From Crack House to College?
The Continuum of Transformation*
by Cheryl Miller
I pray u get hit by a truck and dragd for miles. Next time u need a cake on ur birthday call me, but I cant promise it won't be rat poison!
Believe it or not, this was a post on my Facebook page from my friend Felecia. I met her when she became a resident at Perpetual Help Home, my place of employment. Felecia's journey had taken her from ninth-grade dropout to crack-house resident to sobriety and then back to a crack house. Unfortunately, this is all too common with women who attempt to leave addiction and poverty.
Felecia once clearly stated, "My mom was born into poverty, I was born into poverty, and that's just the way life was. There was no getting over it, no getting better. That is just the way life was." Or so she thought before she came to Perpetual Help Home. In her time at the home she learned that not only did she have choices but she also had great talent. She began the journey out of chaos, but eventually she slipped back into negative behaviors that culminated in the outburst and threats posted on Facebook. Within days she was back in the crack house and full-blown addiction. For many, the story would end there. But fortunately that is not where it ended for Felecia.
A few weeks later she realized how much she had lost. She also realized that she was not the crack addict from generational poverty anymore. There was no undoing the fact that she had experienced success in her sober life, nor undoing the discovery that she had found many untapped gifts and strengths. So, on her own, she began to crawl back out of the darkness. A year later Felecia learned how to drive, got her license, got her GED, and is now a full-time college student.
So how does a person go from a crack house to college? What can we learn from the experiences of women like Felecia? For the past 15 years, we have worked with women from the most extreme situations of generational poverty, lifetime addictions, and repeated incarcerations. And thankfully, more often than not, we have seen the results like those experienced by Felecia.
There are actually two processes that occur as people move toward transformation. The first is an internal process we go through when trying to change negative behaviors. This process will be discussed later. The second is more of a linear process of phases that people will experience when trying to rebuild a life that has crumbled. This process is what we have begun to call the continuum of transformation. This continuum is not limited to people with negative lifestyles. It appears to be more universal, and we all move through this continuum to some degree. The diagram below illustrates this continuum of transformation. Our goal in working with people should be to create an environment that is most conducive to moving people forward in the continuum of transformation. Isaiah 62 says, "Go out! Go out! Prepare the roadway for my people to return! Build the roads, pull out the boulders, raise the flag of Israel. See, the Lord has sent his messengers to every land and said, 'Tell my people, I, the Lord your God, am coming to save you and will bring you many gifts.' And they shall be called 'The Holy People' and 'The Lord's Redeemed,' and Jerusalem shall be called 'The Land of Desire' and 'The City God Has Blessed.'"
If we take this scripture and lay it over the continuum of transformation, we begin to see the simple diagram in a different way. The diagram above now looks more like the diagram below. Our task is to build this highway for people to return. It is the responsibility of the individual to choose to move toward transformation. When people return to their true calling, they begin to function in the ways in which God intended. When they live in the fullness of the life God created, they operate in the dynamic. So how do we build this highway to create the greatest possible opportunity for success and the living of the life that Jesus references in John 10:10, "My purpose is to give life in all its fullness"?
It is important to begin to understand the characteristics of each phase on the continuum and to know what elements must be in place for an individual to transition from one phase to the next. The individual must put some of those elements in place, but other elements are external, implemented by those who choose to take the journey alongside those seeking transformation.
In the chaos phase, life is out of control. Nothing makes sense, and everything that once seemed to work to help maintain some sense of life has ceased to work. Destructive patterns are often magnified in this phase. Relationships are strained to the utmost, if not absent all together. There is no sense of order or right or wrong, just ongoing pandemonium. It is usually in the chaos phase that most people will experience their "rock bottom." An absolute definition of rock bottom is literally impossible since it is directly tied to individual lifestyles, but once a person is there, wherever it is, he or she will take stock and decide if it is time to climb out of chaos or not.
