FARMINGTON — For Amanda Benally and 14 other local women, a new chapter in life has started.

On Wednesday, the San Juan County Alternative Sentencing Division hosted a graduation for 15 women who completed the 60-day Axis program, a court-ordered rehabilitation program for women with substance abuse problems. Wednesday's graduation marked the end of the women's in-patient phase of treatment.

Benally, one of the graduates, said she plans to now look for a job, go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and work to be a better mom to her 6-year-old son. The 30-year-old said she will do that by living day by day.

Clinic director Deanna Cooper speaks Wednesday at the Alternative Sentencing Facility in Farmington
Clinic director Deanna Cooper speaks Wednesday at the Alternative Sentencing Facility in Farmington (Jon Austria/ The Daily Times)

"I have a son that deserves a mom that's there for him. Seeing what I put (my son) through was the hardest thing for me to forgive myself for," she said. "I have to live in the present. If I live too much in the past or the future I'll relapse."

Dozens of friends and family members attended Wednesday's graduation to show support. Other women, who are recovering addicts and former graduates of the program, also came to wish the new graduates luck and encourage them in their sobriety.

The women who graduated Wednesday each stood up and introduced themselves. Many of them said how tough the last two months have been for them. But they all had hopeful outlooks for their future.

Since 2006, more than 420 women have served 60 days in the Axis program, which was formerly called the Methamphetamine Pilot Project. They have all been convicted of a drug- or alcohol-related offense and were sentenced to the treatment facility, said Rob Mitchell, the administrator of the alternative sentencing division.

Crystal Pettigrew, left, is congratulated Wednesday by her friend and recent graduate, Charelle Geter, after a graduation ceremony for a 60-day
Crystal Pettigrew, left, is congratulated Wednesday by her friend and recent graduate, Charelle Geter, after a graduation ceremony for a 60-day rehabilitation program at the Alternative Sentencing Facility in Farmington. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

Benally had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in 2011 and 2012 and was on probation when she was arrested this year on suspicion of public intoxication. After serving 30 days at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, she thought she had done her time and was ready to be released. Then she learned she was being sent to Axis.

Benally's probation officer "wanted me to go to Axis, and he wouldn't budge. I wanted the easy way out," she said. "Sixty days. That's all I could think about."

For Benally and other women who have gone through the program, one of the most shocking moments is the first night. They are locked in a room with 14 other women who are dealing with substance abuse. As part of the program, the women have to divide chores among themselves and work out problems and quarrels.

"What? Fifteen of us in here? I lost it a couple times," Benally said. "I would just retreat to my top bunk and start writing."

Benally wrote dozens of poems during the program. She wrote at the start of one of her poems: "I hate rules. I'm set in my ways. Yet I'm stuck here for another 60 days."

Benally said she wants to keep writing now that she has been released. She read one of her poems during the graduation ceremony, and another poem was on display during the ceremony. Benally said she also wants to work with people struggling with substance abuse.

While living conditions during the Axis program initially lead to tension, they are part of the treatment process. The women live and work together in close quarters for two months. Eventually, healthy relationships form that the women can rely on to stay clean on the outside, Mitchell said.

"I thought they were kidding," said Monica Ortega, a former graduate of the program who now works as a peer mentor. "Fifteen women in this small of an area, you are bound to have some people that don't get along."

In the mornings, the women participate in individual and group counseling, Mitchell said. Afternoons and evenings are spent doing other educational, life skills or religious programs, he said.

"What you don't like in someone else is what you have in yourself. That really happens a lot here," Ortega said. "You find someone you don't get along with and you realize there is something in their personality that you have in yourself. I know that's something I tried to work on when I was in here."

Benally said the other women in her group opened her eyes about the fact that other people are coping with the same problems as she is.

"I wasn't able to talk about my guilt, about my mistakes," Benally said. "As I started to talk to the girls more, I started to get more comfortable with myself because I realized there were a lot of people out there that have been through the same things I have."

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.