Editor's Note: This is Part One of a series profiling the drug treatment facility Cri-Help, which is located in North Hollywood.
'Honesty is mandatory'
Mary grew up in the Valley in a good home but had been a drug and alcohol user since the tender age of 12.
It was a long, hard road through hell to rock bottom, a 36-year journey that led her to crack houses, prison, prostitution, shock therapy and at least 20 attempts at rehabilitation in different facilities around the country.
Four years ago her mother died, and that's when Mary found herself doing the things she said she would never do. Her mother had always cared for her, given her money and gotten her hotel rooms, anything to keep her from stealing and living on the street and doing the things that many addicts need to do to feed their addictions.
"When she died, I found my 'nevers,'" Mary told me. "I found myself homeless. I found myself prostituting. I didn’t have a home to go home to and shower and clean up. And I was high and it was hot or cold and a lot of walking. It was work, hard, hard work."
She had three warrants out for her arrest and had been 86'd from five liquor stores for stealing. One of them even had her photo up on the wall. About 10 months ago, Mary (not her real name) woke up in a crack house, but something was different. Something was in the air. She felt God's presence.
"I will tell you what it was for me, for me it was God. Straight God. God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself," she said. "And I asked some dude, 'Can I use your phone?' He said yeah, and I called someone who I knew that does sober livings."
That simple phone call started her on a path that led her to Cri-Help, but it was to be another long, hard road to get there. The decision to get sober was not a simple one, as she had three warrants out for her arrest. After sobering up for a week, she went to the courthouse and turned herself in.
Through seven months of prison she stayed sober. A friend sent her the Alcoholics Anonymous "Big Book" and each week she wrote her friend and did her assignments. When she was released, she gave all her money ($350) to her friend to hold because she didn't want to be temped to use. She asked her friend to find her a drug treatment facility, and her friend told her she had secured her a bed at Cri-Help in North Hollywood.
That's when Mary got scared.
Cri-Help is an addiction treatment center that specializes in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Its treatment options include both outpatient and residential, along with detoxification, biofeedback and transitional living. It currently has two centers in Los Angeles, including the George T. Pfleger Center on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood.
Mary stayed at Cri-Help before in 2007, so she knew what it was like. Cri-Help has a reputation as one of the top treatment centers in the state, but also has a reputation of being strict. That's why she was scared. Despite all her determination since making that phone call from the crack house, Cri-Help made her scared. Her demons inside of her were kicking and screaming at the thought of going to Cri-Help.
"When she told me I thought, 'I don’t want to go to Cri-Help. I don’t want to go to Cri-Help.' Because Cri-Help, how structured it is and you have to follow the rules," she said. "I knew it was best for me but I didn’t want to do it. That was my initial instinct because that was my disease talking, 'No not Cri-Help!' But I knew that’s what was best for me."
When I met her several weeks ago, Mary had been at Cri-Help since March 14 and had been sober for over nine months. Her last stay at Cri-Help lasted five months and ended with her getting in a cab and going home one month ahead of her scheduled discharge, stopping at a liquor store on the way.
She told me she had been breaking the rules the whole time, as she had in every rehab attempt, which is why it was easy to give up sobriety so quickly after five months. Although she's relapsed many times and suffered decades of addiction, she believes this time is different. I believed her, too.
One thing they make clients do upon arrival at Cri-Help is to write their strict rules down on paper.
"This is what I realized this time. I realized this when I got here, by writing the rules out, I realized how many I broke before, and how in all the other treatments I was in I always turned everything around my way," she said. "If I’m doing that, how am I going to stay sober? I can’t because I’m not going to be honest with myself. You have to be honest to stay sober. Honesty is mandatory. And openmindedness, and willingness."
'I was dying, it was very bad'
Jennifer (not her real name) grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of two successful musicians. Her father has been a touring member with several world-famous bands and musicians and she basically grew up on tour in the shadows of the limelight. At the age of 15, she herself found some success in the industry as a recording artist and went on tour.
Although she seemingly had it all -- talent, good looks, success and opportunity -- drug addiction stripped it all away, one by one. All but her good looks, that is, which remain intact and do not give any hint of the long battle she has fought with addiction and eating disorders. Her voice is quiet yet determined, and her smile lights up her whole face. Only in her mid-20s, she has reached higher highs and lower lows than most of us could ever imagine.
She began drinking at 15. She had older boyfriends who helped supply her addiction. Away from her parents or any semblance of structure, she suffered from an eating disorder that landed her in the hospital three times. One time in the hospital, she flatlined.
"I was dying, it was very bad," she recalled. "I went to a drug rehab at 16 and thought it was a joke and cult and that I wasn’t an addict or anything like that. I just thought I had an eating disorder, but it’s all the same."
