Ask addiction specialists about rehab, and they start by explaining the process of getting sober. It’s no picnic, but it’s tolerable via medically assisted treatment, also known as medical detox. It’s the first step of inpatient treatment at drug and alcohol treatment centers. Through FDA-approved pharmaceuticals, patients’ withdrawal symptoms are managed for a few days, a week or longer, depending on the severity of addictions.
While some do try it on their own, DIY detox is ill advised. “Detoxing is awful if you’re not medicated,” says Jessica Molavi, an addiction specialist at Main Line Health’s Mirmont Treatment Center in Media.
Most rehab centers have special detox units where addicts begin their stay. Following detox, patients are divided into gender-specific units. Recovery Centers of America calls them “neighborhoods”—and at its Devon complex, those neighborhoods are clearly gentrified. RCA’s sixth inpatient facility opened in August 2018, with a $50 million investment from the King of Prussia-based company.
RCA touts itself as the Four Seasons of rehabs. It has a state-of-the-art gym, a meditation center, flat screen TVs, and nicely appointed bedrooms with leather club chairs and fluffy high-thread-count linens. Caron Treatment Center, Mirmont and other rehabs have the same luxuries. “We have a 100-acre campus and gorgeous amenities, but that’s not what we promote,” says Dr. Joseph Garbely, vice president of medical services and medical director of Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania. “We put a premium on quality therapy with individualized programming that sees patients through a continuum of care that supports their sobriety.”
But a sober body doesn’t automatically promote a sober mind. If it were that easy, the relapse rate wouldn’t be so high. Now 33 and sober for more than three years, Brendan was the stereotypical suburban rich-kid junkie. Privileged, bored and comfortably ensconced in his parents’ home in Media, he “drunked out” of West Chester University when he started taking Percocet with friends. He quickly graduated to Oxycodone, then heroin. “I fell in love with heroin immediately,” Brendan confesses. “It was a good high and a lot cheaper than Oxy.”
To the heroin he added Xanax, alcohol and cocaine. He managed his addiction for about a decade, even holding a full-time job. All of Brendan’s money went up his nose. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was snorting 56 bags of heroin a day. He spent a few days in jail and a few more in a hospital after an accidental overdose. None of that slowed his addiction. At his lowest point, in April 2015, Brendan was skin, bones and heroin. His 6-foot-3 body weighed only 150 pounds.
Rehab facilities like Caron Treatment Centers (above ) and Mirmont Treatment Center boast first-class amenities, but the real focus is on effective therapy and individualized programming that gets patients sober and keeps them that way. Photo courtesy of Caron Treatment Centers.
Not all addicts look like addicts. At 6-foot-1, Joe* was 280 pounds of rock-solid muscle during his active duty in the Army. Now in his late 40s, he still has a square jaw and sculpted body. The tough exterior is the real deal. When he was 17, Joe was recruited into a special forces unit that operated in the Middle East. After six years of service, he came home with PTSD and a catastrophic knee injury. Following surgery, he was given Vicodin, which relieved his PTSD—and heroin helped even more.
Joe and Brendan had both made attempts at sobriety, going to various rehab centers. Brendan went to KeyStone Center three times. “When I left, I felt like I was on top of the world, totally thinking I’d live a sober life,” he recalls. “Within a week, I was drinking again, and it was a quick slide back into drugs.”
Sometimes, one rehab experience is all it takes. Don* partied with clients and friends for about 20 years. Cocaine was his go-to drug in the 1990s, but the sales executive quit cold turkey. His undoing was Vicodin, originally prescribed for a back injury. Surgery at Lankenau Hospital eliminated the pain, but the Wayne resident retained his opioid habit and began doctor shopping, lying to obtain prescriptions.
By that time, Don was in his 40s and had a wife and kids. His wife kicked him out of the house when he couldn’t control his intake of alcohol and opioids. He checked himself into Caron Treatment Center and stayed there for 120 days.
A similar ultimatum from a family member did the trick for Brendan. “Mom said I could go to a recovery center or she’d fly me somewhere to start over,” he says. “Those were my only two choices. What I couldn’t do was go home. The person with the addiction and his loved ones have to get to the same point in their thinking. Otherwise, the addict keeps going and going.”
Brendan checked into KeyStone again—this time in a basement unit with patients who didn’t have private insurance and wealthy parents to foot the bill. “But they have all of the therapeutic tools that every other facility has,” says Brendan. “It’s a great place. I mean, it’s hell—but necessary.”
Don feels the same way about Caron. “Beautiful facility, excellent staff, and I hated almost every minute of it,” he says. “Who wants to dissect 20 years of mistakes and bad behavior? The things I did to get pills, the pain I caused my wife, the friends I deceived, the fact that my whole life was a lie—no one wants to own up to that.”
Brendan can relate. “I was used to people cosigning my shit my whole life. Finally, I had to accept that the drinking and drugs were symptoms. I was the problem.”
Continued care is what’s kept Brendan clean. During his last stay at KeyStone, a counselor told him about MVP, a sober living facility in Chester that offers housing and intensive therapy for people in recovery. “MVP is about accountability, structure and discipline,” says Brendan. “There were six other guys in the house, and we were from all walks of life, but we had one goal: to stay sober.”
