Twin homes share one goal: women recovering with dignity
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - In bygone days, female alcoholics or substance abusers were often hidden behind closed doors, an embarrassing family secret. Wealthy women could go to sanitariums or rest homes to "dry out." The poor often ended up on the streets or in jail.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
The living area of Catherine's Place is a calm, dignified room just made for quiet conversations, group meetings and visiting with family or friends.
As the need for treatment of alcohol or substance abuse grew, facilities sprang up like mushrooms: hospitals, detoxification centers, residential treatment centers. But there was little in the way of support and structure for women in the recovery stage of treatment.
In the early 1990s a group of women, led by Judith A. Janes and the late Carol S. Patterson, decided to do something about it. Their concept was simple: a home where women could rebuild their lives with dignity and regain self-esteem and self-sufficiency.
The majority of the buildings they looked at were in depressing shape, said Molly O'Neill, president of Friendship House/Catherine's Place.
"The reality was that these disenfranchised people, the alcohol and substance abusers, could only seek help in disenfranchised buildings," she said.
Enter James P. Nutter. The mortgage banker learned of the group's efforts to find a home for women in recovery from addictions and offered his assistance. A house on Gillham Road was available, and Nutter helped Janes and Patterson obtain the mortgage. Through fundraising and donations, Janes and Patterson were able to pay off the mortgage a year early. Friendship House opened its doors in February 1992.
As the years passed, the need for a residential program for women with children became apparent. O'Neill said that often drug or alcohol abuse runs in families.
"Whether nature or nurture, children of addicts have a higher chance of becoming addicts themselves," she said. "Intervening on the intergenerational cycle of drug and alcohol addiction was the greatest motivation for starting Catherine's Place."
Catherine's Place, named in honor of Catherine Nichols, mother of J.C. Nichols' granddaughter Ann, a major donor, opened in 2002.
The houses are side by side on Gillham Road, one a still lovely brick Victorian, the other a new structure that looks much like its neighbor. A well-equipped playground sits between the houses. A woman with a child on her lap scoots down a slide while an older child stands by applauding.
"Catherine's Place is a licensed therapeutic child care facility, and will be accredited soon. We offer service and safety to women with children, birth to 12 years old," O'Neill said. "Children are intensely impacted by addiction. They need life-skills training and socialization to help derail possible addictions in their future."
"Kids respond amazingly. Mom's progress is incremental, but the kids are phenomenal," O'Neill said.
School-age children attend the same school they attended before coming to Catherine's Place. Because Catherine's Place is a transitional living situation, the children are considered homeless. The Kansas City school district busses children who are living in homeless shelters to their schools.
"It's not a normal living situation," O'Neill said, "but the staff tries to give kids a sense of normalcy. There are family recreation nights, classes in life skills, and friends can visit. The children can even go to friends for overnight stays. Dads and grandparents are encouraged to participate, making mom's recovery and re-entry into society a family affair."
According to O'Neill, herself a recovered alcoholic, children of alcohol or substance abusers may find themselves "parentified" - responsible for getting younger siblings off to school, cooking meals and dealing with bill collectors.
"They feel needed and useful. If mom comes home healthy and ready to take charge again, they might feel like a rug has been pulled out from under them. Life at 7 or 8 should be about playing, laughing, learning math. We try to help kids be kids again."
"My kids love it here," said Rhonda (not her real name). Rhonda, 42, began using drugs and drinking when she was about 14. She started by drinking and taking pills, then switched to marijuana. She recalled with amazement that, "even though drinking and taking drugs, I stayed in school and was able to hold down a job. Of course all my money went to pay for my addictions, and that's expensive."
When she was in her early 20s, she moved up to cocaine and finally methamphetamines.
At the age of 39, she became pregnant with her first child, and "stayed clean" during the pregnancy, but started using again shortly after the baby's birth. Within a year, she was pregnant again, had broken up with the baby's father, and had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
"I was torn between my addiction and love for my kids," she recalled. "I was still using a little, although I tried to quit again for the baby. My resentment toward my baby's father and my family was growing. Because of the cancer, my doctor took the baby a month early. He was fine." But she was falling deeper into alcohol and chemical dependency.
Finally her mother called the baby's father to say Rhonda was out of control. He gained temporary custody of the children and Rhonda didn't see them for 28 days.
"That's when I checked myself into treatment," she said.
After three and a half months of inpatient detoxification and treatment, Rhonda was referred to Friendship House. She was allowed to see her sons, and she and their father worked out a custody agreement. The boys, now 2 and 3, live with her every other week.
She has found a place to live and plans to move to Independence soon. She hopes to return to school and finish her degree in criminal justice.
Clients of Friendship House are committed to a minimum stay of 90 days and begin paying rent as soon as they can. Catherine's Place has a minimum commitment of six months. Clients work outside the homes once they reach that level of confidence, getting help finding jobs from employment networks or Kansas City's Full Employment Council.
"For the first time, I feel sane, sober and hopeful," Rhonda said. "I've been treated with dignity, and I've learned to be fair and self-reliant. I work nights, I'm paying my own bills for the first time in my life, and I'm working on feeling good about myself."
O'Neill said that one aspect of recovery was acknowledging that problems can arise if family members fall back into old patterns of behavior and coping mechanisms. Built up resentment and suspicions, as well as codependency issues can threaten relapse.
Relapses can and do happen.
Twenty-three-year-old Kate (not her real name) has been in and out of chemical abuse treatment centers for several years, a situation which caused her family "heartache and soul searching. Where did I fail my child?"
