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A client's ambivalent view of drug court treatment

November 20, 2008
by Jennifer Gardiner
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An awkward grouping of individuals still manages to produce benefits

One Sunday morning in May 2007, while driving under the influence of marijuana, I was pulled over by a police officer. I had smoked the night before at a friend’s party, and when the party broke up I had decided to get a few hours of sleep at the friend’s house. I proceeded to take my prescription medication and attempted to get comfortable enough to fall asleep, but because it was unbearably cold in the house I tossed and turned until I gave up and walked out the door to my car. I made this decision even though I had smoked some extremely potent pot, had taken my prescription medication, and had gotten no sleep whatsoever. But I was a genius, or so I thought. I was detained and charged with DUI and marijuana possession. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I remember feeling very frightened, confused, and ashamed, looking over at the cars passing me and wondering if anyone I knew was driving one of them. I was sentenced to the Chester County (Pennsylvania) Drug Court program, a 12-month program with four phases. In addition to complying with regular random drug testing at the courthouse, weekly visits with a probation officer, a weekly appearance in court before a judge and other participants, community service, and safe driving school, newcomers to the program are required to attend group therapy once a week. What took place during these sessions was mainly gossip about drug court among the group members. Our group leader would call on us individually and ask how our week was going. If someone relapsed or went to jail, we were expected to discuss what happened and why in front of the entire group. It was sometimes an uncomfortable situation for me, as I am an extremely private person. Fortunately, I never relapsed or had to go to jail, so for the most part I didn’t have much to say during group. However, one night the group leader asked me in front of the group what medications I was taking and why. I’m not sure how I mustered the courage to state my response, but I said, “I don’t believe it’s anyone else’s business what medications I am taking and why.” My group leader promptly moved on and never asked me a question like that again. The place where I attended group also set me up with a psychiatrist who was to monitor my meds and write prescriptions. She was often extremely late for appointments and asked how I was doing only two or three times.
Structured environment Essentially, the “therapy” that was set up for participants was useless. But in defense of the drug court program, it makes perfect sense that the powers that be required us to prove that we were capable of maintaining a specific weekly commitment, following directions, and placing much-needed structure in our lives. I am convinced that this was the purpose of all of us meeting together at a specific time. At this particular place we were labeled and our own personal experiences were reinterpreted for us through the eyes of a group leader, who instead of recognizing us as individuals within a group simply saw us as “the drug court group.” No matter what anyone’s individual problem was, or what the level of severity was, we all had the same problem and were all there for the same reason. It can be maddening to be thrown into a mix of people that span the spectrum from the occasional user to the chronic user to someone who was seen as clearly running an amateur drug cartel operation. It was never said aloud, but I definitely felt a sense of unspoken resentment among some of these individuals, and I know that many of us didn’t like being labeled an addict. None of the more frequent drug users felt they were being treated fairly within the program, and this seemed to make them more defiant and abrasive toward authority. Yet I also am certain that it is because all persons in this program are treated as if they committed the same crime that this program works, even if it is difficult for people to accept at first. It is something that boils underneath the surface in group, because it is difficult for a casual pot smoker to hear about one of the awful things one of your group members did in the name of their crack or heroin addiction. Once I was out of the group, I began to develop a good sense of self and an unshakable desire to achieve my own goals—once I was relieved of the feeling of being just another case number among a group of strangers. Most of us in the beginning don’t exactly have the most positive attitude about the situation we’re encountering. Putting us together as a group in court-ordered treatment did not seem like the best idea—in fact, it seemed sometimes to perpetuate our similar frustrations and our overall confusion.