Beth Lewis clearly remembers what made her decide seven months ago to enter a substance abuse program.
“I got involved because I was losing my kids,” she said. “They’re with their dad, but every weekend I have them here.”
When Lewis, 26, talks about “here,” she means the non-profit Oxford House, a transitional home for people recovering from substance abuse who need a clean and sober environment.
Although there are approximately 19,000 Oxford Houses worldwide and 15 in Tulsa, this is the first in Muskogee. It will only house women.
Lewis, who is house president, said the rented home at a private address has three residents and will add three more.
“Oxford House is not for everybody,” she said. “Any resident who suspects another person is using can ask them to take a drug test. If they flunk the test, they have 20 minutes to move out.”
The UA (urine analysis) tests sit in a box in the living room, a reminder to everyone.
“Guests suspected of using who refuse to take a UA are asked to leave and not come back,” Lewis said. “If you’re using, you’re putting the whole house at risk. This is our safe house.”
The purpose of the first Oxford House established in 1975 was a low-cost method of preventing relapse into alcoholism or addiction. Houses are always rented. The Oxford House Web site (www.oxfordhouse.org) says the organization “owns no property because our interest is recovery not money or wealth.”
The number of residents in a house may range from six to 15; there are houses for men, houses for women, and houses that accept women with children.
Lewis said people sometimes misunderstand how Oxford House operates.
“This isn’t a rehab program,” she said. “We offer a transitional house with sober living. Oxford House has an 80 percent success rate. I support Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. We go to meetings at least three times a week. You’ve got to be dedicated. This is not just a way to get out of trouble. You have to completely change your lifestyle.”
Residents are required to stay with the program for at least six months. Once they are confident in their self-sufficiency, they can move out.
Although each house has a president, operations are democratic with each resident having an equal say. The Muskogee Oxford House requires each resident to pay $100 per week rent. If they don’t have a job, they are given two weeks to find one. There are penalties for breaking some rules. Not performing an assigned chore will result in a $15 fine.
Every third Sunday, there is a chapter meeting in Tulsa. Chapter leaders audit the books for each house, provide workshops and help resolve issues. Lewis requires all her residents to attend or pay a $25 fine.
Rules are strict, but Lewis said the residents encourage and support each other. She said Oxford House has made an important difference in her personal life.
“I got all the relationships back with the people I love,” she said. “That gives you all the motivation in the world.”
Health care authorities cite a great need to address chemical dependency. Statistics compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that, in 2005, the last year for which data was available, hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans as young as 12 had developed dependence on substances including illicit drugs, pain relievers (nonmedical), alcohol and tobacco. Here are the numbers:
• Past year cocaine use — 56,000.
• Past year nonmedical pain reliever use — 168,000.
• Past month alcohol use — 1,221,000.
• Past month binge alcohol use — 617,000.
• Past month tobacco product use — 973,000.
SAMHSA also gauged the number of people not getting help kicking the drug habit.
• Needing but not receiving treatment for illicit drug use — 82,000.
• Needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol use — 214,000.
One of the main backers for getting the Muskogee Oxford House started is Joe Eversole, owner of Elite Images Salon. He said he saw a need for transitional living when his wife Mary worked at Muskogee Organization for Narcotic and Alcohol Referral Counseling and Help and he was a volunteer there.
“At MONARCH, we would sometimes see women go 30, 60 or 90 days clean, then relapse because they had to go back to an environment where they were the only person who was clean,” he said. “Nothing was more frustrating.”
Eversole said he and several other people who volunteered time and money to refurbish the house are proud to make a positive difference. His research revealed that sober living environment is the highest-rated method for helping former alcoholics and addicts become productive citizens.
“People don’t understand that truly this is sacred ground,” he said. “We’re very excited to be part of this. Substance abuse is not just something that is of the young; it is an equal-opportunity destroyer. We just decided to do something about it.”