HAMPTON — It looks like a big old farm house, but to the women who live at Magnolia House, it’s a lifeline to a sober future, if they’re willing “to do the work.”
“I entered my first rehab at 15,” said 25-year-old Emily, a resident of Magnolia House. “That’s 10 years ago. This is the first time I’m serious about it. I grew up in foster care. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks, but it feels like home. I’m going to stay.”
Magnolia House isn’t a drug rehabilitation facility. It’s a 10-person, alcohol- and drug-free communal living experience for women struggling with substance use. It’s certified by the New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Residences, and out of 42 in the state, it’s one of just 16 in New Hampshire and the only one in Rockingham County, reserved for women.
It opened in October 2020, the mission of the nonprofit organization’s 43-year-old president Jules Johnson, who struggled with substance abuse for much of her adult life. Born in Portsmouth, Johnson traveled to California when she was 20, succeeding as a sales executive for a national company.
“They gave me the best life,” Johnson said. “My addiction didn’t interfere with my career. My addiction rock bottom was a loss of myself, my spirituality, my connection with God. I had to recreate my whole life so I didn’t need substances to escape. I had to recreate a life with a connection and purpose.”
Johnson and her then partner often discussed opening a sober house for women. It would be a place to live after completing a rehab program, a safe environment where people with substance use issues could ease back into everyday life and avoid the triggers that lead back to old habits. It needed to be supportive, giving a sense of connection with others and community as they adjust to life without drugs or alcohol.
After her employer transferred her back to the East Coast in 2017, Johnson made that dream a reality. She bought the house, left her job, cashed out her 401K, did the research, made the plans, and bought the furniture, covering 100% of the startup costs herself and taking no salary. In July 2020, Johnson made one Facebook post announcing the opening of Magnolia House on Oct. 1. She got about 600 comments.
“Who connected with us typically were case managers who saw the post. I don’t take people off the street. We take women who have graduated from a 28-day substance abuse rehab program. I do a pretty extensive phone screening. They have to be committed to sobriety, not just trying to scam the system.”
One day at a time
The average person doesn’t understand the pull of addiction, Johnson said, they think once out of rehab the person is “all better.” That’s not the case, and boyfriends and family members who don’t understand can be hurdles to sobriety, she said. That’s why a separate substance-free environment can work for many.
Each woman resident of Magnolia House signs a contract with a number of requirements – $250 a week rent, providing their own food/personal items and doing chores. There are also restrictions, such as regular drug testing, 7 p.m. curfews, no private cars, getting a job within 10 days of arrival, and from Monday through Friday each woman must attend a 7 a.m. AA meeting.
Some thrive; some don’t make it past a few days, Johnson said.
“It’s a fluid environment,” said Johnson.
For the five women who are part of this story and Magnolia House – Emily, 25-year-old Nicole, Andrea, 27, Monica, 36, and 46-year-old Jessica – the restrictions at Magnolia House are helping them.
At first, some were hard to stomach, Nicole said, like not having her car. But now Nicole’s grateful she can’t jump in a car and take off. And without the 7 p.m. curfew, she said, she might slip back into the patterns that led her to need help.
Life after rehab
All have gone through rehab a number of times, admitting that getting out of rehab isn’t the major milestone in achieving a sober existence. It’s life after rehab that’s the hardest nut to crack.
“I’m learning how to live my life sober,” said Andrea, who’s been at Magnolia House since it opened. “I’m learning how to wake up and take a shower sober; how to go to work sober. I’m staying here. My goal right now it to make it a year sober.”
For Jessica, being sober for nearly a year is a new way of life. She had her first beer at 5, first joint at 8, and began drinking regularly by 13. She started to use heroin at 40, she said, and once she started “never put it down.”
The last time she entered rehab it was by court order.
“I always tried to get sober for somebody else, my mother, my kids,” Jessica said. “This time, I did it for myself. You have to get sober for yourself,” and around the table, all heads nodded. “Addiction is stronger than any personal connection.”
After rehab, when the opportunity to learn to live sober at Magnolia House presented itself, Jessica took it. Eight of the ten people she had started rehab with had died,” Jessica said, and “I didn’t want to die.”
Monica had been through rehab before, but never followed it up with a sober recovery center like Magnolia House. Since she’s been there, she notices the difference in herself, and she’s not alone.
“Other people are noticing me coming back to life,” Monica said. “Nicole and I have kids. We bring our kids here on weekends, take them to the beach.”
‘Recovery is a verb. It’s a process’
These women look out for themselves and each other. Since holidays can trigger substance abuse, they have enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas together at Magnolia House, some bringing their children.
“It’s a family-friendly environment,” Monica said.
And as they gain confidence in their recovery, they go away for weekends to be with family. After six successful months, the house restrictions lessen.
“Recovery is a verb,” Andrea said. “It’s a process. It’s not a noun. Addiction is a life-long disease. It’s always there. Recovery is about learning how to cope with life without addiction.”
What can happen at Magnolia House for those willing to put in the work is that its residents learn the life skills they didn’t learn because of drugs and alcohol, Johnson said. At Magnolia House, they learn the tools to rebuild their lives so they don’t have to escape into substance abuse, but build connections instead.
“Community is the biggest part of it,” Andrea said. “The opposite of addiction is connection.”
Not everything is perfect at Magnolia House, finding safe, trigger-free jobs for the women nearby is a challenge, Johnson said. And since the women don’t have access to cars, currently Johnson has to drive them around, but coordinating schedules can be difficult.
Like most nonprofits, the biggest need is funding operating expenses and the women’s transportation needs, Johnson said. She’s working on it, she said, as she is on pretty much everything at Magnolia House.
“I think it should be noted that Jules is amazing,” Emily said, and again, heads nodded all around.
For more information on Magnolia House NH, visit its website at magnoliahousenh.org, or call 1-818-482-0694.