“Love Has No Labels: The Rise and (hopeful) Fall of Tough Love in America?” — Part 1

 

Welcome to the second installment of Family Matters – Families Matter, our new blog authored and curated by FSDP’s Guest Blogger–pioneering harm reduction therapist, educator, advocate and author Dee-Dee Stout. To learn more about how your family can join our growing community of enlightened friends and advocates sign up here now

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(photo by Tyler Nix @unsplash)

Hello again!

Before we get into the meat of this topic, I need to say a couple of things: First, I apologize for not finding a way to present this in my usual more light-hearted way. This just seemed too serious of a topic for that. I just finished reading Maia Szalavitz’ 2006 book Help at Any Cost which deeply disturbed me. Although I was certainly aware in a general way about a lot of the material about teen “treatment” programs, I was both obsessive to finish the book (reading until 2AM) and distressed that these programs are still around. Here in the Bay Area, our local newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle just did an expose on teen “leadership” schools. As a result of the excellent journalistic work, many supporters and contributors to these programs have now removed their support, both financial and verbal. But there are some who insist these programs are meaningful.

This is also true in Ms. Szalavitz’ book. I’ve seen this in my classrooms over the years of teaching folks to become certified alcohol and other drug counselors. Many of my former students came from Synanon-influenced programs (often ones they attended as clients and then became workers, which I did, too) such as the former Walden House and Delancey Street (which is the only true therapeutic community (TC) left as they do not employ any professionals, the definition of a TC) and some have insisted that they were helped by such “tough love.”

I had the opportunity to ask the world-renowned researcher, Emeritus Professor William R. Miller (author/developer of Motivational Interviewing (MI) about this once. “is it possible that these folks were actually helped by these abusive tactics?” He responded, “I believe that these are people that are so motivated to make a change in their lives that you could have put them anywhere and they would’ve found a way to get better. So, their lives improved not because of the treatment they received but in spite of it.” That response has stuck in my mind and did so while writing this blog installment.

Finally, I was allowed to view the new film Fix My Kid, a documentary on the organization Straight, Inc, a popular behavior modification program for teens from the 1970’s (it was closed in the 1990’s but really just redesigned and opened under new names).  I can’t begin to tell you how upset I became watching this.  Some of this is certainly due to my own experiences with “tough love” but as a human being, I don’t see how anyone could view this without teetering between anger, outrage, and incredible sadness.  I highly recommend a viewing when it becomes available – but be prepared.

And two more blog housekeeping things:  1) As this topic is both so important and large, I’m doing two installments this time.  Today we present Part 1, covering some of the basics of “tough love” and approximately one month later you can expect to see Part 2, which will go into more detail especially as to how the culture came to embrace this concept.  Please let me know at info@fsdp.org what you think about this two-part format.  2) Since September is National Recovery Month, I’ll be doing an installment on the word “recovery” then which I promise will not be your typical take on the word!

And so…here we go again!

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If you remember that phrase, you were around in 1970 when the film, Love Story, came out (starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal) and this phrase about love was the tagline in the studio’s advertising that, using today’s language, went viral. Even then I wasn’t very fond of the phrase. To me, love was quite the opposite: it meant I could make mistakes and saying you’re sorry was part of the healing process – and love would always still be there; it was a given; it had no limits – even if I do. We’ll return to setting limits later.

I’ve been reading a lot of things about love/tough love/etc, preparing for this blog. In a piece from the HuffPost from 2012, writer Sheryl Paul states that if there are conditions on love, then it’s not love but approval – either trying to get it or give it. I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way but she’s absolutely right. And love is NOT the same as approval. In fact, the challenge of love is to love. Full stop. Anything else is based on approval and doesn’t feel like love to the person on the receiving end – because it’s not. Real love isn’t conditional.

A popular phrase in 12-Step/AlaAnon is “you have to let them hit bottom.” We are told as family members that this is “letting go with love.”  However, what if “their bottom” is death? Or jail/prison? Or something else traumatic? How is letting someone “hit their bottom” showing love and not simply trying to control or give approval for “doing the right thing” and not “enabling”? And what evidence do we really have that hitting bottom works? None, save some individual stories of such (side note: I just googled the phrase “hitting bottom” and found a disturbing number of articles and treatment centers advocating this approach). Back to Dr. William Miller: MI has shown us, as has CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training; developed by Dr. Robert Meyers), that standing by and letting a problem drug user get to the absolute worst place they can does little to actually help them seek treatment/change. In fact, it typically makes things worse (the late Dr. G. Alan Marlatt showed this in several studies and discusses this in his seminal books, Harm Reduction and Relapse Prevention).

