Things I don’t like about contemporary treatment: A meditation from the inside
Dr. Erich Fromm, one of my teachers, inspires the title, and much of the content here.
There is a huge shift transpiring in the field of drug and alcohol treatment, it is happening rapidly and systemically, it will be for the worst and difficult to reverse. Warning: the field of treatment is being infiltrated by people who are emotionally disconnected and un-empathetic towards the plight of the people they claim to serve.
What the treatment industry used to look like: A group of people who had an experience of transformation becoming missionaries and willing to do whatever it took to help addicts and alcoholics. Twelve step, spirituality, new clinical techniques, whatever helped people recover it was done with spirit, intention and legitimacy. I am not idealizing the past, there were always unscrupulous operators, but they were the exception rather than the rule (with some large scale exceptions in the 80’s treatment bubble).
What’s happening now is something different: salesmen, hustlers, and young wealthy kids who want to show their parents they can be successful, open treatment programs, for the wrong reasons and with no experience. Many Drs. And psychiatrists enter into the field as consultants or hired employees and get tempted by money and use their degrees as cache to become owners and operators of there own centers, these too tend not to be missionary healers, but more business savvy narcissists. What’s happening now in treatment is systemic, a result of the breakdown of ethics and spirit in the treatment field. All of this has come together in a near perfect storm to create an industry that seems to have lost its way. The new breed of treatment centers is looking at how to maximize profits, buy and sell addicts care, and become as large and efficient as possible. It is the wrong approach.
One of the contributing factors to this shift is the influx of narcissistic and egoistic personalities that own and operate treatment programs. Every day I hear about the shenanigans of the owners of large “successful” treatment programs. It is clear many of the owners of private rehabs have not done their own spiritual work. Many of these owners are pathological. They tend to have the psychological profile of compulsive gamblers: Mildly (or majorly) anti-social, grandiose, charismatic, addicted to the cycle of winning and loosing, self sabotaging, self-absorbed and lacking in empathy.
What makes this situation deeply troubling, as opposed to another unfortunate by-product of profit-centered capitalism, is that recovery once was a sacred field, largely due to Alcoholics Anonymous.
We have reached a moment in the field of treatment where events and industries have conspired to create the perfect storm. The issue is greed.
Treatment, when done correctly can be a profitable business, and treatment with a focus on profit (over care) can be insanely profitable. Treatment has now become an attractive field for those looking to make a quick buck. On some level what is happening is no different than what happened in the mortgage industry in the early 2000’s. The treatment bubble began to attract these characters (en masse) with the introduction of mental health coverage from insurance in conjunction with the capacity for huge online marketing efforts on Google.
How has this happened? There is a lot more money in the field than there was ten years ago. There is also, unfortunately, a growing customer base, as our country is in the midst of the worst heroin epidemic it has ever seen, and it is an epidemic affecting not only the lower, but also the middle and upper class that can afford to spend more on treatment. This has not gone unnoticed by venture capitalists, real estate investors, huge multinational corporations; they all see treatment as an industry they can capitalize on.
One of the reasons this works is that when families or clients choose to come to treatment all they know is the marketing, not the treatment itself. Unlike a restaurant, customers cannot just try the product and decide if they like it and go somewhere else. Rehab is a big investment. From the outside (or the website) there seems to be no difference between genuine experience legitimate treatment, and large commercial insurance farms. Financial success in this industry has little to do the quality of treatment and everything to do with marketing. The more one can focus their resources on marketing the more clients one will get. It has become a marketing game to fill beds. As a result you see the greediest operators achieving enormous success, putting marketing first (over care). The clients who don’t get the care they need don’t have a voice because they disappear back to where they came from, or sometimes, tragically, die. No one takes responsibility, and the most vulnerable among us are being exploited.
And, we now have the recovering community itself getting involved. Which in many ways is a great thing, but when a recovering person in the first couple years of recovery without much experience or know how opens a treatment center, the core of the treatment matches the core of the founder: shaky, compromised and not yet fully integrated.
So what does good treatment look like? A good treatment center is one that exemplifies healthy living, strong ethics, strong boundaries, expertise (through experience) and lots of love. The men and women in the trenches of their recovery, with an interest in transitioning into the field of recovery, become counselors, therapists, techs; they go back to school learn their crafts and 10 years later they have worked their way to positions of power, legitimately.
The best of us in the field are those who feel an obligation to our fellow person, see ourselves in the people we help, recognize our own limitations, can empathize deeply with suffering, and have the strength to help create a safe and sacred place for those in need to recover.
The other day I was visiting with a young man who just opened a new treatment center. I was speaking with him and the clinical director for longer than I had anticipated. It was clear he was excited about his new business and also clear that he was excited to be helping those who need it. We talked about ethics, spirit and fighting the trends of our industry. Treatment programs like his and mine, are becoming the exception. We are people first, we’ve done our own work, we have experience, we are small, smart, and we are values based. I am having these conversations more and more (with colleagues, with parents, with clients, with peers); there is a small underground group of us forming, perhaps a specter is haunting the treatment field: the specter of integrity!