A reader writes:
In your post, you quote two paragraphs about an unconventional treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. I clicked the link, hoping to find some data on the effectiveness of the treatment, and instead discovered that the man who developed it, Charles Dederich, was a cult leader responsible for a murder attempt and repeated instances of child abuse. I was shocked. I got an entirely different impression from reading the article than I did from your quotation. If I had not clicked that link, I would have gone on believing that a method used by a cult leader to control and economically exploit his followers was, in fact, a legitimate psychological treatment.
But another reader describes how that same sort of treatment had subsequently been adopted by a legit organization:
Well, this post really struck a nerve. I was a hardcore heroin/cocaine/anything-to-get-me-high addict through my late teens into my twenties. I was in and out of rehab/detox on more occasions than I can remember (and I mean that literally – there are whole years in the ’90s that I don’t remember).
But in 1998, I checked in to a behavior modification center in San Diego called CRASH. It was truly unlike anything I had ever experienced. First, it was free, whereas every other facility I’d checked into cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (all on my parents’ dime, and I’m still making amends for that). Second, it was primarily populated with men (it’s a men’s only facility) who were mandated by the courts. These guys were gnarly criminal types. For example, my roommate toward the end of my stay had committed homicide a few years before I met him. And third, and most importantly, it was the complete opposite of any facility I had gone to before.
Every other rehab I’d been in was 30 days or less. CRASH was, at minimum, a 90-day stay. Every other facility had a team of doctors, therapists and psychiatrists. CRASH had three drug counselors, all former addicts and graduates of CRASH. Every other facility had either a pool, a meditation garden, a gourmet buffet, a private room, a spiritual walking trail, a horseshoe pit, or some combination of these. CRASH had none of that. All it had was a stark, ugly, utilitarian building in the middle of the ghetto, with two or three men to a room.
But this was not rehab – it was behavior modification. The core of the program consisted of “giving treatment” to the other residents.
What this meant, in essence, was that twice a day, the 50 or so men would sit in a circle in hard plastic chairs in the treatment room, with their feet flat on the floor and their hands palm down on their knees (this was called being “posted up”), along with the counselor who supervised the group. The counselor would be holding “slips,” which were small pieces of off-white paper on which were the name of one of the residents and some rule they had broken, as reported by another resident.
The infractions themselves were generally fairly minor and absurd – Jim didn’t make his bed this morning, David didn’t complete his chores, Mark was talking to a girl at the AA/NA meeting. But the “treatment” that was given by other residents around these seemingly small mistakes was anything but minor or absurd. When your name and your infraction got called, it was open season. You had to sit there, posted up, while 49 other men unleashed on you for whatever you had done wrong. This was a typical exchange:
Counselor: Jason, the slip says you were four minutes late for breakfast this morning. Does anyone have anything to say to Jason about this?
Resident 1: Man, you’re always fucking late. You think that’s gonna cut it on the outside, at a job or something?
Resident 2: Job? Jason ain’t never gonna get a job. He’s a piece of shit. No one would hire him.
Resident 3: Man, Jason, YOU’RE A DISRESPECTFUL MOTHERFUCKER. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY WE WASTE OUR TIME ON YOU. WHY DON’T YOU JUST FUCKING LEAVE ALREADY.
And it would escalate from there. Everyone in the room got a chance to take a swipe, and you just had to sit there – feet flat on the floor, hands on your knees – and take it. But then, like that, they would be done with you and move on to the next slip, another guy, and now it was your turn to yell all crazy about how he didn’t clean the pubic hair off the shower wall well enough during chore time.
The punishment for violating rules was “time on the bench.” This consisted of sitting on a hard wood bench, posted up, in one-hour increments. Bench time was assigned by the counselor, and was seemingly arbitrary – this guy got an hour for oversleeping through a whole meeting, whereas that guy got four hours for being two minutes late to the same meeting. Everyone hated bench time, but looking back, I think that being alone with my thoughts an hour at a time was maybe exactly the thing I needed most.
The first day I was in CRASH, I almost walked out, because it all seemed so fucking crazy. I didn’t leave, though, because I really had nowhere else to go.
By my final day (101 days later), I was giving treatment with the best of ’em. I was shouting down armed robbers, rapists, killers, and petty thieves about putting their cigarette butts out on the ground instead of in an ashtray or not writing enough slips on other guys (yes, this was a real reason to slip someone – if they didn’t call out other residents to an acceptable degree). At the end of my stay, I felt better about my life going forward than I had in years (though I was truly scared to leave when the time came to walk out the doors alone). I was healthy and happy and had a job in a small, hip coffeeshop lined up. I felt like the men I had been in CRASH with were my family.
That was my behavior modification experience, 15 years ago now. I’m not sure CRASH even exists anymore (just googled it – it’s still there). For a couple months after I moved out, I stayed in touch with some of the guys I had become friends with in CRASH, but that faded as I found people in other recovery groups closer to my own age, with more similar interests (I was very into the indie music scene then, whereas I doubt anyone I was in CRASH with knew about Drag City and Touch and Go Records).
I’m 40 now, the father to a wonderful 13-year-old son, engaged to be married in the fall, and have a great extended family. I graduated college in 2002, and grad school in 2006. I own and operate a $50 million a year business, where I am able to employ a number of bright, amazing people. And I haven’t touched drugs since the day before I went into CRASH.
That is my behavior modification story. It’s probably too long and possibly boring, but reading that post about Synanon (and the link it went to) just overwhelmed me with memories. This is the first time I have written about my experience at CRASH, and I guess I needed the catharsis … thank you!