Anecdotally, when I was in more pain (of all kinds) and things got even worse, that made drug use even more attractive, no matter the negative consequences. And this is typical. This doesn’t mean family shouldn’t allow for some natural consequences. What those are and how one decides when enough is enough must be decided by each individual family and needs to be discussed with the problem drug user beforehand so there are no surprises

So, where did we get this idea of “tough love” especially if it’s harmful? And why is it still such a popular approach? Although tough love is a concept used on adults as well as teens, according to Szalavitz’ book, Help at Any Cost, the phrase “tough love” was first coined by Bill Milliken in his book of the same name in 1968 that discussed parenting approaches. There is also another book of nearly the same name, ToughLove by Phyllis and David York from 1985. Either way, the phrase started out as a term for parents to describe interventions to be used as their teenagers began to act out – perhaps using/misusing alcohol and other drugs – and engage in other less-healthy/desirable behaviors. Unfortunately, typical adolescent separation/developmental behaviors became pathologized (still often are….more on that perhaps at another time). Before the phrase “tough love” caught on in parenting circles, the concept was used here in California by a group long gone but whose long reach can still be felt in drug treatment facilities here and across the country: Synanon.

Synanon was a California institution. It was founded in 1958 in the then sleepy beach town of Santa Monica, by Charles (Chuck) Dederich. According to journalist Matt Novack, Synanon “was one of most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen…” I have seen the outcomes of Synanon up close and personal through my work in treatment facilities, many founded by former Synanon members. Several ideas of these persuasive and talented people were sensible. Sadly, though I believe all meant well, many of their ideas were still too infused with the highly confrontational concepts of Synanon. Having worked and been trained in some of these treatment centers, I am saddened to know that while I helped many people in the dozen or so years I worked in this confrontational style, I am aware that I harmed many others. But Synanon was more than highly confrontational. It was far worse and caused far greater harm.

Synanon was the developer of something they called “The Game.”

“They played the “game” in which anyone was allowed to say anything, true or not, to someone to cause an effect. Only the threat of violence was prohibited. It was a game because one being gamed could turn the game on another.

Addicts’ behaviors and past lives were attacked viciously in games, members were told their lives depended on staying, contacts with family were prohibited, and a system of rewards and punishments was applied. Publicly one was berated ({given a] “haircut”) for misdeeds…Dederich and Yablonsky acknowledged that the system was brainwashing…”

And brainwashing was what Synanon leaders believed drug users needed. According to Paul Morantz (an attorney Dederich attempted to murder for suing Synanon) is credited with coining the phrase “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life.” He also “preached “Act as If” which meant do not try to reason as to what Synanon asks they do; as thinking got them there, just trust what they were told and act as if it is right.” Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) uses similar slogans today. In fact, Dederich was a longtime AA member and popular speaker before his transformation to cult leader (Dederich later became mentally unraveled, extremely paranoid, and preached of a new religion he called Synanon III.

Synanon was heralded as a drug addict-saving program and even had the blessings of Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, who exempted them from health licensing laws. They also started seeing monetary gains as Hollywood superstars such as Robert Wagner, Leonard Nimoy, and Ben Gazzara came to play “the game.” Life magazine did a 14 page in-depth article in which they quoted a Congressman calling Synanon the “Miracle on the Beach.” Columbia Pictures even made a film on it. By the mid-1960’s, Synanon was known as a alternative community which attracted its members through a focus on living a “self-examined life” using “the Game” to uncover hidden truths in group sessions. Even non-drug using professionals were invited to join as long as they “gifted” their assets. Like other cults, Synanon worked by controlling its members. In Synanon the main source of control was by use of “the ‘Synanon Game.’ The “Game” could be considered a therapeutic tool, likened to group therapy; or a social control, in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one’s innermost weaknesses, or both.” This was truly tough love at its “finest.”

Today we may not see toilet seats around clients’ necks (I heard reputable reports that this was done in some drug treatment facilities up to the late 1990’s, to demonstrate that a client had behaved like a ‘piece of shit’) but we certainly continue to have the ethos of stigma, shaming, and harsh confrontation we inherited from Synanon. The threads of Synanon are woven throughout drug treatment programs everywhere in the US (and further in a few cases) today.

PART 2 “Love Has No Labels: The Rise and (hopeful) Fall of Tough Love in America?” coming August 2018

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IMG_6574Dee-Dee has worked in the addictions/mental health worlds for more than 30 years and continues to maintain a busy clinical practice where she works with a variety of clients whose behavioral goals include abstinence, moderation, and “anything they want and in any way they want” to achieve their goals. Her book, Coming to Harm Reduction Kicking and Screaming: Looking for Harm Reduction in a 12-Step World is widely available and has received positive reviews.

 

 

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