Sometimes, the price tag takes a lot out of the client, in more ways than one. Despite a complete sea change in the understanding of how addiction works, there still persists the school of thought that substance abuse is a fault of morals, and that people who drink too much or use drugs are of poor character. Labels like “junkie” are applied liberally, and the individual is treated as someone with a personality defect, not as a patient in need of medical help. In more traditional societies, this approach is taken into consideration, even during treatment. In Russia, for example, where there is a long history of suspicion toward all things American (even science), there is a chasm of difference in how a very old country, with a long history of drinking, views the problem of alcoholism and the people who fall afoul of it.
This presents itself as a self-described “controversial treatment” that comes out of the sparsely populated but massive Siberian region of Russia, and it is making waves internationally. Two psychologists, Dr. German Pilipenko and Professor Marina Chukhrova, use corporal punishment (caning) to literally beat addiction or other undesirable behavior out of clients who pay 3,000 rubles ($99) per session. They claim to the Siberian Times that they have treated over a thousand patients, some of whom come from as far away as the United States.
Specifically, “beating therapy” is said to work when clients fail to respond to other treatments. Pilipenko and Chukhrova say that their methods work for substance abuse and other mental health conditions, and their patients leave satisfied and happy.
Like “alternative medicine,” this form of pseudoscience attempts to strike a chord by harkening back to days of corporal punishment being practiced in schools and monasteries. And, like most forms of pseudoscience, this one claims to be “updated” or “modernized” with half-truths applied from legitimate understandings of psychology.
Chukhrova, a psychiatrist with 25 years’ worth of experience treating substance abuse patients, paints a picture of addicts suffering “happiness hormones” that they try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol (or, failing to do so, fall into depression). The pain of being struck with a cane induces the brain to release endorphins, redressing the balance and restoring happiness.
The caning “counteracts a lack of enthusiasm for life,” according to Dr. Pilipenko. With the caning sparking a new zest for living, there is no more room in the patient’s mind for addictions, suicidal thoughts, or mental health disorders.
Treating Addiction through Pain
Despite the pain and temporary lash marks on her buttocks, Natasha ardently defended the treatment. She said that the optimism she felt after each session was the first sensation of happiness and normality she experienced since starting her heroin use five years prior. Several months after she started treatment, she landed a job and was holding it down “against expectations.” She still has cravings for heroin, but they are on the decline, and she considers herself free from the drug.
While media attention often focuses on the physical aspects of the counseling, Professor Chukhrova insists that the actual foci are the psychological counseling and detoxification. The caning comes at the end of the treatment, following a medical exam to ensure that the client can endure 30 or 60 lashes. She and Dr. Pilipenko use willow branches: flexible and won’t cause bleeding. The buttocks are a “very good reflexogenic zone,” she says, which transforms pain signals into “positive activity for the human organism.”
The Case against Corporal Punishment
At face value, and for desperate clients, beating therapy may seem logical; but while Chukhrova and Pilipenko’s treatment runs on word of mouth alone, there are decades’ worth of research that suggest how harmful corporal punishment can be to a client’s mental health. The American Psychological Association makes “the case against spanking,” citing numerous studies that show physical punishment can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental health problems. Simply put, corporal punishment doesn’t work, in the words of a Yale University psychology professor. “You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” says Alan Kazdin, PhD, who also served as president of APA. Corporal punishment “is a horrible thing that does not work.”
But all the research on the downsides of corporal punishment cover the effects of the practice on children. It’s in the dearth of coverage on the effects of physical punishment on adults, to change undesirable behavior, that the spanking therapy out of Siberia exists. That is the modus operandi of most forms of pseudoscience: exploiting the gaps in established research and claiming to offer a therapy that more reliable forms of treatment have not yet been able to cover.
Pioneering an Unconventional Method
Even as Dr. Pilipenko’s practice sounds legitimate – clients have to subject themselves to two beating sessions every week, for three months, and then follow up with visits every four weeks over the next year – the Huffington Post categorized its coverage of the story as “Weird News.” Further to the point of Russian medicine and science choosing to go its own way – perhaps especially in the barren, remote regions of rural Siberia – the Post also quoted the Moscow Times in mentioning some of the more “unusual addiction therapies” practiced there: hypnotism, black magic, and even a gang using handcuffs to physically restrain addicts from consuming more drugs, a form of extreme detoxification that could be deadly.
