Drying Out - With a Gentle Touch

He is a small, middle-aged man, wearing a soiled plaid shirt, jeans, scuffed boots. The odors he brings are perspiration and liquor. He wears a red cap.

Even in drunkenness, he knows this is the intake desk at the Na'nizhoozhi Center Inc. (NCI). The police van that brought him and four others pulls away from the back door, headed back to Gallup's streets looking for more drunks.

"What day is it?" he says as he rolls back his sleeve revealing his Social Security number tattooed on his arm years ago. He knows the procedure at the intake desk. His file folder indicates this is his 54th visit; his third time within 30 days

Because of this frequency, he faces a mandatory stay of five days. (First time clients are kept overnight, and taken home by van in the morning.)

While he blows into a breath tester to register the level of alcohol in his body, Roxanna Jack, a security attendant, treats him kindly, talking quietly to him. His level is 0.3, well above the legal limit.

After being searched, and determined not to have serious injuries, he is led away to a large holding area where inch-thick mats cover the floor near the walls. He lies down, his cap still on his head, and in minutes he is asleep.

For the next two days, he is fed and dried out. On the third day, he joins group discussions (separated by ages) about such issues as stress and family life. "Many of these people have not been expressive for years," says Matthew Kelley, NCI's clinical director. "And Navajos tend to be quite closed about their feelings."

Another option is traditional Indian sessions using feathers and charcoal. "In a talking circle, you talk to the feather or charcoal as more of a prayer," says Mr. Kelley. But many of the men and women have been in so many discussions that sitting at a table doing beadwork is more therapeutic. Or playing games, or just quiet talk with a counselor.

Counselors can arrange vocational training, but for the 30 percent of people here who are chronic abusers, the hope is to get them into long-term treatment somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona.

"It's surprising how few of the chronic abusers actually want long-term treatment," Kelley says. "They have a whole range of mental issues such as hopelessness, extreme depression, and institutional dependency. It takes a major shift in their consciousness."

After five days the man in the red cap-- clean, sober, and well-fed - is taken home. The hope is that something was sparked in him over the five days to draw him back voluntarily, or to seek help somewhere else. "He can stay here almost as long as he likes," Kelley says, "and we'll help him."

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