By: Sandra Hart, A.S., and Joyce Robbins, PhD
Editor’s Note: The introduction to this article was written by Joyce Robbins. The part titled “This is What It Took,” was written by Sandra Hart.
Many of the undergraduate students in my sociology classes at Touro College aspire to careers in social work. Whereas sociology and social work overlap to a large extent—both deal with contemporary social issues such as poverty, health care, violence, drug use, employment, and family relationships, among many others—sociology tends to be more research oriented, while social work tends to be more treatment oriented. For those ready to roll up their sleeves and do something, it can be frustrating to have to focus on history and research. However, before advocating for change, it is important that we understand the issues in context, and how people make sense of the worlds in which they live.
Doing research in the social sciences presents a unique set of challenges. Since our research “objects” are living people, we must take care in choosing a research methodology that will allow us to gain knowledge about their lives that is ethical and not overly intrusive. The best method for doing so has been the subject of much debate. Methods range from surveys involving thousands of respondents to in-depth interviews with a much smaller number of subjects.
Many of my students have found the interviewing process to be a very positive experience. In an open-ended interview, conversation flows in a natural and spontaneous way; the researcher has the opportunity to ask questions that occur to him or her as the interview proceeds. Nonetheless, students are directed to prepare lists of questions ahead of time in order to focus their thoughts, as well as to have questions to fall back on if they get stuck during the interview and don’t know what to ask. In class, we discuss the importance of maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude during the interview. The process of preparing questions gives us the opportunity to eliminate or reword questions that might be interpreted as critical or insulting. We talk about ways to put people at ease, and of course, the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
In the following piece, one of my students, Sandra Hart, relates one woman’s story of drug abuse and recovery. Growing up in New York City, Hart observed how much harder it was for women to break the habit of drug addiction, since they could always sell their bodies in exchange for drugs. A one-on-one interview format in a relaxed setting worked well for Sandra. It gave her the opportunity to focus in-depth on one individual’s story. She was struck by how honest her interviewee was about her experiences, how willing she was to share, and impressed by her strength and the close relationship she maintained with her parents. I, in turn, was impressed by Sandra’s sensitivity and respect toward the interviewee, which clearly were instrumental in developing the trusting relationship that formed between them. As you read, you’ll see that Sandra did a lot of thinking on her feet during the interview and found a way to keep her desire for knowledge in balance with a concern for her subject’s emotional state.
This is What it Took
When I take a look around me, I see women who do not value their lives because of their addiction to drugs. I don’t think that they want to live that way, but it is the only way they know. Recovering from addiction can be very hard, especially for women, who can easily slip. In my own family, I have seen women struggle with drugs at various times in their lives. I always wondered what the recovery process was like for them, but never had the chance to question them about their journey to freedom. I embarked on this project to understand at a deeper level both why women choose the path of drugs, and how they are able to change and focus on living clean and sober lives.
I chose to interview one person rather than asking a few questions to a large number of people, as is customary in survey research. Speaking to one person has its advantages and disadvantages. Everyone’s story is different, so one cannot generalize from one person’s experience. At the same time, focusing on one individual allows the researcher to gain a deep understanding of one person’s world. The woman I interviewed, whom we’ll call “Roberta,” was living in a residential facility for recovering women addicts with children. The women were awakened at 6:00 every morning. They began their day with cleaning chores that were rotated on a weekly basis. Next was the morning motivational meeting, filled with singing, dancing, and laughter, followed by a mandatory Narcotics Anonymous meeting. At that point, the women went about the business of their day—going to a doctor’s appointment, seeing family, apartment hunting, or job searching. Everyone returned for dinner at 6:00 p.m., then once again chores and a house meeting to discuss the day’s events and how they went. By 9:00 p.m., it was time to get ready for bed and lights out.
I met Roberta at the facility. The first thing I noticed was a playground right next door to the entrance of the facility. Inside there were women standing in line, receiving free Metro cards. Walking in, I decided to put my notebook and my pen away in my book bag so I would blend in better with the environment. As I spoke to her, she watched me closely and I observed her, as well. I paid attention to her body language—she seemed to be a little uncomfortable. I felt like giving up, but there was no way I was getting an “F” on my paper. I explained that I was doing a paper for college. She replied with excitement, “You go to college!” BINGO! I had her attention. I assured her that her information would remain confidential and that I would not use her real name. I then suggested that we get something to eat, and off to McDonald’s we went. I ordered us both coffee and apple pie. We sat at a booth near the window, so I would be able to look outside and refocus if the conversation became difficult. At this point, I pulled out my paper, pen, and tape recorder, and we began the interview.
To my surprise, Roberta could not wait to spill her situation; she seemed desperate to talk to someone. She started talking nonstop. I realized right away that being a good listener is crucial to the interview process. Her story of addiction began when she was twenty-two years old. She was introduced to cocaine by a close friend, whom we’ll call “Anita,” who approached her and handed her a piece of foil folded into a rectangular shape. Along with the foil, there was a white pointed straw. “I opened the foil,” Roberta recalled, “and I knew exactly what to do with it. I scooped some cocaine onto the tip of the straw and snorted it. That was it. I was hooked. I froze for about five seconds. I felt something go straight to my brain; I still can’t explain what it was. I remember seeing stars and my heart beating faster and faster. All of a sudden I had to move; I could no longer sit still. I found myself moving faster and faster. I had no appetite for the rest of the night; my body was numb. The following day, I ate like a pig.”
