How a Car Accident Sent Her to Prison—and Saved Her Life

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
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Blackout drunk and behind the wheel, Jessica H. caused an accident that sent her first to the hospital and then to a jail holding cell. As a social worker, Jessica knew her drinking was problematic, but she didn't see herself as "an alcoholic"—until, locked up and awaiting release on bail, the truth became inescapable. Listen in as Jessica tells host William C. Moyers why "everything is better" in recovery, so much so that she now devotes her life to helping others find freedom from addiction.

I shared with my peers, 'I'm an alcoholic,' it was the first time I said it out loud to a group of people.

Jessica H.

0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to another interview in our series of Let's Talk podcasts. From substance use prevention to quality research, treatment of addiction and recovery from it, these award-winning podcasts focus on the issues of importance to Hazelden Betty Ford, issues that we know matter to you, too. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, and yes it looks a little different around the studio these days. How can it not? As we all know, a lot has changed in the world since our last round of podcast interviews back in the winter of 2020. Hazelden Betty Ford takes seriously the need to do everything possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus among our patients and our employees. Even here in this studio, we are following public health guidelines. As a result, I don't need my mask for this interview because the production crew, the Executive Producer, and yes, even our guest, are elsewhere in the building. In the circles of recovery there is an oft-repeated phrase 'from adversity comes opportunity.' Jessica Hernandez certainly proves this. She's an addiction counselor for Hazelden Betty Ford based in St. Paul. And she's worked for us for about three years after graduating with her Master's from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Hers is a story of the opportunity that comes from adversity, hers is a story of hope. Jessica, welcome to Let's Talk.

0:01:40 Jessica Hernandez
Thank you, thank you for having me.

0:01:43 William Moyers
What is hope, Jessica?

0:01:44 Jessica Hernandez
I think for me it's just this feeling that comes inside you know that I didn't initially have. I never knew what that was. And until one day, we were talking about this in group yesterday—you have this moment that clicks. And you just know. And it's just something that breathes inside of me. And today, I'm able to look for it outside of myself and look for it in other people. I see that every day with clients who walk in who get sober and who maintain sobriety. Who I see, you know, out in the community and who are doing incredible things. These patients who have worked really hard to change their lives. To me like the hope started, you know, with me internally and now I get to see it everywhere.

0:02:26 William Moyers
Once upon a time you were hopeless. Tell us about those times.

0:02:32 Jessica Hernandez
It was—I was really hopeless. I remember these moments where I you know initially, you know, essentially was planning my own death. And was really okay with that. And you know I just thought if this is as good as it got, I just did not want—I didn't want this anymore. I was ready for something different. And if that meant that an ending had to come then an ending had to come. And I remember praying to whoever it was out there because I didn't really know what I believed. I know what I'd been taught but didn't know what I believed. And just saying, you know, please just end this, I'm just ready for this to be over. And about three weeks later, I got the answer that I was not looking for. It was a car accident while being in a blackout. And I you know everything changed from there.

0:03:25 William Moyers
So you have a history, part of your story, is about being a young woman struggling with a substance use disorder?

0:03:33 Jessica Hernandez
Yes. Yes. I was very much in my addiction when these times were not—when these, you know, when this hopeless feeling was going on. I was you know the alcohol when you get to the—you get to the place where it doesn't work. And I remember clearly when it stopped working. All the things that I was putting in my body stopped working. And you know I was no longer able to just pass out or fade away into the universe like I liked to do. I was very much still present in this hopeless feeling, in this really—in this really depressing state. It was—it was just it was all around me all the time. And the substances no longer took it away. And that was—there was nothing more defeating than that. Because there was no other solution that I had. I had no other coping skills and so. Yeah but luckily I had this random, unfortunate good luck incident that ended up changing my life.

0:04:28 William Moyers
From adversity comes opportunity. [Jessica nods, smiles] And I wanna come back to that in a couple of minutes. But let's talk a little bit more about your struggles as a young woman. With substances. What year—how old were you when you first began to experiment with substances?

