Surviving the Sober House
Sober houses masquerade as treatment centers for addicts, but their opaqueness as institutions allows for the use of exploitative, carceral models within.
A few years back, I lived in several group homes for months at a time. One I stayed in for over a year. The building was located in the unkempt husk of a property that once belonged to St. Paul’s Schmidt Brewery, where the brewery housed workers and their families in exchange for labor. Now it was owned by what is commonly called a sober house company – a business that typically owns several cheap houses and rents the rooms out to the newly sober and the recently incarcerated.
The walls and ceilings of the house were slathered in the garish pressed-tin sheets that Americans used to emulate European plasterwork in the late 19th century, and you could smell the damp in the walls behind them. The refrigerator made a periodic screeching noise that you could hear from every room.
The house, which today would register to most as a modest single-family home, fit ten if you stuck two in the attic. This included the house manager, someone who’d lived in the house a bit longer and performed certain duties on behalf of the company in exchange for free or reduced rent.
The neighborhood, St. Paul’s West End, is a longtime working-class area whose main drag, West 7th Street, was generally thought of as a skid row on the up-and-up. It was also home to the Twin Cities’ highest concentration of sober houses, halfway, and three-quarter houses, as well as one prestigious and well-known addiction treatment facility.
The area featured gridded streets that loosened at the edges of the city into parks, and the kind of off-brand strip malls that give way to the road that takes you to the airport. On long walks through the neighborhood I’d often feel my new surroundings were cast-off, deserted. Aside from the clientele of a single trendy coffee shop and an incongruous crossfit gym, those I met on the street were often either in the business of using substances or avoiding substance use.
I made the choice to come to this particular house because a friend of mine had recently moved in there and helped me to secure a spot. He relapsed not long thereafter. As sometimes happens, he moved out of his own accord before he was ever caught using, but the month before he left was filled with stilted moments in which both of us pretended not to be aware of what was really going on. A fellow addict can always tell when someone is back to using: their spirit disperses, rearranges into a weak simulation of itself, and their eyes adopt a far-away stare, as if they are looking through the walls of the house and into the night.
When I arrived at the house in early October, I’d just gone through treatment (or, as non-addicts usually call it, “rehab”) for the second time after getting kicked out of two sober houses that summer. Both times I’d blacked out on some combination of hypnotic sedatives, come to, once in a hospital bed and then again on the living room floor of a friend. At the last house I’d caused trouble, stolen possessions and gotten into arguments. I had no memory of this.
Nor could I account for why I’d started taking chemicals again. A choice idiom from circles of those afflicted with “this thing,” as we call it: first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
Starting again, with the bleary and emotional headspace of 30-odd days clean, I was desperate and hopeful. Rather, I was hopeful because I was desperate.
Immediately upon moving in I met another young opiate user who was on trial for third degree murder after his best friend overdosed on heroin they purchased jointly. We quickly became close. I was grateful to be there.
The sober house was violent and prayerful – I remember it as a kind of second adolescence, more sacred and awful than the first. Most that enter are transitioning out of institutions of some kind – hospitals, county detoxes, rehabs, jails, prisons. Billed simultaneously as spaces of “transition,” “re-entry,” and “recovery,” the homes are filled with those suspended between states.
A forceful and clear bodily notion might propel you, without entirely understanding why, into the the soft suspension of the group home. From this vantage it is possible to recall the abjection of just a few weeks ago as if it were another lifetime, sealed off yet still visible in parallax view: the aftershocks of a sore, grinding rhythm you suddenly find that you are no longer bound by nature to repeat.
We understood that our newfound clarity was only the oblique awareness, felt in the body, of the comings and goings of grace. We were rapt, on our phones, eyes faraway or flitting while passing one another in a doorway or on the stairs. Conversation came in flurries, reverent even in shittalking, endlessly rehashing that what we shared, if anything, was a thorough vexation. We laughed together at the pitiful images of our recent selves, naming strange forms of loneliness and inexplicable behaviours that were finally explained to us when we heard the laughter: this is what my pain is for.
We emerged through the crucible of a weird wrath, a shared body with a new grid of intimacies. We did not feel at home within the words “substance use disorder,” “opioid crisis,” or “radical self-care.” We cared for one another, instead, with the thin, fluid air given off by our bafflement in describing what we’ve gone through. Our failures were not for anyone else to witness or harvest.
