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Once lost, woman now has mission

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Twenty years ago, she ended her marriage, walked out on her children and found her only comfort in a bottle of vodka.

Today, Doreen Christensen is a woman with a mission, determined to help every drug addict or alcoholic who knocks on her door.

The word is out among those in Salt Lake City who have tried everything to become sober: Head 188 miles south to Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah, and ask for Doreen. In the past few years, she and a small group of volunteers have helped more than 100 people get off drugs and alcohol and rebuild their lives.

"I never dreamed I'd be the one to help them," says Doreen, 42, a dynamic woman with curly blond hair and soft blue eyes. "It's really very gratifying and humbling."

Doreen says this as she slowly eats a slice of tomato and cheese pizza on the sun deck at Salt Lake City's Wild Oats cafe. She requested a Free Lunch during a recent trip north to share what it's like to help people who are as downtrodden and desperate as she used to be.

For no charge, anyone is welcome to camp on her property near the hot springs and attend the rehabilitative programs offered at Enhancement for Life, Doreen's nonprofit community health and wellness center.

"I never know who I'm going to find at the door," says Doreen, who started the center six years ago, combining the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous with unconventional therapy such as drumming, singing and clearing roadsides of trash.

"People come here and soak in the hot springs at night, and it's like soaking in the Milky Way," she says. "Everything is slower paced. It's easier to sort through your troubles down here."

Doreen was 22 years old with two young children when her own life began a gradual downslide. Miserable in an abusive marriage, she became despondent, she says, after losing her third child because of a doctor's mistake.

When she was four months pregnant and receiving treatment in the hospital to stop early contractions, a doctor confused her with another patient and induced labor. "Because I'd signed the other woman's paperwork without reading it, I felt incredible guilt," she says. "I thought I'd killed my baby."

Too depressed to consider a lawsuit, Doreen deserted her family "because I felt like such a horrible mother," and turned to drinking and drugs.

"I was a high-functioning alcoholic," she says. "During the day, you'd never know. But when I shut the door at night, I'd drink anything I could find."

It wasn't until her father was killed in a car accident in 1989 by a driver high on painkillers that Doreen finally took her last drink. "The guy who killed my dad — that could have been me," she says. "That's all it took for me. I haven't had alcohol since."

It was after being reunited with her children and moving to Utah that she decided to devote her life to reaching out to others who have been down similar paths.

One of the first people who came for help in Monroe was an alcoholic musician who had been searching for his birth mother for more than 30 years. "We found his mother and reunited them," says Doreen. "He'd written her a song called 'Dear Mom.' It was a beautiful moment."

Homeless Vietnam veterans and troubled teens who have spent much of their youth in detention have also ended up at the hot springs, searching for a way to get control of their lives.

"I've seen lots of miracles," says Doreen, who is now raising money to buy an old church to expand her programs. "You know that old saying, 'There but for the grace of God go I?' That's me. Every day that I'm sober, I feel grateful to be alive."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.