SOUTHWEST HARBOR – Christine Drabek, Acadia Family Center’s new executive director, has seen people in the deepest throes of homelessness, disease and addiction. Her ability to engage with others who are in these terrible situations is founded on an optimistic, strength-based philosophy, both personal and professional, that change is possible, “watching change in myself and knowing that that’s possible for everyone,” she said. “I think it’s about the human connection, and I know that making the human connection is essential before change can occur. And so I want to encourage all the clients who come before me to make that human connection.”
Drabek arrived in Southwest Harbor just after Memorial Day to start her new position. She brings 15 years of experience in the field of social services, and a blend of clinical and nonprofit leadership skills. She has served high-risk clients, most of whom have been triply diagnosed with substance abuse, mental health and chronic health conditions. She is trained in motivational interviewing and has spoken at national conferences and taught courses on the successful use of this approach in addition to HIV and addiction-related topics. She is an advocate for the 12-step recovery model as well as harm-reduction approaches.
The drive to help others forge positive change in their lives is founded in the terrible disconnections of her own background.
Raised as the youngest of three children of alcoholic parents in a New York suburb, Drabek recalled a childhood of fear and alienation.
“I was embarrassed, I was scared. I didn’t know what I was going to come home to. I was also very neglected. My parents were often asleep when I needed them. When I’d come home, most families were like, ‘Hello!’ My house was shut down and dark.”
At the same time, she and her girlfriends, although close today, were mean and destructive toward each other throughout their childhoods.
Her ideas of family and friends “was clouded by not knowing what was normal, and only seeing destructive behavior around me, so then getting into that myself, and not learning another way until much later,” she said. “You model your parents.”
Her mother began taking part in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when Drabek was 16. She still attends AA.
“I think she would say it’s the best thing that ever happened,” she said.
Drabek began to find her own clarity in life when she was placed into counseling by her parents at a young age, due to her acting out in school. She said her high school guidance counselor, who had an open-door policy, was “amazing.” She soon came to love the counseling process.
“It wasn’t one of these things I was embarrassed about,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s personal.’ I have nothing but positive things to say about counseling, for everyone.”
Eventually, Drabek decided that was the field for her. While studying for a master’s degree in counseling, Drabek was hired as an intake coordinator, then became a clinician, at a busy outpatient substance abuse facility, called Realization Center, that served the great New York City area. She held that position from 1997 to 2001.
Many of the clients were at Realization Center because they were mandated by the courts; it was an alternative to incarceration.
“The jails were overcrowded and people were not getting the rehabilitation they needed with budget cuts,” she said. “More and more judges were referring clients to intensive outpatient treatment. So we’d get clients who were somewhat resistant; they were just coming to complete their parole. But it was interesting to watch those people come around. ‘All right, I’m mandated to be here and I don’t want to be here and I don’t identify as an addict. But I have to come here three hours a day, so I will.’ And then they would turn around and start sharing and start talking and identifying as someone who could use the help. Those were always inspiring stories.”
Her last year at the center was marked by the trauma counseling she and her colleagues provided to lower Manhattan residents after September 11. The center is located in lower Manhattan, and Drabek witnessed the tragedy herself.
“I didn’t feel totally equipped at that point in my career in trauma counseling,” she said. “It was about making referrals….We kind of got through it as a city, and you got through it with your peers, and with the families of people who lost people. The whole city mourned. It’s the only time I’ve seen unity in the city.”
In 2001, she became a detox supervisor at the Addiction Institute of NY, where she provided supervision to addictions counselors on an inpatient detoxification unit. She held that position for four years, during which time she was an instructor for a variety of mental health and addictions courses at Lehman College and the Alcoholism Council of New York.
Many clients of the detox center were homeless and had chronic addictions, she said. They returned to the center repeatedly, using it as a place to get off the streets for a bit, and get cleaned up. Some people who came in were tired, sick and in withdrawal; they were just happy to be in a place where they could get a shower and sleep.
“They looked needed support and services when they came in,” she said. “And many of the staff, especially the nursing staff who had been there for many years, wondered what kind of help we were giving to them when they just kept coming back in. I remember an addiction psychiatrist, who was training us, said, ‘You never know when the recovery is going to click. Let them back in, just keep educating them, keep talking to them about recovery. Maybe something you say will click.’ Statistics say that sometimes people have to try to get sober 20 times, say, before something switches inside where people say, ‘I can do this.’”
From 2004 to 2006, she served as a group counselor at the Brooklyn-based Bridge Back to Life Center, Inc., providing group facilitation for formerly incarcerated clients reentering into the community.