Kate's mother Rita (not her real name) is an adult child of alcoholics herself.
"I learned as a child that love is conditional," Rita said. "I learned to walk into a room, size up dad or mom's mood and act the best way to keep them happy. I grew up real fast."
The hurt and anger Rita, a lay pastoral minister at an area Catholic church, felt from growing up in an alcoholic home sent her into seven or eight years of drug and alcohol abuse.
"But genetics and God, probably mostly God, kept me from getting addicted," she said.
Kate emancipated herself from her parents her junior year in high school and moved to a town near Chattanooga, Tenn., where she finished high school. Sometime that year, she began using methamphetamines, probably as self-medication for bi-polar disorder, her mother said.
In 2001, Kate was in a serious automobile accident and suffered a ruptured spleen and crushed ribs.
"I flew down to Tennessee. Kate had been life-flighted to a hospital in Chattanooga. When she recovered enough to travel, I brought her back home. I was still fooling myself that she wasn't really an addict. At the time of the accident, only THC (a compound in marijuana which remains in the bloodstream long after use of the drug) was in her system.
Kate settled into life at home, continued her recovery, and found a good job. The drug use returned about three months into the job, Rita said. Kate left home again, this time moving to San Antonio. In September 2002, she called Rita from a San Antonio hospital emergency room. The doctors wanted to admit her into psychiatric care or drug treatment. Kate wanted to come home and get the suggested treatment. Her father flew to Texas and brought her home.
"Kate went through detox at the Salvation Army detox facility, because she had no insurance," Rita said. "She then went into the Renaissance West treatment facility. During her rehabilitation period, she lived at home and we kept her straight. Her family kept her straight for six months."
An insurance settlement from the accident proved to be the catalyst for Kate's relapse. She immediately moved out of her parent's home and within a few months, the $28,000 settlement was gone. Heroin had become her drug of choice.
"She appeared at the door one day, emaciated with open sores up and down her arms from the needle. When I was called away from her for a moment, she went into the kitchen and poured out a handful of anti-depressants prescribed for my fibromyalgia. When I found her, she looked me in the eye and popped them in her mouth. I said, 'Ibuprofen is just going to make you feel sick.' She looked at me so defiantly. 'It wasn't ibuprofen, mom, it was your pills.'
"I rushed her to the nearest hospital, waited until she was stabilized, and left her there. I couldn't do it anymore. A friend told me about Friendship House. God was watching. Friendship House took Kate in even though they were full at the time. Knowing she was there was comforting to me. Sometimes living with a child who has an addiction can be hell. When I was feeling especially down, I'd think, what if I had to go through this without God? I couldn't have done it."
Rita said that as a child Kate refused to learn the life skills she and her husband had tried to teach their children, but Friendship House reinforced them,
"God and Friendship House are the only reason Kate has survived. She now has an apartment, a job and her own phone. She called me last night, Rita said. "Thanks to God and Friendship House, I'm guardedly optimistic."
Connie Poppino is the clinical program director at Friendship House and Catherine's Place. She said that poly-substance abuse, both drugs and alcohol, is common. Often substance abuse takes the form of prescription drug abuse, especially oxytoctin, a narcotic, although alcohol, crack cocaine and methamphetamines are still the most abused.
"Women are usually introduced to alcohol and drugs through significant others or family members, while men are introduced through peers," she said. "To add to the problem, women have body image issues. Often, using drugs that kill appetites is tied in with a woman's desire to maintain a certain weight."
Alcoholism and drug abuse are three-fold diseases, said Poppino, a licensed clinical social worker and 17 years in recovery herself. "They are physical diseases which also affect the mental, emotional and spiritual makeup of a person. We have to approach addictions on all three levels. The physical approach is either medical or social detox. Medical detox is done with medication-induced withdrawal in a hospital. Social detox is simply drying out, staying away from alcohol or drugs in a supervised setting. Detox usually takes three to five days."
After detox, the client may be stabilized physically, but still experience cravings. That's the mental and emotional aspect of recovery, and where Friendship House comes in.
"Addiction still taps me on the shoulder," said Sandra, 43. "I've been through 12 rehabs. I am an addict."
Growing up with Sandra's (not her real name) alcoholic mother wasn't much fun. "I loved being outdoors, away from the house. I was afraid of mom's temper, afraid of the cussing and fighting. I was growing up scared and rebellious, and that was what led me to drugs at 14. I am an alcoholic first, because alcohol was my gateway drug. I can still remember the taste of my first drink, some kind of brandy.
"After years of alcohol and drugs, I guess I had a spiritual awakening. My higher power was doing what I couldn't do for myself. I heard a voice in my mind say, 'Sandra, get out of this place.' I realized then that if I stayed where I was and with what I was doing, I'd die, and I didn't want to die. I called a friend to take me to detox and I walked right in.
Finally I ended up here at Friendship House. I started unloading all the garbage in my head. That was the biggest step.
"Being a drunk or a drug abuser is a lonely place. It may look like fun, but it's not. First you're tired, then you fill up with self-pity. Then you want a drink. It's garbage. Now I've been sober and clean for three months, two of them here at Friendship House. I'm committed to staying here for 90 days at least.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity here. They're equipping us for the real world and for our future. I know I'm still an addict, and I'll never know when addiction will come sneaking up behind me, so I live in the here and now. But, I get to choose who I want to be. Not everybody gets a chance to live twice in one lifetime."