Just 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Woodland Hills, Calif., Sober College allows adolescents and young adults to kick their addictions without delaying their progress in school. Sober College has a partnership with nearby Woodbury University, in which five courses can be taken on-site at the rehab. If a student completes all five with a 2.5 GPA or higher, they are accepted to Woodbury and can continue in their studies. (Getting a 3.0 or better also nets you a $5,000/year scholarship.)
Treatment at Sober College is uniquely tailored to each resident and the severity of his or her addiction. Residents either take part in the adolescent program for ages 14–17 or the young adult program for ages 18–26, and each program is gender-segregated.
All residents start out in the “Freshman Phase,” with minimal privileges and required staff acommpaniment at all times. Students are eligible to be taken off this phase after 30 days. Sober College addresses the full gamut of addictions and co-occuring disorders. In keeping with its youth-centric approach, it is also one of the few facilities in the country to address gaming and computer addiction. Sober College also can arrange for off-site detox and intervention services, and has an alternative sentencing program for students who’ve gotten into hot water with the law.
Residents reportedly are mostly “white and under 26,” while most of them “didn’t have real jobs.” One alumni noted that in almost all cases, “The parents of most of my fellow residents paid for their treatment.” Privileged backgrounds directly translate to the on-site cuisine being one of the worst-rated elements of Sober College. Breakfast and lunch are prepared on your own, while family-style dinners are made primarily by residents—most of whom have little to no experience in the kitchen—with assistance from the staff, as part of Sober College’s life skills program. “The dinners were not very healthy and the quality of ingredients were not great,” noted one former alumni. So you might be thankful that junk food and snacks are “readily available.”
Sober College students at first live in all-male or all-female dorms, with men eventually having the option to move into the Archstone Apartments or Archstone Sober House as they progress in treatment. Interaction with the opposite sex is limited strictly to the main facility, or the occasional community barbecue or double-decker bus tour. Everyone has roommates and must follow a daily chore schedule that rotates weekly.
The highly structured schedule begins with morning meditation, followed by school work and group sessions. Afternoons include minimum once-a-week sessions with a therapist or counselor, bi-monthly equestrian therapy sessions, and 12-step reviews with your drug and alcohol counselor. Everyone is required to attend six AA or NA meetings per week in the evenings. One graduate said Sober College staff were very encouraging—they also encourage you to get an outside 12-step sponsor—and “praised you if you did what you were supposed to do, which provided incentive to keep going.”
Everyone is given membership to a local gym and can work with the fitness director individually on nutrition plans and personal training. Weekend outings are available to off-site AA meetings, as well as local hangouts like the mall or the beach, the Magic Mountain amusement park, and an indoor rock-climbing gym. Sober College also participates in intramural sports leagues against other schools, in basketball, lacrosse, and soccer. After their first three months of treatment, residents can pick up an off-site job to earn spending money.
Perhaps because Sober College also addresses Internet and gaming addiction, Internet and phone privileges are severely restricted at first. Smartphones (outside of calls on the house phone to your family or sponsor) and computer access (outside of schoolwork) is forbidden for the first 30 days of treatment, after which you get back your phone and laptop, if you have one. Yet even then, these devices are still taken away at set times, such as at night and during meetings. Even after a month, one former resident said they were warned that Facebook “could cause problems with our sobriety.”
Off-site nurses and doctors are praised for their empathy and for making residents feel “safe and taken care of.” Therapists are available daily throughout the week, while the psychiatrist and neuropsychologists come by once a week and are on-call as needed. However, one former resident described Sober College’s psychiatrist as someone who “liked to hand out meds like crazy,” while another alumni grumbled that the primary doc was “always late and it was ridiculous how much time it took to be seen.”
Almost all alumni who spoke to The Fix were able to stay sober after graduating, which they largely attributed to being around a group of peers who were going through the same experience together. “Having fun sober with other people was a method that I needed,” said one. “It helped me understand that getting sober did not mean my life was over. Sober College saved me from what I was and showed me what I could become.”