After rehab, houses help addicts learn to live sober

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Nico Savidge
Sunday, November 3, 2013

JANESVILLE—Beth Bruhn wouldn't always relapse immediately after getting out of rehab.

Sometimes she did, sure, but other times Bruhn could go months without falling back into the addiction that started with sips of Jim Beam when she was 11.

Despite decades bouncing between rehab clinics, psych wards and support groups, the story always ended the same—with Bruhn relapsing and getting drunk.

“All it took was something in life that I couldn't handle,” she said. “Mostly, it was (that) I didn't know how to live.”

In 2011, a counselor at Rosecrance rehabilitation clinic in Rockford, Ill., found her a spot at the Red Road House—a continuing care home in Janesville for people recovering from addictions to alcohol and drugs.

“Being here,” Bruhn said, “is where you start learning.”

Officials and addiction experts say Rock County could use more places like the Red Road House.

With small capacities and long recovery times, there aren't enough sober living houses in Rock County to meet the needs of people trying to stay clean, said Rebecca Rudolph, who coordinates addiction services for the county.

“There's probably four or five different options in the area, but out of that there may be only 15 or 20 beds available," Rudolph said. "I don't think that's enough.”

The popular stories of addiction have rehab as their happy endings. Family members and friends show up for an intervention, the addict sees the harm they've done, and he heads off to a stint at rehab and a bright, clean future.

“People think in their mind, '28-day treatment is going to fix me and make me better,'” Rudolph said.

In reality, though, the residential or in-patient settings known as “rehab” are far from the end of an addict's path toward recovery, and it's easy to slip up the moment you leave that clinic.

“It's not a 30-day fix,” Rudolph said.

That's where places such as the Red Road House come in.

The home offers addicts a place to stay and a supportive and motivating environment that helps them not just get clean, residents said, but learn to live their lives without drugs.

It's a crucial step in the recovery process—a relatively inexpensive, long-term treatment option that could succeed where intense, pricey and short-term treatment failed, experts said.

But despite its potential, there are only a few sober living homes available to addicts in Rock County, and experts want to see more.

Staying sober in the real world

One thing Billy Bob Grahn emphasizes when he talks about all the times he relapsed is how great the people at rehab clinics are.

They're working hard, he said, and do a great job.

But when Grahn—a Rock County Board supervisor and the Red Road House's founder and director—would get released from a rehab stay, he knew it wouldn't take long for him to start drinking again.

He wound up getting treatment, and relapsing, more than 20 times.

“As much as I wanted to be sober, as much as the people that were helping me out at the treatment center did their best,” he said, “I was being released to the streets.”

While in-patient and residential treatment can help people get clean, Rudolph said, they do so in controlled environments.

After a few weeks, residents go back to the homes and streets they came from and must face the prospect of living sober every day.

“It isn't real life,” Rudolph said of residential treatment. “So you're there for a certain period of time, you stop using, you start to gain these little bits of coping skills—then you have to go back home and look at what real life is.

“We see significant problems in that transition”

In 1990, with the hours ticking down before Grahn would be released from his last treatment stay, a friend from rehab could see Grahn wasn't going to make it on the streets. The friend had secured a spot at the big, white home in Janesville's Fourth Ward where the Red Road House now operates, but gave it to Grahn so he could stand a chance.

He hasn't gone back to drinking or using drugs since.

Independence with accountability

Today, the Red Road House has space for as many as eight people in recovery, many of whom are coming out of rehab or from living homeless, Grahn said.

Grahn and live-in volunteer Mark Bumpus operate the house as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, providing a place to stay and helping put recovering addicts in touch with local services to get them back on track.

Residents have to stay sober and submit to Breathalyzer or urine tests.

House rules also state they must work, attend classes or volunteer at least 20 hours each week, and attend a minimum of five 12-step meetings.

The environment isn't so loose that addicts can fall back into their old habits, clients said, nor is it so strict that residents can't make their own decisions.

Residents are independent, they said, but ultimately accountable.

“They're really teaching you how to do it for yourself,” resident Claire Thomas said.

And while Grahn recognizes the importance of doctors and professionals in the recovery system, at places such as the Red Road House residents are learning from other people who have been through the same experiences.

Thomas is a 22-year-old recovering from addictions to heroin and alcohol. She's entering her third week at Red Road House, learning from residents who have been at the home for years.

“If I'm having issues, I can go to people and talk about it, and they know what I'm talking about,” Thomas said.

Ultimately, the goal is to teach residents life skills they'll need and set them on a path toward a sober life.

Too few options, experts say

“It's not about the intensity of treatment,” Rudolph said, “it's about the duration.”

Sober living homes offer lengthy treatment—the average stay at the Red Road House is 90 days, while Dick Lynes from Lazarus House, a similar Janesville facility, said clients typically stay there about 18 months. In-patient rehab might last only a couple weeks.

The houses also offer treatment at far less of a cost to clients: The price per day at Red Road House is $35, Grahn said, while Lazarus House charges $360 a month.

Intensive treatment at a rehab facility can cost thousands of dollars per day.

Despite their effectiveness and low price tags, though, experts such as Rudolph believe Rock County doesn't have nearly as many options for sober living homes as it should.

Besides Red Road House and Lazarus House, Living Waters Ministries operates a sober living home. Those three are it for Janesville.

“We wish that we could have 20 of these houses,” Lynes said. “Unfortunately, financing … makes it impossible to do so.”

Like the Red Road House, Lazarus House operates on a mix of donations, grants and rent from residents who can pay it, Lynes said.

With only a few rooms available and residents who spend months or years in the house, Grahn said he regularly has to turn people away.

Though county officials would like to see more beds and more houses, Rudolph said, there doesn't seem to be an easy answer for how to accomplish that.

Rock County could open a big sober-living house of its own, she said, but the homes are more effective when they're based in the community and involve a small group of recovering addicts.

“It wouldn't work if it were a big facility with lots of people because it's not what they do," Rudolph said. "We could just really, really use more.”

Trying to start over

Bruhn knows what would have happened if she hadn't gotten into the Red Road House.

“I would have gone out and drunk, and I probably would not be alive,” she said.

After spending about six months at the house in 2011, though, Bruhn has stayed sober. Today, she's got a stable home where she pays rent, a car and renewed confidence.

Thomas has only begun her journey on the road to recovery.

Addiction left her with a huge debt she hasn't yet tallied—she guesses it's more than $100,000.

It's mostly medical bills—ambulance rides and hospital stays from the times she overdosed—plus student loans. Despite using drugs through college, she earned a bachelor's degree at age 20 from Chatham University.

Like plenty of 22-year-olds, Thomas is not sure she's ready for a career.

Unlike a lot of 22-year-olds, she's fighting addiction while trying to piece her life back together and considering bankruptcy.

“It's kind of a daunting thing for me now,” Thomas said. “You only care about one thing—and then it's like all this stuff is in front of you.”

But that's why living at a place such as the Red Road House helps, she said.

“If I was alone, if I was still in my car, I'd be using. It's just as simple as that,” Thomas said. “I would not be able to make it on my own. I wouldn't even know where to begin.”

Thomas has signed up to get out-patient drug treatment while she's living at the home, and tries to attend two 12-step meetings every day.

She's been clean since Oct. 18.

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