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When Synanon Was the Answer to Addiction

Synanon 2

When Synanon Was the Answer to Addiction

We’ve proven the punitive approach won’t work. If anything, locking up folks only made matters worse. Much worse. And though the disease model has been a big step in the right direction, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Not entirely anyway. Otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing record numbers of overdose deaths. But once upon another time, people tried a community approach to treating addiction. That community was called Synanon.

The Rise & Fall of Synanon

Founded by recovering alcoholic Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich Sr. in Santa Monica, California, Synanon began, simply, as a community-based addiction treatment program heavily inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous. Here community wasn’t just the base; it was also the primary method. With incarceration being the prevailing order of the day, such a forward-looking idea seemed at best to be far-fetched, as well as suspect. It seemed especially advanced for late ’50s America, when “keeping up with the Joneses” kept everybody merrily marching along to the same drummer.

Synanon stuck to its proverbial guns though, and the alternative community approach seemed to be succeeding wonderfully. There was a certain warmth to be had there. Folks felt welcome, cared-for, appreciated. More, they were getting clean — and staying clean. As the free-wheeling ’60s got underway however, power started corrupting the community and its leaders began introducing ever crazier notions of what constituted treatment. One of those notions was called “attack therapy.”

Attack Therapy

Attack therapy isn’t just as bad as it sounds — it’s worse. A full-frontal assault that pulls no punches and leaves no target unharmed. It can be between a patient and a therapist, or it can be between a patient and an entire group. (Really.) Worse still, it doesn’t end until the target is basically obliterated. Here’s what Wiki cites on the subject:

  • Attack therapy can include the tactics of isolation, and rigid imposition of rules, which later leads to a restoration of limited permissive freedom, and [a pat on the head for] those that did comply with the strict rules. (Maia Szalavitz, Help at Any Cost)
  • It “attempts to tear down the patient’s defenses by extreme verbal or physical measures.” (Donald Eisner, The Death of Psychotherapy)
  • The individual is ridiculed in front of others, and cross-examined and questioned about their personal behavior patterns. (Keith Tudor, Group Counselling)
  • The idea is to “tear them down in order to build them up.” That refers to the methodology which calls for tearing down the individual ego in order to then educate them in the inherent thought-patterns of the group and the group leader. (Peter M. Monti, Suzanne M. Colby, Tracy A. O’Leary Tevway, Eds; Brief Interventions for Adolescents, Alcohol, and Substance Abuse)
  • So what began as truth-telling sessions consequently became near-violent incidents. Patients were verbally abused, denounced, and/or humiliated, often to the point of tears. In fact, more severe sessions could — and did — lead to actual breakdowns. Attack therapy was especially damaging to those with a negative self-image; doubly so when the patient wasn’t allowed to leave. Then again, what else would you expect by essentially holding vulnerable people hostage?

    Synanon’s Last Attack

    As you probably suspect, attack therapy wasn’t particularly good for people’s self-worth or self-image. It was however very good for Dederich, who kept attracting people seeking to be led. By the mid ’70s the community had become a church, which in turn became a cult. That got authorities’ attention, of course. And various state and federal agencies began lengthy investigations. Somehow though Synanon managed to scam its way all through the ’80s, but by 1991 the cult was kaput.

    Just because Synanon committed its last attack doesn’t mean there wasn’t lingering damage. Morton A. Lieberman and Irvin D. Yalom had already found that nearly 10% of college students went on to suffer six months or more after being attacked. (Encounter Groups: First Facts, 1973) Other studies found the majority of those with substance abuse issues were so stricken that they immediately went back to their drug or drink of choice. There’s no telling what further damage was suffered after another decade or two.

    Yes, like most utopian ideas, Synanon ended in authoritarian rule. The community fell prey to a strong man. That made its members nothing but victims. Gone were the visions of mutual aid. Out were the hopes of friendly reassurance. And done were the dreams of a higher ideal.

    You can blame Charles Dederich himself. The reformed alcoholic not only took AA’s Big Book and ran with it, he acted as if he were its author. He even claimed to have coined the phrase “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” And since AA didn’t particularly welcome drug addicts back then, he was able to place himself head of a de facto NA. Only in this case the anonymity helped keep his misdeeds from being revealed.

    But What About Community?

    Yes, Synanon veered off course. Way off course. It took one bright idea and turned it into a nightmare. But does that negate the brightness of the original idea? Must we forget about togetherness because a megalomaniac’s dark deeds extinguished a community’s light?

    Of course not. Synanon had created a cure before it created a monster. How? By identifying the very parameters that made addiction so easy to fall for — and so hard to undo.

    “Synanon came to understand addiction as not just the problem of an individual addict, but also as a symptom of the collective trauma and alienation that permeated postwar American life,” write Carina Ray and Jordan Mylet in The Washington Post. (Which is where by the way we got the bright idea for this story.) “To address it, one had to get to the root problem by creating a new society in which community became the therapy.”

    Today is no different. America still suffers from “collective trauma and alienation.” And community continues to be the best method of truly getting to the root of our addiction problems. We know. Because we see it. Day after day after day.

    A Community Named Healing Properties

    Healing Properties wholeheartedly believes in community. We believe in its inherent grace, and we believe in its inherent benefits. Furthermore, we believe community has the power to heal. That the group can successfully aid the individual. Perhaps not every group. And perhaps not every individual either. But more than enough of both to give bring the idea to life.

    Then to see that the idea shines. We’ve seen men come together time and time again. We’ve also seen them stay together. Through thick and thin and then some. These weren’t family members. They weren’t old friends. They were simply facing the same demons in the same place at the same time. Sure many of them also had the same back issues. Many had the same backgrounds too. But there were more differences than similarities. Many more.

    Yet they had a common goal. To get well. When they saw that their compatriots shared that goal, it made for immediate allies. Nobody told anyone how to think or what to do. There weren’t any instructions. Everyone, simply, was given a chance. The same chance.

    Did everyone step up? Nope. But most did. And a few that didn’t came back and succeeded on their second attempt. In fact, more than a few of those initial few returned to try again. And they were welcomed with open arms each and every time.

    Why? Because a real community cares. It cares for each other. It also cares for itself. And when you’re among a community that cares for each other, as well as itself, you care for yourself. Then the world spins on accordingly. Sure, Synanon did a lot wrong. But they did do one thing quite right: they joined together as a caring community. Let’s at least learn from that.

    How about you? Are you ready to join a caring community? A community where the members truly look out for one another? If so, you’re very much welcome here. Just so long as you’re down with joining the company of men who call each other friend.

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