Substance abuse and addiction have haunted humanity for thousands of years. From ancient drugs such as wine and opium to modern synthesized heroin and prescription painkillers, these substances have been the source of struggle and hardship for millions of addicts. Overcoming addiction is never an easy process; however, early addiction therapy, when it existed, used to be an ordeal in itself.
Views of Addiction: Then and Now
Not very long ago, scientists and society at large viewed drug addiction as a moral failure at best and a sign of insanity at worst. As a result, early addiction treatment was largely left to the prison system and, occasionally, to special asylums. The challenges of detoxification and withdrawal were often considered a sort of divine punishment for addiction, and rarely treated. Unsurprisingly, relapse was common. Despite the lack of understanding for their struggles, some alcoholics and drug addicts were fortunate enough to have the moral and spiritual support of their families and communities.
Early Addiction Treatments
In the early days of the U.S. colonies, alcoholism was considered the largest addiction issue. Chronic drinkers of “spirits” often put a strain on themselves and the community. To help treat addiction to alcohol, various medicines were developed in an attempt to cure the problem by curbing cravings and preventing withdrawal. Most of these “medicines,” which were distributed with little to no oversight, contained morphine, helping introduce an entirely different addiction epidemic to the country.
Over time, cocaine also made an appearance in the medical industry as an effective treatment for alcoholism. One of its more popular proponents was the famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud (who later became addicted to cocaine and withdrew his support of it).
A number of other rather bizarre techniques and treatments to eradicate alcoholism and drug addiction were tried and abandoned throughout the early 1900s. These techniques included:
- Forced sterilization: It was well-known early on that alcoholism runs in families, so some experts decided that preventing addicts from having children was the best long-term solution. Several states made this into law by the early 1920s.
- Light therapy: A technique now used to treat seasonal-depressive disorder, light therapy was once thought to cure alcoholism.
- Aversion therapy: Still used today via drugs such as Antabuse, aversion therapy seeks to make indulging in a substance extremely uncomfortable for the addict. Before the invention of these drugs, scientists resorted to other measures, including electric shock, inducing vomiting and adding anything from animal dung to a live eel to the user’s drink.
Early Rehabilitation Centers
Unfortunately, substance addiction was often perceived as a form of insanity and a criminal mind, leaving many addicts in the hands of the local prison or asylum system. Some asylums were even designed to only house substance addicts. Despite this overall trend, however, support circles and early rehabilitation centers (often dubbed “inebriate homes”) cropped up as early as the 1700s in the U.S.
During the following century, local support clubs and detox centers became more popular throughout the country. Many of these were run and managed by reformed addicts and involved weaving a tight network of support and outreach. Both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous grew out of this movement. This was the time that the first rehab center for women, the Martha Washington home, appeared in 1867, and also when the Ribbon Reform Club was formed, which had members wear ribbons on their clothing so that they could easily identify and support one another.
The first for-profit rehab center for alcoholics and drug addicts also appeared in the 19th century. Founded in 1879 by Civil War surgeon Dr. Leslie Keeley, the Keeley Institute became a large franchise that operated throughout the country. These centers revolved around the idea of living a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet and plenty of fresh air. Some of Dr. Keeley’s “cures” were questionable, however. The infamous “Keeley Cure,” which Dr. Keeley boasted had a 95 percent success rate, was an oral solution said to contain toxins such as opium, nightshade extract, cocaine and even arsenic.
Early substance addiction in the U.S. was two-faced: there was the broad misunderstanding of the condition, made worse by misguided institutions, and there was the positive movement of support and mutual understanding, brought about by reformed addicts and caring community members. Fortunately, modern understanding of addiction has brought about changes for the better, including more effective treatments and a wider support system that, in turn, has led to greater chances of success.