Time of Thanksgiving: Former addict thankful for new life
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
Danya Simpson began planning the Thanksgiving Day menu weeks in advance. From the kitchen of LifeSource, a residential drug recovery program in Somerville, Simpson, affectionately known as “Momma D” at the facility, will cook up banana pudding, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, turkey or chicken and dressing.
“Many of the women here have no other place to go for Thanksgiving. They haven’t healed relationships with their families yet and aren’t welcome home,” Simpson said. “I’m thankful to be able to make sure they have a Thanksgiving. I want it to feel as much like home for them as possible. I know what it is like to feel all alone. On Thanksgiving, you want to feel special.”
The 56-year-old Simpson, who spent three decades of her life using drugs, as a prostitute, homeless and in and out of prisons, sees this Thanksgiving as a gift.
“If you would’ve told me I would be where I am today, I would never have believed it,” said Simpson, who lives at LifeSource’s women’s facility, cooks for the home’s 45 residents and drives the women to appointments and work. “I’m not just going through the motions of life anymore, I’m actually living a purposeful, fulfilled life and I’m loving it. I am such a long way from where I started.”
The trials and tribulations in Simpson’s life began at 3 years old — the age she remembers when violence started to fill her home in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“From the outside looking in, we looked like a normal family, but we weren’t,” Simpson said. “There was a lot of beatings, mental, verbal and psychological abuse at the hands of my stepfather.”
She remembers hiding under the trailer while he dragged her mother up the porch steps by her hair. She remembers him stabbing her mother in the chest with a screwdriver.
She remembers being 8 years old — the age she was molested for the first time.
“I was scared all the time. I would lock myself in the bathroom at night and sleep on the bathroom floor,” Simpson said.
To escape the mental, emotional and physical turmoil, Simpson turned to alcohol.
“I started drinking when I was 9. It was also the first time I ran away and I ran away a lot. It was also the first time I tried to kill myself because nobody would listen to me. I just wanted to get myself somewhere safe,” Simpson said.
At 12 years old, due to her constant attempts to run away, Simpson was made a ward of the state and placed in a children’s home for troubled adolescents. There, for the first time in her life, she found love and acceptance.
“I did very well there. I had a 4.0 grade point average, and I was in the newspaper for having the reserve grand champion rabbit at the county fair,” Simpson said. “I felt like I finally had a family. I think that’s why I like it at LifeSource so much. It reminds me a lot of that home.”
The stability Simpson found at the group home, however, vanished when she turned 17 and, by Texas laws, was considered an adult. With no place else to go, Simpson returned to her mother and stepfather.
“My stepdad, the only dad I ever knew, told my mom that he had hired a lawyer to reverse my adoption so I wouldn’t have his last name because he wanted to marry me,” Simpson said. “That messed me up really bad. I spiraled. I started shooting dope to make me not feel anything. I also tried to kill myself again by cutting my wrists.”
Simpson briefly stopped using drugs at 21 years old while pregnant with her daughter. After the birth of her daughter, who was raised by Simpson’s mother and another man, Simpson returned to drugs and the streets.
“I got into prostitution. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been raped. I lost a thumb fighting one off,” Simpson said, holding up her left hand. “I’ve been shot and stabbed. I’ve been arrested more times than I can remember. I’ve spent more of my life homeless than in a home.”
Simpson ended up in Alabama after being arrested with two other people for credit card fraud committed in multiple states.
In hopes of getting off the streets and ending her cycle in and out of prison, Simpson, who ate food out of trash cans and stole clothes off of clothes lines, held a sign on the corner of Fifth Avenue Southeast and Sixth Street. On the sign she wrote, “Homeless artist needs a job.”
That is where Robin Ladner, the founder and executive director of LifeSource, first saw Simpson.
“Every day, on the way to LifeSource (when LifeSource operated on Fourth Avenue Southeast), I would see her,” Ladner said. “When it got really cold, we invited her in to have something to eat.”
Simpson remembers that first invitation well.
