A row of plastic coins in silver, red, orange and green are affixed along the side of a mirror in Zoraya Arias’ bathroom at the Center for Hope treatment center in Mesa. There are nine of them – one for every month she has stayed clean.
“I keep things to remind myself: I have a life worth living,” she tells me.
Zoraya, 25, is a former meth addict with the kind of life story that makes you think that maybe if it were you, you might have turned to meth to numb your frontal lobe, too. When Zoraya was six years old she saw her mother gunned down in a drive-by shooting during a family picnic in their front yard in Central Phoenix. A few years later, her dad went to prison. She has a middle school education. She started using alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs in her teens. She had her first child at 19. She stuck around for a few months, then she took off, leaving her son with his father’s family. She started using meth.
In the beginning “a twenty” of meth ($20 worth) would last her for a week. By the end, she and her friends would put away an “eight ball” that costs $200 in a few hours. To make money for meth, Zoraya became a “party girl.” When men asked if she was a prostitute she would say “no, but I’m not free.” At first, she lived in denial. Then she started walking the streets in stilettos and turning tricks at the La Quinta where she lived for a while. The drugs and prostitution came together in a vicious cycle: she had to get high to do what she was doing; she had to do what she was doing to get high. “I did things I never thought I would do,” she says. She got pregnant again and lost the baby.
Eventually the cops showed up at the La Quinta. She was arrested and put on probation. She didn’t get any treatment. She kept using meth. She was arrested again and went to jail. This time, she was placed in Maricopa County Drug Court.
I met Zoraya last month while researching drug court for a feature article that will appear in the April medical issue of Phoenix Magazine. Drug court is an alternative to incarceration, a program that combines drug treatment and probation to help addicts get clean and stay out of crime. In Arizona, the program is post-conviction: Participants are assigned to drug court as part of probation, with the threat of a prison term hanging over their head if they mess up. It is the only place in the criminal justice system here where an addict is guaranteed to get intensive drug treatment regardless of ability to pay. Research shows that treatment is much more effective than incarceration in helping to break the cycle of addiction and crime, and yet even though most Arizona prisoners have underlying substance abuse issues few get treatment. (And the treatment that is available is often not sufficient to meet their needs.)
Drug courts have been touted as one of the most successful criminal justice innovations of the last two decades. Research commissioned for the federal government’s National Institute of Justice found they save money, reduce crime and fight addiction. (Read more from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals here.)
For Zoraya, drug court combined with residential treatment has helped her get on the path to turn her life around. “I gained so much because I wanted to change my life,” she says. “Drug court gave me so many chances and opportunities.”
At first, she continued using even while participating in drug court. She was ordered into residential treatment. When she tried to slit her wrist, they kicked her out. She draws her finger up the inside of her left forearm along a ridge of scars. She’s been “a cutter” since age 10 – it is a coping mechanism, she tells me. The facility was not equipped to deal with her mental health issues, too. She went to another facility and got kicked out again. She was thrown in jail for 45 days last year. It was there that her attitude turned around. In May, she was admitted to the Center for Hope, a long-term residential facility specifically designed for women with children and mental health challenges.
The Center for Hope is a non-descript commercial building, set back from a residential street. While most residential facilities keep patients 30-90 days, the Center for Hope is a yearlong program that also helps with transitional housing afterward. Children under four years old can stay there with their mothers.
Zoraya says the program has taught her how to cope with her past and prepare for the future. “I learned to understand and forgive my past. I have made a lot of mistakes and I am willing to make amends with everyone and myself,” she says. She is working on her GED and looking for a job in retail. She wants to be a peer counselor to help others get off drugs. One day, she would like to open a restaurant with her party girl name, “Ra Ra’s Bar & Grill.” She specializes in cooking soul food. “I learned I am a strong woman. I am determined to do more in life,” she says. “Although, there are a lot of things that happened, I don’t let it get to me. I don’t want to sound conceited…” She throws her dark hair back and laughs: “I love the way I am now!”
In her room at the treatment facility, she points to a picture of a too-thin woman with poorly bleached hair and hollow eyes. It is hard to recognize the curvy, happy, bubbly woman she is now in that image. She pulls out an old ID card to prove it.
Her room is a shrine for the son she left behind and for her own budding hope. She shows a visitor a picture of the boy, C.J., in a frame that says “My Angel.” She says she is getting better for him. More pictures of him are all around the room, along with photos of friends and family members. Inspirational messages are everywhere: on picture frames, clipped and pasted to the walls, on a poster behind the door: “Seize the moment.” “Be yourself.” “It’s time to feel good again.” “Survivor.”
In a criminal justice system far better at punishing drug addicts than rehabilitating them, Zoraya’s turnaround through drug court is a an example of one of the things we may be doing right.
Read Amanda J. Crawford’s feature on Maricopa County Drug Court, “All Rise, Some Fall” in Phoenix Magazine’s April medical issue.