Australia’s Rehab Capital

By Anna James 01/13/16

The Fix visits Byron Bay, Australia, the upside-down version of Minnesota where the rehabs are by the sea. 

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Australia’s Rehab Capital
Rudiger Wasser

With its white-sand beaches and $4,000 per week villas, it's a small wonder Byron Bay is Australia’s celebrity hotspot. Recently, Thor purchased a $7 million Balinese-style bungalow, prompting the headline: "Why Chris Hemsworth Prefers Byron Bay to Hollywood."

Welcome to Australia’s rehab capital, which boasts an average house price of over $1 million, and the highest drug and assault-related statistics in the state. Byron is a farming system for the addicted, home to five rehabilitation centers in a 9,000 person town, and more 12-step fellowship meetings than the nearby City of Brisbane (population 2.3 million). 

If you want to get clean, or get on, Byron Bay is the place to be.

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Walking down the main street of Byron, Jonson Street, it is evident that the middle class does not exist. A pin-pupiled busker hovers outside a kaftan boutique; a gift shop marks the soup kitchen. Socialites and smackheads stroll the shopping strip, looking for their fix. Come summer, 1.5 million tourists will visit Byron, including 10,000 teenagers for "schoolies," Australia’s Senior Week. The beer-soaked streets are punctuated by church halls emitting instant coffee, begging the question: which came first to Byron Bay; the addict or recovery?

Simon*, 42, knows both sides well. In 2004, Simon entered a Byron Bay rehab, and 10 “hellish” years later, returned to the same facility. After his second stint, Simon relapsed, using methamphetamine, conceding to availability and quality: “The gear’s shit here.” For 20 years, Simon used heroin. Until they fell out, Simon shot meth with a friend he made in rehab. “I find that people I like in rehab, I don’t like in active addiction. All that closeness, friendship and support goes out the window when drugs are involved, all bets are off.”

The closed community of Byron proved a double-edged sword for Simon. “I found more drug connections through the NA fellowship, more than I needed. It was just a matter of asking the right people. Once you’ve crossed that line, you know them. Every one of them. You’ll bump into your dealer on the street.” If you "bust," Simon says, that becomes common knowledge, living in “a bubble inside of a bubble. It’s hard to get clean because everybody in that circle—clean or not—talks. There’s no anonymity at all. People talk. It’s a small town.”

With 13 days clean, Simon is returning to the "safe" side of the fellowship, and planning to stay there. “People I hardly know are reaching out to me; I’ve gotta make a choice. I can’t walk in-and-out of the rooms. It’s black and white. Addiction or recovery. Choose a side.”

***

The 2015 Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research revealed Byron Bay’s rate of non-domestic assaults (late-night street crimes like purse snatching) was 2.5 times the state average, up 7% from 2014. Sexual assault cases have increased by more than 50%. In December, on a police blitz on Byron roads, one in five drivers tested positive for illicit substances, 30 times higher than positive alcohol readings. 

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Settled in 1881, Byron Bay quickly became a hive of industry; timber and livestock, then came Norco—the biggest butter factory in the southern hemisphere, now home of Byron’s largest rehab, The Buttery. When slaughterhouses folded, a new market opened—tourism. In the 1960s and 1970s, hippies and surfers rolled into town, lured by the crystal blue beaches and rainforest. In 1990, the Top Pub was built (renamed The Beach Hotel) for $9 million, selling in 2007 for $65 million, confirming Byron’s "sit back with a cold one" culture. 

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According to Arakwal Aboriginal elders, Byron Bay has been a sacred healing and fertility ground for over 20,000 years. The Byron Shire is an energetic vortex, with massive belts of obsidian crystal underfoot and ley lines crossing through it, purporting a "slipstream into which you can step and flow very quickly toward your soul’s purpose and manifestation,” one local wrote. “You’re never to settle here,” advised another. “You come to Byron to heal, then move on.” Therefore rehab is a marriage of Byron’s two biggest industries: tourism and healing. 

The Buttery is probably the closest to the Hazelden, Minnesota, campus-style approach. With a maximum capacity of 35, "The Butt" is modeled on George De Leon’s therapeutic community, one of only a handful in Australia. The tough-love program is equal parts pragmatic (work period, "responsos"), and therapeutic (groups). The State-subsidized facility is reportedly one of the best in the county, boasting waiting lists of up to one year. The 32-week program is broken up into three stages. In the "transition" phase the resident is encouraged to develop a social network within the local 12-step fellowship, and relocate to Byron Bay.

Sydneysider Tony* is 32, and by the “luck of the dice” arrived in Byron to treat his alcoholism. After completing The Buttery’s full program, Tony entered the halfway house, and then private accommodation, following the prescribed lifecycle of recovery in Byron. “There’s a huge emphasis here on health, spiritual progression, mental well-being. It’s easy to be sober here as long as you follow your own plan, do your own thing,” said Tony, who has drank twice since his rehab stay and re-committed to abstinence without the support of the local 12-step fellowship, which he describes as “rats on a sinking fellow-ship.” 

