Sierra Tucson

By The Fix staff 03/25/11

This high-end desert facility caters to a plethora of emotional and behavioral disorders. The luxury, Native American wisdom and stunning views on offer sufficed to entice Tiger Woods and Ringo Starr.

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Sierra Tucson, seen through the cacti. Photo via
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Located in a barren patch of the Arizona desert with breathtaking views of the region's famous red mountains, Sierra Tucson is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world to rise from the trenches of addiction. The well-respected rehab, which houses a total of 139 patients, treats a wide range of emotional and behavioral disorders, from trauma to eating and mood disorders. Residents of all kinds are housed together, regardless of their afflictions, but wear colored nametags identifying their particular condition.

Unfortunately, not everyone is keen on the notion of mixing maladies: “I didn’t understand why my roommate wasn’t an alcoholic or drug addict,” complains a former resident. “It kind of freaked me out walking into my room and seeing him wearing a tag saying ‘male contact only.’ At first I thought he was a rapist, but he later admitted that he was addicted to sex and internet porn." 

Still, there’s one thing that unites addicts of all kinds and that’s the desire to feel special. Luckily, Sierra Tucson is the kind of place that won’t let them down. A lavish facility that specializes in personalized care for a steep price tag, the staff makes clients feel worth every pretty penny. Immediately upon admission, residents meet with a coordinator who lays out an individualized treatment plan.  For some, this process was reminiscent of higher education: “In a bizarre way, I felt like I was meeting with a college advisor, planning my course of study,” says one alum. “I came to Sierra Tucson for my heroin addiction, but discovered I was also suffering from anorexia; it’s like I was majoring in addiction and minoring in an eating disorder.”

Although Sierra Tucson’s program is firmly based in the 12 steps, the rehab’s counselors believe in treating alcoholism and addiction as a spiritual and holistic problem, not just a mental disease. Soon after it opened in 1983, the facility patented a method it calls the “Sierra Model,” which it describes as “a bio-psycho-social-spiritual basis for recovery.” 

While the model doesn’t radically differ from the holistic treatment offered at other high-end rehabs, Sierra’s branded approach and luxurious environment helps draw a stream of brand-conscious celebrities like Jesse James, Tiger Woods, Rob Lowe and Ringo Starr. The main way Sierra Tucson differs from other facilities is that it focuses not just on addiction but, as one client says, “on the things that compelled us to use.” In addition to hours of therapy and daily group sessions, the facility offers a full menu of exotic treatments—everything from equine therapy to hypnosis, somatic therapy (body awareness and breathing), psychodrama (where clients are encouraged to complete their desired actions through dramatization), recreational and adventure therapy (such as nature walks and outdoor talking circles), acupuncture, massage and yoga.

Despite all these options, sometimes clients feel flummoxed by “all the weird Southwestern mystical stuff” that pervades the facility. “There’s a lot of pressure to respect the Native American wisdom,” one alum says. “Which seems weird since most reservations are filled with alcoholics.”

And not all the clients are enamored of the various forms of therapy. “In one group, we were given foam bats and instructed to pretend a chair was our addiction,” says a former resident. “We were supposed to beat the chair with the bat, scream at it, and basically go crazy. It was kinda ridiculous.” But other alumni rave about the facility’s process groups and individualized therapy. “It was intense and hardcore and really effective,” testifies one former client. “My counselors always challenged me in a very positive way.”

Taking advantage of its exquisite setting, Sierra Tucson’s cafeteria boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that provide awe-inspiring views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Clients have the option of eating outside, but the sweltering heat (which can rise to 105 degrees in the summer) deters all but the hardiest residents. The food is generally praised as first-rate, heavy on fruit and fresh vegetables.  During their rare moments of free time, residents are encouraged to cool off in the rehab’s Olympic-sized swimming pool, but bikinis and Speedos are strictly forbidden. On special evenings twice a month, the staff leads semi-organized activities like Game Night and karaoke. “I really got a lot out of these activities, even though they were kind of corny,” says one former resident. “It proved to me that you could have fun even if you’re sober.” For a price tag of $50,000 a month, it’s an expensive but important lesson to learn.

Considering other options? View the top rated rehab centers in the nation

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