A month or so passed without any cocaine, but it stayed on Roberta’s mind. “Cocaine was all I could think about,” she recalled. Remembering the tremendous high it had given her, she finally broke down and asked Anita to purchase the drug for her. Thus began a pattern—Anita became Roberta’s runner and supported her own habit, as well. Unlike Roberta, Anita had connections on the street. Eventually, Roberta found herself using every day. She began to lose weight and started getting dark circles under her eyes, what they called “raccoon eyes” in the rehab facility. “The hallucinating affected me badly,” she explained. “I began hearing voices. I became paranoid. I was peeking through my curtains. My fear was that there was someone always following me. All kinds of crazy sh**. Cocaine took over my life; it took me places I had never been before, never dreamed I would be going to, and it took me fast.”
Roberta told me that the drug use caused her to lose a good job she had with a large delivery company. I took a chance by asking her why she didn’t explain the situation to her supervisor; I hoped that interrupting her monologue would not cause her to shutdown and stop talking. She replied that at the time, she didn’t care. Her only concern was to use, and that she did. She drained thousands of dollars that she had saved in bank accounts to support her habit.
Her loss was not only financial. Before using drugs, she told me that she had the attention of plenty of men who cared for her and appreciated the fact that she was responsible for herself.
Roberta started getting emotional. For me, it was getting really interesting but also scary. I was bringing up old memories, and I knew I had to proceed with caution. Next I asked about her childhood. She spoke of a “beautiful” childhood with stern parents, lots of love, and mutual respect. “My parents provided me with everything I needed and wanted, as well. I am a lucky person. My parents loved each other; I could actually see the love. I still see the way they look at each other. We are a close knit family; I don’t know any family like mine.” I knew I had earned Roberta’s trust, and chose to ask a difficult question: “How did your parents react when they realized you were on drugs?” Roberta’s eyes filled with tears. She replied that at first, they had no idea what was going on. However, once she moved back home, they knew something was wrong. Initially they thought she was in debt with bills. “Little did they know I was strung the f*** out. I was so ashamed,” she said. I asked again if she was okay, and she assured me that she was.
She explained to me that she had never talked to anyone about her drug use before, and felt embarrassed. Although it was tempting, I knew it wasn’t my place to become involved in her course of treatment. Instead, I recommended that she talk to her counselors; I reminded her that they have a job to do. She thanked me, and we agreed to meet the next day to continue the interview. It had been enough for one day.
We met again the next day at the same McDonald’s, and Roberta revealed to me that she had spoken to her counselor as I had suggested. It seemed to me that she had become a brand new person overnight. When I observed her, the first thing I noticed was her smile. It seemed to me as if she felt it was worth something. She even spoke with her head erect as if the crown of her head were touching the sky. Next, I was challenged by her attempt to flip the interview on to me, which she did by asking if I had ever used drugs. I replied that I hadn’t, but knew people who had, and wanted to get a better understanding of her situation. That was my strategy for politely putting the focus back on her, and it worked. I asked about how her life had changed during the recovery process and there was a lot to talk about.
“I had not cherished my life for a long time,” she told me. “I took everything for granted. The difference is realizing that life is not promised to me. Every day, there was a struggle on the street. I had to fight for my life; I was in desperate situations. I used to go to basements to have oral sex for a two-dollar bag of crack. I found myself in abandoned basements. Alone! Looking for crack. I was willing to do anything. I stayed sick until I accomplished my goal by any means necessary. I knew that I could not live my life this way anymore, but I just did not know how to stop.”
Roberta was infinitely grateful that her parents were able to help her get into the program. Her counselor was helping her weigh various options for the future and deal with fears about how she would survive, how she would pay the rent. She was very clear about the fact that she never wanted to do drugs again. She had six months left to complete the program, and she intended to continue in a positive way. She felt protected in the program and worried whether she could make it on her own without her peers. “We all say we are going to keep in touch when we leave here, but you know how people are,” she told me. Roberta said that she would love to go to college. I congratulated her on her journey to success. She thanked me for listening to her story. All of a sudden, she said, “Oh! I forgot,” and asked, “Could I have a copy of your report?” We laughed; I promised her that she would receive a copy.
As I reflect back on the interview experience, I realize that it was not as hard as I imagined, although the beginning was difficult. The more I learned about Roberta’s life, the more interesting the project became. We both learned from the process. I felt that Roberta learned to speak up and to be heard. This was part of the remedy to her situation. I felt that I had entered Roberta’s world, albeit for a short period of time. It was tempting to stay in touch with Roberta, but I also wanted to maintain professional distance. I think about Roberta quite often; it worries me not to know what’s happening with her. I just keep reminding myself that if she’s as strong and confident as she was during the interview, then she is okay.
Sandra Hart, A.S., is proud to say that she graduated with an Associate of Science degree from Touro College in June 2008. She majored in human services and during her journey earned certificates in child abuse, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
Joyce Robbins, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Touro College in New York City. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.