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Your Friendly Neighborhood Sober Home

By Amy Dresner 04/18/16

There’s a big difference between a crack house in your neighborhood and a sober house in your neighborhood, but they're both equally unwelcome to NIMBY types.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sober Home

With almost three and a half years sober, working with four sponsees, in a loving relationship with a guy who’s never done hard drugs, a publishing deal in place and permanent smile on my face, I’m unrecognizable from who I was when I walked into sober living in 2013.

You know what I learned in that sober house? Only everything. I learned how to ask for help instead of getting loaded. I learned how to earn a living. I learned how to bond with women whom I’d previously distrusted and, dare I say, loathed. I learned how to live cooperatively. I learned how to be of service to others. And most importantly, I learned how to do a mean cat-eye. And when I walked out of that house, I got to pretend I was normal, a citizen, not a junkie. And because of my years in that house, now I am just that: a normal citizen. Well, almost normal. Okay, define normal. Fine, scratch the “normal” part.

God forbid you have healing and transformation in YOUR neighborhood. What’s next? No hospitals or clinics? No urgent care? 

I stayed in sober living a lengthy two and a half years. You know how many neighbors complained about the noise or the parking in that small posh residential neighborhood? Not a one. The house manager even birthed and raised a baby among us, this group of “dangerous” female addicts. That house was a safe place and I’d be dead without it.

When I got out of my sixth rehab, a penniless unemployed 40-something divorcee, with a criminal record and a mental health history impressive enough to land me on MediCal disability, where exactly was I supposed to go? Home to my parents? I had tried going back home multiple times and spoiler alert: it had always failed. I was lucky enough that my 75-year-old parents hadn’t a) stroked out from 20 years of my heartbreaking struggle and b) were still speaking to me. They certainly weren’t up for babysitting their middle-aged child who was trying to get clean again. Again again.

I needed structure. I needed support. I needed to build my life back up from the pile of ashes it had become. Addicts already feel different and ashamed, lonely and ostracized. What we really need to feel is inclusion. We want, more than anything, to be back in the fold of normal life. That means jobs and connection and, dare I say, acceptance.

Despite being classified as a “disease” by the American Medical Association, The American Psychiatric Association and numerous other organizations in the scientific and medical fields, addiction is still seen by many in the public as an issue of poor willpower or morality. This errant misconception was made even clearer in the pending new California legislation introduced earlier this year. Although the language of the bills are weighted down with zoning jargon and legalese, the resounding message is crystal clear: “We don’t want your type here.” In short, the legislation will result in the potential shutdown of treatment facilities and sober living houses throughout the state. For a more complete discussion of the specifics of these laws and their implications, please read today’s feature.

The rich suburbs of Malibu, Bel Air and Newport want these rehabs and halfway houses out of their perfectly manicured backyards. Do I feel surprised? Not really. Do I feel disappointed? Mostly. I had really thought that it had become clear to the majority of “liberal” Californians that addiction is not just a problem for “those people” anymore. According to the latest statistics from the New York Times, 90% of people who tried heroin in the last decade were white. The problem is that even though the bills have been sponsored and pushed for by legislators in these affluent pockets, the result will be laws that affect the entire state. So in order to clear their neighborhood of “those” people, we end up clearing the state of them.

And we are talking about California, a predominantly liberal state, that wants to introduce this exclusionary bill into its legislature. THIS, after three Republican presidential candidates actively engaged in discussion about the addiction epidemic, with highly personal revelations. Even the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, is himself a recovering alcoholic, who is pushing for the decriminalization and de-stigmatization of drug abuse, saying that addicts should be patients, not prisoners. And when the “Just Say No” brigade and the head of the office of “drug control” are rethinking their puritanical, moralizing views of addiction, it’s surely the beginning of a revolution, right? 

These four bills, if passed, would not just seriously reduce treatment options in California, but set back much of the significant progress that addiction advocates have made in combating the stigma of addiction over the last two decades. So much for the brain disease model from NIDA.

Or the scientific evidence that addiction is 50% genetic. Or the sober celebrities bravely, and finally, coming out. According to the masses and the money, we addicts (recovering or not), are still most defined as the other, the less than, the broken, the ill.

