Each man gave his name and the date of his last drink. For an older man in sharply-creased black slacks, it’s been a month. For a younger man wearing camouflage, it’s been nearly a year.
“I’m happy today,” the man in camouflage said.
“Today I’m well,” a third man said. “I worked 40 hours this week.”
Each spoke in Burmese, using an interpreter to communicate with their counselor, Lynn James-Camara, at Treatment Services NW. They sat together in a small meeting room on a warm Saturday afternoon. James-Camera fanned herself with a laminated Burmese translation of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The older man picked up a page of AA literature. He squinted at the hand-written Burmese text.
“Hold on!” James-Camara said and jumped from her chair. She left the room and came back moments later.
“Here you go,” she said, handing him a pair of diamond-studded drugstore reading glasses. The men laughed as he slipped them on and began reading the introductory words.
These men, who have asked to remain anonymous, didn’t come by choice. They were each arrested for drunk driving and ordered by the court to undergo alcohol treatment.
But over the course of several months, their lives changed, they said. Now they’re organizing a 12-step meeting in Burmese with the help of James-Camera, Treatment Services NW and an interpreter with a particularly suitable skillset.
The first formal Comrades Burmese AA meeting will be held this Saturday. The men chose a name that means more than friendship; something akin to blood-brothers. The move is part of a broader effort by treatment center staff, with financial support from Multnomah County, to offer Burmese-American residents education and options for recovery from alcohol addiction.
Treatment Services NW sought help from Multnomah County to reach more people in the Burmese community through community groups and faith leaders.
“It was great,” said Andrea Quicksall, a supervisor in the county’s Addiction Services division. “We absolutely want to help in any way we can.”
There aren’t enough mainstream providers with the cultural and linguistic skills to help immigrants and refugees who prefer to work with someone who speaks their language, Quicksall said.
“So we support agencies to build and provide services. It’s a really great partnership.”
Nancy Macklin, the center's co-owner, said she had long heard from other addiction-treatment providers that they struggled with Burmese-speaking clients. Their Burmese refugee clients seemed to relapse at higher rates and were failing DUII diversion programs. Her center already focused on culturally-specific treatment for Spanish-speaking Latino clients and Chuuk-speaking Pacific Islander residents.
Macklin asked her counselor James-Camera if she would be interested in developing a program to meet the needs of Burmese refugees, including individual and group therapy, not just those ordered to treatment by the courts.
“Sure, if you’ll get me an interpreter,” she told Macklin.
Macklin requested a Burmese interpreter, but she got much more.
Dr. Myint, I presume?
When Pe Than Myint was born in 1935, his father called him Stanley, after explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley who first uttered the words, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”
Myint attended medical school in Yangon, Burma, then under British rule. After graduating medical college in 1958, he studied tropical medicine in London, then entered the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
Fueled by the Vietnam war and growing international demand, Burma became one of the world’s leading suppliers of opium. When Myint returned in 1964, “Merchants were giving away samples in the street,” he said. In the mountain villages, farmers grew poppies and used the processed opium to sooth sick babies and their own aches and pains.
“Opium was good medicine,” he said. It became a national scourge.
Myint established an in-patient hospital to treat addicts, a model that was so successful, he traveled the world to share his method and research - Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal. Meanwhile he lectured at Burma’s only medical school.
He had worked on addiction for more than 20 years when he retired in 1990 and moved his family to Portland. Unable to work in the United States with his Burmese or British medical degrees, he lived in Saudi Arabia and sent money to his family until retiring for a second time in 2007.
About that time Oregon was welcoming a growing number of Burmese refugees, ethnic minority Karen and Chin along with dissenting Burmese prosecuted under Burmese rule. By then, Myint was nearing 80.
“At my age, I had to do something for my community,” he said.
And so he answered the call to work as an interpreter at Treatment Services NW.
Boxing up the video games
When James-Camara and Myint began to work with their new clients, many didn’t know what alcohol withdrawal symptoms were, mistaking vomiting and shaking for a case of the flu, James-Camara said. Some told her they were surprised it was illegal to drink and drive.
“For them, back home, they might get in trouble for hitting something,” she said. “But not for drinking and driving.”
In the hierarchy of wreckage, drinking too much didn’t make the list for many of whom had lost their homes, loved ones and fled for their lives. In the United States people struggle to navigate a new culture and new language, to find work and housing.
“Most people come from a place where life is at an end, there’s no hope. Nowhere to go. No future,” Myint said. “When they came here they started out at the bottom. What recreation do they have besides drinking?”
When the Burmese clients first gathered together with James-Camara and Myint, they sat silent. Back home it would have been illegal to gather together in a group because there as no freedom of assembly; and the rule was a hard one to break even 6,800 miles away.
But gradually they spoke, and now they share openly and laugh together.
The man in camouflage who has been sober for nearly 1 year said he recently quit his job so his wife could work. He cleans and cooks, takes the kids to school and picks them up after.
Another man said he’s also home with his children more, instead of drinking with friends. And his relationship with his wife is steady.
“Before, my wife and I were always arguing, now there seems to be harmony and peace,” he said. “We seem to agree on so many things.”
For the older quiet man in crisp black slacks, he has seen changes in his son.
“My son, he played video games too much. I was drinking with my friends so I think he was showing his discontent,” he said. After he quit drinking, his son put the video games away, joined a school sports team and started going to classes.
“Before we got phone calls that he was missing school,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but my staying sober has changed things for my family.”
Attend a Comrades Burmese-language AA meeting
WHEN: Saturdays 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Treatment Services NW.
HOW: Meetings are free and open to Burmese-speaking residents who think they might be abusing alcohol.
Learn more about treatment options in Spanish, Chuuk or Burmese
CONTACT: Treatment Services NW
WHERE: 948 NE 102nd Ave. Portland, OR 97220