When I came to the understanding that my lifestyle had become unmanageable and I was, in fact, powerless over this thing they call alcoholism and drug addiction, they sat me down in front of a small group of people. I have no doubts that I looked worse than most in that room.
I was strung out. My eyes had dark rings beneath them. They were glassy and sunken into my bony face. I was told my skin was a sickly shade of pale. I weighed less than 100lbs because eating was not high on my priorities—or more accurately, feeding myself was less important than feeding my addiction.
When I “Came in” as they say, I was sat in a group of people who were no different from me. I never knew any of them. I never saw anyone in that room before. I never even knew people like them existed. All I knew is I was beaten up and there was no way out. I knew that I had fallen to a point where my choices had become unattractive. I cannot say I was ready and willing to surrender. But more accurately, I was simply too weak to fight back.
And so, as a result of my choices, they sat me down in a group of fellow drunks, junkies, and of course, the fellow degenerates. I scanned the room to see the facial expression of those who sat with me. Most of the group, if not all,wore the same dumbfounded look. Many of them, like me, had the same withdrawn, glassiness in their eye. The despair in the room matched my own—and so did the uncomfortable vibe that comes when a new face enters the group and compromises its structure.
No one else was a “Newcomer,” like me, but no one else in the room was sober for very long either. Like me, they found themselves on the wrong side of a cage. Some were sent to save their jobs and others were sent to save their marriage. Above all, we were all sent to this place with the same exclamation point in mind, and that point was to save us from ourselves.
I was welcomed in the room, which was held in a refurbished hotel that was transformed into a drug and alcohol treatment center, and located in small, unheard-of town, in Upstate New York.
A member of the group said to me, “You’re in for a rough time, kid. I’m not gonna lie to you.”
“This place ain’t easy, I can tell you that for sure.”
“The food here is awful. But it beats jail,” he said. “And that ain’t saying much.
This came from a man that sat next to me. He appeared older than his actual years. He had black thinning hair and the wrinkled skin of a dying man. His rhythm of speech was slow, but he spoke well, as if he was well-educated. His eyes seemed halfway vacated, as if the edges of his brain had been crisped and burnt from the long years of an ongoing dosage.
“Hell son, when I was your age, I had long hair and I thought that I knew it all.”
However, the purple lines, or track marks, which coursed along the vein on the inside pit of his elbow was proof that he knew nothing more than I did.
I was way too young in the eyes of most in that room. Most of the others were resentful because of my age. They were angry because they saw me as wasted time.
I heard one man grumble, “What the hell is this kid doing in here? He should be home with his momma.”
His snide remarks continued and became slightly racial and stereotypical.
He considered me to be “White Bread.” And I know this because he called me White Bread on several occasions.
He called me a, “Stupid little white boy,” but in my submission, and during my confusion as to where I was and why I was there, I was too tired, too beaten, and too frightened to defend myself.
If any reason, and above all reasons, I suppose the other junkies in the room disliked me because I was a reflection of their younger self. I was who they used to be. Moreover, I had the chance to kick the habit while I was young. I had a chance to do something at a young age, which they could not.
In all, I was welcomed, but I was also faced with the taunts of old drunks who said things like, “Kid, I probably spilled more than you ever drank.”
I was not prepared for who I had to be in order to contend with this moment. But life seldom cares if we are prepared in moments like this. In other words, I had no place to run and nowhere to hide
I sat in a room with a group of men that sank to a vicious bottom. Each member of the group had their own story; each had their own scars, both figuratively and literally. In comparison, I had only just begun in some cases; whereas, in other cases, my story was still shocking to the other members of the group
There were homeless men in the room. They lived in alleyways and slept in subway stations. There were a few winos and a few barroom drunks. They too had their share of scars—both figurative and literal.
Mostly, the room was overrun by addicts. There were crackheads, cocaine, and speed freaks. They were twitchy. Their eyes were demon-like and wide as if their drug use had frazzled and destroyed their nervous system.
Of course, there was the heroin junky. They were easy to recognize; they were slower in speech and slightly bent in stature. Their eyes still held the remaining appearance of a deadly, but yet, synthetic paradise.
There was also the garbage heads, which, for them, meant any drug, drink, or pill would do; it meant whatever source they used was fine, so long as it helped take their mind up to the next level and kept them weightless.
