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What Kind of People go to Rehab? The Common Mythologies and Untruths About the Occupants of Rehabs

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

"I used to think a drug addict was someone who lived on the far edges of society, wild-eyed, shaven-headed and living in a filthy squat. Then I became one.” Kathryn Kemp

What kind of people go to treatment? Well, it’s pretty obvious isn’t it? Junkies and raging alcoholics, down-on-their-luck knockabouts, hotel-trashing musicians, disgraced footballers, celebrities who melt down in the overwhelm of their fame and fortune, ...the stereotypes abound, laced together by common assumptions about such people…that they are people with poor self-control, little will power or questionable moral values, people with deep-seated psychological issues, people who are somehow different from or worse than us.

So pervasive are the misconceptions about what rehab is and who it’s for, that many people who could benefit enormously from a stint in rehab, will never even entertain the idea, much less make it there, believing that they don’t qualify and that their problems ’aren’t that bad’. Many people talk themselves out of the incredible support available to them in rehab and continue to limp along, living a kind of half-life, rather than grabbing the life-changing resource that good rehab is.

Common stereotypes of alcoholics (the homeless guy on the park bench with a brown paper bag), addicts (the mad-eyed blister-skinned junkie from the ice stories of prime time current affairs shows), and eating disorder patients (the skeletal woman who's eyes have sunk into her skull in a manner shockingly reminiscent of WW2 concentration camps) don’t help, fuelling largely unfounded fears about who one might be forced to co-habitate with during a rehab stay.

Closer to the truth is that the people you encounter during a rehab stay are very often the same people you encounter in an average day at the office…. everyday people. Alcoholism, addiction and eating disorders do not discriminate across socio-economic or cultural groups, and neither do depression, anxiety and trauma. No-one is immune. At rehab, just like in life, you will find the type of people you might bump into at the grocer, sit next to at the hairdresser, have a chat with at Saturday sport, or wave at across the street when you arrive home in the evening.

The people in treatment are your beautician, your lawyer, your yoga teacher, your accountant, your dentist, your plumber. They are nurses, doctors, army veterans, police officers, business owners, sporting figures, creatives and stay-at-home Mums. They are your neighbour, your cousin, your father, your sister, or your best friend, … dealing with their alcoholism, over-eating, cocaine addiction, gambling addiction, anorexia, bulimia, post-natal depression, anxiety, painkiller addiction, low self-esteem, post-combat trauma, workaholism. The spectrum is broad.

So too, is the degree of dysfunction that people come in with. Rehab is not just for end-of- the-line drunks who are standing on the brink of losing everything or have already done so. Many people come in with their functioning still reasonably in tact in many areas of their lives. Some are functioning at the very highest levels of their professions but their close relationships are in tatters. Some have spent their lives being focused on others and have burnt out and need to find a new way. Some seem to others like they have it all but their perfectionism masks a painful inner core of emptiness and self-hatred. Some need help to find their strength, others their vulnerability.

Others come in to be supported as they leave a relationship, get through a divorce, grieve the loss of a child, save a marriage. Some come to heal childhood trauma and many come to learn the fundamentals of how be in good relationship with themselves and others, how to value and take care of themselves, and how to get connected to life again. Most are just everyday people who just want the hurt to stop and recognise that they need others to help them to do it.

My personal truth is that I have witnessed some of the best of humanity in rehabs. Rehab communities are full of colourful, sensitive, hilarious, fascinating and wonderful characters, a rich human tapestry that is always a privilege to experience. Very often people in treatment are deeply feeling people whos psychological symptoms carry important messages, insights, opportunities and invitations for change, both for themselves and for those around them. Increasingly I have come to see mental illness and addictions less as pathology and more as spiritual gateway. Some will never open the gate, but when someone does, there is no greater privilege than to bear witness to that.

In all the shades of dark and light that inevitably exist in a place where people come to heal and grow, in my perception the fundamental goodness and beauty of people shines through again and again. Ultimately, rehab is a place where all the stereotypes melt away to lay bare the human condition in its most tragic and beautiful forms. And if there was one common trait that I see again and again in treatment populations, it is not poor self-control or questionable values or zero will power, it is courage beyond measure….people who are willing to lay bare the truth of who they are, stand at the fertile mouth of suffering and work at transforming their pain into a life worth living. Surely there is no greater heroism.

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