Deep in Siberia, scientists claim they have made an astonishing breakthrough in curing drink and drug addicts, as well as helping workaholics and even those obsessed with sex - by using corporal punishment.
Like other patients, Natasha is given psychological counselling before each session of 60 lashes (those with alcohol or other addictions face 30) - and also undergoes a electrocardiogram to ensure the shock therapy is not causing unexpected heart problems. Picture: The Siberian TImes
The reaction of most people is predictable: to snigger, scoff or make jokes loaded with sexual innuendo.
But 22 year old Natasha insists they have got completely the wrong end of the stick - or rather the cane. And she should know.
'I am the proof that this controversial treatment works,' she says, 'and I recommend it to anyone suffering from an addiction or depression. It hurts like crazy - but it's given me back my life. Without it I seriously believe I would now be dead'.
The psychologist behind (the pun is not deliberate!) this 'cure' is Dr German Pilipenko who with fellow practitioner Professor Marina Chukhrova has treated more than a thousand patients, and is now getting foreigners travelling to try his unconventional 'method of limited exposure or pain', often as a last resort.
He has had success with showbiz clients and believes he could help people like British singer Pete Doherty who has repeatedly failed to respond to other treatments. Whether drink or drug addicts, or people who are miserable and depressed, these Russian medics say they have restored that simple ingredient missing from so many lives - happiness.
The cure involves literally beating the addiction, obsession or depression out of the patient. Dr Pilipenko claims he is restoring or modernising a method of treatment known to previous generations including notorious cane-happy English schoolmasters and monks in medieval holy orders.
'We cane the patients on the buttocks with a clear and definite medical purpose - it is not some warped sado-masochistic activity,' says Professor Chukhrova, a psychiatrist with more than 25 years experience treating drug addicts and alcoholics.
In simple terms, addicts suffer from a lack of endorphins often known as 'happiness hormones', she says, adding that the acute pain of corporal punishment stimulates the brain to release endorphins into the body 'making patients feel happier in their own skins'.
'The caning counteracts a lack of enthusiasm for life which is often behind addictions, suicidal tendencies and psychosomatic disorders', claims Dr Pilipenko. Both personally administer the 'medical spankings'.
The treatment was pioneered in Siberia by Dr Sergei Speransky, director of Biological Studies at Novosibirsk Institute of Medicine, who himself admitted to undergoing flogging treatment as an antidote to his bouts of depression.
'Patients see that this treatment is working where everything else has failed', he was quoted as saying.
'It worked for me. I'm not sadistic, at least not in the classical sense - but I do advocate caning'.
'I'm not a masochist. My parents never even slapped me, so this was my first real physical pain and it was truly shocking'. Picture: The Siberian Times
Life for Natasha, 22, from Novosibirsk, could hardly have been worse when she agreed to this method as a final hope for overcoming her chronic heroin addiction.
'I was a wreck,' she says. 'I was heavily addicted and it was killing me. I had fallen hopelessly in love at the age of 16 and didn't realise at first that my boyfriend was a heroin addict, and did everything I could to make him kick his habit. He couldn't, and I succumbed to it too.
'Originally I took the drug because I thought, by doing so, I would shock him into giving up. I was young and naive and it didn't work. By the time I was hooked on it, he died of an overdose - and everything collapsed around me. I was stealing from my mother and stepfather, spending nights alone outside in the gutter'.
'My mother sobbed and begged me on her knees to stop. I wanted to, but you can't just stop. She took me to hospital after hospital for a variety of conventional treatments - but none of them worked. I remember once lying down on a hospital bed with spittle trickling down from my mouth, and I was so weak that I couldn't even lift my hand up to wipe it.'
In desperation she turned to religion.
'I spent months at a special religious retreat - and people were praying for me all time. It was so sweet of them but it didn't help me. I still needed the drugs and went to any lengths to get them'.
One by one many of the friends she shared with her boyfriend - all of them hard-bitten addicts - died.
'There were so many deaths around me. I nearly died too - I just couldn't see a way out. It was then that my mother heard about this new method of treatment in Novosibirsk, her home city. I agreed to try it'.
