This post was originally published on December 22, 2014.
Speaking about addiction is always tricky when talking to non-addicts—especially if they have been severely affected by the pitfalls of someone else’s disease. I think it would be a challenge to find a person who hasn’t struggled with addiction of some kind or been hurt by someone who has. That is why I loved the dual effect of The Brotherhood of Recovering Addicts, a story on Narratively where journalist Em DeMarco recounts her visits to two recovery homes just south of Pittsburgh over a year-long time span. She does a great job of painting an accurate picture of (good quality) sober living while weaving in some statistics and facts about the struggles recovering addicts face in the real world.
When it comes to healing the sick, there is a very real conflict between an advocacy for social service and personal comfort levels. As much as a woman mentioned in the story might support a crack addict getting clean and back on his or her feet, she does not support that happening two doors down from her home—one that she and her husband worked hard to afford in a desirable school district for their two young daughters. It’s not that she thinks recovering addicts are bad or dangerous people but that she knows active drug addicts can be and she can’t get comfortable with her family’s safety being reliant upon any the ability of the eight recovering crack addicts—now living on her street—to say clean. Do you blame her?
I certainly don’t—and I sit next to some of the lowest, drag out alcoholics and drug addicts in the world on a daily basis in my 12-step meetings. I know how dangerous many of these people were when they were using—and I also know what trustworthy, hardworking and sincere people they are sober—so it’s hard not to sympathize with these people. Still, addicts deserve a chance to rehabilitate while their neighbors deserve a reasonably safe neighborhood for their children. So what is the solution?
The reality is, none of us know who is living in our neighborhood—the same way most of us don’t know the people we are on a date with, sleeping with, married to. Everyone has skeletons in their closet that I think would make any of our respective neighbors feel uneasy. If you don’t think so, let me present to you the girl next door who lives a perfectly normal and drama-free life except that she happens to be sleeping with her married boss. Of course, that is none of her neighbor’s business until his wife shows up one morning, drunk with a gun and starts shooting. Or what about the sweet couple next door that are actually gambling addicts and three times a week a black suburban pulls up and pays them a visit or the gentle widower down the block who happens to be an unregistered sex offender?
My point is, it’s unsettling to know that people with a spotty past and questionable morals are living on your street but at least at a sober living house, you know that—for the most part—they have a desire to be better people and are surrounded by a few people who are there to keep them accountable. When it comes to neighbors, it might even be better to live with the devil many of us know are getting better than the devil you don’t.
DeMarco’s story is inspired by several of her check-ins with a recovery home owner, Pam Jones, one of the house managers, Chester and a revolving door of residents about their lives and their ongoing recovery. If you have never gotten (and stayed) clean and sober, it might surprise you to learn how the highs of straight life are not very high, while the lows are—albeit less chaotic—can be still pretty damn depressing at times. It might strike a person that the option to get sober and live that way is not a viable option at all.
But what is hard to describe—though DeMarco does a damn fine job of it—is the satisfaction and fulfillment a former drunk and drug addict derives from the simplicity of service, both in TCB (that’s taking care of business for you non-Elvis folk) and one on one sharing of experience, strength and hope with another who struggles from the same disease. It’s a feeling that can’t be reached with ego-based accomplishments like the acquirement of homes, cars or Hermes handbags. Many of us may feel bad for a guy like Chester, whose life has been reduced sweeping up cigarette butts and replenishing toilet paper, but I bet his is truly happier than many.
So yes, there are risks involved in living next door to a sober living facility—especially one that isn’t run well. Without any state or federal regulations, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. But while the legwork to change that is in progress, how can we live side by side in harmony? My suggestion for those in fear of the recovering addicts in your neighborhood is to treat them as you would any new neighbor—welcome them. Go a step further and pay them a visit, meet the residents, bake them cookies, introduce yourself. While active alcoholism and drug addiction can attract an unsavory lifestyle, people in sober living facilities generally want to be a part of your world more than the one they are running from. By showing them kindness, you are likely to lessen your own anxiety about the mysterious and scary looking sober people while possibly even gaining an ally or a friend.