Amazing that West 84th Street, where I used to live at The New York Game Club, an intake center for Synanon which was a rehabilitation community in California, is now also named Edgar Allan Poe St. Perfect for the woman who emerged from the boiling cauldron of that time as a poet–me!
I am on the east coast visiting friends and family. Growing up in New Jersey, I visited New York City frequently and even attended college here for a year, and then lived in The New York Game Club for five months on W. 84th St.
In fact, I have begun to write a book about my experience living in the Synanon community in New York and in Tomales Bay, California. I entered October 15th, 1974 in NY and left from CA November 14, 1975. It was only a little more than a year, but it was one of the bravest moves I had ever made.
Prior to my life at the NY Game Club, I had landed on a psych ward in Philadelphia in August of 1974 due to a severe withdrawal reaction from Valium, which unbeknownst to me I had become addicted to. I was getting ‘help’ for jaw pain at Dr. Nathan Allen Shore’s dental office at Columbus Circle. The word “help” should be in italics because he told me that Valium was just like aspirin and that I should take it 4 times a day, plus whenever needed for pain. Valium messed with me badly. I alternated between depression and euphoria, immobility and manic activity, paranoia and abandon, but I didn’t understand the pills were making me crazy. When a close friend told me Valium was dangerous, I tossed the vial of pills out. Shortly after that, I admitted myself to the psych ward because of fear I would harm myself.
Wrong move! The psych ward was dangerous! ECT (electroshock ‘therapy’) was still being used, isolation in padded rooms after straight-jacketing, and forced drugging. For the month I was there, a psychiatrist saw me once for 5 minutes only to prescribe medication that I didn’t want. I had hoped to get to the root of my problems. Naive, to say the least. Pennsylvania Hospital’s psych ward was a place of terror, manipulation, intimidation, and ignorance. Of course, there was one wonderful social worker, Paul, and a nice volunteer, Kenny, and one or two patients I connected with, but shortly after I wanted in, I wanted out. Synanon to the rescue.
My brother Wayne told me about a friend of his who had done well there. I learned that Synanon was a program that admitted alcoholics, drug addicts and those who, for whatever reason, were not able to function in everyday society. I was the latter. The brochure showed a place of beauty where people worked outdoors on the ranches and bay property of Marin County, California, a place near the coast close to Point Reyes National Seashore. There were four rules: no smoking, no drinking or drugs, mandatory exercising and the playing of the Synanon Game, a psychological/social tool. Synanon was called “The People Business” and believed in everyone’s ability to self-actualize. Rather than my being seen as broken and needing crutches for the rest of my life, as the professionals on the psych ward saw me, Synanon saw the possibility for my transformation. Synanon was for me.
I lived in the New York facility right near the corner of Riverside Drive and had a bedroom on the second floor. It was a very difficult time. I was lost and in a blur. But the people who lived there, squares (Synanon terminology for people who had no addiction problems but liked the lifestyle of living in community and helping others) were kind to me and though they didn’t understand me and couldn’t really help me understand myself, at least I was in a healthy environment. At least I was kept safe. At least I was eating well and was drug-free. And perhaps most importantly, the atmosphere was one of positivity and personal growth for everyone living there.
Here, in this second floor bedroom, is where I was kept alive while marinating in self-hate and confusion. Here, time stood still. Did I know I was suffering from post-traumatic stress from infant surgery without anesthesia? Did I know that my panic attacks were due to triggers from long ago? Did I know that my difficulty concentrating, teeth clenching, and jaw pain were symptoms of PTSD? Did I know that Valium withdrawal caused my breakdown? No. Understanding all of this would take another forty years. But here–338 W. 84th Street–was the beginning of my journey. And to all the New York Game Clubbers–Allan, Artie, Ed, Arthur, Fannie, Larry B., Larry S., and Bobbie–THANK YOU. Thank you for helping me save my life.
I lived in Synanon from 1967 to 1977 as a square and just ran across your post as I am starting to write about my experience..
Hi Gerry, Did you live in Tomales Bay? Where in Synanon did you reside? I’m writing about my experience, too. Maybe we can share notes from time to time. Did you participate in the Synanon wedding? Anyway, look forward to hearing from you. I met a lot of nice squares in Synanon New York and Marin County, California:)
Hi Wendy: I am currently married to Allen (who you thanked at the end of your article) Also in touch with Bobbie and Larry B. We recently hosted a NY Game Club reunion. Thank you for your story. We are starting a website,https://synanon.com/ for people to put their own stories from the inside out if you would like to add yours. I am glad you had such a positive experience. We also have writers groups of those exploring all sides.
Hi Elena, Thank you so much for reaching out. Sorry it’s taken eons for me to respond. In the past three years, I’ve had a health challenge that is now finally resolved, but I’ve been lax on keeping up with my blog and just got a notification of your comment last week! Clearly, something is wrong with my site as you wrote a year ago! –at least, that’s the date that accompanied your Comment. I am excited about the Synanon site and bookmarked it so that I can return to it and add my story and read the stories of others. Very excited about finding this gem. Again, thank you for notifying me!