‘I Always Came Back’: A Story of Survival

“Hey, baby!” Linda Burston, with an illuminating smile and wide eyes, greets every woman who comes through the doors of Women’s Lunch Place.

They always know when Linda is in the room; even among the clink clank of dishes being piled high, the scraping of metal fork against ceramic plate, the hum of conversation among dozens of women, and the Motown softly playing over the loudspeakers, her voice stands out.

Many of the women who find themselves at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter in Boston for the female-identifying homeless and otherwise endangered population, feel a special connection with Linda, one of many direct care workers at the day shelter. Linda was once homeless, addicted to drugs, and a regular patron.

Today, Linda is dancing to “My Girl” by the Temptations and encouraging some of the women around her to join. She laughs as she throws her arms in the air and moves her hips in a circular motion.

A woman sitting at one of the nearby dining tables places her coffee mug on the round wooden table.

“How are you today Linda?” she asks, her lips turned up in a slight smile.
“I am blessed and highly favored,” Linda says while shaking her head and grinning, “blessed and highly favored.”

It was a brisk fall day, just over 40 degrees, on November 7, 1952 when Linda was born at Boston Medical Center. It was one of the coldest days of the season and the leaves were turning a combination of fiery red and burnt orange. She was the fourth of six children in her family.

At Linda’s childhood home in Roxbury, a short drive from the center of Boston, her young parents threw parties often. In order to keep Linda and the other children quiet and out of the way while the festivities occurred, Linda’s parents put alcohol in baby bottles and had the children drink themselves to sleep. For Linda, this sparked the beginning of a decades long struggle with addiction and all of the difficulties that come with it.

“They started alcoholism in me as a kid,” Linda says.

Linda’s father was always physically and verbally abusive towards her mother, she says. When Linda was 14, he shot Linda’s mother twice in the stomach and abandoned the family in a fit of alcoholic rage. Linda’s mother barely survived, and she harbored hate for the man that left her a poor single mother of six for the remainder of her life.

Unfortunately for Linda, she inherited her looks from her father.
“You’re an ugly daughter,” Linda’s mother would say to her. “I never wanted you. If I had my way, I would have gotten rid of you.”

Today, there is a party at the day shelter. A senior staff member is retiring, and the staff and volunteers have decided to send her off with a bang.
As the “beautiful ladies” –this is what the staff calls the patrons– eat a breakfast of oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, bread, and cereal, Linda and the other volunteers hang streamers and ribbons from water spigots and light fixtures, and tape handmade posters to the cinder block walls.

Linda ties a bundle of balloons to a light fixture in the center of the room. A woman in black “Pink” brand sweatpants and Ugg boots dances across the warmly lit dining room to the beat of “‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and embraces Linda as she pulls away from the balloons, and into an all-encompassing hug.

“Yay!” the woman yells soulfully as Linda returns the hug.

“Yay!” Linda replies without hesitation, “Yay, yay, yay!”

“Linda, yay!” the woman says enthusiastically, and then she releases Linda from her grip and dances to the other end of the room. Linda is beaming.

“I get so much love,” she says giggling.

When Linda was 14, she was raped by a relative, she says. Alcohol was no longer enough to help her forget. She needed something stronger to help her ease the pain, to help her forget. She turned to heroin.

“I’d been drinking alcohol since I was a kid,” Linda says clenching her hands together in her lap, “but by being raped, and by not having no one to confide in, it just turned me to the street. So that’s how it started. I looked for it. I started shooting heroin. To get away.”

From then, Linda floated between living with her physically and verbally abusive mother in various apartments and on the street. She slept in dumpsters and abandoned cars, and she ate whatever she could find.

At 15, Linda got pregnant. She returned to her mother’s home until she gave birth to her first child, Monique. Her mother, fearing Linda would commit suicide, called 911 and sent her to a mental institution against Linda’s will.

“I was so angry, depressed, already felt abandoned,” Linda says as she reflects on the memory. “So it was just a crazy world out to get me.”

During the next few years, Linda had three more children.

“I ended up with four kids. No father. They were all by different men,” Linda says. “I just gave them up. I couldn’t take care of them. I really didn’t want them. I couldn’t take care of me so how could I take care of kids and not really knowing how to parent?”

Linda decided to leave her children with her mother while she lived on the street and spiraled into a life of drug use and depression.

