Everything is a blur. The reasons I became this way and what I went through to get here had all been dulled like an old knife that was left in a drawer someplace, rusted, and aged without the resemblance of its once shiny self. There I was at the sick house with fellow drunks and fellow junkies, drying out for their first few days, and wondering, dumbfounded, with the same look in the eye and similar expressions on their faces. Each one in the house was independent of each other; each is an individual and unique to their own story, and each story with all their vast details and symptoms is similar to every other.
Not even age degrades the body like a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. It could be a bottle of gin or whiskey, beer poured in a mug, or whichever poison you choose from a prescription form to a powder, smoked in a pipe or shoved in a needle—all roads from here lead to either one of three imponderable places. These are the three outcomes of addiction; jail, institutions or death.
And there I was, on my way to recover from a sickness I could never admit to or ever understand. It was like I recovered from a long dream that began pleasantly and turned into a nightmare. Everything behind me was a blur. All the days I had lived through and all the things I had done, everything down to the exact nature of my wrongs that rewound to the less troublesome years of early youth and the good times had all become blurred and left me to wonder, “What the hell happened?”
There I was after my first few days clean. As the result of an arrest, I was released to the custody of my parents with a pending court case and an agreement to seek help in order to reduce my sentence. I felt like a soldier returning from a battle that never actually happened. Maybe it was all a dream, only the battle scars told me otherwise and had no choice but to retreat because I lost the war. I lost my flag; I lost my rebellion and all that it represented. I lost everything to an enemy, which was more like a phantom, and when I returned from the battlegrounds, it was as though I came back to a new and strange language. Everything that was familiar to me had now become odd. I was numb at first. Perhaps, this was all too surreal. The fact that I had spun too far out of control and slid down this spiral called drug addiction was unthinkable to me. There had to be something else to this story. There had to be another reason why I fell so far. It couldn’t have been the drinking or drug use. Maybe I was doing this wrong. Maybe I needed to learn how to do it better or find a better mixture of medicine that could be more manageable for me. There had to be a better answer than abstinence. Maybe there was a pill I could take that would solve all this. Then again—maybe the pill idea was proof to the root of my problem.
After a long drive from my Long Island, I had a brief but odd introduction with a man known as Father Joe. I had no idea who he was. I knew nothing about Father’s Joe’s past or his seven years of silence after being removed from priesthood as a result of his alcoholism and kept in a mental facility. All I saw was Father Joe singing opera. He was singing while standing next to the flagpole on the front lawn of a treatment facility just outside of the small Upstate town of Ellenville, New York. The facility was once a hotel and resort. It was not upscale by any means. There was no personal masseuse for each inmate (or patient, depending upon opinion) and there was no comforting vacation feel to this place.
I was away in the mountains and separated from the people I knew and secluded from the way I had become. I was temporarily remanded here by way of the probation department.
As Father Joe ended his song with one hand on his heart, and the other hand extended outwards, as if to offer the final note to an imaginary audience of tall pine trees and the surrounding woods, I encountered two more strange men in this place.
First was a taller, skinny man with an otherwise large beer-gut, stomach. He was black-haired, slightly freckled with fair skin, blue-eyed, and red-nosed like a typical Irishman fresh from the bar stool. The second man was shorter. His eyes were at half mass with bags beneath them. The spirit behind his eyes perhaps seemed faded, as if the glimmer of his character had been muted by heroin and reduced his charm to slow-minded and burnt out. His hair was black, parted in the middle, and somewhat shaggy with a length that grew to above his ears.
The taller Irishman smiled at me. He approached first and introduced himself as the mayor. Then the shorter man approached. He introduced himself as the deputy mayor. I introduced myself with a wise-ass response. “Nice to meet you,” I said and shook each of their hands. Meanwhile, I wondered to myself if I was sent to the right place. I knew I was to be sent to a short-term treatment facility. However, after the bizarre meeting with Father Joe singing Italian opera to the empty, Upstate trees and mountains, and after the strange introduction from the mayor and his deputy, I was beginning to wonder of this place was more fit with rubber rooms and straitjackets. Maybe they sent me to the wrong place, I wondered. Maybe this is more like a funny farm—only, the animals here are patients like me who need to be medicated and treated for mental illness. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea who or what I would see once I walked through the main, double doors of this rehabilitation center.
Since eating was less important than my drug habit, I weighed less than 100lbs and next to nothing. My skin was an odd shade of pale or nearly green. There were black rings beneath my eyes, which were sunken into my head. I looked typical to the characteristics of a basic crackhead or junkie at the starting gates with heroin. I was painfully thin and painfully looking for some other way out.
My choices were made very clear to me. It was either I undergo treatment at a place like this or I would find myself locked in a cage with men less friendly and certainly more aggressive. The choice was simple between either one of two places. It was either here or jail. Naturally, I chose here . . .
One of the first people I met was a man named Cowboy. This was not his real name. This was name that not only suited his image; it was also what he asked to be called. Cowboy acted southern and wore a large belt buckle. He too was painfully thin, pale-skinned, very tall, and arms were marked with needle tracks along his veins. Cowboy acted as country as they come, which was odd because he came from an extremely wealthy, affluent neighborhood in New Jersey. Cowboy came from incredible wealth and lived in a very large home with a long, winding driveway with a mailbox down by the front gate that resembled and English countryside estate. There were no horses on this property or barns of any kind. The rest was Cowboy’s imagination and part of his image.
After undergoing an intake with one of the counselors and after being asked several questions about my health, drinking, and drug use, my mind was spinning. I learned there would be no drinking or drug use of any kind at this facility. There was no way for unwind or slow the thoughts that churned in my head.
