Former rehab patients reflect on effectiveness of treatment

Photo courtesy of Recommended Rehabs

Noah Frank and Maya Wilson

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He woke in the middle of the night to two large male figures standing at the foot of his bed. They told him to put on clothes. He dressed quickly, disoriented and angry. Within minutes, he was on his way to the airport. In the moments before he left for three months, his parents informed him that they were sending him to a wilderness rehabilitation program in Utah- a culmination of weeks of arguments over his truancy and drug abuse.

When they arrived at the airport, his “goons,” the men who took him from his home, offered him some Z-Burger. “I was like, ‘no, f*** you guys,’” he said. “I was wondering if I should try and jump out of the plane,” he said. “And then I realized I couldn’t.”

For this former Wilson student, who will be referred to as James to maintain his privacy, introduction to rehab was more of shove than a push. Yet, experiences like his are not uncommon.

Drug abuse is a layered and multifaceted national issue that often finds its way into the lives of teenagers. Due to its scope, complexity, and persistence, there are many ways this country responds to drug abuse, one of which is through the use of rehabilitation programs. Both outpatient (commuting repeatedly to the rehabilitation center) and inpatient (living at the rehabilitation center) programs involve drastic measures to curb usage, but as the issue remains prevalent, it raises the question of how effective these methods actually are, especially for teenagers.

In a survey of 272 students conducted by The Beacon in April 2018, 50.7 percent said that they had used illegal drugs at some point in their lives. While much of this drug use is simply recreational, for many students it begins to interfere with school and other aspects of daily life.

As their parents become aware of this problem, a common course of action is to send their child to rehab, often without their consent. While parents certainly have the right to do this, rehab is historically more effective when drug users acknowledge their problem and go into the process with the goal of being helped. However, this is often not the case, as many students who are sent to rehab don’t even think they need it in the first place.

The Experience:

James fits into the described category of unwillingly mandated rehab patients. WinGate Wilderness Therapy in Utah, where he lived three months of intense hiking, fire-building, and sleeping on the ground with nothing but a sleeping bag and a tarp to cover him. “We’d wake up, we’d set up the fires, probably pick a time when we’d hike–like we’d probably hike around 14 miles per day,” he recalled. “And the land in Utah, topographically, is just really diverse, like there are mountains and s*** everywhere.”  

In addition to hiking, meditation was a significant part of James’ rehabilitation program, giving the patients time for self-reflection, while also attempting to discourage some of the violent behavior that many of they had been sent there for. “The reasons that some of the kids were there–one of them was a Piru, it’s like a subset of the Bloods, it’s a gang–and he was crazy because he just talked about killing people all of the time. He claimed to have killed people, but half of the kids were pathological liars,” James explained. “Another kid tried to shoot up his school–that kid was too much to handle.”

The program also tried to cultivate the boys accountability, courage, and honesty, hoping that these characteristics would steer them away from drug use and violent behavior in the future. “To them, once you hold yourself accountable, you’re able to step back and actually make some changes, so that was a big piece for them,” James said. To instill these values, the counselors would have the boys read books such as the Mexican Toltecs’ “The Four Agreements.” Behavioral improvement was further encouraged in the Boy Scout-esque manner of awarding tokens. Whenever a participant exhibited a particular quality, he would be presented with a pennant representative of that quality. “I got inner-courage, because one of the kids was getting picked on and I was like ‘f*** you guys, you guys are fake,’ so the counselors were like ‘that was so brave of you.’”

After he finished his three months in the wilderness, James’ parents sent him to a therapeutic boarding school, much to his dismay. “I was with my therapist and she told me that I was getting sent to boarding school my ninth week, and I straight up just threw all my s***,” James said. “They send you there without telling you anything, so you don’t know how long you’ll be there for.” He has since returned to DC and attends a private school part-time.

Like James, another student, who will be referred to as Alex, was also taken by surprise. “I was bingeing Xanax for like two weeks and then this one day, I had decided to cop some weed because I wanted to mix it up a little bit. So I rolled this really nice blunt, and then my mother was like, ‘you have a dentist appointment,’ and I was like ‘s***, I probably shouldn’t smoke this before I have a f***ing dentist appointment,’” he said. “Turns out, not a dentist appointment at all, she took me to f***ing rehab. So yeah, I never got to smoke that blunt.”

Alex was admitted to Phoenix House as an inpatient, which he described as a “grimy ass facility in Virginia.” “I probably should have gone for Xans, but my mother only knew about the weed, so she thought I was just getting stoned. So I went for weed technically,” he said. Alex said they emphasized personal cleanliness as well as not getting in fights, and would spend their days watching reality TV or in group therapy. They also attended some Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

“That’s like all you talk about at rehab–drugs and reality television. And how dirty it is.” All the discussion about drugs seemed to have the opposite effect than intended. “I learned a lot of ways to do heroin. I’ve never done it, but thats like my biggest takeaway from going to rehab. [If I were ever to do it], it’d be because of rehab,” Alex said.

