December 22, 2005 News » Cover Story

From hope to despair and back 

Full Circle Alternatives and its women fight for their lives

click to enlarge KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro

1. The house

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

The house known as Full Circle sits in a leafy cove behind the wall separating I-25 from Walnut Street. A broad lawn with a white picket fence borders what might be Ward and June Cleaver's house, except twice as large. It is brightly colored and neatly kept.

Inside, the entryway leads to a warm and inviting kitchen with a spacious eating area and a table that easily could accommodate 12 diners.

Until just a few months ago, that's what a typical dinnertime might have looked like in this house, a residential facility for women transitioning from lives of alcohol and drug addiction to lives lived clean and sober in the real world.

In November, Full Circle Alternative's volunteer board of directors announced to its two remaining full-time employees that the house would be closed within a month due to lack of funds. Five women in recovery were living in the house at the time. On Nov. 30, an emergency board meeting was held to determine if there were enough members of the community who would be willing to help Full Circle reorganize, or whether the nonprofit group simply would sell its assets and close its doors forever.

In operation since 1993, Full Circle has offered transitional housing and an extraordinarily structured living environment to more than 400 women. It has come to be known as the Cadillac of transitional homes in a metropolitan area severely under-equipped to treat the vastly growing number of women and men who've reached the end of the line of substance abuse. An estimated 14,000 women need treatment for alcohol addiction alone in El Paso County.

2. "C"

"We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

C* is a striking 48-year-old redhead from Denver, tastefully dressed and accessorized. In May, she reached a point where she couldn't stop drinking. An accountant by profession, she's an alcoholic who'd been ordered by the court to seek treatment back in 1999 following a DUI. She had relapsed to where she couldn't face getting out of bed without a martini bracer.

C checked herself into a week in detox and, based on a friend's advice, got on the waiting list for Full Circle Alternatives. She lived in the house until it closed its doors to clients in November. Now she lives in her sponsor's basement.

Booze, says C, made her feel "everything was more than fine," that she could handle any stress. It helped her fit in social situations. It filled the emptiness following her divorce. Toward the end, she couldn't do anything without it.

At first, Full Circle felt like an odd match.

"I thought I didn't need the rules," says C. "I had been a single mother, a professional woman. I felt like an outsider."

She judged those residents who balked at doing chores around the house, a requirement of living there. Then, she says, she realized that some of these women, as old as 30, never had been taught how to take care of a house, of themselves, of anything.

"They weren't as lucky as I was," she says. She and the others were subjected to frequent and random urinalysis checks to make sure they weren't using. "Someone like me, so egotistical and full of herself, needs that accountability. A lot of women don't, but for someone like me, it saves lives."

The women at Full Circle, she says, told her the truth about herself while showing her kindness that she'll never forget. She'll take the honesty back, now, to her own family -- three daughters, ages 19, 15 and 14 -- and begin rebuilding relationships she admits she sabotaged with her drinking.

"Maybe I'll be able to forgive myself someday," she says. "I was emotionally not there for them."

The difference now, she says, is that she "can deal with these emotions and feelings without a drink."

3. Outspoken, boisterous, funny

click to enlarge C was one of the last residents of Full Circle - Alternatives. - KATHRYN EASTBURN

"We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

On Nov. 30, the night is frigid, downtown curbs darkened and sidewalks slick with ice. Inside a house-turned-office building, a group of around 20 has gathered to discuss the future of Full Circle Alternatives.

Elise Bergsten, president of Full Circle's board of directors, sits at the head of a long boardroom table. Around it sits people active in the recovery community -- outspoken, boisterous and funny.

Two women discuss their hysterectomies. One says, "They're trying to regulate me. I hit a plateau, now I'm yelling at little old ladies in traffic. Then I cry because I yelled at little old ladies."

Most of those at the table call themselves alcoholics. Many now work serving the needs of alcoholics and drug addicts in the community. The meeting opens with the Serenity Prayer recited at all AA meetings.

"We've been through it in the last 30 days," says Bergsten. "We knew we were struggling, knew it for several months. We just ground to a halt."

The bottom line is money. There's not enough to cover the expenses of such a large house, not enough to continue paying a professional staff, not enough to keep the doors open another month, in spite of aggressive grant writing by the executive director and $42,000 raised by the board every year. Costs have risen at the same time that grants have become more scarce and competitive. Fund-raising in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita is harder than ever.

"You're burning your furniture because you're cold," observes one woman. "But what are you going to sit on in the summer?"