And then there was me. I was 17 years-old. I had sores in my skin. I was sickly and emaciated, but worse, I had no understanding of why my life had become so desperately what it was.
When the counselor walked in the room, she said “Hello”, and like a classroom in grade school, the entire group simultaneously welcomed the counselor by saying, “Good morning, Helen.”
Helen was not only a counselor; she was also a recovering addict, which was not something I understood at the time. I had no idea that people actually kicked drugs. Why would they? And in my infinite wisdom, I believed rehabs like this or meetings like those in the 12-step fellowships were strictly meant to teach us how to use.
Helen had no tolerance for nonsense in her group. As she saw it, addiction and alcoholism are life threatening illnesses. She was quick to weed through the bullshit and even quicker to get to me.
“Would you like to introduce yourself to the room,” She asked.
“My name Ben,” I answered.
And again, the room answered with a simultaneous answer.
Helen asked me, “Why are you here?”
I answered, “Because it was either this place or jail, and I didn’t feel like going to jail.”
With a smile, Helen nodded as if to recognize my small and weak frame.
“Yeah,” agreed Helen. “I don’t think you would do well in jail.”
She added, “But that doesn’t really answer my question . . .so, let’s try this again. Why are you here?” and when she asked, she emphasized the word, “Here,” while pointing around the room as if to explain why was I in the group.
“To beat jail,” I said “
We discussed that. But why are you HERE?”
I responded, “I don’t get it, I just told you why.”
The junky with the track-mark veins sitting next to me explained, “She means what you did to get in here?”
“I got arrested.”
Helen looked at me with a stern expression. I noticed a stiffer tone in her voice.
“Look, nobody comes here for the food and friends.”
“Definitely not the for the food,” laughed someone from the group.
Helen laughed an understanding laugh with the rest of the group, but then she quickly returned to her point.
“No one is here because they went to Church every Sunday, and none of us are here because we were boy scouts.”
I saw this as her way of breaking through and forcing me to admit that drugs and alcohol had led me to this point.
“Why did you get arrested,” She asked.
“Don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t do it.”
“I guess they must have had me mixed up with somebody else.”
Helen shook her head as if she were in disbelief. I could hear the mumbles from the others in the room. it was a mixture of laughter at my ignorance and frustration with my lack of willingness to comply or simply answer the questions.
“So, let me see if I got this right,” Helen interrogated.
You were arrested . . . but you didn’t do it, and they got the wrong guy. Is that what you’re saying?”
“I guess so.”
This was my first real group session and it was not going well. This was also the first time I was ever confronted like this about my addiction. I felt cornered. I felt alone and frightened. I had no way to defend myself and leaving was not an attractive option. Had I left, I would have been turned over to the courts and placed in custody while pending the completion of my trial.
Helen was tough, but this did not mean she was not caring.
Her voice softened for them moment.
She directed, “Look at yourself.”
“Look in the mirror. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are not healthy looking at all.”
She said, “You barely open your mouth when you speak. You speak through your teeth, Your face is like a skeleton and your skin is a bad shade of green. You look sick and your eyes look like they’re off somewhere in La-La Land.”
“Aren’t you tired of this,” she asked.
I did not want to answer because the truth was painful, and more of the truth; if I answered it would contradict the voices in my head, which instructed me to not give in and said, “Don’t tell them anything.”
The voice in my head, or the monkey on my back, or the devil on my shoulder in this case is my addiction. My addiction knew me very well. I considered my addiction to be like a separate entity or second personality. Addiction was a separate side of me, which I had to keep hidden and protected. I had to hide it because if my addiction was discovered, then my fear of who I was, my identity, my ability to detach and find comfort, or closer to the truth, my ability to get high and feel good would be taken from me.
I was loyal to my addiction. I had sacrificed on its behalf. I lost blood; I lost the better years of my young life, inevitably falling to a low point with dirty spoons, bent upwards with batches of cocaine, cooked, and prepared to smoke away and euthanize my life in one hit at a time.
I gave way to the whispers of heroin to further sink, or carry me away to a place which was perfectly meaningless. I lost friends and freedoms. And most, I lost any shred of who I was. Yes—I was loyal to my addiction. But my addiction that was not loyal to me.
“Don’t tell them,” said the devil on my shoulder.
“Don’t give me up,” said the monkey on my back.
“Don’t let them do it,” said the voice of my addiction.
“They’re trying to tear us apart.”
