There were speeches and applause, tissues for joyful tears and welcome embraces. And, there were 544 hard-won victories that lead to this day.
When Judy Mongelli was a freshman in high school, she never thought her first official graduation day would happen 37 years in the future.
Now a single mother of two adult boys and a hard-working employee, Mongelli is starting over. This time she has a team of coaches and a vision of her future that includes success.
Mongelli is the Oct. 20 graduate of Hood River County's innovative Drug Court rehabilitation program. Her path to recovery required courage, perseverance and faith.
"It's been a long year. Every day it's been in my face. This is what I did. This is what I need to do. This is what I am," said Mongelli, facing her past with a factual resolve and an emotional sweep that runs from tears to hope.
"I am an addict. I didn't know I was an addict. I thought I was a sociopath and beyond help," said the 51-year-old seasonal fisheries worker and Hood River resident.
Mongelli, who was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and writing checks against her boyfriend's bank account, can now "name the monster" that has plagued her since she was 18, thanks to the rehabilitation pathway offered to her by Hood River Circuit Court Judge Paul Crowley and District Attorney, John Sewell.
Never one to use openly, Mongelli started her drug consumption as a teenager; first with cocaine. She moved to meth in her late 30s.
"There were only a few people who knew; not my children, significant others or my mother," said Mongelli, who still regularly takes care of her disabled mother in Portland. Mongelli was a "covert" addict - often using behind a locked bedroom door.
Like many addicts, Mongelli did not recognize her behavior as addiction.
"I thought that because I could go five or six years or months-long stretches without using, I wasn't an addict," she said.
What Mongelli now admits she couldn't see before is that when she did use, her life became totally out of control; typical of a binge addiction.
"When I was using, I didn't care who I hurt. It was all about what I wanted. I lived a scorched-earth policy."
Mongelli's graduation guests shared a completely different picture of the now sober person before them, describing her as: "loving," "self-less," "kind," "caring and strong."
Crowley made a point of noting the 180-degree turn-around he's witnessed in Mongelli, summing up by saying "Now, I am privileged to know you."
Given the option to attend Drug Court in lieu of incarceration after her arrest in August 2010, Mongelli followed a very small voice inside which seemed to say that she "might still have a chance to change her life." She knew she couldn't continue the way she was.
"I'd think maybe I'd be lucky and someone would hit me while crossing the street," she said. "That was the only way I could see that I would stop hurting the people I cared about."
Instead, Mongelli changed her life step-by-step and one day at a time, with the guidance and care of dedicated Drug Court partners.
According to Drug Court coordinator Pamela Newman who spoke at the celebration, those steps involved 544 individual actions and expectations that Mongelli had to meet to reach this goal.
These steps included weekly drug court appearances and group sessions and signed documentation of actions Mongelli had to undertake. The entire team noted that she always went above and beyond the requirements.
"You really wanted to change your life. You were done with how it was before," said one graduation speaker.
In Phase I of her Drug Court rehabilitation, Mongelli was required to attend three 12-step program meetings a week. Later that would go up to five or more, in addition to regular counseling, coaching with her drug court mentors and guidance from her 12-step program sponsors.
The Drug Court team consists of experts who have all committed to offering an alternative to incarceration when they see the spark of willingness in a non-violent, drug-dependent defendant.
For Mongelli, the team most directly involved in her case beyond Crowley, Newman and Sewell included County Probation Officer Susie Strom and counselor Angela Aurit, from the Mid-Columbia Center for Living. Seven other agency representatives sit on the Court and were part of the decision to enroll Mongelli.
"I can call Angela or Pamela or Susie and I know someone will be there. It's way good," said Mongelli. "This was the very first serious treatment I ever received; the first ever offered to me."
Mongelli's attorney, Conor Sullivan, also encouraged her to pursue the option.
Understanding the nature of addiction and the way in which it distorts perception, Mongelli can now use her knowledge to make better choices and seek a peaceful inner state when life stresses mount.
"I can now accept things. I'm okay with what I am and learning to deal with whatever comes my way. Instead of trying to be all things to all people I have learned to do only so much and accept that things are good enough."
Mongelli's goals following graduation include finding additional work and an affordable car, attending 12-step meetings and cultivating good friendships. Most importantly, she plans on loving her new grandson and being there to help his parents. She has a small garage studio to live in and looks forward to living in a larger place someday.
Mongelli's advice to others in her shoes?
"Look and see what is really going on; accept what you've done; decide you don't want to continue and really give everything in your will to make it better - 150 percent on a daily basis."
With her mother, son, grandson, sister, brother-in-law and nieces in attendance, along with about 35 other friends and supporters, Mongelli reached out and took hold of her graduation diploma - a poignant moment in a year of challenging and significant lessons.
"This is totally life-changing - and thank God for that," said Mongelli, beaming with hope and life-affirming energy.
Mongelli left the courthouse celebration in the afternoon's crisp fall air surrounded by love and supported by hope - the best possible way to start any journey.