Religious Hubris of LIA

I spent two years under the care of John Smid and his staff at the Love in Action “ex-gay” program in Memphis, TN. I know they meant well. I know they wanted to help us with our struggles. Although they taught useful lessons about addiction and family dysfunctions, they missed the mark, and in my case caused more harm than good.

When I attended LIA, there were always some participants who suffered from genuine mental illness. Serveral had been diagnosed as clinically depressed. One young man had bipolar disorder. Most of these were are on medications to help them with these conditions.

We went to the program because we believed what our pastors had told us–gay sexual behavior was sinful, unhealthy, dirty. We enrolled in LIA, because unlike most “ex-gay” programs, it proported to provide a clinical, residential setting. Much of the language used by the staff sounded clinical and couched in psychology. In addition to being a Christian program, LIA gave us a therapuetic setting in which to address our issues. Although well intentioned, I found the LIA staff unprepared to provide care for most of the particpants.

Two incidents stand out in my mind.
1. Chet (not his real name) had bipolar disorder, something that did not seem to affect his program or the rest of us until Chet exploded in a fit of uncontrolable rage. Cursing and violently throwing things around the dinning room, Chet had to be restrained. Except none of the staff in the house had been trained to restrain him. Another participant, with some training working in a mental health setting ,wrestled Chet to the ground. When we finally contacted LIA leadership, we were told to call the police who eventally came and took Chet away for a hospital stay. He was later dismissed from the program for medical reasons.

For days after the incident many of us talked among ourselves and in rap sessions about how unsafe we felt, how frightened by the incident and angry that the staff had taken someone into the program who could do harm to himself and us.

2. One day coming home from work (when I was in LIA, we had to work in order to pay the $950 per month fees), I saw Todd’s (not his real name either) truck at the head of the driveway instead of its normal spot. After Todd did not turn up for dinner, two of us looked in the cab of his truck to find a suicide note, photos of his family and empty vials of medicine. For the next several hours we searched the nearby fields and woods. Police helicopters flew low overhead shining spot lights. We never found Todd that night.

I could not sleep thinking of him lying on the ground all alone and dying. Miraculously some utility workers found Todd, the next morning–barely alive. After weeks at a mental health facility, he returned to the program and stayed until his graduation.

I provide only two of scores of similar situations that have occured in Love Action since 1996. The LIA staff attempted to create a therapuetic environment based on a 12-step model, but they could not adequately care for and protect their clients.

Had LIA been a licensed mental health facility, the state of TN would have been able to monitor the program and intervene when things got out of hand. Also, LIA would have been required to follow state protocol for housing people with mental illnesses. But with religious hubris, the program leaders and the board pressed on without accountability in spite of obvious dangers.

I do not fault John Smid and the LIA staff for trying to help individuals who came to them for help. Working out of their world view, they believe they provided a great service. But where is the humility? Where is the self-reflection? Where is the owning up to mistakes and misjudgements.

Jeremy Marks, once a close friend of John Smid and a fellow “ex-gay” leader, realized a few years back that his “ex-gay” ministry in the UK did not bring any positive results. No one changed and no one got better, in fact they grew worse. Marks did something courageous, he publically admitted the failures and moved on to a new work that provides support for gay and bisexual Christians.

Soon we will see how John Smid and LIA respond to the state of TN. I hope for humility and honesty from LIA, but from personal experience and from LIA’s history in Memphis, TN, I’m afraid we will see arrogance, ignorance and stubborness.

This post has 8 Comments

  1. Bob P. on September 21, 2005 at 6:49 pm Reply

    I posted this earlier today on exgaywatch.com, but since Peterson’s post is on the same wavelength, I’ve included it here as well.

    Step 4 of a 12-step program is a moral inventory. This is a list of all of the wrongs I had committed and how they affected others and myself. I asked Nathan Bell how exhaustive he wanted the list. He said to write everything. I asked him to clarify, and he said, “Everything.”

    So I began writing my Step 4. As a person who felt extreme guilt for anything you can possibly imagine, I soon immersed myself in my “sinfulness.” I became more and more despondent and outright depressed.

    One night I was so low that I decided to go to an adult bookstore–just for a temporary release from the constant mental torture I was imposing upon myself. Rather, I went to the Central Church parking lot–which at that time was at Kirby and Winchester–and began brooding about my wickedness. I reclined my seat, and then–SMACK!–I hit my face as hard as I could. I began crying and continued harming myself.

