The hardest aspect of life after treatment is the grieving process. I rarely encounter this concept in recovery literature, but I once heard a fellow addict put it succinctly during a late night NA meeting: You must allow yourself the process of grieving for the loss of your former self. These words struck a powerful chord with me. It clarified a big issue I have been struggling with: How do you grieve the loss of someone you never really knew? Up until a few months ago, my sense of self was grounded in a web of deceit and uncovering my real truth has placed me smack dab in the center of an isolated and dark wasteland. During active addiction, I ensured my survival by deftly manipulating my reality and over-rationalizing my behavior – to the point where I don’t know what is real and what is not.
For instance, I used to think I was good at my advertising job because I had never been fired before and found myself climbing up the ladder. Every new job came with a new title, more responsibility and a bump in pay. This was the mark of success in my book. However, now I’m not so sure I was ever really as successful as I thought I was. I have recently become acutely aware of the fact that I did quite a bit of bouncing around during my 15-year career. I never held down a job for more than two years. Usually, I left as soon as my gut told me that it was obvious to everyone how incompetent I was, but before any of my employers could take any real action. In this way, I managed to escape the experience of being rejected. At the time though, I was convinced that I was the one doing the rejecting for very valid reasons, like: I need to diversify my experience, the agency culture is just not for me or I’m ready for more work-life balance. This whole time, though, I was only beating them to the punch – to save face.
These last few months, I’ve been encumbered by revelations like this. It’s a heavy load that keeps getting heavier and is weighing me so far down, I feel as though I’m trying to crawl out of a pit of quicksand. The sack on my back continues to grow with each old belief that unravels before me, proving it difficult to grieve the loss of someone who is a stranger to me now. I wish it was as simple as letting it go; it would make recovery a lot less painful. Instead, I’m stuck at the beginning. Each day, becoming more defeated as I discover things about Karen that make me cringe. Therein lies the true conundrum: How do you move past your loss when it’s all just so unbelievable?
When you think you know yourself and come to find that you really don’t, a dangerous shift in perception takes place. Everything comes into question. It’s like finding out that your husband has been leading a double life and maintaining a second family in another state. You pick apart the past for clues that should have been obvious warning signs. You lose faith in your own memory and your ability to interpret the present. This is exhausting. It makes it extremely difficult to make any decision. It overwhelms you. The past becomes a sham and you worry that perhaps you still can’t be trusted. When you are this vulnerable, you risk not being able to get to the why. And knowing the why is how you develop compassion for yourself. Compassion is the key to knowing.
It has been said that grief is not about forgetting, but remembering with less pain. The process of recovering from drug addiction extends beyond learning how to cope without drugs and live a new healthy and meaningful life. It also involves becoming intimately acquainted with your pain for the very first time. And once you’ve faced what hurts, you have to learn to be completely and utterly okay with it. For someone who is still struggling with denial, that simple act seems insurmountable and too great for me to survive.
The night before I left The Orchid, I paced back-and-forth in my apartment anxiously anticipating the moment I was to step out the front gate of the treatment center and enter the real world. In treatment, you learn and grow in the safety and comfort of an isolated self-esteem boot camp. You’re afforded the luxury of practicing morale-boosting drills, as a means to reverse the negative thinking that led you to abusing drugs in the first place, without the outside influence of life on life’s terms. I knew that once I returned home that was when the real work would begin.
We were all sitting in the TV room of the apartment complex, doing our morning round of “Goals and Gratefuls,” when my therapist announced to the group that this was to be my last day at The Orchid. I nervously addressed the room with a tearful speech of gratitude and expressed to the women how I was forever changed by the experience because of each and every one of them. I said I could never repay the women for teaching me important life lessons and wished them all the best of luck. I remember singling out Rachel, Mandy and Ashley – three of the ladies that I had developed a very strong bond with.
Rachel was from Illinois. She was an attractive young mother of three with a newfound addiction to Suboxone. Like most of us, she was terrified to be her true self and got high to be able to fulfill the role she had carved out for herself – one that was based on everyone else’s expectations. She was a prisoner to a life she didn’t want, unable to break free from the weight of what turned out to be self-imposed ideas about what it meant to be a good wife, mother and daughter. She had a crippling fear of hurting others, a kind soul, was extremely encouraging of everyone and was always quick to remind me of how beautiful of a person I was. Rachel taught me to accept myself for who I truly was, regardless of the negative beliefs I had adopted over the years.
Mandy was from Virginia. She was smart, gorgeous and caring; she often looked after some of the younger girls at The Orchid. Her father had been her best friend and when he passed away, unable to cope, Mandy turned to alcohol to help with the grieving process. We connected the way only two women who have lost their parents at a very young age ever could. Anyone can sympathize with an event like that, but unless you’ve experienced it you could never truly understand what it is like. Mandy had a lot of conviction. She carried around meaningful amulets that worked as reminders of important people and events in her life – giving her the strength to go on another day. She reminded me of how important it was to have faith. This was something that I had lost long ago.
