Quentin Vennie shouldn’t be alive—he has walked a path that many don’t live long enough to write about. Growing up in Baltimore, he was surrounded by nothing but dead ends. Statistics mapped out his future, and he grew hostile toward a world that viewed him with suspicion and disdain. He was shot at, sold drugs up and down the East Coast, lingered on the brink of incarceration, and stared down death more than once. Haunted by feelings of abandonment and resentment, he struggled with chronic anxiety and depression and battled a crippling prescription drug addiction.
The day he contemplated taking his life was the day he rediscovered his purpose for living.
Vennie’s survival depended upon his finding a new path, but he didn’t know where to turn—his doctor was concerned only with prescribing more medication. Vennie refused, and in a desperate attempt to save his own life, decided to pursue a journey of natural healing. After researching a few self-healing methods, he immediately bought a juicer from an all-night grocery store. He started juicing in the hopes that it would help him repair his body and clear his mind. He jumped headfirst into the world of wellness and started incorporating yoga and meditation into his life. This “wellness trinity” helped him cut back on and then quit the many medications he was on, overcome his addictions, and ultimately, transform his life while inspiring others to find their own unique path to wellness.
Strong in the Broken Places is the harrowing story of Vennie’s life, the detours that almost ended it, and the inspiring turns that saved it. The odds were stacked against him, but he was able to defy expectations and claw his way out on his own terms. He is living proof that during our weakest moments, we have the power and ability to unlock unimaginable strength.
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About the Author
Jon Sternfeld is a writer whose work includes Crisis Point: Why We Must—and How We Can—Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America with Senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle and A Stone of Hope: A Memoir, with Jim St. Germain. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. PROVERBS 22:6
CHILD'S POSE IS A RESTFUL POSE. It's often used in the beginning or middle of asana, the physical practice of yoga. Considered a foundation pose, it helps to establish a conscious awareness of the breath, as well as movement from the core. It helps to cultivate the patience needed to surrender to the idea of nothingness while broadening awareness of the world around you.
I am 10 years old and something has woken me up. I'm in bed at my grandparents' house in West Baltimore, staring at the ceiling fan. It's whirring and humming in the morning din. The child in me wants to jump up and start yelling into it, get that muffled robotic drone going. The clock radio is a red 5:05. I sense the reason I'm awake before I actually hear it. Noise is leaking in from downstairs. Muted objects shifting around the linoleum floor, voices rising and falling. Nothing concrete enough to make out, but something is clearly going on.
It's the story of my young life: reality intruding on my inner world, demanding an audience, while I try to block it out. I peer over in bed and notice Uncle Jason is gone. This is his room, his bed. Jason is only 2 years older than me, more like a brother to me than to my father. Pop has been a ghost these days; I haven't seen him for weeks—maybe months—and the last time was for about 30 seconds.
My eyes drift outside, past the paint-chipped window frame, out to the green roof of St. Ambrose Church. I replay my latest moves on the church's basketball court, how I blew by that scrawny kid, breaking his ankles with my crossover. I've never been tall—I'll never be tall, they say—but I'm quicker than everyone else. Grandma's house has always been a safe place, but it's an island in the middle of one of America's most dangerous cities.
The noise could be an intruder, some junkie scouring for a few bucks. Or someone's broken in through the back door to grab the television. Maybe he's tossing things, taking any valuable he can find. Jason could be scuffling with him in the living room, and the guy could be going for his gun. The noise settles and then drops. It's quiet again.
People call me Juice. My grandmother says it's because as a baby, I had juicy lips from drooling all the time. But my name is Quentin, which I hate. My mom and I live in the Baltimore suburbs—what everyone calls "the county"—but I spend just about every weekend, summer, and break here at my father's parents' house in Park Heights. I love the comforting routine here, waking up to breakfast with my grandmother and uncle.
"Juice, you want one piece of fried bologna or two?" my grandmother would ask.
"Two," I'd say. Fried bologna's my favorite, so I'm always trying to score some extra.
"Eggs and scrapple too, right?"
"Hand me that loaf of bread in there," she'd say, head jutting to the old breadbox. Then she'd give me a cup of coffee. "And take this upstairs to your grandfather before he has a fit."
