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Meet Serena Saunders of Pawsitive Recovery

Today we’d like to introduce you to Serena Saunders.

Hi Serena, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I started drinking at age twelve to cope with a narcissistic father with substance use disorders and a mother who used methamphetamines and suffered from schizophrenia. In my twenties, I used drugs and alcohol to mask the deep pain I felt from childhood and ended up in an abusive relationship and then single motherhood.

My toxic relationships, a battle with thyroid cancer, and a three-year custody fight after my daughter’s abduction by her father only fueled my excuses to drink. After losing everything in 2017 after an altercation with my father, I fell into a years-long, terrifying downward spiral of isolation, job hopping, alcohol abuse, and depression.

In a final effort toward healing, in 2021, I enrolled in an outpatient program where I was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression. Two years later, I am happy to say that after a tremendous amount of work caring for humans and animals, I have finally found the healing I had been missing.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
My life has been filled with trauma from early childhood, development, and adulthood. I have experienced a fair amount of neglect and abuse. The common takeaway for me was that I was invincible and not worthy of love, so I filled that void with alcohol. It wasn’t until I changed my perspective on life’s challenges that things started to turn around for me.

Even in active addiction, I was always extremely driven. But I was trying to prove and validate myself with education and in my career for all the wrong reasons. Becoming sober and giving back to others brings me a different level of joy and fulfillment. Working with animals gives me a sense of purpose.

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
PAWsitive Recovery (PR) is a Denver-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to give people in recovery and animals in shelters a new “leash” on life, helping them heal from the wounds of addiction, trauma, and abuse. We are committed to:

(1) Providing foster care, temporary housing, and supplies for pets when their humans decide to enter a treatment facility or sober living environment.

(2) Facilitating workshops and therapy opportunities for individuals receiving treatment, allowing them to work on their recovery with animals by getting out, exercising, practicing mindfulness, and socializing with abused and neglected animals.

(3) Providing people in recovery who need to complete their community service or want to give back the opportunity to work with animals in a shelter environment by facilitating partnerships with local animal shelters and rescue facilities. Accordingly, we aim to aid the recovery journeys of 75+ individuals and their pets by the Summer of 2023.

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some changes you expect to see over the next five to ten years?
A growing body of research reveals auspicious results of pet-aided approaches to addiction recovery. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017. Many of these individuals struggle simultaneously with mental health disorders and drug and alcohol abuse.

While underutilized, dog-assisted therapy has been particularly effective in treating people with all substance use disorders. Dogs are intelligent, friendly, and trainable. Simply being in a dog’s company increases serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin levels, all of which help individuals open up about past trauma and abuse.

Additionally, having animal interactions in treatment facilities lifts the mood of patients and staff members. Dogs spark pleasant memories of childhood and life experiences, hold no judgment, offer unconditional love, and gladly display affection and adoration to anyone despite their past or any problems with addiction.

Moreover, animal visits give patients hope and something to look forward to. In study after study, patients and clients whose therapeutic experience includes pets have far more favorable results than from therapies that are not pet aided.

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