Sister Mary Louise Wahler, CSC, right, has helped several women receive services at Serenity Centre, a facility providing treatment for individuals with substance use disorders in Uganda. With her is the center’s Executive Director Emmanuel Mubangizi, and in the background is the dormitory for those in residential rehabilitation. After faithfully serving for 40 years with the people of Uganda, Sister Mary Louise is now ministering in the United States. Keeping the women of Uganda close to her heart, she has entrusted her work with Serenity Centre to Holy Cross Sister Beatrice Driwaru.
Alcoholism entered Audrey’s life like a specter. She never noticed its presence while drinking casually on weekends or, later, when helping herself to her husband’s bottles of liquor around the house. Not even when marriage troubles sent her out to drink in public. And after the divorce, the mother of four’s frustration and stress seemed far more debilitating than consuming alcohol to cope.
Then came other losses — a business, jobs, family members. When a cherished brother died, alcohol was there to console her. When she finally secured a steady job, she stayed clean during the day but still drank every night. Only then, she says, “I realized I was addicted.”
She tried backing off and, at times, made progress. But with the loss of her mother in 2020, she suddenly found herself drowning in her dependency. “I felt defeated, powerless, and I needed help,” Audrey says. “I knew then that I could not do it by myself. I cried to God to help me.”
The disease of alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. It draws no line at age, gender, race, religion, nationality or status. And yet, throughout much of the world, women face significant barriers to accessing treatment and are less likely to pursue it.
Such is the case in Uganda, where Sister Mary Louise Wahler, CSC, served more than seven years on the board of directors of Serenity Centre, a non-governmental residential rehabilitation facility in Kabulamuliro. Noticing how few of the center’s residents were women, she became a conduit to services for Audrey and others. Still, she estimates that of every 100 people admitted annually to the facility, only 10 percent of them are women — a fact born out of cultural norms and taboos but also gender expectations and biases.
Discrimination weakens families, community
In Uganda, discrepant attitudes about men’s and women’s alcohol use create a significant deterrent to women in need of services. A study published in the journal Global Health Action in 2016 about alcohol use among adults in Uganda notes that “alcohol use among men is associated with masculinity, social independence, and freedom from domestic responsibilities. Among girls, the use of alcohol is associated with a lack of respect and a defiance of the feminine ideals of domesticity, which can attract social sanctions.”
Additionally, societal norms that do not permit women to leave their communities, women’s childcare and household responsibilities, as well as lack of transportation and the cost of treatment make it difficult for many women to get the help they need, says Serenity Centre’s Executive Director Emmanuel Mubangizi. What’s more, the shameful stigma that comes with being an alcoholic woman leads many to hide their disorder, shutting down any path to recovery. “If a woman has children, she will not leave home because she needs to care for the family, even though she is drinking,” says Sister Mary Louise. “Since society here already looks down on women, this is another blow to them. Why waste money sending them away for help?”
Paving the way to healing
Of the women who have dared to seek help through Serenity Centre, Sister Mary Louise has accompanied them, listened to them, prayed with them, encouraged them — offsetting the societal imbalance by tipping the scale toward equity, justice and love. As residential treatment is around $2,000 — a large sum for the average Ugandan family — she also appealed to the Congregation’s Ministry With the Poor Fund to help cover the cost of services.
Serenity Centre was started by four religious congregations in Uganda — Society of Jesus, Congregation of Holy Cross, Missionaries of Africa and Mill Hill Missionaries — in partnership with the Archdiocese of Kampala. Its mission is to to provide a continuum of holistic services to individuals, families and entire communities affected by substance use disorders. Like Sister Mary Louise, the center holds to the ideal that healthy societies rest on the wholeness of every individual.
But providing lasting healing at an affordable cost is a persistent dilemma for the center, says Sister Mary Louise. “Because Serenity depends totally on the fees of the residents, only those who have money can come. And I am especially concerned about women, since alcoholic women are truly outcasts.”
Along with treatment and support, the women who seek help through Serenity Centre also learn how to make crafts and soap and bake bread to earn income to help support themselves and their families. But the true reward of treatment is reconciling with oneself and others — opening a door to a new, full life.
“Serenity has truly gotten into my blood,” says Sister Mary Louise. “I have seen for myself what a difference Serenity Centre has made in women’s lives. Those ostracized from their families are returning to begin anew. And their families are willing to help them to remain firm in their convictions. I listen to stories of people who were truly sick and have recovered, and that gives me hope.”
Disentangling from her alcohol addiction was difficult, Audrey admits. But through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, sobriety lectures, counseling, spiritual guidance, prayer and meditation she encountered in Serenity Centre, she has experienced a transformation. While journeying toward sobriety, she says, she has also been “journeying toward heaven,” recognizing and accepting Jesus as her savior and receiving the Eucharist.
She has regained communion with the world — extending forgiveness, making amends with those she’s wronged, counseling and encouraging others with addictions as they struggle to leave one life and begin another.
“I want to live sober because the rewards of sobriety are beautiful and progressive … it’s like I am free from prison,” Audrey says. “I can now control my resentments and anger, I can now share my feelings with others, I can now fellowship with others. Being honest with oneself is the turning point to recovery.” The road is long, Audrey adds, but, “It is a privilege to grow in sobriety one day at a time, bringing the message of hope to others as it was brought to me.”
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