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Beating the Trickster

The Kokopelli Program helps participants defeat addiction and embrace life.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder


There's new light at the end of the tunnel for those in southwest New Mexico struggling to overcome addiction. In April, Silver City-based Border Area Mental Health Services (BAMHS) added a new addiction-recovery program—the Kokopelli Program—opening a new outpatient center on South Silver Street in downtown Deming.

Veronica Arciero of the Deming Kokopelli program sits in the facility's welcome and group meeting area, a client binder on her lap.

The facility saw its first graduates of the 16-week intensive outpatient program at the end of August. BAMHS plans to open two more Kokopelli treatment programs in its Lordsburg and Reserve facilities by yearend, according to Rob Connoley, BAMHS program coordinator.

The program takes Kokopelli—the dancing, high-stepping spiritual legend of local ancient peoples—as its symbol, for both his negative and positive traits. The hump-backed flute player found carved and painted on rock walls and boulders throughout the area has been a sacred figure to local Native Americans for thousands of years. He represents both a mischievous trickster—much like the drugs and alcohol that lead to addiction and enslave the user—as well as a symbol of fertility and success through the forms of crops, love, dreams and hope.

Along with free walk-in services, the Kokopelli Program lends assistance with practical, tangible needs, such as employment assistance, housing, clothing and transportation to appointments. The program is funded through two sizeable grants: a Rural Health Care Services Outreach grant through the Health Resources Services Administration and also funding from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.

Veronica Arciero, the Deming Kokopelli Program's office manager, says some three-dozen participants are currently enrolled there. She opens a cabinet and reveals shelves of thick binders, one for each program participant.

Participants go through a specific series of steps, Arciero says. "The first thing is that they commit to a service agreement. Then they get scheduling, which builds structure into their lives." Participants' binders and a calendar get marked with their "clean and sober progress." They learn early recovery skills and learn to deal with "triggers" for lapsing back into addictive behaviors.

To contact Border Area Mental Health Services:

  • Silver City Outpatient: 388-4412
  • Silver City New Beginnings Day Treatment: 538-3205
  • Deming on Hickory Street: 546-2174
  • Deming Kokopelli: 544-4468
  • Lordsburg: 542-9477
  • Reserve, at the Reserve Medical Center
    Emergency 24-Hour Crisis Line:
    (800) 426-0997.

BAMHS program coordinator Connoley says the organization chose this treatment model—the Matrix Program, developed at the Los Angeles Matrix Institute—for qualities that make it particularly effective in BAMHS' focus area, with the clientele and demographics of the region. "We looked at all the models available, and the Matrix model made the most sense for use in a rural setting with a diverse population," Connoley says.


With methamphetamine addiction being an acknowledged scourge to the area, the program had to be especially effective at handling the issues surrounding that type of abuse. "It's epidemic," Connoley says of the methamphetamine addiction problem in the Southwest. He estimates that 65 percent of BAMHS' clients are stimulant abusers (as compared to alcohol abusers) and that well over half of those are specifically meth addicts. "These are only the ones who got to us for treatment," he says. "It's just rampant."

One reason for the prevalence of methamphetamine addiction, he says, is how easy it is to get addicted. "One hit and you're hooked. What it does to the body is just incredible, and devastating."

A factor that makes methamphetamine addiction more difficult to treat is family group involvement. Connoley says it is not uncommon to find that younger users were introduced to the drug in the home, "often by their grandparents and parents using it." Such exposure also makes recovery more difficult, as those struggling to overcome their addiction often are surrounded by other users in the household and community.

Connoley says all Kokopelli Program participants are voluntary, even though some arrive at the door with encouragement from the probation department and the courts.

"Sometimes that's the motivation," he explains. "People have lost their kids to social services and they want them back. Sometimes it's because they lost their job and they want to be able to get back on their feet; they're motivated to be able to provide for their family. It's <I>still</I> all voluntary participation, even if the court system has brought them to the door, because they are choosing to participate in the program. They are choosing to do something about their addiction problem."


Connoley adds that an important factor of the Kokopelli Program is that participants are not thrown out for lapsing back into addiction. In many treatment models, going back into drug use is cause for ejection from a program. Rather, he says, those who "fall off the wagon" and then return for treatment are welcomed back in and given more support and education to help avoid falling prey to their abuse triggers in the future.

"We know that this is real life," he says. "Their families and lives are in real chaos."

In addition to individual and group counseling sessions, program participants get tangible everyday support. They receive childcare and employment assistance, as well as transportation to court appointments and doctor's offices.

"We'll hold their hand to get them through the legal system," Connoley says, "make sure they keep their appointments, make sure they know when and where they have to show up. We don't want them to fall through those cracks."

As clients become clearer in themselves, coming free of the clouds of addiction, they start to form new healthful types of behaviors, he says, which makes recovery more likely. Hoping to build a wider safety net, giving clients more support and fewer opportunities to lapse back into addiction, BAMHS recently expanded the Deming program to five days and added a Saturday social event, usually a movie night, giving clients a healthy alternative and positive social connections.

"We want to give them everything they need to be successful," Connoley says.

And with the program's first clients graduating into a clearer light of day, it seems a potent start.


Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

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