Any Lengths—Taking Recovery to Nepal

By Wendy Adamson 09/22/15

Women drug addicts are marginalized in Nepal, making them vulnerable to violence, disease, and prostitution.

Nepal Women
via Author

In 2006, when Lee FitzGerald was asked if she wanted to go to Nepal to teach a workshop for female drug addicts, she had no idea what she was in for. She was 35, six years sober, and had just gotten a job at a prestigious treatment center in Malibu when her boss asked her if she wanted to go.

“I was really excited,” Lee tells me. “Not only would I get a chance to be of service but I figured I’d see the sights as well.” 

When Lee got off the plane in Kathmandu, she was unaware that the country had been in the grips of civil war. She landed in the height of political chaos, just as King Gyanendra was being dethroned. 

Under a hot white sun, her guide led her through the streets toward the hotel. Lee’s eyes darted back and forth between the soldiers dressed in fatigues and carrying machine guns, women in traditional Hindu dress, and young teenage girls clad in short skirts, teetering on clunky, platform shoes. 

As she entered the Radisson hotel, Lee was hit with the smell of sweat and tobacco. In the conference room, where the workshop was being held, she was introduced to an interpreter, Parina Subbu Limbu, who was small in stature, with a round face and a fiery disposition. 

Parina grew up in Dharan, located in eastern Nepal. Although her family wasn’t wealthy by any means, both her parents had jobs so they were able to send her to a local boarding school where she learned to speak English. 

At 15, Parina fell in love with an older boy who would eventually abandon her. To ease the sting of her broken heart, Parina turned to heroin. After circling the drain for years, Parina eventually hit a bottom. Fortunately, she was able to get into a private rehab center where she found herself being treated differently than the men.

With a cigarette dangling from her fingers, behind a blue cloud of smoke, Parina informed Lee about some of the cultures of Nepal.

“We are ruled by an outdated caste system,” Parina said, in broken English. “A woman’s central role is to manage the household and it is customary in public for her to walk three feet behind the man.”

Soon it was time for the workshop to begin, and although Lee had prepared a presentation, it was geared toward women her own age. The 16 or more who showed up that day were extremely young. As Lee looked out from behind the podium at the sea of faces in the audience, she suddenly realized that she had no idea who she was talking to. Deciding to change directions, Lee sat down on the edge of the platform.

“Why don’t you tell me what kind of help you girls think you need?” she asked. 

The first girl who spoke that day was Jyoti, a 16-year old, with short black hair, dressed like a boy. She had been introduced to the sex trade at 13 and started using drugs to dull the pain and degradation she felt on a daily basis. Lee said her eyes revealed a sadness she had never seen before.

Susanna, a 17-year old, was tall and beautiful, also in the sex trade and had been beaten to the point that she was black and blue.

Listening to their stories, Lee was shocked. These girls were so marginalized that it made them vulnerable to violence, diseases, drug peddling and prostitution. 

“I couldn’t believe they had nowhere to go for assistance,” Lee said. “When I needed help, I could find a 12-step meeting on just about every corner or find a hospital nearby. It just didn’t seem right to me.” 

During the lunch break, Parina told Lee that she wanted to fight the stigma that went along with being a female addict but she needed someone’s help. 

“It was as if I was hit with a cosmic two by four,” Lee said. “I knew what I was meant to do.”

The next day, the two of them laid out a plan of action and the first thing on their list was to create a space for a drop-in center, but in Nepal no one rents to addicts, especially if they’re women. 

“We’ll just have to create a cover,” Lee said. 

When they found a small room situated behind a storefront for $14 a month, they told the landlord they were going to hold candle-making workshops and that’s how Dristi Nepal was born.

When Lee got back home, she obsessively thought about the girls in Nepal and stayed in constant contact with Parina via Skype. She no longer took things for granted and instead of going to Starbucks for a latte every day, Lee would put the money in a jar for Dristi. Lee started telling her friends, organizing fundraisers, and eventually turned Dristi Nepal into a non-profit. Within a year, they had helped over 100 women and opened a second office with 10 volunteers. 

Although there was progress, there were many setbacks, too. They’ve been evicted eight times by landlords when they were found out.

A couple years into the project, Lee was asked to speak at a Florida convention about Dristi Nepal. A British businessman who was in attendance was shocked to hear how the women addicts were treated in Nepal. He said he wanted to help. So he organized a fundraiser in London and asked Lee to come give her talk. Lee bought Parina a plane ticket, flying her out so they could both attend. 

Dristi was growing fast. It was not only a drop-in center but also a health clinic, with five beds where women in need of detox could stay as long as they needed. There was a nurse on staff five days a week. They had 12-step meetings, meditation, yoga, showers, counseling, self-empowerment, skill development and food. 

In 2010, Parina confided to Lee that she was pregnant and afraid that it might end up being a girl. Under Nepalese law, if a baby girl is born out of wedlock the baby will be sent to an orphanage where the chances of her dying from malnutrition were extremely high. Lee had become very attached to Parina over the last four years and didn’t want to see that happen. 

“I’ll adopt if you have a girl,” Lee said, shocked by her own words.

“You would do that for me?” Parina said. 

“Yes, of course,” Lee replied.

Lee, whose own mother had been a 16-year-old drug addict, was adopted by her grandparents. She felt she couldn’t stand by and watch Parina’s child end up in some orphanage so she hired attorneys in both LA and Kathmandu and made the necessary arrangements. As it turned out, Parina ended up having a boy and thankfully gets to raise him herself.  

Last April, when the devastating earthquakes hit, Lee stood by anxiously waiting to hear from the girls. For 12 agonizing hours she tried emailing, Skyping and calling but was unable to get a response. Finally, Parina called and said while the top floor was completely crushed and the building condemned, thankfully, no one had been hurt.

Once again, Lee got into action, utilizing social media, asking friends for help. Within a week, she was able to raise $10,000 and used the money for water, tents, blankets, medical supplies and food, sending it over right away. 

Amidst all the terror and heartbreak resulting from the devastating earthquake, Lee was presented a wonderful gift. Willing to adopt a child inspired Lee to undergo in vitro fertilization. The procedure was a success and she is currently expecting twins.

Lee's fight to support Dristi Nepal continues. If you’d like to know more about the wonderful, brave women that she's grown to love and respect please check out the website:

Wendy Adamson is a writer and a drug and alcohol counselor based in Los Angeles. 


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Wendy Adamson is the author of Mother Load, her memoir on addiction and finding a life of purpose. Wendy is also a counselor, speaker and facilitates writing workshops. Wendy believes that only by sharing our personal stories can we heal the shame and eliminate the stigma associated with addiction. With over twenty years in the field of addiction and mental health, Wendy is a seasoned professional, who not only possesses a comprehensive understanding of psychiatric issues, but the recovery process as well. You can find Wendy on Facebook and Linkedin.