0:04:43 Jessica Hernandez
I was 12 years old when I had my first drink. I'm sure I had sips of alcohol around you know from family members prior to that, but nothing—the moment where I had my first drink and got the feeling that I continuously searched for was 12 years old. I was at a sleepover with a friend and she, her parents had a bar that any—that I would have been proud to have as an alcoholic. It was—and I remember she grabbed something that was brown, poured out half a Coke, and filled the rest of the Coke with whatever it was. 'Cause I don't even know what we were drinking. And she passed it around and you know after we started taking drinks from it, I remember getting a warm feeling and thinking—and never in my life having felt that connected to people. I just felt so comfortable, I felt like I was part of, you know, all those really normal alcoholic things that we say. You know, I didn't feel comfortable until then. It was—to me this was like the feeling that I was going to continuously look for because for the first time in my life, everything was calm.

0:05:49 William Moyers
So it worked for a while.

0:05:51 Jessica Hernandez
It did. It absolutely worked for a while. And you know I wasn't able to stay drunk at 12 years old. My parents were very involved in my life. And they you know were—they're Latin parents; they were with me all the time. [chuckles] And—and constantly watching out. But at 14, it definitely picked up again. And I was, you know I was doing anything I could to find ways to sneak around what my parents—the rules my parents had set it order to be able to do things I wanted to do.

0:06:20 William Moyers
And then of course you spiraled down like we all do when we can't control our use. Did you ever try to control your use?

0:06:28 Jessica Hernandez
I did. It was in my twenties I remember, you know, if I only smoke weed then I won't have to drink. If I, you know, if I drink water in between every drink, I'm gonna give up alcohol for lent, and, you know, all the things that to—that were able to prove to me in that moment that I was okay. That because I could control it like this, there was nothing wrong with it. And you know and it—there were times when it worked for a little while. And then, inevitably, just like every you know something happened. And it was no longer working.

0:07:04 William Moyers
And then you had your bottom and what was your bottom, as we say?

0:07:07 Jessica Hernandez
Yes, I did have my bottom. I, you know, I think my bottom really started before the actual accident. My bottom again started you know as I was praying for things to be—for things to end because I was just so miserable and—and nothing was helping. And then I got my answer. And I was in a—involved in the car accident while in a blackout and I remember in the holding cell, after the hospital, I was in there and I thought, okay, you know I was working as a social worker at a high school and I thought you know, they're gonna fire me for sure. And this is the answer I've been so stressed out, that's the reason this is all happening. And I continue to walk, you know, I'm pacing in the cell and—and finally I hear this voice in my head that says you're an alcoholic. You can't drink anymore. And for just a second, I saw this field of—this field of grass and flowers popped out and all this is happening in my head. And I'm for a long while I didn't tell anybody about that incident because I thought well, I'm really crazy, I'm hearing things, I'm seeing things. [Moyers chuckles] And this isn't a normal situation. But in that, you know, in that moment in that holding cell, it's like everything was wiped away, I just felt so good. [Moyers nods] And of course, you know, three minutes later the addiction starts talking and says, 'Don't tell anybody else this, you're not gonna be able to drink anymore if you do.' But in that moment, that's where the hope really started. That's where the seed was planted—

0:08:34 William Moyers

0:08:33 Jessica Hernandez
—For that things could be different and things could be better.

0:08:37 William Moyers
And was treatment part of your early steps in recovery?

0:08:41 Jessica Hernandez
It was. I was very fortunate to be able to go to Hazelden Center City. I was a patient on Dia Linn and I—it was an amazing experience. I—I got there and I wasn't an alcoholic because again you know my addiction was saying 'don't tell anybody.' And I think after the first week my counselor said okay, well, you know you're here, and you're not an alcoholic, and we need to figure out what you're doing here then. And she gave me the weekend to think—to ask other people how they came to the conclusions they were alcoholics. And over that weekend I did exactly what she told me not to and said do you think I'm an alcoholic? [laughs along with Moyers] You know? Because that's what I heard. And so I asked the women on my unit who were so wonderful. And—and they didn't tell me what I was or what I wasn't. They—they—one of them said I don't many normal drinkers who are in residential treatment questioning whether they're alcoholics after having a car accident like you did. But hey, you know, I don't know. And so, through that night I think I went to the lecture hall and—in Bigelow—and I heard a gentleman share his story. And you know we say 'we hear them share our story' and he didn't just share my story of like the alcoholic feelings and all that; he shared exactly what I had done. And he also worked at a school. And I remember he probably had almost four years sober and he said, 'And I'm okay today.' And for me, being okay today was the biggest gift that I could have ever asked for. I just wanted to be okay.

