S1 E3: Pia Mellody on the History of The Meadows

Meadows Senior Fellow Pia Mellody sits down with host David Condos for the first segment of an exclusive two-part conversation. In this episode, she walks us through her early days with The Meadows and how that experience led her to develop the renowned Meadows Model.

Click here to listen to part two of our conversation with Pia Mellody.

Podcast Transcript

Pia Mellody: Hello, I’m Pia Mellody, and I’m a senior fellow at the Meadows. I’ve worked there off-and-on for about 40 years and I’m still doing it.

David Condos: Thank you so much for being with us today, Pia. We’re here at the Rio Retreat Center on the Meadows campus in Wickenburg, Arizona. It’s so good to have you.

Pia: Thank you.

David Let’s start with introducing you as a person, your story, how you got involved with this world of recovery.

Pia: Well, in my family of origin, there were many alcoholic drug addicts in the three generations I was involved with. Several of them died and they never got any help, and nobody would acknowledge that that was going on. What happened to me is that, my younger brother confronted me that I was drinking inappropriately. I said, “That’s your disease of alcoholism talking to me, I don’t drink. I’m not drinking like that.” He says, “Yes, you are. Only alcoholics hide their beer in the cookie jar.”

I said, “Well, I hide it in the cookie jar so my husband doesn’t argue with me about drinking.” He looked at me and said, “You need to go to AA and you need to get sober,” and that started the whole thing. I said, “Okay, because I love you dearly and I believe you’re telling me the truth, I will stop,” and I did. Then, a physician who I knew very well had been asked to start the Meadows as a physician, and I was a nurse, and he came to me. We were very good friends.

We had already done work together at an in-patient treatment center where we volunteered, so we had already worked together. He said, “I was hired to start working for The Meadows, and I want you to come up and set it all up with me.”

David: What was his name?

Pia: Paul Cleaver. He was the original medical director of the Meadows. He wanted me to go in there with him. I was sober and all this other thing, and I had it in my family and all that. I really wanted to do it because I really was glad somebody was starting a treatment center that was serious about recognizing alcoholism and treating it as though it was a disease and not something evil, and people did it because they were stupid.

David: Looking at it as a disease instead of a moral failing.

Pia: Yes. I said, “Man, that sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to do that with you.” He said, “Okay. You have to do all this stuff to set up the department,” and that’s what I got going. I loved it. I even had to buy the examining table [crosstalk].

David: It was nitty-gritty.

Pia: Nitty-gritty.

David: You had it all set. I imagine that having what you went through with your family and seeing how alcohol affected not only yourself but your family, I imagine that was a big motivating factor?

Pia: Absolutely, because all the time I was growing up, I remember saying to myself, “Why doesn’t anybody help these people? Nobody’s helping them in them. It’s a terrible disease and they’re sick, and everybody’s ignoring it.” I just didn’t understand it. When Paul asked me to start working with him, I already knew him very well, I was just thrilled. I’m still working there.

David: Apparently it worked out.

Pia: Absolutely. It’s the best thing I ever did.

David: Let’s look at that period of time in Wickenburg. This is the ’70s. What was it like here back then?

Pia: In Wickenburg?

David: Yes.

Pia: At that time, it was much smaller than it is now. It was only 3000 people and most of them were living up here because they didn’t want to live in the cities. It was a real small town. Everybody knew everybody and knew everybody’s business, and all that sort of thing. I had a home on about 10 acres right on the river and had every animal you can imagine to keep my kids busy so they wouldn’t become drug addicts, actually. I was already just ready to do something like that. I was thrilled. Just thrilled.

David: I know the Meadows physical building also has some history with that. What can you tell us about that?

Pia: I believe it used to be called the Slash Bar K. It was one of the original dude ranches there. There wound up being probably about six dude ranches all around Wickenburg because it was so beautiful, and this was one of them. Not only did Paul and I have to go around setting up a whole department and places for patients to be and make it more into not a hospital, but a sub-place of a serious– the management had to completely redo the whole building, the whole grounds, and everything else.

Right in the middle of them doing all that, we were setting up this medical and nursing department. We were all working together.

David: You mentioned not wanting it to feel too much like a hospital, wanting it to have that real human element. How did you go about that and what did that look like?

Pia: Well, the first thing we did was, because there were rooms already, so what we did was we refurbish them, not like a hospital, more like a bedroom and stuff like that. Then we had to set up an examining room, and then I had to set up a nursing room and place for drugs, all kinds of things. What we did was, Paul and I created that so it didn’t look like a hospital, but it had everything we needed that would be in a hospital. It was lovely.

When people came they were just gobsmacked about how beautiful it was, and so instead of being all miserable about being in a hospital and being treated and all that, they’ve loved it there.

David: I imagine that’s a big part of it.

