Silent Rehab?

by April Wilson Smith, Guest Blogger

I just completed my second silent retreat at a spiritual center in rural Pennsylvania.  For four days I prayed, meditated, read, and walked.  The one thing I did not do is talk.  Silence is the rule on these retreats.  Retreatants take simple meals together in the dining hall, but we do not speak to each other.  We may pass each other on the cloister walks, but we do not say hello.  We don’t make small talk in the elevator or even say good morning to the person brushing their teeth next to us in the shared bathrooms.  We exist in sometimes blissful, sometimes lonely, sometimes boring silence.

On a silent retreat, you face yourself.  You have no one to talk to but the voices in your own head. There is no committee of people telling you what to do.  The distraction of conversation is simply absent.  

I had a particularly productive retreat this year.  I will go back to my busy city life with renewed energy and a renewed sense of purpose.  Most importantly, without the influence of other people, I had a chance to ask myself who I really am and what I truly want out of life.

It made me think back to my experience in rehab several years ago.  Ironically, the well-known, very traditional 12 Step rehab I went to is right down the road from the silent retreat center.  The beautiful rolling hills and pine trees look almost exactly alike.  Yet the two places could not be more different.

I went to rehab, obviously, at a time of crisis in my life.  I had big decisions to make about how to live my life, and questions to ask myself about how I had ended up passed out drunk on a busy city street in Philadelphia.  I could have used some discernment.

At rehab, our schedule was packed.  From wake up time at about 6:30am to 9pm (or sometimes later) we were in lectures, therapy groups, activities (yes, I had “equine therapy”) and the ubiquitous nightly 12 Step meeting.  I was exhausted by the end of my 28-day stay.

I learned a lot about the 12 Steps and can still recite them, as well as large portions of the “Big Book.”  I also learned a great deal about the drug habits of my fellow patients – I knew nothing about heroin or crack before I went to rehab!  Even during break times, we were told not to “isolate” so I went out on the porch with the smokers, even though I despise being around smoke.  I knew that I was under the watchful eyes of counselors at all times.  I spent almost no time alone.  As a long time Zen practitioner, I longed for my meditation sessions, but there was no time or space to sit still and meditate in silence.

While I learned a great deal about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as well as heroin and crack, I did not learn much about myself.  I dutifully confessed my sins (I had to make some up because my list wasn’t good enough for my counselor) and I made some friends.  But I had no time for introspection.  

I left rehab and dutifully did my 90 AA meetings in 90 days but it never felt quite right.  After a long process of reading and studying and meeting the right people, I gradually left AA and started to ask myself, “Who am I?  What do I want?”  Thus, a few years later, I find myself back at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, after four days of complete silence, having made more spiritual and emotional progress that I’ve made in years.  

For me, rehab was a very performative process.  I knew I was always being watched and evaluated, and I adjusted my every action and even thought to what I believed was expected.  While rehab removed me from an environment where I could drown my trauma in cheap red wine, it didn’t give me a chance to look inside myself.  I was told what to do, what to think, and how to act.  And I did as I was told.

Here at the Spiritual Center, I had no choice but to make my own decisions.  Gradually, in silence, the answers came to me.  Not from outside, but from inside my own heart.  

Rehabs could take a lesson from silent retreats.  Sometimes people need time to come to conclusions on their own.  Just because one has used substances problematically does not mean that one cannot reflect.  In fact, at the moment when one has become clear of substances, perhaps for the first time in many years, I would argue it’s the most important time to reflect.

Keeping yourself from returning to problematic substance use – whether that’s through abstinence, moderation or harm reduction – requires that you know your own values and your own purpose.  Getting in touch with one’s true self, listening only to the sound of silence and your own thoughts and feelings, can lay the groundwork for long lasting health.

So how about it, rehab industry?  Replace some of those 12 Step meetings and equine therapy with unstructured, unevaluated quiet time?  Silent rehab, anyone?



April Wilson Smith, MPH, is currently a PhD student in Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Her research focuses on harm reduction approaches to people who use alcohol and other drugs.  She is also a freelance writer and editor, publishing regularly on substance treatment, drug policy and mental health. She is a Certified SMART Recovery facilitator and founder of Philadelphia’s only SMART meeting. She is also the Director of Organizational Development for Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support, an international organization dedicated to helping people change their alcohol consumption to fit their own goals.  

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