Watercolor painting of a group therapy session.

Sometimes all it takes is love and caring, a story from Chi Hullo Li

By Chris Jennings
May 3, 2024

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 80% of Native Americans 12 and older drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.

Of those, 21.2% reported binge drinking in the past month, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more drinks on an occasion for women.

Since 2020, increases in alcohol use, binge drinking and heavy drinking have been reported across all races.

The statistics pointing to abuse at younger ages paint a stark picture. Choctaw tribal member Brandy Miller relates to that story.

For Miller, it was something of a rite of passage in her family that when you turn 16, you could go to the bar. Miller says she got a head start, though.

“I started drinking at 13 or 14 years old,” explained Miller. “By the time I was 16, I had my own bar tab, and I could go in without my parents.”

Miller describes herself as a good kid growing up.

“I worked full-time, went to school, and helped my parents pay the bills. I never got in trouble, so they didn’t care what I did,” said Miller.

Studies show that many people can live as if everything were normal. They can have a good job, pay the bills, and raise kids yet still be a functioning alcoholic. Often, it only takes one thing to send them over the edge.

That’s how Miller describes herself.

“I was a functioning alcoholic pretty much my whole life,” said Miller. “I went off the deep end a couple of times and tried drugs, you know, meth, cocaine, crack, pills; I tried pretty much everything but heroin.”

Walking away from everything but alcohol was no problem for Miller. That’s what was the real root of her problem. It was after her parents died that she says she drowned herself in a bottle until there was an intervention.

“I went to rehab, got out, did sober living and was doing great. My job sent me to Omaha, and I relapsed there. And it changed the whole course of my life,” said Miller.

After her sisters filed a missing person report with the police, Miller was found having relapsed.

“For them to find out that I was drunk, they pretty much washed their hands of me,” said Miller. “One sister convinced the other to give me a shot to come to Chi Hullo Li.”

Chi Hullo Li, which translates to “I love you” in Choctaw, is the Choctaw Nation’s residential treatment center for women in Talihina, Oklahoma. The three-month program is open to any Choctaw member regardless of where they live and any CDIB holder that lives in Oklahoma free of charge.

Children up to age 11 can come with a parent. While at Chi Hullo Li, school-age children attend Talihina schools, and those not in school yet go to Choctaw Nation daycare.

The goal at Chi Hullo Li is not just to treat substance abuse but the whole person. “We consider ourselves a holistic program. So, we’re not looking at just substance abuse because we know that their substance abuse touches every area of their lives,” said Krista Finch, the Chi Hullo Li director.

Finch says a typical day at Chi Hullo Li covers many different aspects of treatment.

“They’re assigned an individual counselor that they’ll have the whole time they’re here that they’ll see twice a week while they’re here,” said Finch.

Days at Chi Hullo Li are filled with group sessions covering things like relapse prevention, drug education, anxiety and depression, self-esteem, trauma, parenting and domestic violence.

Full case management services are also provided while they’re residents to ensure they continue in the right direction when they leave.

“As they get closer to leaving, we’re working on case management so that they have an aftercare plan for when they leave. Whether that looks like going to a sober living house after they leave here, going back to family, jobs, employment, school, or whatever they identify as their next step,” said Finch. “We work hard to position them in a good place to take their next steps.”

Miller, who had been to three different rehab centers in a year, says this aspect of the treatment was unique.

“They sit down with you and do a needs assessment. And then you work with them to figure out your problems like being codependent, or learning to say no, setting those boundaries,” said Miller.

Miller discovered and connected with her Choctaw culture early in her stay at Chi Hullo Li. She recognized how important that was for her, so they were able to incorporate that into her treatment plan.

Culture is an integral part of treatment at Chi Hullo Li. Beading, basket making, language, and trips to significant places are all ways culture is taught. It was a trip to Wheelock Academy that was transformational for Miller.

“Three days into my stay at Chi Hullo Li, we went to Wheelock Academy, and I made the decision that I was going to move out here,” Miller said.

Miller’s mother grew up in Talihina and said she felt a connection to the area.

“Being in a place where my mother grew up, I felt like I was home,” said Miller. “I know it sounds cliche or weird, but I knew I wasn’t going to leave.”

Feeling that family connection doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, given how Miller describes the staff at Chi Hullo Li.

“It’s such an amazing group of people. Every single one of them is caring, but not weak if that makes sense,” Miller said. “They praise you for the good, and they’re gentle on the bad. They’re an amazing group of people.”

Miller and Finch both commented on how one of the goals at Chi Hullo Li is showing you that it is possible to have fun being sober.

“They come in thinking that a sober life is going to be a boring life. So we try to show them that you can have a very fulfilling life and a life of sobriety,” said Finch.

According to Finch, sometimes, it’s a simple trip to the lake with a barbecue, and they identify that this is the first time that they’ve been to a lake, had the time of their lives with their children and were sober.

Miller says one of the most memorable experiences she had at Chi Hullo Li was something called resentment rocks.

“You write a resentment you’ve been holding onto on rocks. One of mine was my ex-husband; one of them was my parents. You put them in a backpack and carry these rocks around for a solid week,” Miller explained.

After carrying the weight of the rocks for a week, Miller says they took them to Billy Creek and got rid of their resentment.

According to Miller, it was an emotional experience.

“All of us were out there crying, talking about our resentments and realizing that we were holding on to resentments towards people we created,” said Miller. “Then we threw them into Billy Creek and walked away; It was intense.”

Now, Miller lives in a sober living house in Durant. She’s been sober for a year and is now helping others in the same position as she was by working as a Peer Recovery Support Specialist (PRSS) for the Choctaw Nation.

A PRSS is someone who has lived experience of recovery and can then support others in their own recovery process.

Miller says she worked in the Job for the Day Program after graduating from Chi Hullo Li, but the PRSS job is what she always wanted. “PRSS’ are the ones who helped me get through my darkest times. I knew in my heart that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to do what they did for me, for somebody else.”

Miller is just one success story of many to come out of Chi Hullo Li. Finch attributes that to the staff in a field that traditionally sees a high turnover rate, but that is not the case there.

Finch says there’s one staff member who’s been at Chi Hullo Li since they opened, five of 18 staff members who have been there over 22 years, and at least five more who have been there over 15 years.

Even after being there for so long, Finch says she can’t pinpoint any one profound moment. She says every person’s struggle is different. “Sometimes it’s the client getting their GED when they didn’t think it was possible. Sometimes, it’s the clients who have given up on getting their children back. But after they’ve done the hard work of going through our program, they’re reunited with their children,” Finch said. “Sometimes it’s the smallest of moments that make you feel like you’re making a difference.”

Miller says she’s proud to be able to wake up every day and work for the Choctaw Nation. “I can’t even describe it. I’m so proud and humble…It makes me super proud to be a part of this, knowing how special that place is and that I’m not just sending someone to some rehab,” said Miller.

Finch wants to encourage people who may be struggling.

“Recovery is possible. I think so many women who are struggling with addiction don’t think that it’s possible for them,” said Finch. “I want them to know that they’re going to receive the support, care, love and knowledge they need to live a life in recovery.”

For more information about getting into Chi Hullo Li, call 918-567-2905. For the Men’s Recovery Center, call 918-567-2389.