“Therapy without the Therapy”

Traditional cultural activities make space for Ernie Turner Center residents to reflect and work toward sobriety

Residents at CITC’s Ernie Turner in-patient treatment center participate in cultural activities, like beading.

When the people in Heidi Christensen’s cultural group make beaded earrings or fish for hooligan, they don’t feel like they’re learning the skills that support the recovery process. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

“When you’re doing beadwork, you’re not thinking about drugs or trauma,” Heidi pointed out. “But you are going through difficulties. You’re getting discouraged when things get knotted up. You think you’ve messed it up — but then you find a solution.”

Cultural Peer Support Specialist Heidi Christensen organizes cultural activities, like dipnetting, for ETC residents.

Residents at CITC’s Ernie Turner Center (ETC) are focused on their sobriety. The 16-bed drug- and alcohol-free residential home provides groups, therapy, and inpatient treatment for individuals who have experienced addiction, mental health disorders, and homelessness.

Sometimes that treatment comes in surprising ways — like fishing, berry-picking, beading, and dipnetting.

Since coming on board with ETC, Cultural Peer Support Specialist Heidi Christensen has created opportunities for residents to engage in a variety of cultural and traditional Alaska Native activities. Doing these activities allow residents to reconnect with their heritage, an important part of the recovery process.

“Especially living in the city, a lot of people don’t get that daily connection, and it’s super important for Alaska Native people to have that,” Heidi said. “Culture is a big part of their identity, and it can play a role in healing what they’re going through.”

Throughout the year, Heidi plans activities that will reconnect ETC residents to their homes and heritages. When ETC celebrated the first anniversary of its Eklutna facility, the residents made 130 dreamcatchers as party favors, in addition to the other beadwork they regularly do. The group has also made drums, held music appreciation sessions, read cultural literature, held talking circles, and processed traditional foods.

A pair of earrings made by an ETC resident.

This summer, residents have also gone dipnetting and fishing, and plan to go berry-picking.

Many of the cultural activities the group does involve quiet moments that provide time for reflection. While working individually on a project within a group offers an opportunity for fellowship and laughter, participants will just as often sit without saying anything.

“It’s an opportunity for people to just sit in their feelings, to confront those feelings, and know that it’s okay,” Heidi explained. “If you sit there, you can acknowledge the feelings that come up — resentment, impatience, people who have hurt you, things that might have contributed to addiction — and you can let it go. [The cultural activities] are a lot of group therapy work without the therapy.”

Heidi understands the value of therapy-in-disguise firsthand. She has been sober for nearly six years and comes from a background of alcoholism. As a peer to the residents at ETC, she shares her own experience and her Gwich’in/Aleutic culture and helps the members of her cultural group better understand their own cycles of addiction and how to break them. Beading together or standing side by side while dipnetting facilitates these hard conversations.

Lox crostini made by the ETC kitchen staff. Salmon caught by ETC residents is used in some meals served at ETC.

Cultural activities also give residents a moment of downtime. “My schedule was back-to-back, constant treatment, when I was in their shoes,” Heidi remarked. “Being able to create something, that’s when my brain can turn off. It provides them some much-needed downtime.”

When residents catch and prepare fish, or finish a pair of beaded earrings, they get to follow a project through to its end. “They’re doing something productive where they can see end results, whereas you don’t always feel those immediate results as you’re working toward sobriety,” Heidi said.

This summer, the cultural group’s activities are benefiting all of ETC. The fish they have caught was processed and stored in the facility’s commercial freezer and will be used throughout the year by ETC’s nutritionist and kitchen staff, who are experimenting with traditional foods.

To learn more about the Ernie Turner Center, visit the facility’s webpage. Need support on your recovery journey? Visit citci.org/recovery.