That was every Saturday morning. Except this one. A voice pushes up through the floor, like a jolt. I don't know what's happening downstairs and I'm too afraid to find out. I just want to go back to sleep: where I feel safest, where nothing is real, where I can be whomever I want. I close my eyes, but my mind doesn't rest. Something's whispering, nudging me to find out what's happening downstairs. I'm after answers. I open my eyes again, or maybe they open on their own. The noise downstairs lifts—furniture shifting, bursts of yelling, but I don't move. I stick my finger into the hole in the lining of the comforter, see how far it can go. I look outside and watch the clouds float lazily behind the church.
This is my defense: Separate yourself. It's how I once stayed protected from my parents' fighting; now I do it all the time, avoiding loud noises and crowded places. I like it all stripped bare, down to the basics. No surprises that way. I've seen enough of this neighborhood, out with Pop on the streets near addicts lining up to get their fix. People sleeping wherever, snorting or shooting whatever, willing to do whatever to make it through the day. Bad shit building up like a dam that could burst at any second. Spill right into Grandma's house. I'm scared, but I have a growing sense of duty, especially to my family.
I throw the covers off and dart out of bed, hoping the momentum will bring courage. I take the stairs two at a time-trying to outrun my anxiety-and smack right into the arm of my grandmother's emerald green sofa, wrapped in thick plastic. I get up and trip over the rug runner that stretches from the front door to the dining room. I gather myself again and run toward the noise-through the empty dining room, the narrow kitchen, and down the wooden stairs to the basement. I run around my grandfather's pool table, past his poster of sex positions on the wall, all the way to the bar in the back. At the far wall I see Uncle Jason kneeling down in front of the pullout bed. Just seeing him makes me relax. I exhale. There are no strangers around; no one is struggling, no one is fighting. Everything is frozen still when I walk in, like a painting. Just Jason. And my grandmother in the back room by the washing machine, gone quiet for a moment. Jason is holding a small mirror with a powdered residue smeared across it. I'm not sure what it is, but I know it's not baby powder.
"Yo, what's that?" I ask him, still out of breath. "What's going on?"
Jason looks up. He's never been one to sugarcoat things for me. "Puddin' gone off that dope, yo."
Puddin' is my father's childhood nickname, though I call him Pop. "Gone off" means hooked. Dope is heroin. My father had spread drugs on the mirror, using the hard surface to separate the powder into lines, making sure he didn't waste any and making it easier to sniff. The powder is the residue of the heroin he had snorted—a few hours earlier, right below all of us.
That discovery was the dividing line of my childhood. It was like a screeching halt and then a sharp right turn. And that morning felt like one long skid out. Even with my habit of disappearing inside myself, I couldn't ignore the truth anymore: My father was a drug addict. For a long time my family wanted to protect me from it, afraid of what I would think of him if I knew.
"I can't believe he did this shit in my house!" my grandmother was yelling from the back of the basement. "In my house! Doing this shit in my house!" Grandma, Pop's mother, looked out for my father the most. She fed him, housed him, gave him money; everything his life was built on had come from her. But Granddad knew what being a drug addict meant.
"They're thieves," he had said. "Do whatever it takes to get that hit. Only a matter of time before he steals from us."
But my grandmother was not willing to turn her back on her son. "I can't believe he'd go and do this shit in my house," she was saying. "I can't fucking believe him!"
"What do we do?" Jason asked, seemingly to me.
"—in my house!" Grandma's voice was rising again, swirling on repeat.
"I didn't even know he was here last night," Jason continued. My heart dropped.
"Wait, last night? He was here last night?" I said.
"Yeah, Mommy let him in," Jason said.
I was more in shock that my father had just been there—and that I didn't know about it—than about what he had left behind. It cut right through me. My 10-year-old brain went into overdrive while the family around me collapsed. My father, whom I rarely saw, had snuck into the house where I was sleeping to get his fix and then vanished with the morning light. I felt like the residue, left over and forgotten.
Jason got up off of the one knee. "I knew something was up," he said, "but I ain't know he was gone like that. Ain't no coming back now."
