By Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S
It is lunchtime at Miriam’s House. Denise sits with her twin 6-year-old boys, Dante and Darrell, encouraging them to eat not only the grilled cheese sandwiches on their plates, but the green beans. Stymied in her efforts, she uses the age-old mom trick of saying they won’t get dessert if they don’t eat their vegetables. They grudgingly oblige, shoving as many green beans as they can into their mouths all at once and swallowing without even chewing, all the while making faces that only sweets-driven 6-year-old boys can make.
Next to Denise and her sons are Aisha and her infant daughter, Mariah. Aisha eats grilled cheese while the baby suckles on formula. Seated across the table are Anne and her toddlers, one tiny boy and one slightly less tiny girl. Anne’s toddlers actually like green beans, eating them with their fingers. Then we see Janelle with her daughter, and Nona with her three kids, and several other mothers with their young children, everyone enjoying a healthy lunch in a safe, relatively peaceful setting.
In some respects, the lunchroom at Miriam’s House looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad of yore—black, white, yellow, and brown mothers interacting with their mostly mocha children. What this does not look like is an addiction rehab facility. For starters, there are children living here. Most rehabs only allow kids on family day, and usually not the little ones. Kids as young as those at the Miriam’s House lunch table are typically left at home with a relative or babysitter when Mom’s visiting day arrives. Of course, Miriam’s House isn’t a typical rehab.
What’s Happening Here?
Miriam’s House is a 15-bedroom converted convent in a somewhat less-than-swanky but nevertheless decent portion of Los Angeles. Today the former convent houses an addiction rehab and recovery home serving addicted mothers and their children, providing these troubled families with refuge from the instability of poverty and drug abuse. In short, Miriam’s House works to heal and nurture not only addicted mothers, but their kids, thereby meeting the individual needs of our most vulnerable and underserved population segments. Continuous sobriety, 12-step recovery, parenting classes, life coaching, educational training, and workshops that facilitate self-sufficiency and employment are integral parts of the program, so Miriam’s House is much more than just a place of temporary shelter — though food, clothing and safety are provided. More than that, it is dedicated to helping addicted mothers and their children to develop the lifelong skills needed for healthy, meaningful, happy lives free of substance abuse. And how cool is that? Best of all, this model, non-profit facility provides a yearlong program that is almost shockingly affordable, a mere $450 per month! Most drug addiction rehab centers run twice that amount per day and no kids allowed.
Typically, Miriam’s House clients are poverty stricken, profoundly addicted, and “in the system.” The mothers are often facing jail or prison, with their children looking at an endless stream of foster homes and state-run care facilities. It is not a pretty picture. Some of the mothers have resisted inpatient rehab stays in the past, even if they actually wanted help getting clean, because they knew that if they entered a typical treatment center their children would be taken away and they might not ever get them back, even if they managed to stay sober long-term. Needless to say, these are painfully distressed families on the verge of total, permanent destruction with no obvious route out. For these desperate women and children, Miriam’s House is an unexpected lifeline. Often it is the only lifeline.
Consider, for instance, Denise, mother of Dante and Darrell. She and her boys came to Miriam’s House two months ago, after her ninth arrest for drugs and/or prostitution. Prior to that, the primary man in her life was also her pimp, providing her with a constant supply of heroin to keep her compliant. After the last arrest, Denise faced a lengthy stay in jail and the loss of her boys. When the opportunity to find sobriety while keeping her family intact arose, she jumped on it. Miriam’s House offered Denise, for the first time ever, a realistic pathway out of her troubled existence. It was a chance to save herself and her boys at the same time.
Are there “nicer” rehab facilities in Los Angeles and elsewhere? Of course there are. Travel a few miles north to Malibu and visit any of the 35 treatment centers there, all of which cost at least $2,000 per day. The celebs and ultra-pampered who get sober in Malibu rehabs have ocean views, they get regular massages, and they’re fed meals prepared by private chefs. And why not, when they can well afford it? Of course, the women at Miriam’s House don’t care much about a dearth of yoga sessions, riding lessons, tennis matches, and memory foam mattresses. What they do care about is changing their lives without having to give up their children. It matters not that they don’t get fresh lobster or osso buco for dinner. At Miriam’s House, mothers and children alike are quite happy with a simple meal of hot dogs, chips, carrot sticks, and sugar free lemonade. It beats eating from a dumpster, after all.
The best part about all of this is the fact that Miriam’s House clients get and stay sober as a group of mutually supportive women and families. In this carefully structured environment, these throwaway women evolve into loving, nurturing mothers and productive individuals as the destructive cycle of addiction is broken for them and for their children. When the yearlong program is up, it is a joyous occasion for all, because mothers and kids alike are ready to face the world. And those who need to stay longer? Well, they can.
Why Don’t All Rehabs Do This?
A few well-known facts about addiction and recovery are:
1. Addiction is a family disease. Treating the entire family improves everyone’s odds of lasting success.
2. The longer you can keep an addict in treatment, the better his or her odds of lasting sobriety become.
So one wonders, why don’t all addiction treatment facilities take in the entire family and keep them there, peppered with a variety of proven treatment modalities, for a year or more? The answer, of course, is money. It is incredibly expensive to house, feed, and treat addicted mothers and their children for an entire year. The few hundred dollars per month provided by each of the clients at Miriam’s House barely scratches the surface. As such, the charitable organization that generously supports Miriam’s House (the Promises Foundation) must fundraise almost constantly. Otherwise, this miraculous facility would be forced to shut its doors. This is a sad but true fact of life.
Would the world benefit from many more facilities based on the Miriam’s House model? Absolutely. A dozen or more of these centers are needed in Los Angeles alone. In a perfect world these rehabs would exist in abundance, and funding would not be an issue. But ours is not a perfect world. For now, we can feel good about the fact that Miriam’s House is open and families are being saved. But please keep in mind that while we pat ourselves and our loved ones on the back wishing each other warm season’s greetings, there are thousands of people who need a helping hand. Places like Miriam’s House are but a single snowflake gently floating away from the iceberg of emotional health and addiction problems. So when it comes to places like Miriam’s House, my heart and my wallet are all in. Perhaps yours will be too in this joyous season of giving?
If you are interested in helping the women and children at Miriam’s House, please do so. You can donate through the Promises Foundation, or to the facility directly if you are nearby. In addition to monetary donations, toys and books for the kids are much appreciated, as are office supplies and equipment for the staff, food for the kitchen, and just about anything else you can think of.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the U.S. military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia