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'I became the mom I wanted to be'

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Michelle has been sober for nine months since graduating from Family House Louisiana. As she talks about it, her voice breaks. She’s an uplifting story, as so many are at Family House, but at the core of it is a person who battles every day – and on some days it’s really hard.

“I’m struggling,’’ she says. “I’m struggling to stay clean. I was loaded for 23 years. I have good days and bad. I’m learning. It’s a very big struggle.”

Michelle starts to cry, and she feels a hand on her shoulder. Theonette (Theo to her friends, which is everybody) pulls her into a hug, and whispers in Michelle’s ear: “If I can do it, you can do it, too.’’

“I’m fighting,” Michelle says.

“I know,’’ Theo says, softly. “Fighting is a good thing.”

Michelle, Theo and Jenelle are sitting on a couch in Family House, telling their stories. Jenelle has been sober three years. Theo, one of the first graduates from Family House, has been sober 17 years. She now returns on weekends to help guide other women in Family House’s aftercare sessions – meetings that Michelle calls “my rock.”

“Family House saved my life,’’ Michelle says. “I’d have been dead, or doing prison time. I don’t remember too much about raising my girls. Jail didn’t stop me. Getting beat up didn’t stop me. I jumped into this like I was trying something new; I’d just give it a try. But it felt like being born again.

“I learned how to be an adult. I learned how to be a human being. I learned how to be a mom. It’s a feeling that I never felt before.”

Resources for Human Development founded Family House Louisiana in 1992. Of the last 34 women to graduate from Family House, 82 percent have remained sober. In tracking these cases, Family House director Michelle Vick said the way graduates still connect and support each other has been a key factor. She makes sure that current residents close to graduating attend these meetings.

“Many of them don’t know what a success story might be,’’ Vick says. “That’s one reason we want alumni to come in – to not just talk to them, but show them.

“They just need a place that is safe enough so that they can remember who they are. They want to live a life that is honest. Love. Acceptance. All these things. They just need a nurturing environment to let them grow into who they are.”

Dr. Neil Boris, a former psychiatrist for Family House who is now a professor at Tulane, provided a weekly parenting group at Family House based on a model called the Circle of Security. It’s aimed at building attachments between mothers and children, and Boris said Family House provided the perfect setting.

“Some of the most impressive gains were made in their relationships with their kids,’’ Boris says. “We saw significant changes in attachment between parent and child – that their attachment went from insecure, to secure.

“Family House is the perfect sight for this kind of intervention. You need a group that is willing to communicate, and to talk about very tough stuff. At Family House, they had that group together before I even walked in the door.”

The intervention videotapes the women with their children, and then uses that video to show women where they were successful and where they were lacking – like an athlete watching film to self-critique performance.

“It was intense – a lot of tears, and a lot of pain,’’ Boris said. “But then there was a lot of growth.”

In large part this program was successful because of the way Family House works with mothers and children together in a residential setting. Boris says that model is slowly gaining in popularity because of a strong success rate.

“Family House has been for a long time at the leading edge of that,’’ Boris says. “I know you’d think it would be more stress, more problems – but for the most part the separation from their kids is doubly stressful. Kids are one of the biggest triggers for moms in these programs. But do you really get recovery if as soon as you walk out of that place, you’re back in that zone? Your best bet is learning to do it as a full-time parent – because you’re going to be a full-time parent when you walk out of that program.

“The motivation of having their child in front of them is very, very powerful. There’s a solid sense of connection about parenting – and that is really important for moms in rehab with their kids.’’

That sentiment rings true with Theo.

“I did it for my son,” Theo says. “My family didn’t deserve to feel like I was making them feel. I had no parenting skills. My mother and father raised my son. I chose Family House because I could be with him, and become the mom I wanted to be.”

Theo today works as a supervisor at a local hotel, and her son – now 17 – is going to college on a scholarship and he remains.

“This place is something from God,’’ Theo says. “If it wasn’t for Family House, I would not be here. I knew if I didn’t stop, he would have been a statistic. If something happened to him, I’d die.’’

Jenelle recalls pawning her kids’ toys for drug money, and says her children needed Family House just as much as she did.

“They need recovery just as much as we do,’’ Jenelle says. “When I was getting high, I couldn’t make a clear picture in my head of my kids. Now I see what their eyebrows look like, who sweet their smile is. The fog is gone. I’ve got my vision back; 20/20. I didn’t realize how beautiful my kids were, because the drugs took over my eyesight.

“I did 26 years of that. I’ve got 26 years to make up for.”

Jenelle’s sister brought her to Family House three years ago, desperate for a way to get her clean. Now when she brings Jenelle to Family House, it’s so Jenelle can tell her story, one of the many success stories that blossom here. She sees Vick as she drops Jenelle off, and gives her a hug, whispering a few words in Vick’s ear:

“Thank you for giving me my sister back.”