40 years of Toora Women’s Inc: Michelle’s story


To honor the work of Toora Women’s Inc in Canberra over the past 40 years, we share the stories of the women they have helped.

A woman sits on a colorful sofa in a large, sunny room with open windows overlooking the mountains. Behind her is a kitchen table set up for group meals, and colorful posters adorn the walls. You might not think it, but this woman is here to change her life forever.

Some people don’t believe that life gives you a second chance. But Michelle* knows that second chances are very real. That’s because she’s been on one of Toora Women’s Inc.’s 12-week alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs for seven weeks — and things are looking good.

After struggling with a traditional alcohol rehabilitation program, Michelle contacted Toora and secured a place in one of their three Alcohol and Other Drug Rehabilitation (AOD) homes.

Given her previous experience with other rehab centers, she was apprehensive at first — “I thought, ‘Oh God, where am I going?’” — but soon realized this would be a very different journey.

“I was absolutely shocked by how homey it was. I came here and said, ‘Oh my God,’ laughs Michelle, as she falls backwards against the sofa, with a palpable relief in her tone. “The staff was so nice and supportive. I was so relieved.”

During the first of the 12 weeks, Michelle explains, participants are encouraged to settle in, and in week two they begin Toora’s Day Program, which runs three days a week.

Hosted off-site, the daytime program combines a combination of group sessions on everything from conflict resolution, relapse prevention, and better eating and sleeping, to drug refusal skills and training in how to properly administer the anti-opioid drug Naloxone. Michelle says she feels comfortable with the structure.

“We’ll go into town, have our morning session and then we’ll all have lunch together before the afternoon session. It feels like we’re back to life,” says Michelle.

During the week, the householders also have counseling sessions and are encouraged to use public transportation to do their shopping. There will also be time to see family and friends, depending on the individual circumstances of the participant.

After first entering the house in February, Michelle immediately started the 12-week program, but in week six, she received some bad news.

“I was doing extremely well for six weeks…then I got the news from my husband that” [separation] would start and I just derailed. I had a relapse and I was clearly not allowed to drink alcohol [the AOD house] so I just thought this is it. What shall I do?’”

“I really thought Toora would just say ‘goodbye’. I was beside myself that day.”

Toora was able to offer Michelle a room in a crisis center where she stayed for a week, but the staff at the rehabilitation home never gave her up.

“Every day the staff came to check on me. Every day”, says Michelle with emotion in her voice. Fortunately, a path back to the house was open to her once she was able to detox, which she quickly completed.

Back home and now seven weeks into a fresh program, Michelle looks back on the past six months in awe.

“The past seven weeks have flown by. My family is so amazed that I was able to come back – it makes them so happy to know that I am happy here and that I am supported in a safe place.”

“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I’m just so grateful.”

We asked Toora CEO Kellie Friend what she wants the community to know about substance use and dependence in Canberra.

“These issues run deep in our society and just because Canberra has above-average access to education and income does not discriminate against substance use, abuse and dependence and permeates all socioeconomic groups of our community,” she says.

Kellie also tries to remind the community that while the general image of a substance dependent person is untidy, unkempt and on the street, it is also, equally, in a larger number of well-functioning people in our community and both young and elderly. It is important to look beyond substance use and try to understand the reason behind the use, often deep trauma, fear, loss and pain.

The success of Toora is based on the treatment of the person and the reason behind its use, while minimizing the damage. Coping comes in many forms.

Finally, Kellie asks us to remind the community not to keep services like Toora a secret. Tell your family, your colleagues and your friends. June is Toora’s Annual Vocational Month and they are seeking funding for a mental health practitioner, counselor, and housing benefit scheme for their clients. Every dollar can help them achieve these goals.

If Toora supports more than 500 women a year, chances are you know someone who could benefit from counseling or residential support.

To learn more about Toora’s services, volunteer or donate, visit Toora’s website at: www.toora.org.au

*Not her real name. Please note that the feature photo is a stock photo.