By Judy Cole
For some, “normal” is what we take for granted – the middle ground; the safe road.
But for an addict – no matter their drug of choice – normal is often something they’ve either never known, or forgot so long ago they can’t find their way back, no matter how desperately they might want to. Once you’ve hit rock bottom, how you got there is less important than the steps you choose to take to get back.
The addict next door
For 47-year-old Ronda Barnes, her odyssey with addiction began innocently enough.
Barnes suffers from two chronic, debilitating medical conditions—lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. She spent years on opioids to relieve symptoms and pain. But she hit a tipping point when the need for narcotics outstripped the limits of her prescriptions.
When it did, Barnes’ normal life imploded. Her fall from grace ended with a five-week stint in jail, courtesy, she freely admits, of her own actions—and at the behest of her family.
Jordan Augenstein, 26, describes herself as a once-recreational drug user who succumbed to the grip of crystal meth in the wake of a family tragedy. The eventual result of her addiction was a heart attack that nearly took her life.
“We’d just buried my mom,” she recounted. “I couldn’t let my family go through having to bury me as well.”
At 24, Michele Richardson survived childhood sexual abuse, and the subsequent disbelief from those she finally revealed it to. She began experimenting with drugs in her early teens, aided by a therapist who seemed more eager to write prescriptions for anti-anxiety meds than delve into the dark issues behind Richardson’s acting out.
It’s her explanation for why she became an addict, but like many in recovery who’ve learned to own and accept responsibility for their actions, it’s not an excuse.
A new paradigm for finding normal
For a lucky few, including Barnes, Augenstein and Richardson, the road back to non-altered reality led to Oxford House Glenfiddich, part of a nationwide collective of “self-run, self-supported addiction recovery houses.”
The first Oxford House was established in Silver Spring, Md. in 1975. Homes are rented, not bought, in established neighborhoods to provide stable environments. In the years since, the sober-living model has grown to include nearly 2,000 homes nationwide.
The organization is divided into local regional chapters, but each house is autonomous, setting its own rules, restrictions and expectations for conduct. Chores and bills are divided, and any issue that may impact the house—including who is permitted to live there—is put to a vote.
The first North Carolina Oxford Houses were launched in Durham and Asheville in 1991. As of January 2017, there are 223 houses in the state, with locations in 30 cities, more than 1,700 beds, and plans for expansion.
Oxford Houses are generally situated in middle or even upper-middle class neighborhoods, locations chosen to blend into the community. Glenfiddich is no exception.
While every Oxford House address and phone number is listed in a variety of online resources, there’s no sign to alert neighbors to a house’s purpose or the former habits of the inhabitants.
One thing worth noting when making the turn from The Plaza onto Glenfiddich Road is a nearby bus stop. Since many residents either don’t own cars or have suspended licenses, access to public transportation crucial. All residents must work or be enrolled as full-time students. And, in addition to being self-run, houses are self-supporting. Any initial grants or loans used to secure a location are paid off collectively by the residents.
Oxford houses accept donations of furniture, clothing and other necessities, especially when the house is new, but the overarching principle of self-sufficiency aims to teach residents essential life skills and instill them with a sense of personal accountability.
“Living as an addict, you sometimes never learn even the basic things—like making sure your bills get paid on time, or balancing a checkbook,” said Richardson, who, along with 29-year-old Oxford House NC outreach service coordinator Greg “Goose” Weisz, was instrumental in setting up this location.
Residents with criminal records face additional hurdles in finding employment. According to Weisz, networking via the extended community of local Oxford House chapters often proves vital.
“If someone has a boss who is willing to hire a felon, and knows they’re hiring, they’ll pass that information on,” Weisz said.
When minor are major factors
Most Oxford Houses are segregated by gender, but what sets Glenfiddich apart from other locations is that it’s one of only a handful that offers housing for women with children. Opened in October 2016, Glenfiddich is currently home to seven women, and one child (although it can accommodate up to two mothers with children). Some Oxford Houses even offer housing for men with kids.
In the best interests of the children, boys being raised by their moms, or girls by their fathers, must find other accommodations at about the time they reach puberty.
Parents sign a contract stipulating a guardian for minor children prior to being accepted for residency. “If someone relapses and is forced to leave, the last thing we want to do is to have to call [Child Protective Services],” said Richardson.
“We have a little girl living here,” noted Richardson, a mom who knows firsthand the importance of a safe, secure environment. “No men are allowed beyond the common areas, and they’re not allowed to spend the night. Kids just don’t need to be exposed to that.”
For the Glenfiddich residents, the dynamics of having a child in the house has also created a palpable, positive impact.
The women, several of whom are mothers, have bonded over caring for the little girl. In the living room, a portrait of the 7-year-old beaming with hope and delight sits in a box, waiting to be hung up.
“Other houses have other rules,” explained Weisz (who is also a resident of an Oxford facility). While there are no coed houses, couples can and do spend the night together, “but [spouses] are not allowed to live at the house.”
Not your grandfather’s halfway house
Unlike other halfway houses, Oxford House Glenfiddich does not have counselors on site, nor does it require participation in any specific 12-step program. Many residents do participate in programs and attend regular meetings.
“We just have to see that you’re actively working on your sobriety, whatever form that takes,” said Richardson, who serves as the “de facto housemother.”
One method of ensuring residents—especially new ones—do comply with house rules comes in the form of “behavior contracts,” anything from being assigned extra chores or attending a certain number of meetings to finding and meeting regularly with a sponsor. Fulfilling these contracts is another way of teaching residents how to set specific goals and meet them.
Weisz says the success rate for residents who stay on-target for at least one year is close to 87 percent.
There are two key factors credited for the low rate of recidivism of Oxford House residents. First, there’s zero tolerance for relapse. Any resident caught or confessing to substance abuse must leave immediately, but as long as residents continue to contribute their fair share and follow the house rules, they can stay as long as they want or need—in some cases, that can be years. This continuity fosters a feeling that is truly familial, rather than institutional.
Knowing where your next meal is coming from, not having to worry about whether or not you’re going to have a roof over your head, and having a built-in support group allows residents to focus on the ongoing work of coming to terms with the underlying causes behind their addictions.
“We don’t think of this as a halfway house,” said Barnes with a smile, “we think of it as a three-quarter-way house.”