MONTREAL - Perhaps the lowest point in David Love’s “treatment” for drug addiction at Narconon Trois Rivières was the five-hour sauna on his 25th day of five-hour saunas.
Being forced to yell at an ashtray for hours on end – “Stand up, ashtray!” “Thank you.” “Sit back down, ashtray!” – also left him confused and frustrated. But it was when Love realized that the rehab centre inspired by the teachings of Scientology was actually putting vulnerable addicts’ health at risk – and that he had become a part of the machinery – that he decided to get out.
On Oct. 28, 2009, six months after he had gone from “graduate” of the Narconon program to “Certified Counsellor,” Love left the facility and began a crusade to have it shut down. In July 2011, following his complaint, the Quebec College of Physicians ordered Dr. Pierre Labonté, Narconon’s “medical manager,” to cut his associations with the centre, located about 125 kilometres northeast of Montreal. The Quebec labour relations tribunal also mediated in Love’s favour when he complained about being paid $2.50 an hour as a staff member.
Then last Friday, 2½ years after Love began his campaign, public health officials for the Mauricie region ordered Narconon to relocate its 32 residents and told the organization they would not certify the centre, because its approach was not recognized in this province, and that its practices, including the saunas and massive doses of niacin, were potentially putting patients’ health at risk.
Most of the patients, from B.C. and other provinces as well as the United States, have since been relocated to Narconon centres in the U.S.
As for David Love, he remains drug-free since he left Narconon – but deeply traumatized by what he saw and went through in Trois Rivières.
“I’ll wake up from nightmares sometimes. I still have a very difficult time sleeping,” says Love, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a psychiatrist at the Allan Memorial Institute. “It’s the intensity of the program they put you through, it affects your psyche.”
Love’s saga with Narconon began after he was hospitalized in Vancouver for a drug overdose. His daughter, then an Ethics Officer at Narconon, suggested he should join her in Trois Rivières for Narconon’s drug-free program. She could work out a deal whereby he could pay half price – $11,500 – in bi-weekly instalments, using his unemployment cheques. He agreed.
The first step, he says, is always in one of the withdrawal rooms on the ground floor, where each patient spends the first three to 12 days. No physician is seen before or during drug withdrawal.
Then come the personality and IQ tests, performed at regular intervals on patients, and the interrogation by an Ethics Officer to make sure a patient, or “student” as Narconon calls them, is not an undercover reporter.
Once cleared, the student can then begin the “Purification Rundown,” 4.5-to-five-hour-long sessions in the sauna, in conjunction with massive doses of niacin. L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction author and the founder of the Church of Scientology, believed that drug residues are stored in the body’s fatty tissues, causing the addict’s cravings when they are partially released later on.
But they can be flushed out through a regimen of exercise, sauna and high doses of vitamins, particularly niacin, Hubbard believed. According to Love, students got doses of niacin that far exceeded Health Canada’s recommended maximum of 500 mg a day.
In high doses, niacin is toxic to the liver, Love said. “And many (Narconon) patients already have compromised livers because of their alcoholism, and some have Hepatitis C.”
The head of the Mauricie public health agency, Marc Lacour, said Tuesday that at least four of the centre’s patients had been taken to hospital in the last few months, but for reasons of patient confidentiality, the agency could not provide details.
Love also remembers a few who suffered when Narconon staff refused to give them their medicine. On several websites used to attract potential clients, Narconon boasts of its 70-to-75 per cent success rate and entirely drug-free program – which even excludes prescription drugs. In one case, staff members withheld insulin from a diabetic patient undergoing the sauna treatment. That young man ended up in hospital for three days, Love said. In another, it took away a patient’s anti-depressants. He jumped from a second-floor window in a suicide attempt.
As for its success rate, in an interview with CBC this month, the legal affairs director of Narconon, André Ahern, admitted Narconon does not necessarily keep track of patients once they leave the facility – so it cannot know how many have relapsed. Ahern did not answer The Gazette’s requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
For Love, the lasting effects of the Narconon experience were psychological.
The ashtray routine was just one of several training routines Love says are designed to make students accept they are being controlled, and teach them how to control others.
In another routine, two students were put in a room and repeatedly ordered each other to go to a wall, touch a wall, pick up a bottle, put it down, etc. The exercise could last hours, or several days, but until students were deemed to have completed it they couldn’t move on, Love said.
“They wouldn’t let a patient go on to the next stage until they were ‘cracked,’ ” Love said, quoting from one of Hubbard’s books.
“These things really affected me. Being forced to say there’s nothing more I can do.
“They’d say keep going, keep going, when people were in tears ... You have no money, you don’t know the language, you have nowhere to live, no money for food, you’re stuck there. You’re f----d. You have to do it. ... It was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest times 10.”
When patients complained to parents who were paying the fees, staff members would convince them that it was normal they should want to leave, but that for their own good they had to complete the program.
Love only realized that Narconon was closely linked to the Church of Scientology when he graduated from the program after five months, and became a staff member. He was given $700 worth of Scientology books that echoed the teachings in the Narconon books he already read.
Narconon often recruited former students to be staff, Love said.
Lacour, of the public health agency, said that following several complaints, Narconon Trois Rivières has been more upfront recently about its ideology. “They are no longer hiding the fact they are inspired by Scientology, but they are not there to recruit,” Lacour said.
Love disagrees, and says he believes that on top of providing new recruits to the church, Narconon, which has 50 centres in 22 countries, funnels money to it. Since 2005, when the centre in Trois Rivières opened, Love calculated it had treated 720 patients and earned more than $16 million, much of which went to church executives in the form of salaries, and donations to the church.
Love has received leaked emails that point to the close relationship between the Church of Scientology in Montreal and Narconon Trois Rivières.
Love, along with four other former patients, has filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission claiming that Narconon Trois Rivières exploited their disability – drug addiction – in getting them in the program and having them do manual labour. Also named in the complaint are the Church of Scientology International and Narconon International.
Love also plans to attend a protest outside Narconon Trois Rivières on April 29 – even if its staff and residents have moved on to other locations.