Feb 28, 2023

Sober Together


Ashley Castorena

The role of community in addiction recovery

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach
*The word“fellowship” is used throughout this article to categorize various meetings in addiction recovery communities. No single name is used in order to honor the recovery community’s culture of “attracting” and not “promoting.” 

Walking into the Recovery Cafe felt like stepping into a daycare or nursery—some walls were painted bright yellow, others turquoise, and they were all covered with metallic butterfly stickers. The statement art piece of the room was a large, square canvas with the words “Let your faith be bigger than your fear” painted over a rainbow. An impressive collection of hardback books were displayed on one wall, supported by a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. As I stood in what I later discovered was the cafe's "living room," I was warmly welcomed. 

Recovery Cafe is not another fellowship* or program to help one recover from addiction. Rather, it’s a place where people from all fellowships can come and be in community: to be the breakout champion at ping pong, practice downward dog side by side, or break bread at the same table. 

Everyone who walks into the cafe is greeted with hospitality—a warm cup of coffee and a fresh doughnut. There is a home-cooked meal every day, eaten as a community. Like a close neighbor or friend, the cafe helps folks get an ID or find a job. There are support groups, sober social activities, skill-building courses, and a computer lab. Most importantly, it is a place where people who are in recovery can come to do life with other people who are in recovery. 

Kara, the Cafe Manager, helps facilitate the communal atmosphere. Meeting with Kara is similar to meeting with an old friend; she is intentional to let everyone who comes into the cafe know that she is “so glad you are here.” 

Kara has an effortless, model-off-duty look about her. She wore an oversized black turtleneck with wide-leg denim. Her hair was in a slicked bun, and she accessorized with dangly earrings. She presented as someone experiencing stability. But she was quick to inform me that this is only where her story has taken her, and it wasn’t always the case. Today, she identifies as a person in long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol abuse. 

“I grew up in—what I considered at the time—a normal home. My mom and dad were married. I had an older brother and an older sister,” said Kara. “But I always felt a little bit on the outside.”

She continued, sharing that her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 28, while they were living in Kansas. “I had a lot of trauma associated with that,” said Kara. “I was raised in an evangelical fundementalist home where I was taught to pray it away… which didn’t work. It wasn’t enough for me.” 

At 17, Kara was pregnant with her first daughter, and she married the father when she was 19. She had her second daughter right before her 21st birthday. Eventually, she and her husband separated, though they still have a great relationship. 

It is a place where people who are in recovery can come to do life with other people who are in recovery.

“I met another man that ended up not being great,” Kara said with hesitation. She was with him for a total of 13 years, and they had two daughters together. It was during this relationship that she completed her bachelor's degree. However, the relationship suffered from drug and alcohol use and eventually domestic violence. “This was the beginning of the end,” said Kara.  

On her 36th birthday, for the first time in her life, Kara ended up in jail. The violence in her home escalated to the point that her two youngest daughters were running down the street asking for help. Kara, like many domestic violence victims, protected her husband. She didn’t allow the police to talk to her children about what they had witnessed. Because of this, both she and her husband went to jail. 

“It was shocking,” Kara described. 

Kara was released the next day. While she and her husband were in jail, her kids were temporarily placed with her sister, and eventually, Kara gave a Power of Attorney to her sister for the children. However, Kara’s husband ended up fleeing the state with their children. “Because there was no custody established, it wasn’t considered kidnapping,” said Kara. 

In May of 2016, Kara ended up in Good Samaritan Hospital on a psychiatric hold. “I was losing my mind,'' she said. While at Good Samaritan, Kara realized she had nowhere to go when she was discharged. “By this point, my family didn’t want anything to do with me. No one wanted to answer my phone calls,” she said. “I was homeless. And that was just so daunting.”

Kara left Good Samaritan Hospital with $80, a pack of cigarettes, a cell phone, and a list of treatment facilities. She walked to the McDonalds across from the hospital that had a “no soliciting past 30 minutes” policy, and made as many calls to recovery facilities as quickly as she could.

After 20 minutes, she ended up walking to a bar nearby and had a beer and bourbon before making her next move. “I got some liquid courage, and I hit up a guy I went to high school with and I hadn’t seen in 16 years, who I knew lived in [the city],” said Kara. 

He came and got Kara and let her stay in his house. “He was an angel,” said Kara. She stayed at his home for three days before going to treatment. 

