The History Of Rehab

For as long as fruit has rotted on trees, human beings and their ancestors have had alcohol to drink; the history of rehab stretches back longer than we might think.

Opium poppies have flowered for thousands of years, Cannabis may have been featured in the rituals of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and the use of tobacco may be more than 7,000 years old.

Addiction isn’t new. Addiction treatment isn’t new, either.

But addiction treatment and the nature of rehab — once rehab was invented — have changed tremendously. The minds of each era approached addiction treatment modalities differently, and the options that are available to the modern-day patient struggling with substance use disorders and mental health concerns have greatly improved.

Addiction specialists these days truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and it may be easier to appreciate just how sophisticated 21st-century treatments are with a glimpse into how they began.

History Of Rehab: Origins Of Treatment

The unfortunate truth of addiction treatment is that addiction didn’t always receive treatment — because addiction wasn’t always viewed as a disease.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, viewed addiction as being an “incontinence of will.” In other words, those who struggled with moderating their use of substances were seen as being deficient of character.

Eventually, however, scholars and scientists realized that otherwise good and moral people had difficulty controlling their drinking or drugging; physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and early addiction scientist, was among the first to talk about addiction (specifically, alcoholism) as a disease.

Rush’s prescribed treatments for drunkenness might make us chuckle; the doctor recommended inducing vomiting in inebriated individuals by “thrusting a feather down the throat” in hopes of “exciting a puking.”

Further recommendations by Dr. Rush included cold-water baths, bloodletting, inducing negative emotions (like guilt, shame, and anger) in the addicted individual, and even whipping.

Unsurprisingly, these methods didn’t always work (indeed, some patients may have had to go see a different doctor after having seen Dr. Rush). But about 100 years after Rush’s death, addiction treatment took another leap forward: the world got its first rehab.

Jazz And Methadone: The First Rehab

The federal government opened a drug treatment center, the first of its kind, deep in Kentucky in the 1930s.

Someone who walked by the center, known as the US Narcotic Farm, might have heard the sweet sounds of free-flowing jazz floating over the freshly-cut hay and newly-harvested crops that adorned the site. That’s because the researchers behind America’s first rehab were aiming to learn more about Opioid addiction — and jazz musicians happened to be some of the first individuals receiving formal addiction treatment.

People like Sonny Rollins, Howard McGhee, and Chet Baker (the rock and roll stars of the early 20th century) spent time at the US Narcotic Farm in an effort to get a handle on their addictions and learn how they could best fit into the world around them.

The Narcotic Farm certainly had some unconventional (by today’s standards) approaches; patients were encouraged to work hard and, in some cases, play music for as long as 6 hours a day — the thinking, apparently, was that idle hands do the devil’s work.

What’s more, patients were — unbelievably — paid in Morphine in exchange for their participation in experiments about addiction.

The takeaway from this chapter of addiction treatment history may be that creating art and keeping busy can be helpful ways to re-orient one’s life and spend one’s time; rewarding patients with Morphine may no longer be a key treatment modality, but many of those in recovery may still benefit from using their well-sharpened creativity (and, potentially, some well-deserved rewards) to manage the pangs of withdrawal and meet the challenges of forming a new and sober life.

Synanon And “Tough Love” Therapy

The 1950s saw a new era of addiction treatment: Synanon, a group that’s now been deemed a cult, advocated for several novel approaches to addiction treatment. Their methodology was innovative, to say the least; it was also abusive and marked a dark chapter in the history of rehab.

According to Los Angeles magazine, within the treatment strategy of Synanon, a key component of recovery “became known as Games or simply the Game, where members would sit in a circle and call people out on their secrets, their dishonesties, their hypocrisies.”

In other words, group members would attempt to shame their compatriots; this could be known as the “tough love” approach. This practice was evidence of Synanon’s toxicity; later, members would be pressured into making incredibly personal — and sometimes, violent — choices at the behest of the top brass.

In a way, Synanon marked the end of a particularly dysfunctional period of addiction treatment; the next era covered, that of the 1990s, paved the way for current treatment standards.

The 1990s: A New Kind Of Recovery

According to a piece published in the Addiction journal in 2007, “recovery advocates who helped birth modern addiction treatment in America expressed concern in the 1990s that something had been lost through the professionalization and commercialization of addiction treatment.”

Ultimately, the realization that addiction science should benefit the treatment and the life trajectory of an individual struggling with substance use disorders and/or mental health conditions — and not necessarily a larger, pharmacological-treatment complex — caught on.

With science, empathy, and open-mindedness at the wheel, many new ideas (the principles behind which may not be so new at all) have emerged on the scene. That brings us from the history of rehab to modern day — and the treatment options available to anyone working to manage substance use disorders and/or mental health conditions in the fast-paced time we live in.

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Luxury Rehab And The Future Of Rehab

The medicines and therapies available to the individual seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction or for mental health concerns encapsulate the very best of the approaches refined during earlier chapters of history.

Patients may now experience the utmost of what practitioners like Dr. Rush had to offer (without the questionable directives). Exposure to the elements, like cold air and water, along with invigorating physical challenges, can form the basis of adventure therapy.

Furthermore, art and music therapy — like the kind practiced at the Narcotic Farm — have come further than ever; patients can now harness their creativity as a way to manage mood and bring meaning that safely surpasses any sense of satisfaction that drug or alcohol use might have brought.

Finally, group therapy like the kind practiced at Synanon (with the element of peer support and without the element of harassment) can go a long way toward giving valuable psychosocial support to anyone who needs a friend or a listening ear during recovery.

The “new” recovery of the 1990s — a mission based around the individuality and goals of each person going through treatment — has reached higher heights than ever before in the present format of luxury rehabs that tailor their every modality to patient comfort; many centers offer round-the-clock care, compassionate attitudes, and personalized amenities.

You never know which method of treatment, or which treatment center, will be best for you until you try. If you happen to be struggling with a substance use disorder and/or mental health concern, reach out now; contact a treatment provider who can answer your questions and give you a road map of potential treatment options, for free.

The treatment modalities of the future are known best by those who seek help now; by reaching out, you could be part of a new and cutting edge in addition science — the treatment options that benefit you today could soon form the foundation of the modalities that help the patients of tomorrow.

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William Henken

Photo of William Henken
  • Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.

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