For years, beginning in his early 40s, Patrick Flanagan struggled to beat his addiction to alcohol.
“I went to Hazelden,” he said. “I went into a sober house. I relapsed, drank and got kicked out. I spent about three years going in and out of treatment centers.”
During that time, including a stretch where he was dry for nine “miserable” months, Flanagan managed to quit drinking several times, but he never felt he’d truly committed to his sobriety.
“There’s a huge difference between being dry and getting sober,” he said. “You can stop drinking for other people, like under a court order or the threat of a divorce or losing your job.” But when he quit drinking for others, Flanagan said, “I was a dry drunk. I was horrible to be around. When you get dry for other people, you can do it — but to truly get sober and be happy, you’ve got to want it for yourself.”
For Flanagan, the decision to get sober for himself happened just over two years ago, when, he said, he surrendered to his alcoholism and committed to living in a sober house after completing his second residential treatment stint at The Retreat in Wayzata.
After his first visit to The Retreat, Flanagan rejected the idea of sober living, saying that there was no way he could disrupt his life and move into a home with a bunch of other men in recovery for nearly half a year.
“I said,” Flanagan recalled, ‘I can’t do that. I have a job. I have kids. I have all this other stuff going on.’ The woman working at The Retreat said, ‘You are going to lose all that if you don’t stay sober and figure this out.’”
Flanagan didn’t believe her. He left treatment and went back to his apartment, where her predictions came true: He spent another year struggling, eventually losing his job, his relationship with his kids and most of his friendships.
“I got to the point where the next step was for me to be dead or in jail,” Flanagan said. “I reached out and called my sponsor. I said I didn’t want to tell my kids, who were at the time 19, 18 and 14, that I was going back to treatment. My sponsor said, ‘Fine. I’ll tell them when your funeral is.’ So I went back to treatment; at the end, I said, ‘Sign me up for sober living.’”
Flanagan believes that the five months he spent living in a sober house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue cemented his commitment to sobriety.
“I lived with 14 guys who were between the ages of 20 and 55. I stayed in real structured living between inpatient treatment for 40 days and sober living for five months. The structured living saved my life.”
This realization that living in community with other people working toward long-term sobriety was key to his survival ultimately led Flanagan, a former private wealth manager, to make major changes in his life. He wanted to help others take the next step toward lifelong sobriety, so he decided to purchase a house and convert it into a sober-living residence.
“The sober house I lived in was OK,” Flanagan said, “but I knew that the quality of some of the houses in town could be pretty low. I’d heard that there are thousands of sober living beds in the Twin Cities but that there are still waiting lists for many of them. That blew me away.”
He wanted to use his own experiences to help create a house that would offer a welcoming and safe option for people committed to taking the next step in their sobriety journey. In preparation for starting his new project, Flanagan watched The Business of Recovery, a documentary that investigated sober living homes in Arizona and Florida.
“People get taken advantage of,” he said. “I wanted to help, to make the experience as positive as I could. If I was going to go into this business, I wanted my house to be different.”
‘It checks every box’
The first step to opening a sober home is buying the right place. Focused on finding a house large enough for as many as 16 residents, Flanagan began researching options online. One house, the 103-year-old porcelain-tiled brick Como Park home of former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Thomas Frankson, appeared on one of his searches.
“I drove by and took a walk-through,” Flanagan said. “I thought, ‘This could be an amazing sober living house. It has eight bedrooms, eight baths and 7,200 square feet. It’s in a safe neighborhood with a double lot and great parking. It checks every box you’d want from sober living.”
Because of the stone lions that flank the front walk, the house is considered a local landmark and is fondly known by neighbors as the Lion House. Over the years, It has been a single-family home, a mix of apartments and even once housed a dance studio in the basement.
Flanagan, along with business partner Tom Rothstein, decided to purchase Lion House with the goal of converting it into a sober living residence. To do that, the pair had to secure approval from the city of St. Paul. They also joined the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH).
With a goal of winning over Lion House’s neighbors, Flanagan met with the neighborhood association. About 30 people came to the meeting, he recalled: “They were very interested. A lot of people are supportive of the concept of sober living, but they don’t want it in their backyard. I got up in front of the group, and I said, ‘I’m Patrick Flanagan. I’m an alcoholic. I bought this house with the intention of helping people in early recovery.’”
This approach, Flanagan believes, convinced neighbors that he is not “just some business guy wanting to come in and tear up the house. He really cares.” Since that first meeting, nearby homeowners have been supportive of Lion House’s new use. “Neighbors drop off cakes and pies and bring their dogs over to say hi,” he said.
John Curtiss, MASH co-founder and vice board chair, explained that his organization oversees 158 sober houses statewide. “At any given time there are probably between 3,000 to 4,000 people living in sober housing in the state. Sober living is a critical step in the continuum of sober care.”
Living in community with others in recovery can be an essential part of a journey from addiction to full recovery, said Curtiss, also president and CEO of The Retreat.
“It is the recovery practice ground. It is where you take the information you’ve gotten in primary treatment and put it into action. When you complete primary treatment, your head is full of lots of information about the illness and the solution. The sober house is where you start walking it in the real world.”
Focus on women’s recovery
Flanagan and Rothstein’s original plan was to turn Lion House into a sober residence for men. But when Flanagan took his girlfriend, Tara Heald, on a tour of the house, she immediately had a different idea.
“I said, ‘This house is incredible,’” Heald recalled. “Patrick was planning on doing a men’s house, but I could not get over the fact that this place has eight bathrooms. I said, ‘You cannot turn this into a men’s house. There are eight bathrooms. They won’t appreciate it. It’s a perfect home for women.’”
