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Sober Living

Recovering from an addiction is hard work, and it’s not something most people can do alone. Entering a 30-day formal addiction treatment facility may be beneficial for some addicts, as they have the opportunity to come down from their addictions under the supervision of a doctor. For people cutting alcohol, heroin or prescription medications out of their lives, this can be life-saving help. Unfortunately, when those 30 days are over, the addicted person is forced to return to the real world. Old friends, old habits and old addictions can rear their ugly heads once more.

This relapse after release is quite common. In fact, a 2002 study in Addiction found that a whopping 60 percent of heroin addicts used the drug once more, very soon after they left their formal treatment programs. The pull of old habits proved too strong once they were released from the protective bubble of the program.

This doesn’t mean that addicted people are doomed to cycle in and out of formal treatment throughout their lives. There is another option available. A sober living facility can provide a safe place for the addict to live while their recovery continues to strengthen.

The Sober Living Model

A sober living facility is a group home, populated by addicts in various stages of recovery. Some homes focus only on one type of addiction, such as alcohol, while others include a wide variety of addicts within their walls.

The concept of a sober living group home isn’t new. In fact, recovering addicts have been living together in group facilities since the 1830s, when the Salvation Army began opening a series of “dry hotels” to help recovering alcoholics form new patterns. These residences were quite restrictive, however, and they allowed addicts very few options to express themselves or give input on the workings of the home. It’s unlikely that modern people would choose to live in homes like this, and modern sober living designers have restructured the old model to fit with modern sensibilities.

Modern sober living homes, for example, are no longer shaped like warehouses or hotels. Instead, they often look like a very large home full of mid-sized bedrooms. Most of these homes are located in residential areas, and there may be nothing on the outside of the home that announces the building’s intent. The residents may all know why they’re there, of course, but their neighbors may have no idea what the facility is designed to do.

Each facility may have its own organizational structure, but a phase system is quite common. When a new resident enters the home, he or she is at the bottom of the totem pole and usually has a long list of unpleasant chores to tackle each day. In addition, this resident has very few freedoms whatsoever. The resident might be required to submit to random drug testing, head to bed early at night, keep a curfew and allowed no guests. Over time, with good behavior, the resident gains more and more rights within the home and they move up the phase system. The resident might be allowed to leave for the weekend, bring a guest over for a meal, or leave the home to see movies or go shopping. The most senior member of the household has the most rights, and may ensure that the rest of the residents are abiding by the rules. Even the senior member of the household is expected to abide by the house rules, however. That mandate is never lifted.

Those rules can be quite strict, and breaking a rule could result in immediate ejection from the home. The rules often state that all residents must:

  • Abstain from all drug and alcohol use. Even mouthwashes, prescription drugs and cold medicines are not allowed.
  • Attend five 12-step meetings per week.
  • Share recovery stories in a weekly house meeting.
  • Refrain from violence of any sort.
  • Be accountable for absences.
  • Refrain from having sex on the premises.
  • Pay rent on time, every time.

Residents often share a room with another person in recovery, and they’re asked to perform at least one small chore for the house each day. Residents who work are allowed to leave for that purpose, but residents who do not may be asked to take on additional chores to help fill up their time. Residents tend to pay their own rent, although some use their governmental benefits to pay their way. Individuals may also be asked to mentor younger people in the program, teaching them the rules of the house and ensuring they’re adjusting properly.

According to a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, most residents of these programs are male, although there are women who participate. The overwhelming majority of sober living homes provide services for just one gender. It’s difficult to find coed facilities.

The Difference Between Inpatient Programs and Sober Living

While inpatient programs for addiction may have many of these same characteristics, sober living facilities differ from inpatient programs in a number of important ways:

  • They are not treatment programs. Residents are not under medical supervision at the house, and they must continue to see their doctors for medications.
  • There is no expiration date. Residents are allowed to live in these facilities for as long as they’d like to. They are not formally ejected when a specific amount of time is over.
  • Peers dominate the discussion. In a traditional treatment program, patients are told what to do and when to do it by a team of medical professionals. In a sober living facility, they’re receiving that instruction from their peers. This may allow them to develop a small sense of hope about the future, as they’re seeing their peers succeed in positions of authority.
  • They are homes. Unlike some institutions, which rely on large expanses of linoleum and track lighting, a sober living home often has a comfortable, home-like feel to it and residents often feel an affectionate tie to it as a result.

Sober living facilities also may offer benefits that aren’t commonly found in a traditional treatment facility. For example, some sober living facilities offer job skills classes, job placement programs and health club memberships. These benefits can help addicts develop new habits and truly get back on their feet once more.

Pros and Cons

As mentioned, most facilities require residents to participate in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. In these programs, they listen to other addicts discuss their addiction and their recovery, and they begin to think about how they can apply those lessons in their own lives. They’re also paired with another recovering addict who can provide one-on-one support if a crisis occurs. Some people benefit from these programs, and they enjoy the camaraderie of the meetings. Other people find some of the steps troubling, and they may resist the language common to 12-step programs. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse people who participated in these programs as part of their sober living experience did better after 18 months than people who did not.

Since a sober living home is not an apartment or a rental, per se, people can be evicted from these homes without any notice whatsoever. People who break the rules may find themselves kicked out onto the street with very little legal recourse. For some addicts, this serves as a great motivation to stick to the path of sobriety but for others, the thought of being suddenly homeless can be quite frightening, and they may return to their former abusing ways in order to reduce their stress.

Additionally, not all sober living homes are created equal. Some are quite lavish affairs, offering residents an opulent home to live in and a wide variety of options to choose from. Others are more akin to homeless shelters, with residents who come and go regularly, and they may lack a communal spirit that is so key to an addict’s recovery over the long term. This fact has been pointed out repeatedly in news articles in California, where many companies are opening sober living facilities and charging high rents to addicted populations. People who live near these homes are asking for stricter controls on where the homes can be built and who can enter, but those cases are likely to take decades to make their way through the courts.

In short, addicts and their families should choose their sober living facility carefully, long before the resident must move in and call it home. Performing inspections, asking questions, interviewing other residents and reading online reports about the facility may all help. Once residents enter the home, they must stay there in order to feel the real benefits that these homes can provide. Skipping from home to home while trying to find the place with the best fit could prove disastrous for the addict’s long-term recovery chances. It pays to do the research ahead of time and make sure the facility is right before the addict is enrolled.