By Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

Judging from current media coverage, one might think that women who repeatedly get falling-down drunk or pass out in public places from taking illegal substances are merely observing a rite of passage from stressful childhood to irresponsible-but-fun adult life.

Countless celebrities fill tabloid and mainstream news slots with their substance-abuse antics, and in doing so become poster girls for the fast life.

The "cure?" An escape into a hospital or upscale rehabilitation retreat, which is quickly portrayed by media spin artists as an experience of reflection, remorse and religious epiphany that allows the penitent to emerge reborn…only to do it all over again.

And why not? Money and privilege cushion the "bottom" hit by media glamour girls -- consequently, the depth of their actual addiction is trivialized. But their public and overdramatized lives are a world apart from the thousands of everyday women who struggle daily to recover from drug and alcohol abuse.

These women don’t appear in tabloids. Instead, they scrape by in those too-few group residences and drug recovery locations. Many more, homeless, wander the streets.

In real life, addiction isn’t pretty, isn’t easy to kick and isn’t a five-week pampered visit to posh rehab clinic.

Meet some addicts (Their names have been changed to protect their identities):

Paramedics scrape Tracey, a 30-year-old black woman, off of the pavement, while pedestrians scurry by. She's been lying there since early morning, having overdosed on methamphetamine. She will be revived in one of the hospital emergency rooms and placed in a locked-down detoxification ward.

Victoria, a 24-year-old Latina, works in a fast-food restaurant trying to maintain a routine that might keep her from relapsing into a crack addiction. She has rent money in her pocket from her paycheck, along with the promised contribution to her grandmother who cares for her 4-year-old son, but habit proves stronger than resolve. The addition kicks in; she takes "just one hit" on the crack pipe. Actually, there is no such thing as "just one” hit. When she surfaces again days later, Victoria has lost her job. Without income, she moves in with a drug-dealing john, predictably re-entering the drug life.

These real women, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, shared their stories with me as residents in Still Standing Recovery Ministry, one of the very few drug recovery programs in South St. Petersburg accepting women.

At any one time, 100 residents – equally men and women, white and non-white - are sheltered and supervised in six residential buildings. They are separated into different houses by gender and required to follow a structured program of 12-step meetings, job and career counseling and faith-based counseling designed to help them stay clean, sober and straight. Two-thirds of the time the plan works, but it works more often for men than for women.

The interviews were conducted because it was clear that life stories of women at Still Standing were not the same as the men's. Observation and recidivism rates suggest that the women are more destitute than the men, and they appear to be more readily drawn back into addictions.

The interviews uncovered destructive patterns of behavior by women that are mostly obscured by the media’s fascination with the glitz, drama and hysteria of celebrities' drug-induced, wild abandons. Unlike the pretty party girls, many of the women I interviewed were impoverished, unemployed and unskilled -- adding to the difficulty of getting and staying clean and sober.

Thirty-one-year-old Simone's [not her real name] candor is instructive:

"Within a year of my first hit, I was strung out. I was 19. I had a son (but) gave him up because he was getting big and demanding and was cutting into my get-high time. Frankly, I wanted him to have a better life than I'd had…I went in and out of local alcohol crisis centers and in and out of detox. I'd do the halfway-house thing and get cleaned up for a little bit…but I was young and there was a lot to come that I had no clue I was headed toward.”

Simone today is serving a long jail term because of her lifestyle and addiction. This is a frequent outcome for female addicts. Tracey fared far worse. About a year after my interview with her, her body was found in a dumpster.
Scruggs-Leftwich is Executive.Director-principal investigator for the nonprofit Center for Community and Economic Justice Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla., which also founded the Still Standing Recovery Ministry.
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