'All I was told at first was that it would involve some physical pain but that Professor Chukhrova believed it could really help me'.
'What I do know is that if I had a daughter who suffered from drug abuse, I would send her straight to our clinic'. Picture: The Siberian Times
Like other patients, Natasha is given psychological counselling before each session of 60 lashes (those with alcohol or other addictions face 30) - and also undergoes a electrocardiogram to ensure the shock therapy is not causing unexpected heart problems.
'I was so scared before the first time - and I am still frightened many months later', she says.
'I'm not a masochist. My parents never beat me or even slapped me, so this was my first real physical pain and it was truly shocking. If people think there's anything sexual about it, then it's nonsense.
'With each lash I scream and grip tight to the end of the surgical table. It's a stinging pain, real agony, and my whole body jolts. Often I cry, and the doctor sometimes asks what I am feeling, and if I am ok.
'My body gets really hot and my palm starts sweating. It's really unpleasant - but after each session, I can see that it works. In fact, it's the only thing that has worked for me. As he strikes me, the doctor explains the danger of the drugs. But this treatment is not about punishing me for taking heroin. It works because of the effect on my body - the release of these endorphins - that is letting me get rid of the addiction.
'The pain helps me understand the dangers I have caused to myself, how I was simply killing myself'.
The doctors echo what she says, and insist that they are not seeking to humiliate Natasha and their other patients; nor is punishment their primary aim.
'Despite this, in a strange way I suppose I do feel I'm getting punishment which at the same time brings me back to life. After each session I have red lash marks on my backside but it doesn't bleed. It's not easy to sit down for a few hours afterwards.
Unlikely as it sounds, Natasha is adamant that this treatment has transformed her life.
'I wouldn't keep coming back for this if I didn't think it was working', she says. 'I know many of my friends think I am mad to trust these doctors. But I want to live. For the first time since I because an addict five years ago, I feel I have a chance.
'I just want to be like all those thousands of girls who have a normal life - finding a man, getting married, having kids, going through the problems of life together. I want that kind of normal life - and finally I can feel I am coming back to it.
Several months into her treatment, she got a new job and - against expectations - was holding it down, working as a dispatcher in a local taxi company, she says.
'It's a simple job, but for me it is a start. I feel I have my self respect. So far I don't have a new boyfriend but when the right man comes along, I now feel I could cope with a relationship again'.
Natasha is now free of the drugs. 'I still have cravings, of course I do. But it's getting less and less. I really feel on the way to a new life'.
Patients pay 3,000 roubles ($99) for a session of counselling and beating. They are expected to undergo two beating sessions a week for three months - with follow-up visits every four weeks for the next year. Picture: The Siberian Times
In a sample of 30 patients given the treatment, who are now being closely monitored, most have shown strongly positive results in overcoming their various addictions, the doctors claim. Yet critics suggest a far more rigorous analysis subject to academic scrutiny would be needed to verify the claims of its proponents.
Another caning patient is Yuri, aged 41, a workaholic who was close to drinking himself to death.
'I have a stressful job and my father was an alcoholic,' he says. 'Somehow I followed him.'
Like Natasha, he had tried many treatments for his addiction. On ten occasions, he used the familiar Russian method of 'coding' when a capsule with a cocktail of drugs is implanted in the bum. Whenever he drank alcohol after this, he immediately feels desperately sick.
'I also went to hypnosis - but everything I tried worked for one year at the most. Then came the desire for more vodka to help me cope with the stress of his job. I had heard about the caning treatment and rejected it. Then one morning I woke up in a drunken stupor and found three empty bottles of eau de cologne by my bed. I realised my real choice - try Professor Chuhrova's treatment, or die.
'They checked my heart and spoke to me in detail about my drink problem and my work pressures. It seemed like the usual psychiatrist's stuff, much as I had gone through before. She told me the science behind it but also explained that it had been used to cure addictions in the past.
'She checked my heart and said all was OK, then told me to remove my clothes.
'The first strike was sickening. I screamed, and swore like a drunk sailor. Somehow I got through all 30 lashes. The next day I got up with a stinging backside but no desire at all to touch the vodka in the fridge. The bottle has stayed there now for a year.
