Every Thursday at 7 pm., a small group of tough and brave women meet at the “Toledo R House” on West Sylvania Avenue here in Toledo. They follow the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. They follow the Big Book. But they are not alcoholics. They are recovering heroin addicts.
They meet as a women’s only group, and they would welcome any woman who has struggled with heroin. In fact, they want to get the word out — they exist and their group is welcoming — because most of them looked for a group like this for years and several believe this group is helping to save their lives.
These women agreed to meet me for an hour before their meeting began to talk about how they are trying to stay clean, stay alive, and help each other make it through.
They told me that a women’s Heroin Anonymous group — this is the only one in the city — somehow just feels “safer.” Eliminating men simplifies things immensely and, they said, opens up the dialogue. They instantly understand each other and no one wants anything from anyone else. There were 31 women at the meeting last week.
Also, they told me, some Alcoholics Anonymous groups are not very welcoming to them. Why is that? Well, they said, it really is a different addiction. And the word heroin scares people, as it should. Many heroin addicts just can’t beat it, and some sponsors don’t want to risk the letdown of what they think is inevitable failure. Many layers of fear surround this addiction.
“People are dying out there,” one woman told me. She said she personally knows of five deaths from overdoses in the last few weeks. Another said she has seen three acquaintances die in the same space of time. She added that she is new to town and knows practically no one, yet she knows three who have died.
“It’s like we are marked for life,” one woman mused. “No matter what I do, I will always be a junkie to my family.” Even if you are trying your damnedest, you may be shunned by those you ask for help, even at a family gathering or an AA meeting.
This group has a kind of mother superior, guiding spirit, and female Yoda. She is 39 years clean, but before that, she will tell you, she went through, and caused, some very dark stuff. She is old. The women in this group are young. I will call her “Mama Bear.” They call her wisdom. She is there to inspire the women — to show that recovery, long-term success with recovery, and normalcy are all possible. Jobs, vacations, house and car payments, grandchildren. These simple things so many of us take for granted are the treasures these women hope for and dream about.
There are not many role models like Mama Bear, so she brings a lot of light, as well as solid practical advice, to these meetings. She tells the women that she made every mistake in the book, but she came through. They tell me they feel “privileged” to know her. “She did it. So I look at her and think I can too,” said one.
Mama Bear says these young women give her life meaning and inspiration. Almost all of the people she used with back in the day are dead. She knows she is lucky. She has found a way to give back. She told me she wishes she could win the lottery and buy a farm, far in the country, where these women and others like them could come to escape old habits, old cronies, old ways. To begin building new lives.
That’s the hardest thing, they all say — the habits, the rituals, the old friends. Many of those old friends are family and that’s tough. You have to learn to love a spouse, a sister, a father, from afar.
They all agree you cannot make it without a program and a support group. You cannot kick heroin on your own. “You need,” said one woman, “to get out of your own head.” And beyond your own needs and complaints and hurts.
They also all agreed that you need a higher power, as you understand it, upon which you can rely instead of yourself. “That” said one participant, “has everything to do with spirituality and nothing to do with religion.”
What are these women like? Like you or me. Just like us. Maybe more sensitive and smart. Some have been to jail and lost custody of their kids. Some have recovered custody. Imagine coming back from that.
Some addicts still in the grip are just liars and thieves. I don’t want to romanticize addiction, of any kind, in any way. But I do think the addict who makes it through is a special kind of human being. He has his scars, and now, his strength. I think the addict in recovery is often a person with heightened sensitivities now combined with moral rigor. He does not lie to himself — an achievement.
“We take things hard and don’t by nature make good life decisions,” says Mama Bear. But “we have to look at ourselves,” one woman told me, that’s the takeaway. “We have to face our faults, do the moral inventory, try to make amends, and learn to accept and love the world, and ourselves,” said a friend of mine who is a recovering addict.
Recovering addicts are interesting company. They have seen some life. They have been brought to their knees by what they have seen and done. They don’t posture or prattle on about nothing.
One of these women said something I have heard before and it struck home even more acutely this time: Every human being needs a 12-step program or something like it — for the self-inventory and for the spiritual awareness.
I am starting to believe this. Some folks are addicted to their toys, their careers, power. I once knew an addict who became a yoga teacher and became addicted to that. That was perhaps the “best” addiction I have ever seen, though it perverted the yoga.
We all have demons and delusions.
A beautiful young women in this Thursday group said something that almost knocked me over. She said: “This sucks. Don’t get me wrong. It sucks.” She said being a heroin addict is not the road she wanted for herself. “But,” she added, “I feel blessed.” How so? She said she felt blessed by the self-awareness and escape from her own ego that a recovery program has brought her. She feels blessed by these friends who have her back. She’s working the program. She said it is the only way to freedom; the only way home.
The Toledo women’s HA group meets at Toledo R House, 2428 West Sylvania, Ave. Toledo. It welcomes new members.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.