At Women’s Lunch Place, Linda does anything she can to help women feel dignified and respected. She greets the women as they walk through the door, helps them become accustomed to the day shelter, directs them to resources, organizes donated items, helps them with laundry, and offers her friendship to all of the women who find themselves needing the resources at Women’s Lunch Place.

“I’ve been there. I used to be a guest myself,” Linda tells one new patron as they sort through clothing in an attempt to find a coat sturdy enough to stand up against the approaching Boston winter.

“Really?” the woman asks, her voice rising to express her surprise.

“Yup! I used to be one of the beautiful ladies here, as we like to call them.”

Linda was a young mother of four, homeless, addicted to drugs, suicidal, and earning what little money she had through prostitution. When she wasn’t sleeping in dumpsters and abandoned cars, Linda was likely in prison.

She wasn’t proud of her situation.

“When I used to shoot drugs, my hands would swell up like Popeye. I would see my kids before they would see me, and I would literally duck and hide from them because I was embarrassed. I was so embarrassed about how I looked and how I felt, and at that time I was so caught up in the drugs that I didn’t do anything about it.”

Everyone who works at Women’s Lunch Place has a lot to say about Linda, the woman they describe as “everything [Women’s Lunch Place] is supposed to embody.”

“She is the most energetic, enthusiastic person I know,” says Alannah Iacovano, a college-aged volunteer. “She adds so much life and energy to this place. Everyone really appreciates that.” Iacovano smiles and leans into a laugh as she says this.

“She is just an easy person to connect with,” Iacovano continues. “I love her. She has so much passion and drive for what she does here. It makes being here so much more enjoyable, having her positive energy around.”

Vanessa Montero, another volunteer, laughs at a memory with Linda:

“She did the ‘bend and snap’ Legally Blonde moment.” Montero grins and shakes her head, “That has to be my favorite moment with Linda. She is just so lovable and funny, and when she’s here, the energy is up and everyone is laughing and she’s dancing.”

Nancy Armstrong, the director of operations at Women’s Lunch Place, says Linda brings “something special” to the day shelter.

“She just has this gift. When walking down the street, she sees people who are rendered invisible by society. Linda embodies what the Women’s Lunch Place is all about,” Armstrong says. “I have never regretted going to her for advice.”

Linda was sitting beside her close friend Barbara sometime in the early 1980s when she first heard about Women’s Lunch Place. They were in a crack house in Dorchester. Homeless, an alcoholic, addicted to crack and heroin, disconnected from her family, and earning money from prostitution, Linda felt like there was nowhere to turn. She had tried to kill herself on multiple occasions, and maybe it was time to try again, she thought.

“Linda,” Barbara nudged Linda, who was in a haze of drugs and hunger and exhaustion, “I heard there is this place in Back Bay. It’s called Women’s Lunch Place and they would feed us and help us.”

Desperate, Linda agreed to find the place. The two women, lacking money for the bus, walked almost two hours to the day shelter.

“It seemed like the longest walk,” Linda says now, remembering the early summer morning, “but we did it. We did it.”

Around 10 a.m., they arrived at the stone entryway exhausted and aching, delirious from both the tedium of walking and the drugs they took that morning. They feared being turned away from the shelter due to their current state of inebriation; it wouldn’t be the first time.

But Maura, a direct care worker, immediately came to Linda’s aid.

“Maura showed me love, no matter how bad I was smelling. I mean I was smelling. And she just treated me like a human.”

The petite woman led Linda to the nap room, a secluded room with a few beds, and then she took Linda’s clothes and washed them. “They really should have been thrown away,” Linda says. At lunch, Maura spoon fed an exhausted Linda and held water up to her lips so she could drink.

“She treated me, no matter what, with dignity, honor, and respect. I never forgot that. She made me feel human. I used to live an animalistic life. She made me feel human even if it was just for a little while,” Linda says.

Maura worked at Women’s Lunch Place for several more years, and she was always kind when Linda came through the door.

“But I had no intentions of getting clean,” Linda says, sitting forward in her seat. “And I never thought I’d be back here working. But I am.”
Linda smiles.

A few days after the send off party for the executive director, Linda opens the door to her condo in Dorchester, Massachusetts and motions down the hallway.

“Welcome to my beautiful home,” she says. The first thing one notices is the elephants. They are everywhere: looking grandmotherly as they pose on banners hung on the wall, regally lifting their ceramic trunks on the window sills, propping potted plants up on their noses.

“I’ve always liked them,” she says smiling at the elephants, “Since I was a kid. These are my babies.”

She calls her elephants “Linda #2.”

