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A Model for the Continuum of Care

By AMITY MOORE JOYCE

Texas native Natalie Delgadillo got involved in recovery’s continuum of care as a teenager. Ten years later, she remains in active recovery and is realizing her academic and life dreams.

When Natalie Delgadillo was 15 years old, she had no idea that her recovery journey would become a model for the entire continuum of care. All she was thinking about was how to convince her mother and the outpatient rehabilitation staff that she was fine; she didn’t need to be in recovery. She just wanted life to be back to normal — her “normal” of daily marijuana use, before and after school.

She had been using since she was 13. “I used to complete tasks, to clean, to go running,” she admits. “I was very detached from my family and who I was. It got to the point where I was sacrificing my values and morals to get my drugs. It just took over. I was getting in trouble, and then I didn’t care. Drugs were the only thing that mattered.”

Still, she didn’t think she needed treatment. Delgadillo’s mother, who had been raising her two children on a single income since her husband died when Delgadillo was young, thought differently and entered her into a 30-day outpatient program.

“I thought everyone was beneath me,” Delgadillo shares. “I thought everyone else was doing drugs, but I was just experimenting. I thought what I was doing was different.”

Natalie Delgadillo at Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ten sober years later, Delgadillo, now 25, is grateful to her mother and the recovery community she has found. She, along with several others who have been a part of her recovery team, recently spoke at the National Collegiate Recovery Conference as part of a panel discussion about the continuum of care.

“I got sober when I was 15,” Delgadillo says. “I didn’t plan on it. I didn’t think I would be sober this long.” But her participation in each step of the continuum of care has led her to where she is today — active in her recovery, a senior at the University of Houston and looking forward to a career in sales. She acknowledges that she is in control of her life and her decisions, something she would not have said 10 years ago.

TREATMENT

Rebecca Whitson, a therapist at the Houston-based Center for Success and Independence, met Delgadillo when she was 15 years old and has been part of her recovery support ever since.

“Natalie came to treatment about a week before Hurricane Ike,” Whitson says with a hint of humorous foreshadowing in her voice. “She was this tiny, little, petite girl who was like a hurricane herself.” Whitson then takes her voice up a few octaves to mimic teenaged Natalie: “Umm, I don’t need to be here. Like, my mom is crazy, and we just need to figure out how to fix her, and then I’ll leave.” Natalie giggles with the audience as Whitson continues. “We had to evacuate, and then we spent 10 days at a Christian camp. I’m watching this person lose this defensiveness around ‘I need to prove to you I’m fine and my mom’s crazy’ to wondering when we were going to play another game of capture the flag. She came alive. I don’t know if we would have gotten there that fast without Hurricane Ike. That was a pivotal moment.”

Delgadillo at a high school sober conference. She attended Three Oaks Academy, a recovery high school in Houston.

For Delgadillo, the difference in care came from feeling validated. She had already attended a couple of other treatment programs, both inpatient and outpatient. Although she emerged sober each time, she felt angry. “I didn’t really know how to deal with my emotions,” she remembers. “I feel like a lot of places say, ‘It’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault,’ but this  lace would listen to me, validate me, and they taught me the lesson that the world is going to be what it is, but this is how you manage yourself so you can approach the world in a more effective way. I needed someone to show me how to do that.”

RECOVERY HIGH SCHOOL

Next, she attended Three Oaks Academy, a recovery high school where she met Parker Cragg, who was the school’s director at the time. He chuckles, too, when he thinks about meeting Delgadillo. It’s clear that her positive energy, sparkling eyes and broad smile are compelling — even among people leading her. While speaking on the conference panel, Cragg shares that he had only six months of sobriety himself when he and Delgadillo met. She had been sober for more than three years.

“She was one of 10 students who had been sober longer than I had,” Cragg says. “She was comfortable in her own skin. I was not yet. I admired her recovery deeply.”

He admits he had to look at things outside of recovery in order to know how to be supportive of her growth as a student and young person and to also establish the proper boundaries. As part of the faculty of a recovery high school, he points out that staff help students not just in the recovery sphere, but they also ask how they can help equip young people for life.

Three Oaks presented some stark differences from the public and private schools Delgadillo had already attended. In a phone conversation after her panel talk, she mentions how meetings were integrated into the school, as were the expectations of accountability and integrity.

Delgadillo hiking with fellow Cougars in Recovery members.

“You work with teachers on a more personal level,” she says of the teacher-student relationship at her recovery high school. “They share with you about their experiences. I feel like it’s different than at a public school because the teachers feel like they have to hide their personal lives. This community knew what we had been through. They didn’t have to shelter us. They would just tell us like it is.

“It was such an open community. I would talk to my teacher like I would talk to a friend. They would be vulnerable with us in order to be an example for us.”

ALTERNATIVE PEER GROUP

At this time, Delgadillo also got involved with Lifeway Alternative Peer Group (APG), which was under the same parent organization as Three Oaks. She explains what APGs do: “They usually offer meetings hosted by the kids as well and weekly activities coordinated for the kids to build a network of clean, safe, sober fun. [The APG] contributed to my success by showing me how to show up for others and be a team player.”