To make the shift from one phase to another, it is usually necessary for an individual to want to change, to choose to move forward. But chaos is the one phase where it is possible for outside forces to step in and address the problem. This is most evident in drug and criminal behavior. It is common for addicts to remain in chaos and never find their "rock bottom." If left on their own, some addicts would stay in their destructive lifestyle until death, and many do. But there are times when outside forces stop the chaos, even momentarily. This happens most commonly when those in addiction are arrested. The outside authority comes in and removes the person from the chaos. Once in a different, more constrained environment, the individual may have a moment of clarity and decide to move toward change and rebuilding life.
Falling into chaos is not limited to addiction. People can find themselves in chaos due to circumstances outside their control, like the death of a loved one or the loss of employment. When the chaos is caused by outside circumstances rather than personal choices, the individual will arrive at a moment where they say "enough is enough" and begin to look for ways to move out of this phase.
For a person to move out of chaos toward survival, the elements required are structure, rules, and order. One of the women living at Perpetual Help Home put this concept into words quite succinctly: "My life was spinning out of control, and it was as if you grabbed me by my shoulders and said, 'STOP!'"
This woman had made the choice to leave her chaotic lifestyle and move into Perpetual Help Home, which is intentional about creating a place that has structure, rules, and order. This type of environment allows the individual to stop and evaluate what changes need to be made and what steps are needed to move forward. The more confining the environment in this early transition, the more likely the individual will have time to evaluate her situation and make decisions.
Although being in a confining lifestyle is necessary in the early stages, it can become a hindrance if a person remains in that situation too long. Rules and structure and order can be maintained throughout all phases of transformation, but that narrow place of intense structure is only needed for a short period of time. Going back to the example of jail or prison, the time in that confined space can provide an individual the opportunity to evaluate and take stock of the lifestyle that led to the confinement. However, incarceration for long periods of time can actually increase the original behavior problems.
The same is true for less serious situations. For this reason, Perpetual Help Home operates on a level system, where individuals have little freedom or few privileges when first entering the program. But that most confining phase is very brief—only a few days. It is intentionally designed to allow people to have that moment of clarity they need to make some basic decisions of what needs to happen to move forward. Restrictions are quickly lessened, and done so incrementally, because individuals need to take responsibility for their lifestyles and learn to create order and structure themselves. Learning to create and build their own rules and structure will allow them to move out of chaos and on to the next phase. If the responsibility is not shifted to the individual, that person will always be dependent on others to ensure their life is in control. The goal should always be to move people to independence and the fullness of who God has created them to be.
The distance between chaos and survival is very short, and the survival phase is one that individuals ideally should pass through quickly. Staying in this phase puts an individual at risk of falling back into chaos at any given moment. Survival is characterized by "barely enough." There is barely enough in place to maintain order and structure. When an individual experiences survival directly after leaving chaos, it brings hope. The simple fact that there are even a few resources in place to maintain order brings hope that the process of transformation can occur. Those resources can be both internal and external. Internal resources are things like determination, willingness, maintaining sobriety, etc. External resources can be in the form of assistance from others, a job, a temporary place to live, etc.
For a person to leave survival and move toward the next phase—stability—the elements required are appropriate limited assistance, time, consistency, and mastery. The person must maintain all the resources discovered in survival. A job is maintained through consistency to ensure economic stability. Maintaining sobriety for an addict is done through consistency over time. If these elements are not in place, the person is at risk of falling back into chaos. But without some form of appropriate limited assistance from an external source, individuals will be forced to stay in survival mode, because consistency, time, and mastery of work or sobriety do not guarantee a person will transition to stability. A single mom making minimum wage can work for years and maintain sobriety for years, but without assistance she will never leave the survival phase. And the longer a person stays in survival, the greater the risk that outside circumstances will cause a plummet back into chaos. It is critical that the person recognizes what form of assistance is appropriate. The assistance must address the gap between dependency and autonomy, and the way to determine this is simple. If the assistance provided forces the individual to depend on that resource to maintain their lifestyle indefinitely, it is not appropriate. Welfare is the best example of this. Providing an outside resource without a plan to move toward autonomy only creates a trap and can shatter a person's resolve to try to make changes. Appropriate resources can take many forms: It can be training to increase earning potential or an opportunity to continue education.