0:10:20 William Moyers

0:10:21 Jessica Hernandez
And to hear him say that was—was huge. And changed everything. And I went back to the unit and as we did our process after lecture, I shared with my peers, you know, 'I'm an alcoholic,' it was the first time I said it out loud to a group of people. And—and everyone just cheered. You know?

0:10:38 William Moyers
[chuckles] Go figure, right?

0:10:39 Jessica Hernandez
They were—they were just so excited. [laughs] Yes. And I was like well that's crazy. And I remember you know after that we would do our gratitude and gratitudes every night and one of the gratitudes I had which was such a big deal for me was that I was really grateful that I—that I had this accident—

0:10:56 William Moyers

0:10:56 Jessica Hernandez
—And I was really grateful no one was seriously hurt. And I didn't have to do anything more. Because it really—I could start seeing that that moment, that this was really something that was going to—to change everything for me.

0:11:08 William Moyers
And yet, there's a twist in your story. [Jessica nods] Because you had your car accident, you went to treatment, you heard what you needed to hear to accept that you were alcoholic. You found recovery, you had a couple of years I believe, and then something happened.

0:11:27 Jessica Hernandez
Yes. So, I had a couple of years before, you know, I was going to meetings, I was really involved in my group, I was continuing to go—return to Hazelden for reunions and do all the recovery fun stuff. And I finally—my court date was finally set. And they—it was a long process, you know, as the court system tends to do. And I think I was a year—almost a year and a half sober when I started going to court for my—for my hearings that kept getting pushed back. And finally at two years, they came up with a deal. And they had initially offered me 20 years—

0:12:04 William Moyers
20 years in prison?

0:12:05 Jessica Hernandez
Yes. Concurrently 'cause I—

0:12:09 William Moyers

0:12:10 Jessica Hernandez
I hit a police car. That was on the side of the road answering the call of a reckless driver who was me. And so,  in that town, I again I—I know how fortunate and lucky I am. Right before I went to court there was another—another gentleman who was—had his fourth DWI and was out on a bond and had—and hit and killed a police officer while out on that bond, which is, you know I just feel for that 'cause I know that that really could have easily been me. But again it didn't have to be. And so, yeah they were—they were going tough on me and honestly, I—by the time I got to that point of court and I remember having to go in for an interview for probation because it was still an option with the deal that they had—they had given me. And the—the officer asked you know what do you want to happen to you? And I remember having had worked with my sponsor for so long to be ready for this moment. And you know and she had me praying for months that I would be willing to do whatever it took to make it right regardless of what happened.

0:13:13 William Moyers

0:13:14 Jessica Hernandez
And it—her prayer worked, you know? This prayer worked because that's what happens when you—when you are connected and you're—you're using these tools. And I got in there and I just said you know I don't—I don't know what should happen to me, I, you know, I—I have ideas but I know that I've lost that privilege. And I also know that if something happened to my sister or my nieces or my family, I would—I would want consequences for the person and I believe in consequence. And so, they ended up sentencing me to two years in prison. And again, you know, just like the rest of my story where I have all these random moments of—of just blessings that are given to me, I was released after six months. My dad had  spoken to the D.A. and said I know you were doing your job and we thank you and I, you know, my daughter has really changed through this. And I, you know, I just wanna thank you and I wanna let you know she really is a different person and we're grateful that—for that. And the D.A. said okay I've done my job and you can get her out and here's how. And my dad advocated for me and did whatever it took. And I was able to be released on a probation after that.

