Bob Meehan, an ex-con who operates as a master con-artist, has been targeting vulnerable parents for decades, charging them top-dollar to “help” their kids get off drugs. His programs for teenagers and young adults exist under the umbrella of “Enthusiastic Sobriety.”
Examples of Enthusiastic Sobriety Programs
The programs, which include outpatient programs, inpatient, and sober-living facilities, go by different names in different cities and states. They often use a volleyball in their logos and marketing materials. There have been programs that have ‘come and gone’ through the years as the negative publicity adds up. See this 1986 LA Times article about Meehan and his group Freeway, which was long ago disbanded.
A Support Group for People Recovering from Bob Meehan’s “Enthusiastic Sobriety” Programs
Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse is an online support group for people who left one of Meehan’s cult-like sobriety programs and needs help to recover from the mental, emotional, and spiritual damage of being inducted into Enthusiastic Sobriety. The Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Facebook group features an anonymous complaint form you can fill out about your experience in this damaging cult. Activists like Liz Nickerson (pictured) have done a lot to remove the power of Enthusiastic Sobriety.
Victims frequently say they spent years, as a young person, ingesting hate-filled teachings such as homophobia, racism, and us vs. them that are part of the program. One teaching fundamental to the group is that if you leave the group you will relapse on drugs and then you will die.
What Constitutes a Destructive Cult?
Steve Hassan, a leading expert in cults and also a cult survivor, came up with the BITE model to simplify the definition of what a cult is, so that people can beware of joining any group that has cult characteristics. BITE characteristics which survivors describe as part of Enthusiastic Sobriety group include
Controlled living space
Isolation from outside influences
Control of sexual behavior
Permission needed for major decisions
Group-think encouraged; individualism discouraged
Major time spent on group indoctrinations/rituals
Liz Nickerson, Raising Awareness about Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse.
Discourage access to non-cult sources of information
Compartmentalize information (outsider vs. insider)
Ensure individual behavior is monitored by group
Misquoting information or using out-of-context from non-cult sources (including the 12 Steps of AA)
Unethical use of confession (telling members that molestation/rape was their fault)
Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
Us vs. them categorization of people
Use of language and clichés which constrict knowledge and discourage original thinking
Discourage critical thinking and rational analysis
Forbid critical questions about group, group leaders or policies
Instill a new map of reality
Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings (for example, teaching that homosexuality is a symptom of drug abuse)
Make members think problems are always their fault
Group leaders are never wrong
Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness
Instill fear of independent thinking
Instill fear of the outside world
Instill fear of leaving group (i.e., you will relapse, then die)
Shunning of those who leave group
How Did Meehan Start the Enthusiastic Sobriety Cult?
After Bob Meehan got out of prison he landed in Houston, Texas and attended AA meetings at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. The rector there, Fr. Charlie Wyatt-Brown was impressed with Meehan and offered him a job as Sexton (janitor) of the church. Fr. Charlie also encouraged him to reach out to teens in the church who may be experimenting with drugs. This interaction rapidly evolved into the Palmer Drug and Alcohol Program (PDAP).
At one point in the late ‘70s Meehan was getting a lot of good publicity for his PDAP program, especially after Carol Burnett endorsed the group for “helping” her daughter Carrie to get off drugs, and then Carrie’s involvement in PDAP was featured in People Magazine in 1979.
However, a series of negative news articles followed, and after an interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, and other bad publicity, the Palmer Drug Abuse Program Board asked Meehan to step down. In the 60 Minutes interview, Dan Rather asked Meehan repeatedly if it wasn’t’ a conflict of interest that Meehan received hefty consulting fees from hospitals for referring young people to their inpatient treatment. The amount varies, but some say it was as high as $50,000 (a year?) which wasn’t chump change back in the 1970s and is still a lot of money in 2021!
After getting the boot in Houston, Meehan rapidly founded the Freeway program in San Diego. He then also started the Sober Live-In Center (SLIC) Ranch. Both facilities were closed down in 1985 for being unlicensed. Meehan was not allowed to apply for licensing in California, but the DA chose not to pursue criminal charges. The SLIC Ranch reopened in 1987 after claiming to have cut ties with Meehan, however he still maintained ties with the facility and they continued using his treatment method.
