Linda W., 51 and a grandmother of eight, has been to jail three times in the past three years on charges of prostitution.
Ashleigh G., a tall blonde 29-year-old and self-described “beer-loving country girl” drove her car into a house during a binge last spring, only to resume drinking days after she arrived home from county jail.
And 44-year-old Lada P., once a successful physician, is now on parole and on the verge of returning to prison because she can’t stop drinking for any significant period of time.
The women speak candidly about lies told, people hurt, laws broken and things destroyed — they understand all too well that what they have done is in many cases shameful. But here at the Magdalen House, a large red bricked two-story in the middle of a White Rock area neighborhood, volunteers and staffers assure the women that while they “have done bad stuff, they are not bad people.” Executive director Michele Derrington explains to them that they have an illness, alcoholism, for which there is a treatment.
For some of the women, it is the first time anyone has told them that help is possible, or that they are worth saving.
Magdalen House deals primarily with women suffering from alcohol addiction, though many of those seeking help have been using other drugs, too. New residents often require hospitalization during the initial 48 or so hours.
“We are not a medical facility. Someone going through severe alcohol withdrawal needs medical care that we can’t offer here,” Derrington says. “It can get messy. We’ve had to call 911 a few times. Fortunately, Doctors [Hospital] is right up the road.”
Jackie L., a 33-year-old mother, says she is glad to be at Maggie’s. She fought the physical withdrawals sans medical treatment, and is now eager to change her life. “I’ve finally realized I have to get sober not just for my family — even my kids — but for me. I am so thankful to have this opportunity and that these people are here for me.”
Julie Harvey, who was working when Lester arrived, chimes in, “she wasn’t thanking us yesterday.
“Because we have no medical treatment, they feel every bit of the pain, but that also makes it special,” says Harvey, a Magdalen House board member and administrator. “Within a few days, you see the light come on.”
It can take several days for the head to clear, but usually following 24 to 48 hours rest, new residents are ready to launch into the real work.
The 14-day program at Magdalen House is based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps involve admitting the problem, asking help from a “higher power”, confessing and making up for wrongdoings, and helping others.
With a comfortable bed, newfound support and a clear-cut plan for the future, some of the women start feeling better and stronger quickly.
“It feels good to have other women to talk to. I haven’t had sober communication in a lot of years,” says Linda, a grandmother who wound up on the street after she started using drugs at the age of 28. “The day I got here was the best day of my life. I heard the birds singing.”
She attended her first AA meeting her second day in the house, and says she is eager to understand the program. “I think it is about learning to be happy, like them birds out there.”
The Magdalen House AA meeting room is open to all recovering alcoholics. People from all walks of life meet, discuss their common problem, and learn how to live life sober. Many with long-term sobriety attend meetings there in order to reach out to women like Linda.
Connie D., for instance, sobered up at Magdalen House almost 21 years ago. Today she and her husband, whom she met in AA, remain heavily involved with Magdalen House, and he serves on the board of directors.
“He was so impressed by what they had done for me,” she says, “that he wanted to be a part of it — and it’s a big commitment.” Connie says she wouldn’t be alive today if not for the unconditional love, and the 12-step principles she found at Magdalen House.
“They understand the ins and outs of dealing with female alcoholics … and are completely [ingrained in] and supported by the AA community, which is why they are so successful.”
During her stay, each Magdalen House resident will attend daily meetings, and ideally find another woman in recovery, a sponsor, who will guide her through the steps of AA.
Does it work?
East Dallas resident Judge John Creuzot, who has dealt extensively with societal problems surrounding substance abuse, says he has witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of the 12-step program in treating addiction problems.
In 1998 Creuzot, who presides over Dallas Criminal District Court 4, established DIVERT (Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment) court as a way of helping drug offenders address the root causes of their problems. Like the residents at Magdalen House, DIVERT participants are instructed to work through the 12-step program — that means attending regular AA meetings and working with a sponsor.
“The process of the steps requires looking inward to the cause of the problem. It includes looking at self and those harmed … it is an ongoing process that doesn’t come to an end. I have seen a lot of people have success with [the 12-step program],” Creuzot says.
A former doctor, Lada slid rapidly into alcoholism after she began drinking at age 36.
“I saw patients dying from the disease, but I thought I was unique,” she says.
Though she started drinking relatively late in life, the addiction quickly took hold of her — she lost her career, her home, her family and her freedom within a few years. Following incarceration due to DWI convictions, she is on parole and facing a return to prison because of her latest relapse into drinking.
Magdalen House could be her last shot at freedom.
“I’ve lost everything,” Lada says. “Family has given up on me … I am homeless. I have a complicated fatal disease [alcoholism] … but here, I feel safe. I have hope.”
She may not be able to practice medicine again, but Lada could conceivably recover and someday help others.
Creuzot says that it is very common for those who are in recovery to eventually make the best counselors — that the people who have suffered and overcome addiction can best help those who are still suffering.
That’s exactly how it works at Magdalen House.
Derrington and Harvey, both mentors to the women at Magdalen House, have a personal history of drinking problems. Today, a key component of their personal healing involves helping others. In fact, it is the recovery community sustains Maggie’s House, says Harvey.
“A lot of people who care about this place are the reason why this place survives,” she says.
A small group of recovering alcoholics founded Magdalen House in 1986. Back then it was located in a small home on Lovers Lane that could accommodate about six people. In 1996, funding from the Dallas Women’s foundation allowed the non-profit group to purchase the large fixer-upper that they turned into the current facility — most call it simply “Maggie’s”.
About 250 women come to Maggie’s annually, says Derrington; in its first 10 years, more than 3,000 women passed through.
Maggie’s small paid staff includes a house manager, a day supervisor, night supervisor and a weekend supervisor, but volunteers do much of the work around Maggie’s, and donors supply all of the necessary items including toiletries, clothing and food.
In theory, the women getting strong at Maggie’s today will be the mentors and healers of tomorrow. Ashleigh, who is dealing with a lengthy list of alcohol-related legal and health problems, knows the road ahead will be tough. But she believes Magdalen House will set her on the road to recovery.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but you get so strong in this house … there is so much love here,” she says, smiling through tears. “No matter who we are, we all share a common story … we are working together to get what we need to walk out of here and live our lives. No more hiding. I want to be one of those miracle stories.”
To learn more about The Magdalen House, visit magdalenhouse.org.
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