My Hazelden Experience: The Power of the Peer Group and Fellowship

by Dick on January 14, 2012 · 12 comments

in Addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Alcoholism, Hazelden, Recovery, Treatment

“One foot in, for those left out…right foot here for us. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. So be it!”

My peers and I at the Hazelden Treatment Center said this variation of the Serenity Prayer many times a day after every group activity. My unit at Hazelden was called Silkworth, named after the pioneering Dr. William D. Silkworth. Dr. Silkworth had a profound influence on Alcoholics Anonymous, writing the oft quoted “Doctors Opinion” in the AA “Big Book.” Famous Silkworth alumni include Eric Clapton, who as the legend goes, swam across the nearby lake, to get loaded at a local bar. Ironically, he later donated funds for the new Hazelden swimming pool.

I attended the 30 day in-patient program at Hazelden in Center City, MN, specifically because they started a program dedicated to assisting attorneys with addiction. It was one of the best, yet most challenging, experiences of my life.

Hazelden is the antithesis of fluffy rehabs like Promises or Passages. Lindsay Lohan was denied admission, apparently. While the campus grounds in rural lake country of Minnesota are beautiful, the men’s housing units are still 60’s era and drab. (The women’s units are newly renovated and gorgeous though). Every morning starts at 6:30AM with prayer and meditation. There are three lectures a day, plus group meetings, counseling, fitness, required reading, lectures, workshops and much more. You have mandatory work detail on the unit. Simply, you go to Hazelden to recover, not relax.

The beginning was rough with being homesick, drunk dreams and getting used to bunking with 4 other guys. But I quickly made close bonds with my roommates and other peers and embraced the program. The camaraderie actually reminded me of my college fraternity days, minus the keg parties. I had a ton of great talks with guys while throwing the football, playing horseshoes and just hanging on the patio overlooking the gorgeous lake views.

The lectures were top-notch, educating patients on the latest research and thinking on the disease and neuro-pyschology of addiction, as well as the ever important emotional piece based on the 12 steps. The evening lecture is always a talk from an alumni of the program who shares his or her moving experience, strength and hope. Incredibly inspiring stories…

There is also relaxation, yoga and meditation classes which were awesome. Looking over from my yoga mat and watching 25 alcoholics and drug addicts of various shapes and sizes lying down in a room together practicing visualization and relaxation techniques was pretty hilarious. Hazelden has also opened a brand new Feng Shui inspired meditation room (pic above) in which I spent a lot of time reading and writing.

Hazelden puts a heavy emphasis on 12 Step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. With signs bearing familiar AA slogans such as “One Day At A Time” and “Easy Does It” greeting new patients on the road into the campus, I like to call Hazelden AA on steriods. There were several AA step meetings during the week, and you could take a weekly field trip to an AA meeting in the small nearby town of St. Croix Falls, WI. The best part through was stopping at Dairy Queen on the way back to Hazelden! We went through the first 5 steps, and I did a 4th and 5th step inventory with the spiritual counselor which was extremely cathartic.

Hazelden also has an amazing family program. Unlike most family programs, the patient and her family do not go through the same program together. Instead, the patient and his family participates with other family members and other patients. It’s really effective because the other patients teach the family members (without the risk of strangulation!) and vice-versa. The family learned critical aspects of the disease concept and Al-Anon principles such as “detachment with love.”

The most powerful part of my Hazelden program, however, was the peer group. Each unit has their own peer group traditions, and Silkworth is reputedly the most intense. In Silkworth, each patient must sit in a red chair — the hot seat — and tell his story in front of the group. Every peer would then evaluate the speaker on their strengths and blocks to recovery and write them a personal letter. The speaker would have to write the same evaluation and letter to himself. Weaknesses includes minimizing, lack of self-control, over-intellectualization, grandiosity, doesn’t ask for help, judgmental, etc. During the peer evaluation, each peer reads their evaluation and letter to the speaker who sits in the red chair. And then the speaker would read his letter. Basically, if you were full of it, your peers would tell you with brutal honesty. Some of the evaluations were an amazing thing to watch. Guys would completely break down and that’s where the real recovery would start. Some guys would also have to read heart-wrenching letters from their families in front of the group. Again, if you want to relax and skate through treatment and you think you are better or superior to everyone else, Hazelden is not the place for you.

For many recovering addicts, this was the first time they were ever 100% honest with anyone about their addiction and past. There’s a saying that “you’re only as sick as the secrets you keep.”

I often read the letter I wrote myself, and I have all my evaluations which I read from time to time. I’ll post a few on the blog later. They were dead on, of course. I over-thought and over-analyzed things. I lacked humility. I had a superiority-inferiority complex. I was too smart for my own good. I could convince myself that I could drink again. I didn’t ask for help. I was too compulsive. And that was just for starters!

For me, it was the first time I have ever really asked others for help. And I needed (and still need) a lot of help. I made close bonds with many of the guys in my unit. We shared our darkest secrets and our hopes. We still email and talk to this day.

Despite all the emotional upheaval and hard work, Hazelden was the first time in a long time that I laughed that uncontrollable belly laugh….watching the movie Old School with the guys and eating pizza of all things. I could not stop laughing at the scene where Will Farrell got shot with a tranquilizer gun….I guess I was feeling a lot better about things.

Well, that’s it for now.

One day at a time…





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  • Aasux

    Hazelden is nothing but a dangerous cult.

  • Travis

    Great article Dick, I am also a Silkworth alumni, from May 2012. Brings back a lot of good memories to read this.

  • Andy

    Thanks Dick. It was really great to read your experience and thoughts as you have been through the program. I am beginning working at Hazelden this summer as an employee doing Spiritual Care work. Reading this post gets me more excited.

  • Andrew

    Thank you for writing this. My family and my father have had a horrible time with this disease, and he is in the Oregon program right now. He is being released soon, and I am terrified of all the bad things that could happen, but reading your post gave me hope. From every conversation I’ve had with him it sounds like his experience was very similar to yours, which is all I could have hoped for. Thank you and god bless.

  • mjb

    I went to Hazelden. The experience was extraordinary. I returned home in love with life again. Two week later I drank. I have no real hope of recovering again. But it was worth the 30 days of freedom from addiction.

    • Dick

      Hey mjb, I relapsed 3 months after Hazelden and was pretty hopeless myself after. Took some time to get back on track. Stay with it, and keep coming back! Stop by anytime if you want to vent. You can do this!

      • mjb

        Thank you Dick. I too am a lawyer. I was in the lawyer program. I went to 2 AA meetings in Minneapolis and loved it. I have no idea what went so wrong, again. You are a very fine person. I have not given up. It just feels hopeless for now.

        • Dick

          So many people relapse during the first 6-12 months. You don’t have to know what went wrong. Your disease wants the booze. It’s that simple. Just dust yourself off, get back up, and get back to meetings. Take it one day at a time!

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