She ascends the stairs, lined with elephants, pointing out the things she views as special. She stops to show off gifts that guests have made her, the collection of wood and leather African masks which line her living room, her numerous leafy plants, her certificates of sobriety.

“I’ve come a long way from sleeping in dumpsters!” Linda smiles and looks around her living room, taking in the sight she sees almost every day. “All my life I never dreamed I would ever get off of drugs, and I did. I never dreamed I would ever own my own home, but I do. So I’m just enjoying every minute I’m here.”

July 1, 1993 felt like any other day. But it wasn’t.

Linda Burston sat on the dirty cloth couch in her daughter Monique’s Back Bay apartment. It was the early afternoon, maybe one or 2 p.m. Friends of Monique’s came in and out of the sparsely decorated living room, swerving to avoid the decrepit chairs and tables which were placed throughout the room. They were all high. She was high. She had been high for a week straight. Maybe longer.

Linda gathered what little cash she had and gave it to one of Monique’s friends. With the money, they would leave to purchase more crack cocaine and alcohol and return to the apartment where the group could continue their run. So now she just had to wait.

Linda began to feel an emotion that she had never felt before. She isn’t sure what exactly triggered it; there was nothing apparently different about that day.

A tear rolled down Linda’s cheek. And then another. Suddenly, she was sobbing, unable to control her tears as they ran down her tired face, carving salty canyons into her cheeks, swollen from weeks of constant drug use. Her chest tightened and she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t breathe. What I am doing? She thought frantically.

Linda turned to her daughter, sitting calmly on the couch beside her. She took a shaky breath.

“I will never ever do this with you again,” Linda told her.

“Yeah. Alright, sure.” Monique rolled her eyes are her mother. “You’ve said that a million times before.”

It was true. This wasn’t the first time Linda had vowed she was done. She had been arrested and institutionalized. She had been in over 50 programs, and every time she came out, she went right back to the crack, to the heroin, to the prostitution.

But this was different. After 27 years of addiction, homelessness, violence, and heartbreak, she was ready to put it all behind her. She had what she now calls a spiritual awakening.

Linda left Monique’s apartment and immediately checked herself into a rehab program. She hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol since.
Survivor. This is the one word Linda uses to describe herself. Formerly homeless, a four-time cancer survivor, addicted to drugs for over 27 years and sober for 26, Linda says she doesn’t pity herself one bit.

“I’m not a victim. I am victorious,” she says, emphasizing each word like there is nothing more important in the world. “It made me stronger knowing that there is nothing on this Earth I can’t overcome. Absolutely nothing. I am gorgeous 66. I’ve been to hell and back. I’ve been in the belly of the beast. Now I’m on solid ground and I embrace every day. I’m just enjoying my life. Tomorrow is no promise. But when I leave this earth, it won’t owe me a thing.”

Linda reconciled with her children and other members of her family when she got clean. Today, they all live in the Boston area and see each other frequently.  

“We have a completely different relationship from when I was using. We didn’t have a relationship. My life has changed, and when your life changes you change,” Linda says, and she points to photos of her children on her phone. “When you’re not using, you have time to reflect on your life and the damage you did. Now that I can love me, I can love them. I used to beat myself up because I wasn’t the best mother, but I was the best mother the drugs would allow me to be. I didn’t sell my kids off, they were still connected to the family, I didn’t put them up for adoption, so out of all that pain and suffering, I had to pull some positiveness out of that.”

When Linda first walked through the doors of Women’s Lunch Place, she had a third grade reading level. Now, with the help of Women’s Lunch Place, she is a community college graduate, and has intentions to go back to school. She hopes this will help her better represent the abused, homeless, and addicted to drugs— the people she sees every day she steps foot in Women’s Lunch Place.

“I found a place that loves people just like they are. There are no requirements. When I came through those doors I was beat down. I mean beat down. Truly beat down. I’ve tried to commit suicide several times; I’ve cut myself, I’ve cut my throat, I’ve cut my wrists,” Linda lifts her chin and exposes a scar on her throat, and then she turns her wrists and motions to the soft, fleshy, and erratic white marks that mark her skin. “But I always end up coming back. I’ve overdosed on pills, I’ve overdosed on drugs, but I always came back. I couldn’t ever understand why. But today, I understand why: to be here, and to do the job that I am doing now, with women, my beautiful ladies. They are just like me.”Linda smiles and pauses to collect her thoughts.

“These are my sisters,” Linda says. “They are the reason I am alive.”

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