Brendan stayed at MVP for 18 months, attending meetings, completing therapeutic assignments and working a minimum-wage job at a pizza shop in Media. “I had to start my life over, but first I had to own my shit,” Brendan says. “I learned how to forgive myself for what I’d done, how to build healthy relationships, and how to create purpose and direction. MVP changed my life and saved my life.”
It also saved Joe’s life. MVP was his first experience with a sober living facility. He stayed for 19 months, after spending 42 days at Mirmont. Previously, he’d gone to a Veteran’s Administration rehab center seeking help for his heroin addiction. He was with other vets in a program that lasted 18 months. “But once you leave there, you haven’t been introduced to anything in the outside community to continue treatment,” he says.
Shortly thereafter, Joe was back on Vicodin, then heroin. He arrived at Mirmont in March 2017. “My biggest fear was that they wouldn’t be able to help me because of things I couldn’t get out of my head,” Joe says. “I’ve done shitty things. A lot of them were in the name of protecting people and following orders. But the reason I used drugs was to forget about all of those bad things in my past. If you stop the drugs, you can’t control what you remember.”
Trauma fuels many addictions, says Darrell Briggs, a Mirmont behavioral health therapist who worked with Joe. “His trauma is significant, but trauma is trauma, whether its sexual trauma or some other kind,” Briggs says. “To treat the addiction, we need to treat the trauma.”
Mirmont, Caron, RCA and many other rehab centers have specialized groups for women, men and members of the LGBTQ community. Caron has a separate unit for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals fighting addictions. “The goal is to create situations where people with shared histories can talk openly and get customized treatment for their experiences,” says Caron Treatment Center’s Garbely.
Main Line Heath’s Mirmont Treatment Center in Media. Photo courtesy of Mirmont Treatment Center.
Briggs is the facilitator for VIPER, Mirmont’s special program for first responders. Police, fire fighters, EMT and military veterans need specialized therapy, he says. “When you bring first responders into an environment like Mirmont, they’re already at a disadvantage because they see themselves as different than everyone else—capable, stronger,” Briggs adds. “They’re used to taking care of other people.”
They’re also hesitant to describe their traumatic experiences. “If I told you my whole story, if I went in depth about things, there’s a look in your eyes that I expect,” Joe says. “It’s sadness. It’s judgment. It’s thinking that, because of what I’ve done and seen, I don’t have a chance at fixing myself.”
So Joe stopped sharing, even in AA meetings with other veterans. “No one taught us the tools for how to communicate in a healthy way,” he says.
That’s the key for VIPER. “First responders don’t get to talk about their jobs, what they’ve been through and the feelings they have about it,” Briggs says. “They do the job, go home and have to shut that down, swallow it. They look for ways to manage those thoughts and feelings, or make them go away. Drugs and alcohol do that. VIPER is a fellowship where they can share feelings and trauma, and have relationships with people who have shared histories.”
Joe benefited from Mirmont’s other modalities, including exercise, nutrition, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, even yoga and meditation. But talking about his trauma with VIPER members made the most significant difference. “I needed to have guidance and be taught the tools of living sober,” Joe admits. “That’s been the biggest change, and I think it’s the key to my future.”
Joe is a member of VIPER’s alumni group. He regularly attends meetings and is active on VIPER’s private Facebook page. One of the most effective things is one of the simplest: a “feelings check,” when VIPER members post how they feel that day, or even that minute, and others in the group post supportive messages.
“Before VIPER, I didn’t talk to many people at all,” Joe admits.
Don says the same thing. Drugs and alcohol isolated him from family and friends. Now, he stays in touch with his emotions and his sobriety. For him, that means continued AA meetings and regular sessions with his therapist. He also returns to Caron to speak to newly admitted patients.
But Don doesn’t tout himself as a success story. He remains vigilant, avoiding situations that may lead him back to substance abuse. That can be as basic as not attending parties where there will be social drinking. “I’ll stay home or go to an AA meeting,” he says. “It can be lonely, but it’s something I have to deal with.”
It’s working for him. Don’s marriage didn’t survive his addiction, but he mended the relationship with his ex-wife and children. He also got his career back on track and owns a thriving business in Chester County.
Brendan also put his life back together. He reenrolled at West Chester University and got straight As for two years. “It’s kind of amazing what my brain can do when it’s not high,” he says.
Brendan graduated with a bachelor’s degree this past December and entered graduate school to earn his master’s in social work. He’s also become a certified recovery specialist and works with other addicts at Crozer-Chester Medical Center and its affiliated hospitals.
Joe also became a certified recovery specialist, graduating first in his class. He also started his own construction company. What’s his “feelings check” right now? “I feel OK,” Joe says with a shrug.
Then he breaks into a smile. “I guess I feel pretty hopeful about the future,” he admits. “I feel good.”
Such success stories are inspirational, but they’re not universal. “You can send anyone to the best rehab on the planet, and if they’re not ready to get sober, they won’t,” Joe says.
Brendan concurs. “What comes after that—the learning how to live sober—that’s been most important for me,” he says.
Don is convinced that part of the solution to addiction lies with former addicts. “We can help other people find the tools to step out of their addictions because we’ve done it ourselves and we do it every single day,” he says.
After all, helping other addicts is the 12th step—one these men plan to continue for the rest of their lives.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.