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It was just a matter of two days. Two days between a fateful phone call to my mom and a plane ride to my new home in Canadian, Oklahoma. On February 6, 2006, I rang my mom to tell her that, instead of studying for my sophomore college midterms, I was drinking a beer. At the time, it seemed both noteworthy and problematic although I had no idea this omission would land me in rehab just two days later.
I can’t say I entirely blame my parents for their quick decision to send me somewhere, even if drugs and alcohol were just band-aids to my real underlying problems. I had been increasingly making dangerous decisions, most definitely stemming from an extremely difficult time in college, which included being sexually assaulted in my sleep. Overnight I had become an unrecognizable wild child and they wanted to fix me -- fast. Having already given up on myself, I agreed to go without restraint.
I arrived to Narconon on February 8th terrified and with absolutely no clue what to expect. My parents had found the place on Google and the site touted its reputability and success rate. Both my Dad and I spoke to an “intake counselor” on the phone and all seemed reasonable at the time. The Intake Counselor spoke of how he had gone through the program himself and that it saved his life.
And truly, from the outside, it appeared as how I imagined a $25,000 rehab to be. It was settled on a lake and had tennis and volleyball courts, a small weight room and a basement recreation room with a pool table and large screen TV. The rooms were spacious and there was a deck outside where all the patients chain-smoked and talked.
I spent the first two nights in “Withdrawal,” a separate section of the building for newcomers coming off their drug of choice. After a mandatory drug search, I was asked if I was on any medications, because that wasn’t allowed. All prescriptions, including anti-depressants and other meds to treat mental health issues, were strictly prohibited at Narconon. That should’ve been the first red flag but, at that point, I was too dazed to find it odd there wasn’t a doctor, nurse, certified drug specialist or counselor in sight.
Instead, I swallowed the 12+ vitamins they gave me in the morning and observed my wildly colorful peers, laughing along with Jim the cowboy stripper’s crazy jokes. I even, albeit snarkily, obliged as my recently graduated intake counselor made me do the TR (Training Routine) called Confrontation (staring at someone for 1-2 hours completely still).
Once out of withdrawal, thankfully, I was awarded a private room since I didn’t smoke. I was a sheltered girl from an affluent Chicago suburb and was admittedly quite skittish and judgmental about the crack, meth and heroin talk that was endless amongst the patients.
I was only alone for a few days though because *Kelly, a 4’11”, fiery, wonderful, crazy meth addict, became my roommate and partner in crime. We bonded over having the exact same birthday (and year!) and vowed to make hooch together. We spilled secrets to each other and took our mattresses off our beds and stood them upright to punch the living daylights out of them. Kelly was cut off cold turkey from a very large amount of the drug Effexor, used to treat her anger issues, so she needed the mattress more than ever. She was my little bright star in a very confusing time.
Immediately after withdrawal, I started on “Book 1” of the program. There were 8 books in total and usually it took people around 4-7 months to finish the program completely. It quickly became clear that I was not in a normal rehab.
Once again, there were no counselors or drug specialists to aid in our rehabilitation. Former students, often fresh off their own program, were running the show, with the exception of a few “executives” tucked away on third floor offices, and god only knows what they did. Rumor that this rehab was a Scientology recruitment camp quickly became fact -- I watched in horror as the employees came together to salute L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, every morning. L. Ron wrote all of the books we were to follow as well.
Once I was out of withdrawal, drugs and alcohol were never mentioned again in our classes. Where I thought my days would be spent in individual/group counseling and learning how to live a sober life, each day I spent 5 hours performing TRs over and over again with a partner. The first book had a few TRs I had to pass before I could make it to stage 2 of the program. It consisted of a lot more staring.
Inevitably, I would flinch, wiggle, move my hand or do something that would allow the staff to fail me. Given the whopping $7/hour they made as our drug rehab staff, they sure were power hungry and loved to fail us lowly patients. And fail us they did -- though they became our peers again, as many were known to run away and relapse only to go through the program all over again.
Anyway, after I finally passed Confrontation (TR-0) I moved on to TR-1 called “Dear Alice,” a crazy exercise where I picked random lines out of the book "Alice in Wonderland" and repeated them to another student, my coach. The line was to be communicated clearly and in flat affect in order for it to be considered passable for the coach. Why exactly were we doing this and what did it have to do with drug and alcohol recovery? I’m pretty sure that nobody knew.