She adds: “It showed me a lot about intimacy and opening up and connecting to people, being vulnerable for the greater good. It showed me how to be accountable and how to give constructive and loving criticism. It showed me how to actively work on myself and look at my character defects and diligently be aware of how to fix them with the help and love of others. [Participating in the APG] just made me very self-aware. It gave me community. I had so much fun and made really good friends who helped me get through the teenage years.”

Delgadillo admits there were times when she tried to get away with stuff, not so much with lapsing in her recovery but in being present and thinking about her future.

Delgadillo and her mom.

“I had to figure out how to apply myself even more for what was coming next,” she says in response to some friends calling her out and asking what she was going to do after high school. “I realized that if I tried to cheat the system, then I was cheating myself. I quit taking things for granted, tried to be more active, make more service commitments, just be more accountable. The truth is that I knew those people loved me and had my best interests at heart.

“People believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she says of her time as an adolescent in recovery. “High school, just before graduation, was really scary. I was afraid, like, what if I don’t succeed? What if my mom’s not happy? What does she want?”

Having embraced her recovery and gotten serious about her next steps, largely as a result of the support she received through the APG and her recovery high school, Delgadillo worked hard to earn acceptance into a financial planning program at Texas Tech.

COLLEGIATE RECOVERY

She thought she wanted to be far away from home, to have some independence and to be alone. “And then I got there,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I would chat with my mom for like an hour a day. I was closer to her than I thought.”

Delgadillo got involved in the university’s collegiate recovery community, and she stayed for a little more than a year. “It was really difficult,” she says. “I missed my family a lot.”

She returned to Houston, remained active in her recovery and eventually enrolled in the University of Houston (UH). She had met John Shiflet, who was launching Cougars in Recovery (CIR) at UH, while they were both students at Texas Tech. He had been finishing up his undergraduate work when they met.

Delgadillo and fellow Cougars in Recovery members.

“When I graduated and was part of the process, I heard Natalie had moved back to Houston,” Shiflet explains during the conference. “I immediately invited her to come over and be part of our program. She attended right away. She has been a huge presence since Day 1. She’s a leader who brings positive energy to the community. She connects well with community members.”

For Delgadillo, CIR remains important: “Especially these past few years, they’ve supported me such an incredible amount — more than any other community I’ve been involved with. They’ve called me out lovingly. They’ve supported my decisions in things. They’ve been patient with me in terms of if I couldn’t come around a lot, they would send me love and ask me how I’ve been doing. They’ve provided an incredible amount of academic guidance.”

In talking with Delgadillo, it’s clear how hard it is for her to find the words that do justice to the role she believes CIR has played for her.

“Had I never gotten sober,” she says, “I wouldn’t have had a plan for an academic career. I wouldn’t have had the courage to take on things that I have. I needed people who wouldn’t co-sign my crap. I needed people who would call me out but also people that I know who love me. [That support] has been my backbone for so many years. It gives you access when you have stuff going on to people you can check in with. You have people who love and care about you, a community to hear you out, a community to hold you accountable, to hold space for exactly who you are and to not judge you. It’s a community sharing life with you.”

Like she says, that community has helped her be a better student, friend and daughter. This past semester, she was able to take on a different role with her mom. Her mom needed a kidney. Delgadillo was able to give her mom hers. “It gave me an opportunity to give her what she gave me,” Delgadillo says. “It showed me how to be a different kind of woman, like a real adult, which is cool.”

Having embraced each phase on the continuum of care, Delgadillo believes in the continuum “because,” as she says, “each network provided a different kind of support for each different stage of life.”

Shiflet adds that her movement along the continuum is significant because she “has been able to maintain her recovery and academics through the entire process. Also, she is living proof the continuum of care she experienced worked for her, and if more cities implemented these resources in their communities, they, too, might have success stories like Natalie.

“The role the collegiate recovery programs play in the continuum of care is [to invite] the student to come onto a campus with a built-in support system of other young people who have already experienced what they are about to, and they can share their experience, strength and hope with those students to help them stay focused and motivated to progress,” Shiflet continues.

Delgadillo admits that one of the ways she takes care of herself these days is by relying on her support network, the CIR at school. She relies on her family now. Plus, “I trust that I can even rely on myself.” She’s learned that if something doesn’t work out, she doesn’t need to beat herself up over it.

“I learned about all of these things more so in recent years,” Delgadillo says. “I’m in the process of unlearning who I thought everyone wanted me to be. Tuning in with her has been the greatest gift. Now I’m not as scared of fear. I try to be friends with fear, like, ‘Hey, I see you, fear, and I acknowledge you. I know you don’t wanna do this thing, but we are gonna do it, and you’ll live, so come on.’

“Life can just be so beautiful if you get out of your own way and let it be.”

Fun Facts about Natalie

FAVORITE THINGS: Her gratitude list, affirmations and Brené Brown

FAVORITE BOOK: The Alchemist

FAVORITE SONG: “Love and Peace” by Quincy Jones and “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind and Fire

FAVORITE QUOTE: “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. … This is the inter-related structure of reality.” — Martin Luther King Jr., with whom she also shares a birthday

FAVORITE LEISURE ACTIVITIES: Yoga, peeling bark from myrtle trees in the summer, cooking, long road trips, playing baseball with her partner, reading books

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