PRINCETON — Fifteen Mercer County women are traveling a lifelong road to recovery from a disease that almost stole everything. Their journeys to triumph may be riddled with turns and setbacks, but they’ve found comfort with others who have traveled the same paths and survived similar struggles.

Addiction draws the ladies of the Women’s Recovery Group together weekly at the Mercer County Day Report Center, but fellowship and newfound friendships encourage them to truly invest in the unique Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions.

The center offers combined classes for men and women, but the participants in the Women’s Work Group said during a recent session that they wouldn’t trade their group for any others.

“My meetings are everything to me. They make you see that you’re not the only one that’s been there,” one of the clients said. “The tables are full, and I feel at home here.”

Around those tables, the women share their stories, including the addictions that once controlled them, the events that led them to recovery and the places where they find strength to stick to their program.

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“One thing leads to another. I think marijuana and alcohol are probably the most dangerous drugs,” Day Report Center Case Worker Jason Bowling said, leading the group discussion. “They’re legal, they’re available, and just about everybody can get ahold of them.”

Many of the women agreed with him, explaining that alcohol was the first step that led to the darkest days of their addictions.

Some used it as a sedative, a way to fall asleep. Others used it as a back-up drug, something to take the edge off withdrawal until they could get the drug of choice.

For Beth, beer was just the key that unlocked her resistance to other, more potent drugs. She never liked the feeling of being drunk, but the buzz let her guard down and tore down her resolve to stay away from cocaine.

“My drug of choice was crack. I’d drink one or two beers, and that lack of inhibitions, the relaxation, made me start thinking about the other stuff,” she said. “I always thought, ‘I don’t have a problem because I don’t like being drunk.’”

One of the women said she was satisfied with the buzz that alcohol brought, for a while.

“When I was drinking — it’s been years ago, but when I was drinking — I never touched the other stuff. Then, I got on the other stuff, and it was better. I found a better high, and I was hooked,” she said. “Alcohol wasn’t enough then.”

For Alex, alcohol was a big part of any big game. Unlike the previous speakers, she said she really enjoyed a few beers in front of the TV and high-profile football matchup.

“I like to drink, and I really get the urge when I start watching sports, especially the big games,” she said.

In those instances, Bowling said the women, and all people addicted to any drug, must learn to love the experiences without the drink, pill or powder that could destroy them.

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“We’re still human, and we don’t like to admit that anything else has control over us,” one group member said, explaining how difficult it is for any addict to accept that the drugs are really in control until they decide to take their lives back.

Darcy said realizing that drugs were not her biggest problem led her to a new discovery and better understanding of herself.

“The drugs or the alcohol or whatever, that was only a symptom,” she said. “There was something in us that made us want to take those drugs or drink that alcohol. There was something in us that we didn’t like.”

Tackling those issues, along with the physical and emotional aspects of addiction, is one of the key focuses of the Women’s Recovery Group.

The program began in August, under the direction of West Virginia’s Southern Region Drug Court Director Laura Helton, who based the plan on Stephanie Covington’s 12-step program for women in the criminal justice setting.

“We address issues dealing with all types of relationships,” Helton said. “Through the homework and discussion groups, the women explore their relationships with their mothers and fathers, roles with their partners, parenting problems, self-esteem, even sexuality and body image. This program addresses every part of a woman’s life.”

The Women’s Recovery Group, which began with 10 members, became so popular that it soon expanded to include 15 clients, she said, and although it recently grew by five members, Helton said the small-group, single-sex setting helped the participants feel more free to share.

“It’s a lot easier to open up, and these women offer each other a lot of support,” she said. “We’ve really got some success stories.

One of the women in the group compared their work to a popular trend in education — peer tutoring.

“We’re doing peer tutoring; we’re here helping one another,” she said. “Our homework and discussion, it touches deep things.”

And, along with understanding and repairing old relationships strained by their addictions, the group also helps the women build new bonds.

“Women will share more when they’re with a women’s group. It helps so much in building new friendships and finding new people to spend time with,” Darcy said. “These women know where we’ve been.”

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The clients of the Women’s Recovery Group have decided to put their drug use in the past, but many said they struggled with forgiving themselves and overcoming the public stigma attached to addiction.

“I’m not doing anything that I’m ashamed of now, but I did,” Beth said. “And, I look at these other people, and they’ve never done the things I have. I can’t help but feel a little less than them.”

Others have accepted that addiction is simply part of who they are and were meant to be.

“It’s not like I’m proud I was a needle junkie, but I’m not really ashamed of it either because it made me who I am,” Destiny said, adding that although she was comfortable with her past, she knew others who would never be. “There’s a lot of people out there who just look totally down on you because you shot a needle.”

Thanks to work of the Day Report Center and education intiatives, Darcy said she thought people were more understanding today of addiction than in the past.

“There’s a lot of stigma in this town, but I think the community’s getting educated,” she said. “The community has finally woke up and has seen that we are people with diseases.

Would you put somebody down who had cancer? Would you put somebody down because they had diabetes? Why should we put people down who have the disease of addiction?”

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While they strive to win back the trust of their loved ones and rebuild their lives, the women have a variety of reasons and many tactics to stay sober and off drugs.

They face one day at a time, and amid particularly difficult problems, they maintain their pledges to stay clean one hour, or even minute at a time.

One of the recovery group members said she started each day with a promise.

“I get up every morning, and I look in the mirror, and I think, ‘Not today. I’m not going back to that today,’” she said.

For Jan, her son gives her a reason to believe in her recovery.

“For the first time in a lot of years, he trusts and respects me, and I don’t want to lose that,” she said.

And, for Destiny, she relies on the strength of the other women in the group and the people she can help there.

She particularly enjoyed singing and collecting Christmas and birthday gifts for residents at The Maples, a local retirement and assisted living community.

“They need people, and I need people. That’s the best kind of people to be around because they love you no matter what,” she said. “If we hadn’t done the things we’ve done, we wouldn’t be here to help each other today.”

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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