0:14:29 William Moyers
Wow. And then, of course, you found your calling, if you will. [Jessica nods, smiles] You moved from Texas up to Minnesota. So, you're a native Texan like I am. And we did find redemption and—and the opportunity to give back here in the state of Minnesota. You became an Addictions Counselor. You've got your Master's in Addiction Studies. Wow.

0:14:54 Jessica Hernandez
[nods] Yep. I don't—I just—I don't know how I—I work like every day to be worthy of this life that I've been given because I know that this is not what everybody gets in addiction. And not everybody gets doing the things that I was doing. And I am so grateful that I hope that everybody gets to find their, you know, their magical experience. And that doesn't mean that you know life is always peachy and you know rainbows. But it—you know, I have so much—so many tools and so many wonderful people around me who have constantly supported me through this journey that I, you know, I don't find it necessary to—to resort to anything that I used to use. Because I know that this is the easier way for me today.

0:15:47 William Moyers
And then from adversity comes opportunity not only to find recovery for yourself but to give back through your professional role at Hazelden Betty Ford in St. Paul. Incredible. Do you—before we close we just have a minute or two. I really appreciate you sharing your story with our audiences. I know people will be inspired. 'Cause yours is a story of hope. Do you share your story with the patients that are under your care?

0:16:13 Jessica Hernandez
I—no, I really try and separate it—separate that. I do lecture and so, through lectures, when you're lecturing about the Steps, we all have shared pieces of our story, but I've never shared anything in detail. They—when—if they know that I've had legal issues 'cause that's how I'll describe it you know like I talk about legal issues and this is what we do. I—they try and come up with what are—what did she do? And so, that's always fun to hear what they think I did.

0:16:42 William Moyers
[laughs] Right.

0:16:46 Jessica Hernandez
But no I don't—I typically don't share it. I really try and make it about them and you know I do try and share the hope that I've found. And it's being in St. Paul, living in St. Paul, working in St. Paul, it's a small community—

0:16:59 William Moyers
[nods] Mmm-hmm.

0:17:00 Jessica Hernandez
—And so I tend to run into people. In the community, in meetings and such. And so, those—they get to hear pieces—something that I might share that they get to hear that. And so they definitely know I'm in recovery and I think there are moments where it maybe it helps and there are moments where, you know, I don't know. [shrugs]

0:17:16 William Moyers

0:17:17 Jessica Hernandez
But I—I try to keep it as professional as I can. [nods, smiles]

0:17:22 William Moyers
Last question: there will be people watching this podcast that are seeking to not only know more about you, but to find out how you did it as it relates to their own struggles. In other words, there'll be a lot of members of our audience who will be hopeless or looking for hope. What is your message to people who are listening or watching you today and are without hope?

0:17:48 Jessica Hernandez
My message is this is probably gonna be the hardest thing you ever do. And, it's gonna be the most rewarding thing. I know that I visualized this life that I wanted to have, right? I visualized all these things that happened. When I first got sober and you know even before that, you know, and I just asked for what I needed. What I needed was this to change and this to end. And the universe showed up for me. In a really incredible way. And it wasn't the way that I thought it was gonna look. However I know the gifts I got from that. And none of this was easy. But it was incredibly worth it—

0:18:26 William Moyers

0:18:27 Jessica Hernandez
And every—things just keep getting better, you know, they just you know they—they just keep getting better. My family relationships get better, relationships with others gets better, and so, you just gotta—you just keep going. I promise you it will be worth it in the end. And it's—but it's gonna take time. And have fun.

0:18:46 William Moyers
Mmm. [smiles, nods]

0:18:47 Jessica Hernandez
That's what you gotta do.

0:18:48 William Moyers
Well thanks for taking the time today to be with us. And thank you for being a messenger of hope and help and healing to other people who need and deserve exactly what we have. Thank you, Jessica Hernandez, for joining us today. [turns to camera] And thanks to all of you for joining us. Be sure to tune in again for another edition of our regular podcasts, Let's Talk. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and our podcast team from Blue Moon Productions in the Twin Cities, we wanna remind you to stay safe, stay healthy, in these times and in all times. We'll see ya again.

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