Recovering Addicts Give Sober Advice : Volunteers: Counselors at Sobering Center in Escondido find helping others is best way to keep themselves away from the bottle or drugs.


Like other recovering substance abusers, Keith Hill and John Wrisley take their hard-won sobriety one day at a time. Both also have found that helping others to kick the bottle helps them, too.

While continuing their own treatment, the two men volunteer at the Escondido Community Sobering Service Center, an alternative to the typical jail drunk tank or detoxification center. The Sobering Center helps people dry out while they receive counseling from others who have been down the same self-destructive road.

"There's a saying in A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous): You can't keep what you've got unless you give it away," said Hill, who has been off alcohol and methamphetamines for nearly a year.

"I'm not out to save the world, but it keeps me focused," he said. "It's just a way of giving something back."

During the Sobering Center's hours of operation, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, Escondido police can avoid time-consuming trips to County Jail at Vista by taking to the center the people they arrest for public drunkenness who are not violent or don't require medical attention.

As many as 10 men and women at a time can sober up on mats, then awake to a cup of coffee and a compassionate ear. Counselors include recovering alcoholics and even some former "guests" of the Sobering Center, which has two paid staff members and about 20 volunteers.

The project is run by the Fellowship Center, a local alcohol recovery program on contract with the city. Hill and Wrisley are in treatment there.

Paul Savo, administrator of the Fellowship Center, said the volunteers provide the drunks with role models for taking that first big step to recovery.

"They get a real good dose of compassion, of warmth and understanding," as well as a list of low-cost recovery programs and other agencies to meet housing, food, medical and mental health needs, Savo said. Typical detoxification centers don't provide referral services or the one-on-one attention, he said.

"We really want them to see the role alcohol has been playing in their lives. We try to make (sobriety) an attractive alternative."

The 6-month-old center, which has served more than 150 people, is the only one of its kind in California and possibly in the country, said Linda Peek, Escondido Community Services Manager. Vista and Oceanside are considering similar community-based programs, and the center has received inquiries from all over the state.

The center is unusual because it uses volunteers with previous drinking problems and because "we're doing more than just letting people sleep it off. . . . It's more than just a jail diversion," Peek said.

"The volunteers are really key to the success," she said. "There's someone there who really identifies with them. . . . It's 'I've been where you've been.' "

Savo said that in a clinical setting, a message sometimes goes out that "there is something wrong with you." The use of recovering alcoholic volunteers helps to move away from that.

Wrisley, a self-professed former skid row wino, said he treats each person he talks to at the center as an individual, and lets them know that "I've been there over 10,000 times" in similar situations.

"I don't harp at them or nag at them for what they're doing. I just tell them there's a better way," said Wrisley, who has been sober five months. He said he too resisted help for a long time, and wishes there would have been something like the Sobering Center for him years ago.

Peek said the program is not meant to coddle drunks, nor is it a transient shelter. People arrested for drunk driving or who have outstanding warrants are not taken there, she added.

The program succeeds, Peek said, because it is small enough to be manageable and because local residents enjoy helping people in their own community, avoiding the "not in my back yard" problems that a large regional center would face.

Organizers hope to expand services and hours at the Sobering Center.

The city is looking for funding to help pay for these extras. The San Diego County Department of Health Services pays $60,000 a year and the city of Escondido another $10,000 to the Fellowship Center to run the program. The city also provides the use of its Community Services staff and paid for some renovation of the building that houses the center.

Peek and Savo said organizers also want to develop a better system of tracking participants to determine how many follow through with therapy and sober lifestyles.

Escondido Police Lt. Blaine Bennett said it's difficult to tell whether the program has made a big dent in public drunkenness, but he added: "We have seen the results of some of the prisoners . . . people who have gotten serious about straightening their lives up. It's better than what we had before."

Taking drunks to the Sobering Center, on North Spruce Street near the city's public works facility, instead of the Vista jail saves officers about two hours in driving and processing time, Bennett said. And if the county proceeds with its plans to charge booking fees to municipalities using the jails, the Sobering Center will also represent a $175-per-person savings, he said.

Using volunteers also helps keep costs down, and there has never been a problem finding enough of them, Peek said.

The volunteers keep "coming back because they feel they're doing something and it's for their own community," Savo said.

People brought in by police include those on one-time binges as well as habitual street drunks. As many as a third of those served so far have been repeat offenders, but they have not taxed the system, Peek said.

"As long as we have the capacity, why not keep trying?" she said. She said one man who had been brought in several times eventually enrolled in a live-in recovery program. "That one time it clicked for him," she said. "He came back and thanked them for not giving up on him."

Savo agreed that "there's no magic number" for how many times it will take to get through to a drunk that he or she needs help.

Both Wrisley and Hill said events in their own lives took drastic turns before they sought help.

Wrisley entered the Fellowship Center after his alcohol abuse got so bad that he was in and out of hospitals, his equilibrium permanently damaged. He also watched a friend die of alcohol-related liver problems, and that scared him.

"I couldn't go on," he said. "I was about through with living, really.

"My last seven years of drinking were miserable. There was no fun in it anymore; the laughing and the girls were all gone."

Hill said he was living in his car for several months when he tried on his own to quit his 20-year habit. That lasted seven months, but meanwhile he had replaced those addictions with food, gaining more than 80 pounds. Doing it alone, he said, he was destined to fail.

"When I blew my seven months, I started using speed again. It scared me," Hill said. "When I came down off the speed I was almost suicidal. I just got sick and tired of feeling that way."

He now attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, is looking for a job as a mechanic, taking an automotive course at Palomar College and has re-established ties with his 4-year-old son.

"It does feel really good to work down there (at the center)," Hill said. "I've never committed to anything in my life. I'm finally committed to sobriety."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World