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Westminster House a lifeline for recovering women
Eight years ago, Christie, then a 32-year-old accountant, was running an errand during her 15-minute coffee break when she saw a woman she almost recognized. She stopped, terrified. The woman—probably a homeless sex-trade worker, Christie thought—was shooting up in the alley.
“For the first time I understood the meaning of the phrase ‘there but for the grace of god’” Christie (not her real name) said, adding she saw herself in the junkie’s desperation.
Her errand during that coffee break was to meet her dealer because she needed one more hit of heroin to get through the day. The trick to holding on to her job, she said, was getting high enough to avoid withdrawal sickness but not so high that she stopped functioning. It was a lonely and secret ritual.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation,” said Sarah Franklen, executive director of Westminster House, a recovery centre for women in New Westminster.
According to Franklen, the organization’s 12-step program counters isolation with a holistic approach that includes integration into the community.
Through group therapy and shared domestic responsibilities, clients learn to be open with and supportive of one another.
“It’s not only about the therapy piece, but also about life skills. A lot of these women have forgotten how to put a day together.”
Westminster House has a long history in the community. Its parent organization, Julian House Society in Surrey, was created by B.C. members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 1985, they rented a house in New Westminster to provide a safe space for recovering women. Eventually, a federal grant allowed for the purchase of a home, and Westminster House finally had a permanent residence.
The program continued to grow and in 2009 a second facility was opened across the street. They now have a total of 20 beds.
Though Westminster House gets provincial funding, the program doesn’t come cheap—it costs clients several hundred dollars a day.
Most are from B.C., but many also come from other parts of Canada and the U.S.
They’re drawn to the holistic, community-based approach and the home-like atmosphere, according to Franklen, herself a Westminster House alumna.
She remembers her first Christmas as a client in the program 11 years ago.
“A parade of staff came in with Christmas presents for the tree, and I thought, ‘what? Are these for me?’ I was in a facility but my name was on a present. Someone took the time to do that, and I felt that I mattered,” said Franklen.
But it takes a long time for an addict to get to that place where she is ready to accept her community’s help.
Stole from mother
The realization Christie had when she looked down the alley during that coffee break did not stop her from using. Neither did losing her job, which happened only four months after she was hired. She resorted to selling her stuff.
The only thing she wouldn’t sell was a pair of diamond earrings her deceased father had given her when she graduated high school.
“I had a lot of things from my mother and stepfather, who had more money, but not a lot from my father so I held onto them,” said Christie.
But the morning she woke up sick and with nothing left to sell, she didn’t hesitate to pawn the earrings.
“There were a lot of emotions, but the overriding one was the need for the dope.”
Christie eventually moved in with her mother and stepfather and stole from them. When she found a note in her mother’s wallet that said “Please stop stealing from me,” Christie knew she had to leave.
With nowhere else to go, she turned to Westminster House, not quite sure what she would accomplish there.
The rule at the recovery house, said Christie, is that you show up clean. But there were no detox programs in her town in the B.C. Interior, so she was high on her flight to Vancouver and she used again just before knocking on the door.
Spending 28 days in the facility wouldn’t be too bad, Christie thought. She could cleanse her body, give it a break from the constant assault of toxic substances.
“I just want to learn to use heroin like a normal person,” Christie wrote in her diary on her first night at Westminster House.
According to Franklen, addiction can be so strong that most clients arrive unsure of their commitment to recovery. But even when they relapse, the doors at Westminster House remain open.
“Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Franklen. “If I hadn’t been given a second chance, I don’t know what would have happened. I really felt cared for here and that was the most important thing.”
Franklen estimates about 50 percent of the women stay clean long after leaving Westminster House.
As for Christie, she spent six months in the recovery program. Staff pushed her hard and she felt picked on at times, but in the end she recognized the investment they’d put in her.
After celebrating her 40th birthday last month, she moved into her own apartment.
In the end, what scared Christie out of addiction wasn’t a near-death experience, but a distant memory of what life was supposed to feel like.
“I thought I’d done irreparable damage to my soul. I spent so much time chasing false joy and numbness but I stopped noticing birds, flowers, things that bring real joy to your life.”
Like Franklen and other Westminster House graduates, Christie rediscovered community through the program, and with it, a more secure happiness.
• To give back to the larger community in New Westminster, whose support through job creation and acceptance facilitates recovery, Westminster House will host its third annual Clean Up in New West Event Sept. 10. Volunteers get a free lunch for collecting litter from streets and parks. For more information: http://www.westminsterhouse.ca/events/clean-up-in-new-west/index.shtml