In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends make it to Emerald City and eventually back home by following the “yellow brick road.”
Yellowbrick, a treatment center in Evanston, does the same for young adults.
The center includes the Residence, a building where up to 16 patients, who are anywhere from 18- to 30-years-old, can reside and receive treatment for anything from drug addictions and alcoholism to self-injury and depression. Patients can admit themselves or may be admitted by their families; however, most are transferred to Yellowbrick from other institutions.
Dr. Jesse Viner, Yellowbrick’s founder and executive medical director as well as an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says these “emerging adults” are especially prone to difficulties with their identity and their relationships with their parents.
“People are often growing up through their teenage years and childhood with a certain dream of who they are and how their life is going to unfold,” Viner explains. “As they enter the world beyond high school and beyond their family of origin, there are often many challenges and disappointments they experience.”
According to Viner, such challenges can lead people to substance abuse and alcohol as ways of escaping stress or a means to release suppressed emotions.
But unlike other treatment centers, Yellowbrick doesn’t punish or expel patients who relapse, an approach called the Yellowbrick Model. In fact, patients can learn self-control and understanding through their relapses. When patients relapse, Yellowbrick staff evaluates the causes and works to prevent them in the future. This strategy allows patients to learn to make their own decisions instead of having others do so for them.
“We don’t control their choices…some of them will at various vulnerable times choose to drink,” Viner says. “Unlike other programs which enforce sobriety by locking people up or kicking people out when they do relapse, we look at those times, should they occur, as rich opportunities to explore all that went on…understanding what led them to misuse alcohol.”
“They have the agency to make their own decisions,” adds Camille Nickow (SESP ‘10), a former resource staff member at Yellowbrick. “If we just take away their razors and take away their knives, is that really helping them build the skills to not self-injure? The tools are there and they need to learn to have that be there and learn to resist.”
Besides following the Yellowbrick Model, patients also attend group sessions every day and can go to specialized sessions every week. At the Residence, they receive support and build relationships with one another through the help of staff members. Yet Nickow says that the patients can have a hard time with the treatment, leading to unpredictable problems and possible transfers out of Yellowbrick.
“Every day was different,” she explains. “Some days it was terribly boring and nothing happened. Some days everyone was cool, I was literally just hanging out. Other days, someone was suicidal, someone was cutting themselves, someone was throwing up and someone was drunk in the side room. And you’re there trying to control everything. It’ll be a phase where a month goes by where everyone’s tight and everything’s going well then a month where everyone’s in disarray.”
Still, even patients who have relapsed and been sent to the hospital multiple times are given plenty of chances to succeed. Nickow recalls a female patient who was sent to the hospital four times within two weeks but was still allowed to continue her stay at the Residence.
Like Dorothy and her friends, patients who succeed at the Yellowbrick Model work together to recover. Most patients rarely leave Yellowbrick’s programs completely, but they do eventually learn to support themselves by living on their own away from the Residence and attending sessions when they feel necessary. Though families of the patients usually pay for their stay despite possible issues within their relationship, patients are encouraged to face the struggle.
“The goal is that none of us are self sufficient,” Viner says. “The goal is to stay connected to your support system to maintain your own self-integrity.”