Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Nearly a decade ago I worked for a nonprofit with a welfare-to-work program in which a welfare recipient is paid by the state to receive job training at an agency.
We had an employee, who I’ll call Darla, who was in a word…freakishly attractive. Whoops! Two words, sorry. Darla had startling, wide blue eyes, delicate, symmetrical facial features, cascading blonde hair, a slender build, and looked like a young Michelle Pfeiffer. It was hard not to stare at her.
We were both pregnant at the same time and would occasionally check in about the progress of gestation. Aside from the pregnancy we didn’t have much in common. And even our pregnancies were wildly divergent: Darla looked like a super model with a basketball attached to her belly and me like the Michelin Tire Man…in drag.
Years later she showed up at the same agency as a client (we served chemically dependent, multi-system involved women in poverty who were pregnant and/or parenting children under three). I didn’t recognize her. Her perfect white teeth were discolored and melted all around the edges from smoking meth. Her blonde hair was frizzy with split-ends and neglect. Her face, once porcelain smooth had visible blue veins and was mottled red and white from drug binges and sleep deprivation. She looked brittle and hardened, especially around the mouth.
Her children had been removed by CPS and still she was hooked on the pipe. She was homeless after being kicked out of low-income housing as well as her mother’s home and still she was hooked on the pipe. We tried to give her support and assistance to get back into treatment after she walked out of several facilities in order to get high. We fed her and encouraged her to take parenting classes and visit with her daughters in foster care so they at least would feel as if their mother cared about them.
It was heartbreaking to see the dramatic toll of addiction on someone who I had known and had my pregnancy in common with. Darla had been an exceptional beauty with a work ethic (she was the first welfare-to-work recipient the agency offered employment to after the state stopped paying) and an opportunity to climb out of poverty.
Lately I’ve been wishing that there were “before” and “after” photos of Darla that could be shown to young women considering meth use. In a strange way, I am grateful to have known her. Part of my personal and professional commitment to addressing the issues of addiction stems from witnessing the tragedy of people like Darla: people whose life potential has been utterly nullified by the progressive nature of untreated drug addiction. We must not pretend that addictions are a normal or acceptable part of life.
(a little context for the “huh?” you might be experiencing right now: I am reading Dr Gabor Mate’s excellent book, In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts so drug addiction is on my mind. Privacy note: the photos in this blog are of Goddess Michelle, not “Darla”)
- Welfare-To-Work Program’s Demise ‘Really Demoralizing’ (huffingtonpost.com)