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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

One of Allen's assignments was to write a letter to her former pimp--the man she had once thought she was in love with. Whether she ever mailed the letter did not matter.

"Dear Tony," it began. "What we had was real sick. . . ." The letter, written in large, childlike block letters, recalled that Allen had wanted to bear this man's child. It also recalled how he beat her when she returned home empty-handed after working the streets and how his infidelity drove her into a suicidal depression.

Carefully folding the piece of paper, Allen said that despite the searing anger she had begun to feel toward him, she still prayed that "he's not dead somewhere" and that he finds help with his addiction. "Deep down, he was a good person," she said. "He was just screwed up because of his (drug) disease, like me."

Allen began learning to like herself. It happened only after many failed attempts at coming clean. Instead of heading for college, as her parents had planned, the Beverly Hills High School graduate floated in and out of some of the country's more exclusive drug recovery centers, where she hobnobbed with rock stars and professional football players. She was tossed out of one program for fraternizing with the men, which is strictly forbidden at most facilities. In addition, Allen went through four methadone maintenance centers and several detoxification treatments at hospitals.

Before Impact, Allen saw no real reason to quit. "I went to get my parents off my back," she said. "It was like a big joke to me." She'd been drinking and using pot since she was 12. By 15, she was snorting cocaine. A few years later, she shot up heroin for the first time with her older brother, who ended up in a drug recovery program as well but eventually managed to follow in their physician father's footsteps.

Drugs distanced Allen from the unhappy, overweight child she had been while growing up amid the "beautiful people." Then the bouts of bulimia and the car accidents linked to her drug abuse began. And, to satisfy her habit, Allen started stealing from her parents and their friends.

Once, for about a year and a half, she stayed clean in Minnesota. Fooling herself that this time she would be able to control drugs, she returned to Los Angeles two years ago and fell off the wagon. Before long, the child born to privilege was out working the streets for her pimp.

Six months later, Allen finally called home for help. When her mother came to pick her up, she didn't recognize her daughter, a gaunt, ashen woman with a bruised body, chipped teeth and black eyes. Doctors said Allen had so neglected her health and abused drugs that she might not live.

Once she settled in at Impact, it didn't take Allen long to shed her rich-girl front--designer clothes, expensive shampoos, snobbish airs--and begin opening up. The difference between this time and all her previous attempts was that Allen had just fallen harder and lower than ever before. And, she figured, this really might be her last chance.

JOHN MITCHELL can still picture the murky water as it looked from his perch on the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach. At the tail end of his last four-day run with crack, the master mechanic had nothing left but the 20 cents in his pocket. Suicide seemed the best way out. As his trembling hands locked onto a chain-link fence, the painful memories of his failed marriages and broken dreams came rushing back. But he could not jump.

Shortly thereafter, he sought help at Impact. There, the self-reliant 48-year-old cried openly for the first time as he faced his guilt, especially over the slaying of one of his daughters in a bad drug deal a year and a half earlier. Though he was not directly involved, he couldn't forget that she had come to him for help after several years on the street. He shared his drugs with her instead. Besides the guilt, he acknowledged the feelings of sexual inadequacy that led to an unending cycle of drug use with prostitutes and the breakup of his three marriages.

But more than midway through the program, Mitchell hit a wall. It happens all the time. Addicts arrive eager to learn. They do all that is asked of them, then suddenly plateau, afraid to take the next step. For many, the most frightening step of all is abandoning the addict's self-destructive tendencies, the only way of life they've known. But counselors insist that it is essential that they start anew. To accomplish it, the program often resorts to a "super session"--an ambush by counselors who confront recalcitrant residents.

Mitchell had withdrawn from group sessions and resisted advice from his counselors. He also began making veiled threats about leaving the program. But his heart sank when he walked into the counseling office. There were half a dozen counselors and administrators, including Stillwell. Mitchell was sure he was about to be expelled.

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