The Quality of Sober Living

By Nic Sheff 08/06/12

Every rehab I went to suggested that I go directly to a Sober Living. Unfortunately the houses ranged from fantastic to egregious and you had no way of knowing which it was going to be until you got there.

sober living.thefix.jpg
Happy housemates or living in a hell hole? Photo via

Going to a Sober Living house is hardly a controversial recommendation when you’re in rehab: the counselors at pretty much every single rehab I’ve ever been to have suggested pretty strongly that I—and every other patient, really—go to some kind of continuing care program after the 28-day inpatient stay is over. It makes sense, of course. Theoretically, the longer someone stays in treatment, the better their chances of staying sober. Going right back into your old life after just one month of inpatient seems clearly more dangerous than transitioning into a controlled sober living environment.

But is that really the case?

Are Sober Living houses useful in terms of helping addicts achieve long-term sobriety?

Well, truthfully, almost every time I ended up in a Sober Living, it was because I had no “old life” to go back to. Usually I was completely broke and had lost everything and Sober Living houses were the only places that would have me. 

There were the places where you could tell that the owners were just in it for the rent they collected every month and didn’t give a fuck about who was shooting what in the bathroom.

I was incredibly lucky to have my family’s support. And the tact they took—which, I believe, helped save my life—was to leave me with the ultimatum that they wanted nothing to do with me unless I agreed to go into treatment. Then, once in treatment, the counselors, like I said, would convince my parents that the only safe place for me to go was Sober Living.

My parents were desperate. They would’ve probably strapped me to a rocket and blasted me off to the moon if that’s what the counselors had suggested. But that’s not what they suggested. They suggested Sober Living. 

So that’s where I went.

I’m not sure how my parents found these particular Sober Living houses. I guess they were recommended by the rehabs themselves a lot of the times. And I’m not sure what qualifications people need to have in order to run a Sober Living but based on what I experienced, I can’t imagine they’re too rigorous.

The fact is that some places I went to it definitely seemed like the owners really knew what they were doing and genuinely wanted to help the residents while at other places you could tell the owners wanted to help the residents but were totally clueless as to how to do it. And then there were the places where you could tell that the owners were just in it for the rent they collected every month and didn’t give a fuck about who was shooting what in the bathroom.

Surprisingly—to me, anyway—the Sober Living business seems to be pretty lucrative. At one of the places I went to in Mar Vista, a not terribly great town with a large Hispanic population and a lot of tract houses, I lived in a small house where I had to share a room with two other guys. The cost was $1800 a month, and this was back in 2002. So the owners were getting about 14 or 15 grand from a three-bedroom house. 

And what do the owners have to do? 

Not a whole lot, really. 

They had to run a meeting once a week where all the residents would bitch at each other and accuse one another of stealing shit, and have someone do drug tests once in awhile.

There’s not that much to it.

Back then, of course, I was always deemed the sick “crazy” one because I’d already been to four different rehabs and had actually ran away from two of them. So if I complained that other residents were doing drugs in the Sober Living, or that the owners weren’t around at all, no one listened. No one listened to any of us.

But, in some ways, I’d say absent owners were maybe better than the fucked up, sadistic ones—the ones that seemed to somehow almost get off on breaking addicts down and humiliating us.

There was a place I went to, also in Los Angeles, that was all male and that held this weekly meeting where they singled out one or two residents to sit in the middle and be basically told all the terrible things about themselves. Basically, they had to sit there until they admitted these character defects—even if it took 12 hours. That was the same place that literally made residents clean the bathroom with a toothbrush if they walked on the carpet wearing their shoes.

Maybe some addicts benefit from such treatment. All I can say is that, for me, life in a place like that seemed not worth living. I decided I’d rather be a homeless tweaker junkie then go on in a place like that.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
nic sheff.jpg

Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.