Taking the Long Way Home

Depression and drug addiction threw lawyer Megan Lucas for a loop, but an S.F. organization helped her back on her feet.

 

When Megan Lucas went into labor one morning eight years ago, her first hurdle was to figure out which bus went to San Francisco General Hospital. She’d only been in the city for 21 days, living mostly in a single-room-occupancy hotel on Van Ness Avenue. Her husband Mark was at work.

“It was so crazy. I had no idea how to get there, so I was asking people on the bus — how do I get to the hospital?” she says.

Her son Maxwell was born that night. For two days, they had a safe, warm place to sleep. It was a nice change from the noisy environment of an SRO, and they even had their own bathroom — but it couldn’t last forever. When she and Maxwell were discharged, Lucas took a cab to a house on 24th Street a few blocks away from the hospital, where Mark had managed to find them a room. She’d never seen it until they walked through the door, but the little family ended up living there for six months.

The series of events that led to Lucas climbing heavily pregnant onto a Muni bus began years prior. She was on the path to success: admitted to a premier law school on a partial scholarship, winning awards for her achievements.

“I was a very ego-driven person in my 20s,” she says.

But underneath the stellar grades and student activities, Lucas was fighting other battles. Her father fell sick and died, and her mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Lucas became seriously depressed, and supportive resources were slim.

“This was the ‘90s,” she recalls. “There wasn’t a welcoming mental health culture, people were just like ‘what’s wrong with you?’”

After she moved to Portland, OR to pursue a graduate degree, drugs entered the picture. Snorting cocaine became smoking became shooting, and school responsibilities began to fall apart.

“I just wanted to feel better and be happy,” she says.

She met her now-husband Mark during this period, and they began using together. That’s when things got really dark.

“While we were shooting I almost died a couple times,” Lucas says. “I had seizures. I remember one time starting to come out of it and looking up at Mark and thinking ‘I think I know this guy, who is he?’ I was losing my connectedness to consciousness.”

In an attempt to get clean, the pair left their dealers behind in Portland and moved to Mendocino.

“But as anyone who has struggled with addiction will tell you, you could go to the ends of the earth and there’s a magnetic force that draws you to people and places where you can your drug, whatever it might be,” Lucas says. “We were probably not in that county for a week, maybe two, before we were scoring again.”

For more than a year they worked badly-paying jobs, earning just enough to score. A surprise pregnancy changed everything.

“It felt like I was hit with a pile of bricks,” Lucas says. “Not only were we pregnant, we were significantly pregnant. It was terrifying.”

Once again, they left their dealers behind. They slowly saved up $500 to buy a “really crappy car” they christened Kevin. When Lucas was eight months pregnant, they packed everything they had and moved to San Francisco. Maxwell was born 21 days later.

Although Lucas and her husband had been to rock bottom and back, there was still some pride in place about accepting services. When the nurses at SFGH learned about the couples’ predicament, they mentioned the Homeless Prenatal Program — a nonprofit that provides assistance to families living in poverty. But its name gave Lucas pause.

“If you’re someone who hasn’t been attached to that label [homeless] before, it’s not something that you necessarily want to take on,” she said.

But life after Maxwell was born was hard. They were counting out change for diapers, and often Lucas would only have $10 or $20 each day to spend on food and household items. It took six months for her to show up at the Homeless Prenatal Program, but when she did, it changed the course of her life.

“Maxwell’s first times out my sight were when he was with these women Helen and Jeaneth, who ran the onsite childcare center,” she says.

Having short-term childcare available changed all sorts of things — all of a sudden Lucas could work on a computer at HPP, a feat that was impossible while trying to cradle an infant in the Public Library. She redid Mark’s resume, and he got a better job.

HPP provided the type of support Lucas needed to get her family into a better place — and she’s not the only one. Back in 2010, HPP helped 3,500 families and 5,500 children access services, ranging from housing to job opportunities. The need has only grown: From 2016 to 2017 that number rose to more 3,900 families who have 7,500 children.

The program changed her life in other ways, too. When Maxwell was four, Lucas reached out to HPP for a job and was hired as a case manager.

“I was qualified for a lot of things,” she admits. “But I wanted the other parts of my life that weren’t on my resume to be qualifications, too. I didn’t want to have to hide what I had been through and what we had done.”

Megan Lucas (back center) surrounded by friends and family as she was sworn in as a lawyer. (Courtesy Image)

Lucas and Mark were eventually able to rent a small, one-bedroom place of their own in the Excelsior. With this change came another: Lucas reached out to the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, and was hired as a paralegal, working during the day and studying for California’s BAR exam at night. It took more than a year and a half, but in December, she passed.

Re-entering the legal profession after a break that included drugs, destroyed credit and the birth of a child wasn’t easy; It took nearly a year just to pass the background test required of all lawyers.

“I was worried — not because of the addiction, but because of the collateral damage it produced,” Lucas says. “Having a history of being fiscally irresponsible is a big no-no as a lawyer. You could be in charge of someone’s money at some point. So if you’re someone like me who dropped off the planet and stopped paying your bills that’s a big red flag.”

Red flags aside, her track record of improvement spoke for itself, and she was finally approved to pursue her career. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, she’s back on the track she set out on so many years ago — but with a whole new set of experiences.

“I don’t feel ashamed or like a failure. In a sense I was, but in another sense, I went off on another journey I needed to take,” she says.

That journey has come full circle, and not just with her career in law. Recently, HPP invited her to join their board of trustees, and on May 19, she’ll be delivering a speech at their large annual fundraiser.

As for outing her history, Lucas is selective about when and with whom she shares it. She tends it keep it out of her conversations with clients, as she’s noticed they appreciate being heard, and not talked to. “Sometimes you just need to shut your mouth and listen,” she says.

But she does bring it up with her coworkers.

“People are usually surprised that the person sitting next to them used to smoke crack. I hope that, by being open with people I work with, I might challenge some preconceived notions about what it means to be a professional and what a drug addict looks like,” Lucas says. “Life experience, whether it be addiction, trauma, mental illness or any other form of struggle, is a valuable form of diversity.”

That perspective is welcomed by San Francisco’s Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “Often, the best advocates for our clients are people who can understand their struggles,” he says. “As a paralegal in our Felony Unit, Megan puts her heart and soul into some of our most challenging cases. She knows from her own experience that people can recover from setbacks, find success, and go on to lead others out of their dark places.”

Lucas is now embarking on the next step of her journey, as she begins to apply for jobs in the legal field to work as a lawyer. Ideally, she’d like to work with families, or juveniles.

“Our city obviously needs so much help taking care of people who are struggling. Maybe some of the answer is: Let’s talk with some people who’ve been through similar experiences and bring those voices to the table,” she says. “If we really do want to lift people up and offer them a chance for a better life then we have to be willing to shake up the usual course of business.”

 

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