This highly structured men’s program in California puts no deadline on recovery, allowing residents to stay for as long as they need. The focus is on building character, finding purpose, and taking responsibility.
The Recovery Ranch bills itself as “much more than a sober living or addiction treatment center,” and its current and former residents agree. This men-only program puts no deadline on recovery, allowing people to stay for as long as they need. The Ranch uses a 12-step program and promotes the philosophy of John Wooden, the famous former University of California basketball coach who went on to write an autobiography that included his “principles for living.”
These principles inform Recovery Ranch’s basic rules, which include never lying, cheating, stealing, complaining, or making excuses. The center also promotes the idea of “living as gentlemen,” which means that “we do not curse, use slang, or talk about things that could hurt our recovery.” They also require residents to “dress appropriately and use proper etiquette.”
For men looking to focus solely on recovery from addiction, possibly for years at a time, this approach works well. Residents and alumni gave Recovery Ranch high praise for their highly structured, long-term, “tough love” approach to addiction recovery.
The Ranch’s main property is in Santa Ynez, California, which is 45 miles northeast of Santa Barbara. There are four houses in total, plus a barn and a number of recreational options, including their very own movie theater. They also have three sober living locations, with two in Santa Ynez and one in Santa Barbara. Residents live together as roommates and while most alumni we surveyed were happy with their living situations, one felt there were “too many roommates” while another “only disliked them when they snored.”
Other than being men only, alumni described the residents as being a diverse group, mainly from the ages of 18 to 40, with 55 being the highest age reported. Survey responses paint a picture of a place where differences don’t matter much. What’s important is what brought them together. “We have men of all ages and varying income and occupation,” wrote one former client. “What we have in common is that we’re all drug addicts who are setting a new standard for our lives.”
Life at the Ranch is described as being very structured with daily chores and ample opportunities for more work. This appears to be a key aspect of the program’s focus on giving residents a sense of purpose and responsibility. “We are active and have constant purpose,” wrote a respondent. “This is our home and we take pride in caring for it. We value cleanliness and organization, something that most of us never cared about before getting sober.”
Daily groups and 12-step meetings are also part of the schedule. In addition to chores, those who have been in the program long enough become eligible to get a paying job through one of the “ranch businesses.”
When they’re not working, residents can look forward to a long list of recreation options: “Gym, fitness classes, beach days, fishing, camping trips, Lake Tahoe trips, backpacking trips, free days with movies and sauna, open gym, etc.”
Alumni also reported that fitness is “a staple of the program,” with a personal trainer visiting the Ranch a few times each week to teach classes. Baseball, basketball, golf, surfing, and snowboarding were all listed as available sports to participate in. There is also a focus on outdoor activities, including fishing, hiking, camping, and summer and winter trips to the nearby Lake Tahoe with the goal of showing clients “how beautiful a life in recovery can be.”
With all the work and active play, there is little room left for TV or internet use. A few alumni told us that TV, internet, and smartphones are not allowed during the first 30 days of the program, but movies were. “While in the program we don’t have access to phones or internet; they serve as huge distractions that are detrimental especially in early recovery,” wrote one individual. Also, access to these devices depended on “how the house was doing as a whole.” Other alums mentioned that phone use was allowed with permission, and that they would watch TV at night after all chores were completed.
When it comes to food, meals are prepared in house by the guys themselves, providing the “opportunity for guys to learn how to cook and be responsible.” Food is served buffet style, with coffee available at every meal and a general store on the property where snacks can be purchased. Some described the food as being healthy while others complained that it was not healthy enough and contained “not really any vegetables or fruit.” There has been great variation in the menu over time, according to one resident: “Throughout the years we have transitioned rapidly between gourmet, basic, and experimental, depending on who is cooking and how grateful we are.”
Treatment at The Recovery Ranch is described as being based on a 12-step program but not 100 percent loyal to the traditional format, and religion is not emphasized. Though there are regular group sessions, the program at the Ranch emphasizes applying the principles of the steps as opposed to “programs where you sit around and talk about your problems and struggles.”
“[In] this program, you are asked to be proactive and live the things that you want to instill in your everyday life,” wrote one resident. Another lauded the “aftercare” program, calling it “bar none the biggest step into getting back into life and dealing with issues outside of the program but still getting help from the house.”
Doctors are not available onsite and the Recovery Ranch is not a medical facility. Of course, those who need medical attention can request a trip to a nearby hospital, including detox if necessary.
Treatment is definitely described as being “tough love,” but with compassion. Residents are expected to embrace “brutal honesty” and are always held accountable for their actions.
“We’re not afraid to tell each other how it is and there were many times I was told things I definitely didn’t want to hear,” wrote an alumnus, “and by learning to stay open to hearing those things and working on changing them my life changed and I was able to become a man with integrity and character.”
However, this does not mean that caretakers are cruel or harsh, even when mistakes are made. When there is a rule infraction, residents come together to talk about what happened and work things out, all while utilizing that brutal honesty. One alumnus reported that earlier wake-up and extra chores were punishments for rule breaking, with the idea that “we live by a standard. If someone is not living by the standard we talk to them and remind them that it is impossible to stay sober without holding a standard for yourself.” When it comes to broken rules, there are consequences but the atmosphere is described as “very forgiving.”
“We don’t get in trouble or have infractions,” said one respondent. “We’re in recovery and learning to live a different way. We all make mistakes. It’s about owning your part and growing from the situations.”
No one program can be right for everybody. However, it’s a good sign when every single survey respondent has remained sober since graduating. One alum states: “I have been sober for almost three years. Prior to coming to the ranch I wasn’t able to string together more than two days.”
In addition to maintaining sobriety, many of the alumni we surveyed say that their lives and attitudes have changed in a positive manner from their time spent at the Recovery Ranch, something that they were unable to accomplish at other treatment centers:
“I have learned how to hold myself accountable and surround myself with other people who are living the same standard as me,” one resident told us. Another reflects: “Learning to not cut and run when things get hard and form commitments that I follow through was something I was never capable of doing and today I can.”