- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - Mason Loving sat tall at the long wooden dining table, surrounded by nine men he calls brothers.

Suddenly, something happened that caused him to lower in his chair, as if he was searching for a place to hide.

“I think Mason should take over as chore coordinator,” one of the men said.

It would be the perfect job for Mason, the man said. He’d do it well, and it would be good for him.

The more the men talked, the lower Mason slid into his chair.

“Can I decline?” he asked.

“No one is going to make you do it,” Matthew Griffin, the group leader, answered. “But why wouldn’t you want to take this job?”

“I don’t want to screw it up,” Loving said. “I don’t want to fail.”

One by one, the men assured Loving he wouldn’t fail; they wouldn’t let him. They would train him. They would help him. If he made a mistake, they’d show him what he had done wrong, and the next time he would do it right, The Hutchinson News (http://bit.ly/1N4aS9j ) reported.

“You need to have this under your belt when you go out in the world, Mason,” Griffin said. “Everyone here believes in you, and believes that you can do it.”

With a pause, Loving reluctantly accepted the job - a simple task of assigning and monitoring household work. The men around Loving applauded and slapped him on the back.

He again sat up straight in his chair.

This is Oxford House Niam.

In the past several years, Hutchinson has become home to three Oxford Houses ? Niam and Promise for men, Tomahawk for women. The large homes can house nine to 12 people, all of whom have decided they needed a different approach to conquer their addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Each Oxford House operates much like a franchise - independently, but under the rules of Oxford House International. There are only three central rules to Oxford House: they are democratically run; everyone pays his fair share; and alcohol or drug use - on or off the property - means immediate eviction. Otherwise, each house is free to set as many or as few rules as it sees fit, following the guiding principles of Oxford House.

“The rules we have are really common sense for most people in society,” said Griffin, Oxford House Niam president. “I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook before I came here.”

At Niam, (prounounced Knee-um), residents are expected to stay sober, attend weekly addiction support meetings, have a sponsor and pay equal costs for the home. A few other rules ensure the house runs orderly - such as cleaning up after oneself and fair division of chores. There are fines for violating such rules, but they aren’t severe and are enforced in a businesslike manner.

The structure of Oxford House gives addicts a safe place to live and to learn, incrementally, life skills ? budgeting, home upkeep and interpersonal relationships.

“It’s like bowling with the bumpers up in an Oxford House,” Griffin said.

The key to Oxford House’s success is that it creates a family for addicts, where little or no family existed before. A family that understands the nature of addiction, yet holds members accountable to protect the strength of the family.

“We have to be open with each other or we can’t help each other,” Griffin said. “We have to be transparent to the community or they wouldn’t accept us. We are who we are; we’ve made our mistakes. But we’re on a better road, and there should be no shame in that.”

Members who remain for at least 18 months have an 87 percent chance of staying clean and sober for the rest of their lives, according to Oxford House.

To 5-year-old Mason Loving, the gurgling sound of the bong the adults used to smoke marijuana in his home sounded like fun, like a toy he wanted to play with.

He did, and since he had seen it used many times before, he knew exactly how to do it.

Around the same time, Loving recalled, his then stepfather gave him a taste of a cinnamon flavored whiskey. He thought it tasted like candy.

“I chose liquor over a toy,” Loving said.

So began a childhood of drug use.

By the age of 12, he was heavily using marijuana and prescription drugs.

By 13 or 14, he was smoking methamphetamine; by 15, he was using needles to inject it. In middle school he was selling drugs, and by 18, he had racked up a handful of felony convictions and had been through treatment three times.

One night, at age 15, another kid was stabbed in Loving’s bedroom. He spent the rest of the night cleaning up the blood.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” Loving said. “What I saw that night was like something from a horror movie.”

Loving was an addict, and that included a life of shame, guilt, dishonesty and failure. He said he was living a “toxic life” and that his friends and family had grown disgusted with him. At the height of his addiction, he even stole $3,000 from his grandfather.

There was one clean year - when he was 17 - and during that time he completed his GED and took a year’s worth of fire science classes at Garden City Community College.

By 18, however, he relapsed and was arrested and convicted on theft charges. He remains under the supervision of Reno County Community Corrections.

Loving said he knew he wanted to change his life. But his history gave him no reason to believe he could be clean, or that he deserved it.

“My drug counselor said, ‘I think I love you more than you love yourself,’ ” Loving recalled.

That triggered a belief in Loving that he could be sober, and he saw others believed it was something he could, and should, achieve. A friend told him about Oxford House, and the men at Niam called him as soon as he was released from jail.

The same grandfather that Loving had stolen from put up the $250 needed to secure his room at Oxford House.

“It really meant a lot to me,” Loving said. “Anyone else would say (expletive) you, but he believed in me. I didn’t want to ask him for anything, but he said he’d do whatever it takes to make my life straight. I saw that there’s always a chance for redemption. You just have to start somewhere.”

Loving’s cellphone has an application that tracks the number of days he’s been clean. Today it tells him he’s been clean for 3 months, 26 days.

Oxford House is his home.

Author Johann Hari, in the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs,” examines the underlying reasons for addiction.

Hari points to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which examined in detail the long-term effects of childhood trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, death of a parent and other traumatic events. Researchers found for each instance of a childhood traumatic event, the child was two to four times more likely to grow into an addicted adult.

