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COMING CLEAN : The recovering addicts in this story initially agreed to share their experiences fully and openly, hoping it might help other addicts. During their months-long treatment, however, three changed their minds and requested anonymity. Lynn Willimas, Karen Allen and Frank Castillo are pseudonyms. : At the Impact Recovery Center, Euphoria and Despair Are Daily Visitors, and the Odds of Success Are Sadly Slim

July 29, 1990|Marita Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

LYNN WILLIAMS, her thin, young body racked with pain, was still in the throes of heroin withdrawal when she stumbled through the doorway of the Pasadena drug recovery house last fall. The bizarre scene that confronted her might have been another one of her drug-induced hallucinations: In the shady courtyard of the sprawling stucco complex, a work crew raked leaves where there were none. A man walked by wearing a muzzle. A woman carried a Narcotics Anonymous book in handcuffed hands.

Those extraordinary disciplinary measures are everyday occurrences at the residential drug recovery program, where addicts are asked to abandon not only drugs but also their will. Let me out of here, Williams thought, panicking. But she had nowhere to go.

At 23, Williams had reached the end of the road. What had started out as a pleasant escape from the pain of a troubled childhood in the San Fernando Valley had turned into a nightmare from which she could not awaken. She hated living in abandoned buildings, stealing and breaking into people's homes, sleeping with men she didn't know. All for a fix. She wanted to die.

Once settled in her new environment, Williams knew she had to stop running, acknowledging that this time she would "have to change completely." Despite her heavy eye makeup and her chain-smoking, she looked as vulnerable as a small child, with long, silky blond hair. "I don't know how to live," she said, her voice cracking.

Williams wanted to learn, but she knew it wouldn't be easy. Every day, she saw addicts drop out of the recovery program only to return to the streets. She knew what awaited her there, and it terrified her. Nearly every week brought word of dropouts who had landed in jail, died of an overdose or been shot in drug deals.

She had used drugs since she was 11, starting with alcohol and marijuana--her parents' drugs of choice. "I grew up thinking it was OK," she recalled. When her parents divorced, her mother gave up her career as a professional jazz dancer to raise her three children. And she never let them forget it.

The counselors assured Williams there was another way. It would entail hard work and require discipline, honesty and self-esteem, qualities she didn't know she had. It would take months of self-analysis and the courage to examine emotions buried long ago. Yes, they could help her change her life. There was only one condition: Williams would have to turn herself over to them. It would require a leap of faith in a "higher power"--be it God, a higher consciousness or whatever name she chose to give it.

She wasn't sure she could meet this challenge. Without drugs' anesthesia, the pain and remorse were overwhelming. "When emotions sneak up on you," Williams said, shaking her head, "you feel like you're going to die."

THE IMPACT ALCOHOL and Drug Recovery Program operates out of a motel-like building, one of several unassuming structures that house drug programs and convalescent hospitals at the northern end of Fair Oaks Avenue. On clear days, the San Gabriel Mountains seem deceptively close enough to touch. Just a few blocks south, drug dealers beckon on the streets that surround the King's Village public housing project.

Impact is one of about two dozen private, nonprofit drug recovery houses in Los Angeles County. Established in 1971, it is among the oldest of these long-term residential programs and is funded largely through government grants. Nearly 25% of the facility's 130 slots are set aside for state and federal parolees referred to the program through the courts. The county pays for another third of the slots to accommodate indigent addicts. A quarter of the slots are paid for by private health insurance or by residents' families. The average four- to six-month stay, including a few months of outpatient care, runs about $15,000 per resident. The program's clinical staff of about 60 includes administrators, medical personnel and 15 caseworkers--the vast majority of whom have all kicked drug habits of their own.

Battle-scarred addicts arrive by the thousands every day at facilities like Impact across the country. Most don't last past the first few weeks of these intensive, months-long treatment programs, thought by experts to offer the best chance at recovery. Some drop out; others are expelled, usually because they are deemed not serious enough about getting better. An encouraging note, counselors say, is that more than a third of those who leave prematurely return months, sometimes years, later to give recovery another try.

"Once you get into the mainstream of the drug recovery subculture, you cannot deny--ever again--that there isn't another way to go. That seed gets planted," said James Stillwell, Impact's director. Silver-haired, smooth-talking and energetic, the administrator has been clean for 17 years and still attends meetings of Narcotics Anonymous.

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