“It had snowed and it was freezing outside. They fed me, put me on a couch and covered me up,” Simpson said. “I guess Robin had a soft spot for me. I don’t know why. I was not the same person I am now. I didn’t have the nickname Momma D, let’s put it that way. I was pretty rough around the edges. I was not a very likeable person. I had a lot of anger.”
Simpson keeps a photograph of her last mugshot, taken after her arrest in 2018 for third-degree burglary, as a reminder of the person she once was. In the photograph, Simpson’s short red hair is disheveled and her eyes are swollen after not sleeping for several days.
“I don’t even recognize that woman anymore. I keep the photo as a reminder of how far I have come,” Simpson said. “When I got arrested this last time, I was done. I didn’t want to prostitute anymore. I didn’t want to be homeless. I just wanted somewhere to belong.”
After being bailed out, Simpson arrived at LifeSource as one of the first residents of the women’s facility.
Ladner remembers Simpson as bitter and harsh with “a huge wall up.”
“As far as getting close to her, that wasn’t happening. It took a couple of years of her living in the recovery house when she started to change,” Ladner said.
That change started when a person at LifeSource told Simpson she was “the most angry, bitter person that she had ever met.”
“It made me take a look at myself. What was I so angry and bitter about? I had food. I had clothes. I had people supporting me. I was clean. But I was still very angry and very bitter,” Simpson said. “I did a lot of praying and crying and had my big ‘aha’ moment. I realized I had to forgive everybody, whether they felt like they did anything wrong or not. That took such a weight off of my soul. It helped me heal.”
In March 2020, two years after entering LifeSource, Simpson graduated from the six-month program.
“When I came here, I told Robin that I did not want to graduate just because I completed six months. I wanted to graduate when she felt like I earned it. Six months to heal a lifetime of hurt Is not enough. It is an ongoing process that I will continue for the rest of my life,” Simpson said.
Along with graduating from LifeSource, Simpson graduated from Morgan County’s Drug Court on Nov. 7.
“When I decided to do Drug Court, they told me it was going to be hard. For me, it wasn’t because I already had my mindset right. I knew I was done with drugs. There was no stopping me. There was no going back,” Simpson said.
While at LifeSource, Simpson developed coping skills — watching TV, drawing, reading the Bible and spending time with her cat rather than turning to drugs and men — and learned her importance.
“This is where I learned surviving is not the same as living. This is where I learned I was worth so much more than what I had been told. This is where I learned I am important and that people love me, not just for what I have or can give them,” Simpson said.
Slowly, Simpson earned the trust of Ladner.
“She has proven herself little by little and is now an integral part of our ministry,” Ladner said. “Anybody in this type of ministry or organization, we say if we can help one person than we’ve done what we set out to do. With Dani, we have done that. When you see someone do well long term, it pushes you to keep going.”
During a typical week, Simpson cooks for the other residents three or four days a week — comfort food, including chicken and dumplings, ham and pinto beans and collard greens, are the favorites — and drives them to work and appointments.
“My first drive in the morning is at 3:30. I get up at 3 in the morning every morning so that I have the rest of the day to plan if I am going to cook something,” Simpson said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s aggravating sometimes living with 40-something women, but I get so excited to cook for them. I have found my niche. It makes my soul happy to see my girls sitting at the table, eating my food and laughing.”
Once known as the most bitter resident at LifeSource, Simpson now serves as an inspiration.
“She is a great example. The five-year clean time is something you don’t see real often. She has gone from being at rock bottom to waking up every day and having a purpose and being happy. I think that gives other people hope for themselves,” Ladner said.
Simpson offered this advice to individuals struggling with addiction.
“I have attended more funerals than I can count. These are unnecessary, avoidable deaths,” Simpson said. “There is another way. There is so much more to life. Don’t give up. There’s a saying, ‘Don’t stop a second before the miracle.’ That’s so true. If my suicides would’ve worked, I would’ve never known how happy I could be. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for restoration and health. I am thankful to be alive.”