Laura McKowen is the bestselling author of “We Are the Luckiest” and "Push Off From Here.” She has written for The New York Times, and her work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and more. In 2020, she founded The Luckiest Club, a global sobriety support community.
I got sober in 2014 by going to 12-step meetings in Marblehead, and my daughter has gone to school here since the third grade. As a single mom with a full-time job who commuted to and from Boston every day, it wasn’t possible for me to go to rehab or stay in a sober living house, but I know many other women and mothers (as well as men) who credit their life with such spaces and the people who run them.
When I heard about the community’s strong negative reaction to the new sober house on Humphrey Street earlier this week, I was saddened and frustrated, but unfortunately not surprised. For most of my life I, too, thought addiction was something that happened to other people.
Thanks to growing up in the “Just Say No,” War on Drugs era, I saw addiction as an issue of willpower and morality, and believed only hardened criminals and lowlifes succumbed to it. Alcoholics carried their booze in brown paper bags while they begged for money on the street; addicts sucked on their crack pipes in abandoned homes and stole from anyone they could to get their next hit.
The problem of addiction, I believed, had nothing to do with me or people like me, and — as many in the community voiced on Monday night — I wouldn’t have wanted to see it or have to deal with it up close. I’d likely have been concerned about living next to a sober house, too. I would have wanted to distance myself from “those people,” too.
I’d have been wrong about that, though; I was wrong about all of it.
I’m writing this today with good intentions, hoping to inspire a different conversation around the new sober house, but also to address the larger misperceptions around addiction and recovery overall. I also assume good intentions on the part of those who are concerned and critical.
To be clear, I was not at the meeting on April 3, but I did speak at length with Scott Murray, the Marblehead fire captain and supervisor of the sober house, who hosted the meeting and fielded questions from the community for over three hours. Also, as someone who’s been in recovery for nearly nine years, I’m intimately familiar with the misunderstandings and judgments people place at our feet.
Sober living is for sober people.
A big misconception is that sober homes are like treatment centers, but they’re not. Sober homes are where people who are already sober go to transition back into their lives, not a place for those who are actively addicted or detoxing.
There’s a screening process to be accepted, most of the residents are employed full- or part-time, and most importantly, their stay there is contingent upon their staying sober. If they break their sobriety or do not follow the strict rules of the house, they have to leave immediately.
I’ve known dozens of people, from varying demographics, who have stayed in sober living houses as part of their recovery. These places serve as a critical resource between treatment and “regular” life, offering a safe, reliable, affordable transition point for people.
“Almost all of our residents leave our sober living homes making a positive outward impact on others,” says Mindy Klein, board member of Designed Future, a local sober community in Florida, when I told her about the community response in Marblehead. “Chances are, one of the children they are trying to protect will end up in that exact house someday, and then they will be beyond grateful. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
Addiction is everywhere in Marblehead already.
One of the women at the meeting said, “I understand that your dream may be to help addicts, but our dream is to live in Marblehead safely. Our dreams are in conflict with one another.”
The irony of this statement is that the people living in this sober home pose far less risk to this town than all the active addiction hiding in plain sight. The Marblehead Fire Department gets called out for overdoses and alcohol-related issues nearly daily. Underage drinking and drug use and drunk driving are well-known issues. Our restaurants, homes, school pick-up lines, yacht clubs, backyard parties and town gatherings are filled with people struggling with addiction, but we don’t see it. It’s disguised behind privilege, productivity and wealth.
When I was in the deepest part of my addiction, I was a vice president at an advertising agency in Boston, traveled all over the world for work and had a community of loving family and friends around me who had no clue how much trouble I was in. Nobody would have gone to a town meeting and complained about me being a risk to their children or bringing their property values down, but I was regularly driving my daughter to school hungover, modeling that alcohol was a totally normal and everyday way to connect and cope. Whenever my friends and I got together with our kids, we drank way too much and then drove home. In other words, I was a big risk to myself and the people around me all the time. I did not make Marblehead more safe.
Do you want to know where I learned to be a reliable, trustworthy, safe part of our community? In recovery. From people who live in this town and are all around you. If you want to remove all visible traces of recovery in Marblehead, you’ll have to get rid of entire swaths of it, including people you depend on and connect with every day: first responders, restaurant workers, yoga teachers, real estate agents, teachers and business owners. You’ll need to shut down the dozen or so 12-step meetings that take place every day, and send a bunch of your neighbors — from Old Town to The Neck and everywhere in between — packing. You’d need to ask me to leave, too.
People in recovery — including the people who run and live in the new sober house — are folks we actually want in our community. They’re not “other people”; they’re us. The only difference is they’re humbly and actively working to address their issues instead of pretending like they don’t exist.
When I was struggling, the judgment and stigma put on people “with a problem” kept me drinking and in shame for a long time. My inbox is filled with people who feel the same — many of whom live in our community.
Today, I’m so proud to be someone in recovery, I’m proud of the men who live in the new sober house, and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming them to Marblehead.