A Clean, Well-Lighted Sanford House



For some reason, whenever I look back on my first visit to Sanford House, I am reminded of the Hemingway short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Which is weird when you think about it, because I’m not an old, deaf man and Sanford House is not a café and I no longer drink brandy or walk “unsteadily but with dignity.” Actually, in all the years I was a drinker, “dignified” is not how I would describe myself. But that is another story.


I write a sobriety blog called Waking Up the Ghost, and in October I was invited by the founders of Sanford House women’s addiction treatment facility, David and Rae Green, to visit them, tell my story and do a reading from the blog. I felt the way it is natural to feel when you’re two years temperate and preparing to wow a newly sober audience who might be jaded or angry or detoxing. A bit concerned that my humorous musings would be met with a hail of rotted fruit or worse, dead silence.


I’m actually writing this as a thank you note. Or a love note – one of those communiques people don’t write anymore. Because my experience at Sanford House was so wholesome, it almost seemed old-fashioned in the best possible way, and I am grateful.


Here’s what happened when I arrived with David Green:

  • First, the house is old and white and grand – City Hall grand – with a pristine, Midwestern, green lawn (now covered in a blanket of snow) and one of those verandas that evoke a gentler age. I pictured crinolines and cotillions and mint julips (sorry). It really would be a great place to wear a hoopskirt and sip a julip, if one julip didn’t lead to 15 and a hoopskirt peepshow incident…
  • There was an immense hound who ran to the car. He sniffed a greeting and stretched out on a patch of sod beneath a tree, ignoring a squirrel with a twitching, tempting tail undulating headfirst down the trunk. The dog’s name is Santino, and he was the first thing that made me realize this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill, sterile, rehab experience.
  • I walked up the ramp to the back door and there were three women sitting on a small porch beneath a spreading chestnut. They were smoking I think, maybe drinking tea, taking a break and shooting the breeze. One of them got up from her chair, hugged me and said, “You must be Marilyn – you’re going to love it here!”
  • When I went inside, I could smell home cooking and there was Rae Green and one of the therapists, Kristin and Clinical Director Christine and they were all smiling huge, welcoming smiles. The house is elegant but lived-in and busy, like your grandparent’s house if your grandparents were stylish, intellectual vaudevillians or college professors or, well, therapists…
  • At lunchtime one of the residents was graduating. Chef Katie had made an ambrosia of creamed soup and a huge bowl of fruit and salmon salad and I boohooed into my napkin because everyone else was crying, and they all went around the table (staff and residents) and said the nicest, most encouraging things to the graduate.
  • We used a few blog posts as a catalyst for the group therapy session, and the residents sat in club chairs with Sanford House embroidered lap blankets…We went around the room and took turns reading and I remember thinking, “Wait a minute. I wrote that,” because it spurred a lively discussion about women drinking like men, and they all laughed at the funny parts.
  • In the afternoon, the residents went to an exercise session and I begged off because I wanted to prepare for my reading. I sat in one of the front parlors and reminded myself that I was neither fish nor fowl: walking the straight line between the Sanford House professionals and the residents, still not sure where I really belong. But feeling like I really belonged…
  • The reading was a success – no dodging of tomatoes or bombing to blank faces. There was a full house, and I sat instead of stood behind a podium and I was overwhelmed by the warmth and the kindness and encouragement from everyone there. When I was finished and Rae asked for questions, every hand in the room went up and I can’t tell you how special I felt. I’m going to get cheesy here so don’t read this if you hate aphorisms, but it felt like I was inside the arms of a warm embrace.


I didn’t go to rehab. I often wish I had – so many of the things I learned were catch as catch can, and my recovery was white knuckled and lonely. I’m here to tell you Sanford House is the opposite of lonely. It is a community, a support group and a warm, clean and well-lighted place.


In the same Hemingway story, one of the characters says, “I am of those who like to stay late at the café…with those who need a light for the night.” I think every recovering alcoholic can empathize with that statement: it’s why we were the last ones to leave the bar at closing time and why we are most grateful for a place like Sanford House. Thank you my new found friends, for allowing me to be part of something rare – for saving me a place at the table and for inviting me to be on the inside looking out, instead of (my lot for so many years) the outside looking in…




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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.