For many folks, the transition out of recovery is one wrought with danger. One of the most common dilemmas a newly sober person faces is finding a place to live where they will not be tempted by drugs or alcohol on a regular basis. For those who are lucky enough to have reached a level of financial stability that they can live on their own, they become their own worst enemy because they have no one to hold them accountable. For everyone else who depend on others in order to help them pay rent, it is an uphill battle to find a roommate who is sober or, at the very least, is responsible enough to respect the boundaries a newly sober person may wish to impose in order to maintain their abstinence from drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, there exists a vast network of sober living environments across the United States that have helped hundreds of thousands bridge the gap between inpatient services and an independent sober lifestyle.  

What are the benefits of a Sober Living Environment? 

Since the 1970s, several studies have been conducted that demonstrate the importance of developing a strong support system while in recovery. More recently, one such study was performed by the researchers Moos and Moos (2006). In their study of… “461 treated and untreated individuals with alcohol use disorders over a 16 year period to examine factors associated with relapse. They found that social support for recovery was important in establishing sustained abstinence.” Based off these findings, treatment centers began to see the importance of removing a substance abuser from the environments that encouraged them to use so they may begin to form a new social network that would support their sober lifestyle. Because Sober Living Environments (SLEs) are not required to register with any government agency, there is no reliable data regarding how many are in operation currently, however, in Polcin’s research of the Sober Living Network he found over 500 individual houses in California alone. Research continues to be done on the importance of strong support systems but the evidence seems to suggest a strong correlation between SLEs that emphasize resident autonomy and long term success in recovery.  

What to expect in a Sober Living Environment? 

Unlike long term inpatient services, sober living homes have no staff, only residents. Everyone living in the home are personally invested in all residents remaining sober. There are two broad categories that all sober living environments fit into: a “strong manager model” and a “social model approach”. A “strong manager model” is a sober living environment (SLE) where the owner or manager of the house develops and enforces the rules for the house. In the “social approach model” residents are empowered by being given leadership positions and are encouraged to participate in forums to give input on how the house should be managed. Some “social approch model” SLEs utilize resident councils to develop and enforce the rules of the house.  

Some SLEs will require residents to adhere to stricter rules for their first 30 to 90 days while living in the house. These additional rules often include things such as mandating participation in 12-Step meetings 5 times a week, having a fellow resident accompany them when they leave the property, or adhering to a curfew. The purpose of these requirements are to help residents adapt to the SLE and insure that the resident is truly invested in their recovery. After what could be termed a “probationary period” residents are allowed to determine their level of involvement in 12-Step meetings and the freedom to come and go of their own volition (however, all residents, regardless of the time they have spent in the house are required to demonstrate that they are still working a program such as 12-Steps.  

Although rules vary between SLEs, there are 5 basic principles that all SLEs strive to uphold: provide all residents with an alcohol and drug free environment during their stay, require or strongly encourage all residents to participate in a recovery program such as 12-Steps or SMART Recovery, require all residents to follow all of the house rules such as doing chores and attending house meetings, all residents must demonstrate financial responsibility by paying rent and utilities on time, and all residents are allowed to stay in the SLE until they feel they are ready to reenter an independent living situation, provided that they continue to pay rent and follow all the house rules. The fact that SLEs allow residents the autonomy to determine when they are ready to leave is what makes them different from many inpatient recovery programs and other recovery community living arrangements such as halfway houses. Coupled with a resident council, SLEs provide residents with the maximum amount of autonomy while keeping them in a safe environment.  

The doctor and former alcoholic Kevin McCauley said it best when he described addiction as, “a disease of one’s ability to make choices”. The criminalization of addiction has in turn restricted addicts’ ability to make decisions for themselves, deeming them incapable of doing so in a responsible manner. SLEs prove what many in recovery have known for some time: for anyone to have a chance at being successful in treatment, they must be placed in an environment in which safe and healthy choices are more readily available then the dangerous and unhealthy choices they are accustom to. By doing so, addicts are given the opportunity to take ownership over their recovery and become personally invested in a sober lifestyle with the principle of autonomy always front and center.