But Dr. Pilipenko, arguing that caning can be dated back to the 12th century, says that no method is as effective as beating. The counseling that takes place before and during the caning is intended to help clients realize the reason behind their stress and self-medication. The pain serves to “wake up the consciousness,” guiding the patient into understanding how and why the drug abuse or self-destructive behavior took root.
Does Harsh Treatment Work?
The theory is the same as that which is practiced during Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a standard form of treatment across the treatment industry. But what makes beating therapy a form of pseudoscience is how Dr. Pilipenko uses half-truths and vague statements about psychology and physiology to make his methods look somewhat feasible and passably reasonable.
For reasons like this, corporal and harsh punishments toward drug use and abuse have fallen out of favor with the American public, a majority of whom favor more compassionate and educational methods of rehabilitating people away from drug-related behavior. But in far-flung places where life is very different and where there exists a deep-seated anti-American current, so much so that outdated and potentially harmful “treatments” are given out by people wearing lab coats (in places like Siberia, one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world), the idea of literally beating addiction out of patients has been allowed to take hold.
It’s easy to dismiss beating therapy as a bizarre pseudoscience that will never emerge from the remote and frozen corners of northern Russia, but many questionable, discredited, and even dangerous practices take place across America’s own borders. One of them is rapid detox, a procedure whereby clients are anesthetized and then given intravenous doses of opiate blockers, which stop the action of opiate drugs (such as heroin) as well as other medications (administered intravenously as well) to control for the involuntary reactions that follow the effects of heroin being chemically broken.
‘Rich, Famous, and Desperate’ Clients
But with rapid detoxification, with the client unconscious while the body is put through the process, physical cleansing of the illicit substances can be achieved in as little as eight hours. However, any administration of general anesthesia comes with risks, and injecting multiple chemicals into a client who is still under the effects of at least one powerful drug can create new and unforeseen problems. This is why most doctors prefer that the patient remain conscious during the detoxification process, no matter how distressing it is.
Nonetheless, some patients are very taken with the prospect of a short, and seemingly easy, detox period, especially in cases of severe and chronic drug use, and some doctors and treatment centers are willing to offer the practice.
As a further sign of the alarm bells sounding over rapid detox, a doctor who offered this service in New Jersey had seven of his patients die within days of being treated. That was too much for the state of New Jersey, which in 2000 launched proceedings to strip him and a colleague of their medical licenses. The doctor, Lance L. Gooberman, insisted that he was “just trying to come up with a better way to do detox,” which included giving clients so much overdose-reversal medication that the usual 48 hours of observation wouldn’t be necessary; clients could walk out of Gooberman’s office the same day they detoxed. Too drastically good to be true, said his critics, which is often a charge leveled against most pseudoscientific practices.
An Unproven Medical Treatment
The New Jersey court charged Gooberman and his colleague of using unproven medical treatments, giving patients general anesthesia without a supervising (and licensed) anesthesiologist present, and discharging patients without ensuring that they had appropriate aftercare. Patients were often sent home, or even to motels, with instructions given to untrained family members or friends who were required to administer injections as part of the arrangement.
Gooberman said that the people who died after his treatment had undetected medical conditions that were exacerbated by the rapid detox or had used other drugs immediately after receiving their treatment from him.
New Jersey suspended Gooberman’s medical license in 2003, but a judge ruled that he was not responsible for his patients’ deaths. The Orange County Register writes that in 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that rapid detox offered no significant benefit over more traditional and safer detox programs, and can actively threaten the lives of patients who are exposed to it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine rescinded their initial (tepid) support of the method, saying that there were too many risks inherent to the process of rapid detoxification in order for it to be reliably used.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous Pseudoscience?