Another Wilson student, who will be referred to as Sebastian, was also sent to Phoenix House after he was found bringing marijuana edibles to school. He was required by Wilson to attend the facility as an outpatient three times a week for six weeks, where each meeting consisted of a couple hours of group therapy and regular drug testing. At the time, Sebastian did not think that his weed use was a problem, and did not see the need for rehab. He was smoking around three grams a week. “It wasn’t like an every day type of thing,” he said. “My parents didn’t think I needed to–they didn’t want me to go.”

Each group therapy session involved a series of questions, usually regarding cravings and coping. “They’d ask if you’d had any cravings recently, and for example, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I was walking down the street and I smelled weed and that made me really want some weed,’” he said. “And they’d be like, ‘Okay, what is something you can do in that situation instead of going to your weed dealer and hitting them up and getting high? What is a positive alternative that you could do?’ Like go on a run, it’d be stuff like that.”  

Throughout his time at Phoenix House, Sebastian and his peers were discouraged from forming meaningful relationships. “The other thing about rehab is meeting all the other people who do drugs or are trying to sell drugs or just want to find other people to do drugs with,” he said. “Obviously, they don’t want you to make friends with anyone in the group, which in my opinion kind of defeats the purpose of going to group therapy, because you can’t connect with the people.”

The Assessment:

Wilson has a series of support systems in place to help serve those struggling with substance abuse. Lacey Maddrey has been a social worker at Wilson for three years, and her primary role is to provide extra support and therapy to students. “I’d say a lot of the students that I serve have had, or presently have, issues with substances,” she said. “It’s not like we have a bunch of kids here who are just smoking weed. We have a prescription pill problem that’s grown into other things too–like people come to school drunk. There’s pills, there’s weed, there’s acid, theres n-bomb, there’s all of this stuff.”

Despite DC’s prevalent issues with drug use, the city struggles to provide adequate substance abuse recovery programs to teenagers. The only program Maddrey cited in the DC proper is A-CRA (Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach), a government-funded program. But even that is not the most effective option in her eyes. One program she did speak highly of is Potomac Pathways located in Maryland. Maddrey has found this program particularly successful because of their holistic approach, emphasizing individual, group, and family therapy. “On the weekend you’d also do experiential activities with your group–sober activities–so maybe you’d go rock climbing. You just do things you normally wouldn’t do, to kind of show you how to have fun while being sober,” Maddrey said.

In the coming year, Wilson has plans to expand its in-house substance abuse support, with programs like Fighting Chemical Dependency and the potential addition of a case worker, or someone who is able to focus more completely on the issue of drug use at Wilson.

In Maddrey’s experience, in- and outpatient rehab have had varying degrees of success. “When I’ve had students who’ve gone away for like a month of rehab to just get clean, they become sober. But then when they come back and transition back to their general environment, they relapse, because it’s also about people, places, and things.” Maddrey emphasized that successful rehabilitation has to consider the environment they student will return to, including family support and ensuring that old habits are not resurfaced by old friends. 

“That’s like all you talk about at rehab–drugs and reality television. And how dirty it is. ”

— Alex

All three Wilson students echoed Maddrey’s sentiment regarding the overall ineffectiveness of rehabilitation. “I just do the same s***, but a little bit less hardcore. I just stopped doing all of the stupid 16-year-old s*** I would do, like running over cars, smashing pots, and stealing beers and whiskey,” James said. “I still smoke and s***.”

Similarly to James, Alex still uses drugs, citing Phoenix House’s negligence as the main reason for its ineffectiveness. “They were kind of lenient with the rehabilitation process. Like they didn’t make you do any steps or anything like that, they were just like, ‘you can or you can’t, it’s up to you.’” he said. “Oftentimes, you just go back to your old friends and your old habits and it’s basically the same. At least that was my experience.”

For Sebastian, rehabilitation had a profoundly negative impact. “At the time I was trying to do a sport, I was trying to keep my grades up, and going to rehab pretty much sabotaged all those things,” he said. “I feel like if I had made the decision to go to rehab, I would’ve been a lot more on top of it. But the effect that it had on me when I got out, I was like ‘wow, getting high is going to be awesome now.’”  

Clearly, the methodology for adolescent substance abuse recovery is in need of reform. It’s proven successful for some people, but the testimonies of these three students underscore the importance of making rehabilitation something accessible and permanent for all those who are in need of it. “Overall, it’s a pretty s*** experience, but you do get out of it what you put in,” Alex said. “If you really do try to be sober and try to not do drugs anymore you could finesse it, but if you’re there because someone forced you to go, you’re just like f*** this s***, I’m trying to go do some drugs.”