A couple of months ago, I read an article called The Brotherhood of Recovering Addicts about recovery homes, also known as sober homes and three-quarter way houses. “Recovery homes” is a loose category for places that people live in for awhile to stay sober, often after finishing addiction treatment.
I immediately wanted to talk to Em DeMarco, the reporter who wrote it. It’s not often that I find respectful, interesting stories about people who live in and run recovery homes. I wanted to know why she decided to tell this story and her impressions of the world she wrote about.
She talked to me on the phone for about 45 minutes about what she’d known about recovery homes before starting the project (nothing), the ways she sees recovery homes generally portrayed in the media (not well), and how she responded when a resident fatally overdosed in the middle of the story.
I found her viewpoint to be valuable because she’s an outsider looking in. And she’s not just glancing in–she really took a good look.
Below is lightly edited record of our conversation.
How has the story been received?
I was surprised at how well people responded to it. I was worried that people weren’t going to read it or they were going to think it was misrepresenting a community, but I got a lot of feedback that people appreciated how involved the story was and how they got a perspective on these people’s lives.
Who did you hear from?
Oh, on Twitter, people I didn’t know responded and said “Great story”–you know, voices from the wide world of the Internet. And–this was very important to me–I also heard from sources, who responded really positively to how I portrayed the individuals and the topic itself.
Why Canonsburg? How did you get connected with Chester and Pam?
I just pounded the phones. I knew nothing about recovery homes. I saw the term “three-quarter house” in a really short newspaper clipping. I’m a naturally curious person and I was like, “What is a three-quarter house?” so I started looking for people who were connected to the recovery community. Eventually, I talked to someone on the phone who said, “Oh, you should meet Pam, she runs two homes in Canonsburg, and she probably would be fine with meeting with you.” When I first met Pam–I sat down with her and a few people who live in her recovery house–I knew right away that these stories are important and I wanted to spend some time on this.
What was it like to pitch the story to narrative.ly? Did they say, yeah, great idea or no, we do too many stories on this subject already or what?
They were receptive because narrative.ly focuses on untold stories, sort of deep-dive human stories that we don’t typically hear. So this story was a good fit because a story about addiction and recovery is often–you often don’t get to hear it from the people who are actually living inside the houses.
Take, for example, the story that piqued my interest. The story that piqued my interest was literally three inches long; it was basically a news blurb. It was about a woman who was kicked out of a three-quarter way home for using drugs and she alleges that she was raped shortly after getting kicked out. As a reporter, I was like, “What? What is a three-quarter house? Why was she kicked out?” That sort of got the ball rolling in terms of my curiosity. And to be honest, as I was initially trying to figure out what these places were all about, the majority of the news stories I was reading were not very positive. Most of the stories suggested that these places are awful, they’re holes in the wall and they’re run by drug addicts. That was pretty much all I saw. And when I started digging more, I was like, “Clearly, this is a much more complex situation.”
So this takes me to the issue of the overdose death and how you thought about reporting it. It was obvious from reading the story that you had a lot of respect for the residents of the recovery homes and the people running the recovery homes, but the overdose was also a situation that could be read as confirmation that recovery homes are dangerous, they’re not well-run, that sort of thing. So what was your thought process about reporting the overdose death?
Well, the first thing I did was got on the phone with my editor because it’s important for me to feel like I have a sense of support for what I’m seeing, what I’m reporting on. It’s a really intense moment as a reporter to hear something like that. I really struggled with the way I wanted to write that part. Because I had not met the person who had died, to represent the death as ethically as I possibly could, I felt it was important to represent it through [recovery home manager] Chester’s eyes. He was the one who told me about it, he was the one who described what happened, so I tried to stay as true as I could to the way he told me the story. I tried to give voice to Chester’s intense emotional response to this horrible thing that had happened in his home.
I think that gets to the heart of how I tried to report this story. I was trying to get past the quick impression we have of these places, not to pass judgment over these houses in Canonsburg–if they’re good, if they’re bad–but more to shed light on the complexities of these people’s lives. And the trauma that they go through and the things that they witness on a day-to-day basis. And the things they remember. For Chester, witnessing this overdose death took such a toll on him, emotionally. It dragged up all of these memories that he struggles with as a recovering addict himself. And that’s not to minimize the impact on the family–it’s obviously a tragedy for the family of the person who overdosed and died–but I also thought it was important to show how intensely the people in this community reacted to this tragedy.
Near the beginning of the piece, you say: “To understand recovery homes, know this first: basically anyone who owns a shack with four walls can run a recovery home.” When I came to understand that fact, I was very surprised. Was that also surprising for you? And do you think that’s how it “should” be or do you see an alternative that makes more sense to you?
Yeah. I almost couldn’t wrap my head around this idea that I could run a recovery home or you could run a recovery home or the person down the street could already be running a recovery home. It confused me because so much is regulated in the drug treatment world. So I just, like, assumed these places would be, you know, regulated [laughs]. And I guess to answer your other question about what I think should be going on, it’s not my job to judge whether something should be changed or fixed; it’s more my job to try to represent complex situations as accurately and as ethically as I can. I guess I don’t know. Whether these places should be regulated or whether they should be licensed and whether it should be done by the federal government or the states, these are really big important questions that I know lots of people are talking about. But it’s not up to me to decide whether that should happen.
It seems like Dr. Jason summed up how hard it is to know where to go when he said “There’s a lot of variety out there and that’s part of the issue–how do you find one that is good for your needs?” If you were helping a loved one or a friend, do you think you’d be able to help find a good recovery home? Would that be an option you’d consider?
One of the guys I interviewed talked about this issue. He said that his parents found a place, dropped him off there, and the place was a wreck. It was not at all a clean, safe environment for someone to go through recovery. And once his parents saw the place with their own eyes they were like, “No, you can’t stay here. Let’s find a better place for you.” So, actually seeing a place could be helpful. Honestly, I have no idea where I would start if I wanted to try to find a place for a loved one. I know now that the community is pretty close-knit and if you talk to folks at a treatment center, they may have an idea of who are running good, clean, safe facilities and who are not. I guess I would start with a treatment center that seems to be run well and talk to folks there to try to get a feel for it.
As much as there are lots of news stories–let’s just take Pennsylvania, there’s so many people overdosing and dying, so many stories about prescription painkillers and heroin–the average person doesn’t think that this will happen to them or their loved ones. There’s this really big disconnect between what we see in the news and actually dealing with drug abuse in our own lives.
I was so tickled to read that you created a flowchart of the recovery process. Do you still have that?
Nope. I wanted to include it with the story and actually the one that Derrick [a recovery home resident] did too, because the drawing that Derrick did was way better than mine. He corrected some of my mistakes. But no, I wish I still had that.
Do you feel like you know a lot more about how “the system” works now that you’ve done this story? Do you still find it confusing?
Oh yeah, I absolutely have a better understanding of the whole system. It was a total mystery to me going to into reporting this story and now I do not at all pretend that I’m an expert, but after reporting for a year, I feel closer to understanding so much more about the recovery process and where recovery homes fit within treatment.
Just curious–why did you report the story over such a long period of time with so many months between visits? Or was that typical for you? A year seems like a long time to me.
That was really long. It was really long story! It just turned out that way…that the story needed to continue. In order to do justice to what I was seeing in Canonsburg, I thought it was really important to spend so much time with these people. I guess, more than anything else, I felt like I owed these people and their stories the time.
Em DeMarco is an audio and visual journalist living in Pittsburgh, PA. You can find her work online.