Pia: That, I think that’s why the original– the people that bought it and started setting that up were businessmen from Wisconsin. They wanted to set it up for men, really. Actually, high-powered men would come to that place and feel comfortable and blah, blah, blah. They set it up that way. Again, it changed after a while, but it still has that effect.

David: I’ve heard stories of cows wandering in and helping break some of that sterile hospital feel that you’re trying to avoid.

Pia: Yes, I would go in all hours and I just had to do it because I was running everything. I went in there and this little old lady who was pretty physically ill came up to me and said, “Pia, there’s a monster outside my window.” This was the area that we detoxified people and it was really a beautiful area. “It’s okay, I don’t think there is. Come on, I’ll go look.” I opened the window thing and I looked, and there was a cow outside the window, who had gotten over the cattle guards and was eating the grass behind the treatment center.

I said, “Honey, that’s a cow. That’s not a monster.” It was just funny. We had a big chuckle. That’s the way it was because we weren’t in a hospital. All kinds of animals were going around there and the people loved it. They just loved it. It was not a hospital. It was critically set up as a hospital, with the except of the place was lovely and the rooms are lovely and it was laid back.

David: I know you’ve described this a little bit, how the focus was on alcoholic men at the beginning.

Pia: Originally.

David: How do you describe what the approach was originally, and then how it evolved to spread out to capture more?

Pia: Well, it took a lot to really just standing flat on your feet and going. We set it up so it would be safe for people to come and stay there, and it was all organized kitchen, dining room, all this other stuff, but it looked like a dude ranch. It was very comfortable. When they decided to also take women in too because it started to change a little bit, I think it changed owners right around then.

They wanted to have women there, which obviously created a lot of problems because now we had to– It was my responsibility. We had to do a lot of watching to make sure that people behaved. There were many funny stories through that. It was just amazing how people behaved, but I enjoyed it. It was just all part of being around a bunch of human beings that need help and they had to behave. I was right in the center of making sure they did. I think it was about three years, we started having women come and that changed the whole thing around but it sweetened the whole process. It was more like life. Men don’t live life all by themselves with other men. Some of them do, but there are children, there’s women, there’s all kinds of things.

David: It reflected the outside world.

Pia: It absolutely did but what it did for me is it meant that I had to work a lot harder because I had the staff that had to be watching all that but I loved it. I was so happy that alcoholic men and women, and then drug addicts too because a lot of the alcoholics were taking drugs. I was so happy these people were getting treatment in a lovely place and treated by people who were very respectful of them. We didn’t look at them like, “There’s something wrong with you.”

We looked at them like, “You have an illness, and we’re going to treat it and you’re going to have to do a lot of work to get over this.”

David: As you were getting into this work, working with the patients at the Meadows, how did you start to see other elements crop up like codependence, trauma, and family system stuff? Describe how you started to see that come up and so you realized that it wasn’t just the disease of addiction that was part of it but that these other things were a big piece as well.

Pia: Actually, the first word they used wasn’t codependence. The first word they used to describe this was co-alcoholic and then, later on, we changed the word from just alcoholism because we were treating so much drug addiction, then we changed it to codependent. That’s a family member or somebody who’s been living with an alcoholic or drug addict or something like that.

David: Right, because it’s based off the idea of chemical dependency.

Pia: Let me tell you a funny story too. There was this guy, I can’t tell you where he was but he was a farmer from way up north and he was an old curmudgeon and I was interviewing him and doing all kinds of things and I said, “You’re going to have to invite family members to come to family week.” He said, “No, Pia. You don’t want my family here.” I looked at him and I said, “That’s your disease talking,” and he said, “No, Pia. I’m telling you the truth.”

I said, “Look, Let’s not argue but you need to invite them,” and he said, “Okay, I’ll invite them, but you’ll regret it. You will regret it because you have some responsibility about how people behave around here and you’re going to be sorry.” I said, “Well, I still think that’s your disease talking.” Eventually, his family came and they were absolutely god awful. They caused more trouble on that campus and he looked healthy compared to them.

I went up to him finally and I said, “Let me shake your hand. You were totally right and I was totally wrong.” He smiled at me. He said, “I told you so.” and I said, “You’re right and I was wrong.”

David: Yes, but that shows how the family system plays into that whole [crosstalk].

Pia: Yes, the minute we started having more and more family come that’s when it got very complicated. My job got very complicated, because I had a whole bunch of people I was responsible for and so when we started getting family members, it really got complicated for me, but I loved it. I was so happy people were getting help. I loved every minute of it.

David: Looking at this experience that you had in this period of time, early stages of the Meadows, working with these patients, and starting to see the trauma, the codependence, all these elements crop up, how did that come to inspire what became the Meadows Model?