The truth is we need more treatment options—more support for recovering drug addicts, not less. In 2013, an estimated 22.7 million American needed treatment for drug and alcohol problems but only 2.5 million got it. So with people desperately waiting for a bed, and others who can’t afford treatment at all, how could it be that this is the solution Californians, and Americans at large, are considering?

Let’s be abundantly clear about something: there’s a big difference between a crack house in your neighborhood and a sober house in your neighborhood. I understand that the neighbors are worried that drug-related activity will increase if the drug addict population increases. And yes, I’ve been in rehabs where baggies of goodies were tossed over high walls intended to keep the sweaty junkies in and the evil drugs out. But the majority of people are in recovery centers because they want to, you guessed it, recover. Concern by neighbors of rehab facilities is often bizarre, petty, and illogical at best. A few years ago, when I was living in West Hollywood, some locals near a new rehab were worried that "the inmates were free to walk the streets and could mug them." I pointed out that since most of the patients could afford to spend thousands of dollars a week for treatment, it was more likely that the neighbors would be mugging them. They didn’t think it was that funny either.

The problem of addiction, like mental illness and poverty, is epidemic. It’s a global problem. With the de-institutionalization of psychiatric hospitals in the '80s, people didn’t get better. They got worse and had nowhere to go. And now California has the most homeless of any state in the nation. Congratulations, former President Ronald Reagan!  But sure, let’s use that horribly ineffective example to guide legislation for the treatment of addicts.  

Recently, in what is considered a landmark case, Solid Landings, a company in Costa Mesa, had to close down 15 of its recovery homes. Many of the residents in the neighborhood were complaining that the homes were “disruptive to their neighborhoods, contributing to undue amounts of noise, parking problems and secondhand smoke.” 

You know what else is disruptive? Ambulances coming to try to revive your overdosed kid or taking your aunt out in a body bag. Sure, everyone hates the sober livings until their kid/parent/husband needs help. And then how wonderful that the facility is just a stone’s throw from you, and not a seven hour plane ride…

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, who negotiated on behalf of Costa Mesa, said the agreement marked "the beginning of neighborhoods getting their neighborhoods back." Back from what? Back from helping people recover from a fatal illness? Back from providing a stepping stone between inpatient treatment and the free world? These aren’t party houses or fraternities. These are facilities where addicts are trying to recover from America’s most neglected disease. 

Personally, I find this discrimination against addicts eerily reminiscent of that against African Americans in the '50s or gays in the '80s. Why not just put all the addicts in a ghetto and mark them with a scarlet A for addict? Okay, so you don’t want sober livings or treatment centers in your neighborhood, fine. Then, pray tell, where should they go? Some rural farm in Utah? A penal colony? Tatooine? I hear there’s still an island somewhere in Hawaii that has six lepers on it. Let’s just send all the junkies and loadies there! How about all the addicts get on this nice train to a rehabilitation camp, I mean, center. Okay, maybe Jews in '30s Germany is a bit of a hyperbole, but the mentality is not THAT different. 

So people want us to get better but just not in their neighborhood? In other words, the prevailing sentiment is to make being a recovering addict just like being an ex-con. Everybody looking down on you for not being able to get your shit together and reintegrate back into society, but nobody giving you a chance to be somebody new and do it. America, home of incarceration, free of rehabilitation. 

What’s funny to me is people saying they don’t want addicts in their rich neighborhood. Guess what? They’re already in your neighborhood! They’re probably in your household! You can’t be rich and be a drug addict? Tell that to Charlie Sheen, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kurt Cobain, Katt Williams, Steven Tyler. Scott Storch, the hip hop producer, reportedly spent over $30 million on cocaine. And when these celebrities need help, where will they go to get it? 

Life is happening all around us. Nobody is immune. If you’re frightened by difference or metamorphosis and want to live in some completely sanitized utopian future, then you’re the one who needs to go live on some disenfranchised island. God forbid you have healing and transformation in YOUR neighborhood. What’s next? No hospitals or clinics? No urgent care? Once we open the door to this type of prejudice—and that’s what it is—where does it end?

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. And she is on Twitter

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