Personal Essay: After addiction led to a jail sentence, bicycling set one woman free

Illustration by Julia Tran

Illustration by Julia Tran

The Road Ahead

by Noelle Billbrough

A door slams shut, a guard calls count, and that’s when it hits me. This is my reality now: an 8x12 jail cell. All control over my life is gone, and all I can do is think about my regrets. I’d spent more time running from life than I had living it. My childhood, education, family and friends—all had suffered because of my lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol.

At 35 years old, I was at my lowest. I was in jail, and it’s easy to get caught up in the lifestyle—at first, I was more concerned with commissary and “street cred” than changing my life. But a few months in, I had a moment where I knew that if I didn’t change, I was going to die. 

I joined a spin class ran by Gearing Up, a nonprofit organization that helps women like me who are transitioning from a life of addiction, incarceration or abuse. My first class, all I could think was, “Why anyone would put themselves through this?” The ladies just smiled and said, “See you next time.” Every time I walked in the gym for that hour, I felt free. I felt alive. 
I felt loved—for the first time in a very long time, someone was genuinely happy to see me and truly wanted to help me in my life. 

They accepted me as I was, addict and all. I learned about patience, teamwork and friendships, and most of all I learned about myself. I no longer worried about my fair-weather friends or what was going on back on my unit. Through the love and friendship of my spin class, I began to care about my life again. We laughed, cried and learned together. Gearing Up is not just a bunch of women riding bikes, they are changing lives one bike ride at a time. I began to see that this was not the end of my life, but the beginning

After my release, I was at my halfway house just three hours when I called an outpatient women’s addiction program that partners with Gearing Up and signed up for their “Street Program.” On my path to recovery, no matter what, there was always someone by my side. I would get phone calls, emails and texts checking in on me. These women really loved me and I loved them. When I was upset, they were upset, and when I was on top of the world, so were they. I was taught unconditional love and respect, and little by little, I began to believe in myself again. I worked hard and rode harder. I was able to earn a free bike in just seven short weeks. Every sore leg, every tight muscle was worth it. 

Then, I got a phone call about a job they felt I was perfect for. A company called Wash Cycle Laundry needed a customer care agent, and within two weeks I had two interviews and a job offer. Had someone told me three years ago that this would be my life today, I would have said they were crazy. One bike, one ride, a changed life, and lifelong friends. I’m ready for the road ahead.

Noelle Bilbrough is now a customer care manager at Wash Cycle Laundry.