Anamika Recovery Center Offers Hope to Community
(This story originally appeared on India West)
The last thing Subodh Karmarkar remembers was feeling like he was falling off the edge of the earth. He woke up two days later in a hospital bed with an IV needle buried in his arm and his parents’ worried faces hovering above. His first thought was to bolt from the room.
“It was fight or flight and I was gonna flee,” he recalls.
Karmarkar yanked the IV from his arm and a streak of crimson shot across the stark white room. A nurse appeared out of nowhere and cuffed his wrists to the bed. Karmarkar struggled to break free but quickly drifted out of consciousness.
It was another two days before he became coherent. A grim-faced doctor stood at the edge of his hospital bed holding a medical chart.
“Mr. Karmarkar, if you take one more drink of alcohol, you will die.” He turned and left the room.
The following day, the doctor returned.
“Mr. Karmarkar, if you take one more drink of alcohol, you will die,” he repeated. “At least have the decency to get your affairs in order so your family can bury you in peace.”
At that moment, reality hit him full force. The fight was over - alcohol had won. The next day, Karmarkar entered a local treatment center and began his journey of recovery.
That was six years ago. Today, a sober Karmarkar has embarked on a new journey - one he hopes will help other families overcome the devastation of alcohol and chemical dependency. He has opened Anamika Recovery Center, a state-licensed and certified, six-bed residential treatment center in Orange County, California.
With more than 200 licensed alcohol and drug treatment facilities, Orange County is known as the “Addiction Treatment Capital of the World.” What makes Anamika Recovery Center different is that it is uniquely designed to serve the Indian American community.
Sitting behind a mahogany desk at the treatment center, Karmarkar, 44, does not fit the profile of an alcoholic. His eyes are clear and his face glows with health, a stark contradiction to the man so close to death six years ago. He wears a starched, pinstriped shirt and a ruby power tie, making him better suited to Wall Street than Skid Row.
Originally from Baroda, India, Karmarkar immigrated to America 35 years ago. He recently earned his MBA, a degree he started after graduating from Arizona State University in 1987. It was one of many pursuits abandoned when alcohol took over his life.
“Alcoholism is a non-discriminating disease,” Karmarkar says. “It is not just the bewada on the street corner talking to himself. It impacts people from all walks of life, regardless of religious preference, caste, level of education, amount of wealth or profession.”
Before he launched his treatment center, Karmarkar stumbled upon a startling statistic: The Indian Ministry of Social Justice reports that up to 26% of India’s alcohol and drug users may be classified as dependent. He was surprised to discover there were no treatment facilities in the United States that catered to the Indian community. As he worked with other Indians in a 12-step program, he realized his traditional Hindu background positioned him to help this segment of society.
According to Karmarkar, there are some unique cultural components that are barriers to Indians seeking treatment for alcoholism - namely denial, co-dependency and shame. Most Indians are vegetarians, a dietary option not usually available at traditional western treatment centers. Occasionally, there are language difficulties. Anamika Recovery Center’s program is designed to overcome these barriers, he says.
“There are misconceptions in the Indian community that beer and wine are basically water,” Karmarkar states. “They think as long as the person is not consuming hard liquor there is not a problem.”
He says Bollywood glorifies drinking by portraying the glamour and excitement instead of the devastation that occurs with long-term abuse.
Another misconception, according to Karmarkar, is that financial success negates the seriousness of alcohol abuse. People ask him, ‘How can I have a problem when I own a beautiful house, have three cars in the driveway and my kids attend Stanford?’ Karmarkar says the questions the person should ask when they look in the mirror are: ‘Do I like the person looking back at me? Am I happy with what I am seeing in the mirror?’
“It is an interesting phenomenon that when cancer is discovered, common sense tells us to seek treatment,” Karmarkar continues. “When it comes to alcoholism, the typical reaction (in the Indian American community) is to sweep it under the rug and do whatever it takes to hide it from the social circle.”
