Western North Carolina Woman

women in recovery
part one: mary benson house
by sandi tomlin-sutker

Addiction is not particular about who suffers. Addiction does not care if the addict’s pain is multiplied and continued and spread across families and down through generations. Nor does it engulf only the poor, the uneducated, the derelict. It touches and maims anyone. It creates and perpetuates deep holes within families and societies. I hope this family’s story (names were changed to protect their privacy) will awaken understanding and compassion and motivate us all toward change. I also hope the series of interviews and articles WNCWOMAN will publish over the next few issues about treatment opportunities in Western North Carolina will offer support and hope to those who need and want it.

My daughter Janet’s life had gone almost steadily downhill over five years because of her addictions. The reasons for her addictions were buried in her childhood and exacerbated by a recent miscarriage. Her husband was in even worse shape; Janet and their two-year old had gone to live in a women’s shelter while he was in jail. She went through several months of outpatient treatment, seemed to be doing really well, had gotten a small house, day care, a job. Then Kurt got out of jail and back into her life.

Both families—his and ours—were caught on this treadmill. We wanted to help, offered support, but ended up only enabling them to continue the addictive patterns. We kept hearing about and looking for the “bottom” they had to reach. We worried that we would have to seek custody of our granddaughter (even in the worst parts, at least one of them was always able to take care of her). The night Kurt called and told us Janet had been raped at a crack house was the most helpless one of my life. I knew I had no power to save her, cure her, even to simply help her. I had to let go of any of my own desires and expectations for her life. I had to accept that she might never make it out of this addiction; that she might really die—overdosed or murdered and left in a ditch somewhere. This was the bottom for me, but it was another long and frightening year before Janet began the climb out of her own hell.

It took several more programs, and many incremental steps toward recovery. Her month at the Swain Center in Black Mountain gave our family a sense of the underlying pain she was trying to numb. It also helped us understand the roles we each played in the process of addiction, relapse and recovery. But I believe it was the security, support, challenges and love she received at the Mary Benson House that gave her the strength and hope to finally stay clean—for 10 months now....the longest so far. [Between the time this was written and published, Janet relapsed briefly, quickly accessed her support network and is now back on track.]

WNCWOMAN recently interviewed Beverly Kaiser, the Program Supervisor at the Mary Benson House (MBH). Her youthful appearance, not to mention the beautiful cornrows ending in colorful beads, belied the maturity and seriousness she brings to this very tough job. The MBH is a therapeutic home for pregnant and postpartum women who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse/addiction. It was mid-afternoon and the house was quiet. Later on the five current resident women and their five children would be returning from various places: outpatient treatment at Blue Ridge Mental Health, day care centers, some from new jobs. Beverly tells me they can house 14 people total. They try to keep the number to 12, including the kids, since there are only nine staff who are spread over 24 hours, seven days a week. The phone rings as if to reinforce the fact that even the Supervisor must also act as receptionist and any other task that comes up.

Funding, of course, is always an issue. MBH gets most of their $390,000 yearly budget from the state: perinatal and mental health funds, a tiny bit of Medicaid. This amount has not changed in the 7 ½ years the program has existed. The money doesn’t come all at once, but is “drawn down” periodically depending upon how many residents they have. This money pays for the nine staff, house maintenance (and that often has to be put at the bottom of the priority list)—everything! Thank goodness there is also a good deal of support from individuals and community organizations: clothing, furniture, food staples, toys.

I don’t see any toys lying around in the comfortable living area (clearly a big family is accomodated here with several overstuffed sofas and chairs), but there are lots of photos of mothers and kids all around the room. The women coming here are usually pregnant and may also have children. The primary purpose of this program is to provide a residential environment so these women can bring healthy babies into the world and can be better parents to the children they already have. The house accommodates kids up to age five and allows older children to visit overnight for the short-term. This is sometimes a tough limitation, but Beverly says that one thing these women need is privacy and security and having older kids around—especially boys at puberty—is difficult for many of them.

Talking about these woman and their children prompts Beverly to tell me that many of their referrals come through the Department of Social Services (DSS). Women with substance abuse problems often end up being reported for neglect; this program enables them to keep their small children with them and get real help for their problems. However, MBH does not take women into the program who have a history of child abuse for obvious safety reasons. Referrals to MBH come from all over the state, but primarily from Buncombe County. The courts sometimes refer a woman here as do other drug treatment programs if they feel the woman and her children can benefit from all that this house offers.

And the offerings are many. Over the typical 5-6 months a woman is here (she can stay up to one year and the staff hopes she will), residents are required to participate in an intensive outpatient treatment program offered through Blue Ridge Mental Health called “Power of Change”. She also has to attend at least three Recovery/Twelve Step meetings of her choice per week. The staff counselor provides once-a-week private sessions for each woman plus weekly group meetings. Staff and volunteers offer weekly parenting classes and help each resident set goals for her recovery and for her work and family life once she leaves MBH.

This all sounds wonderful to me, even ideal. But when I ask Beverly what the major challenges are, she heaves a sigh and begins:

"Always funding of course... so much maintenence on this old house just has to wait! We have to give the same level of treatment to each woman but each one is really so different. Many of them have depression and anxiety disorders. Do you know that 70% of female addicts were sexually abused as children? That’s a separate problem from the substance abuse itself. The hardest thing for me is seeing the kids not get the love and attention they need. We try to provide a family atmosphere as much as possible: dinner is always eaten as a group at a specific time, for instance. The staff loves to hold the babies and play with the kids. Some of these women are simply not inclined to be good mothers for a variety of reasons."

And, of course, not all the women finish the program. One day this past summer they were forced to expel three women in one day, mostly for verbal and physical fighting. And if a woman doesn’t pass the random or “for cause” urine screenings, she is placed on notice that she can be sent to a state residential program in the Piedmont (one of only a couple in North Carolina that will take a woman with her infant).

It’s very hard on staff and other residents when women they have invested time and energy in don’t make it. So what keeps Beverly doing this work? “Seeing a woman re-establish her role within the family, being there for her kids, bringing a healthy, drug-free baby into the world. It’s a joy to see these women become responsible people again, to see them really figure out who they are and to honor that. That keeps me going, keeps me hopeful.”

Next issue, WNCWOMAN will interview the staff counselor at MBH about what treatment programs work. Our goal is to find our what more is needed to reduce the painful impact of this disease—both on the individuals and society.


Shoveling Up: The Impact of Substance Abuse on State Budgets is the first comprehensive analysis of how much substance abuse and addiction cost to each state budget. This unprecedented analysis shows that states spent a stunning $81.3 billion in 1998 to deal with this issue—13.1% of their budgets. Even more striking is that of every dollar states spent on substance abuse, 96 cents went to "shovel up the wreckage" in state programs and only four cents went to prevent and treat the problem.
Although adult females reported lower rates of past month illicit drug use than did adult males, use was comparable between females and males aged 12 to 17.
Females aged 12 to 17 were more likely than their male peers to report that cocaine, crack, LSD, and heroin were fairly or very easy to obtain.

The NHSDA Report is published periodically by the Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Admin.



Did you know...
Over any given period of time, the percent of the population that is addicted remains at 12-15%?

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