Project Report- "Where Normalcy Meets Boredom"
By Meena Venkataramanan
Note: All client names have been changed to maintain client confidentiality.
In the Native Ways group therapy at The Haven, eleven women: nine Native Americans and two Mexican-Americans, sit before me. Each woman has a distinct story and valuable life experiences, but these eleven women are united with one similarity- they all are victims of substance abuse. Here at The Haven, they seek to overcome their addiction by engaging in culturally-competent group therapy where they can talk about their fears, worries, and hopes while engaging in traditional practices found in their communities, including the Medicine Wheel, Smudging, and Talking Circles.
During my visit to The Haven, a Tucson substance abuse treatment center for women, I had the opportunity to meet these women and hear their stories. We gathered around in a circle as they welcomed me into the group, which was led by Joyce Morgan, the Chief of Clinical Services at The Haven. Joyce addressed the group, asking them, “When was the first time you used [drugs] and what made you want to use?” She then sat back and let these women share their stories.
Alexis, a mother of an eight year-old and a twelve year-old, began to smoke marijuana when she was nine. She felt unwelcome on her dad’s side of the family, because “they all had dark skin and I didn’t look like them.” Her family introduced her to marijuana, which she began to use because she thought it would help her fit in with her family.
Natalie began smoking marijuana at the age of 11. She smoked with her sister and her cousin, and did it “out of boredom” and because she “thought it was fun.” Her father also used the substance, revealing a family history of substance abuse.
Elizabeth, the sole pregnant woman among the group, experienced mental and emotional abuse from her grandmother at the age of eight. At nine, she began to smoke marijuana with her cousin and brother, hinting that marijuana was a way to relieve stress and overcome the trauma she felt from being abused.
For Maria, substance abuse came at a later time in her life. She began drinking when she was 32 years old. “I have two deaf sons, so I had to learn both English and ASL at the same time. I also had just gotten divorced and began drinking to fall asleep,” commented Maria, implying that drinking was a way for her to relax and relieve stress. Slowly, she began to drink more and more, until it was out of control.
Though Maria began drinking well into adulthood, most of these women began using substances during their childhood, most commonly alcohol and marijuana. In time, their drug use escalated to cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Some of these women even began to pair their drugs for maximum effect. Alexis recalls that she would “smoke a blunt and then a cigarette” on a regular basis, while Natalie remembers first using “alcohol and cocaine, but then escalating to meth.”
Family histories of substance abuse further aggravate the likelihood of addiction among these women and their children. Joyce commented that while she and I only have a few relatives who abuse drugs and alcohol, “almost all of these women’s relatives suffer from addiction.”
At 16, Natalie knew she had a problem. “My mom couldn’t handle me, and that’s when I knew.” Meanwhile, two of the older women in the group, Gloria and Belen, began to realize the severity of their use in their early teens. Gloria confessed to starting her drug use at 12, while Belen recalled first using at 13, and is “extremely worried for [her] son now.” The women admitted that there is a cycle of drug use within their families, and feared that this cycle cannot be stopped in time to save their children.
“You CAN stop the cycle now,” affirmed Joyce, looking the women in the eye. “You don’t want to see your children use, and your adolescent children have a 50-50 chance of getting addicted while experimenting with drugs and alcohol in their early teens.
“It all goes back to nature versus nurture. The key questions are: what can you do as minority women within your culture to end the cycle? How will you change your environment to protect your children?” asked Joyce, provoking thought among these unsure women.
“There’s nothing to do where I live,” lamented Gloria, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Reservation. Many of these women shared the same sentiments- the heartbreaking feeling that there are really no other options except drugs and alcohol in their relatively isolated communities. Most of them live below the poverty line and do not have cars, leaving them with limited recreational options.
However, many of these women lack one thing: routines. Joyce encouraged the group to form routines, including giving their children baths, feeding them breakfast, reading to them, and helping them clean their rooms. According to Joyce, many of these women “let the television do the parenting for them” by regularly leaving their children in front of the TV while they get drunk or high.
Joyce also encouraged the women to “do something healthy for themselves,” including taking a walk or reading a book at an appropriate reading level. Out of the eleven women present, about nine of them said they could read at a middle-school level, and only one woman admitted to having read the Harry Potter series. Joyce encouraged the others to “pick up a book,” since many of these women do not know if reading is enjoyable because they have never tried it before. She also mentioned that many of these women’s reservations offer substance-free activities that the women should consider attending with their children. “The problem is that you all think these activities are boring. For you, using is the only activity that sounds fun.”
Many of these women have yet to find jobs, and worry about supporting their families. Belen began to weep. “I don’t want my four year-old to see what I did or think it’s okay to use. I don’t want them to hold it against me,” she sobbed, envisioning her worst nightmare: her own child beginning to abuse drugs.
Joyce remained the calm among this group. “Recovery is about changing what you consider to be boring into life. Boredom gives you opportunities to use. I want you all to name one activity you can participate in when you feel like using.”
One by one, the women listed off different activities that could serve as alternatives to drugs and alcohol. From cooking, to hiking, to playing with sons and daughters, the activities varied, but the goal remained consistent: to become clean.
The hour was coming to an end, but I had one more question for these strong, capable women. “What advice would you give to teenagers who are facing pressure to use drugs and alcohol? How would you caution them against using?”
Natalie warned, “Substance abuse is a progressive disease. It might seem fun now, but tomorrow it won’t be so fun.”
Fighting back tears, Alexis added, “You’ll lose friends, family, and property. You need to think about the consequences of what you’re doing before it gets out of control.”
And Elizabeth concluded, “Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you like. As a kid, I was too afraid to tell my family I wanted to do after-school activities,” implying that a fear of being judged led her to succumb to the norm within her family and use drugs.
Upon concluding the group therapy, the women proceeded to gather materials for a sage-burning ritual that is completed at the end of every session. These rituals allow for traditional healing practices to aid conventional group therapy, and reveal a cultural competence that is key in treating substance abuse among diverse groups of people.
Before leaving, I asked Joyce if she could recall a specific time her job felt most rewarding. “Yes,” she answered confidently. “There was a young lady who lived here with her nine month-old child and two year-old daughter. She stayed here for five months. She was addicted to heroin, but we found out that she was misusing her prescription drugs while she was here.
“After staying here, she stopped using heroin completely and stopped misusing her prescription drugs. She found a job, and to this day, she holds that job and is in custody of her children. She’s a great mom.”
In the end, that’s what recovery is all about. In the words of Joyce, recovery is “turning boredom into life.” And to those who cannot recover for themselves, recovery is for others.
Thank you to Joyce Morgan and Margaret Higgins from The Haven for making this visit and project possible.
Where: The Haven, a women's substance abuse treatment center located in Tucson, AZ
When: August 1, 2016
Who: 11 Native American (representing nations and tribes including Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui) and Mexican-American adult female clients and Joyce Morgan, Chief of Clinical Services
Objective: Converse with clients to receive insight about their experiences with substance abuse and learn about their steps to recover and impart their knowledge to their own children in the hopes of preventing their children from using.
Takeaway: I not only was able to immerse myself in the stories of these women, but was able to see firsthand how culturally-competent group therapy is effective in preventing substance abuse. Although The Haven serves only adult females, many of these adults started using as children and hope to prevent their own children from using, and thus, I was able to tie together these women's substance abuse and youth substance abuse prevention efforts.