AWARE: Women, drugs, treatment

December 10, 1991|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun Staff

Unable to catch a bus or get a ride with a friend, Mary walks more than a mile in the soaking rain to her appointment at A Woman's Active Recovery Enterprise.

Mary arrives an hour late, pink-cheeked and wet. A counselor helps Mary off with her dripping coat. Another slips into a back room to make some hot tea.

Mary, 27, who asked that her real name not be used, is one of about 25 clients at AWARE, Maryland's only state-funded, outpatient drug-treatment center for women in Baltimore County.

She receives counseling at the Catonsville center three times a week, in the hope of regaining custody of her 3 1/2 -year-old son who is living with her mother.

AWARE is the brain child of Dr. Sherman Yen, a psychology professor at Essex Community College and substance-abuse consultant, and Raymond Wilson, also a consultant.

L The center opened in June with the help of a $119,000 grant.

Yen, who says he has worked with substance abusers for more than 20 years, says the center is necessary in order to properly treat female abusers, who differ physiologically, psychologically and socially from male abusers.

"If we mix the male and the female together, the female client tends not to reveal her own personal problems for fear of being ridiculed by the male," Yen says.

Women may also feel ignored at coed treatment centers where they are usually outnumbered by men, adds Cynthia Henderson, 26, director of AWARE.

And a woman whose drug addition is linked to current or previous abuse by a man may be unwilling to share those stories in mixed company. All four of the center's counselors are women, however.

"A lot of what we do in the beginning is develop a . . . trust," says Henderson. "Traditionally, women's need are overlooked in other treatment areas. They tend to take on a care-giver role.

"A good portion of our women were abused when they were children . . . and a lot of them never talked about it until they came here," Henderson says. "We encourage them to stay and develop support for one another."

The female drug abuser is often stereotyped as being sexually promiscuous, a stigma that male abusers manage to avoid, says William T. Rusinko, chief of management information services for the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. For women, "drug abuse got tied in to sexuality," he says.

Difficulty in finding someone to watch her children is another reason a woman may be unable or reluctant to seek drug treatment, Rusinko adds.

At AWARE, women who can't afford day care for their children are often funded by the center. Clients with new babies are permitted to bring their infants to sessions, thus providing counselors with an opportunity to watch interaction between mother and child. AWARE also offers a nine week parenting program to help mothers deal with the pressures of parenting, Henderson says.

According to Rusinko, 78,577 people were treated in Maryland last year for substance abuse, mostly alcohol. About 25 percent were women, he says.

AWARE patients are admitted on a walk-in basis, Henderson says. No referral or court-order is needed.

Since June, 53 women have come to the center. Some have entered in-patient treatment programs. Some came to one session and never returned. But many of the women who dropped out of the program after a couple of weeks are starting to come back, Henderson says.

The honesty that's expected from clients, and given by counselors, comes as something of a surprise to clients like Mary, who was accustomed to less-than-caring treatment at other centers.

"They were supposed to counsel you, but it was just like, 'How're you doing?' " Mary says. Counselors who did talk wanted to hear details of Mary's past experiences with drugs and personal stories, rather than focus on what she needed to do to keep herself drug-free.

"I didn't like that," she says.

The treatment she receives at AWARE, Mary says, is different.

"I'll get off the bus, and I'm not in a mood to talk," she says. "But [the counselor will] pull it out of you, anyway. And then I feel better when I leave. Here, they make you see stuff. Like why you're acting the way you are. I can deal with things better, and I'm starting to learn how and why I think like I do."

Susan, also not her real name, 38 and mother of three, started attending sessions soon after the center opened. Though she says she's been drug-free for more than two years, she comes to the center "to make sure I stay clean. It works."

The counselors at AWARE, Susan says, are like a second family. "I can come here and curse them out and eat their food and get hugged all at the same time. These people do care. You don't feel that in every place."

At other treatment centers, Susan says, she would "shut down" during counseling sessions with men.

"Here, I don't do that," she says. "I come in screaming. I'm still screaming."

"We're not here to be a punitive program," says Tracy Triplitt, 23, a vocational specialist at the center. "We're here to encourage the women."

"We want to look at behavior and strengths," Yen says, adding VTC that the program's focus is on what women can do in place of drugs. "There must be life after drug using."

"What I want to do is make this program a good model," Yen says. "There's no doubt there's need for expansion."

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