Three decades after the War on Drugs began, the level of active addiction in our country remains distressingly common. In recent months, the national dialogue about addiction has focused largely on heroin use, and with good reason. The level of heroin overdoses in Massachusetts has nearly doubled in the span of a few short years, and accounted for roughly half of all drug overdoses recorded in 2012 and 2013. From the Berkshires to the streets of Boston, no person in our state is immune. Recent coverage of local drug trafficking in the Gazette is yet another indicator that the war, which has long focused on cutting the supply side of the drug trade, is surely being lost here as much as in other communities across America.
The sad truth is that other cities and states have seen even larger spikes of drug use and drug-related deaths, and recent media coverage of Fentanyl-laced overdoses has sensationalized a problem that needs less speculation and more practical thinking. I know that reality well, because the record number of people who have already died from heroin in 2014 includes my 23-year-old son, Carter.
The American Medical Association has long identified addiction as a medical disease. Forty million Americans suffer from it — more than heart disease or cancer. And while each year millions of them successfully manage their addictions, our society is failing to provide the support necessary to begin putting addiction definitively behind us.
As I learned firsthand over recent years, a critical component of this support must be sober living homes. These are the facilities that are meant to provide people with an opportunity to recover in a safe environment; in which to transition away from their dependency, and then rebuild or maintain productive lives, which they often do with exceptional support from their peers and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
Unfortunately, these essential tools in the fight against addiction often fall through the cracks. While treatment is accepted — and normalized or even celebrated through popular music and reality television as “rehab” — it is expensive, and therefore out of reach for many Americans struggling with addiction over their lifetime. Meanwhile, outside the celebrity realm, addiction retains a powerful stigma. This makes sober living homes, generally a destination for the non-rich and famous, about as desirable as EPA Superfund sites in most residential communities. It can also lead to discrimination and neglect for people seeking recovery.
We as a society aren’t doing nearly enough to help those seeking recovery. No one is born as an addict. My son may have died from his addiction, but he was a compassionate and humble man, and one who struggled with anxiety and exposure to trauma beyond his control every day of his adult life. To call him a fighter wouldn’t begin to qualify the challenges he faced, and there are so many more just like him. At the end of the day, addiction is a battle that is fought one person at a time. If someone has the courage to seek treatment, the least we can do is provide them with a safe environment in which to recover.
It’s true that a small number of homes are publicly funded and actually regulated, a slightly higher number enact minimum standards for care. Here on the Island we are fortunate to have Vineyard House, a facility that is both supported by the community and provides support for its members, in turn. Through a proactive and voluntary alliance with the Massachusetts Association of Sober Homes (MASH), Vineyard House in many ways already exemplifies the standards that we should expect from any facility that calls itself a sober living environment.
But the vast majority of sober living homes are for-profit enterprises that operate independently and face no oversight from federal, state, or local governments. The proliferation of self-regulated, so-called sober living homes not only provides subpar care to those seeking to overcome this illness, but perpetuates a stereotype of people suffering from addiction as people on the margins, people who do not deserve the services of the same qualified health care providers that treat heart disease and cancer.
A common sense agenda of reforms would go a long way toward making sober living homes an effective weapon in a successful war on addiction. Stronger standards for people who own and operate these facilities, combined with minimum mandatory expectations for people who live in them, are all key foundational aspects of that reform. The development of a federal rating database for licensed sober living homes — a resource for people in recovery and their families — is an equally important tool, and one that will encourage a surer road to recovery.
A good friend once told me that managing addiction is a battle fought in the slimmest of margins. Recovery, in that sense, is determined by a person wanting to remain sober 51 per cent — a mere fraction more than using. He’s right. People in recovery climb that mountain every day. Fixing the broken system of sober living environments across this country will be a catalyst for millions of Americans struggling with recovery, and bring change from within the addiction community itself.
Elizabeth Shults Berardi is the founder of Safe Sober Living (safesoberliving.org) and an advocate for the rights of individuals in recovery from addiction. She and her family are summer residents of the Vineyard. Her youngest son Carter died last month at the age of 23, three days after arriving at a sober living home in Torrington, Conn. He had been sober for 97 days.