'I feel that my psychological craving for alcohol has gone. For three months I made secret visits to the clinic, not wanting any colleagues or friends to discover. Of course, I feel like a fool having to undergo this humiliating treatment. Now I just come once a month.
'The toughest part was hiding the marks from my girlfriend. Eventually she saw - and there was the most appalling scandal.
'The only area we beat is the buttocks. Experience shows that it's a very good reflexogenic zone which can be used to transform pain signals into positive activity for the human organism'. Picture: The Siberian Times
'She suspected me of all sorts of weird things, from a secret affair to visiting the local Dominatrix. I told her the truth - and when I explained it all she said she was proud of me for taking such a risky step to cure myself'.
Yuri says he has changed so much that his girlfriend says she wants to have a baby with him.
'For the first time, she thinks she can trust me to be a good father. And our love life is better too. I don't mean from some weird consequences of the caning. It's better because I've given up alcohol.
'I know people react strangely to such an extraordinary way of getting rid of addiction, but it was the only thing which helped me'.
'The beating is really the end of the treatment,' explains Professor Chuhrova. 'We do a lot of psychological counselling first, and also use detox. It is only after all the counselling, and heart and pain resistance checks, that we start with the beating.
'We use willow branches. They are flexible and can't be broken nor cause bleeding.
'The only area we beat is the buttocks.
'Experience shows that it's a very good reflexogenic zone which can be used to transform pain signals into positive activity for the human organism'.
Conventional doctors in Russia are openly dismissive, advocating other ways of stimulating endorphin secretion - notably exercise, acupuncture and massage therapy. Picture: The Siberian Times
Patients pay 3,000 roubles ($99) for a session of counselling and beating. They are expected to undergo two beating sessions a week for three months - with follow-up visits every four weeks for the next year. The ages of the patients - men and women - range from 17 to 70.
'Many patients become aggressive during the beating, but we immediately turn this anger against the reason of their addiction, in other words, the drugs or alcohol. Of course, at first they do not like it. But when they start to feel the benefits, they ask for more', Marina Chuhrova says.
'If any do get some sexual pleasure from it then we stop immediately. This is not what our treatment is about. If they're looking for that, there are plenty of other places to go'.
'There are no rules but the beatings for women are often administered by male medics, and for men by female doctors. The patients seem to feel more comfortable like this', Dr Chuhrova explains.
Comfort, however, is not the first word that springs to mind.
'What do I feel when I beat them? That it's a job, which I must do on a high professional level. I don't find any satisfaction when I do it', she says.
'It's true that we get a lot of scepticism from colleagues, but so do all pioneers, adds German Pilipenko.
'Yet conventional methods of tackling heroin addiction, for example, do not have a great success record and we seem to be doing well with this, though we need to allow more time to truly assess the results.
'What I do know is that if I had a daughter who suffered from drug abuse, I would send her straight to our clinic.'
'My girlfriend suspected me of all sorts of weird things... when I explained it all she said she was proud of me for taking such a risky step to cure myself'. Picture: The Siberian Times
Conventional doctors in Russia are openly dismissive. In 2005, the Health Ministry's chief substance abuse doctor, Nikolai Ivanets, declared they would have more success 'beating berries than buttocks', making a play on the Russian words yagoda, or berry, and yagoditsy, or buttocks.
Other scientists have advocated other ways of stimulating endorphin secretion - notably exercise, acupuncture, massage therapy and even sex.
The Siberian psychologists say none of these are as effective as caning. 'But you could eat chocolate, do a lot of exercise, and then have a caning - that way you'll get a maximum dose of endorphins', joked Dr Speransky.
'The history of caning goes back to the 12th and 13th centuries', says Dr Pilpenko.
'Monks practiced it. They referred to caning like this: 'If you are persecuted by some trouble or suffering in your life - come to us, we'll help you end it, so that both your memory and you are freed from it'.
