COTTONWOOD By Theresa Henson
Special to the Idaho County Free Press
Tyler Wiley works as a cook at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, creating food for the community and guests. In his spare time, he has been busy advocating for an Oxford House in Lewiston that will soon open after a long search for a suitable space. It will be a home where those in recovery live together in community and mutual accountability as they learn how to live in health.
“These guys get out of prison or treatment and they are so used to people telling them what to do and having the system support them, eventually they will have to break the reins. They have to eventually live life,” he said.
In an Oxford House, up to eight individuals in recovery live together, each holding jobs to pay the rent. There is accountability: individuals are voted into a house and must take frequent drug and alcohol tests. They can also require each other to take a drug or alcohol test on the spot. If a test is failed, the individual must move out immediately as that person is seen as a risk to the whole house.
There is a house president, secretary, and chore monitor. A house treasurer oversees a mutual account for utilities and household expenses. If they do not have life skills such as cleaning, laundry, and keeping a bank account, they will learn them.
They also help one another, cooking and sharing meals and taking on household projects. And because the Oxford House is intended to be a real home, significant others and children are welcome to visit.
“Most addicts blew trust with their families a long time ago,” explained Wiley. “An Oxford House is a place where they can demonstrate change and rebuild trust. They have to stay clean and pay their way. But these guys will also lift each other up and keep each other whole. They will love you when you can’t love yourself.”
Wiley knows because he has lived in an Oxford House. His heroin addiction emerged after taking OxyContin, a prescription pain reliever, for a severe work-related injury. His once-stable life went into destruction and chaos until he decided he did not want to live anymore.
“I blockaded the door and took enough heroin to kill me,” he said. “I should have died, but I didn’t. I am a walking miracle.” A doctor intervened, saw the excessive prescription for OxyContin, and along with implementing revised medical treatment suggested Tyler begin working the 12 Steps of Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous. From there, he eventually made his way to living in an Oxford House in Longview, Wash.
“I am proof it can happen to anybody and I am proof that the Oxford House works. I learned who I am there,” he said. “The Oxford House is a real way our society can get serious about addiction.”
Wiley has now been clean and sober for two years and is newly married to his wife, Carrie, who is also in recovery. She has been a volunteer and counselor at the Recovery Center in Lewiston. They are parenting a blended family of three sons. He owns a pickup and is working as a cook at St. Gertrude’s — a place where he feels a special destiny even though the intimidating sight of the imposing chapel towers as he drove in for the interview almost made him turn around. A strong feeling he should accept the job remained. He even said no to another job offer.
“My higher power led me here. The sisters do a lot to help the community. I want to do the same,” he stated.
It can be difficult to convince a property owner to rent to a group of recovering addicts. But the track record of Oxford House helps. The worldwide organization has a policy of making all of its records available. The program has a 13 percent rate of relapse and property owners find that through the strict rules and accountability, rent is paid with reliability and their properties often receive better care than if they had rented to the general public.
Wiley spent six months talking to investors and his plight was featured in the Lewiston Tribune and local TV news. Finally, he found someone willing to give it a try. The conversation took place with a local contractor over the grill at a recent barbecue fund-raiser for the Recovery Center.
The first residents were selected through an interview process and many had to be put on a waiting list. When the men were shown the home they immediately began making plans for gardens and other projects.
“The joy on their faces was beyond what I was expecting,” said Wiley.
Through his advocacy for the Oxford House and volunteer work at the Recovery Center he sees even more work ahead.
“I knew there was a need but I did not know how great that need was,” he said. He believes the area could use at least seven more Oxford Houses. His next goal is to help create an Oxford House in Lewiston for women and children.
The Oxford House organization recently held a world convention in Washington D.C. and Wiley was recognized for pioneering the first Oxford House in Idaho. Now only Montana and the Dakotas remain as states without Oxford Houses.
“The only gratitude I want is the opportunity to freely give back what was so freely given to me,” he emphasized.
Theresa Henson is the Director of Creative Services at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, Cottonwood.