Mothers in Recovery: A Q&A with Filmmaker Sheila Ganz

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
10 min readMar 8, 2023

This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.

Sheila Ganz

This Women’s History Month, we are happy to bring attention to a film that highlights the powerful impact and important needs of moms who are in recovery from substance use disorder. Sheila Ganz directed, produced, and edited the Emmy-nominated documentary On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery. We chatted with her about the inspiration, the impact and her career-long commitment to giving voice to the lives of misunderstood and marginalized people.

Ganz’s prior work includes Unlocking the Heart of Adoption, an award-winning film that — like On Life’s Terms — continues to screen in educational institutions and service agencies. Ganz also wrote and directed two stage plays: Pretend It Didn’t Happen, about relinquishing her daughter for adoption, and Leaving Joe, about domestic violence. She is also a painter and sculptor and taught filmmaking at Film Arts Foundation. Her next film, Piece of Mind, will focus on families with loved ones who are living with severe mental illness.

Q: What inspired or motivated you to create On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery?

My first documentary, Unlocking the Heart of Adoption, is about the lifelong process of adoption for adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in same-race and transracial adoptions with illuminating historical background. The film comes out of my personal experience as a birthmother and the many stories I heard in adoption support groups. Throughout the course of the film, as I tell my story, I create a life-size sculpture of a mother holding her baby in a hospital bed using bamboo, chicken wire, burlap and plaster. I became pregnant as the result of rape, was in an unwed mothers’ home in 1969, and very unwillingly relinquished my newborn daughter for adoption. I have since found her. The film aired on public television and is an educational tool in colleges, universities and adoption agencies in the U.S. and other countries, and it continues to change lives.

For my next film, I recalled wondering, “Why can’t there be homes to help mothers keep their children?” This led me to find the Center Point Women and Children’s Residential Treatment Program in San Rafael, CA. I met with 18 women there, showed them Unlocking, and passed around a paper for volunteers to be in the documentary.

The documentary On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery profiles five of those women — all moms — as they struggle to overcome substance use disorders and gain custody of their children. Rachel, 22, escaped domestic violence; Lisa S., 41, served time for selling drugs; Lisa R., 38, was determined to make it after relapsing; Leslie, 31, was doing online prostitution; and Julia, 27, became addicted to methamphetamine and didn’t want that for her son. Their intimate stories reveal complex underlying issues. On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery interweaves the women’s three-year journey to transform their lives and become self-sufficient, with drug laws impacting mother and child, inspiring hope for recovery.

(L to R) Film subjects Lisa R., Leslie, Julia and Rachel with their children

Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

In the course of making the film, I discovered that I had more in common with the moms than I thought. Number one on the list is stigma. I thought I had it bad as an unwed mother and birthmother, but women and especially mothers who use drugs, are highly stigmatized.

What I hope viewers take away from the film is first, an understanding that women love and want to parent their children and are determined to stay in recovery to make that happen. The love the moms have for their children is inspiring and motivates them to learn recovery and parenting skills, and become self-sufficient. Leslie says, “The thing that keeps me from smoking crystal meth every single day is reminding myself of CPS (Child Protective Services) yanking my daughter out of my arms. … I never want go through that again.”

Second, statistics show that the majority of women who use alcohol and other drugs are suffering from domestic and sexual violence, and often difficult family situations with parents and other relatives who use substances.

Third, I want viewers to see how mothers with substance use issues are blamed and punished, and how women and mothers thrive best in gender responsive treatment programs, which help stop intergenerational cycles.

As a mother who experienced the devastating grief of losing my child to adoption, I had no trouble relating to the moms with substance use issues and how losing her child to CPS could send them into a downward spiral. Personally, my art saved me. And I think everyone needs and deserves something, or someone — or multiple somethings and someones — to help them.

After a screening of On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery for prenatal and perinatal nurses, I was moved when a nurse stood up and said that she would treat new mothers with substance use issues the same as other new mothers on her ward. Several agreed. This was huge. My hope is that compassion and gender-appropriate support services will replace condemnation, which only continues the cycle.

Q: What does that phrase, “On Life’s Terms,” mean to you and to the mothers you interviewed? What’s unique about the recovery journey for moms?

The film’s title “On Life’s Terms” is reflected in a statement by one of the moms in the film. She says, “Life on life’s terms in my opinion means the cards that I was dealt. I have guilt issues (about her daughter), so I feel I have to buy her and give her everything when she comes here. I’ve tried to stop that in the last couple of weeks — just let her hang out with the kids here and let her realize that this is life … show her how to live life on life’s terms, which is hard for me to do.”

And there is also a powerful statement by another mom. “Being a parent is, I feel, one of the hardest jobs in the world and being a parent in recovery is ten thousand times harder. Because you’re going to be dealing with all the regular dynamics and then you’re also probably going to be dealing with a lot of wreckage issues,” she said. “My kid is very traumatized. We’re doing a lot therapy now. … I have to put in a lot of effort and energy into addressing her issues. I caused those issues. They didn’t have to be there.”

I believe the moms are courageous to face their issues head-on, to stop the cycle with their children and move forward in a positive way in their own lives. It is also important to validate the fact that starting a new life is not easy.