The group votes to stop a planned yard sale. A show of hands reveals that 11 of those present are willing to serve on the new board, and will meet Dec. 8 to make further plans.

4. "J"

"We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

J* has wild, wavy hair, a huge smile and a weathered face. She lived at Full Circle for seven months, starting in October 2002. Before then, she'd been sober for a long time, raising her two kids. But when she began drinking and using again, it was with a vengeance. At one point, she swallowed 120 Valium pills and almost succeeded in killing herself. She was using heroin and cocaine in addition to drinking.

"I was almost living on the streets," she says. "I had my son drive me to detox." He was into crystal meth at the time, she adds, but has been clean and sober for two years.

Because she didn't qualify for a residential treatment program and had no money, J went to Full Circle, where, she says, after a few days of settling in, "I got the worst job I've ever had in my life. But my life was burned to the ground. It didn't matter." Like all Full Circle residents, she donated 47 percent of her paycheck each week to the house.

There was a warrant for her arrest, and she had serious health and dental problems and no driver's license. The Full Circle staff required that she call in every two hours to verify her whereabouts.

"It was weird," she says. "But my sponsor said, 'Just do what's right in front of you. Don't ask questions. Learn to do it somebody else's way. Do it differently than the way you'd normally do it.'"

J attended mandatory daily AA meetings while at Full Circle. She maintains that habit today.

"I can't have anything else in my life if I don't stay in recovery," she says.

5. AA meeting, pre-Christmas

"We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Early December, a weekday, and a downtown sidewalk is crowded with smokers drawing their last puffs before converging inside for their noon AA meeting. The large, bright room is stuffy with heat and bodies, all of its folding chairs filled and many attendees left standing.

click to enlarge Full Circle Alternatives operated at this house, just west - of I-25. - 2005 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2005 Bruce Elliott
  • Full Circle Alternatives operated at this house, just west of I-25.

A man in a red fleece vest and white turtleneck sits at the front and opens the meeting with a moment of silence, guiding people's thoughts to those on the streets. "It's cold out there," he says.

The group recites the Serenity Prayer and, swiftly, first name-only introductions are made around the room.

Young men with muscled, tattooed arms sit next to girls who look like they're in high school. Men and women in suits have come to the meeting on their lunch hours. A festively dressed woman sits knitting a red, fuzzy scarf, nodding and acknowledging everyone as they are introduced.

The leader introduces today's topic of discussion.

"For how many of you is this your first Christmas season clean and sober?" he asks. Lots of hands fly. He talks briefly about the temptations of the season -- parties where booze is served, emotional entrapments -- and offers advice on how to deal with them.

A man in a flannel shirt stretched over a voluminous belly introduces himself to the group and tells his story.

"I remember the first time I went home for Christmas clean and sober," he says. "I thought my family would be excited for me, then was let down when they acted as if nothing had happened.

"I called my sponsor and he said, 'What'd you expect? You've been lying to them for years.'"

A hard truth to face, the man says earnestly to the group. When he thought of all the lies he'd told, the booze he'd drank, the drugs he'd taken, the things he'd stolen, and the crimes he'd committed, he found he usually had victimized his own family.

Now, years later, since they can see that his life really has changed, his family welcomes him with open arms.

6. Sherry

"We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

It's Dec. 6, two days before Sherry Madison will be out of a job. An alcoholic in recovery herself, Madison had been sober for nine months when she went to Pikes Peak Community College, got an associate's degree in social work and became a shift supervisor at Full Circle. When the job of day manager and house supervisor opened up, she applied and got it.

Madison is hopeful about the board's reorganization plans, but says she needs a break after the stress of the past few months.

"It's a wonderful business to be in," she says. A typical evening at Full Circle included a lot of talk and, typically, a lot of laughter.

"People make fun of their own frailties. The humor is what keeps us going," says Madison. "Recovering people learn pretty quickly that working the 12 steps isn't going to be easy, but nobody said you couldn't have fun along the way."

When the board announced that Full Circle would close, Madison and executive director Paula Stock had to release several other staff members immediately.

"They didn't even get to say goodbye," she says. "The women living here were really upset. They'd grown close, had developed relationships with them."

Madison worries about what will happen to women needing a place to stay, especially the growing number of young women addicted to crystal meth, now that Full Circle is closing.

"People are not going to climb out of the hole of addiction without a leg up," she says. "This was just a dynamic program. It fit the needs of every woman who walked through the door. Discipline has to be instilled, to go to a meeting instead of a bottle, to get the bills paid, to go to work.