Pia: I was doing a lot of interviewing of the patients and talking to them and I started to do my own trauma work with them. Nobody was doing that. What happened was I was a recovering alcoholic, and I had a lot of trauma in my family and over that time period of talking to the patient so much, all of them had been traumatized as children.

David: You were seeing that it was a need out there.

Pia: I was seeing that and I was relating to all that. I started to do a lot of work on figuring out what that all was about. That they were not only alcoholics, but they also were what they call codependent. In other words, they had some issues going on that had to be treated, I thought, in order to stay sober. The underlying trauma issues were getting in the way of a lot of them staying sober. They could get sober, but they couldn’t stay sober, that was one of the problems.

I realized in just swimming in all that day after day, I got a good eyeball on all the trauma they had had because they talk about it. They wanted to talk about that more than anything else at all and they’d start sobbing, but they would feel a lot better after just talking to me about it. I was doing it as a nursing director. We started to talk to people who were family members, who were codependents. You know what I discovered? Codependence is part of the human condition.

David: It’s not necessarily something to be eliminated, it’s just something you have to understand?

Pia: No, it has to be dealt with. At first, I thought people were wacky doodle just living with an alcoholic and the alcoholics were telling me, “No, I’m not the one that created that, they were crazy in the first place and I married them.” I said, “Now, let’s stop the blame game. What I think happened was you married this person because she was similar or he was similar to your father, mother.

We marry what’s familiar, even if it’s our worst nightmare so let’s not just focus on them being a jerk. Let’s understand that the original trauma we had in childhood sets up whom you’re going to choose to be in a relationship with. If your father was difficult, you’re going to marry a difficult man just like he was.” “No, Pia.” and I said, “Describe your father to me,” and they did and I said, “Who you’re married to is just like that.” I had gotten the information and said, “You married your father,” or “You married your mother.”

I was deep in trying to figure out what in the heck was this underlying thing, codependence or co-alcoholism that seemed to be worse than the addiction itself. I interviewed and talked to and started trying to treat the people for that because nobody else was doing it and I had the time because I was running the department. They were in there all the time and they were talking to me and I interviewed them a lot and eventually, I figured it out.

Then after all these years of figuring out, it’s the nature of man to behave like a codependent. It’s really about being human and having enough relational trauma that you’re screwed up and you wind up marrying or being relational with people that replicate your family. You wind up replicating your childhood nightmare by marrying somebody who’s going to help you recreate your family of origin and she’ll blame you and everybody blames everybody else but the fact is, we tend to get relational with people that reflect who we grew up with.

If your family was screwed up, you’re going to get involved with somebody who’s screwed up and then you’ll be really reactive and blame them and feel horrible and divorce them and do the same thing again until you have four or five partners, and then it’ll dawn on you that it’s not about the other person, it’s about you and who you’re picking. If I can help you learn to become more like an adult, and you’ll begin to be able to spot somebody that would replicate your family of origin and not date them, you have hope. Isn’t that funny?

David: It’s part of the human experience in that we’re all drawn to that but it looks different for every person and if we don’t address it, if you don’t deal with it, then it’s going to create this cycle.

Pia: Yes, I remember this one guy that I said, “I know you married your mother, you can’t do anything else. I know your mother because you’ve told me about her. Let me describe your wife,” and I said, “Blah blah blah, right?” The guy was like, “I did marry my mother.” I said, “That’s where you’re miserable. No, we’re not going to blame her because you picked her and she picked you. Do you act like her father?” “Well, yes. He reminds me of me.”

That’s the human condition. It’s ironic and it’s funny. It’s black humor. When I figured that out and then I was also doing an inventory on who I married, and realized all that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Then I thought, no, there’s some way to figure this out and change the internal dynamics of people so that they would recognize somebody who’s familiar, that it wouldn’t work and start choosing people that are healthier. I spent my lifetime on that so people would have less trauma in their life.

David: You just discovered it because you saw it all around you.

Pia: Yes. As I interviewed them more and more about all this, everyone said the same thing. I remember one guy said to me, “Do you think we have to divorce?” and I said, “No. I’m working on a project about how to be a mature person and more relational and if you get involved in some of this so you learn how to be a real adult person and recognize when somebody is off the wall, but how to stay with them even though they’re off the wall, how to stay relational in the face of that and walk yourself through it, you really will do a whole lot better.” I spent my life figuring all that out.

David: We’ll dive into that further in the next part of this conversation, but that was great. Thank you so much, Pia.

Pia: Thank you.

David: Pia Mellody is the Senior Clinical Advisor for Meadows Behavioral Healthcare based in Wickenburg, Arizona. You can find out more about Pia and the rest of the Meadows senior fellows at meadowsbh.com.

To check out more episodes of this podcast and find all kinds of other resources and tools for Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, visit beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.