I’ve been in rehab.
Not anything fancy, like the Betty Ford clinic, but a run-down, beaten-up place with mismatched furniture, faded carpet and discount store art work on the walls. Pictures of flowers in crystal vases. Actual flowers in cheap plastic vases on the scuffed end tables. Fake flowers, of course.
The building used to be dormitories for a nursing college. There’s thick layers of white paint on the walls, probably covering up the old lead-based paint.
I wasn’t inpatient, so I wasn’t forced to live at the facility, which was a small blessing. I was what was called “intensified out-patient.” Sounds so serious. Three hours a day, three days a week, plus going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sometime during the week, so there was another hour.
I was there for eight weeks. Eight long, arduous weeks. I dreaded those three hours, those three days. Driving into the parking lot of the facility, I’d park and sit in my car, staring at the building, wishing for myself to be absolutely anywhere at that moment, wishing I’d start my car up and drive away from this place.
I never did. I always went inside.
The treatment facility was for alcoholics and drug addicts, as well. And it wasn’t just for adults, either; kids were there. I think that was the most depressing part about the whole ordeal–seeing sixteen-year-old kids amongst sixty-year-old adults. The harsh contrast was actually sort of comical, but probably only to me. And not really comical per se, but more ironic. As children and teenagers, we get pounded into our heads that “drugs and alcohol are bad!” I guess some of us must have not paid attention…
The first hour was devoted to sitting in a lecture room, listening to one of the counselors ramble on about the Twelve Step program. At the end of the eight weeks, I felt I could get up and lead the lecture myself.
The first day, I was scared shitless. I didn’t belong here. I didn’t have a problem. Sure, I like to drink, but I’m not what I considered a “classic alcoholic.” I didn’t hide my drinking, I didn’t drink alone, I didn’t keep my bottles of booze tucked away in a shoe in the back of a closet or stashed in an empty tool box drawer in the garage. I admit my usual social drinking got out of hand during the height of the bullshit with my soon-to-be ex-husband, but I’m not an alcoholic.
Anyway, back to the first day. I parked and walked through the commons area where there were about twenty people outside smoking. What a sad bunch of losers, I thought as I walked past the sun-faded picnic tables. I glanced down at the tables and saw the ashtrays placed on top were overflowing with about eight different brands of cigarette butts. Everyone was smoking like this was their last cigarette; like death row inmates taken outside before they were gassed or electrocuted or lethally injected.
Most people were sitting, slumped over the table tops, half-smoked cigarettes dangling precariously from their fingers tips. They’d bring the things to their lips, purse them tightly around the filter and inhale deeply, the cherry glowing a brilliant orange, whitish-grey wisps of smoke dancing, then a huge plume of smoke flowing out of their open mouths. I caught the eye of one of the smokers as I walked past and offered her a polite smile. Her only form of acknowledgement was to stare at me and blow smoke out her nostrils. She looked like an angry bull from the cartoons I used to watch when I was little.
I weaved through the small crowd and to the entrance of the building and let myself in. It was the end of July, so outside was hot, sticky and humid, but the inside of the building was freezing cold, thanks to what was surely an ancient and over-worked air conditioning unit. Fluorescent lights lit the hallways, and like a cliché, one row was flickering on and off, giving the hall the feel of a mental ward in a bad horror movie. I half expected Nurse Hatchet herself to come around the corner and lead me away.
Since it was my first day, I had to meet with my appointed social worker. I walked up to the front desk, where a very tired looking woman was sitting. She glanced up at me as I approached her.
“Hi. I, uh, I guess I’m here for treatment,” I said awkwardly.
“Name?” she replied shortly.
Shit…what was my name? I was out of my element, my brain wasn’t firing properly. I stared at her, looking too intently upon her to be polite. Finally, my name came to me, and I told her.
She made a big production of looking through papers on her desk, mumbling under her breath. I didn’t hear what she said, but I’m sure it wasn’t polite, nor repeatable. Finally, she found what she was looking for and said to me, “You’re with Otto. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
I smiled meekly, said “thanks” too softly, and went to sit down on a very abused-looking sofa.
A few minutes went by, and I was fidgeting with the papers in my hand. I could feel the paper become moist with the perspiration from my hands as I clenched and unclenched my fists around the rolled up documents I had. I waited a few more minutes, growing more anxious, but then Otto The Counselor came down.
