Still, she credits a February 1994 meeting with Philadelphia suburbanites for helping turn her life around - and giving her an unlikely, albeit safe, second chance at having a mother-daughter connection.
"I was desperate, I was intimidated, but I tried not to show it," said Johnson-Huston (she married Shawn Huston, a litigation support expert, in 2005). "I walked into that interview knowing that, in some ways, the rest of my life depended on it."
The interview was at the Haverford home of lawyer Deborah Leavy and her husband, Donald Bersoff, a Drexel law professor, to be the nanny for their 3-year-old son, Ben. By then a first-year college dropout living with friends, Johnson-Huston was down to her last $30, but she impressed the family.
"Nikki came across as articulate, smart, and very competent," remembers Leavy. "And our son, Ben . . . adored her from the start."
Bersoff, too, saw the immediate love connection with his son. "That's what I was looking for, and that's what mattered."
Thus began a relationship that transformed all of their lives. Leavy eventually was Johnson-Huston's matron of honor, who helped plan details of the wedding (Bersoff was a groomsman; Leavy attended Johnson-Huston's bachelorette party). And when Johnson-Huston's younger brother, Michael, a longtime victim of drugs, committed suicide last year, Leavy was the second person she called, after her husband.
That kind of trusting bond was a long time coming.
Johnson-Huston's childhood was a blur of crises. She was often on the front lines when her mother was lost or passed out in the haze of alcohol and drugs. At age 8, she was the one calling shelters in the San Diego area, where the family had relocated from Detroit, for beds for Michael, her mother, and herself.
Sometimes, she had a haven with her grandmother in Santa Rosa and then San Diego, punctuated by brief reunions with her mother and, later, a stepfather. "There was even a time when they had jobs, and I lived with them. I was a freshman in high school, and we had a pretty normal life. I even made the cheerleading squad!"
But soon, the family was displaced again. Ultimately, her brother went into foster care, and Johnson-Huston returned to her ailing, but loving, grandmother. Johnson-Huston had always been a good student, so by the time high school graduation rolled around, she had won a full scholarship to St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Off to the East Coast, Johnson-Huston thought she was going to set the world on its ear. No more confusion, shelters, poverty, food stamps.
But at St. Joe's, instant culture shock set in: Her classmates had cars and credit cards. They were mostly white, comfortable, suburban kids. Nobody had her history or could even imagine it. "I wanted to be like everyone else, but I wasn't."
Her world fell apart. "I missed classes, my grades slipped, and I was on academic probation after one semester. By the end of that academic year, I was invited to leave."
For the next six months, Johnson-Huston stayed around campus, making some money babysitting. And then she saw the ad for a nanny. It didn't matter that the couple were white, Jewish professionals. They took her in as their own.
"I saw people who had a lovely home, family dinners, friends, books," Johnson-Huston said. "They didn't use food stamps - that was a revelation to me, and it made me realize that this life was out there, even for someone like me."
As she worked days as a nanny and weekends bartending, Johnson-Huston was reenergized. She got her confidence back, with boosts from Leavy and Bersoff, and was accepted into St. Joseph's University college night program. "This time, I knew it was now or never."
Leavy remembers, too. "Of course, we became invested in her success. We clearly saw her enormous promise. The blessing was that, despite everything Nikki had been through, her heart was not hardened."
Her nanny job with the family ended a couple years later when Ben was ready for school, and Leavy, who had been executive director of the Philadelphia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, shifted gears and became an at-home artist, following her passion.
But the deep connection had been established.
Johnson-Huston graduated from St. Joe's in 1998 with her surrogate parents, now of Radnor, cheering her on. She then enrolled at Temple University's School of Law and graduated in 2003 with not one but three degrees: the juris doctorate, an M.B.A., and a master's degree in tax law. "I studied when I thought I couldn't stay awake another minute. I wanted this so badly."
Again, her "family" celebrated that graduation with her, as they had for every milestone, including Ben's bar mitzvah, at which Johnson-Huston lighted the first symbolic candle. Today, Ben, a freshman at Emory College in Atlanta, always manages a lunch with his former nanny when he's home.
The relationship between the two women, they say, is easier experienced than explained. It's part mother-daughter, part big sister-little sister, and big part dearest friends.
Says Leavy, "I want to hold her close - she's definitely a part of me."
"I roll my eyes and remind Deborah that I'm a grown-up when she gets a little bossy with the advice. But deep down," says Johnson-Huston, "I really love it! It's her way of letting me know that she cares. And I need that from the people I love."
On Sunday, Johnson-Huston will carry out the usual tradition: bring flowers to Leavy, along with a meaningful card. It will be, after all, Mother's Day.