The sick life, which Helen spoke to me about was the insanity of my behavior.
She asked, “Aren’t you tired of doing the same thing over and over again?”
I could not answer her, because again, answering would contradict the voices in my head.
“Don’t listen to her,” said the voices.
“It’s a trick,” whispered my addiction.
I would not answer Helen’s questions. I did not speak, but so long as I refused to surrender, Helen refused to give in.
“Is this where you want to be,” she asked.
Other members of the group chimed in.
“Come on, already. Answer the question!”
“No,” I answered.
“Can you go home,” asked Helen.
“Not unless I want to go to jail,” I responded.
“Well if you’re gonna stay, then you’re gonna have to play along with the rest of us.”
Helen explained, “I know this is your first day.”
She tried to comfort me. “I know you’re not ready and I know your guard is up, but nobody ever comes to rehab by accident. So until you’re ready to admit who you are and why you’re here, these groups are going to be a little hard for you.”
The man sitting next to me with the track-marks in his arm cupped a hand over his mouth and whispered, “Told ya so.”
Finally, Helen took the focus away from me and shared it with someone else. He introduced himself by saying his name (for example and out of respect for anonymity, I will use a different name)
He said, “Hi, my name is Stan,” followed by the words, “And I’m an addict and alcoholic.”
Again, the group responded in unison, “Hi Stan.”
This was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Aside from admitting the words, which to me seemed like admitting weakness or failure, I was amazed by the acknowledgment and the response that Stan received.
This was the first time I had ever heard anyone openly speak about an insanity that matched my own. Helen looked at me after Stan shared a few words. She asked, “Do you know what insanity is?”
Again, I maintained my silence because I did not want to answer. I did not want to give in because of my loyalty to addiction, but also, I did not want to answer because I knew if I spoke that I would begin to cry—and crying would only expose my weakness
I was whipped. I was so painfully sick of being tired all the time. I was sick of feeling helpless and hurt. I was tired of feeling hatred or envy for anyone and everyone else in the world. Even the worst in life and those on the lowest rung seemed to have more than me.
I was so horribly destroyed—I was destroyed to the point where my armor had become too thin and there was no way I could defend myself anymore. Without any escape or way to pacify the voices of addiction, I was to the point where the best option seemed to be my only option, which would be death by my own hand.
Helen continued to explain, “Insanity is doing the same thing all the time and expecting different results. It’s repeating the same process but expecting different outcomes. Understand?”
Helen addressed me with an honest voice of concern.
“Can you relate to that, son?”
There was a tear forming at the corner of my eyes, but I gripped them with all my might because I refused to give in or let go. I could not look up at Helen.
I could not look up at anyone, but I could feel the eyes in the room were all on me. They all knew I was weak. They all knew I was beaten, which is why I hated them. I hated them because I felt exposed or virtually and emotionally naked. If I could have, I would have responded—but I was too weak and I had nothing left.
Helen’s voice softened once more. “Ben, is that something you can understand? Insanity is doing the same thing all the time, but expecting different results. Is this something you can relate to?”
I felt an internal pain, as if my heart had shattered into a million pieces. I was dying a different version of death, as though I were sat in an exorcism and the demons inside me were being scorched and purged from my body. I felt so drained and desperate. I felt alone. I was sad, and exactly as I appeared, I was sick.
“Ben, do you understand the definition of insanity?”
Teardrops leaked from the outside corners of both eyes as I nodded my, “Yes.”.
The room was quietly still because they all knew. I was no different from anybody else in that group session. Everyone understood why I wouldn’t break. They were all quiet because they understood the indefinable and unexplainable pains that come with addiction.
Also, they were quiet because they understood the feeling of betrayal that comes with the realization that the one thing I depended on most was the same thing that was killing me in daily lies of lethal doses
“Good,” rewarded Helen.
“Now we can begin your treatment.”
The junky with the track marks patted my shoulder. He said, “You’re in the right place, kid.”
He told me, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Hell, you’re better than the rest of us here. You came in young, and if anyone gives you shit about that, it’s only because they’re jealous.”
I had come to believe that I was powerless and my life had become unmanageable. I understood the method of my insanity. And like so many others—I had the scars, both externally and internally, to prove the theory.
Will Rogers has his own explanation of insanity.
“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’.
The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence themselves.”
It took me a while to learn about that fence . . .
How about you?