I am a 43 year old recovering alcoholic. I’ve done several stints in detox, I’ve done outpatient rehab twice, and I spent 129 days in a state-sponsored inpatient rehab. My drug of choice is vodka – generally, 100-proof straight from the bottle, chased by some form of diet soda. I’ve called an ambulance on myself twice, and I once spent time in two separate psychiatric wards in two hospitals in two different states in the space of 24 hours. I’ve been arrested for DUI three times, and convicted twice. I’ve had blood alcohol tests done on me in ERs that were as high as 0.32 (and yes, I was awake and aware and holding conversations with the staff at the time).
My 129 days in the state-sponsored inpatient rehab took place last year, from April 9 to August 15, 2012 (I had spent the previous 7 days in detox). That was the time I really thought I was going to “get it” – 4 solid months of sobriety, and I had learned a lot about myself, including an extensive list of faulty beliefs that I had been carrying around with myself for some time. The program was fairly intensive: you were woken up at 6am every morning, and outside of meal times, you spent the entire day in some sort of “programming” until 9pm – one-on-one meetings with your counselor, small group sessions, Men’s Group (“How to act like a responsible man in sobriety”), relapse prevention, anger management, and countless AA-style meetings; plus, there’s a series of sessions where the patients confront each other about behaviors, good and bad. There was also a weekly Cognitive Session, where one client stood at the front of the room, and took questions and open criticism from the other 59 male clients (this doesn’t happen to everyone – I specifically requested this for myself when I knew I was getting close to my “graduation”). There is no interaction with the 20 or so female clients. You are allowed two 15 minute phone calls per week on a pay phone, and you can get an hour or so visit from family members, girlfriends, etc. about every 3rd Sunday.
Another custom was what they called a “Dust Off” – the night before you graduated, the entire class of clients lined up in two rows (“the aisle”), with you on one end; and three people you have chosen on the other. The responsibility of these three people is multifold: they give you a “good-bye” speech, where there’s usually at least a little built of a build-up, they congratulate you on how far you’ve come, that you’ve been deemed fit to return to society, etc. But (and this was another thing I specifically requested from my three speakers): they also tell you things you need to hear. The common theme for what I needed to hear was: “You are not nearly as smart as you think you are.” (Which is 100% true, by the way – and has been for years.)
The first gentlemen to speak was someone that came into the rehab with an extremely negative attitude, and was completely dismissive of the idea that any of the clients there actually cared about each other. He thought everyone was just biding their time until they got out, much like jail. Overv the course of three months, I watched him come to actually trust me and a handful of other clients, and open up about his own feelings. I watched him tell one of the most moving stories I heard during my stay: where he described what it was like going to school in a wealthy township, and being picked on constantly for being poor. This was an extremely guarded, street-hardened man – watching him break down in tears over a childhood memory that he had obviously never truly dealt with was heart-breaking. He was also a heroin addict, and had been arrested multiple times for bank robbery. I learned more from him about life in a federal penitentiary than I had ever expected to know. I saw him several times in the weeks after we both graduated, but I haven’t seen or heard a word from him in at least 9 months.
The second gentlemen to speak was someone that was in my small group, and who I knew didn’t like me very much when he first arrived – and he told me so, as he walked down the aisle. He was on his second trip through this rehab, and seemed to be getting his life together: I remember him saying how he was looking forward to taking his kid out for Halloween, and trying to be a better father. I remember him telling me: “You know what you need to do. Just go out there and do it.”
A month ago, I found out he overdosed on heroin.
The third gentlemen was someone that I struggled to get along with during most of my stay, mostly because too much of him reminded me of myself: we were both well-read, we both thought we were smarter than this disease, and we both thought our education made us “better” than most of the other clients (even if we wouldn’t necessarily have admitted that out loud at the time). Also, from the very first time I saw him, I labeled him a “hipster”, and let that stupid label affect how I thought about him through most of our stay. And finally – I knew he thought he was smarter than me, and that was usually the kiss of death in terms of whether I chose to like you or not. But nonetheless – he was brutally honest with everyone, and I knew I could count on him to not hold back on what he said to me. (He used some of his speech to mock me, of course, because I had brought in a series of pictures a couple weeks before, showing the ridiculous mullet I had back in college, and pictures of my time in a LARP back in the late 90’s. But that was fine – I brought those pictures in specifically to let my guard down, and show that I didn’t have to take myself very seriously all the time.) And for some reason, the one line I remember most clearly from him was, while talking about my haircut: “What did sideburns ever do to you?” I have no idea why – but that comment is burned permanently into my memory.
I found out on Saturday that he took his own life Thursday morning.
I still have not conquered my addiction – I drank as recently as last Wednesday. I spent the holiday weekend with a large number of people at a campsite in PA, some of whom I’ve known for 20+ years, but whom I had not seen in person in 2-5 years. And I discovered that I have difficulty now just having “normal” conversations with many of them: I can do it, but I struggle just to come up with an answer to “Hey, how have you been?” that doesn’t make me sound like a crazy person or a complete wreck. I’ve known these people half of my life – but how can I expect them to actually relate to what I’ve gone through in just the past 5 years: an affair, a separation, multiple stints in rehab, drinking binges that lasted for 3 days or more, trying to buy a plane ticket to Vegas just because it sounded like a good idea, wrecking my car, 4 jobs in 12 months, a stay in an Oxford House that ended after I got into a fight with two roommates in one night, a girlfriend who was committed to an institution after I broke up with her, a son who had a frontal lobectomy, another son who cried to his mother “I want my Daddy back!” after I moved out, my 11 year old demanding to know what I’m drinking if he sees a glass of iced tea in my hand, my family uninviting me from Thanksgiving because they were afraid I’d show up drunk?
I’m tired of losing friends to this disease. But I’m also tired of losing parts of myself, one at a time, while being fully aware that 1) I’m the only one who can stop this, and 2) feeling completely unable to do anything about it. I’m holding on mostly because of my two sons right now – but I need to find something inside myself to hold onto soon. I can’t end up as yet another sad Facebook status update from people that have had more than enough despair already. I can’t do that to my family. They’ve put up with enough already. If you were my Mom, you really would be asking yourself: ‘How much more am I expect to handle? How much more can I take?”