Jason was barely 12 years old, but had already seen more than people twice his age. He seemed grown to me, practically a man. I took his words as gospel. Ain't no coming back now. Jason told me that Pop had called my grandmother and said he needed a place to sleep for the night. Grandma said he could stay in the basement—he'd be on the street otherwise—but he had to be gone in the morning before my grandfather woke up.
For years, all the signs of my father's addiction were there: He was too skinny, never kept promises, had trouble with the cops, couldn't hold a job, always asked for money. An addict. Just the word itself was too heavy to say. I didn't want to admit it to myself. What kid would? Earlier that year, my father had been arrested, the first of what would become a pattern of events over the next few years. My mother explained to me that he had a few "issues" that he needed to work out, and that jail would help him. His world had been slowly killing him, and some time away would do him good. I didn't know much, but I knew what kind of friends he had. I had met them.
Jason and I would be waiting our turn for flavored ices at the snowball stand, and addicts would be lined up behind the Chinese carryout, waiting to receive tester pills of whatever new drug had just hit the streets. That place was a hub for drug activity, which meant it was a magnet for a lot of other things, including guns and violence. As one of the only businesses open on that strip, it was also the hangout spot we'd use for shelter from the summer heat, or the place we'd run into whenever the police would sweep in just to harass people.
Pop would sometimes take me out and introduce me around. "Y'all know this is my son, right?" he'd say proudly, his scrawny arm around me, presenting me like a trophy. I'd force a smile. Pop was no longer the clean-cut, polished gentleman from old photographs. Hair unkempt, clothes frayed, the same gray sweatpants he always wore, large enough for us both to climb inside. These other men-I knew what they were doing. I just couldn't yet build that bridge from them to Pop.
Knowledge of my father's addiction had always been secondhand, something I never looked at directly. I was protected from it, but I also had an adolescent brain that couldn't piece things together-or didn't want to. I had seen his addiction reflected in things-his behavior, his arrests, his treatment of others, his absences. But that morning at my grandmother's house was a harsh look right at it. Like staring at the sun.
"Maybe I can talk to him," I said to Jason. "I can get him to stop whatever he's doing. I'm his son, right?"
I wanted the love a father has for his son to be stronger than the pull of any addiction. Maybe if I had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me, he would stop using. Maybe he'd become the father I needed him to be. Hearing me, my grandmother came out from the back room. The look on her face said it all. Even at 10, I knew this was magical thinking on my part.
But I wanted to matter, to have the power to inspire Pop to turn his life around. I was already an insecure kid. Now I felt lied to, abandoned, and disowned by the one man who was supposed to love and protect me. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe we had different interpretations of what our relationship was supposed to be. But that morning, over that mirror, it all crumbled.
A switch was flipped in my young brain. I stopped trusting, stopped believing in people. I refused to believe in anything but disappointment. I vowed to never allow anyone to hurt me as badly as my father had, to never show how much I cared. I promised myself to be as cold and heartless to others as the world had been to me. I would show nothing: I'd be all sword, all shield.
Table of Contents
Part I Child's Pose
Chapter 1 Residue 3
Chapter 2 Survival in Baltimore 10
Chapter 3 The Curtain 22
Chapter 4 Target 37
Chapter 5 Problem Kid 48
Chapter 6 Least 57
Part II Cobra Pose
Chapter 7 Moe 71
Chapter 8 The Wall 88
Chapter 9 The Fall 98
Chapter 10 Stranger 109
Chapter 11 Crutch 119
Chapter 12 White Noise 129
Chapter 13 The Price 139
Part III Tree Pose
Chapter 14 My Dealer 153
Chapter 15 Road to Healing 161
Chapter 16 My Truth 173
Chapter 17 Wading into the Deep 180
Epilogue: Outward 189
Appendix A Juices to Try 193
Appendix B Yoga Resources 197
About the Authors 207
Reading Group Guide
Quentin’s story is a riveting one, one that proves that during our weakest moments, we have the power to unlock unimaginable strength. No matter how difficult, no matter the obstacles that stand in our way, we always have a choice.Quentin Vennie has walked a path that many don’t live long enough to write about. Growing up in Baltimore, he was surrounded by dead ends, haunted by abandonment and violence, and struggled with anxiety and depression from a young age. He became a victim of circumstance, becoming a drug dealer and eventually became an addict himself.
