Criminal Problem or Health Crisis?

 

Consuelo Luz Aróstegui

 

It’s like they want you to fail,” Natalie Martínez says, her voice breaking as if trying to keep despair at bay. Natalie, a 35-year-old college-educated Santa Fean, recently released from her umpteenth jail stay, is clean and sober and trying to pull her life together. But, with a court-ordered monitoring bracelet that allows her only one hour outside of her mother’s home, she picks up her daughter from school and goes to the bank but does not have enough time to shop for groceries, let alone go to the doctor, therapist, support groups, or find a job and her own place to live. Natalie yearns to develop her writing skills and take responsibility for her life and her two kids, 13 and 9. Because her options for treatment and recovery are so limited and her probation requirements so restrictive, it is hard for her to remain optimistic.

Santa Fe-born Melissa Santos, 39, is worried that, when her 24-year-old daughter, Yesenia, gets released from jail next week, she will relapse—or worse—because she has nowhere to go, she has no money or job, and she has lost custody of her two children to their fathers. Additionally, Melissa cannot allow her daughter in her home anymore because it creates an unhealthy enabling situation that has brought chaos into her and her family’s life. Melissa’s fears are exacerbated when Yesenia informs her on the phone from jail that an Española woman, who was released the week before, was found dead in an Albuquerque parking lot.

Yesenia is a bright, articulate, talented young woman, with a powerful presence and shining eyes, who wants to change her life, go to school and make the world a better place, but the odds are against her. Natalie and Yesenia are two intelligent, vibrant women who were traumatized by events in their childhood and never received the vital therapy and counseling that could have helped them avoid their ill-fated choice to ease their pain with hard drugs.

Poverty, cultural destruction and disempowered communities play a large role in the addiction epidemic in northern New Mexico, as do the resulting rape, abuse, alcoholic and addicted parents, domestic violence and dysfunction, and mental-health issues that arise out of these traumas, although this last group of root causes knows no boundaries across the social spectrum. Wealthy families have tended to provide financially, so their addict family members don’t have to steal to support their habits. They can also hire better lawyers to keep them out of jail, but even that class difference is breaking down as the drug epidemic spreads, and middle- and upper-class families become more aware of the harm they are causing by their codependent enabling of the addict. In the end, drug addiction is a baffling disease because two people can be brought up in the same family under the same apparent conditions, and one will follow a healthy path while the other will turn to drugs.

But the key word here is disease. For the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s full definition of this disease, go to http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction.

Genetics, brain circuitry dysfunction, family environment, history of trauma, individual pathology, social stressors and lack of opportunities for cultural, human and spiritual connections can combine to manifest drug addiction. The consensus in the medical community is that without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and will likely result in disability or premature death.

As chaplain and volunteer-services coordinator at the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility, Robert Ortiz’s life mission is to help the inmates see their worth and value, that they are not what society calls “criminal” and worthless. At the volunteer orientations he leads, he reminds us, “I would say 95 percent of the population at the facility are here because of drug-related causes, and many of them have had horrifically traumatic childhoods.” Ortiz believes our community would be better served if resources were diverted to treatment rather than punishment.

Yes, there are those for whom a stint in jail works to turn their lives around, but the vast majority are caught in the revolving door and vicious cycle of drug use, crime and jail, which goes on endlessly, creating wasted lives, parentless children, mourning families, stretched county and state budgets and a U.S. prison population that has exceeded in number any in the history of the world and one that is disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In the year 2000, the government of Portugal, facing an out-of-control drug problem, convened panels of doctors, scientists and judges and agreed to follow their recommendations. The result was decriminalization of drugs, diversion of funds from criminal prosecution and imprisonment to excellent drug treatment and, most importantly, the inclusion of programs to reconnect addicts to their communities, such as subsidizing jobs or microloans, thus helping to overcome the stigma and the low self-esteem that prevents addicts and felons from reintegrating into society. Fifteen years later in Portugal, injection drug use is down by 50 percent, all addiction is down, and overdoses and HIV transmission are also significantly lower.

Johann Hari, author of a book on the history of the war on drugs, believes that the root cause of addiction is humans’ existential thirst for connection. This idea triggers excitement in Natalie and Yesenia, the two women introduced at the beginning of this article. It shifts their self-perception and motivates them to try hard to satisfy that thirst without the use of drugs and, in spite of the obstacles the criminal and court system puts up for them, not to mention the lack of therapeutic services and support programs. Maybe it’s time to follow the example of Portugal here in northern New Mexico, and shift our strategy to supporting their recovery efforts rather than sabotaging them.

Meanwhile, if there is an addict in your life who is expressing a desire to change, you can direct them to the programs and resources available locally. A few are listed below.

 

 

Consuelo Luz Aróstegui is a Santa Fe musician, activist and writer whose life has been deeply affected by a family member’s drug addiction and who volunteers at the Santa Fe Detention Facility, leading support groups and creative writing workshops. The names in this article were altered for anonymity.

 

Some Local Programs and Resources

 

HOT LINE: Toll free 1.855.662.7474, www.nmcrisisline.com

DETOX
Care Connection, 505.913.4350
Mats Detox Program, Albuquerque, 505.468.1555

TREATMENT
Santa Fe Recovery Center, 505.471.4985
Hoy Recovery Program, Española, 505.852.2580

SOBER LIVING
www.thelifeLink.org, includes counseling and case management, 505. 438.0010
www.oxfordhouse.org

HOUSING
St. Elizabeth’s Shelter—Sonrisa, 2-year family transitional housing, 505.982.6611
Casa Familia Women & Family Shelter, 505.983.2042
Family Promises, 505.268.0331,
www.familypromiseabq.org

WOMEN’S SERVICES
Crossroads for Women, 505.242.1010,
www.crossroadsabq.org
Maya’s Place, life skills, treatment, residential, reentry, 505.266.0110

NEW MEXICO HUMAN SERVICES DEPARTMENT
Behavioral Health Services Division, 505.476.9266

TWELVE-STEP PROGRAMS
Daily meetings,
www.na.org for addicts
Al-Anon, for family members of addicts and alcoholics,
www.al-anon.org

 

 

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