Nouf, a Bahraini, has been clean of drugs for 18 months thanks to the help offered by Narcotics Anonymous.
Narcotics Anonymous: Arab women open up over drug use
DUBAI // Nouf married at 19, divorced at 20 and began using hash and heroin at 21.
The future looked bleak for the Bahraini woman, who had a baby to care for and no financial support after being kicked out of her family home.
"When I am using, I cover my feelings with the drugs and they stop it," she said. But a decade later, Nouf's fortunes have turned.
Now 32, she stopped using drugs 18 months ago - one of the few women from the Arabian Gulf who has faced addiction and committed to long-term recovery with Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
"I don't think a woman in Bahrain has ever stayed clean as long as she has," said Nouf's mentor, an American woman who has been clean for 27 years.
Nouf - not her real name - and her mentor attended a convention in Dubai at the weekend that brought together nearly 250 recovering addicts from the Middle East and beyond. A beautiful woman draped in jewellery, Nouf flitted around the room greeting old and new friends.
"Arabic women, they are scared to tell people that they have problems, scared for sharing with men," she said. "What? It's good. I am so happy here."
NA is an addiction recovery organisation that spread from the US to more than 100 countries. Addicts meet regularly to share strategies and inspiration.
"We believe one addict is the best to help and understand another addict," said one member, from Saudi Arabia.
This weekend's convention included about 20 members from the UAE chapter.
"I want every single house in the UAE to understand what addiction is," said Amin, 36, an Egyptian man who was born in Dubai and began using drugs as a teenager.
"I got sober on March 30, 2009," said Amin, who is training to become a psychologist.
When the members held a "countdown" on Saturday, announcing how long they had abstained from using drugs, the answers ranged from 20 days to 40 years.
"It is easy to stop, but not easy to continue your life," Nouf said.
Nouf began using drugs after her divorce left her with a three-month-old baby to care for. Her father and mother also divorced, and when her father remarried he threw Nouf's family out of their home, she said. Her mother pushed her daughter to remarry, trying to match her with a man who was older than 70.
"The divorced woman, nobody will accept her," Nouf said.
Nouf used hash and heroin with westerners, she said, and would disappear from home for days. In December 2010, she went to jail and realised she had hit "rock bottom".
"I admitted I have a problem," she said.
She began attending NA meetings in 2011 and was matched with the American woman as her "sponsor", a member who had navigated recovery and could offer advice.
It can be difficult for recovering addicts who are Arab women, spread across many countries, to connect. Almost half of NA's members worldwide are female, but in some places there are few women. Nouf's sponsor believes some families in the Gulf discourage women from seeking help, worrying it could become a scandal.
"My family, they will never believe I have problems," Nouf said. "And when I started with the programme, they almost would not talk to me."
Nouf worked hard to earn respect at NA meetings in Bahrain, where she was sometimes the only woman among a dozen men. Today the other members see Nouf as a sister, she said. After watching her transform, her family also supports her.
When Nouf's sponsor returned to the United States, the women kept in touch through Skype and phone calls. They met up in Kuwait and travelled to Nepal together. Nouf was thrilled at being reunited with her sponsor this weekend, so close to her "birthday" of 18 months of abstinence.
"I feel it's gorgeous and it's happy," she said.
Her biggest advocate is her 11-year-old daughter, who lives with her father.
"She knows I came here for the programme," Nouf said. "She's proud for me."
When Nouf asks her daughter what she wants, the girl responds: "Mum, I don't want anything."
"Go to your sponsor, go to your programme, go to your meeting … and for me, you are safe. That's all I need."
Anyone who needs help with addiction can contact NA's local chapter at www.nauae.org or 050 131 0055.