Greenville’s Mandy Learo spent more than 10 years battling drug addiction and alcoholism. Now, four years after getting clean and sober, she is on a mission to help others experience a life free of substance abuse.
Learo, a yoga instructor, plans to open a transitional living facility for women who are in the early stages of recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism.
“The first months of sobriety are the most difficult for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics,” Learo said. “Sylvia House will provide a temporary living space and structured program that helps addicted women not only maintain their sobriety but gradually integrate back into society once they’ve completed detox treatment.”
Sylvia House will focus on women, because they face more challenges during the early stages of recovery, according to Learo. Some studies, for instance, show women actually tend to crave drugs more often than men and relapse at higher rates after treatment.
Learo said her house will be more effective in combating addiction than sober living homes and other recovery facilities, because Sylvia House will offer longer periods of treatment and a wide variety services, including nutritional, emotional, and therapeutic support.
“Some studies show longer periods of support and treatment increase the chances of long-term sobriety,” Learo said. “But many sober living homes and halfway houses provide nothing more than a temporary bed, weekly drug test, and transportation to AA and NA meetings. I think that lack of continued support in these facilities is why we’re seeing high relapse rates.
Learo is familiar with the struggle to find an adequate recovery program.
In 2009, after completing a detox treatment for heroin addiction, Learo relocated to a sober living home in South Florida but relapsed after 30 days. She then lived in five more halfway houses before 2010.
While she eventually kicked her addiction to heroin, Learo became an alcoholic and spent years in treatment centers and even a psychiatric floor. In 2013, she entered a treatment center for a Vicodin detox and spent a year in 12-step meetings to get sober.
Since then, Learo has watched drug overdoses continue to ravage the United States, as opioids push the death count higher.
Drug overdoses killed 64,000 people in the United States last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an increase of more than 22 percent compared with the 52,404 drug deaths recorded in 2015. Opioid abuse has also been on the rise nationwide. More than 29,000 thousand people died from opioid overdoses last year. Comparatively, nearly 34,000 died in car crashes.
In South Carolina, Greenville County is the epicenter of opioid-related deaths. In 2015, 71 people died from opioid overdoses, rivaling the number of lives lost in wrecks. The year before, 65 people in Greenville County died from opioid overdoses — nearly twice the number that died in Charleston, Lexington, or Richland counties.
But despite the rapid growth of overdose deaths, the treatment industry remains highly unregulated and saturated with corrupt or illegitimate facilities, according to Learo.
“As our county and our region battle an unprecedented opioid problem, the options for long-term support are not meeting the need,” she said. “Sylvia House aims to help fill that need.”
Learo said a key goal is to help recovering addicts learn self-discipline and self-care. She added that many people who have suffered from addiction don’t have the skills or coping mechanisms to achieve full independence when they complete treatment.
For example, recovering addicts usually have trouble with everyday tasks such as eating breakfast or waking up with an alarm, according to Learo. While these tasks seem simple, recovering addicts have to relearn the basics of practical functioning.
“Addicts usually get out of treatment with the capabilities of a teenager,” Learo said. “It’s our job to get them back on their feet.
Learo is also working with a registered dietitian to prepare a nutrition program that helps residents adopt healthier diets and regular fitness routines.
When using drugs or alcohol, addicts can experience suppressed appetites, forget to eat while under the influence, and choose substance abuse over their diets, according to Learo. Drugs and alcohol also prevent the body from properly absorbing nutrients, which can oftentimes lead to malnourishment.
“We’re going to provide all meals and a nutrient-dense diet to heal the long-term effects of addiction,” said Learo. “We’re also going to provide in-house yoga and fitness classes to help our residents enjoy the benefits of exercise.”
Sylvia House will also work with residents to address underlying psychological barriers to recovery. Learo said psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression, can emerge when drugs and alcohol are no longer available to cover them up. And when those underlying issues go untreated and unchecked, they can lead to relapse.
Learo has recruited a clinical psychologist to hold in-house therapy sessions twice a week for both individuals and groups. Sylvia House will also provide access to 12-step programs and work with residents to develop a spiritual practice, according to Learo.
“I think spirituality is an important component to recovery, but our program won’t focus on a particular religion. It’s not our job to tell people what to think or feel,” Learo said.
“I believe someone who’s not comfortable in a church service may find it more enjoyable to be in nature and connect with a higher power there instead.”
Sylvia House will accommodate at least 10 women at a time, according to Learo. Women who enroll at the facility will be able to stay there for up to nine months.
Learo said the house will be wired with cameras for monitoring and residents will have house rules, which they’ll agree to by signing a contract. If a resident does relapse and chooses to use drugs or alcohol, they will be asked to leave the facility.
“It is of paramount importance to protect the community in a sober living environment and to ensure to the best of our ability a drug- and alcohol-free zone. We will have a zero-tolerance policy for relapse,” Learo said.
“A woman can return to Sylvia House after a cooling-off period during which time she could complete another detox if needed or in some other way show recommitment to recovery. This would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis,” she added.
For funding, Learo has launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo to raise $60,000. The funds will be used to acquire a rental house as well as pay for staff salaries, utilities, furniture, and other essentials.
But the campaign, which ends in October, has only raised $13,000 to date.
“I’d like for the house to be community supported,” Learo said. “But I’m more than prepared to seek out startup capital from a socially conscious investor or take out a loan from the bank if I don’t meet my funding goal.”
Learo plans to search for a physical location in Greenville once the campaign ends.
The house is expected to open by summer 2018, according to Learo. But it will not be a nonprofit. Instead, Learo plans to structure the business as a social venture.
“There are numerous nonprofits in Greenville that focus on supporting people in recovery,” she said. “I don’t want to compete against them for government grants or resources. Sylvia House will rely on monthly resident fees.”
Learo said rates aren’t yet finalized, but residents can expect to pay at least $2,000 a month for the facility’s services, which include transportation and career counseling.
The profits will be used to improve the facility and offer additional services, according to Learo. Sylvia House will also use a portion of its profits to award a yearly scholarship to one resident and to aid other Greenville organizations that are helping addicts in early recovery.
“For me, this is not about money, but about providing a service in the Greenville area that is deeply needed,” Learo said.
For more information, visit sylviahouse.com.
Facts about addiction:
• Total overdose deaths in 2016 were estimated between 59,000 and 65,000.
• Between 40 and 60 percent of people who have gone through rehabilitation will relapse.
• At least 761 people died in South Carolina in 2015 from drug overdoses.
• Two million Americans were estimated to be dependent on opioids in 2015.
• 95 million Americans used prescription painkillers.
• Research indicates that most addicted individuals need at least three months in treatment to significantly reduce or stop their drug use and that the best outcomes occur with longer durations of treatment.
• 40,000 people in Greenville County have a diagnosable substance use disorder, but only 10 percent of those people are receiving help.