Recovery Pipelines; A Personal Account

April 14, 2021
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My human geography classes have me thinking a lot about the connections between people, place, and the affective dimension or field that arises from communities with a shared purpose, location, and hope. When combined with ideas about develecology1 and the ways identity is shaped and formed through and across dimensions of various social roles, I have come to understand my own recovery experiences in a new light in recent years. I wish to share the insights I have found.

The town where I achieved lasting recovery is an exceptional place. Kerrville, Texas, is a city of about 50,000 people, straddling the banks of the Guadalupe River in the rolling scenery of the Texas Hill Country. If you’ve never been to the Texas Hill Country, words really would never do it justice. It is situated between the European frontier settlement of Fredericksburg, which has preserved its German roots almost intact, Centerpoint, an old farming community, and Ingram, which serves as a gateway to the Edwards Plateau and ensuing canyons and mountain to the southwest.

To the east of Kerrville lies farm and ranch land extending to San Antonio’s outskirts along IH-10. The land smooths out eastward. To the west and southwest, limestone hills, valleys of amber wild grass, cedar, rock, and clear water streams. The terrain is dotted with enormous ranches, hunting leases, and exotic game farms. You are just as likely to see a Zebra or a Giraffe as you are to encounter a rattlesnake or wild hog. To the south begins the gradual declination toward the Mexican Frontier and the Chihuahuan desert. North will take you into the outskirts of the Capitol city.

In many ways, Kerrville is a hub from which one can strike out in different directions and experience a complete variety of terrain. Kerrville is a gateway to the vast array of landscapes that Texas has to offer. Metaphorically, Kerrville serves as another gateway, one where a person may pass from the dark lands of addiction into the sunlight of recovery.

It isn’t just the terrain that makes Kerrville a special place. There are five treatment centers nestled in the hills and valleys surrounding the town. The town itself is a retirement community, and as such, requires youthful workers to support the retirees. Kerrville has no less than 25 privately owned sober houses operating at any given time. There is an accountability system between the treatment centers and the halfway houses in town. Since such homes depend on referrals from local treatment centers, their reputation has to be top-notch. It is not uncommon to welcome a treatment center to come by and talk with the residents. Being delisted from local treatment because your sober living house has a poor reputation is effectively a death knell for your operation. Members of the recovery community generally own these sober homes, and as such, they are governed by the principles of the recovery community. The houses are expected to be fair, accountable, and well managed.

Ethically speaking, one’s sober home operation is an extension of one’s embodiment of recovery values. The recovery community police shady business, greed, and unethical behaviors. The quickest way to get run out of town is to screw over vulnerable people. Still, one’s reputation in business or recovery is never entirely written off. Doing an about-face, cleaning up one’s operation, and making amends to the community can put a person back in the graces of the townsfolk and the treatment centers. There are limits, of course, truly bad operators, and fly-by-nighters are banished. Many predatory outfits have tried to set up an operation there only to be completely shut out. Sober house owners are a tight community of owners who collaborate rather than compete. One does not open a sober home in Kerrville with profit in mind. Most of the recovery homes run on the thinnest of margins. They are always teetering on the edge.

The idea is simple: offer a bed to people who have no place to go or for whom to return to their hometown would be a bad idea. Beds go for a few hundred dollars a month. One must work, attend recovery support groups, pay their rent, help out around the house, and be accountable to housemates and the recovery community. The low rent means that one can afford their bed based on even low-wage jobs in town. There are several businesses in town as well that cater to hiring people in recovery.

The usual arrangement is that one goes from a local treatment center into a sober house in town, gets a job, goes to meetings, stays for about a year, and then moves on. It is a staging area for full integration back into the world. It is impossible to go anywhere in town and not encounter other people you know from the recovery community. In this way, the town itself, the economy, the living space are a microcosm or an extension of the post-treatment support space. You might work on a construction crew with people you went to treatment with or encounter a friend of Bill’s behind the register at the local convenience store. In general, the people and business owners in recovery provide opportunities to get back on their feet.

The often-invisible and informal network of the recovery community may help find you a job, a place to live, or help you buy a cheap car to get to work. A principled symbiosis exists between the recovery community, local treatment centers, local business owners, and the larger city. Relapsing in town is public and embarrassing, but many a 12-Step call has been made to the local motel, where the person is given a host of options for getting back into treatment, back into a sober house, aftercare, or all three. In many ways, if you are going to relapse post-treatment, you are fortunate to do so in such an understanding place. They care, and they will do whatever they can to get you the help you need.

From Kerrville, many head to larger cities after getting their lives together. They might land a job in San Antonio or Austin, or they might return to school through collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) found at every state institution throughout Texas. The state university system has adopted a mandate for recovery communities on campus. People in recovery can find scholarships through CRPs simply for being in recovery. From 30-60 days in treatment to a year in sober living in Kerrville and then onto a CRP could keep one in the recovery pipeline for five years or more while sequentially addressing clinical needs, community reintegration, and increasing recovery capital. It is no wonder that so many successful recovery trajectories come out of this pipeline, and it is in many ways an ideal model for abstinence-based recovery.

The entire pipeline consists of a mix between public and private, for-profit and non-profit, formal and informal systems; all centered on the fundamental and altruistic belief that people in recovery deserve every opportunity to rebuild their lives, and succeed, so long as they are willing to work toward a goal of long term recovery. I am sure other such arrangements exist in other places, though I cannot think of one. As a scientist and as a beneficiary of this specific pipeline, I have come to appreciate how truly fortunate I was to be plugged into this pipeline. I read accounts of shady brokers, exploitative treatment centers, places like Florida, and elsewhere. I find myself genuinely grateful that there are places, spaces, communities, and people that provide a counternarrative to such shameful practices. And while Kerrville and the recovery pipeline that runs through the Texas Hill Country isn’t perfect, it is by far one of the greatest assemblages of recovery-centric communities and institutions in existence.

I imagine a day where such a pipeline is a tangible offering to anyone seeking long-term abstinence-based freedom from the struggle and misery of addiction. I think many more people would be attracted to recovery if they were offered such a pipeline. Imagine being able to tell people on day one that they’d not only still be in recovery within five years but also that they would be given opportunities to achieve all the dreams they had been denied in their active addiction. After all, what we wanted was a better life. The systems and supports we offer people seeking recovery must be able to offer the means to a better way of living and growing. Sometimes, it is just that simple.

1.) Shelton, L. (2018). The Bronfenbrenner primer: A guide to develecology. Routledge.

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