, dishrag of a woman in front of him start gasping for breath. Whatever he had given her, it was killing her.
While she lay writhing on the floor, her throat rapidly closing and her body convulsing, he took a phone call.
“I was choking to death and then this really bad odor started coming out of my body. I knew I had to go to the hospital, but I was afraid. I had made a promise to go meet up with my son and I didn’t want to break that promise.”
Fortuitously, in those crucial moments, Deena was able to get hold of some Benadryl and her throat started opening up again. She kept her appointment with her son but as she stood by the gate outside his school, disheveled and deathly pale, she wished she had broken that promise.
“I was not in good shape. I was closer to looking like an apparition than a human being. I mean, I had just almost died. My son was really scared to see me like that. And because of my brain injury it was making everything worse—my choices, my risky behavior—everything. Meth and a brain injury are a bad combination.”
Strangers in the Fight
In the middle of her “Go to hell and do not collect $200” game of chance—where just a roll of the dice could seal her fate—it was an encounter with a stranger that would push Deena out of the cesspool and unto the rocky road of redemption. There was a way forward, but it would not be easy.
“One day, as I was out on the street—under a bridge, I think—a hardened street guy asked me point blank, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You don’t belong here. You’ve got a son, and you need to go be with him. You need to go to the Mission and get your stuff together. You need to go and fight for your son…to fight for your life. You don’t belong here because you’re made for better things than this.’”
“You were made for better things than this.” That’s what the stranger said. And so it began. It would take Deena finding out where she didn’t belong, to discover where she did. And it took a guy who had given up hope for his own life, to inject hope into someone else’s…into Deena’s.
But that was just the beginning. It seems the Almighty was going out of his way to orchestrate a very different reality for Deena—one she could never conceive of, or imagine.
“After that street guy told me to ‘go fight for my life,’ another guy, someone who used to be in the New Life Recovery Program, saw me walking the streets and walked with me that whole night to protect me. The next morning he brought me to the Mission. And I was fighting tooth and nail because I didn’t want to go there again. But God had other plans.”
Those “plans” would eventually land Deena at New Life Recovery for the third, and what she would hope, would be the last time. It was right at the beginning of Covid and suddenly Deena found herself a captive audience to God’s perfectly timed orchestration.
“And there I was at the Mission again—only this time, we were in lockdown. I had no other choice but to fall on my knees and cry out to Him. I began reading the Bible—for hours at a time. And I found myself literally being changed by renewing my mind. For the first time in my life, I began to really believe that He loved me and that His plans for me were for good and not for evil, to give me the hope and the future that I’ve always wanted.”
Looking back, Deena has no doubt God was with her—during all of her broken childhood, her toxic relationships, her addictions, her looking for love in all the wrong places. He wasn’t the one making the poor choices, nor could He violate people’s will when they chose to do evil, rather than good, but He was there, nonetheless…to seek and to save.
“It could have been worse” simply means grace and mercy operate as an invisible force against hell unleashed. Often it’s as much about what didn’t happen, as it is about what did happen.
“God was there…He had never left me. And He never will. I know that now. I even have it written on a piece of paper…it’s a constant reminder of that moment when God spoke to me in program. It was the first time I had heard His Voice.”
“A bird had flown by the window…it was a dove. And I was sitting in class and I heard God say, ‘Deena, keep fighting the fight, don’t give up. You are going to get your son back; you will get him back.’ And I look at those words every day—as a reminder of who He is, and what He has done for me.”
God’s promise came true. Deena has her son back. He’s a happy, wise-beyond-his-years 12-year-old who doesn’t have to see his mom as she once was: broken and without hope. Recently, God gave Deena a bonus gift: After years of being estranged, she and her daughter reconciled. “At one point, I sat down and asked her for her forgiveness…for being such a crappy mom,” says Deena. “That too was God’s mercy and grace.”
Deena has also had some bittersweet moments. “While I was in prison, my dad died,” she says. “That was sad for me, because I wanted him to see how far I had come, and that I was really changing. Unfortunately, he died before I could show him. Yet though that pained my heart, it also made me determined to keep going.”
Deena has kept going. She now has a steady job that she loves doing: disaster clean up. It’s a fitting occupation for a woman whose entire life had been a disaster. Beaming with pride and a newly discovered self-respect, she claims she’s her company’s “favorite employee.”
Deena’s earned those bragging rights. Working hard to provide a stable home for her son is her most important priority in life. She’s heaven-bent on showing him that anyone can turn their life around if they have a good enough reason to do so. Deena’s reason is her son—and those trapped in the vicious style of homelessness and addiction as she once was. She tells her story–the good, the bad and the ugly–because she wants them to know that “it’s never too late to become what they might have been”.
‘While there’s life, there’s hope,’ I heard someone once say,” says Deena. “And I’m so glad that God didn’t give up on me. I know I would have been dead by now if I hadn’t come here [the Mission]. I have no doubt of that. And it shows me that there’s hope for anyone.”
Subway Walls, Tenement Halls
In a pensive moment, Deena recalls that stranger on the street who asked the question that changed the trajectory of her life: “What the hell are you doing here?”
“And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, tenement halls.” More often than not, these prophecies aren’t etched on shiny walls in a gleaming palace, or uttered from a Plexiglas podium inside hallowed halls. Rather, they find us where we live. Whether we’re homed or un-homed, respectable or despised, God shows up wherever we are and snatches us out of our darkened state to reveal a better way—to reveal Himself.
In Him, there’s “no turning back, no turning back.”
Addendum: This Christmas will be Deena’s first Christmas with her son in a very long time. After years of being apart, mother and son will celebrate Christ’s birth together—in their first real home. It’s both their Christmas wishes come true—as only He can do.