By her early 20s she was addicted to painkillers and had tried to go through detox on her own several times without success. She also had just left her marriage of four years to a man who was also an addict.
"I just hit such a serious low, health wise and emotionally and losing everything, and I’m grateful for that because that’s what it took for me to surrender, just get down on my knees, because I knew I was going to die," she said.
She placed a call to MusiCares, an organization that provides help and assistance to musicians in need. MusiCares got her a bed at Cri-Help, where she went through detox. After detoxing she moved into the residential area and began getting therapy and treatment for her addiction.
"I just really surrendered and went into it and stuck with the winners, those that were really into it," she said. "There’s such good recovery here. I laughed a lot and stayed positive and found so many friends and just an amazing community."
She's now been out of Cri-Help for over a month, but one thing that makes Cri-Help special is that you are never "out" if you don't want to be. After leaving, alumni of the program are free to come back and attend 12-step meetings. Both clients and staff members repeatedly told me this is a key component of what makes Cri-Help a top-level treatment facility.
"Even after you complete, you can still be a part of it and come to the groups. It’s so important to stay close," Jennifer said. "When you come out of this cocoon thing that treatment is, it’s very hard to integrate back to life. You just feel shaken and kind of like an outsider. That’s something that’s different about this place. You can come back here if you are feeling bad or just need the groups."
'I could’t stay sober for one day until I came to Cri-Help'
Eric Moore has been sober for eight-and-a-half years and credits Cri-Help as the reason. A cocaine addict, he had been to prison and treatment several times before coming to Cri-Help. Like Jennifer, he has movie star good looks and a bright smile that gives zero hint to the years of addiction and turmoil he suffered.
"I couldn’t stay sober for one day until I came to Cri-Help," he told me. "I had a big ego and low self esteem when I got here. They don’t make a good match."
Like Jennifer, Eric credits Cri-Help's policy of letting alumni return to the facility for group meetings and support with helping him stay sober. In fact, he now works as a drug counselor and frequently returns to Cri-Help to drive clients to 12-step meetings around town. He also has helped some clients get a bed at Cri-Help. And even through he was a regular alumni around Cri-Help, they still called to check up on him.
"My first three, four years, there were people that contacted me, called me all the time to see how I was doing," he said. "Even though I was here all the time, they had people call me to see how I was doing and if I needed anything."
Cri-Help treats mind, body and soul. There are the strict rules and the structure, but there are also 12-step meetings, meditation, grief counseling, acupuncture treatments and help in finding a job.
"Cri-Help hands you the tools and teaches you how to use them," Eric told me. "It’s like, I used to do construction. If somebody hands you a skill saw and says here, go build a house. But if you don’t know how to use a skill saw you’re going to cut your leg off. Somebody has to show you how to use it.
"And that’s what this place does, it showed me how to use all the tools that I’d already gotten from all these other places but I didn’t know how to use them. Instead of using them to progress in my life, I used them to cut myself. I left these treatment centers judging myself even further. And then you're like, 'F***, I know there’s a better way but I can’t get it. Why can’t I get it?'"
There's so much inspiration to be found in the stories at Cri-Help, but there is also so much sadness and tragedy. Marlene Nadal, Cri-Help's director of client services, was one of its first clients when it was just a small shack in Sun Valley 41 years ago. She showed me a black-and-white group photo from the first year. Among the people in the photo were stories of great success and inspiration, including hers. But another person in the photo had died of an overdose, and two more were also dead, a boyfriend who shot his girlfriend to death before killing himself. Forty one years in the fight against addiction is going to produce its fair share of horror stories.
As I write this story at home at my desk, I'm looking up at a picture hanging on the wall of my brother-in-law, Damon, or "D," as he was called. Damon is unfortunately one of those horror stories. He stayed at Cri-Help twice in the 90s, but was kicked out both times for breaking the rules. He was also kicked out of many other facilities around Southern California and never stayed sober for very long. I never met him, as "D" OD'd on heroin in a dingy motel room on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood seven years ago and died. He was 27.
Damon died before I met my wife, so while I never knew him, his presence looms large in our home. He was my wife's only sibling and was a hardcore drug addict from the age of 15 until his death. He was young and talented, a great musician and skateboarder, but troubled and defiant from an early age. Punk rock to the core, no amount of love or treatment could help him. He destroyed my wife's life so much to the point that if I ever see him in the afterlife I will be sure to give his punk-ass a real good ass whooping.
But there is also something inside of me that wants to find an understanding and forgiveness, which is why I think I have spent so much time at Cri-Help. I visited the facility four times, interviewing staff and clients. All the time, Damon was in the back of my mind. Whether they are stories of horror or inspiration, I have learned it takes a great deal of bravery to face addiction head-on at Cri-Help, either as a client or a staffer.
Come back Saturday and Sunday for Part Two.