So outside resources are required, but the other elements of mastery and consistency over time must also be in place. If a person is not willing to maintain consistency and mastery, those providing the external support are wasting valuable resources.
The next phase is stability. Stability is reflected by the individual's daily living. It is the process of getting up each day, going to work or school, coming home, interacting with family, going to sleep, and starting all over again the next day. While each day may hold new experiences, the idea is that there is a routine or pattern. This is a phase where many live most of life.
The reality is that many people in society live in this phase permanently. Individuals who stay in this phase permanently have a sense that the day-to-day details of life are the ends to the means. It is not necessarily a bad thing for individuals to maintain this phase their entire life. In fact, for some people even attaining this phase is miraculous.
A former resident of Perpetual Help Home named Sarah is a perfect example. Sarah spent 19 years addicted to heroin and crack. Her chaotic lifestyle led to homelessness and eight felony convictions. Each time she was incarcerated, she had the opportunity to evaluate and decide to make changes, but the dangerous patterns of her past pulled her back to chaos. The last time Sarah went to prison, she decided to do things differently. Upon release, she decided to go to Perpetual Help Home. After two years, Sarah was maintaining her sobriety, keeping a part-time job, and attending college. After almost two decades of serious addiction, to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle of work, school, and sobriety is a miracle!
Most organizations, ministries, and social services focus their work on the task of moving people from survival to stability. This is an important phase to ensure that the changes that have occurred can be maintained, allowing for a healthy lifestyle. While this phase is critical, and work to help people attain this is vital, a richer life is possible.
Stability provides a perfect launching point for people to move toward the dynamic phase. Unfortunately, many people misinterpret stability as the completion of transformation. "But it is just as the Scriptures say, 'What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never even entered our minds!" (1 Cor. 2:9). We can imagine going to work every day and tackling all the world has to offer. We can imagine our children growing up and being healthy and happy. These are the things we can imagine about our lives and future. But that scripture passage clearly indicates that God has greater plans than we can imagine.
More importantly, when we dare to step out in faith into this unknown future, we move toward the fullness of what God has created us to do and become. That is dynamic. Remember the scripture in John: Jesus came so we could experience "life in all its fullness."
The dynamic phase is characterized as "living the dream." This is not to say that everything in dynamic is rosy. But it is the place where our talents and gifts integrate with the vocation or work God has called us to do. Dynamic can occur when we move into a work, place of service, or ministry that allows us to use all our life experiences and gifts and untapped potential to their fullest.
Opportunities for individuals to move toward the dynamic phase require the elements of empowerment, growth, and, most importantly, courage. We can be intentional about "removing boulders" and "building a highway" so people recognize that they are empowered and can choose to continue becoming who God plans for them to be.
The cycles of mastery that are required to maintain stability can become a trap of security that makes the idea of going for more in life seem risky. Moving away from the security of stability is inherently dangerous, particularly for individuals who have had numerous failures ending up in chaos. This is why many people are afraid to dream or dare to take risks. Certainly there needs to be a counting of the costs, and there should be no judgment against someone who chooses not to take the risk. It is simply a reality that there will always be more of life to seek and pursue, but doing so will always mean leaving behind some things that are familiar.
If Sarah had decided to simply maintain a lifestyle of work and sobriety, it would always be miraculous given the shadow of her past. But, fortunately, Sarah wanted more. She continued to take risks and push herself. Recently, Sarah married her sweetheart at a beautiful church wedding and graduated with a bachelor's degree the following semester. But she has also worked to make the community a better place by creating programs that address crime. Her accomplishments are such that she has been asked to speak at national conferences to thousands about never giving up on people and never giving up on changing. But Sarah is just one story among many who choose to take risks to move toward the dynamic life God has planned.
