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My Story -- What Led Me to Want to Create The Lifeline

To say I was a rebellious teenager is a gross understatement. To put it mildly, I was out of control. At the age of 16, I was using every escape possible to push myself into oblivion and take plenty of people down with me. I was binge-drinking and had run away six times in 35 days from a psychiatric hospital, a rehab and a youth shelter. I was hitchhiking down highways in the middle of the night and worrying my parents to death. My mother later told me she thought I had two weeks to live.

On October 19, 1993, my parents dropped me off at the Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine and told me, "This is your last chance." The next step for me would have been to be turned over to the custody of the State of Connecticut. I don't actually know in hindsight if they had grounds to do that, but I believed them at the time.

Elan today is officially a boarding school, but does not seem like one at all. When it was founded in 1970 by the late Joseph Ricci, a former heroin addict, and the late Dr. Gerald Davidson, his business partner, it was deemed a therapeutic community, modeled after the techniques of Daytop Village, where Ricci had received treatment. The treatment modality involved a job hierarchy at the treatment center, with each job bringing an increase in responsibility and privilege. Therapeutic techniques involved tough (or sometimes gentle) confrontation and frequent facilitated screaming -- at one's inner self, during primal scream groups, and at each other, during verbal reprimands students gave one another, as well as meetings of the entire house to deal with a problematic individual. But this description can't possibly explain it all. I can't even fully explain Elan. You'd have to have been there.

In a nutshell, the style of treatment I encountered at Elan was unlike any other I've ever seen. I was there 32 months and eventually graduated the program. Today, I've been sober eight years, and while my life is by no means perfect, I have many fine friends and many blessings.

Elan undoubtedly did me and countless others a world of good. But virtually everyone who attended Elan and many who attended other therapeutic communities, seem to disagree with at least one or more aspects of their treatment. Some former residents, especially many who attended in the 1970s and early 1980s, regard their treatment as downright abusive, physically and psychologically. With concepts such as sleep deprivation, spankings, ditch-digging and many rounds in a boxing ring, if one acted out, prevalent during that time, it's hard to blame some of these people for feeling this way.

Even today, although somewhat toned down, some more recent former residents feel the staff at Elan and other facilities are insensitive to medical and emotional needs and mental conditions. Mental illnesses are frequently ignored in light of the philosophy that one is "choosing to be that way." Forms of therapy which may help substance abusers, including working the popular 12 steps and attending 12-step meetings are shunned. Principles are passed down in a very right/wrong fashion, often ignoring one's own individual needs. At Elan, policies seem to get stricter every day, resulting in a virtual psychological "strangulation by structure" which can be very uncomfortable and depressing to live under. The answer to every problem is not always more structure.

However, the basic form of "concept" (life day-in and day-out of a therapeutic community) is very effective when stripped to its roots. Principles such as putting pride in one's work, tough confrontation of peers and one's self, a job hierarchy simulating the work-world on the "outside world," and of course, the popular "primal scream" techniques (which Elan no longer employs) seem to help adolescents and young adults rebuild their lives.

At The Lifeline, my aim is to take the good of "concept" and build on it. In other words -- make it better. But deciding what is good about concept and what is bad should not be a one-person decision. It would be foolish for me to assume I know everything about treating John, Matthew, Sarah and Kimberly's problems, even though they are all different individuals and I don't have nearly all the answers.

I need your help -- yes, you the person who is reading this. Many of you have been through treatment, including "concept." Some of you are professionals. Most of you are undoubtedly good people who took your individual bumps in adolescence. I need you to tell me how I can best help the adolescent of tomorrow help themselves.

Many of you complain about being discharged from treatment and being immediately left to fend for yourselves. At The Lifeline, that will not happen. We will construct a comprehensive program of Re-Entry back to society for all graduates, where students will be required to find a job in the neighboring community. Whether a student graduates or not, we will keep in touch with him or her and parents as well through calls, follow-ups with probation officers when applicable and endless support, as long as the student desires. We will have a 24-hour support line where students can call in and always get good feedback from a trusted staff or resident.

Some other basic guidelines: We will construct a 9-12 month program, so a student can return to his or her community and live out the young years instead of developing an "institutionalized" mentality. We will not employ any abusive or humiliating tactics, sometimes common in other therapeutic communities: i.e. outrageous costumes, sleep deprivation, signs with demeaning messages, substandard living conditions and physical punishment. We will allow psychotropic medication when appropriate, under the supervision of a qualified psychiatrist, but no one will be forced to take medication, nor will we ridiculously overmedicate students, as in a psychiatric hospital.

But most importantly, we will only take students who WANT TO change their lives at The Lifeline. That means the majority of our residents will likely be state-committed and will be at The Lifeline, because they don't want to go to jail or juvenile detention and let their lives get worse, not better. Non-state committed teens may or may not be allowed to attend, but no parent will be able to commit their child to The Lifeline against the child's will. The last thing we need at The Lifeline is someone who will drag down morale because he or she is not fully invested in changing.

If a student wants to leave, we'll let him or her leave and if he or she is in the state's custody, then a probation officer can take him or her back to jail. We will only help those who want to help themselves. Period. Those who are desperate enough to change frequently only face the alternative of "jails, institutions or death," to coin a phrase popular in Narcotics Anonymous.

Another feature of The Lifeline will be individualized treatment, with the resident calling some of his or her own shots. For example, if one of a female resident's problem is alcoholism, but attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings makes her uncomfortable because of the "God stuff," we will explore other viable alternatives with the student, such as Rational Recovery, S.M.A.R.T. and or even Moderation Management. Of course, we'll never let an underage person drink, but we will help introduce her to appropriate concepts which may help her help herself down the line.

Don't get me wrong though. We know where to draw the line. We won't let our residents slide through the cracks. We won't let their flexible choices in treatment deter them into rationalization. We will know when to be tough and when to employ the proper structure with a student. A popular phrase applicable to The Lifeline: "I'd rather step on your toes, than stand on your grave." Tougher features of "concept" such as "general meetings" and "encounter groups" complete with screaming and harsh confrontation will surface at "The Lifeline" as well. Every student will wash their share of serving pans and scrub their share of floors for running afoul of The Lifeline's structure. But we won't use these features as liberally as some other places; the answer to everything isn't in yelling and scrubbing a floor.

Group and individual therapy will be available at The Lifeline. The Lifeline will be staffed by graduates of various treatment modalities and professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers, so types of therapy will vary. Less conventional forms of group therapy such as psychodrama, meditation workshops (with an occasional Buddhist monk guest!) and the "primal scream" will also be available.

In a nutshell, I want to create something better and more effective for today's troubled teen. And I want to keep an open mind, because "those who don't know, teach." I hope you, the Web-surfer can help. So sign the guestbook and stay in touch.

With sincere best wishes,