Kara finished treatment and went to a sober living facility. “The first sober living home I was in closed its doors two weeks after me moving in,” said Kara. “At the time, [the city] didn’t have very many services for women.” However, Kara came in contact with a man in long-term recovery who opened his home up to women struggling with addiction. “We sat in his home every day, drinking coffee and doing the work,” said Kara.

Eventually, Kara moved out of sober living and into her own apartment. “I had no furniture, but it was mine,” she said. By this point, Kara was experiencing stability again. She was sober, she was healthy, and she had a job. And eventually, she reunited with her children and established custody. 

Today, Kara is remarried. Her current husband is also in recovery. She went back to school and completed a certification to be a paralegal and worked at a law firm prior to starting her position at the Cafe. 

Kara’s road to long-term recovery was paved by two things: establishing a relationship with her higher power, and sitting at a table across from another human, coffee cup in hand, and doing the work. This continues to be the case as she spends her days in the Recovery Cafe serving those who are just starting their recovery paths. However, she notes that having the Recovery Cafe earlier on in her recovery process would have made things much easier.

“I just believe in this place. There is nowhere like this that I have ever experienced,” said Kara. 

With recovery options, there are a few routes to be taken. In a sober living home, it is all about recovery—it’s very serious, and it’s relentlessly about doing the work. Fellowship programs* are about completing self-work, which is vital to the recovery process. The work to be done depends on the fellowship, but some examples include releasing control, taking moral inventory of oneself, and admitting wrongdoings. In contrast, the Recovery Cafe is a place where people who are in recovery can come and experience fun, creativity, and communion with others. It is a space where there is conversation about life outside of recovery. 

“The pandemic was detrimental to recovery,” said Kara. “People did the best they could with what they had, but Zoom can’t replace human interaction. It gave people too big of an opportunity to isolate.” 

Nearly 92,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, up from around 70,000 in 2017 (Odobaᶊ, 2022). There are several variables that can be attributed to this steep increase, but the isolation that swept through addiction recovery communities is certainly one of them.  

A similar truth was discovered by a series of studies on rats conducted in the 1970s to determine what caused them to consume morphine: “Rat Park” found that rats housed with other rats consumed less morphine solution than those in isolated cages (Gage & Sumnall, 2018). This was the case when all the rats were pre-exposed to morphine, and whether or not a rat spent its early life in isolation or enriched housing. 

As I sat in Kara’s office and listened to her speak, I couldn’t help but think about my own brother, Trey, who passed away in August of 2021 from a relapse overdose. Prior to the pandemic, he had been sober for over two years. He spent the majority of his time with folks in recovery: from going to conferences, to taking spontaneous trips to surrounding cities, on the hunt for the best barbeque. 

In such a tight-knit community,
what happens to one is felt by all.

Life became difficult for my brother when in-person recovery meetings shifted to virtual. During the pandemic, he lost several of his friends that he had been in recovery with. I remember the very last conversation I had with him: how it was difficult for him to continue in his process as he watched many who once walked with him pass away to overdose. In such a tight-knit community, what happens to one is felt by all.

My brother’s memorial showed me just how vast the community was that he cultivated in his life. Because it was August of 2021, we decided to have a small, intimate funeral, but have a memorial in an outdoor setting. I’ll never forget pulling up to the grounds and having trouble finding parking because it was that packed. Several picnic tables were pushed together, all packed with different food people brought to share. My family and I sat and listened to multiple people eulogize my brother and who he had been to them: from traveling long distances to pick someone up to take them to detox, to giving them his last dollar. There have been several tattoos that people have received in his honor—even two face tattoos. 

It was evident that my brother understood the importance of community in his own recovery, and he, like many, suffered the loss of it during the pandemic. I am confident that he would have spoken to the benefit of the Recovery Cafe model existing in every city, and every neighborhood.

Gage, S. H., & Sumnall, H. R. (2018). Rat park: How a rat paradise changed the narrative of addiction. Addiction, 114(5), 917–922.
Odabaᶊ, M. (2022, May 31). Concern about drug addiction has declined in U.S., even in areas where fatal overdoses have risen the most. Pew Research Center.

Ashley Castorena is from Louisville, Kentucky, but has made her home in Lexington over the last five years. She is about to complete her masters in Public Administration and Public Policy, and is passionate about economic development and community revitalization. In her spare time, you will find her making Instagram reels and TikToks, running with my dog Charlotte, or watching Jane the Virgin. She is the the Cofounder and Marketing Director of Ethel Magazine.