Ashley was a very witty girl with an amazing fashion sense. Everyday she took particular care of dressing up and donned stunning makeup, which had the caliber of a professional makeup artist’s work. Ashley was very quiet in group activities and always receded to the background, in the shadow of other more vivacious characters. But one-on-one, she had an incredible sense of humor. She reminded me of how debilitating a lack of self-worth could be. She was a sweet girl who was deserving of love and happiness, although she didn’t believe she was worthy of it.
I felt such a strong connection to these women, because they embodied a little piece of me that I didn’t even recognize existed. Before I left, I gave each one a token of friendship to remember me by. During my stay at The Orchid, I learned a lot about myself. Some of the issues that were exposed were not necessarily new news, but I was alarmed to uncover the impact they had on my life. Most importantly, I learned to accept that I had a disease, but that I was not just my disease. Coming to terms with this fact, allowed me to break free. It was okay for me to be traumatized, in pain and broken. These things didn’t make me less than. Experiencing heartache wasn’t going to be the end of me. And denying this out of fear was a betrayal to my genuine self. When I finally told the truth to someone else, I revealed lies I had lived with my whole life – allowing hope to spring again. There is nothing as liberating as being faced with a new reality that makes sense of your past and frees you from the hurt that you have caused yourself. Now, I was free to deal with the pain that was not totally in my control. Now, I was going to be able to grow from my past experiences, instead of remaining stuck in a self-inflicted purgatory. Now, life was in sharp clear focus.
After we said our goodbyes, Erin approached me with a basket filled with sweets. The night prior, all the women had rummaged through their kitchen cupboards for cookies, cakes, chocolate and candy to create a mini gift basket for my sendoff. It was a very touching moment, especially because it included a handmade card with lovely thoughts of encouragement. But the best gift I received that day was the ability to give a fellow addict the strength to admit to the group that she was not only in treatment for alcohol abuse, but for cocaine addiction as well. Nicky had been so ashamed of this fact that she had hid it from everyone for a month. She told the group that because I had been so open during my time in the program, she finally found the ability to admit this aspect of her disease. This was the most inspiring gift of all. It was proof that I was significant.
The last thing I did before leaving The Orchid was to leave behind a bottle of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume in Tina’s locker. A few days prior, a group of us were standing in line waiting for access to our meds, hairsprays and perfumes, when Tina got a whiff of my Chanel as I dabbed a little on my wrists. She told me that in her 50+ years, she had only owned one bottle of perfume. It had been given to her as a gift and she had cherished it so much, she kept it long after the contents had run out. I asked her if she wanted a little and her eyes lit up like the sun at high noon. Soon, I found myself spraying all the ladies in line, who were all so excited for the chance to feel beautiful if for just that one moment. As I collected my things on my last day, I asked one of the techs to place the bottle of perfume and a note in Tina’s locker. The note read:
Thank you for teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I learned while being here. You are amazing and courageous, and I’m honored to have been trusted with your story. I leave you this gift because every woman deserves to feel beautiful, especially you.
The day I first heard Tina’s story was the day I learned the true meaning of hope and courage. Tina embodied the drug addict stereotype and while I initially felt that we may not be able to share anything in common, I was mostly terrified about exposing myself as someone who was undeserving of her own pain. In her sunken and dull eyes, you could see the years of abuse, hurt and heartache. Before she uttered her first word, I could tell that my story would pale in comparison. In that small community of women who were seeking redemption, we were true polar opposites.
Tina’s looks betrayed her youth. She had saggy alabaster skin and black shoulder-length hair. She was missing teeth and always wore a pair of washed-out ripped blue jeans and a simple t-shirt. And when she spoke, a southern regional twang came out that stretched the a's and added r's to words that had no business ending in r. She was rough around the edges; a don’t-take-shit-from-no-one bitch, with the aching heart of a lost little girl. She was lovely, as lovely as they come.
Tina had been molested as a child. Along with her siblings, she had been held captive in a dog cage and was only allowed inside the house when it was time for her father to throw himself on her. To make some extra cash, he rented her and her siblings out to the local men. She was a fighter, she said. But even if she hadn’t mentioned it while telling the story, I knew right away. I pictured her kicking and screaming and scratching the skin of whatever grotesque man was punishing her with his dick. She was probably loud too. Demanding that they stop and trying to run away until it was over. So because she was a fighter, Tina’s dad started injecting her with heroin. The heroin calmed her down and took her far away. It gave the men the ability to do what they pleased without walking away injured by the clawing of a six-year-old.
