NORTH BRUNSWICK – A group of women wrote down their insecurities. They shared the messages with each other, offering them up to a higher power so those issues may be removed from their lives. They went outside with candles, read a prayer and then set those insecurities on fire. Literally.
“We held hands and prayed for them to be released,” Meredith DiGironimo said.
Such an occurrence is common at Gracie’s House, which provides temporary housing and life skills training for women over 18 as they move from dependent, often abusive or substance-dependent relationships to strong women of recovery.
There are six beds – two singles and two doubles – for stays that range from a minimum of three months up to 24 months at the North Brunswick location. There is a shared bathroom and kitchen, plus a nook to sit and read and a living room with a shared television. Each woman gets her own bed with fresh linens, a closet and a dresser.
The women can come from anywhere across the country – a detox facility, rehabilitation or even off the street. However, they must be clean before moving in, and are subject to random drug testing and Breathalyzer tests. There are also random room searches.
The women are assisted not only with their recovery, but with finding a job and establishing themselves in the community. After two weeks of adjusting to the house, they are required to work or to volunteer. If they have a criminal record or are bonded they will be provided with references from Middlesex County.
However, Gracie’s House is more than just a cooperative sober living facility. It is a spiritual center, focusing on healing and positivity, according to Executive Director Antonia Montalvo. Ancient healing techniques are combined with the 12-step program to encourage love and empowerment.
At age 12, Antonia Montalvo was given drugs by a family member who struggled with substance abuse; that person would leave her in New Brunswick while seeking a high.
She went to Rutgers Preparatory School, but lived a “double life,” hanging around drug dealers in New Brunswick.
She suffered physical abuse, rape and domestic violence. She is afflicted with Crohn’s disease and sarcoidosis. She has had numerous surgeries. She has been suicidal. She has overdosed several times and has even been pronounced dead. Her father was murdered.
“I was one of the most hopeless causes,” she said.
She lived at four treatment centers and two recovery homes, but she said she wasn’t ready to do the work.
“I was logically doing it, but wasn’t doing it through the heart,” she said.
On June 13, 2015, she overdosed for the last time – coincidentally on St. Anthony’s Day, her namesake. Three years ago, she decided to change her life for good.
“[St. Anthony] was my saving grace,” she said.
Montalvo recalled a spiritual experience where a shaman lady helped guide her through energy she received through her awakening from Christ. She experienced emotional freedom techniques to release her stored traumas. She said she saw a vision in the clouds, almost like her ego dismantling itself. After her mother sent her a Bible, she said she was in a trance for two hours and finally felt like she released her burdens.
“Miracles do exist,” she said. “Through the grace of God, I healed myself.”
Now, Montalvo considers herself to be the victor, not the victim. She was taking 30 pills during her recovery, such as mood stabilizers, anti-depressants and cures for migraines and nausea, but now takes none.
She said she uses her past addiction to empower herself. That desire to want more and more has turned into growth, she said.
Through meditation and practice, she said she has become an observer of her own life, observing her feelings to calm her mind.
“Feelings are always going to be there, but I look at them like my teachers,” she said.
She said she is “free,” and does not struggle with the thoughts of using. Instead, addiction has become her purpose.
“I was meant to be an addict,” she said. “My addict self is my greatest strength. It got me to build a house in a year. I embody and channel it in a healthy way. I embrace it. When I feel nagging it’s because my voice needs to be heard, and it’s a message.”
She said she and her boyfriend separated for two years until she was “given the gift of recovery” and they married in December. She has a 4-year-old son.
“If you do the work, the gifts are limitless, they’re abundant, they’re prosperous.”
She said the key is taking your own power back by taking responsibility, and then letting it go. For example, to concentrate on releasing her rape, she lit a candle for 14 days to honor her shame and honor her sadness.
“We get scared of our emotions and we use because we don’t want to feel, but … you still feel when you’re high. It’s worse,” she said.
“There is never a moment in time I don’t think and feel the wreckage of what I did, it never goes away … but it can get better and it will get better. The first day you walk into treatment, you’re better. The minute you decide you’re going to change, you’re getting better. Allow the space, the wreckage, to keep you humble … and use the pain for strength and purpose.
“I’ve been there. I’m successful now and I’m free, but I’ve been there,” she said.
Meredith DiGironimo has been in recovery for 12 years, crediting the 12-step process for keeping her clean. She was a full-blown alcoholic in eighth grade and a full-blown drug user in high school, and suffered with addiction for 25 years.
She was admitted to a psychiatric ward after suicide attempts, and tried to manipulate the system to get drugs.
She said she never went to rehab, but detoxed in 1999 after suffering seizures from alcohol withdrawal.
She said that due to her struggles with her disease, she would wake up miserable, mad she did not die; she was angry she had to face it all again. She said she did not think there would be a tomorrow, so she would not worry about tomorrow.
In 2006, she said, she had enough. She had gotten arrested for the third time and made her own decision to heal herself in the face of jail time.
She said she faced two 10-year sentences for assaulting police officers, but luckily the judge sent the issue back to the town instead of sending her to prison. She had to pay heavy fines, but the charges were dropped down.
“It was so humiliating reading my [court] discovery,” she said. “I didn’t remember [how I acted].”
Eventually, her anger and aggression turned into assertiveness.
She said she found a spiritual connection, relying on a higher being to help her be a better person. She said having awareness of her surroundings makes her more aware of herself, which gives her inner peace and keeps her calm. She said she will read scripture, write it down, read it again, but most importantly, absorb it.
She said she tries not to have remorse about the past, but instead lives for today. She does a morning meditation to set her focus for the day.
In the spring, DiGironimo left her job of seven years to become the director of operations for Gracie’s House. She lives in the house 24/7 at the understanding of her husband, who happens to be Montalvo’s cousin, and who works at a men’s transitional facility.
DiGironimo said she wants women to feel comfortable and not judged.
“I look forward to helping more women,” she said.
She treasures a sign one of the ladies put on her door: “If success could be measured by the number of lives we touch or by how much we are respected and loved, then you are one of the most successful women on the planet.”
“I’m so proud of them. I’m proud for them,” she said.
Six months into her recovery, Montalvo founded the Antonia Maria Foundation.
A year into her recovery, she established Gracie’s House in a home her family owns on Livingston Avenue. Gracie’s House opened on March 14, 2017.
Grandma Gracie was a strong, loyal, giving woman who focused on her family and the community. She grew up in Little Italy on Mulberry Street in Manhattan and was a “firecracker” with so much wisdom.
“She loved to love and she was my solace in my darkest moments. And she made me laugh all the time. Amazing cook. She truly believed in togetherness and unity,” Montalvo said.
The purpose of the transitional facility is to forge togetherness as a sisterhood while living in a safe environment. The women teach each other, create bonds and unite, shedding another layer of themselves, according to Montalvo.
There are certain “house rules,” such as only eating in the kitchen or the dining room to encourage community, and weekly chores.
Each woman has her own shelf in the pantry, and is provided water, paper towels and toilet paper by the house. There are fresh linens and decorations.
“They can personalize [their living space] so they feel comfortable,” DiGironimo said.
There are goddess cards, spirit animals, essential oils, Native American medicine, crystals, imagery, vision boards, yoga and reiki available to help connect each woman to her creative self. There is no religious affiliation, as women can follow whichever spiritual path fits them best.
Montalvo said she wants each member to “find her tribe”.
“We create a real healing, nurturing environment,” Montalvo said.
In the present, Montalvo is selling Nama-slay My Recovery T-shirts to help fundraise. In the near future, Montalvo hopes to open a second house in the fall.