Clandestine movements filled the home, night and day, with prayers against a nameless fear. As they cycled through rooms, the bodies that passed through the house came to share a constellation of forms that included the weaker satellites of their possessions. We were sprawled, shirtless with metallic gym shorts and socks, tattooed calves; there’s tinny light and sound of Kevin Gates or Twitch streams from a phone. I saw folders from treatment centers full of information, recommendations, prescriptions.
Beyond this web of physical ephemera were the external pressures: laws, sentences, referrals, debts, impending divorces, excommunications, ultimatums, last chances.
There were recently incarcerated, whose situations were at once the most absolute and the most falsified: compelled by the state to simulate the daily routine of a recovering addict, the former followed them around the block, to their wage-capped jobs and back, tracking their ankle bracelet monitors for anomalies in the pattern. Often hailing from out of state and having recently passed through a “bootcamp” program in northern Minnesota where they performed free labor for the state for nine months alongside military-style physical training, their placement in the house formed the calm after another type of storm.
At night I would return to the house from my job at a Starbucks knockoff, where my body became an extension, mutilated, of various machines bound to muscular repetitions that do not occur in the natural world, where I could not account for the coffee jargon and small-talks to which my mouth had attenuated, and my body would be there, restless but fluid, coalescing in struggle. I could feel its parts wherever we were around the city, or in the attic room of the house, drawing from the same reservoir.
Some were in wordless moods, others wanted to talk. Sharing a house like this kills the appetite for feigned success: after all, you and I are both sitting here. The nonstarter of judgement from either direction can equally give way to silence or to words. We’d sit facing one another and talk around the hollow of what it had been like.
Sometimes parents or uncles or brothers would be there to drop them off at the house, and if I was around I’d act as de facto manager, doing my best to reassure everyone that the house was not some kind of cult, scam, or place where you’d learn how to do harder drugs, knowing full well that in truth it was a mild combination of all three.
Sometimes they’d tell me about an infant child they barely knew, couldn’t see, kept safe in another state by an elder. That’s my motivation, know what I mean? I always nodded, agreed to this statement, but as more cycled through the house, I began to feel that “motivation” was a hoax.
Those who were older, had been around the block a few times, were wiser to this kind of talk. In general they didn’t talk much. It’s heavy to share a room with someone who’s been alive, despite statistics, long enough to feel that this thing might really have no bottom.
There was a 19-year-old who arrived from North Dakota with distribution charges and the bleary aftereffects of Xanax blackout circling around his head. He’d washed out of another sober house down the block into ours, and I immediately recognized the waxing of his eyes, the lilt in the plight he told me: scanning recent memory for answers to the question what is wrong with me?
Prior to coming through the rehab-to-sober house pipeline, he’d been caught with a gram of fentanyl, which under North Dakota’s draconian drug law can be counted by its equivalent measure in heroin – in this case, something like 70 grams. It was likely that he would serve three to five years in prison.
I drove him to GNC so that he could buy one of those $40 detox drinks that looks like Gatorade mixed with highlighter fluid and makes you “piss clean” for three hours or so. When he passed his test later that evening, we laughed and he was giddy, acting more like he’d just beat a sibling at a video game than having narrowly skirted federal law.
Within days he was distant when I greeted him, his voice low and indefinite. One day I came home from work and the others told me he’d been caught smoking weed and was promptly ordered to pack his things. Before leaving he asked them if he should call his mom to tell her that he’d relapsed. Because he wasn’t a minor, the house could not disclose his information unless he agreed to it.
A few days later, he and a friend slipped into comas after shooting up fentanyl-laced heroin. He was dead on arrival at the hospital and his friend died several hours later. The first and only call his mother received was from the hospital.
The business model of the sober house is an unfortunate admixture of predatory, slumlord real estate practicesdisguised as medical treatment, situated at the juncture of overwhelming demand and lack of regulation.
While highly publicized fraud cases against sober house companies in Florida, Arizona and New York have prompted talk about the urgent need to better monitor and regulate the industry, state regulations remain scant or nonexistent. In part, this is due a lack of public information.
The opaque nature of sober houses, which leaves residents open to exploitation, is no accident: Sober houses adopt shadiness as their precondition, relying upon grey market conditions that arise only when addicts require a means of subsistence that there is no institutional or legal precedent for obtaining.