I needed a second to get things straight. I needed a place to run to except there was no place for me to go. I took a seat outside in the courtyard next to an old red picnic table with a matching bench. The yard was a section of lawn between the old hotel buildings. It was not institutionally looking by any means. It looked exactly as it was—an old hotel that was built in the late 1960’s. There were two wings to this place, and between them was the yard, which was complete with an in-ground pool. Of all comforts, the pool, which was complete with a diving board and surrounded with a chain-liked fence, was the only thing that likened the establishment to any kind of resort. Otherwise, everything was aged and stale. The decorations—down to the wooden paneling and pictures hung on the main lobby wall, and including the furniture was all outdated and tired.
Cowboy approached me in the yard the way a bully 6th grader would approach a frightened 1st grader. Cowboy wore a large pair of sunglasses that hung over his bony nose. His sunglasses were slightly two-tone with the top half appearing as mirrors and the bottom half looking black. I could see Cowboy’s eyes through his sunglasses. I could tell they were blue and the rings beneath them were as dark as mine. I could also tell Cowboy’s drug use had pulled its trick. Cowboy had the eyes of a junkie for sure. Only, this was a proud thing for Cowboy. He loved this sickness. He loved everything about it. Meanwhile, with the exception of euphoria, I hated everything else about it. I hated who I became and where I was. I hated everything about my life and more than anything, I hated Cowboy.
It was obvious that I was physically and mentally uncomfortable. It was also clear that I was frightened. Cowboy saw this as a moment to have fun at my expense. He approached me with a large smile. His thin red lips curled around his long, picket like teeth that crunched down on a cigarette filter, which Cowboy lit with a flip-top lighter that clicked with a metallic sound when opened and closed. His long sleeved, denim buttoned-down shirt was dark blue and the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. His boot-cut jeans were a similar shade of dark blue denim. Cowboy’s pants were held up by a large rodeo style belt buckle and stretched down his thin, toothpick legs to cover over a pair of weathered, pointed brown cowboy boots. He wore a white cowboy hat on his head with a black band around the head and just above the brim. As he approached, I noticed the way Cowboy was walking. I knew what was about to happen. He was about to size me up.
Cowboy explained, “Don’t worry son, I ain’t gonna bite ya. I just came over to get a better look at ya is all.”
“Well, what’s the matter,” asked Cowboy. “Cat got your tongue?”
“Don’t worry son, there ain’t no queers in here. At least none that I seen. But you be sure to sleep with your ass to the wall because some of these good ole boys might take a liking to ya.”
Then Cowboy made a sound as if to suck through his teeth as he tipped his hat to me. Then he and asked, “So what’s your poison?”
“What do you mean,” I asked Cowboy.
“What’s your thing? You know? What’s your drug of choice?”
I was slow to answer. Cowboy was tall and certainly much taller than me. However, Cowboy was nothing more than a man of posture. It was clear that he was of no threat. Cowboy was trying to get a rise out of me.
“I don’t do drugs,” I told him.
“Nancy Reagan told me that I should just say no.”
Cowboy laughed. Then he assured me, “Don’t you worry boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of in here. We’re all junkies here. See?” As he spoke, Cowboy showed me the purple track marks in his arm. This was Cowboy’s way of proving to me that he was a real junkie.
“I’m no junkie,” I told Cowboy. “I’m just in here because it beats going to jail.”
Cowboy laughed again. “Oh, you’re gonna fit in here just fine,” said Cowboy.
“You’ll fit in, just fine, indeed.”
I was never so scared in all my life. I had been to some of the worst parts of New York City. I went through places like Alphabet City and Harlem. I saw a shooting once near Liberty Avenue. I was right there for it all and this still didn’t stop me from trying to get high at another spot. I had a gun held to my head in East New York Brooklyn on more than one occasion. I was robbed in Far Rockaway and ripped off in places like 134th street and Willis Avenue. I was run down in the town of New Castle and almost taken by the cops in Uniondale. I had run-ins with a task force known as T.N.T. which stood for Technical Narcotics Team near Northern Boulevard in Queens. They threw me down, face first, on the ground next to a puddle of bum piss only to check my pockets to find that I was sold a fake bag of cocaine. And of course, I was held in the holding cells with the worst of our society. I was locked in a cage with terrible men but I was never as afraid as I was on this day, September the 15th, 1989.
Since this time I have learned a lot about the sickness. I saw what it was like to live on both sides of the fence. Along the way, I have met truly incredible people who are like me and sober. I met others who were equally incredible, talented, and genuinely brilliant; however, they could not turn it around. They could never get sober and as a result, they met with the final worst of the three outcomes, which is jails, institutions, and death.
I hate this disease of alcoholism and addiction. And this exactly what it is. Alcoholism is a clinically proven disease. I hate everything about it. I hate what it does to the drunk or junkie and I hate how rampantly it spreads through our society. I hate the denial that comes with it and the lies, the rationalizations, and justifications we use to explain our behavior or why we treat people the way we do. I hate that addiction is a contagious, social virus, and I hate what it does to the innocent bystanders. I hate how it destroys families and above all, I hate watching the mothers or fathers of children, as well as wives or husbands, brothers, sisters or friends standing by, weeping, as they watch their loved one walk through the front double doors of some facility like this one. or worse, I hate watching as they weep while a casket is lowered into the grave, wondering if this was somehow their fault. Meanwhile, the beast of addiction smiles and the war claims another loss.
Maybe one day we will learn what to do about this disease. Maybe they will come up with a pill that fixes it with one simple dose. Only, I won’t take it. My luck I’ll take too many and end up with an overdose.