I was following an Internet discussion about discharging someone from a sober home for drinking or drug use. Predictably, there was a wide range of opinion on how many ‘lapses’ could be tolerated, what constituted grounds for termination, how long someone should have to wait before reapplying, etc.

It’s a complicated issue. Some of us prefer hard and fast boundaries that essentially take the decision out of our hands. But we still find ourselves in the position (at least occasionally) of doing something that we don’t actually feel is the right thing to do.

Part of the problem is that people enter sober residences for different reasons. Theoretically, a sober home exists to provide support to those who sincerely desire to stay off drugs and alcohol. But not everyone fits that description. Some residents are mainly looking for a place to sleep or a safe haven from the outside world. Others seek to please the Courts, or ticked-off family members. These motivations don’t exactly constitute a firm commitment to change.

As the director of one program explained it to me: ‘My women are here because they have no place else to go. They’re sober because we insist on it. The staff just hope they’ll eventually get to like it.”

It made me think of an alcoholic entering a detox unit. His goal is to simply to feel better. It isn’t to embark on a lifelong journey to health and wellness. He may not even be able to visualize that. Recovery is our goal, not the alcoholic’s. We’re just hoping our agenda may become theirs.

Back to practicalities: How do you decide who to discharge from a sober home, and when? I think the best policies are conditional. You start by making certain the alcoholic knows, in no uncertain terms, that any episode of drinking or drug use is subject to consequences up to and including summary discharge. As in pack your stuff and leave. In ordinary circumstances, the decision is made by the Director. She reviews the case and decides, based on assessment, the resident’s fate.

If there’s violence involved, of course, the police are called and they facilitate the discharge — perhaps involving transfer to an entirely different and more restrictive sort of residential facility.

Sometimes the Director will go ahead and authorize discharge. Sometimes she will make an exception. In each case she’s compelled to have good reasons for her decision, and to be able to explain them.