When I “graduated” from a prominent Minnesota inpatient treatment facility in the spring of 2015, I was instructed by my counselors to choose a sober house more or less at random by accessing the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH) website and contacting a house manager from the directory. Eager to “follow recommendations,” as people often say in rehab-speak, I contacted a house in St. Paul and was nonchalantly guaranteed a bed so long as I agreed to abide by house rules (no using or drinking, no sex in the house, attend two 12-step meetings each week, complete a weekly chore and attend a weekly house meeting), and pay down some kind of deposit.
When I arrived at the house, the manager ran through what they called a “boilerplate” contract stipulating that in becoming a resident of the house, I was not a legal resident and therefore could be kicked out without notice, for basically any reason. I was to share an attic room with two other people. Moreover, there was no standard damage deposit but a “sober deposit”: a fee equal to one month’s rent that the company would get to keep in the case that I relapsed or violated house rules.
When I relapsed two months later – as so many do upon their first try at sobriety – I lost my deposit and had to pay a new one down immediately if I was to move into another sober house.
It’s crucial to understand that sober houses do not operate within the normal boundaries for landlord-tenant relations. Sober houses are classed as group homes for the disabled. Ironically, the federal “protections” guaranteed by this categorization of addicts as disabled adults is precisely what has made sober houses near impossible to regulate, and what allows them to class residents as “participants” rather than tenants in order to skirt due process for evictions.
It doesn’t take advanced economic training to see that the profit incentive for sober house companies lies in frequent relapse and high turnover of residents. In all the houses where I lived, sober deposits were billed as a necessary consequence which would discourage us from relapse and potentially teach us a lesson. This is an exploitative business model masquerading as a vital treatment for the afflicted person’s own good.
Beyond exploitative, you could even say the business model is carceral. Because addicts do not have a choice in being addicts – that is, they have an extremely limited (if at all) degree of power over whether or not they relapse – the sober deposit functions as a means of expropriating value from essentially captive populations. There is no alternative to the sober house, so this is where people have to go.
The acute awareness of these conditions on the part of residents tends only to strengthen the camaraderie between them. There are few experiences so universally bonding as that of being fucked over together.
When someone relapses, it is typical to say they went back out.
With repetition, this idiomatic phrase has established a grey border in my memory between two sides of a vast and nameless pain. In everyday conversation I am forced to remember those who are in fact still walking around on the earth as if through a veil, as if they are gone.
When addicts who’ve found a reprieve sit together and try to name the quality of the pain, its forms and movements, what it was like, it is common to fall back on a gesture in lieu of the qualification “back when I was using drugs” – we raise an arm and point softly, out the window, out the street, or simply off into the distance, and say “out there…” with a bit of weight on either side.
The idiom reflects the consciousness, on the part of the afflicted, that whatever the thing called addiction happens to be, it does not veer away from us and stay put in the past. It hovers, lingers, remains in potential.
After my friend went back out, they offered to move me into his old room, but I opted to remain in my double, even though there’d be a new person joining me in the adjacent bed. This decision mystified the house manager and other occupants, as single rooms were coveted, usually hard-won after months of close quarters. But the singles all had a dark, flophouse feel to them that reminded me of the windowless closet in Brooklyn where I’d spent one summer abusing Benzedrex inhalers and eating frozen beef patties from Golden Krust. The second-floor double, by comparison, had two windows that faced the rising sun, walls more a decayed-cream than gunmetal, and space for me to set up my guitar stuff.
More importantly, I sensed that by remaining there I might have a chance to get to know people who were coming in fresh. Just a few months prior I would’ve recoiled at the thought, but I’d recently made the pleasant discovery that I was not a misanthrope. I actually loved getting to know people, especially those to whom I didn’t have to explain myself.
I ended up staying in that room the whole time I lived in the house. Over a period of one year and one month, nearly 20 bodies came to rest on the bed across the room from mine.
Some stayed for months and became familiar, only to alight unceremoniously, no explanation, allowing the screen-door to slam while muttering something about people outside their window, or “sick of this shit...” Others were only there for a few days, never bothering to put sheets on their mattresses. Their names and faces are harder to remember, but I can still feel the throb of their presence. Still others met with finalities, pulled silently from their rooms by police and sent back to prison, or their hearts stopped beating in their rooms, in a car, in an ambulance. The smallest group of people were those who remained in the house for long periods of time, deciding to move out of their own accord only once sobriety had taken root in something unconditional.
Today, I can name two who are no longer alive, and one whom I know to be sober. The rest I cannot trace. But in my memory, even those I know are gone are part of the same restless and suffering body. I feel more at home in that body when I can remember them.