U.S.-Mexican Border Rehab: ‘Ex-Addicts are the Best Psychologists’

I feel uncomfortable when I enter the main dormitory that is home to more than 30 men in a drug rehabilitation center in Mexico, next to the U.S. border. There are two rows of bunk beds. Some men look at me in surprise and containment. There is no privacy in the room, just surprised and curious looks. We exchang greetings. Most of the ‘internos’, literally meaning ‘inmates’ in English, were taken to the center involuntarily by family members or court orders.

The enclosed area is set up next to a prison complex and shares some of its high concrete walls and towers.
I am accompanied to a smaller dorm inhabited by 20 men who were introduced to me as psychiatric patients. Most of them are visibly disoriented. As one of the peer educators pointed out these were the aftermaths of methamphetamine addiction. Some of the men seemed to be confined to the rehab indefinately, with no home, no other place to stay, and no mental health services available. At least there were ex-addicts, men who tirelessly dedicated themselves to care for them voluntarily in the camp’s 12-Step Narcotics Anonymous Program. Although most inmates suffered from a wide range of alcohol and drug related addictions, the major problem was dependency on methamphetamine that floods the border region on its way to the United States.

Later, I was able to talk to some of the men and listened to their stories. In thei narratives family members motivated the men to become ‘clean’. However, this sometimes came at the cost of depriving them of basic individual rights. One of the young men was constrained by male family members who transported him to the rehabilitation center against his will. Retrospectively, he saw the abduction as a necessity. In many stories men focused their attention on their children. It seemed that the love these men felt toward their children was a great resource of motivation for rehabilitation. As fathers they did not want to become negative role models and feared that their children may choose paths that from their experience leads to imprisonment, hospitalization, and ultimately death.

In conversations I find out that the main stereotype that Mexican male rehabilitation patients face in relation to others, as well as themselves, is an association with a ‘criminal personality’. Although this is not pointed out openly, I can make out the concern through the way the men present themselves or the topics they are prepared to mention in individual encounters with me. The issue is difficult to discuss since many had in deed participated in illegal activities. In the afternoon’s Narcotics Anonymous session, one man mentions in front of the group that he had robbed and hurt people but was not able to do so when I interviewed him. At least some inmates stereotype themselves as ‘chingados’ that could in this context perhaps be best translated as ‘fucked up’. In this sense they may tend to see themselves as having failed, particularly as husbands and fathers. While this is true to some degree, this negative identity is evidently not the essence of who they are and many inmates were aware of that.

“God is always with us, no matter how chingados (fucked up) we are,” one of the inmates says. From this perspective God still loves the person if immoral deeds are repented. The men are impressively resilient and suggest that there is more than being ‘chingado.’ Many addicts in rehabilitation seem to find a great source of strength in Catholicism. Prayer is an integral part of the program. It is no coincidence that the main meeting room is arranged like a church with a life-sized Jesus on a cross put on the wall. For some of them he seems to be the ultimate savior.

At the end of the day, I am able to leave the facility at will, while the ‘inmates’ are forced to stay behind high concrete walls. Moreover, I am able to cross the U.S.-Mexican border while many of the men in rehabilitation have been deported from the United States and dream of returning to work or to see their families. One of the staff members points out, “Ex-addicts are the best psychologists” and indicates that he could understand the clients better than I would ever be able to through academic studies. Given the lack of resources for affordable in-patient facilities at the border I agree.

1 comment to U.S.-Mexican Border Rehab: ‘Ex-Addicts are the Best Psychologists’

  • fadia

    I’m interested in men and mental illness and being being left off policy development agenda. I’m particularly interested in the Western Cape

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