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Mental Health

Continuing the Journey: A way back from trauma and substance use

Katherine B. Oxner, MSW and Veronica Brown

Reprinted from "Women" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), p. 25

Tara sounds like any other young mother. While her two-year-old squeals happily in the background, Tara offers her daughter a carrot as she talks about how hard it is to be a single mom. Unlike most young mothers, however, Tara also talks about her life on skid row and the daily challenge of staying clean and sober for herself and her daughter.

Tara started using drugs and alcohol at age nine, trying to escape a painful childhood that she alludes to only vaguely. By 21, she was regularly smoking opium and eventually turned to injecting herself with cocaine and heroin.

For seven years, Taran lived and ‘used’ on the skid row of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. That all changed when she found out she was pregnant. When she heard her baby’s heartbeat for the first time, Tara decided to stop using, and was admitted to the DEW (day, evening, weekend) program at Aurora Treatment Centre.

After delivering a healthy baby girl, Tara slipped into a deep postpartum depression, and sent in search of her baby’s father — her former dealer. She relapsed, and lost custody of her baby. It was the realization that she might lose her daughter forever that finally brought Tara to try recovery again.

Unfortunately, Tara’s story is all too common. Each year, hundreds of women seek help from addictions services in BC. And each year, these women are cut adrift by a continuum of care that ends abruptly and offers little post-treatment support for those seeking to rebuild their lives.

In 2003, in her first year of recovery, Tara participated in the Continuing the Journey: Aftercare Trauma healing Group for Women, being piloted at Pacifica Treatment Centre. This is a 12-week facilitated group for women who have completed treatment. During the program, Tara began to understand the connection between her drug use and the traumatic experiences in her life. She also saw the connection between her ‘trauma triggers’ and her relapse. Tara believes that her experience with Continuing the Journey has been vital to achieving two years free of drugs and alcohol.

Continuing the Journey is a joint project of Pacifica Treatment Centre and the Women’s Addiction Foundation. It has been made possible by the generous funding and organizational support of the British Columbia Technology Social Venture Partners.

The program has been developed on the basis of our understanding of the nature of trauma and the relationship between trauma and addiction. Our understanding is that substance use has likely been the women’s primary coping strategy in dealing with symptoms related to histories of physical, emotional and /or sexual abuse — and perhaps other traumatic injuries or experiences. These symptoms include unbearable emotional pain grief, anger, shame, dissociation, eating problems, self-harm, personality disorders and other mental health diagnoses.

In the Continuing the Journey program, the focus is not on the participants’ individual stories or the details of the events that got them there, but on their feelings and needs. We look at how the trauma has impacted them: their behaviours, their beliefs, their self-talk and their perceptions and judgements. In a safe and trusting environment, they practice new skills and new ways of relating and connecting with themselves and to the world around them while supporting others in the group to do the same. The group slowly and steadily builds a strong foundation of recovery and healing from trauma and addiction.

The program was started two years ago and we have run six groups so far. We keep the enrolment to 12 women per group and meet once a week for three months. We established the program to provide women with a post-treatment resource to enhance their goals of recovery. Graduates report very positive outcomes, feeling stronger and empowered to make positive changes in their lives. A very successful outcome of the trauma recovery group is the establishment of a mutual self-help group, which meets bi-weekly. The women are supported to continue on the path of connecting with themselves and each other.

We know that Tara’s story is one that many women share. By making programs like ours available to women in recovery, we can begin to break the cycle of addiction. We believe that by helping one person, as in the ripple effect of tossing a pebble in pool, many are helped. Tara’s daughter would agree.

About the author

Katherine is Executive Director of Pacifica Treatment Centre in Vancouver. She has more than 25 years experience in the addictions field.

Veronica runs the Women’s Addiction Foundation resource centre in Vancouver.

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