“Byron’s huge drawcard is that it’s such a big party town. People start using again. This town is full of addicts, so there’s no shortage of dealers or partners to hook up with.” Tony observed that most of his peers made it to a year clean, then faltered. Some weren’t as fortunate. A week out of rehab, Tony’s flatmate picked up and was kicked out. That man is still around town, says Tony. “Where you start using is where you end up using. You’re incapable of packing up your stuff and going home. You’ve got a one-track mind. If I was back on it heavily, all I’d be thinking about was my next drink.”

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The Sanctuary was established by a former Buttery resident who spotted a gap in the Byron market for a high-end rehab facility. It frequently appears in the "Most Expensive Rehabs in The World" lists; $140,000 AUD (just over $110,000 USD) for the standard four-week program, which includes a personal chef, masseuse, nurse, physician, yoga instructor, companion, sleep hygienist, and most importantly, privacy. A study in the psychology of pampering, The Sanctuary’s clientele is mainly international clients and celebrities. Reportedly, every towel is gone over with manicure scissors to remove any inconsistency. There’s also The Sanctuary Recovery House, a mere $12,000 to $18,000 per week for detoxed clients.

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Nungkari is Byron’s newest rehab, luxury-wise, a hybrid of The Sanctuary and The Buttery, offering a 28-day and 42-day in-patient program. In addition to chemical dependencies, Nungkari treats depression, sex addiction and eating disorders. They promote equine (horse) therapy and their organic fare is restaurant-quality, for about $1,500 per day. For some reason, it attracts a young demographic. 

The Bay advertises itself as a "luxury retreat" offering a customized program. “I’m assuming you’ve checked The Sanctuary,” said the receptionist. “We’re better priced.” Only $25,000 per week for a four- to six-week program, plus $900 extra for the 7-10 day medicated detox. The Bay uses the one-to-one care (in private villas) model, offering a range of therapies including hypnosis. 

Ryan*, a 25 year old self-described "poly user," is a live-in support worker for one of Byron’s luxury facilities, which has helped him stay clean. “The support I’ve gotten over the past few months has been amazing,” said Ryan, who is the last of his peers to remain clean. “It breaks my heart when I see my mates on the street, and it’s frustrating. But that’s the reality, it’s the circle I run in.” After completing a state-run program last year (in which he was the youngest), Ryan has experienced both programs. “Even with all the support and nice facilities, it comes down to willingness and determination. There’s no guarantee to stay clean.”

Simon believes high-end rehabs, Byron’s bread and butter, are downright ineffective. “By definition they lack a huge degree of humility. To recover, you have to start at the bare roots; [learning] money management, self-care, looking after yourself. Money doesn’t allow that. If I was a multi-millionaire, what would stop me?”

***

Ironically, two kinds of spiritual healing takes place in Byron Bay; one through abstinence, and the other, through the use of illicit substances. Neighboring town Nimbin, 40 miles west of Byron Bay, hosts the annual Mardi Gras. Psychedelics and weed were once the standard, but now meth has ravaged the town. Michael Balderstone, president of the Australian Hemp Party and Nimbin’s Hemp Embassy, explained: “Ice is cheap, it’s available in every town. We’ve gotten ourselves in a mess.” 

Byron’s drug culture is hardly new, Balderstone confirmed. People are drawn to Byron for “the climate, the lifestyle, that whole scene of discovering yourself and the truth which involves mind-altering drugs. The North Coast kind has been attracting turned on people for 40 or 50 years,” he said. “For me, drugs have been a big part of discovering the truth.” 

Rudiger Wasser

Balderstone believes the legalization of marijuana is the solution to Byron’s drug epidemic. “Nimbin’s full of alcoholics who don’t drink anymore, they smoke pot.”

In the 12-step rooms, they’d describe Balderstone’s approach as “swapping the witch for the bitch.” Local to Byron are 26 Narcotics Anonymous meetings and 66 Alcoholics Anonymous per week. In early recovery, and jobless, it’s easy to attend two meetings a day, hitting the beach and Cafe Oskar in-between, each within a quarter-mile walk of one another.

Ryan is a poster boy for Byron Bay recovery, a suggestion he cringes at. His daily routine of “beach, coffee, hang out with friends, go to a meeting” serves him well. He’s grown, inside and out, into a full-color person, a far cry from the skinny city kid who arrived on Byron shores. There’s no secret formula to recovery, Ryan says. “People always talk about the magical healing properties of this place, but it really comes down to the individual. Byron alone won’t get you clean.”

Brisbane-based Anna James is a journalist, writer and co-producer of Community Newsroom in Byron Bay. She last wrote about the 12 unwritten steps.

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Anna James is an Australian journalist who focuses on sports. In her downtime, she pens pieces on relationships and society, which she secretly loves. When she’s not writing, she’s reading. Anna is also on Twitter.

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