The Behavioral Change Process: Spiraling Up
There is a second process that is important to understand. While the continuum of transformation is a linear process that defines how a person moves from point A (chaos) to point B (dynamic), the second process addresses an individual's personal response to negative and positive behaviors that need to be addressed while moving through the continuum of transformation. We have observed this process as we have walked along with women at Perpetual Help Home. They do not come into the home and completely change all the behaviors that led them into chaos. There may be areas of life that are radically changed and never returned to, like substance abuse, but there tend to be other negative behaviors that accompanied that lifestyle that need to be addressed. We have observed that the process of changing behavior tends to be cyclical.
The common description of this process is that life rapidly spirals out of control until someone hits rock bottom. We don't often give much thought to how the descent occurred. But what actually happens is a more gradual fall, where individuals cycle in and out of negative behaviors, making it look more like the diagram on the right. As a society we tend to expect that when people hit bottom they will realize the need to change and simply stop the negative behaviors that led them there.
But how many times have you committed, for example, to eating a healthier diet? Did you do it for a while only to fall back into unhealthy eating patterns? A few rare individuals can make a change and never go back, but it is far more common for us to implement new healthier behaviors and experience lapses where we cycle back to the unhealthy behaviors. This is all the more true of changing negative behaviors as serious as addiction.
The process of change is not linear like the continuum of transformation. Individuals will still cycle in and out of constructive and destructive behaviors and decisions. The most critical component in working with people as they rebuild their lives is that there must be forward progress as the cycles occur. As individuals cycle in and out of behaviors, there must be a marked attempt to move out of chaos.
When you overlay these two concepts it really looks more like the following:
One should see a diminishing of the severity and frequency of the cycles that is more accurately illustrated in the above diagram. It becomes critical to watch as individuals cycle in and out of behaviors to determine if there is a clear attempt to move back toward life before things began to spiral out of control. For example, Jane's crack addiction leads her to homelessness, her rock bottom. She gets sober and begins to rebuild her life. The first major obstacle she encounters causes her to relapse. She hits rock bottom again and gets sober again. If this cycle repeats itself with regularity, we have to realize Jane is no longer moving out of chaos. She is more like the hamster in the cage just running in circles.
Forward progress would be evidenced by greater periods of time between relapse or a lower frequency of relapse episodes. If we give up on people when they fall back into negative behaviors, we agree with their unspoken belief that they "can never change." When working with someone addressing destructive behaviors we must learn to distinguish between enabling a person to repeat destructive choices while never really attempting to change and continuing to work with someone who is trying to move forward even though they stumble from time to time.
So in reality, there are two ongoing processes happening simultaneously as we journey to arrive at that place where "no eye has seen and no ear has heard." We cycle in and out of behaviors and decisions as we progress on the continuum of transformation.
Learning to walk alongside others can be a daunting task. What it calls for is being willing to pull out boulders and build a road within the turbulent winds of a cyclone. No problem, right? This may not be an easy ride, but the reward is dynamic!
Cheryl Miller is the executive director for Perpetual Help Home, Inc, a housing ministry for women and children, and the author of The Language of Shalom: Seven Keys to Practical Reconciliation (Quantum Circles Press, 2012) with a foreword by John M. Perkins. She is a volunteer mediator for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Victim/Offender Mediation Dialogue program, facilitating meetings between victims of violent crime and the offender. She holds a Master of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies in Nonprofit Leadership and Communication from the University of Houston-Victoria and a Bachelor of Arts degree in education. Before college, Cheryl was a single mother with two children born into the welfare system. Because of her past circumstances, she knows first-hand how the grace of Chris—found among a Christian community—can turn a life around.
Recommended: Sophie's Story, also by Cheryl Miller.
*Author's note: The concept of a "continuum of transformation" emerged from a conversation I had with Perpetual Help Home board member Robby Burdge. As he listened to the description of what we had implemented through our Center for Peace and the significant changes we were seeing, he detailed a simple linear process of moving women from crisis to static to dynamic. Over the past few years I have worked on that original idea in order to accurately describe what we are seeing in the lives of the women participating in our program.