"Watching others pass landmarks gives us hope."

click to enlarge J lived at Full Circle for seven months in 2002. - PHOTO BY KATHRYN EASTBURN

7. "K"

"We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

K* came to Full Circle in May and was one of its last five residents. She's 43 and has a teenage son who lives with his father. Following a series of events that culminated in a suicide attempt four years ago (three bottles of champagne and a bottle of sleeping pills), K went to detox and AA, but wasn't done using.

"I thought, 'I'm not like them,'" she says.

At this time last year, the former Broadmoor resident was living out of her car, hanging out around South Nevada Avenue, drinking and doing crack cocaine. She put herself in danger on a nightly basis, staying with strangers she met in bars and getting into cars with people she didn't know to score drugs.

A feeling of doom warned K that it was time to seek help.

"I was used to putting myself back together," she says. "You know you're going to die. It's intuitive. Your subconscious warns you. Even my brother knew; he said he was afraid he'd find me dead."

K called Pikes Peak Mental Health and told them she needed to be locked up. They gave her some numbers to call, and one of them was for Full Circle. She called and was put on the waiting list.

"I was scared to death," she says. "I told my sister-in-law, 'If you don't hear from me in two days, come get me.'"

K says she never had female friends who taught her how to have confrontations respectfully until her time at Full Circle. She liked the sincerity and inclusiveness she found at AA meetings. This was a year of "extreme knowledge," she says, capped off by sadness brought about by the closing of the house.

"A place like this is needed so badly," she says. "I had no clue how bad alcohol and drug addiction were, especially among really young people."

K has told her son about her drinking, but not the drugs. She's thinking about taking him to a Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting when he comes to visit. Her biggest fear, she says, is for him.

Meanwhile, she's enjoying her new life of sobriety.

"I can't tell you how good it feels to wake up and not be hung over," she says.

8. Paula

"We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Paula Stock has worked at Full Circle for the last year and a half as executive director. She's been a substance abuse therapist for 35 years, has taught at the university level, and has 12 years of supervisory experience in transitional housing. She's proud of her program and its reputation around the city.

"We have a great deal of respect among probation officers," she says, referring to those in the 4th Judicial District who refer their clients to Full Circle.

In addition to running a tight ship requiring residents to check in every two hours, fill out daily and weekly planners, meet with sponsors regularly, attend 12-step meetings daily and meet their responsibilities at home, Paula spent much of her time this past year seeking grant money to keep the program running.

"Sherry and I watched this budget every day," she says. "I wrote grants as fast as I could. But even the grant process has changed."

She points to the local El Pomar Foundation as an example. Her proposal was due there Nov. 1, but after it was received, she got a phone call saying El Pomar had been so inundated with proposals that it wouldn't even be reviewing them until mid-December, too late for Full Circle.

click to enlarge Sherry Madison, day manager and house supervisor for - Full Circle Alternatives. - 2005 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2005 Bruce Elliott
  • Sherry Madison, day manager and house supervisor for Full Circle Alternatives.

Full Circle also had been accustomed to receiving a VALE (Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement) grant from the 4th Judicial District. The $76,000 Full Circle received in 2002 fell to just $36,000 in 2003, $15,000 in 2004, and $10,000 this year. It is rumored that VALE grants might be eliminated completely.

"While the need increases and funding sources decrease, more people are applying and more people are hurting," says Stock. "Many other foundations have cut back because their donors have backed out.

"This is not going to get better. The grants you do get are going to be less than you asked for, so you have to apply for two to three times the number of grants as before, and it's hard to do that without a full-time grant writer."

Grant money allowed Full Circle to serve more indigent women in the past, but it's uncertain whether they will be able to be so generous in the future, says Stock. This bothers her greatly.

"There are a whole host of women here who, if someone doesn't offer services, will never receive treatment," she says.

9. Buried in the agenda

"We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

On Monday, Dec. 12, an informal City Council meeting takes place in the afternoon. The hot item of the day is the future of the Colorado Balloon Classic.

Buried in the agenda is the opportunity for Council members to bring up any item for discussion. Councilman Larry Small recently has been reminded of the burgeoning need for substance abuse treatment in this city of nearly half a million people. He also is aware of the dearth of resources applied to that need, illustrated by the absence of a traditional 30-day residential treatment facility and exacerbated by the closing of Full Circle.

"It's been two years since we've talked about substance abuse in this community," says Small to the rest of Council and the small group gathered in chambers. "Demand for services is growing, and I don't know that our support is growing proportionately."

