Mar 01, 2016
By Leah Geller

Supporting physical, emotional, spiritual health

Sister Arleen Brawley is an Order of New Brunswick recipient, recognized for her leadership in helping women recover from addictions

Teckles Photography Inc.

As she was growing up in Saint John, N.B., Arleen Brawley wondered why her father and her older brother couldn’t stop drinking. “I wanted to help them, but I didn’t understand what they were facing.”

During the 1960s, Brawley was a general duty nurse in the medical-surgical unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “I’d see patients coming into emergency who were drunk and injured, but nurses didn’t get much education about alcoholism as a disease.” She adds, “Later on, as a parish nurse, I’d meet families affected by alcohol and see women soliciting on the street who I realized were addicted. The curiosity was always there; why couldn’t they stop?”

In 2006, she decided to find out. She moved to Minnesota to complete a master’s degree in addiction counselling at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction.

“I learned that gender-specific treatment is essential because men and women have different needs, beliefs and feelings,” she says. In doing research for a major paper on modes of treatment, she found that outpatient treatment for addictions, if done correctly, can work as well as long-term residential treatment. With this new knowledge, she came up with an idea.

Brawley, who is also a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception (SCIC), returned to Saint John and proposed a women-only outpatient treatment centre to her friend Sister Mary Beth McCurdy. “At the time, there really was nothing for addicted women in Atlantic Canada. They needed a haven for recovery.”

In 2008, with one-year start-up funding from their religious community, the two opened Sophia Recovery Centre on the first floor of a three-story house in the city’s centre. Brawley was the first executive director.

Today, most of the non-profit organization’s clients come from all walks of life and their numbers are steadily increasing — as many as 15 a day. The staff along with the volunteers, who are recovering from addiction themselves, are women. Counselling, meditation and yoga are offered along with a program drawn from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps. “A number of clients experience trauma or violence in their lives,” Brawley explains. “They need to deal with these issues while in treatment.”

“At the centre, our clients are free to come and go, to talk to the others in recovery,” she adds. Many of them bring in their children, and she delights in being asked to hold the babies. About half of the clients go on to lead a healthy lifestyle and remain abstinent.

Two vocations
Brawley trained as an RN at St. Joseph’s Hospital school of nursing. After completing her bachelor of science in nursing in 1970 at the University of Ottawa, she and a friend bought Eurail passes and travelled Europe on five dollars a day.

She moved into leadership roles when she returned to the hospital, ultimately attaining the position of assistant director of nursing. But it was also during this period that she joined SCIC, a Roman Catholic congregation. “I felt there was something that I was searching for, longing for. I didn’t really intend to stay with the order, but God grabbed hold of me and said it was where I needed to be.”

Her life and career took a different path, blending her two vocations. She went to Alberta to study theology and pastoral education, worked as a parish nurse and then helped young women prepare to take vows and live in community. Once back in her own city in 1996, she provided pastoral health care, “supporting patients and families emotionally and spiritually,” in her parish until she made the decision to become prepared in addiction counselling.

Brawley herself lives in community with 16 other sisters. Their lives and daily activities are governed by the priorities set by SCIC and by vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

“The choices I’ve made all fit for me,” she says. “Part of the religious commitment is our call to help the poor and those who are in need of healing.”

Although the time she spends at Sophia Recovery Centre has decreased recently due to additional responsibilities as a member of SCIC’s leadership team, she continues to advise and provide counselling.

“The centre is one of the most fulfilling enterprises I could have ever engaged in,” she says. “To see how a transformation happens — how a woman can give up a substance, overcome shame, learn to love herself and live her life differently — that’s a dream come true for me.”

10 questions with Sister Arleen Brawley

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would work less and play more

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Obtaining my MA in addiction counselling at age 65 and being asked to speak at our graduation!

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I am a committed Edmonton Oilers fan

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Travel (if I had the money)

Where did you go on your last vacation?
St. Andrews, N.B.

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Lourdes Shrine in France

What is your biggest regret?
I didn’t learn piano; my mother was a pianist

What was the last good book you read?
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received? 
You can do anything you set your heart and mind on doing

Leah Geller is a freelance health and science journalist in Ottawa.

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