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Taking Aftercare to a New Level

New treatment centers are helping addicts transition from rehab to reality.

In the treatment industry, the word “aftercare” gets thrown around quite a bit and it seems to mean quite different things to different folks. I’ve known people who have been in sober living houses with rules so loose, they made an MTV reality show look tame. But three partners in Costa Mesa have been quietly building a program that takes aftercare—as well as residential care—to a new level.

Only four years ago, Steve Fennelly, Elizabeth Perry and Mark Shandrow created their first sober living, which has now mushroomed into 14 recovery houses around Costa Mesa, California under the umbrella of the Solid Landings Behavioral Group. Shandrow, a real estate broker, and Fennelly, a former contractor, first met back in college in New England but got back in touch in 2008 once Fennelly was sober and asked Shandrow if he could help him find investors for a sober living he and his girlfriend were planning to open.

Shandrow helped the couple put together a business plan but, Shandrow says, people were hesitant to commit. Shandrow, however, was intrigued—enough to invest himself. So, along with investments from Fennelly and Perry, they opened their first sober living in November 2009.

From the get-go, their attitude was a far cry from the free and loose sober living home: prospective clients had to both fill out applications and provide references and if clients relapse while living there, they have to leave for 30 days and then re-apply if they want to come back. “Our approach has always been that we feel it’s a privilege to be here,” Perry says.

In order to establish themselves and begin receiving referrals from treatment centers, Perry and Fennelly spent two years traveling to over 100 established facilities all over the country. They told the program directors about their concept, which includes separate living and treatment for men and women—an idea they feel is crucial for the 18-to-30 year-old clients that frequent treatment programs and sober livings. The two were relentless in their pursuit. “We traveled to some facilities three times before we got a referral from them,” Perry confesses.

It’s safe to say that their doggedness paid off; Solid Landings now offers the full continuum of care, from detox to sober living in their various houses, has close to 100 beds in all, and receives regular referrals from treatment centers across the nation. And what they provide puts many of the high-end treatment programs to shame—residents can be treated for dual diagnosis, eating disorders, depression, self-harm and sex addiction and receive twice-weekly therapy, EMDR, Reiki and a variety of holistic treatments. They also put a great deal of emphasis on giving back to the community—not only because it’s the core element of Step 12 in AA but also because the Solid Landings founders feel it’s essential for addicts who want to live happy, healthy lives. The combination of all of this allows addicts who don’t always fit the mold at other rehabs to find help in ways they couldn’t before. “Sure Haven [the Solid Landings women’s program] was the third residential facility I tried,” says a 24-year-old female sex addict who was also addicted to self-harm. She says that she had felt “different” at previous rehabs because “I was the girl who wasn’t there for substance abuse.” It was only when she checked into Sure Haven that she was able to stop cutting and burning herself and get her sex addiction in check. “They taught me coping skills, like ways to get back in the present when I was disassociating,” she explains. “Also I grew up not being able to express myself and they taught me how to be able to say, ‘I need help,’ and have someone just sit down and listen to me.” Because her parents only lived 20 minutes away, she was also able to do “a lot of family therapy,” transforming a relationship that she says people used to describe as being “like World War III” into “the best relationship ever.”

The fact that clients can get this for a relatively low cost—the scholarship cash rate is $18,500 for 30 days and $39,500 for 90—is one of the reasons Solid Landings has ballooned so quickly. Overhead is low because of the unique skill set each of the partners brings: Fennelly excels at finding high-quality, low cost real estate that they can easily renovate while Perry is a self-diagnosed “bargain hunter extraordinaire.” Still, unlike many in the field, they’re realists. “Even though we’re less expensive than many, it’s still expensive,” Perry says. “This is not a vacation. It’s work. When you get sober, you have to change your approach, your outlook and your perception—everything.”

To that end, Solid Landings employs several counselors in their AVEnues program whose sole vocation is to guide residents toward finding theirs: after roughly 30 days, clients are assigned an AVEnues counselor who helps them get either back in school or into the workforce. “A lot of addicts come to us having failed out of school, so getting back in can feel insurmountable,” Perry explains. They also teach clients how to talk to prospective employers. “I remember when I was first sober, in one of my first job interviews, the person asked me questions like, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ And ‘How do you account for the gaps in your work history?’” Perry recalls. “I panicked. Our goal is to give them support but also have them experience the real world.” That’s what the former self-harmer and sex addict got. “I love being around kids and they helped get me involved in an after-school program,” she says. They also helped her with her resume, job interview skills and, eventually, easing back into school two days a week (she had dropped out before entering Sure Haven because she had been too depressed to get out of bed); she’s now a sober full-time student.

In order to stay ahead of the competition, the Solid Landings crew is always on the lookout for new ways they can improve their program. The latest idea that’s percolating? Buying a café or bakery and serving all the residents meals there (at this point, a chef and her assistants travel from house to house). This would allow not only for cooking classes but also for employment and volunteer opportunities.

Whatever they do, their focus will stay on helping addicts make that precarious transition from treatment to life as well as on giving back to their community so they can stay on the straight and arrow when they leave. As Perry says, “Anybody can stay sober in a bubble for 30 days; the struggle is implementing the things they’ve learned once they’re out of it.”

This post originally appeared on AfterPartyChat.