Many things have changed in west county over the last 60 years, but the mission of Azure Acres, a residential drug and alcohol program in the wilds of west county, has remained the same: helping individuals in the throes of addiction take the first tentative steps toward a life of sobriety.
The historic lodge, designed in 1906 by famed Arts and Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck (also known for being the architect of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco), was initially a private summer home and retreat. In the late 1950s, it became an all-male “dry out” facility for alcoholics, going co-ed in the 1970s and expanding its treatment to include drug addiction, with an emphasis on creating a supportive social network to assist residents in maintaining lasting sobriety.
A revolution in addiction treatment
Jen Carvalho, the CEO of Azure Acres, said the field of addiction treatment has undergone significant transformation over the past two decades.
“There have been such dramatic changes in the treatment industry in the last 20 years. In some ways it is unrecognizable,” she said.
In the past, alcoholism and addiction were viewed as moral defects or an inability to get one’s life together. There was a shift in the 1970s toward helping individuals maintain sobriety through more therapeutic means.
According to Carvalho, substance use disorder treatment has been fully integrated into health care in ways that were previously unimaginable, which has reduced the stigma around the treatment of what is now considered a chronic and relapsing brain disorder rather than a moral character flaw. Insurance companies provide treatment benefits more often than they used to, and a client’s care can be integrated into a full behavioral health plan.
Additionally, “medication assisted treatment” is a significant modality today, and certain medications are becoming an expected course of treatment.
In the past decade, addiction treatment centers have also acknowledged the common underlying theme of trauma, and support groups around healing from childhood trauma have become more common in residential and outpatient programs. Clients are encouraged to participate in therapy and family members are as well.
Finally, Carvalho said, most addiction treatment centers now recognize that substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand with other debilitating mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, resulting in what are called “dual (or multiple) diagnoses.”
While an individual may cease using drugs or alcohol, this does not cause severe anxiety or depression to suddenly vanish. The underlying mental disorder must be addressed as well. This is a vastly different approach compared to an individual detoxing in the 1950s and being expected to jump back into life without alcohol.
Carvalho said that one of the aspects of Azure Acres which distinguishes the program is its focus on longevity. The program highlights the importance of finding support from others and setting participants up for success, knowing that graduates will need some kind of community support when venturing back into the world. Treatment at Azure Acres aims to support the family members of residents as well as the participants themselves.
“It’s a peaceful place for healing,” Carvalho said. “This site is sacred. Literally 20,000 people have sought refuge here in the last 60 years.”
60 years of new beginnings
Azure Acres hosts an annual alumni barbecue. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the program gave the gathering had added meaning this year. Carvalho described the event as a “celebration of recovery.”
Two hundred and fifty people attended the milestone anniversary celebration. A panel of past graduates, each having remained clean and sober for over 30 years, shared their personal accounts. Current staff in recovery articulated their stories as well.
A common theme amongst graduates is the appreciation of the alumni program and the encouragement during residential treatment of establishing and cultivating a reliable community. Current residents, some who had just arrived, were fortunate to be surrounded by former occupants telling them, “I stayed at this facility, I went through this program. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes, and you can do it!”
Zack, who now resides in the East Bay, lived in a group home in west county as a teenager. Because he had struggled with addiction, he attended meetings regularly at Azure Acres to help his motivation to avoid drugs and alcohol. He credits the awareness he was able to find there with helping him take a different life path than the lifestyle in which he was raised.
Hearing individuals share their stories of 20 or more years of recovery planted seeds of confidence that he could accomplish this as well. He found a sponsor while attending these meetings, whom he worked with for several years.
“I watched my dad and many of his friends relapse while I was young,” he recalls. “Seeing older men and women at these meetings who had stayed sober for decades gave me a different picture as to what life could be.”
A former resident of the program, a Santa Rosa woman, conveyed her appreciation of the support given to family members during her treatment time. Every other weekend during a resident’s stay family members are invited to visit the program. They receive counseling and recommendations to support the individual in treatment as well as education to understand family dynamics at play. She said this attention to the family system helped her to better understand the many facets of addiction and helped her learn to solicit help from family members as she navigated early sobriety.
“If it wasn’t for Azure Acres, I would never have been able to live the life I’ve lived the last 11 years, enjoy the employment I found and mend relationships that had suffered because of choices I made as an alcoholic,” she said. “These programs are truly a place to start your life over again with the help of other people who have been through what you’ve been through.”
Azure Acres hosts four weekly meetings open to the community. On Mondays and Thurdays at 8 p.m. it hosts a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. On Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Wednesdays 8 p.m. it hosts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.