If you have never been there, then perhaps it would be hard to understand what it feels like to be kept in a place with people from different parts of the state or different parts of the country.
And I say kept because it is seldom that people enter a drug rehabilitation facility on their own free will.
There is usually a reason. Be it jail, the job, the wife, or family; most of the inmates or patients go as a consequence of their actions.
My first rehab experience was an old converted hotel in the Catskills Mountains. The lobby was decorated exactly as it was in the late 60’s, or early 70’s. I had no idea what to expect.
I had heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but I never heard about the 12 steps, which is the backbone of the program, nor did I have an understanding what sobriety meant.
It was obvious that drugs were bad; however, drinking is legal. In my mind, drinking was as American as apple pie. Beer is like a rite of passage. In fact, real men drink beer. Or at least, I thought so.
Real men drink beer, and when it’s cold outside, they drink blackberry brandy.
In my ignorance, I thought Alcoholics Anonymous was a place where people drank; only, it was anonymous, so no one spoke about it.
Turns out……I was wrong.
My Mother and Father drove me from our Long Island town to an upstate place I had never heard of. The towns were small and the population was few.
I was frightened and still shaken from the life I was forced to kick. The drugs in my system were doing a death rattle. I felt shaky. I could not sleep through the night. My skin was pale and there were dark rings beneath my eyes. At my worst, I weighed only 80lbs. I was very frail and sickly.
Eating was not my priority; drugs were. In the land of cocaine, crack pipes, cooking spoons and heroin, I sought the nourishment of a euphoric cocoon instead of a balanced meal.
In fact, I ate very little. My stomach was always turning. My nose often bled, and in spite of all the warnings, and regardless to the outcomes of my choices; I was not ready to surrender. I was not willing to give up my way of living.
The drive upstate was quiet. I was emotionally removed, which left me seeming remorseless and cold. After my arrest, my parents learned about what I had become.
They no longer saw me as the little boy they tried to raise, but as someone possessed. After my arrest, my Mother broke down. I suppose she felt as though she failed as a parent. And perhaps, she had. But denial is truly a blinding thing.
My Father was angry with me. He was angry that I nearly killed myself. He was angry that I destroyed my life and shook our family foundation to its core. He was angry that I cost him so much money, and that my defense lawyer told him, “This probably won’t be the last of your son’s problems.”
But mostly, The Old Man was hurt. He was sad because the life I chose took away the chance for him and me to have a relationship. I suppose, I felt the same way but the drug-cocoon was thick and disconnected me from certain feelings.
After hours of driving and far away from the places I knew about, we pulled up to the main entrance of the facility. There was an old man standing on the lawn near a flagpole.
He extended his right arm towards the sky, and with his hand opened, his eyes closed, and his head slightly tilted back; the old man began to sing a loud but poor version of opera.
“What the fuck?” I thought to myself. I wondered if this was rehab or flight-deck.
Flight deck was another term for the psychiatric ward, like nut-house or funny farm.
I liked flight deck better. I felt it was a more accurate description of my sanity.
However, there are more arrivals than departures….and the only ways to depart on flight deck was to be softly medicated and drugged into a mental vacation.
We approached the doors and stopped the car.
“This is it,” said The Old Man. I stepped out from the backseat with a small duffle bag in my hand. Inside were a few shirts, a few pairs of pants, some socks and some underwear. I had a Walkman with some cassette tapes and a folded picture of a naked girl from Hustler magazine.
(They call that picture poison paper, by the way. Nude magazines and porn is just something to rot your brain and tease you with something you can’t have. It also keeps you from focusing and it can be used as another form of escape.)
I was greeted by two men. They were fellow inmates (or patients, depending upon opinion).
The taller of the two was dark haired, blue-eyed, and heavy-set with an Irish-like appearance. His belly was the beer kind and perfectly rounded.
The shorter had a scar on his cheek as if his face was slashed. His eyes had a “Checked-out” look to them, as if he spent too many years on the methadone line and his smile looked permanently drugged.
The taller extended his welcome to me. He said, “Hi, I’m the mayor,” and I shook his hand. Then the smaller of the two stepped in. He said, “I’m the deputy mayor,” and while shaking his hand I snapped back with a wise-ass comment.
It turns out; the old man singing opera on the lawn was an old priest. He drank himself to wet-brain, which is brain damage caused by alcohol.
As for the mayor and deputy mayor, they were voted in by the fellowship, or community, as a sign of responsibility.
There was a structure between each mealtime. There was a meeting schedule, counseling schedules, group therapy schedules, and one on one schedules with the patient’s head counselor.
I do not recall the goodbyes with my parents on that first day. I know it was quick and I later learned that The Old Man cried nearly the entire drive home.
Inside the main lobby, I saw different kinds of people. They were from places I had never heard of. They were from towns I never knew about. Some even lived close to where I was from, but I never heard of their town before.
There were black people, white, Spanish, Italian, Irish and even Middle-eastern.
Some drank, some used drugs. Some had jail over their head and some had their jobs threatening to terminate them.
Some were there to save their marriage and some were there to buy some time away from the street or saw rehab as a place to hide from someone or something. In any case, we all shared a common core. We all knew what addiction was, and whether our drug of choice was similar or different, we all ended up in the same place.
There was nothing fashionable about this. There was nothing fancy or cool. There were no rock stars or celebrities. The men I lived with were real people with real stories. They were from good homes and broken ones. Some were poor and some were wealthy.
And in our usual world, we were different or in some cases, we were enemies. Yet in our time of treatment, we became brothers. We ate together. We slept together, and of course, we wept together….even the hard ones that claimed to never cry at all, they wept too.
I lived with murderers, drunks, thieves and junkies. And so long as they had these titles, that is all people would see.
But I knew them differently.
I knew what happened to them before they switched and turned wrong. I knew about the abuse, the anger and abandonment. I knew about the heartache and the frustration. I knew about the suicides and the depression.
I knew their details and they knew mine. The bond we created (at least in my eyes) was unbreakable.
Even now, if I were to come across someone from my time away; I would walk through fire for them without asking, worrying or wondering if they would do the same for me.
As a young boy, I was told to toughen up. “You have to have thick skin if you want to get by in life.”
My skin was not thick. I was not tough and all I had to hide behind was about to be taken away. I was introduced to the saying, “Life on life’s terms,” and the concept was frightening.
“Toughen up, kid.”
“You’re a bum.” These were the messages in my head.
Men don’t cry. Men drink beer and eat all their food.
Men work hard.
Don’t be a loser. Don’t be like the rest of them.
Be smart. Be tough. Be quick, and whatever you do, don’t come in last.
But if you do come in last and you can’t be the best, then be the worst….just make sure you’re the best at it.
One night, I received a telephone call. It was my Mother calling to wish me happy birthday.
After, she said, “Hold on, here’s your Father.”
The Old Man said, “Hey kid.”
“Can I do something for you?”
That’s when The Old Man’s voice began to crack. Crying, he began to sing, “Happy….birthday….to… you.”
Perhaps, this is when I learned the old messages in my head were wrong.
I spoke to an old friend last night….
He was there. He was with me.
He was the one that slept next to me while I was under suicide watch.
Sobriety has not always been easy. I have made mistakes and poor choices. I have learned that I am my own worst critic as well as my worst enemy.
I also learned that even in the toughest of times and with the hardest of people, there is love for me.
I learned there is understanding, and though my band of brothers may have disbanded, or lost their way, there are people that know me and know me well.
These are the people that saved my life…