[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 3 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]
Name: Donna Genera
Location: Santa Barbara
Role: Clinical director
Donna Genera says bartenders are therapists without degrees.
From her tranquil East Arrellaga Street office with trickling water fountains and a touch of Asian spirituality, this addiction warrior seems far from anything less than serene.
As a former bartender and drug dealer herself, Genera’s work as the clinical director of Full Spectrum Recovery & Counseling Services is informed by her years on the supply side of addiction.
“It’s that personal experience,” she said. “And to say intimately, ‘I remember.’ ... I know what that’s like.”
Genera was introduced to bartending and dealing drugs as an unemployed environmental design major living in San Francisco. After moving to Honolulu in the early 1970s, she says she started dealing hallucinogens, cocaine and marijuana.
“We were making an awful lot of money,” Genera said. “It seemed like such a good life until the Hawaiian mafia found out about us.”
Despite having a small operation, Genera claims she was chased off to another island and then to the Mainland because the gang viewed her as competition. Realizing life as a dealer was getting her nowhere, Genera got out for good.
While managing a bar in Ventura, Genera was told by patrons and coworkers that she was a good listener and would make a good therapist. After seeing an advertisement for Pacifica Graduate Institute, she enrolled in a clinical psychology course.
Genera’s calling to help people with their compulsions was propelled by her sister’s addiction to opiates, which started out as an innocent treatment for childhood migraines.
After a long history of abusing prescriptions, mixing substances and treatment centers, Genera’s sister committed suicide.
“These are things I specialized in ... and I couldn’t even keep my sister alive,” Genera said.
The loss taught her the difficult lesson that she couldn’t save everyone.
Genera got her start in counseling during her internship at then-Pinecrest Hospital — now part of Cottage Health System — where she worked in the family violence center. At the time, 85 percent of the center’s population was using substances.
Today, Genera works with four family and marriage therapists treating compulsions that include substance use, gambling and sex.
Despite Santa Barbara’s veneer of a well-to-do paradise, Genera says methamphetamine and heroin are more common than people think.
“One of the things that is so frustrating for our team is how much wealth can buffer and hide a problem,” she said.
Genera meets wealthy parents who throw money at their children’s addictions by getting the best lawyers or paying off people — without realizing they are making the problem worse.
Prescription drug abuse is the most insidious addiction she encounters, however, particularly during this recession.
“I think there’s a lot of stress in our world and people are self-medicating because of it,” Genera said.
It is fulfilling for her when she sees one of her clients able to turn her life around.
“It’s rewarding, it’s satisfying and (it) enriches me to do this kind of work,” Genera said. “I’m still working 10- to 11-hour days, and at my age and having done it that long, that’s crazy. If I didn’t love what I do, I wouldn’t.”