Nestled neatly in the hills surrounding Rimini in Italy, San Patrignano is unlike any other drug rehabilitation facility in the world, it has a 72% success rate, it is completely free of charge, and alcohol is served in the dining hall. The person that chooses to enter the community has usually been on an endless treadmill of traditional drug rehabilitation methods. And for the vast majority of them, following the 12 steps and abstinence has made no difference to their desire to take drugs. Most have come to the conclusion that waking up every morning and telling themselves that they are sick and that only God or a Higher Power can help them is pointless.

I first arrived at San Patrignano in the Summer of 2005 and my initial thoughts were - why is everyone so happy? And why are they constantly hugging each other? I know Italians are partial to a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek, but this seems to be a bit over the top. The only other time I could recall being with a group of people who were this happy was when I climbed a mountain in Thailand with a group of monks to stay in a monastery. Surely, this is some sort of cult, I thought to myself. At the time of my arrival, there were 1,500 residents living in the community. Every one of them landed at the gate with their life in ruins as a result of an addiction to drugs.

This reckless path and a road to nowhere resonated with me. I am Australian. From a young age getting obliterated on a night out was a rite of passage. Drinking your mates under the table was seen as a badge of honour. The war wounds and memories of those nights still lingered for me back then. And even though I was visiting San Patrignano for work, I was on a secret personal mission to learn everything that I could about the Italian solution to addiction.

I was met at the gates by my host Monica, a young woman whom I had been communicating with to arrange the visit. As we made our way to the dining hall for lunch, I turned to Monica and asked how long she had been working for the community. Monica’s face lit up as she smiled and proudly said “Oh no Dan, I am a resident. I have been here for 3 years and I am coming to the end of the programme. I am interested in studying international relations so the community has given me this opportunity to volunteer in the office arranging tours for our guests.” I immediately apologised and Monica responded by saying that visitors often make this mistake and that the residents take this as a huge compliment.

Because I was in Italy, I suspected that lunch would be exceptional. I was right. Everyone in the community stops for a three-course meal that lasts close to 2 hours. I entered the enormous dining hall and sat down to break bread with over 1000 residents. Monica had arranged for me to be seated with the lads from Caseficio, the cheese factory. I soon realised the significance of this moment for sharing a meal together provided the space for the residents to begin to open up and tell their life stories in a safe and loving environment.

I was seated next to Federico, a young lad from Bologna who spoke English. As I navigated my way around a perfectly cooked plate of plump stuffed Ravioli, Federico started to explain to me his experience of life in the community. He said that San Patrignano does not see an addict as someone who is broken and who needs to be fixed, rather they have just made some bad choices in life and one of those happens to be the decision to take drugs. He said that life in the community can be difficult because often for the first time, you start to fully embrace the pain that you have inflicted on yourself and also the suffering caused to others. As we were finishing dessert Federico proudly announced that it was a historic day as his “responsible” had informed him that he would be “following’ a new resident. This was a huge honour for Federico as it meant that he had worked extremely hard to gain trust from his peers and now he will be guiding a newcomer for the next year. I asked Federico if he could sum up in a few sentences what he would be telling the lad on his first day, Federico took some time to answer, he then turned to me and said “Life in the community can seem complex but it is really quite simple. All you need to do here is follow the rules, contribute to the running of the community, confront the reasons why you took drugs in the first place, and try your best to find a purpose in life”.

At the end of the lunch, I said goodbye to my newfound friends. Some of them were making their way to the kitchen to wash the dishes and others were returning to the cheese factory. This would be the first of many lunches in the community and the start of a long-standing relationship that has changed my life forever.