MURRAY — Diane Bennett looks like someone you might run into at the grocery store. Dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, she sports tasteful gold jewelry and a purse. Her brown hair is on the short side and at 42 years old the creases of time are just beginning to show around her eyes and mouth.

She could be your mother. Your aunt. Or your next-door neighbor. She has warm eyes and a hesitant smile that says, "I'm glad to meet you, but I'm a little shy."

What it doesn't say is: "I'm a drug addict."

A former nurse, Bennett is recovering from a long battle with an addiction to prescription medications. Since 1992, she has been in and out of day treatment and residential rehabilitation centers. She has lost her nursing license. Her job. Her marriage. And her relationship with her four children.

At the moment, she is homeless, although she is sleeping on the floor of her parents' home. As of Thanksgiving Day, she is six months clean.

Wednesday, she celebrated that success by returning to the Volunteers of America Center for Women and Children, a residential drug detoxification center, in Murray. Open just one year, the center allows homeless women with drug addictions to check in, get off drugs and back on the road to a new life. The center held a reception Wednesday to commemorate its one-year anniversary.

"I spent two weeks here at the end of May," said Bennett, who was referred through St. Mark's Hospital.

A lock-down facility, most women stay five to seven days at the center — long enough to detox and get referred to day treatment programs, center director Kathy Bray said. Those more committed to change stay longer, sometimes months. An average stay in the 10-bedroom facility is about three weeks. In its first year of operation, more than 300 women and 80 children have been served.

The only program of its kind in the state, the center allows women with children age 10 and younger to bring their children to live with them at the center. "I think some women wouldn't come in if they were not able to bring their children with them," Bray said.

But it is not just the children that make the VOA center different from other programs, Bennett said. It is the way of life.

About three days into the detox process, center residents are gently "required" to participate in daily chores like meal preparation and doing dishes. There is a daily group exercise class, group therapy, parenting classes, literacy classes, journal assignments in addition to one-on-one sessions with social workers who help each resident map out the pathway to recovery.

"I wasn't just going to be left alone in my room to sulk," Bennett said. "I was finally confronted by another girl, who said that my clothes, hair and education didn't make me better or different. I was an addict just like everyone else."

Residents often prove more effective than staff and programs in helping each other through the roller-coaster ride of detox, Bray said.

"The women feel free about relating to one another more than they do even to staff," she said. "They are able to say, 'I know, I feel like using, too, but let's see what else we can do.' "

In Bennett's case, the friendships forged while in group therapy sessions, watching movies and working out together to Richard Simmons exercise tapes is what continues to keep her steady in the daily battle with addiction.

"People I know in recovery are my family now," she said. "Part of the hopelessness of my addiction was the isolation. But (these women) saw that and helped bring me out.

"In a sense, they saved my life."

It is that kind of transformation that lets Bray know the program is working. Of the more than 250 women who have come through the doors, 47 left and then returned for later stays. Three have died from overdoses. But many are making successful life changes.

"What I hoped would happen is definitely happening, " she said. "The addictions (mostly to methamphetamine and heroin) are much more severe than I thought they would be. The number of young children is higher, and I'm surprised at the number of women who have already lost their kids to the state. It's very difficult work, but if you can fight through the daily struggle and get to the point, it's worth it."

Worth it, she says, to help lost women find themselves under layer upon layer of drugs and fear, shame, guilt and all kinds of issues that have kept them running on a wheel of bad choices. Worth it because when mom gets better, families are kept intact, or are restored. Wounds are healed.

"We hate to see people leave when we don't think they've gotten it yet. We're afraid of what will happen to them out there in the world," Bray said. "We can see the potential in them that they can't see in themselves."

As for Bennett, she attends a VOA day treatment program. She said she no longer worries a lot about the way others see her. She has been able to give her kids the room they need to heal, forgive and start to trust her again. She is planning a new career. In January she will begin a two-year program in substance-abuse counseling at the University of Utah.

"I'm scared, but I don't live in fear. And it's OK to be scared sometimes; it's not going to kill me to be scared," she said "Sometimes I think, gosh if I had known what I know now eight years ago — I was in no way capable of seeing that then. I had to go through all of this.

"It takes what it takes. Now, in God's time, it will all work out."


E-mail: dobner@desnews.com