The Phoenix Rising: Describing Women’s Stories of Long-Term Recovery

by Gretchen Hammond
April 27, 2012

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I could have explored many topic areas for my dissertation on women and recovery, but I knew there was a distinct need for more on how women talked about their own lives. In my own career as a provider at Amethyst Inc., I worked with women in treatment at the beginning stages of sobriety. This is the start of the big change when many women wonder, “Am I always going to be this uncomfortable?” It made me want to give both women and providers a roadmap for recovery.

Initially, many women I interviewed thought they had to have it all together in the first 90 days of being sober. But when they talked about the “beginning” of recovery, I was surprised to learn that they were discussing the first five years, which are surprisingly difficult. Women talked about new feelings that emerged, emotions that had been previously buried. They were peeling back new layers of understanding about who they had been and who they were becoming, which can be both frightening and rewarding. They were making life decisions about careers, getting married, and how to live life sober.

When I talked to women about years 10 through 12, they realized—perhaps for the first time—that they were no longer questioning who they were, and that they were comfortable in their own skin. Every woman I spoke with had experienced some type of major loss around that period of time—something tragic. All of the women shared, almost in unison and from different parts of the country, “I just walked through my recovery.”

One of my favorite interviews was with a woman who had a long career working in the church and then became, as I put it, a “rip-roaring alcoholic.” She married and then entered into recovery. After her husband died, she reached towards her faith, which had always been present. Like many people who enter sobriety and have been through addiction, this woman understood that she—like anyone who is in recovery—is always just one drink away from losing her sobriety. There are no guarantees.

Women told me about the importance of support from other women and of spiritual exploration without being told what to believe. All of the women insisted on sharing with me how they became addicted to alcohol or other substances. They needed to make sense of their trajectories. It was often challenging for women to recall periods of time that followed the first five years. Years can blend into each other.

I believe it is critical to give women time to exhale. One of the most important things for service providers to do is teach women to not be so hard on themselves. Self-discovery is an evolving process for women in recovery, and allowing them to foster this is crucial. Some of this has to happen through private sharing. It is also important to remove time limitations. Light bulbs turn on at intervals, and moments of realization happen at different times for different women.

When I asked women how they knew that they were in long-term recovery, they explained the presence of a feeling, a knowledge that an internal change had transpired. As one woman said, “I walk differently, I move differently—and I know my life is different.”

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One Size Does Not Fit All: Lessons Learned in Baltimore, MD

by Laura Winn
July 06, 2011

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A couple weeks ago I attended a SAMHSA workgroup meeting for programs offering sober housing and treatment options for women experiencing homelessness. The workgroup began as a technical assistance (TA) request from Lori Criss of Amethyst Programs, a program in Columbus, Ohio. Amethyst offers integrated sober housing and treatment to women experiencing homelessness and substance use issues. Amethyst staff have sometimes felt isolated because this integrated approach is a unique model in their community. Lori knew that there was interest among other programs across the country, and was seeking an opportunity to begin this dialogue on a national level.

In response, SAMHSA’s Homelessness Resource Center helped to convene a workgroup of similar programs, along with SAMHSA’s Women, Children, and Families TA Center. With such a strong national focus on Housing First, sober living models often struggle to find their place. Programs find themselves straddling a divide between housing and addictions treatment. Some identify primarily as housing providers, some as treatment providers, and others as both, adding to the difficulty of seeking funding in various continuums of care. However, sober housing can be a tremendously beneficial model for women with children, trauma histories, and safety concerns.

Based on the clear desire of workgroup members to connect in person and further define key elements of this integrated model, SAMHSA convened a meeting in Baltimore, MD. Sixteen representatives of sober housing and treatment programs for women attended. The group shared their program designs, discussed what works (and what doesn’t), and explored commonalities, challenges, and promising strategies.

Having worked in this field for a year and half, it has become clear that there are no one-size-fits-all models for individuals experiencing homelessness, substance use disorders, or mental health issues. However, I’ve never seen this so clearly illustrated as I did at the workgroup meeting. Not only were providers recognizing a need for alternatives to Housing First for some individuals and families, but they were also highlighting differences among their own gender-specific sober housing models. For some women, being allowed to live with their children and within a community is an important step toward recovery. This demanded more restrictive relapse policies, in recognition of the safety and recovery of children and other families. For others, living independently, becoming economically stable, and thriving in healthy relationships is central to success.

Programs differed on drug testing policies, services for fathers and children, relapse policies, and approaches to treatment. However, it was clear that these programs were each finding success with their participants. I spend a lot of my time trying to understand what works in homeless services. Through the process, I sometimes forget that there are many paths to success. Flexibility to respond to the needs of consumers is essential.

I was inspired by the providers I met in Baltimore. They were committed to finding the best individualized options for women. These providers, many of whom were in recovery themselves, exemplified that fact that one-size-fits-all is not always possible – or necessary – when working with individuals and families.

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