But at his lowest point, when he realized how bad things had gotten, he decided to pull himself out. He made the conscious choice to begin a journey of natural healing that ended up saving his life. He bought a juicer from the local convenience store and started juicing. He incorporated meditation and yoga into his lifestyle. Through sheer force of will and a heartfelt desire to heal, Quentin, now a wellness expert, was able to turn away from his self-destructive path and forge a new one.
He adopted a “trinity of wellness”—yoga, meditation, and juicing—that kept him on that new path. Juicing nourished his body, yoga kept him active both mentally and physically, and meditation helped him stay balanced and in tune with what was truly important in life.
Quentin’s story is a riveting one, one that proves that during our weakest moments, we have the power to unlock unimaginable strength. No matter how difficult, no matter the obstacles that stand in our way, we always have a choice.
1. Quentin deals with anxiety and depression by numbing his feelings: drugs, smoking, drinking, and compulsive exercise. Even when he is in a loving relationship and with a steady job, his need to get out of his own head persists. Where do you think his need to escape stems from?
2. As a child, Quentin was forced to have a thick shell. He needed to protect himself from his environment and, in a sense, prepare himself for a certain kind of life. He was taught that he didn’t have the right to feel. When you grew up, were you taught to honor your feelings, or to suppress them?
3. One theme in the book is strength, and how too much of it can be detrimental. It’s typical with men who have been raised to be “tough,” taught to detach from their feelings, and told that the only acceptable emotion is anger. When feelings swell, they don’t know how to cope, let alone identify what they are feeling. How have you seen this expectation of men play out in the world today? Have you, as a man or as a woman, had the experience that the weight of certain expectations were destructive for you?
4. In Chapter 11, Quentin suffers an accidental overdose. Rather than being an obvious wake-up call for change, Quentin shames himself for it; he is embarrassed by what he sees as a weakness, afraid of being judged, and afraid of being vulnerable. He does not want to be open about his life. Have you ever felt the need to be closed off about your life, especially when it comes to your mental health or feelings? How do you think those self- or societally-imposed “rules” have affected how you interact with those around you?
5. At the end of Chapter 13, Quentin makes the decision to kill himself. Once he’s decided this, he feels relief. “… an ease flowed out of me, a peace emerged from the letting go. I had been feeling my emotions far too much, was oppressed and persecuted by them every hour of the day. Every ounce of pain and frustration I felt all my life, the disappointments, the heartache of my son leaving, the broken promises by my father, the things said to me by authority figures, the failures I’d accumulated, I felt it all so intimately. It all validated my decision.” How did you feel as you read this passage and as you followed Quentin to this part in his story? How did you react to his thinking that suicide was the right thing to do?
6. In the car when he has prepared to kill himself, Quentin isn’t able to find the gun. He comes to see this as divine intervention, as a “come-to-Jesus” moment. It was a moment in which God and the universe showed him that his life had value and that he was meant to live. Have you experienced such a moment?
7. After countless struggles, Quentin was able to turn his life around by looking within. His darkest moment was his turning point. Have you ever had the experience where a serious struggle becomes the catalyst for a major life change?
8. Throughout the book, Quentin uses yoga poses to illustrate various qualities that illustrate a major concept in life. Child’s Pose, a restful and secure posture, opens the chapters on Quentin’s childhood, which was far from restful and secure. Tree Pose, a dynamic pose that enhances focus and challenges the balance, opens the section on his turning point towards health. Did you find the parallels between the yoga postures and the moments in his life helpful? With yoga or with any movement practice, have you noticed that the qualities cultivated in certain movements mirror events or emotions in your life?
9. Through meditation and learning about the breath, Quentin more in tune with how the mind works. “What we think becomes our reality; therefore what we do begins with who we perceive ourselves to be. The goal is to free your mind from the control over it that we’re conditioned to having.” How has your perception of yourself shaped your actions?
10. Quentin credits his “trinity of wellness” for turning his life around—a combination of juicing, meditation, and yoga. Juicing healed him from the inside out, yoga allowed him to feel and face discomfort, and meditation brought him in touch with his conscious mind. What tools have helped you in life? What actions or practices have transformed you?