In 2010, Lena Lindsey-Stern marked her golden anniversary as a person in recovery. In 1959, her journey began at Synanon, the first therapeutic community. The program’s initial emphasis on self-help enabled her to shake her dependence on heroin. Since 1986, she has been a counselor at Phoenix House, helping countless individuals who have come to know her simply as “Mama Lena.” Here, she answers our questions about how treatment has changed—and the principles that remain the same.
PH: In 1959, what were the treatment options for people struggling with addiction?
Lena: As far as I knew, at that time in Los Angeles, it was either jail or Synanon. I found out about it one night while watching the news and stuck it in the back of my mind. I had a court case shortly after that and the judge told me that the next time I got busted, he was sending me to the penitentiary. So I decided to try Synanon. My mother said she would keep my two kids.
PH: How would you describe the treatment environment at that time?
Lena: There weren’t any counselors, so we had to counsel each other. When I got there, there were 52 people and two of them had been clean nine months. And I figured, What did I have to lose? It was either this—or to stay on the street. I was one of only ten girls and we shared each other’s clothes. It was a tight group and somewhere along the way, we started learning and changing our behavior.
PH: How were you reunited with your family?
Lena: After about six months, I was told I could go get my kids, Yolanda and Billy Jay, and they became the first children at Synanon. We moved into a house, but we were quickly evicted because the landlord didn’t know black people were moving in. We got a house across the street with two other mothers and their children. I became the overseer of the house, so I was in charge of getting the kids into public schools. It felt like a real feat because before, we didn’t know how to be parents. Eventually, we had a school of our own with 80 to 100 kids.
PH: What brought you to Phoenix House?
Lena: I went on a tour of the Orange County facility with my old friend Dr. David Deitch. I saw what great work the organization was doing. I became a counselor on January 27, 1986 and have been here ever since.
PH: What is your philosophy when working with Phoenix House clients?
Lena: It’s simple. I tell the truth, ask questions, and do what I can to give them practical information, so they can make it.
PH: What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Lena: When the former residents I worked with call or visit me and say, “You helped me.” I always try to think about, “What was I said or did that made a difference?”
PH: There are a number of stories in the news lately about youth addiction. What would you say to a young person today who was entering treatment?
Lena: I’d let them know that it’s not easy. If they want to pull themselves up, they have to fight for it. But most of the counselors have been there and understand their situations. If you’re willing to listen to what’s being said, it will come.
PH: It’s been more than fifty years since you entered treatment. How have you managed your recovery?
Lena: I’ve had to keep an eternal vigilance. It’s like managing any chronic condition. You have to follow the doctor’s orders and practice “acting as if.” I’ve been practicing so long now that I no longer have think about it consciously.
PH: Do you feel we’ve made progress in terms of erasing the stigma of addiction?
Lena: Yes, I think we’ve come quite a ways. There’s more recognition now that those who struggle with addiction have a deadly disease, so we shouldn’t look down on them. When I first went into treatment, I didn’t know how not to be a drug addict. I thought, Once an addict, always an addict. Now, I know that if you’re willing, change is possible.
–As told to Kate Schmier