'We, too, help our clients to realise the reason for their stress and their suffering, verbalise the reason and its consequences - and create a different reaction to the stress. The pain works like an injection against stress. It also helps to wake up the consciousness and makes the patient understand why he or she got into the stress in a more rational way.'
He insists: 'We find a verbal analogue to every feeling, and create words of support from within the patient to himself or herself. We help create like an internal dialogue so that every stress is met with a clear understanding of what the patient is feeling, who they are, how they are going to deal with it, and how will they will win over this situation.'
The treatment is, he claims, 'an old method of carrots and sticks, which works in two ways. We mark with a pain a mistake that the person made, and stimulate him or her for future deeds, so that he or she does something better in the future, fulfilling their dreams.
'The pain acts like a warning so that the individual doesn't let offence, annoyance, anger, laziness, desolation or hopelessness get in his way of going towards the next achievement.
'We are helping by talking them through the painful experience, making sure that there is no confusion or fear over the feeling of pain, but instead a clear understanding of how he or she should overcome this pain being in a clear mind and observing one's own reaction.
'Our method is like a once-in-a-lifetime event which the patient remembers forever. It helps to have another look at a patient's own inner resources - which makes many people healthier and happier.
'It is the same way as we do vaccinations to make the immune system stronger. So we do an anti-stress jab to the nervous system. Out method helps to shorten the emotional reaction to the stress, and make it conscious and controllable.
'A large number of various psychosomatic illnesses can be sorted by this fast and dynamic method. We get a lot of patients annoyed with themselves and with the world, weak, apathetic, tearful, and tired. We help them to change the way they react to the stresses, and help them overcome any worrying situation in the future'.
Questions and Answers by Dr Pilipenko:
Q: When did you start practicing the method of 'external limited exposure to pain'?
German Pilipenko: In 2004.
Q: How many patients have you had, approximately?
German Pilipenko: We are having daily appointments, plus seminars in various Russian cities - like Moscow, Omsk, and Chelyabinsk, plus twice a year we do a seminar for medical professionals so that they can perform this method. I would say I had about one thousand patients individually. Each semina has 20 to 30 people.
Q: Can you treat drug addicts with you method? Did you try, did you succeed?
German Pilipenko: Exactly this subject 'Treating addictive disorders by the pointed limited exposure to pain' I have defended at psychosomatics forums together with the psychiatrist Marina Chukhrova, a doctor of medical sciences. Our method is giving patients the strength to fight the addiction and helps to produce endorphins. I had positive results with successfully treating drug addicts by using my method, but right now we are concentrating on helping people with general psychosomatic disorders.
Q: Potential opponents of your method, specially in the West, would see a clear sexual context to it. Can you say if the method implies it?
German Pilipenko: We are doing the caning therapy not for passion, but for stress management and for realisation of spontaneous emotions. We think it is unprofessional to look at the method from a fragmentary position of sexual context.
Q: What is the standard number of sessions to treat various disorders? Like, 10 for depression, or 50 for a cocaine addiction?
German Pilipenko: The standard number of sessions is from three to ten. The length of treatment always varies, depending on the patient's individual condition.
Q: How much does the treatment cost?
German Pilipenko: One caning therapy session costs 3,000 roubles ($99).
Q: What kind of contract do you and your patients sign?
German Pilipenko: Every treatment lasts for two hours, with three separate caning sessions within it - each with psychological analysis afterwards and express therapy. The patient acknowledges that he or she is aware of the details of the treatment, and signs a form of consent; each treatment's scenario is talked through with the patient beforehand.
Q: Are you treating such serious types of addiction as cocaine or heroin?
German Pilipenko: Yes, of course we are ready to take such patients.
Q: If a person like Pete Doherty, the singer known for his drugs addiction, came to you - would you take him? Can you take patients from the West - or do you think that their mentality would not be compatible with this type of treatment?
German Pilipenko: It is a universal method which works no matter the mentality. People fly to see me from different cities in Russia, and now from other countries too. Several patients from America are asking for appointments, so I see no issue over mentality or the country where the patients come from. Of course we would try it with Pete Doherty - we pay special attention to the people like him, the artistes, so that their genius continues to enlighten other people's lives.
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