Short. Bald, save for the strip of hair wrapping around his head. Big, Dumbo-esque ears. Out-dated glasses with huge frames that overwhelmed his face. A sweater and corduroys, even in the middle of July. Scuffed, faded brown loafers. His name tag did indeed say he was Otto, but also that he was the treatment facility’s chaplain.
We walked to his office in silence. Correction: I walked in silence, he was yammering a mile a minute about the rules, protocol, procedures, expectations and repercussions of violating the terms of my admittance to the program. I know my eyes were wide and bewildered. I was trying to absorb everything he was telling me, but the whole experience so far was overloading my already fragile mind. I was trying to absorb the more pertinent information, but I confess, not a lot stuck. Thank goodness I was given a three-ring binder full of information, so if needed, I could reference that.
We got into his office, and he sat at his desk, I sat across from him, sitting ram-rod straight in my chair, my hands resting on the binder, and my legs pressed tightly together. I felt like I was at an important job interview, and as I found out, I kind of was. Otto began asking me all manners of questions, from why I was here (recommended by my psychiatrist), why did your psychiatrist send you here (had just spent three days in the mental ward for attempted suicide), why did you try to kill yourself (divorcing from my husband, couldn’t handle the sudden stress), how do you deal with stress (not very well, if I ended up in the loony ward for a few days. I was expecting a chuckle from that answer. I was not rewarded one), do you drink to handle stress (yes, that’s why my shrink sent me here), and so forth and so on for about a half hour.
It was just Otto rapid-firing questions at me, and me trying to answer them as quickly as they came to me. Otto glanced at his clock, and said it was time for lecture, and that I would meet with my counselor later that evening. I stood up and shook his hand, and walked out of his office, and down the stairs to the main floor where lecture was held. I looked at the door leading to the freedom of the outside and for a split second, thought about bolting, but then I recalled some of the more harsh punishments for failing to meet program requirements, and thought I’d better keep my ass inside.
The lecture room was already full, since it was required by all program participants to attend. In a weird way, it kind of reminded me of a UN meeting; all nationalities were present, ages ranging from sixteen to sixty-five. The teenagers were the more rambunctious of the group, laughing and generally goofing off. The adults sat silently in their chairs. I found an empty seat and sat down, that goddamn binder still clutched in my hands. The counselor leading the day’s lecture walked in and immediately started yelling at the kids to shut up. I was a bit taken a-back by her frankness.
Everyone eventually settled down and the lecture began: Steps 7 and 8: We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings, and make a list of all the persons we have harmed, and become willing to makes amends to them all, respectively. She droned on and on, clearly not holding anyone’s attention, as I heard the kids behind and around me snickering and talking amongst themselves. She’d stop talking every few minutes and threaten the kids with corrective action, to which they’d make some smart ass comment back to her. This was the longest hour of my life, and I became depressed when I realized I’d have to suffer through this bullshit for eight weeks.
She ended the lecture, and the entire class quickly rose and made a mass exodus for the exits, all going outside to smoke before we met for our group sessions. I walked outside and and stood off in the corner, observing everyone. Many were seated at the picnic tables, writing furiously in their own binders, others found a very worn basketball and began an impromptu game of hoops, and the rest of us smoked. We had fifteen minutes before group therapy, and I looked forlornly at my car in the parking lot, and sighed when I realized I should have made my break for it when I had the chance earlier.
The fifteen minutes were up, and a voice came over the PA system that we should all convene to our classrooms for group. We all herded back inside the building like cattle, and made our way to wherever we were supposed to be. My classroom was at the end of the creepy flickering fluorescent light hallway. I walked inside and found six other adults already sitting in chairs that had been arranged in a circle. I sat down and pretended to be very interested in my binder, paging through it. A few more people trickled in, and then a heavy set woman in her early thirties walked in and shut the door behind her. Her name tag declared her to be Shellie, and this was my group therapist.
She had a lovely smile that lit up her entire face, blond hair with darker blond streaks running through it, and she was also wearing clothes not fitting of the July weather. She saw me and asked, “Erin?” I looked up and nodded yes.
“Hi, I’m Shellie. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet with you earlier; I was in a meeting. When can we get together to talk this week? What’s your schedule like?”