The Enthusiastic Sobriety program founded by Meehan has repeated this pattern nationwide, and even in Canada! Once a center comes under scrutiny, they change shape like a shape-shifting monster, Meehan maintains contact and continues raking in money. Now that he’s “retired,” his son-in-law Clint Stonebraker runs things.
What Is the Treatment Method Used in Enthusiastic Sobriety?
Meehan’s espoused philosophy is that in order to keep young people off of drugs, you have to allow them leeway to rebel in other ways. They must be allowed to swear, chain-smoke cigarettes (never mind that nicotine is a dangerous, addictive drug), drop out of school, and commit what are called “fun felonies.” In other words, group vandalism of private and public property, arson, and other crimes, even animal-abuse.
Former members also say that Meehan is racist. If you look at pictures on their websites, you have to notice that the happy, recovering young people featured in the pictures are all Caucasian. Among numerous YouTube videos featuring Meehan, there’s a video of him singing a horribly offensive, vulgar song. The video is titled “Bob Meehan – His Views on Blacks.” Another offensive video featuring Meehan is titled Bob Meehan – His views on the disabled.
It’s likely a blessing for diverse groups and ethnic minorities that they’re shunned by Meehan and his programs, like dodging a bullet. Belonging to an Enthusiastic Sobriety group is as damaging as belonging to any destructive cult; those who manage to break away are left emotionally and spiritually injured, and usually need help to recover from years of emotional abuse and crippling dependency on the Enthusiastic Sobriety group. People who worked as counselors, usually former clients, also deal with guilt feelings for the harm they’ve inflicted on other vulnerable young people.
Bob Meehan has made a fortune, primarily as a con artist who preyed on vulnerable parents, persuading them that their kids were going to die of addiction if they didn’t get them help, specifically, from whichever Enthusiastic Sobriety program reeled them in. It doesn’t help that some of these groups are endorsed by the Catholic Church.
The Group: A Documentary on Enthusiastic Sobriety
A former member of and counselor in Enthusiastic Sobriety, who left after 5 years, made a feature-length documentary film, The Group, about his experience and the experiences of other survivors. .
Jacob McEndollar, the director and producer of this film, said that he lied about being an addict in order to get into the cult. He attended an Alanon meeting with a friend because his father was a recovering alcoholic and a member of AA, who relapsed after years in AA, and subsequently killed himself. After the Alanon meeting Jacob’s friend invited him to an Enthusiastic Sobriety meeting; the young people there seemed to be very cool, with a long-haired countercultural look, and they were having a good time. He wanted in, so he claimed to have started using drugs at age 13.
Later in the film we meet his mother and stepfather. They were pressured by the administration to pay around $800 per month for his “treatment,” at a time when they were struggling financially. Finally, the mother said if he wanted to go to Atlanta, he’d have to use the money his father left him. They were tapped out after years of payments to various Enthusiastic Sobriety centers.
In the film Jacob says that he’s felt that the only thing he has in common with his father is the possibility of inheriting the predisposition to alcohol addiction. This was the vulnerability Enthusiastic Sobriety exploited. They teach that if you leave the group, you are doomed to relapse on drugs and die.
Enthusiastic Sobriety centers pressure their young clients to talk about their personal history, including the worst experiences they’ve ever had, and then they use their vulnerabilities to control them. They tell clients who are gay that their homosexuality is a symptom of their addiction. They tell victims of sexual assault that it was their fault they were attacked. If there’s anything bad you can think of to do to vulnerable young people, they likely do it. There’s so much negative information out there about this cult it’s impossible to outline all of it without writing a book. However, Jacob McEndollar did a great job with the documentary film, which you can view by clicking the link above.
Hopefully, once word gets around, this cult will run out of gullible parents and vulnerable teens to prey on. There are many ethical and accredited treatment programs out there which help young people get off drugs without inducting them into a dangerous and exploitative cult that is arguably more crippling than drug addiction.
Getting Help From a Cult Deprogramming Expert
If you are struggling to extricate yourself from a cult-like group, you should contact a cult deprogramming expert like Daniel Shaw, a cult deprogramming therapist.
1.Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Alliance Survivors, available here.