Heald’s insistence that Lion House should be a home for women in recovery actually went beyond the building’s healthy allotment of bathrooms. Even in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers, sober housing options for women are limited. Opening a new facility dedicated to walking women through the post-treatment recovery process would help to fill a significant void, she thought.
Curtiss agrees. “Of all the sober houses that exist in the state,” he said, “only about 25 percent are for women. There is always a need for more.”
Curtiss said one of the reasons for this shortage is that women’s recovery needs have historically been overlooked, with fewer beds available for women in treatment centers. In recent years, however, some of the state’s larger addiction treatment providers, including Hazelden Betty Ford and The Retreat, have worked to remedy this imbalance by building new multimillion-dollar facilities focused on women.
Another reason for the lower number of sober housing beds for women may be the fact that fewer women choose to take that step, insisting that they can’t take time away from their other responsibilities to focus on recovery.
“Often it’s more difficult for women to go into sober housing because of child care issues,” Curtiss explained. And women tend to have less supportive work environments, he added: “It’s just more difficult for women to break away and go live somewhere in a community environment for six months to a year.”
Flanagan and Rothstein decided to take Heald’s advice and turn Lion House into a sober home for women.
The need for recovery options focused on women is big, Flanagan said. Noting the building boom in recovery centers for women, he said, “I thought, ‘Maybe we’re seeing a trend here.’ I started calling around and learning that there is really a lack of quality sober living for women in the Twin Cities, so it really made sense to make Lion House for women only.”
Flanagan hired a woman with 10 years of sobriety to be the house manager with Heald as her co-manager. When the original house manager left for another job, Heald stepped into her role.
Unlike her predecessor, Heald admits that she has “no official background in working with women in early recovery,” but she does have a wealth of personal experience. “I’m just a woman in recovery myself, and I have a lot of ideas about how I wanted the house to run.”
Heald’s recovery journey was not unlike that of many women. A widow with three children, she’d completed residential treatment but never lived in a sober house.
“After I went to treatment, I had to go home,” she said. “I had a lot of responsibilities, but I always felt I was missing out.” Because of that experience, she said, “I came into this job wanting to help other women.”
Heald knows firsthand the pressure many women are under to put themselves second to the other people in their lives. As house manager, she said she works hard to help women find ways to make sober living fit into their lives.
“Unfortunately, as women — my case is the perfect example — we feel like we can’t put ourselves first,” Heald said. “We can’t take that time off from whatever we consider to our true life responsibilities.”
She explained that Lion House residents with children have figured out ways to make sober living work for them and their families. “I’ve got one gal now whose parents are taking care of her young son. Another gal is divorced and the father is taking care of her teenager. Another one has a daughter in college.”
Family responsibilities aside, many women simply feel ashamed of their addiction, Heald said. “There’s some real stigma and discrimination that goes along with it. I think that’s another reason that women usually aren’t the target market for sober homes. But I’m convinced that there actually is a real need and desire for this kind of option.”
One indication that this need and desire exists is Lion House’s occupancy rate, Heald said. “As soon as we opened, we filled up right away. I think there’s enough interest that we could actually open another house — maybe even two.”
‘This is the place for her’
When Nettie Magnuson’s 21-year-old child, Selene, completed inpatient treatment, the first thing the pair did was go on a tour of a number of local sober houses.
“As soon as I picked Selene up, we drove around and visited sober houses,” Magnuson said. The first few options didn’t feel like a good match. Then, they pulled up in front of Lion House. “As soon as we walked in,” Magnuson recalled, “I had the immediate feeling that this is the place for my child. It felt well taken care of, spacious, beautiful, just gorgeous.” Selene even said, Magnuson reported later: “’I can feel the good energy.’”
Magnuson was right. Lion House, with its three-month minimum stay, has been a good option for Selene, who will have lived there for nearly a year before leaving in June 2021 to move into an apartment with two fellow Lion House residents.
“The women at Lion House really support each other,” Magnuson said.
Potential residents must go through a screening process to live in the house. Heald meets with each applicant and asks about their recovery journey and their goals for the future. She said she wants to make sure that residents share a like-minded focus on sobriety and commitment to the 12-Step process, as well as an interest in being part of a community.
“The common denominator among our guests is a willingness to do whatever it takes to stay sober,” Heald said.
Residents are required to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week during their stay at Lion House, Flanagan said. “We want guests to have a sober job where they can fill up some of their week, get some income and be out with people. What’s not good for me or anyone in early recovery is white space.”
Lion House has space for 16 residents (with a COVID cap of 14), in a mix of single, double and triple rooms. While the manager doesn’t live on site, Heald is there most days, taking care of the building, checking in on guests and organizing special programming.
The home, she said, is a self-contained, self-governing unit. “Everyone prepares their own food. They cook together and bake. They work together to solve problems. We have a lot of group activities. We do barbecues. We share meals. We do stuff every holiday. We just celebrated Galantine’s Day.”
Magnuson said that Selene’s time at Lion House has been as important as time spent in inpatient rehab.
“Being able to live in a beautiful environment gives you some dignity and self-worth,” Magnuson said. It’s been an essential transition for her child, she believes, one that is helping prepare Selene to live a healthy life in the outside world. “That’s exactly what Selene needs right now. The environment is perfect, both physically and spiritually.”
That kind of comment confirms for Flanagan that he has made the right life choice.
“I really went into this with the goal of helping other people along the road to a sober life,” he said. “We really care about our residents. We want them to succeed in this journey. The first thing we ask before making every decision is, ‘What’s best for the guest?’ It helps us focus on that ultimate goal.”