Five days out of Withdrawal, I was totally over the twilight zone and ready to roll on home. Scientology was a super hot topic in 2005-06 after the wedding of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise’s wack-a-doo interview with Matt Lauer had made headlines everywhere and soon patients were passing around Rolling Stones articles with a Scientology cover story. That was until they weren’t. Many patients reported their magazines missing only a day after they were being circulated.
We were told that, under no circumstances, was this program related or connected to Scientology in any way (current day Scientology website says otherwise). When I called my parents to tell them all about the place and beg them to come home, I was immediately summoned to an Executive’s office. Apparently they tapped the payphones.
I was, once again, told that Narconon was not Scientology-based. They also called my parents to tell them the program had zero affiliation with the religion and they didn’t understand where I could’ve gotten the information. The execs assured them I was receiving the proper care and it was very common for new patients to lie their way out of treatment. So that was that.
I moved on, reluctantly, to the second phase of the program: the sauna. The sauna was a dangerous “detoxification” that, in my case, lasted 30 days. As patients, we were given a gradual uptake of Niacin, starting at 100 mg and increasing up to 5,000 mg. Niacin made our skin turn bright red and itch, although we were told this was our bodies releasing leftover drugs stored in our fat cells. We were also required to take about 15 different vitamins, but I usually spit them out and threw them around the sauna.
We spent an insane amount of time in the sauna, five hours, sweating out our “toxins.” Within 30 days, I had lost 30 pounds. The employees also warned us that we might experience “drug flashbacks,” which took the form of hallucinations. I reasoned anybody having a hallucination was probably having it because they were delirious from being in a sauna for hours on end.
I graduated the sauna phase when my body stopped reacting to the niacin, and we moved on to some even crazier training routines. The reading and staring was replaced with talking to ashtrays. Mind you, I would've maybe been able to build a slow acceptance to these TRs had they been accompanied with some sort of explanation as to how they would help me in my sobriety, but instead we just did them. For hours I held an ashtray in the palms of my hands and commanded it:
“Stand up!” (bring ashtray over head)
“Thank you!” (thanking myself)
“Sit down on that chair!” (bring ashtray to lap)
Soon thereafter I started skipping class and acting out. I was determined to not do anything. The staff would find me hiding in beds, trees and really anywhere. I actually became quite comfortable in my environment and just existing, with no plans to graduate or take anything seriously. I made friends with mostly everyone and enemies with a few. I even had rehab boyfriends, one of whom I still talk to today. Because, when you’re in a place like Narconon, all you really can do is band together.
After dinner, we listened to each other’s stories of custodies lost and friends who had overdosed and our plans of what we do when we got out the hellhole we were living in. I said tearful goodbyes after I was kicked out for bringing a boy into my room, almost exactly four months after I arrived.
Today, Narconon has gone under extensive investigation, with many sites closing down -- yet the training center in Oklahoma still remains. NBC’s Rock Center even did a special on it after two patients were mistreated and died. There are dozens of websites exposing the scam for what it is.
As for what happened to me? I left Narconon in June 2006 and was not allowed home. I was lucky to have college friends who paid for a bus ticket to St. Louis, where I stayed for a portion of the summer before my parents agreed to see me back in Chicago. Since they still didn't trust my story, my relationship with my parents and life trajectory took a turn for the worse for a long time. I’m happy to say that eventually we came to a place of acceptance and understanding. Through therapy from TRAINED professionals, I’ve been able to overcome my demons and although I’m not sober, I have a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol.
Others have not been so lucky. I write this not only because this place needs to be shut down but also out of memory for my loved ones who have become permanently brain damaged or have died in their post-Narconon lives, of whom there have been too many. My dear friend and roommate Kelly took her own life just three weeks ago.
I want traction on the movement to close these awful places down and I want redemption for the thousands of dollars that so many families lost. I want families to forgive themselves for being conned, for this is an operation that preys on the vulnerable, the ones looking for just one more chance. I’m so sorry for those whose last chance was wretchedly tarnished by this evil scum-sucking agenda known as Scientology. Because if I learned one thing at “rehab,” it’s that some of the best and brightest people in the world are addicts and my irreplaceable gift is the time I spent with all of them.