He points out that public service providers in the city -- police, fire, ambulance service, Memorial Hospital -- all are affected by the issue, and he asks that it be placed on the agenda for a January meeting as a discussion item. He mentions possible coordination with legislators in Denver, and wonders aloud if recently passed Referendum C will provide any additional funds for substance abuse treatment. A city-county discussion of the issue is due as well, he points out.

The mayor and Council agree that they're willing to pursue the discussion. City Manager Lorne Kramer schedules it for the first meeting in January 2006.

10. "Put me back in County"

"We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

At the noon AA meeting, more holiday sharing.

A man, visibly frustrated, hesitantly speaks.

"I'm living with other recovering alcoholics and addicts right now, away from my family. I've been around this stuff all my life. Lately I wondered, can I do this on my own? My pride is telling me to forget the fellowship and just isolate [myself] right now. I told my parole officer, 'Put me back in County.' Right now, I just want to say, 'Screw it.'"

"Thanks, ________," the group intones, and the knitting woman adds, "Keep coming."

A young man raises his hand.

"When I was out there using, it was Thanksgiving, it was Christmas, it was Easter, it was Tuesday," he says, and the group chuckles. "I didn't know what day it was. I'm glad I'm not that guy now, wondering whether I'll make it to Christmas dinner or not, how late I'll be, whether I'll be alive next year."

click to enlarge Paula Stock, executive director of Full Circle Alternatives - until its closing this December. - 2005 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2005 Bruce Elliott
  • Paula Stock, executive director of Full Circle Alternatives until its closing this December.

"Thanks, ________."

Nearly an hour has passed, and some in the room are growing restless. A middle-aged man with glasses addresses the group.

"I have a strategy for when you're in a group that's passing out drinks," he says. "I say, 'No thanks, I'm allergic to it. Every time I drink it, I break out in bad behavior." Laughter erupts.

He grows more serious. "When I tell them that, they respond the same way, with a laugh." He pauses and looks at his feet.

"I'm sorry to say I've got some not-so-good news," he says. A friend, a man in Woodland Park who used to attend this meeting regularly, died in the last week, "of this terrible disease.

"He couldn't handle the life I hear some of you say you enjoy now," he says, then sits down. The group responds soberly, "Thanks, ________."

11. The future of Full Circle

"We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

On Dec. 8, Full Circle's new board, some 16 strong, convenes at its regular meeting place at Penrose Hospital. Things are looking good. Someone has arranged a storage site for all the contents of the house that will be cleared out two days later. A crew volunteers to handle the move.

The bills are paid and there is no leftover business to settle. There's a $25,000 certificate of deposit in the bank, designated for capital improvement or building. An anonymous donor, who offered $50,000 to Full Circle contingent on the reorganization of the board and a new business plan, has agreed to follow through with her gift on the condition that the new board matches $40,000, dollar for dollar, through fund-raising efforts.

It's not clear where or when Full Circle will reopen, but it's clear that it will happen, possibly in a smaller place, with a smaller staff. Maybe the group will find a house to buy and build equity.

Spirits are high. The group knows it has taken on a huge task, but also knows the cost of not reopening. Recovering addicts must have a safe place to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol, and it will continue to answer the call.

12. Making it

"Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." -- The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

On Dec. 10, Full Circle's furniture, pots and pans, books, lamps and linens are packed up and moved to storage.

Left behind are the collective memories of the women who lived there while searching for a life of responsibility and sobriety. Many couldn't stop using and didn't make it through the program. Some called to say they were on their way and never made it there, stopping for a drink or a fix instead. Some lost their children and some lost their lives to their addictions.

Those who completed the program were honored at commencement ceremonies, the last one held on Monday, Dec. 5. At such a ceremony, a colored stone is passed around a circle and each person who holds it reflects on the qualities of the person moving on.

"People talk about what you were like when you came here, what changes have happened, what your future will hold," says C, one of the last to commence at Full Circle. She can't remember what her friends said about her, she was so overwhelmed by the moment. But she can recall the profound changes in her life since arriving at Full Circle, learning to go to AA meetings and work the steps, and committing to do so for the rest of her life.

"I came down here knowing only one woman," she says. "Now I have lifelong friends."

Editor's note: To find AA or other 12-step meetings in the Pikes Peak region, call the Colorado Springs Area Service Office at 573-5020 or visit coloradospringsaa.org.

To make a donation or to volunteer for Full Circle Altenatives, write to P.O. Box 647, Colorado Springs, CO 80910. Donations are tax-deductible and will be matched by donor funds.


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