I told her the times I was available and we made a date for the following day before lecture started.
“Oh, and before I forget, I’m going to need you to pee for me.”
I must have had an extremely puzzled look on my face, which she rewarded with a small chuckle, and said, “mandatory drug testing. Everyone has to pee at least once a week. You can head to the nurses office after we’re done here.”
And with that, she began lecture. She went around the room, asking everyone how their day was going, did you have any cravings, and if so, how did you deal with them? Then, it was my turn, but she asked me to introduce myself to the group. I stood up slowly, and made eye contact with the ground and said, “Hi, my name is Erin,” and then quickly sat back down.
“Tell us more; why are you here? What’s your addiction of choice?” asked Shellie.
I sighed, hating being put on the spot, but I obliged. “I am here because I guess I have a drinking problem. My psychiatrist recommended I come here, so….here I am.”
“Welcome,Erin,” Shellie replied.
Welcome isn’t exactly the word I would have used….
After lecture, I went upstairs to take my urine test. I should have studied more, I joked to myself. I hope I pass.
I peed in the cup and handed it to the nurse who had been standing outside the bathroom stall. That was a bit unnerving, to say the least. I got patted down before I went inside the bathroom and had to empty my pockets and put the contents in a plastic basket. The water in the toilet bowl was blue to prevent dipping the cup inside and messing with the results. All standard precautions when dealing with addicts; we’re a wily bunch.
The next day I met with Shellie. She welcomed me into her office and the first words out of her mouth were, “you failed your pee test.”
Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it. Suddenly, the joke I had told myself the night before wasn’t so funny. I then remembered the few beers I had had the night before my first time at the center. This caused a bit of an issue, Shellie said. “You know you’re in an alcohol abuse program, right? That kind of means you have to abstain from drinking…”
“You mean like, none at all? I just had two beers!”
“Yeah, that’s kind of what the word ‘abstain’ means, Erin.”
Damn it. Damn it damn it damn it damn it.
“And because of this, I had to go to the program directors, because usually, if you fail the pee test we have to kick you out, but I was able to talk to them, explain the situation to them a little more clearly, and they agreed to let you stay, but you’re on probation and if you fail the next test, you’re definitely getting booted out of here.”
I was stunned into silence, and I just nodded my understanding. Wow. I’ve always been the “good kid,” so to hear that what I thought was harmless was actually NOT really kind of scared me, so I signed an agreement stating I’d not drink alcohol during the remainder of my stay there.
The days and classes went on, seeing the same group of people come in and sit in their usual spots, the dull expressions on everyone’s faces. I was counting down the days I was to be out of there…only six more weeks…only six more weeks…
Then came time for me to start “working the steps,” and no, I don’t mean the exercise steps, either. The Twelve Steps. After I met with Shellie each week, she’d hand me a workbook, which I likened to the the same workbooks I did when I was in Sunday School as a girl, and mostly because these things were written in such a simplistic language, that I’m pretty sure the eight-year-old me could have completed it with no problem.
I hadn’t really taken into consideration this whole AA thing when I was in rehab. I was kind of hoping it would be focused more on dealing with MY issues and helping me to stop using alcohol as a crutch when times got sticky, so when the program began relying heavily on The Twelve Steps, I started freaking out a bit. Most people are somewhat familiar with AA and how it works, mostly that AA members “submit to a Higher Power.” This HP as we called it in rehab because we’re cool like that, was 99.9% of the time God.
I’m an atheist. What the hell is my HP supposed to be? I’m not going to feign interested in an invisible being for six weeks just to get through the program, but a later encounter had me changing my mind about that.
I met with Otto again to discuss my “absurd lack of religion” and just what in the hell I was supposed to do about this Higher Power business.
Enter the second strong feeling that I should have bolted from the building when I had the chance the first day. Otto was not impressed I am atheist. He flat-out told me I was wrong for this belief and then spent an hour interrogating me as to why I felt this way. I kindly explained to him at first that I used to be a Christian, but over the years, as I became more self-aware of myself and did more research into matters, that you know what? No God. I could see the tips of his Dumbo ears turn red.
“What’s your proof there is no God, Erin?”
“What’s your proof there is one, Otto?”
His ears were glowing by now.
