My Destiny Is Being Here

Cleopatra Patterson came to her calling as a counselor in The Mission’s Behavioral Health Center through a circuitous route.

She was “the baby girl,” the eighth of nine children raised by her mom, who was a single parent. “I grew up in the projects in North Trenton, and my mom did an amazing job,” Cleopatra said. “Our family was loving. I was spoiled. And my mom emphasized the importance of education, making sure that most of us went to college,” she added.

While going to college, Cleopatra also worked in the summers at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. “It was an exciting time,” she said. “Money was easy. It was all tips and smiles. I learned that I was very good at connecting with customers.” The times were fast, and she decided to go to school to become a blackjack dealer, rather than finishing college.

Fast forward a decade later, and “drugs and alcohol had become the norm, part of my lifestyle, until it got out of hand.” That was when a friend, who was also a blackjack dealer, offered to take her to an addiction treatment center. “I didn’t realize it, but the day I went into treatment was my mom’s birthday.” She paused, then added, “My mom said it was the best birthday present ever.”

After getting clean and sober, Cleopatra went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Rutgers University. While there, she also received a scholarship to go to South Africa. That was where her life’s direction changed. When Cleopatra walked inside the cell where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island, tears covered her face and fell to the floor. Then in Cape Town, she said, “I gave the equivalent of $2 to a woman in need, and she hugged me so tight that I can still feel it. She told me it was enough to pay for her rent for a month. I was opened up to a new outlook on life. It was about loving people. Like I’d been taught growing up in my family. And I realized that I needed to do something different with my life, something more meaningful.”

That was when Cleopatra started working in the therapeutic community, gaining certifications and a master’s degree in counseling.

As a counselor in The Mission’s Behavioral Health Center, she now finds that the ability to meet, greet and connect with people, like she was doing in the casinos when she was younger, is a strength that makes those she is counseling feel comfortable and willing to open up.

“For some reason,” she shared, “I was gifted to help those who are in the early stages of recovery. I’m very positive, encouraging, open and hopeful. I purposefully create an atmosphere where someone who is vulnerable, and may be at the weakest point in their life, feels accepted for who they are – and safe. And, because of that, more times than not, while they may come across as distant, resistant, even afraid – in a very short time, they open up, like a wound, and I start hearing the beginnings of everything, as if they’ve known me for years.”

Cleopatra added, “I say to everyone who I am counseling that you are the reason I came to work today. And I believe it. I believe that how we meet someone sets the stage for what will follow. My passion is connecting with people. I believe deep within everyone I meet, there is something in myself that I can relate with. I share freely with them about my addiction and recovery. I tell them that I believe in them – and that they have the power to change things. And, while we can talk right away about things that are heavy, I am also able to bring the conversation back again to something positive. I always try to find a shared sense of humor. And at the end of our meetings, I will say, ‘The only way you’re getting out of here is to smile. You can’t leave until you smile.’ And somehow that smile always comes around.” She paused, then said, “That smile is how we start our conversations. And how we end them.”

When asked about one of her favorite success stories, Cleopatra said, “Just the other day I heard from a woman who I was counseling early in my career. She was in a halfway house, had been to prison, and she decided that this was her time to turn everything around. She gave it her all, and grasped everything – from budgeting her money to being honest with herself. After going through counseling, she got a sponsor, attended meetings, got a job, got her own place to live, got her children back, and now, all these years later, she is retiring from her position at Rutgers University.” 

Smiling, as she put her hand over her heart, Cleopatra added, “That, to me, is such a blessing. To have been at the beginning of her journey, and to have been just a small part of her success…that lightens my day and brings me such joy. That’s why my destiny is being here.”

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