From the street, the place looks clean, safe, and comfortably lived in. But a sign on the door suggests that that air of casual sanctuary is actually hard earned and carefully guarded:
Welcome to the Thurston Creek Oxford House.
THE OXFORD HOUSE SYSTEM
Trish Hodeck moved in to the Thurston Creek Oxford House two and a half years ago. “I was pretty much broken and homeless and living in my car. Doing drugs every day to stay alive, I thought.”
“Thank goodness for jail,” she added.
Jail is where Hodeck was finally forced to get sober. As soon as she got out, she came here.
“I was ecstatic. I was so happy just to have a bed and a shower and good friends. And to be able to recover and get my life back together,” she said.
Hodeck is one of a rotating cast of women and children who live at the Thurston Creek Oxford House. The dwelling, an intentional living facility for recovering addicts, is one of 160 Oxford Houses in the state of Oregon and more than a thousand across the world.
Unlike other state or privately run recovery programs, Oxford Houses are democratically self-governed. That means that Hodeck and her cohort share total responsibility for maintaining the house and upholding one another’s sobriety.
Michael Regan is a recovering methamphetamine addict. She came to the Oxford House from a women’s transition program at Oak Creek correctional facility just down the way. She’d been living in the Oxford House for 22 days when we talked to her in July.
“Coming to this house, they tell you – your mom doesn’t live here,” Regan said, “This is your life. You just happen to be blessed with seven other women that help keep you in line.”
Before moving to the Thurston Creek Oxford house in Albany, Oregon, Regan hadn’t been in a stable family home since she was 14. She said living at Oxford has given her a newfound sense of community.
“It’s a lot of validation,” Regan said, “I’ve never been one to trust women or men or anybody for that matter. And I trust everyone in this house.”
PLAYING BY THE RULES
Beyond paying rent and sharing upkeep duties, women at the Thurston Creek Oxford House live by a system of internally enforced policies.
It all begins with a rigorous screening process. Potential new members tour the house and interview with current members. They’re asked about their expectations, their parole and probation conditions, and the choices that led them to Oxford.
Stacy Warwick went through the process back in February.
“I was out running the streets and had no place to go at times.” Newly pregnant, Warwick said she was determined to stop using and turn her life around. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I’m tired of putting my kids through it. I’m tired of being a bad mom.”
The stakes were high for her entrance interview.
“I was nervous as all get out. My hands were sweating. I was shaking. To me at that point it was – it’s either this or nothing. I didn’t have any options.”
But contracts aren’t just for the newbies. Long-term house members can also put one another ‘on-contract’ for demonstrating relapse behavior – behavior, current members said, that’s very specific to the individual.
“We learn that it starts back at a pre-lapse. You relapse in your mind before you even touch drugs,” said Regan. “My first relapse feeling is anger.”
“Knowing your signs and asking for help and reaching out says huge things about you,” Regan adds, “And that’s what we all want.”
Though sometimes difficult, Warwick said that awareness and support is critical to the program.
“Some of us don’t want to hear it, but we’re good about calling each other out on destructive behavior. It’s nice to have that accountability from people who know you and care about you and see you every day.”
Though there’s no pressure to leave an Oxford House, the average stay is one year. Still, recovery is fragile, and the idea of moving on can be frightening.
“Honestly at this point, I’m just not ready to go anywhere,” said Warwick, “I like the stability and the accountability. It’s a safe environment for me and I’m almost afraid to go out of that.”
“It’s just today for me,” agreed Regan, “I just got my job. I just started treatment. I think about right now – how am I going to better myself today? How and I going to get through the day? This week? This month?”
The thought of leaving is especially difficult for women who have relapsed before. Women like Hodeck.
This is actually Hodeck’s second time living in an Oxford House. The first time around, she spent a year at Oxford before moving out with a very close friend. They got jobs – lived together, worked together. Everything was looking up. Until they were both fired.
“We were so down and out together that we took ourselves down to the bar and got really drunk. And we ended up getting a bag of methamphetamine and I was gone for another year.”
Hodeck said that can’t happen again.
“I know how fragile it is and how easy it would be to be taken down again,” said Hodeck. “I don’t have any more do-overs in my life. This is it.”
Despite fears of relapse, hope is palpable. And the numbers are encouraging. A study funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse found that Oxford House dwellers were almost twice as likely as recovering addicts in other group living situations to maintain their sobriety. A different study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that only 18.5 percent of interviewees who left an Oxford House during the course of the one-year study reported relapse. That’s significantly lower than the national average on drug relapse rates, which falls somewhere between 40 and 60 percent.
“It’s amazing,” said Regan, “It really restores my faith in humanity. And in recovery.”