“This is a correlation so strong the scientists said it is ‘of an order of magnitude rarely seen in epidemiology or public health,’” Hari writes. “It means that child abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease.”

Another study of 17,000 children, conducted for insurance company Kaiser Permanente, supported the ACE Study. The research found that “the basic cause of addiction is predominately experience-dependent during childhood, and not substance-dependent. The current conception of addiction is ill-founded.”

Yet another study, conducted by Bruce Alexander, psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, examined a popular anti-drug commercial from the 1980s showing the addictive power of drugs. The commercial showed a rat in a cage, aggressively licking a water bottle.

“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of 10 laboratory rats will use it,” the Partnership for a Drug-Free America said. “And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

Alexander, however, wondered what would happen if the rat was offered something besides a bottle of cocaine-laden water. So he reconstructed the experiment - with a rat alone in a cage, and another cage filled with items that would make a rat’s life comfortable - “everything a rat could want,” Hari writes. “There were wheels, colored balls, good food and other rats to hang out and have sex with.”

Both cages contained a water bottle filled with morphine, which, according to researchers, affects rats in a manner similar to heroin in humans.

“It turned out the rats in the isolated cages used up to 25 milligrams of morphine a day, as in earlier experiments,” Hari wrote. “But the rats in the happy cages used hardly any morphine at all - less than 5 milligrams each day,” despite having 24-hour access to the drug.

Oxford House is filled with things that make life happy.

The home is comfortable, with nice furniture and a big flat-screen television. There are friends who are supportive and understanding, activities like weekend barbecues with delicious food, and trips to the lake.

“Some guys get used to living here, after years of living in terrible conditions, and they don’t want to go back to living like that,” said Matthew Griffin, the Niam house president. “They get used to living in a nice place.”

It is also filled with victims of childhood trauma.

To a person, the men of Oxford House can recount some transformative event that is central to their addiction, something that changed the way they thought about themselves and the world around them.

Griffin’s father died on Christmas Eve, when he was 4 years old. Others remember everyday drugs in their homes, or experimenting with drugs at an exceedingly young age. Others suffered physical or emotional abuse.

Griffin’s girlfriend, Ana Woodburn, who came over for the evening barbecue, said sexual abuse is common among female addicts.

“There is a pain, an emotional void,” she said, and it’s often filled with drug abuse. “We have these domestic and sexual abuses, and we don’t know how to deal with it.”

The Oxford House family is also filled with love.

At the end of each weekly business meeting - where the men follow Robert’s Rules of Order to keep the meetings orderly and focused during sometimes tense debate about the home’s operations - the group talks about how their week has been, what struggles they’ve had and what obstacles could’ve threatened their sobriety.

Some are struggling with money, or relationships, or with events that trigger anger that stems from a deep-seated feeling of failure, guilt, shame, or self-loathing. They talk to each other about how those things have affected them, and how they handled the issue better than they would’ve before Oxford House. They talk about God, and their Higher Power, and how they know He has a plan for them.

Then, before the floor passes to the next person in the circle, this group of men - some with scars on their bodies and others with wounds in their minds - tell the speaker that they love him, that he’s their brother, and that they will be there to help.

“We’re a family here,” resident Tim McQueen said. “We watch out for each other.”

“I always look forward to coming home to Oxford House,” Griffin said.

In particular, the men watch out for Mason Loving.

At 19, he’s the youngest member of the home, and he, to them, represents the chance they all wish they had taken.

“We’re all like, ‘Dude, if we only had this opportunity when we were his age,’” Griffin said. “We’re definitely a family unit, and I look at him as a son. He’s come so far. It would be a devastating blow if doesn’t make it. It would be heartbreaking for all of us.”

When the group moved to make Loving the chore coordinator, Griffin knew why Mason slumped uncomfortably in his chair.

“We don’t think we can do anything,” Griffin said. “We have no life skills, and to him that’s a really scary step. It put him on the spot and he doesn’t like it. Plus, it’s one more thing we’re going to be on his ass about. But it will build his confidence and self-esteem.”

Loving admitted he was scared of the responsibility. When he looks back on his life, he sees examples of how he’s failed, and not much to support the idea that he can handle big tasks. When he was using drugs, he failed often - and big - and he developed an idea that he couldn’t do anything right.

“I’ve always had a real bad thing about responsibility,” Loving said. “I thought I would fail, and that scared me. But then I started thinking I can give this a try. Maybe I’ll fail, but my brothers will back me up. But at first, I thought I’m not up for the responsibility. I feel now like I am.”

At Oxford House, success builds on success, sometimes for the first time in an addict’s life. Balancing a checkbook becomes understanding money and finances. Taking responsibility for shortcomings becomes understanding that failure isn’t fatal or a character flaw. Accepting help and love from a friend turns into returning the same, when it’s needed by another.

And taking a simple job, like chore coordinator, turns into the confidence to take on a new challenge.

Tomorrow, Mason Loving will start a new job at Yoder Smokers. He’ll sand and prep components for barbecue cookers and smokers before they’re handed off to be painted.

He is excited about the job. He’s excited about the pay. He’s excited about the direction in which his life is headed.

“I’m grateful to be here,” Loving said, surrounded by the comforts of the Oxford House family room. “I’m grateful for my brothers. It feels like a family, and it makes a big difference.”

___

Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com

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