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Peace by piece

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Posted July 17, 2019

This ‘Dry July’ many Kiwi are giving up the booze to raise money for cancer research—it’s a great first piece in the puzzle towards sobriety. And at the unique Northland Bridge programme, people are learning to put the pieces together to live a life free of alcohol and drugs.

Àndrea Curtis knows exactly how hard some people must fall before asking for help with alcohol addiction.

‘I stopped drinking when my daughter was four. I woke up down a bank, minus a shoe. I had no memory of the night before—where I’d been, who I’d been with or what I’d done.

‘I had no idea where my daughter was. I hitch-hiked back into town to track her down. The friend [looking after her] said, “I’m not giving this girl back to you unless you get some help”,’ Àndrea recalls. ‘So, I started the journey of seeking recovery.’  Àndrea is now over 20 years drug and alcohol free, a Salvation Army soldier of Whangārei Corps, and works as the Clinical Team Leader at Northland Bridge—one of 17 Salvation Army drug and alcohol treatment programmes, known as Bridge centres, in New Zealand and Samoa.

‘My “lived experience” of addiction enables me to ask the hard questions,’ she says. ‘I can call people’s bluff. Women, especially, often present with deep shame around the terrible things that have happened when they are intoxicated, but I’ve been there so I can empathise and de-stigmatise that shame. Without “lived experience” I wouldn’t know to go there.’

A second chance

Àndrea is not the only staff member at Northland Bridge who’s ‘been there’. One of the first people you see when you walk through the doors is Centre Administrator Jennifer Johnston.
‘Growing up, my father was a very heavy drinker. I vowed I would never drink because I didn’t want to be like him. But after my first taste of alcohol at 17 years old, I was hooked.’

Jennifer had her first drink-driving charge at age 19. Marriage and children followed, and while life carried on, so did her battle with alcohol. ‘My drinking just got progressively worse and worse over the years. I repeatedly tried to quit but I just couldn’t do it on my own. I always failed,’ she explains.

But a second drink-driving charge resulted in court-appointed community service at The Salvation Army. ‘I helped at the foodbank, and then started going to church at Whangārei Corps where I heard about the Bridge programme and decided to give it a go.’

Jennifer did the programme and took on board what she learned—but continued to drink. ‘I prayed and prayed that God would take away my desire for alcohol. And then one night after a bender, I cried out to God in utter desperation. The next day the cravings were gone! I’ve been sober for seven years now.’

Jennifer attributes her ongoing sobriety to God’s miraculous healing, the tools she learnt on the programme, the supportive environment she works in at the Bridge, and her close personal relationship with God. ‘Being close to God is crucial—he’s the antidote to the alcohol cravings that plagued me for all those years,’ she testifies.

A balanced approach

Clients say that having staff with ‘lived experience’ is extremely helpful, confirms Northland Bridge Director Major Sue Hay. But at the same time, Sue celebrates that there is balance in her team.

‘People who have navigated the challenges of life without succumbing to addiction have another set of skills to offer to the treatment framework. Having both perspectives adds to what we are able to provide here,’ she affirms.

Sue is one of those people herself and has a strong God-given calling. ‘When I was at university I observed a group of drunk people and God placed this idea in my head that I was to work with addicts and minister to them in their addiction. My personal life mission is to facilitate hope and healing—so it is incredibly rewarding to see people leaving the Bridge with more hope and a greater sense of healing than when they arrived.

‘Dry July provides an opportunity for people to consciously sit back and reflect on their drinking habits. It’s a chance to discover benefits, like improved relationships, new financial options, clear skin and what it’s like to wake up without a hangover,’ says Sue.

Current clients pursuing recovery from addictive substances like alcohol, cannabis and methamphetamine through the Whangārei Bridge programme completely agree with Sue.
‘Staying sober for a month will be a harsh reality check,’ one woman says. ‘Self-awareness increases as you become aware of your cravings and dependency on substances—what you’ve done to your body. But in a month your health can improve a lot, including your mental health. That’s what it was like for me,’ she recalls.

Another client explains that it took getting sober to understand that she had been unconsciously using substances to self-medicate from pain. ‘Getting off alcohol meant facing some really hard stuff,’ she admits.