    When I told staff what I had done, they put me on “safekeeping.” After talking to my psychologist Dr. Duff Wright, he ordered that I discontinue Step 4 for the time being. The depression continued so he recommended I read and complete the assignments in “Search for Significance.” That experience was a life-saver. I made many gains as I worked through the book and talked during my sessions with Duff.

    Finally, I was allowed to complete an abbreviated Step 4. But the greatest harm from staff came when they began using me and my experience as an example to other clients of how not to do a Step 4. Staff set a limit for future clients on the amount of time allowed to complete this step.

    While I’m happy that my experience helped others, it was always painful to hear staff poke fun at my situation as they counseled other clients about the pitfalls of doing an exhaustive Step 4.

    As you can imagine, the house was always full of surreal incidents. Every day in the program was filled with emotional upheaval.

    BOB

  2. Annika on September 21, 2005 at 8:26 pm Reply

    Peterson and Bob-

    I’m so thankful you guys survived your time at LIA, and are telling your stories. It’s so vital and necessary. Thanks also for giving me the courage to eventually tell mine…

    Annika

  3. Drew on September 21, 2005 at 9:50 pm Reply

    Hi there,

    it is just so sad to see so much wasted.

  4. Jeff Harwood on September 21, 2005 at 10:13 pm Reply

    The inappropriateness of the therapeutic environment in LiA goes beyond the endangerment of clients mentioned in Peterson’s blog. It also extends to the actual instances of “therapeutic treatment”.

    There were two different clients who at different times were banned from the group dynamic in effort to bring them in line with the staff’s authority. One client Jackson (not his real name) was dealing with severe anger issues. The other client Gunther (not his real name) repeatedly “acted out” searching and finding sexual encounters. Neither client was experiencing difficulty in relating the group or in following the group norms. Yet they were forbidden to attend groups sessions or communicate with the other clients in the residential. At one point Gunther was even required to eat his meals alone in his room and could not be in the same room as another client.

    Both clients were eventually removed from the program by staff.

    Prior to his removal, the staff in a group session informed the other clients that his DSM-IV diagnosis was antisocial personality disorder. I later learned that that is the proper term. However, he was referred to as a sociopath with the inability to determine right or wrong. The major portion of the group session was spent explaining his diagnosis, how it related to the program and to us as clients and how it justified his treatment plan. This did little to relieve our anxiety in relating to him as the terms sociopath and psychopath are interelated in the publics eye and and have violent connotations.

    In all of this, we were expected to not question the decisions and edicts of the staff and to accept them at face value. We were, in fact, expected to maintain and hold ourselves and other clients accountable to following them in the residential setting.

  5. Tom D on September 22, 2005 at 1:56 am Reply

    From the sound of it, not only were they not reasonably trained in psychology/psychiatry, but they also had no significant experience in 12-step recovery, either.

    Step IV is about a “moral inventory.” Folks entering 12-step programs have enormous self-esteem issues, and some end up doing what Bob P. above did — only concentrate on the “bad” parts of yourself. Really, it’s also designed to show your strong qualities, too. Folks in AA or whatever work through these things with sponsors who have done it before, and know this pitfall.

    Also, antisocial personality disorder is an Axis II disorder (that means it’s really a “personality disorder”). I just looked this up online to refresh my memory: 3% of men have this in the US. Here is the medical description of it:

    Antisocial personality disorder: Individuals with antisocial personality disorder display a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others and the rules of society. Onset must occur by age 15 years and includes the following features:
    Repeated violations of the law
    Pervasive lying and deception
    Physical aggressiveness
    Reckless disregard for safety of self or others
    Consistent irresponsibility in work and family environments
    Lack of remorse

  6. Anonymous on September 22, 2005 at 1:03 pm Reply

    And, um… they really had absolutely no business giving a detailed explanation of one client’s treatment plan and diagnosis to other clients. If I did that, I’d probably be fired. Them pesky regulations and all.

  7. Kennan on September 23, 2005 at 5:30 am Reply

    I think one of the key issues you mentioned is the fact that he’s not owning up and taking responsibility for the program and its consequences. Jeremy did, and I’m sure the program he’s running is enjoying a new sense of success and the Holy Spirit at work.

    “You will know them by their fruit…” I wonder how Smid would respond to that.

  8. Jennifer on September 23, 2005 at 7:33 pm Reply

    Emotionally compelling story of the past. Hopefully you’re enjoying England as I did last month.

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