From Junkie Stories: The Fishbowl

The room was called “The Fishbowl.” It was somewhat small and white walled with white acoustic ceiling tiles and fluorescent light fixtures, placed accordingly in rows throughout the ceiling tiles, and hung in the ceiling with aluminum lenses to disperse the light throughout the room.

With an aisle down the center, The Fishbowl lined with rows of padded blue chairs with padded armrests on black steel wired frames that were less than comfortable on nony asses such as mine. The floor was light colored hardwood andbright, to which I suppose was to keep the tight room awake and alive.
Capable of seating an approximately 35 to 45 people, on some days, The Fishbowl was cramped with more patients and various staff members.
There was a podium upfront. Behind the podium was a blackboard, which I never quite understood the name “Blackboard,” when in fact—the background was green in this case.  The room was closed off behind a glass wall with a sliding glass door to separate The Fishbowl from the cafeteria. The cafeteria is where we ate our three guaranteed meals and staged our Sunday night meetings

This place had an out of date feel. Most of the decorations survived the decades back to the 60’s and 70’s. The decoration, carpeting, wood paneling in some areas, and the artwork throughout the rest of the establishment dated back to the times before the opening date of this drug rehabilitation center. All of the rooms, main lobby, and cafeteria remained as it was in the prior years before its junkie clientele. Once, this place was a quietly tucked away family resort in a small town known as Kerhonkson, New York. As years passed, the outdated hotel and its grounds were resurrected for men and women in search of this thing they call recovery.

I had never heard of a 12-step program before. I knew what it meant to go to rehab. Some of the people in my social circle were pulled away from the world I lived in. And by pulled away, I think it is important to explain what I mean when I say, “Pulled away.”
In most cases, the junkie, the drunk, or the addict of any nature who suffers from any similar affliction will only come to places like rehab when all else is lost. And by lost, I do not mean divorced or out of a job. In many ways, divorce and unemployment is perfectly fitting in the junkie or drunk’s life. In fact, circumstances like this will punctuate our excuses.
Have you ever raised your glass in toast and said, “Good riddance!”? Because of you haven’t—then you probably never tasted a good stiff drink unless you had. We drank as an extension of our middle fingers. We drank in response to the world we lived in. On good days we drank happily. On bad days, we drank angrily, and on days in the middle, or days of celebration, we drank just the same. In my case, I drank to prove that I was not a junkie and I got high to prove I was not a drunk. If given the choice; I would have never given in.

In most cases, the addict of drunk will only go away when there is absolutely no other choice. There are some who have come through the doors after being beaten into submission. “They are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” is the popular saying.
Most, however, come because there is no other choice; either their job, wife of husband, or courts have a leash around the junkie or drunk’s neck, in which case, they submit to the outside influence and undergo the path of treatment.

I was no different. Had it not been for a pending judgment in a court case, I would have never considered treatment or the idea of sobriety. If not for the judge and the threat to lose my freedom, I would have never taken to the idea of sobriety.
In part, I was frightened to go ahead with treatment. I was also partly relieved because I was as they said, “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
I was young and uncomfortable. I was unsure what the word sobriety meant and misinformed about the requirements for membership in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I was given a very clear choice; I could do my time in rehab or serve one year, plus 90 days in jail. It was obvious to me that I did not have a “Doing time,” kind of body. I was scrawny at best. I was too thin and too weak to successfully defend myself. With all of my efforts and all of my scams; there would have been no way for me to negotiate my way through a lengthy jail sentence. There was no way for me to handle the tight quarters with real men, real criminals, and the unprotected threat of real violence.

On the night of my first arrest, I sat with my head reeling from the end of a drunken moment. My nose was runny. My body felt slightly achy and the need in my heart could not be solved while locked up in a holding cell.
My head was achy after the beating I took while sitting handcuffed to a detective’s desk. I was puny, sick, and painfully young. As this occurred, it appeared obvious that this was the beginning of my bottom.

A large dark-skinned man sat across from me, laughing, and taunting the new arrivals before heading through a doorway that lead to the overnight holding cells. He leaned forward to get a better look at me. The dark sinned man spoke to me a few times but one of the officers on duty commanded that he keep quiet.

“I’m just talking to me friend,” said the dark-skinned man.

Then he laughed at me. “You’re too little for this place.”
He told me, “You’re too light to fight and too thin to win.”

“You better be careful in there, white boy. Not everyone in there is gonna be as nice to you as I am.”

“Shut up,” screamed one of the officers.
The dark-skinned man smiled. Shaking his head, the dark-skinned man mumbled, “They’re gonna love this boy inside!”

