By Sandra Benavides Weichel
When Dr. John Dyben was a sophomore in high school, he experienced a spiritual awakening. It was a strange occurrence for a boy who planned to follow in his father’s footsteps in joining the Air Force Academy. But an even stranger one for a boy who could have been described as angry, sullen and isolated.
Life was not easy for Dyben growing up. He was raised in a rough area of Lake Worth, where during that time drugs and violence ran rampant. His parents joined the “hippie Jesus movement” during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dyben says. So, he spent many days going to church and tent revivals. Although he was surrounded by a spirituality that was very charismatic, he was also surrounded by a religion that was, to him, a little too unconventional.
“Yes, I saw a lot of good things, but I also saw some of the abuses that come with, you know, a very open and free spirituality outside of the strict context,” Dyben says.
Today, Dyben, 41, is the director of older adult services at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, a non-profit addiction treatment facility and the first in the country to treat older adults for their addictions. Dyben and his team take a culturally sensitive, clinical approach to address in a comprehensive way the needs that are unique to older generations. He also draws on many of his own experiences with religion and spirituality to treat his patients.
Dyben recalls one defining moment when he very reluctantly attended a religious camp at age 15. There, a Texan Pastor, Ray Vincent, changed his life.
In an attempt to scare off the tolerant pastor, Dyben showed him his inner-most thoughts. “I was writing all these dark things. … And I thought, ‘OK, you think you won’t reject me, I’ll show you my darkness,’” Dyben says. But not only was Vincent unaffected by what Dyben revealed, he was understanding.
“The act of simply choosing to be accepting, loving and patient no matter what I did, it was something that broke me,” he says. “To this day I believe God touched me.”
Dyben applies the same level of equanimity and compassion he has received from various mentors, like Vincent, toward his patients.
Since that moment in high school, Dyben knew he wanted to serve the world. But before becoming a respected clinician with a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in health science, Dyben was first and foremost an ordained minister.
In the early-to-mid ’90s, Dyben turned to church ministry. He graduated with his seminary degree, and he became ordained at the Covenant Community Church in Palm Beach Gardens. There, he was also in charge of the youth program, where they offered counseling.
Dyben says that around that time, many kids began using heroin and were dying from drug abuse. A parishioner, who was also a medical doctor specializing in addictions, approached Dyben and suggested they partner to treat the adolescents and their families both medically and spiritually.
From then on, he oversaw various treatment organizations such as Boys Town in Orlando and the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach.
But at Hanley, where he’s been since 2004, he’s the happiest. There, Dyben provides both spiritual and clinical guidance.
“I like to tell people I have a dual diagnosis: I am both clergy and clinician,” he says.