From 2006 to 2010, she served as the director of a homeless shelter called Project Renewal where, among her duties, she managed a substance abuse shelter of 200-plus beds; oversaw departments including social services, maintenance, security and operations; collaborated with the city’s Department of Homeless Services to meet monthly housing targets; and was responsible for ensuring a safe environment for staff and residents.
The shelter was a challenging environment, both for clients and for staff, she said. Homeless people had six to nine months to find permanent housing.
“There just wasn’t permanent housing that was affordable to find in New York,” she said. Each day was marked by “violence and chaos.” Many of the men came to the shelter from prisons.
“It wasn’t a gang kind of thing, but it was beds very close together and, ‘If you mess with me, I’ll mess with you back,’” she said. “You saw some people who had a hard time adhering to any type of system or structure, who didn’t want to go to groups, wanted to sleep all day in their bed, but had to leave at 8 and come back at 4. Setting rules, especially coming from a woman, it was challenging. I was there for four years; it was good to move on.”
For Drabek, a typical day at the shelter revolved around the administrative tasks that were tied to inspections, monitoring and placement goals. There was a formula for the number of men that had to be placed in permanent housing every month. That goal was complicated by the shelter’s population of registered sex offenders, for whom it was extremely difficult to find housing. There was also the task of keeping order in the building.
“The cops were there on a regular basis. It was crisis intervention on a daily basis,” she said.
In 2010, she became the managing director of Harlem United, a community-based HIV organization in Harlem, where she was responsible for the $2.5 million city, state and federally funded mental health and congregate housing programs for a high-risk population that was triply diagnosed.
Harlem United, she said, utilized a “harm-reduction model” that was not aimed at recovery – most clients were actively using substances – but at getting people to adhere to their medications and getting them to their doctor’s appointments. Counselors did home visits – sometimes repeatedly, when clients would not open their doors or answer calls – and sometimes escorted them to their medical appointments. There were simple reminder strategies, such as putting alerts on clients’ cellphones, if they had cellphones, to remind them to take their medications. And there was a lot of support for the small triumphs – getting people to pull up their shades, to stay on their medical regimens, to start a rehab program.
Many times, she said, the students who took the addictions courses that she taught were people who had struggled themselves and had decided to help others.
“Those stories were inspirational to me,” she said.
She recalled one story of great success – but with a sad outcome. One of her early clients, at Realization Center, had struggled for many years with alcoholism.
“He would tell stories of going into a bodega in New York and buying little bottles of whisky. And as soon as he got to work, he’d have to go to the bathroom and drink some, just to calm the shakes,” she said.
He got himself into treatment and, by the time Drabek met him, he had been a year sober, through AA.
“He loved AA,” she said. “He was sober and he was very vocal about AA, very vocal about his own recovery. A happy, happy man.”
The sad part came on Sept. 11. He was at the top of the first building, and probably died instantly with the plane crash.
“You think of life as before-recovery and post-recovery,” she said. “He was struggling for so many years, and this was the first year into the beginning of his life. He was so looking forward to it.”
Drabek calls her ties in New York “very deep-rooted; there’s a longevity there.” Still, she wanted to get back into addictions counseling and also, with her partner, leave the city. She and her partner had a great life in Brooklyn for 18 years. But when they hit their 40s, they realized the city lifestyle was no longer for them.
“It’s hard to get ahead there,” she said. “We were weren’t able to buy a home. Always apartment living. No outside, no garden, no porch. We’d stay home all the time and we said, ‘We could be doing this anywhere.’ And now we’re here, Friday and Saturday night sitting on our deck, looking out at the water and saying, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’”
When it comes to addictions counseling, she said, the population she served in New York and the MDI population face similar challenges. In either environment, people span the socioeconomic spectrum, and have a range of functionality and behavioral and social issues.
“We have a saying in New York: ‘Park Avenue, park bench, it doesn’t matter. You treat addiction the same,’” she said.
One of her goals at AFC, she said, is to get the staff out onto the conference circuit.
“It is amazing work they do here and I would never change that,” she said. “What I would like to do is expand on the message. I’ve been to a lot of national conferences. People are eager to talk about this. [Counselors] Kip [Young] and Milja [Brecher-DeMuro] are amazing in what they do. They’re engaging and great at public speaking, and I’d like to get them out to more conferences. So I’d like to expand the conference budget and get some of our staff out there, and to hear from other practitioners about what’s working for them.”