Rising from the Ashes of Personal Tragedy, Phoenix Duncan Soars to New Heights
By Doug Goodnough
She was named after a mythical bird that arises to new life from the ashes of its predecessor.
An orphan at the age of 16 after watching both of her parents die from drug- and alcohol-related liver diseases, Phoenix Duncan had a decision to make. Was she going to follow the same self-destructive lives of her parents, or would she overcome her painful past?
The 19-year-old Siena Heights sophomore has answered that question emphatically. Not only is she a dean’s list student who is headed for a career in nursing, Duncan is also rising above the competition as a high jumper on the women’s track team. In fact, in three NAIA national championship meets, she has finished runner-up all three times and already is one of the unquestioned leaders on campus.
Dealing with Death
Duncan and her older brothers were in foster care when they got the word their father was dying of liver failure due to years of drug and alcohol abuse. She was just 10 years old.
“We just got a call that he had passed away during the night,” said Duncan, who knew her father was dying but was still caught off guard by the news. “Having this mindset of ‘OK, we’ll see him again,’ then all of a sudden (he died), it is just completely changing. That affects you.”
A month later, she and her siblings were back living with her mother, who was dealing with her own addiction issues. Family life was OK for awhile, but when her mother relapsed, Duncan also changed for the worse.
“It’s almost like, ‘OK, if you’re relapsing, then I’m also just going to be a rebel,’” Duncan said of her negative reaction to her mother’s struggles with addiction. “We were both going down the path where I was doing stupid things, she was doing stupid things. We were just neck-and-neck.”
During Christmas break more than three years ago, Duncan’s mother told her she was dying. Four days after Duncan’s 16th birthday, her mother passed away. But she said dealing with her mother’s dying and eventual death was a transformational experience.
“No more bad Phoenix,” she said of the 180-degree turn she made. “I didn’t have bad grades, but I didn’t have grades that were up to my potential. I just didn’t care. I wanted to prove to (my mother) that I was in control.”
Duncan was definitely in control, but moving in a much better direction.