Dr. Sushma Taylor, CEO of Center Point, Inc., explains, “Perhaps we could turn addiction around if people would seek help earlier and if there was no stigma attached to the behavior. We give a lot of accolades to people who lose ten pounds, 30 pounds, 50 pounds. We think it’s wonderful. We give a lot of accolades to people who stop smoking. Well, this is no different. Our folks are stigmatized. … Even those who have 15, 20 years clean there’s still that feeling.”

Sheila Ganz and Center Point CEO Dr. Sushma Taylor

On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery follows the women and children for three years, starting with their six months in the residential treatment program where they learned parenting skills, worked on integrating values like integrity and pride into their lives, got their GED, and practiced going on job interviews, getting a job, and incorporating new skills such as opening a bank account for the first time.

From residential treatment, each of the women moved on to a transitional house. Harriett Gaines, African American, Center Point program manager and mother in recovery, says: “This is the most exciting part of the job for me, when the women successfully complete the residential phase of treatment and they move on into transitional housing.”

The women have a full-time job, care for their children, take them to daycare, practice the values in their everyday lives and maintain their recovery. One by one, the moms move out of the transition house into their own apartments. Being self-sufficient and caring for their children is the goal for their recovery journey. They also continue to go to support groups, where they can share issues and challenges.

Sadly, in December 2019, Harriett passed away suddenly. Her wonderful supportive work with mothers lives on in the film.

(L to R) Sheila Ganz, Nancy (mother to film subject Leslie), and the late Harriett Gaines from Center Point

Q: As an advocate for moms and helping more moms find recovery, what solutions stand out to you as most crucial?

On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery is an advocacy tool that humanizes and gives voice to marginalized mothers. The film provides the viewer with insight into the tools that helped the moms get into recovery. The women reveal how they integrated the recovery values, principles and skills learned in treatment to help them deal with past trauma and begin to change their lives.

Rachel says, “I just did my paper on integrity. And I realized I never ever used integrity. When I behave in an honest, responsible and accountable manner, I am choosing to live my life with integrity. I look at it now, the stuff that I did — I would never have gotten myself in situations I got into. We have alumni night every Sunday. It makes me know that later on in life I’m going to be there having a good life.”

Julia reveals, “I have a problem with having outbursts. My counselor is having me write in an anger journal. I write in an anger journal every day. And I identify why I’m angry. What made me angry. And three ways I could change the anger into something different, and it’s really helped me a lot.”

A long-term Maternal Lifestyle Study begun in 1992 and funded by the National Institutes of Health shows that, “if children who are prenatally exposed to drugs grow up in a relatively decent environment, they have a good chance of developing normally.”

Fear of punitive actions drive expectant mothers with substance use problems away from prenatal care. The most vital solution to assist mothers in their recovery journey is being in a gender responsive residential treatment program. Gender-responsive means creating an environment where the women feel safe to talk about traumatic experiences and get support and helpful ways to deal with and overcome them. This happens when staff, content and materials reflect an understanding of the realities of women’s lives and address the issues of the participants with cultural sensitivity.

On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery lifts the cloud of stigma to reveal the humanity of these women. My hope is it will catalyze social change by stimulating a national dialogue on treatment vs. incarceration and the long-term impact of breaking family ties. Our intention for the film is to validate and inspire women and men in recovery, educate social service providers and the criminal justice system; and encourage policy makers and legislators to fund more gender-responsive substance use residential treatment programs.

Sheila Ganz (right) with film subject Rachel and her two daughters.

Q: The new film you’re working on — Piece of Mind — is about families with loved ones who are living with severe mental illness and, as you say, “their struggle for treatment before tragedy.” What inspired you to turn your lens in that direction?

There are 8.8 million adults living with severe mental illness in the U.S. today. Family members are their primary caregivers. The documentary-in-progress Piece of Mind amplifies the voices of families as they advocate for equity in health care for their loved ones with brain disorders.

This film will feature private stories told through the eyes of a mother fearful for her son who is unaware of his schizophrenia; two Japanese American sisters, with a sister who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and survives being shot by police seven times; and a suicidal man with bipolar disorder who has a positive encounter with police. Their experiences reveal complicated family dynamics, conflicts with law enforcement and a broken health care system. Combining intimate interviews, archival footage and animation, the film will highlight the urgent need for humane solutions for treatment before tragedy, and specifically, the need for a comprehensive continuum of care for individuals with neurological brain illnesses to give them a chance at a better life.

My sister lives with schizophrenia. Piece of Mind comes out of my personal perspective of excruciating experiences being blocked by the HIPAA privacy law from helping my sister, when she was starving herself. Looking for support, I attended the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family-to-Family class and heard many stories of families struggling to help their loved ones. I knew I had to make the film. The issue was staring me in the face.

I was eventually able to move my dear sister from Massachusetts to a good facility near me in San Francisco. We talk every day and I visit her weekly.

Making the documentary Piece of Mind has presented unique challenges. From my conversations with folks about the stories in Piece of Mind, I realize that severe mental illness is a tough topic for people. I feel the best way to address this is to make a beautiful film. Beauty has the power to elevate the story and make the difficult palatable.

My vision for Piece of Mind is to encourage greater understanding, compassion, and humane policies and practices that includes input from family caregivers and an increased the number of acute psychiatric beds to provide treatment before tragedy. I’d like to move the needle toward effective change.

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Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

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