One woman, who asked not to be identified, understands the pain of living with an alcoholic. Her husband’s problem surfaced when he began to drink too much at parties and passed out. His condition worsened and the woman avoided social situations out of shame. In Indian culture, the wife is responsible to keep the household running smoothly, adding to the burden alcoholism puts on the family, said Karmarkar.
“The Indian community is male-dominated. Everything the man has done or not done in life, it is because of the woman,” the Indian American woman said. “If they only have girls, the wife is to blame. If they drink too much, the wife is to blame.”
As her husband’s drinking spiraled out of control, their family life became a nightmare. She tried to hide his condition, lying to friends, family and his business associates. Their teenaged son suffered because her time was consumed trying to help her husband. She attended Al-Anon meetings. She attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She sought relief at the Hindu temple. Nothing worked – until she met Karmarkar.
Karmarkar persuaded her husband to enter treatment and has worked with him on relapse-prevention ever since. Her husband has now been sober for two years and is trying to re-build the trust he broke within his family.
Unfortunately, says Karmarkar, stories with happy endings like this are few and far between.
“I have buried people in this community who refused to get help,” he states bluntly. “I have seen this disease take lives and destroy families of attorneys, architects, businessmen, doctors, farmers and college students. Alcoholism kills slowly and, in its late stages, it is a very ugly death.”
According to Karmarkar, excessive drinking results in one of three endings: incarceration, institutionalization or death.
“Rehabilitation is a much better alternative in the event of a DUI and, most definitely is a better alternative to death or the brain turning into a ‘wet noodle’, he says.
The American Medical Association has recognized alcoholism as a disease since 1956. Some 52 years later, the Indian American community has not yet accepted that fact, according to Dr. Stuart Finkelstein, a Cerritos, California-based addiction specialist and Anamika’s Medical Director. Since becoming certified in 1983, he has not taken a single Indian through recovery. He says there is so much social taboo in the community, that it is difficult to engage them in treatment.
“The interventions are not supported by the family. They are embarrassed,” says Finkelstein. “So the alcoholic keeps drinking. And it is often a fatal disease.”
Finkelstein believes the Indian American community must be educated on the concept of addiction as a disease before there will be progress. “They need to understand that it’s not a matter of will power,” he says. “People are wired differently. Alcoholics and addicts are genetically different.”
Meanwhile, at the treatment center, Karmarkar finishes an exercise the counselors will use in group therapy the next day. He explains that days start early at Anamika - breakfast begins at six in the cozy, sun-splashed dining room. A typical menu features poha (an Indian breakfast staple), yogurt, and freshly-squeezed juice from oranges grown on the property. Meals are vegetarian unless the client requests otherwise. After breakfast, clients attend daily 12-step meetings, educational sessions and counseling.
“Our counselors are familiar with the unique cultural components that are barriers to accepting alcoholism as a disease,” Karmarkar says. “Just about everybody on our staff is a recovering alcoholic, so we totally understand this disease.”
Karmarkar has trained his staff to respect client confidentiality on all levels. ‘Anamika’ is actually a Sanskrit word meaning ‘anonymous’. The split-level residence in Anaheim Hills is set on more than an acre of heavily wooded property, giving Anamika the feel of a secluded retreat. A tangle of pink-blossomed bushes shields the house from passersby.
Anamika provides 30, 60 or 90-day inpatient treatment. Clients receive lifelong aftercare to prevent relapse. Counseling is offered in English, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi and Gujarati. Yoga and meditation are integral parts of the curriculum, which stresses holistic healing of mind, body and spirit.
Karmarkar hopes that community outreach programs will raise awareness in the Indian American community that alcoholism is a treatable disease. He implores family members not to treat the alcoholic in their life as if they were a leper or a bad person.
“They are sick and need help. Alcohol has robbed them of their ability to reason so they need the non-drinkers to point them in the right direction,” he says.
Karmarkar’s personal journey is one that he would not wish upon his worst enemy. But it was necessary in order to do the work he does today.
“I went through hell and came out on the other side,” he says. “Now I have the compassion to help others do the same.”