He cleared his throat and shooed the subject away, claiming our talk to over and I needed to get to group therapy. From that point on, Otto did not treat me the same, and this was made evident again when I made my way to the second and third steps of the AA program. I had to fill out another dumb worksheet, and go to another dumb class. I was so tired of this crap by then.
I went into the classroom and sat next to another woman. We made small talk. She was from Missouri and was addicted to meth. Her family sent her here to get help.
“What’s your drug of choice?”
“I guess alcohol…”
“Right on, I used to be a drunk, too, but this place has been great in helping me with everything. I get to go home in a week. I’m so excited. I hope I can see my kids. It’s been almost a year since they got taken away from me…”
As she was telling me her story, my heart broke for this woman. It did. I had never actually met anyone addicted to meth and as she was telling me her life story, I was getting angry at how a substance can take hold of a person’ s life and make them give up everything just to get high. I was liking this woman. She was a good person who just made bad life choices.
Then, class started. Otto walked in and immediately had a vendetta against me.
“Welcome everyone, this is your second and third steps. Let’s begin withErin.Erin, please tell us why you’re here and how you came to believe in The Higher Power will restore you to sanity.”
Goddamn it, Otto.
“Hi, I’m Erin. I’m here because I like to drink to handle my problems, and this isn’t exactly a useful tool to have. And Otto, as you and I discussed the other day, I’m an atheist, so I really struggled with the notion of a ‘higher power,’ but after some thought, I have decided to use my writing as a higher power. It keeps me grounded and sane.”
Remember that nice woman that was sitting next to me? The one I started showing compassion and caring and understanding for? The moment the words “I’m an atheist” left my mouth, she got this look of absolute disgust on her face and actually scooted her chair away from me. After I was finished talking, she opened her mouth.
“Wait, what do you mean you don’t believe in God?”
“Well, that means I don’t believe in God.”
“I don’t understand why anyone doesn’t believe in God. He saved me.”
I kept my mouth shut, because the next words out of my mouth would have been something along the lines of “your God is super awesome for letting you get addicted to methamphetamines and losing your children because you proved yourself to be a really shitty mom,” but I didn’t.
Instead, I said, “well, you have your thing, I have mine,” and sat awkwardly in the hard plastic chair next to Meth Mom of the Year until the end of class. As I was leaving, Otto approached me and offered his apologies for her.
“She should practice what she believes in and not pass judgment on people. That’s what her Jesus would do,” and with that, I walked out.
I should have known that this episode would mark the inevitable decline of my time at rehab. But I wasn’t gifted with foreshadowing, so I learned the hard way.
A few more weeks went by, mostly without incident. I wasn’t drinking, I was reluctantly doing my stupid “homework,” and then…then I fucked up.
But not in a went-on-a-three-day-booze-binge kind of way. In a Erin-is-a-freaking-idiot sort of way.
I just didn’t go to class one day. I didn’t feel like it. I called the center and left a message for my counselor, and I stayed home.
The next day at the beginning of lecture, Shellie found me.
“Hey, can I see you in my office real quick?”
We walked in to her office and sat down.
“So, this is difficult, but I have to excuse you from the program.”
“Because of yesterday. As part of your probation on the program, you need to attend every class. I’m sorry, but you’re done.”
I tried very hard to mask my “disappointment,” but on the inside, I was screaming for joy. I had my out. I was free.
I got up, shook Shellie’s hand, and thanked her for her time, and I had to restrain myself from running down the hallway and jumping off the stairs, clicking my heels like I’ve seen done in movies when someone is full of jubilation and mirth.
Free, free, free. No more being made to feel like an outcast due to my lack of religion, no more being treated like a child, no be peeing in cups in front of strangers. The life of an addict is not a glamorous one. Your dignity goes out the window.
Now, a year later, I look back at my time in rehab with disdain. It truly was a waste of my time. The AA program is flawed. I’m not advocating drinking or anything like that. I’m just saying that there has to be a better way to help people than to shame them into submission.
I still have my AA “Bible.” I look at it from time to time, mostly to shake my head in disgust. To their credit, there is a small section in the book about being an atheist and in AA. It’s about four pages long, and the basic premise is “while we understand there are those in the world who do not believe in God as their Savior and this is fine, but to really benefit from the program, you should probably believe in God.”
I drive by the center every now and again, and a cold shiver runs down my spine.
I wish I had never gone inside, but I always did.