Fellowship Story Showcase
Donna Genera Has Seen the Price and Perils of Drug Addiction from All Sides
This article was written by Noozhawk Intern Daniel Langhorne as part of Day 3 in Noozhawk's 12-day, six-week special investigative series. Related links are below.
The Noozhawk's Prescription for Abuse series is a special project exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County. Our series is a result of an exciting and unique partnership with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which awarded Noozhawk a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to undertake this important work.
Through our reporting and presentation, we will establish an independent baseline of where our community is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications; how the problem is affecting health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, addiction and treatment, and our culture and society; what we as a community can do to educate ourselves about prevention and controls; and how we can perhaps reverse what appears to be a very troubling trend.
Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli are the lead reporters on the project, and they've been assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St.Oegger; content producer Cliff Redding; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.
Ashley Almada, Garrett Geyer, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of our story sources.
The project is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation in partnership with KEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca. The Annenberg School is assisted by the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University.
» Donna Genera Has Seen the Price and Perils of Drug Addiction from All Sides
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.”