One of the hallmarks of a pseudoscience is that advocates often attempt to discredit the more established practices within the field. For all the passion with which he defends rapid detox, Dr. Bernstein has an equal ire for one of the most sacred – yet controversial – aspects of recovery within the treatment industry: the 12-Step program. It is an “outdated 20th century concept,” he told Wired magazine, saying that the idea of talking people out of their addiction problem is “ridiculous.” The aftercare model espoused by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is counterproductive. “It’s like a cult,” he said, and the idea of sending a patient to talk “with a bunch of other addicts” all the time, “where all the other drug dealers hang out,” is completely antithetical to what he feels is the most effective method of treating substance abuse problems.
Dr. Bernstein may not have much support for his use of rapid detox, but he is not alone in his criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-Step method. While that approach has remained a sacrosanct part of the treatment paradigm for generations, some researchers and doctors today are questioning the philosophy behind the program, saying that the psychology behind its application is skewed, the success rates are quite low, and the movement has become dangerously insular and almost cult-like – in other words, very much like a pseudoscience.
The Rock Bottom Problem
The loaded term is used very intentionally by New York Magazine and Salon, both of which ask if the relationship between the treatment industry and the 12-Step method needs to end. New York Magazine profiles Unbroken Brain, a book by Mia Szalavitz that details how advancements in psychology and neuroscience cast new light, and raise new questions, over the long-held paradigms of addiction being a disease and how groups like Alcoholics Anonymous treat that disease.
For example, one of the central conceits of the 12 Steps is that an addict has to hit rock bottom (however that concept is defined) in order for the journey of recovery to begin. Rock bottom (whether it means a relationship ending, being evicted from home, a DUI, or any other sign) is a signal that the addiction has dragged the client down to the lowest possible rung on the ladder. There is no more pretense that the problem is under control.
This, says Szalavitz, “is a totally pseudoscientific concept,” a deeply embedded one that has been adopted by drug courts and become part of the lexicon of the treatment industry. Substance abusers are more likely to turn clean when they still have connections to the world around them (their jobs and family) than when they lose those things and have to start from scratch, which has been the theory of Alcoholics Anonymous since it was founded in 1935. Instead, the idea of being made to have nothing in order to achieve recovery “embrace[s] a totally false, harmful view of what addiction is.” Some treatment programs ran with the idea of breaking clients down to their most emotionally vulnerable, with the founder of one infamous rehabilitation center, initially known as the Synanon organization, proudly saying that while AA is based on love, “we are based on hate; hate works better.” The Synanon organization eventually become a commune, renaming itself the Church of Synanon and then disbanding permanently after criminal charges for attempted murder, financial irregularities, and even domestic terrorism. The Synanon organization has been called “one of the most dangerous and violent cults” in American history.
 “Drug Addicts Beaten to Reduce Their Cravings in Siberia.” (January 2013). The Huffington Post. Accessed November 30, 2016.
 ” Confronting the Cycle of Addiction & Recidivism: A Report to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye.” (June 2000). New York State Commission on Drugs and the Courts. Accessed November 30, 2016.
 “Suspension Leads to More Pot Use Among Teens, Study Finds.” (March 2015). University of Washington. Accessed November 30, 2016.
 “2 Doctors May Lose Licenses Over Fast-Detox Method.” (December 2000). Los Angeles Times. Accessed November 30, 2016.
 “State’s Malpractice Case Against Addiction Specialist Opens.” (January 2001). The New York Times. Accessed November 30, 2016.
 “The Tragic, Pseudoscientific Practice of Forcing Addicts to ‘Hit Rock Bottom’.” (May 2016). New York Magazine. Accessed December 1, 2016.
 “The Pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous: There’s a Better Way to Treat Addiction.” (March 2014). Salon. Accessed December 1, 2016.
 “The Impact of Alcoholics Anonymous on Other Substance Abuse Related Twelve Step Programs.” (January 2009). Recent Developments in Alcoholism. Accessed December 1, 2016.
 “Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science.” (September 2009). Journal of Addictive Diseases. Accessed December 1, 2016.
 “The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe.” (January 2013). Skeptical Inquirer. Accessed December 1, 2016.