By Gaye Bunderson
By her own reckoning, Sarah Hill had a “great childhood with great parents.” The family attended church together, and Sarah’s life was what she calls “consistent.” But the tectonic plates of family stability shifted when, at the age of 11, her parents divorced. “It was dramatic. They were young, and it was messy,” Sarah said.
Both parents were teenagers when she was born.
At first, Sarah found comfort in babysitting — she is the oldest of four children. “It was my addiction then,” she said. But two years later, at age 13, she found a far more reckless source of comfort. “There was alcohol in the house, and I began hanging out with an older crowd; I got no supervision from my parents, and I started drinking. I was staying away from home for a long time,” she said.
Sarah, now 42, is the director’s assistant at Chrysalis Women’s Transitional Living. Chrysalis provides a safe, loving Christian environment for women coming out of incarceration, addiction, and abuse. But it was a lot of years and a lot of bad decisions before she got her current job. Like her mother, Sarah got pregnant at 16. The baby’s father was 17.
“I was happy. I wanted to recreate the happy family I originally had,” she said. She praises her mother for stepping up and helping her get through the pregnancy. At first, Sarah lived with her mom while the baby’s father lived with his dad. Later the couple, originally from Pocatello, moved to Boise and got a responsible job at a gas station. The baby was with them, sleeping in a rocker in the back of the station while his parents worked out front.
“I felt I was a good mom,” Sarah said.
She admits she was doing some drinking at the time but refers to it as “situational drinking.” However, the tectonic plates of stability just kept sliding, and the baby’s father started selling drugs. Nonetheless, the couple had a second son. Though Sarah ended that relationship, describing it as toxic, the couple reconnected when the boys were ages 9 and 11. By then, Sarah needed their father’s help, as she had fallen into the addiction phase of drinking.
She got into other relationships and had more children. She was the mother of four boys and one girl by the time she was 28. She admits she was “trying to fill a void.” The young woman who once thought of herself as a good mother now admits her children were living in an unhealthy situation.
“Those kids went through chaos,” Sarah said.
Things continued to swirl into more and more chaotic circumstances. Sarah struggled with severe depression, postpartum depression, and, after needing some essential dental work for which she was given pain medication, a pain pill addiction followed.
“My mom knew the kids were suffering,” said Sarah, who was trying to get her hands on pain pills any way she could — mostly illegally. Finally her mother, who had also moved to Boise by then, told Sarah she needed to do something to stop her dangerous downward spiral. Her mom took the children under her care while Sarah worked on recovering. Her biggest challenge? She didn’t know how or where to get help.
“I thought I had to do it on my own. I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I just fell deeper into addiction,” she said. Then meth reared its head. From age 28 to 38, Sarah was held in the tight grip of methamphetamine’s dangers.
“I did meth of and on until I fell off the face of the Earth,” she said, explaining she essentially disappeared from her family and into a world of meth addicts. “The meth took my pain and guilt away, but it eventually took my soul. The need to have meth consumed me.”
She’d begun to rack up a criminal record. In the beginning, it was mostly misdemeanor arrests; but in 2006, she was arrested on a felony drug possession charge and was sent to jail for four months. It was while incarcerated that she started praying and studying the Bible. To the cynics who might question why so many people in jail or prison claim to turn to prayer and the Bible, Sarah answers, “I call it ‘God’s hotel.’ It’s freedom if you want to make it that way.” Inmates don’t have the same access to the evils that put them behind bars. God, said Sarah, is very present when you’re incarcerated and is frequently the only Person to talk to who listens and fully understands.
Sarah was eventually put into an Ada County drug program meant to help her break the lock of addiction. It was only marginally successful for her, and she admits, “I was white-knuckling sobriety to stay out of jail and look good to my family.”
After completion of the program, she relapsed and fell into more bad relationships. Ultimately, the insanity of addiction produced a meth-induced form of schizophrenia. “I began to think, ‘I’m never going to recover.’ The illness was the scariest thing. I couldn‘t feel anything. I thought there was no God. I couldn’t feel Him, and it was scary.”