The boy he was referring to was me. I had yet to even taste real time, but the sentence and consequences were on the way. There was no way I could maneuver my way through a jail term—so I took the “Easy time,” as a better option.

I knew that drugs were illegal and considered bad. Drinking however, was as American as baseball or apple pie. I knew there was a group called Alcoholics Anonymous, in which I somehow pictured a completely different version of what happens in A.A meetings.

I knew an alcoholic drank. This was obvious. I knew the word anonymous meant that members would remain nameless, as if to explain a secret society.
I envisioned dull lighting in smoked filled rooms—old men sitting on hard wooden at dark round wooden tables with black ashtrays in the center.
I pictured gray-haired men with graying beards, tired, and sitting over their sad tables. In one hand, a cigarette dangling with a long, depressed ash from between the pointer and middle finger. In the other was a small glass filled with whatever drink they chose. In my mind; Alcoholics Anonymous was a place where drunks went to drink—only no one spoke about it because it was anonymous.

Needless to say, when I was offered the opportunity to go to Rehab and A.A. meetings instead of jail; my ears perked up with an excited anticipation.

“Sure,” I agreed.
“I’ll go to A.A.”
“Abso-fuckin-lutely,” I said.
It was not long; however, that I learned there was no drinking in A.A. meetings. It was certainly a surprise when I asked, “When do we start drinking?”

Upon undergoing my intake into treatment, I asked, “When do I get to go to my first A.A. meeting?”
“You’re going to one after dinner,” explained the counselor with a pleased demeanor.
“It’s good that you want to go,” he said.
“A.A. can save your life.”

In my mind, I had visions of drinking in that small room called The Fishbowl. I imagined A.A. meetings were somewhat instructional. Perhaps that’s why The Fishbowl looked as it did. I supposed, “Maybe it’s a classroom,” and figured I would learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak. In the middle of my insanity and the depths of my sickness, I truly thought I was about to attend classes to learn how to drink properly and responsibly.

I asked the counselor, “So how does this work? Do I start right away? I mean, do I have to wait for drinking privileges because I’m underage, or can I go to meetings and just get started?”
The counselor looked at me with his face fixed in a surprised grin. “There are no drinking privileges here,” laughed the counselor.

“Okay, so I can go to A.A. and do that.”
“Not exactly,” he replied. His eyes were opened wide as if my questions were the most bizarre he had ever heard.

“But isn’t it called Alcoholics Anonymous,” I questioned.
“Yeah, but there is no drinking. . .”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“What did you think Alcoholics Anonymous is for,” asked the counselor.
“It’s a place where I can go drink, only nobody knows about it because it’s anonymous,” I answered.
“Not quite,” said the counselor as he wiped a tear of laughter from his face.
“That’s a good one,” he said.

Trying hard to contain himself, the counselor laughed. “I can honestly say, that’s the first time I ever heard that one. I can tell you this much kid, you are definitely in the right place.”

Suddenly, I felt tricked . . .
I thought to myself, “Those dirty sons of bitches lied to me about this place.

I had no idea there were others like me in the world. I met men from all different walks of life. I met men from different parts of the state. I met men with different addictions and different economic status. I met rich men and poor men. I met the worst of the world and the best.

No matter what the differences were—we all had that similar look in our eye. We all came from the same sickness. We all understood and we all knew what it meant to live the life. Whether we were a weekend warrior or someone with a chippie, or small-time habit; whether we were dedicated to the everyday chase of junk, cocaine, crack, alcohol or pills—we all had an understanding of one another; regardless of how different our lives may have seemed to be, we all knew what it meant to be sick..

In all honesty, I came from a closed minded town. I believed I knew everything, but in all actuality—I knew absolutely nothing. I never knew there were others that felt the same way as me. I never knew there were others who had the same sickness or suffered the same symptoms.

My first A.A. meeting was in that place called The Fishbowl. I had no idea what the counselor meant when he told me, “A.A and the 12-steps helped save my life.”
With more than 25 years of sobriety, I can say that while I do not work a traditional program—I can tell you that A.A. and the 12-steps helped save my life as well.

Back in the beginning of September, 1989, I found this thing called recovery. I had several bumps in the road and lost my way a few times. I fell off the wagon in more ways than one. But I never forgot the lessons I learned in treatment. I will never forget the first meeting in The Fishbowl and I will certainly never forget the look on my counselor’s face when I asked, “When can I start drinking?”

Thankfully, the answer to that question is never . . .

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