Holiness in brokenness

‘Trauma is the biggest issue underlying substance use that we see,’ agrees Sue. ‘People are self-medicating. So, to stop taking the substance that has numbed that pain means facing some incredibly painful life experiences. That takes a whole lot of courage. Firstly, just to put your hand up and ask for help; secondly, to admit that you are less than the person you want to be, less than the parent you want to be.

‘To be vulnerable enough to trust a bunch of strangers with your story, and then to achieve behaviour change and permanently turn your life around, that’s a massive undertaking. I just sit back in awe of how hard people work on themselves and what they achieve here.’

Sue quotes Richard Rohr who says, ‘How clever of God to hide holiness in brokenness’. It’s a profound statement—one that helps Sue view people through God’s eyes. ‘We see people with horrendous criminal backgrounds, but that is of no consequence to us. What matters is helping people find a way forward into personal transformation.’

A unique approach to treatment

The Northland Bridge includes Whangārei, Kaikohe and Kaitaia, and functions differently to others around the country in terms of the suite of programmes offered. What’s unique is that there is no residential programme.

‘I’ve come to really love this model because you’re not removing people from their everyday environment. They get to go home every afternoon and practise the skills they’re learning, and then come back and share how they got on. As they make changes, the people around them are forced to adjust to that change. There’s a lot of evidence now that this is a very effective means of doing treatment,’ Sue explains.

‘We see 1000 clients annually across Northland. When you consider that those people are impacting 8–10 others in their whānau and wider community, that’s a significant proportion of the Northland population experiencing the effects of positive life change. And that’s our mission—to see whānau and communities transformed because individuals find healing,’ Sue affirms.

Sue desperately wants to see a shift in attitudes so that New Zealand can become a place where drinking happens without harm. ‘When drinking is restricted to 1–2 standard drinks at a time, the harm done is significantly reduced. But it is very hard to convince people of this.’

The cost of substance abuse

But it’s not just alcohol. Cannabis use is rampant, particularly among young people, she says. ‘What we know is that if people start using cannabis during their teen years, they will do damage to their developing brain—losing IQ points and stunting their emotional development.

‘We see this as people enter treatment later in life. We also know that cannabis use means latent tendencies towards psychosis, and mental illness as severe as schizophrenia can be triggered by cannabis use. No one can predict if they will be one of those people this happens to, so cannabis and substance users are playing with fire,’ Sue warns.

And then there’s the meth epidemic. Northland wastewater studies, which calculate the levels of by-product for this region, reveal the highest use of meth per head of population in New Zealand. Wastewater is a very accurate way of measuring the problem, and Sue and her team are seeing increasing numbers of people presenting for treatment as meth addicts.

The Salvation Army is currently involved in a collaborative project with Police, the District Health Board and other addiction providers across Northland. ‘The goal is to improve access to the treatment and ensure that people are seen promptly the minute they put their hand up to seek help,’ she reports. ‘Police divert low-level users to treatment as their first option.’

But seeking treatment is much more complex than it may first appear: ‘It can be very tricky if you’ve been a dealer, or if you’re afraid of meeting your dealer in a treatment programme. We do our best to manage this sort of cross-over, but it’s complex. There are some high-profile drug users who just don’t want to be seen. Some may owe money or may have caused harm in the community and they desperately want to avoid meeting up with people they may owe emotional, physical or financial debts to,’ explains Sue.

What is success?

A lot of us assume that successful treatment means that people are fully healed and living functional, happy lives. But success in treatment is about the small steps, and looks very different for every person, says Sue.

‘Success can look like reducing substance use so that a person is functioning better within their whānau. It can look like restored family relationships, and the ability to maintain employment. It looks like better mental health outcomes and less criminal activity. It can look like the mum who is suddenly available to her kids, can put food on the table and actually get them to sports practice. It can look like the couple who entered treatment together and upon completion are able to regain the care of their children.

‘Success is the person who said: “My diminished mana has been restored”. Success is: “I arrived empty but now my kete is full of tools and skills to help navigate life”.

‘Success is the person who graduates from the programme saying, “I arrived lost and now I’m a little bit ‘saved’.”

‘And success is connecting our clients with a vibrant community of believers where they can belong before they believe, and grow into a faith experience. Both Whangārei and Kaitaia Corps do this exceptionally well here in Northland.’

Ultimately, success is simply taking the first steps towards healing—and Salvation Army Bridge programmes are there to help people put together the pieces of their life—and find a life of peace.

By Jules Badger (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 13 July 2019, p6-9.  You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.