Still, in 2014, despite the fact she couldn’t “feel” God, He had not abandoned her. She made the decision that by February 22, she was going to get sober. It was an arbitrary date. At first, it seemed to come and go without Sarah seeing any success in her sobriety goal. But the fact two police officers showed up at her house on February 23 to arrest her for selling drugs was a sign to her.
“It was divine intervention,” she said. The only way she was going to get better was to be arrested, incarcerated, and once again given help toward recovery. Unfortunately, shortly after her sentencing, she went on the run — she had been facing a 10-year prison term.
Her family had stopped talking to her. “I had begun to think, ‘This is how I’m going to die. I’m never going to get sober. My children will just remember me as a crazy mom junkie who died from drugs.’”
The feeling of a divine Presence returned one day in 2015 while Sarah was tuned into Spotify and a song started playing out of the blue: “Beautiful” by MercyMe. “I had a strong urge to listen,” she said. The lyrics include:
You are made for so much more than all of this
You are treasured, you are sacred
You are His
“I felt the Holy Spirit so strong; I felt I was in a blanket — a blanket of the Holy Spirit on me,” she said. Before that moment, she wanted to be near to God but always kept thinking, “I’m not worthy.”
“This time, He got through to me. I surrendered to God, and I felt like He said, ‘Finally, you’re getting it!’”
Her body, like her mind, had been destroyed by drugs. She was wasting away and could accomplish little more than laying on a couch at a meth house she had taken refuge in. She felt God was telling her to do the two things she was capable of: get up and get out.
“If that was all I needed to do, I could do it,” she said.
She called two friends who had been meth addicts but had gotten sober and they were there in five minutes to get her. They took her to their home, where she slept for five days; they fed her and got her back to a reasonable state of health. Sarah called her mom, and she was able to see her mother and children — whom she hadn’t seen in three years — once again. She was ready to get her life back together, even to the point of calling her probation officer and saying she was ready to turn herself in, even if it meant going to prison.
That was June of 2015; she’s been sober for four years.
“I went in front of the judge, and he sentenced me to a 6-month rider in Kuna,” she said.
It wasn’t the 10 years she originally faced, but she told everyone at the time that she didn’t care how long the sentence was — she couldn’t go back out on the streets, because if she did, she’d die.
When her rider was up, she was determined not to leave Jesus behind. “I memorized Bible verses, meditated on Yahweh, I gave Him my kids, I talked to Him all the time, I listened to Christian music on KTSY.”
She made a commitment to the Lord even though it scared her because she didn’t want to fail Him. The commitment included: give up bad friends, give up bad music, put God first, seek Him first.
“I made promises,” she said. “I only had to change just one thing: everything.”
During her addiction years, she had lived at Chrysalis trying to work through her problems. It was now time to try again. “I put my application in. Thankfully, Chrysalis is full of grace and mercy.”
She had lived there three other times. Chrysalis didn’t hesitate to take her back a fourth time on December 7, 2015. God healed both her body and mind, and between Chrysalis and a Celebrate Recovery program at Vineyard Boise Christian Fellowship, “God transformed me into a new creation — not that he isn’t still working on me!”
Now she co-parents with her mother and has a new relationship with her kids. She was made a house manager at Chrysalis three years ago and said, “I had a calling for it; God saw something in me.”
In November 2018, she was made the director’s assistant at Chrysalis, working in conjunction with Chrysalis Director and Founder Marsha Tennyson. “I love it. It’s my dream job,” she said.
She’s also a leader at Celebrate Recovery and is involved in helping people with opioid addictions.
“In prison, God said, ‘Give me one year — no relationships, just Me.’ I made the commitment. I was afraid. I didn’t want to break my promise. Now I wear a ring on my finger — He’s my father, husband, and best friend.”
For more information about Chrysalis, go to chrysaliswomenidaho.org.