Living Sober

Posted by editor 18/09/2012 0 Comment 3715 views

Prior to living at Oxford House, these six inhabitants cost the state over £1m in failed recovery programmes, criminality and illness. Tony hides his rollercoaster past beneath a boyish baseball cap and a matching grin.  He works 9-5 as an Alcohol Outreach Worker, and finds his work just as wordy and vague as his job title.  Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the care the paperwork allows him to provide, Tony made it, literally and figuratively, his business to provide aftercare for recovering alcoholics like himself through setting up Living Sober in 2005.  He told me to tell you that he’s ‘unscarred’ by a school education, he’s not a professional, and he’s not a saint.

I have the feeling that when Tony refers, as he frequently and vehemently does, to The System, he does so in capital letters, so it makes sense to follow suit.  As a drinking alcoholic, he was persistently in and out of The System in ambulances, ‘funny farms’ and 50-minute consultations.  His life now back in order, Tony is still forced to keep one foot firmly planted within The System in order to move forward, albeit along ‘a very thin line’.  To the astonishment of his mentors and 1600 partners across the Atlantic, and even in a pocket of Kenya, stubborn British habits and bureaucracy refuses to officially, far less financially, recognise Tony’s method of recovery from addiction as legitimate.  His method is simple: a post-rehab communal house in which sober alcoholics either abide by the rules which they themselves dictate, or they must leave.

Tony has compromised with The System, feeding it the reports, statistics and low-budget solution it craves.  Initially, Tony’s MD gave him a year to produce 5 sober people.  He produced 11, but it was dismissed as fluke.  It’s harder to argue with the 79 men that have emerged from Living Sober since then, “but The System doesn’t want living and breathing evidence”, Tony scorns, it wants price tags.   On cue, Harry whispers his personal calculations to Tony, confidant and spokesman, who announces that, collectively, the six inhabitants of Oxford House cost the state over £1m in failed recovery programmes, criminality and relapses before they encountered his programme.  What Redcar currently does for £185,000, he tells me and the state, he could do for £126,000, and he could provide the aftercare which is so vital to preventing revolving doors.

I’ll leave the politics to Tony, the empirical research to the PhD student who’s coming over from Chicago this year, and the defence to our health and social services, but I can understand why Coast and Country have chosen to tread the thin line beside Tony, and not in the opposite direction.

Dave lives in Oxford House.  He now spends the time he used to waste in a drunken stupor bringing up a daughter, college training, and with flatmates who do the same. Beside the kitchen door is a press cutting bearing the silhouette of 79 men who have achieved sobriety through the work of Living Sober.

Tony beckons me over and introduces me to three of the shadow figures with his finger.  “Since this photo was taken, they’ve all three died,” he goes on to tell me.  It’s difficult to know how to react to the news, which must jolt even more personally with everyone else in earshot, but it makes me far more receptive to the happier end that I encounter as I walk past the image and into the kitchen. I’m accosted by Dave and eagerly offered a custard doughnut, a coffee, and a success story which challenges my assumptions.  He first feels it necessary to elucidate on the five Golden Rules which Tony had dropped amongst a tirade of statistics.  Having recounted them, my question as to whether that allowed him enough freedom is answered by way of his expressive, dark brows.  I realise it is freedom from (the drink), and not freedom to (do as he wishes), which made sense to him now.

Turning from the washing up, Dave ignores the fact that by now, the doughnut’s contents has oozed onto my chin.  I’m out of place in a kitchen which is otherwise as immaculate as the garden it looks out onto, and which would put to shame most kitchens that I, as a student, pick my way through.  Yet it’s me, the student, who receives the accommodation, the government funding, the rights and the legitimacy which recovering alcoholics are unofficially denied.

Enthused by Dave’s unsolicited praise for his way of life under the roof of Oxford House and its Golden Rules, and influenced by a culture which sees social support as a stepping stone, and not a landing base, I wonder where Dave looks to go next.  His brows raise: “For the foreseeable future at least, I’m more than happy here.”  And for the foreseeable future at least, there’s absolutely no reason why Dave should be denied the security of a home.

Scott is a 45-year-old dad who, last year, was spat out of rehab into a community that had moved on three decades since he had last seen it in the cold light of sobriety.  He says it’s thanks to Oxford House that he still hasn’t had a beer.

Scott isn’t the first to volunteer to allow me into his flat and his life, but he gives Tony a shy and deferent smile which suggests he didn’t entirely mind being thrown into the spotlight, he just isn’t used to it.  It is with extraordinary generosity and frankness that he does allow me to catch a glimpse of his immaculate flat and the less immaculate life which has led him there.  Scott draws a fascinating, saddening and apparently indelible distinction between ‘Us, in here’ and ‘Them, out there’, but hurries to assure I’m not offended at being one of the them.

Corners of his flat and his life are brightened by the framed faces of several children in whose direction he half-smiles as he perches from a cream armchair that seems disproportionately large.  Its overwhelming size illustrates the fact that Scott, in some ways, is still a teenager himself.  Tony knocks, breezes onto the sofa next to me, and agrees.  “I’m just coming out of nappies and into primary school,” he says candidly, and his eyes chuckle as he explains he turns ten in October, his sobriety birthday.  “My friends in America are going to throw a huge party for me’.  Even as one of the Them, I can understand the significance of this milestone; I got a card and party when I turned ten, but my achievement was entirely insignificant besides Tony and Scott.  It’s then that I realise how ludicrous it is to expect an alcoholic to rejoin society after 12 weeks of rehab.  By Tony’s calendar, they are only three months old.

Officially, Louise is Head of Tenant Services at Coast and Country.  She has taken on a risk and its paperwork in providing apartments for 6 recovering alcoholics in Oxford House for a year.  More than that, she has clearly taken on the cause. Louise’s warm brown eyes express a togetherness, intelligence and intuition which reflect her personality, and make her a perfect colleague for Living Sober.  Not every housing association would allow a Tony Brown to set up a self-governed home for alcoholics on one of its estates, let alone be the first to provide funding.  But for her willingness to launch alternative initiatives such as Oxford House, Louise has been rewarded in the form 79 grateful, community-conscious and sober alcoholics, one of Overfield’s most meticulously pruned gardens and a friendly cup of tea.  ‘We’, says Louise, gesturing inclusively at Sober Living’s 7 most recent success stories who sit beside her, ‘are trying to change the political view’.  Her calm tenacity is formidable.

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