The World's Craziest Addiction Cures

By Ruth Fowler and Walter Armstrong 06/06/11

Think you did some crazy stuff when you were using? From horse-painting to firewalking to "smudging," the "therapies" offered by some of the ritziest rehabs may make your pre-sobriety days look positively tame.

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Anyone who’s attended rehab has had to endure their fair share share of group therapy, behavior modification and meditation. For most clients these practices beneficial. But since staying sober every second of every hour of your 30-to-90 day stay can sometimes break the most resilient of spirits, some creative rehabs have become adept at—if nothing else—keeping their attention-addled deficient and mischief-prone clients as distracted as possible. So-called treatment programs are jam-packed with summer-campy pastimes that allow you to gain valuable expertise (and discover unexpected talents!) in Ping Pong, pottery making, basket weaving, bowling, water polo, finger-painting poetry writing and other danger-and-drama-free activities.

For these rehabs—often the pricier ones— straightforward amusements are not sufficient for their brand. They take the bland but benign notion of “recreational therapy” and dress it up in such kooky pretentions to which the only reasonable response is: What were they thinking? The Fix surveyed the world in search of the weirdest of these rehab “therapies.” And while we don’t pretend to know what their inventors were thinking, we did note that each activity is claimed to possess a deep “spiritual” dimension—either New Age or Native American in style. Make of that what you will. Here are six of the most...exotic:

1. HULA HOOPS

Hula hoop therapy sounds playful enough, but in the world of addiction treatment, hula hoops, like so much else, take on a much deeper significance. Who knew they could treat trauma victims? Visualizing your “personal” hula hoop is used as a therapeutic tool to teach the traumatized, the codependent, and the sexually abused healthy ways to negotiate fraught issues around space, boundaries, and the limits of their control. What’s inside the hoop, the thinking goes, represents what's within one’s control, and clients are encouraged to reinforce this principle by reciting little litanies like “This is a boundary. I am protected and contained.” A favorite at The Meadows, hula hoop therapy was dreamed up by its senior clinical advisor, Pia Mellody, who travels the globe giving workshops and hawking her many books on addiction, co-dependence and relationships.

2. BLOCKS OF FOAM

Another Pia Mellody production is styrofoam block therapy, which has taken these lightweight but firm bricks out of the pilates studio and into the anything-goes arena of addiction treatment. As with the hula hoops, treatment with styrofoam aims to help clients deal, in a symbolic way, with unresolved childhood traumas and other early issues that are a common source of drug and alcohol abuse. And just as the hula hoop externalizes the issue of boundaries, the brick may objectify negative responses to abuse. Shame, for example, is a common theme at rehabs—talking about it, reading about it, journaling about it, processing it—and the Meadows goes the extra step by advising clients to actually carry around a giant "block of shame" all day as a reminder of how their lives have been burdened by its destructive effects.

Likewise, the hoop people wander around with their colorful plastic “boundaries.” The two groups are encouraged to interact, and hoop-vs.-block group conflicts are reportedly rare. Neither object can be used as a weapon—the bulky bricks of gray-colored foam only look like dangerous chunks of concrete that, if thrown, could take half your face off. However, there is a ritual called “returning the shame to the owner” in which the styrofoam is handed back to the person said to be originally responsible for the shame-inducing trauma. Although these encounters obviously have the potential to turn violent, they, too, remain merely symbolic because the perpetrator rarely consents to participate. Instead, the client sits across from an empty chair, has their say and then leaves the foam on the chair. Forever.

3. PAINTING HORSES

Hanging around horses—a.k.a. Equine Assisted Therapy—is fairly common at many luxury rehabs. What with dogs being trained by scientists to detect early signs of cancer in their owner's smell, the therapeutic powers of domestic animals remain a vast  untapped resource. Horses are thought to be especially skilled at mirroring the moods and mental states of the rider. “As flight and herd animals, they can sense on a deep level what may be going on with the client that is missed by human beings,” says One80Center founder and clinical director, Bernadine Fried. And painting, of course, is a legit part of art therapy. So far, so good. But the what-were-they-thinking moment results from Fried's bizarre marriage of the two: One80Center doesn’t just put their clients on horseback and offer them art therapy: residents actually paint directly on the horse. “Using horses as a life canvas gives movement to the client’s story,” says Fried. People may paint a painful memory from their addiction-riddled past, a hopeful fantasy for their sobriety-born future, or, in a meta-move, themselves painting the horse. Anything goes!

PETA members can relax, however: Water-color paints are used, and clients soap down the horse immediately after the exercise, allowing for further bonding. “The horses seem to like the attention,” says Fried, who pioneered horse painting at her previous Los Angeles luxury rehab, Wonderland, thoughtfully providing equine-averse clients an alternative to the intimidating stallion in the form of a miniature donkey. The little burro was named Waffles, according to a 2008 New Yorker story about the explosion in expensive rehabs.

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