The women in the Matrix Model drug treatment program know about meth on the reservation. The drug took away their children, brought crime and death into their homes and threatened to take over their lives.
But the Gila River Indian Community residents are working to regain control and to reach out to others. On Wednesday, they volunteered at the Gila River Behavioral Health Authority’s first methamphetamine conference. And they are speaking out.
Delma Morago has a tattoo on the top of her right wrist — a red rose meaning beauty above her name and a feather symbolizing strength.
The 27-year-old embodies both qualities.
Her long hair — the color of coffee beans — falls well past her waist. Her deep brown eyes are framed by neatly plucked eyebrows, and her new white shirt contrasts with her sun-kissed skin. When Morago walks into the room for “group,” her peers smile a little more than usual.
Maybe it’s because she has been in the program longer than anyone and they look up to her.
Or maybe it’s her strength, which comes from surviving physical and sexual abuse, the deaths of children and an addiction to meth, the only thing that she said took the pain away.
Morago joined the Matrix Model program in February, but she won’t say how long she has been clean.
“I don’t like to count my days because it feels like when I count them and have a slip, I can’t handle that,” Morago said.
She said that when she first entered the program, she had low self-esteem and was “angry and stuck.”
“Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t always depend on other people. I have to help myself.’ ”
The decision came 15 years after her first experience with meth at age 12 — the same year she had her first child.
Morago still remembers the feeling that came with her first hit of meth — a feeling she never felt again after more than a decade of using.
“I was just hot and sweating,” Morago said. “And I could feel that adrenaline in my hand.”
The drug provided Morago with a feeling of power and confidence, all of which she said were taken from her when she was sexually abused at age 6.
“I fell in love with that drug,” Morago said. “It did a lot of stuff for me, and it’s hard when you have house chores and your kids, and that gives you the power to do everything.”
But the drug also brought more abuse — this time from Morago’s boyfriend, who she said beat her for seven years and stabbed her during drug-induced rages.
“I started realizing how many times I ended up in the hospital, and I tried to kill myself,” Morago said as her eyes filled with tears.
She looked down at her arms — one large scar on her right forearm that she said came from her ex-boyfriend, and a cluster of smaller scars on her left wrist that she said were self-inflicted.
“I remember a time I was high for days, then just slept,” Morago said.
But those days are slowly moving further into Morago’s past.
The mother of six recently earned her GED and took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for seasonal firefighting. She hopes someday to study forensic science and work at a facility helping others overcome addictions.
But her biggest accomplishment came Easter Sunday, when she saw her children for the first time since Arizona Child Protective Services took them away. She said she made sure to hug and kiss them — to give them the affection she never had.
“I’m looking forward to the rest of the year,” Morago said with a shy smile. “And things are slowly happening.”
Breeding ground for meth
Gila River Indian Community police don’t keep meth statistics.
So no one knows for sure how bad the problem is in the community that stretches nearly from Chandler to Casa Grande.
But Gary Edwards, CEO of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, said the methamphetamine problem is “far bigger than what people realize.”
One group that does track its meth statistics is the San Carlos Apache tribe in eastern Arizona.
In an April speech before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Chairwoman Kathleen Kitcheyan of the San Carlos tribe said one in four patients who participated in routine drug screenings at the San Carlos emergency room in 2005 tested positive for meth.
And in 2004, about 25 percent of babies were born addicted to meth and 80 percent of tribal members attempting suicide were using meth.
Scottsdale therapist Janet Carpentier has seen the effects of meth firsthand through a new treatment program in the Gila River community.
“Meth has shown an increase in domestic violence, child neglect, abuse, criminal activity and an increase of all of the crimes associated with substance abuse,” Carpentier said.
“It just starts to envelop everything like a sinkhole,” she said.
Drug enforcement officials say vast frontier lands on reservations make it easier to run clandestine labs. And limited enforcement also creates opportunities for methamphetamine dealers.
“Mexican and gang traffickers want to stand out among (Native Americans) and can easily set up operations in the tribal reservations,” DEA spokeswoman Ramona Sanchez said.
To combat the problem, the DEA joined forces this month with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the BIA to work with law enforcement on various reservations to gather intelligence and combine resources, Sanchez said.
The program started at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation east of Fountain Hills and will travel throughout the state.
But Carpentier and others believe the problem can also be fought through treatment.
The right resources
Janet Carpentier is a 16-year veteran in the field of substance abuse treatment and a therapist for the Matrix Model, an intensive outpatient meth program for women in the Gila River community.
She is an energetic, chatty woman who flits around in stylish, brightly colored outfits, spreading her enthusiasm to everyone who crosses her fast-moving path. The women in the program said they love her and lean on her, but Carpentier resists taking credit for their success.
“Methamphetamine is a treatable illness, just like alcohol or other substances,” Carpentier said. “But you have to provide the right set of resources.”
Those resources came to the Gila River Behavioral Health Authority in the form of $50,000 from the Arizona Department of Health Services in February to create an Arizona Methamphetamine Treatment Center of Excellence, according to Christina Dye, division chief for clinical and recovery services at the health department.
The funding allows 10 women to participate in the Matrix Model, a program that uses relapse prevention, skills training and cognitive behavioral therapy models — a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes the role of thinking in how people feel and what they do. Research suggests Matrix Model clients are 38 percent more likely to stay in treatment than in other programs and 27 percent more likely to complete treatment.
Carpentier said that in the past, many tribal members were treated off the reservation at rehabilitation facilities, then sent home to the same place they started using the drug. The five-day-a-week, four-hour-a-day Matrix Model program is close to the women’s homes, meaning they learn to stay off drugs while living in their normal environment.
The program also integrates many cultural activities the women have never been taught, such as healing rings, language and spirituality.
“The women are thirsty to know who they are generationally and their ways,” Carpentier said. “What are the ways of the Creator? What foods were prepared? What language was spoken?”
Carpentier said learning these ways is crucial to healing.
“It helps me trust people and helps me make decisions,” said 28-year- old Rachel Lyons of the program. “I don’t see that dark cloud in the way anymore.”
The fresh-faced Lyons joined the program in mid-March. She laughs, smiles and cries when talking about her painful past and promising future. She is outspoken and optimistic, despite what she described as a childhood of beatings.
“I can’t wait to get out of this program,” Lyons said. “It’s sad, though, because the only people who tell me they love me are my boyfriend and Janet.”
Lyons said she had tried to stop using meth for three years before admitting she had an addiction and getting help.
“Somebody called the cops on my brother and me, and my brother went to jail,” Lyons said. “I lost my kids, and then I said: ‘I’ve had enough of it.’ ” But Lyons said the real turning points came when her brother was shot to death in her own home over drugs, and when she miscarried her baby five months into pregnancy.
“Now I can stand on my own two feet, and a lot of it has to do with the program,” Lyons said. “Without them, I don’t think I could’ve done it.”