When she was ten, she ran away from home. She found a tiny hidden nook in the top corner of an overpass, under a quiet highway. There, she slept, ate, urinated and defecated for one year, while dreaming of a better life. An older gentleman from the neighborhood, who walked past her secret hiding place on a daily basis, noticed her and began to bring her food. Every day, the man would leave a bag on the sidewalk, without uttering a single word. At first, she’d wait for the man to leave before climbing down from her spot to retrieve the food. But soon, she mustered up the courage to wait for the man out in the open and eventually they began to talk. He took to the spunky ten year-old and invited her to live with him.
With nowhere else to go, Tina accepted and soon after found herself working for the man. He was a local dope dealer, but treated her with respect and loved her like a daughter. At ten years old, Tina finally experienced love thanks to heroin. She dealt dope for him for eight years. At nineteen, she decides to move to Arizona to start her own business. Dealing dope like a redneck gangster in the dry desert, she quickly rose to the top of her game. She grew her empire and bought a house with cash. Then, a man came along. He noticed this young girl with tricks up her sleeve and decided that he wanted in.
One evening, as she approaches her house, she receives a powerful blow to the head and gets knocked unconscious on her front door step. Hours later, when Tina finally comes to, she finds a strange man in her home rummaging through her belongings. Tina does what she knows best and puts up a fight. A neighbor who hears the ruckus calls the police. When the police arrive, the man claims to be Tina’s husband and insists that the noise was just the two of them having a marital dispute. Tina pleads with the officer. She tells him that this man is a stranger and that he had forced himself into her home. She wants him arrested. But it was the 1980’s and there weren’t very many laws protecting women from domestic violence. The cop, convinced that these two were just having a quarrel, eventually leaves the scene and Tina’s captor beats and rapes her until the sun comes up and she could no longer move a muscle.
The very next day, he binds her arms and legs with a metal chain and moves in. For years, she is held prisoner in the home she had worked so hard to buy. He takes her dreams and meager success and squashes them like a tiny insignificant bug. He terrorizes her, keeps her doped up and never allows her to go outside. She has six rape babies – all of them born addicted to heroin. Two of them die at birth. The one’s that survive don’t feel like anyone’s babies; Tina certainly didn’t see them as her own. They were just these things that cried and pooped all day. They distracted her when she was lonely and were a nuisance when she was high.
Then one day her youngest son comes crying to her. He tells her that his butt hurts. Suddenly, Tina’s maternal instincts kick in. Her blood boils at the thought of this innocent child suffering the same way she once did and decides it’s time to run away again. Over the next few weeks, she studies her abuser’s movements and patterns, and carves out an escape plan. She puts on the best act, follows all the rules and is on her best behavior so that he begins to let his guard down. One afternoon, he leaves to go sell dope and forgets to lock the front gate. When she is sure he has left, she grabs all the kids and runs over to a neighbor’s house for help. She makes it out of town with only the clothes on her back and a few days later finds herself back to where she grew up.
By then, her parents were both dead and most of her siblings had moved away – except for one brother. Living nearby, she tries to start a new life by pan-handling and prostituting herself and contracts HIV. Her children grow to become juvenile delinquents and follow in mom’s footsteps: stealing, dealing and committing crimes. One daughter is incarcerated for murder, while the other struggles with drug addiction. After years of being attacked by the hand she had been dealt, Tina decides it’s finally time to get clean. In her 50’s, afraid but still determined, she found herself at The Orchid.
Each chapter of Tina’s story started and ended with running. It reminded me of my running. We both had very different reasons for why we ran, but we shared one thing in common; we both had a light inside that so many circumstances could have blown out. And yet, through it all we found ways to keep the light aflame. We moved forward. We continued to hope that something better was about to come. Tina’s story taught me that there is always room in your heart to believe and try. If she could do it, so could I. I finally grew the courage to put my truth down on paper and tell it for the first time.
As I passed the threshold into The Orchid Recovery Center, I braced myself for an environment that would contain hostility, anger and – most importantly, women I could not relate to. During my stay at the detox facility I had convinced myself that I was in for a very odd experience; one that would no doubt provide tons of stories to tell at dinner parties, but nothing like the positive life changing journey that was about to take place. Over the next two weeks, I lived with a group of twenty women who seamlessly took to their position in the social order, followed firm rules and maintained a very strict schedule. In that cocoon, we learned about ourselves, grew fond of each other and healed some of our wounds.
Orchid is comprised of two facilities. There’s the main office on the top floor of a 4-story building. This is where we spent most of our days, being split up and shuffled from one room to the next for: group therapy sessions, acupuncture, art therapy and one-on-one meetings with our individual therapists. It’s designed with a comfortable and soothing aesthetic in mind. Near the entrance there is a large bamboo plant. As you walk down the halls you feel the healing energies of the space and the people. The walls are painted in a muted mustard-tone and are tastefully dressed with inspirational quotes. The furniture throughout is dark cherry wood and you can find Hindu statues, Asian Zen décor and orchid flowers adorning the tables. The couches are soft, comfy and red.
The second facility is the apartment complex. Orchid owns an entire 2-story building, which includes: 18 one and two-bedroom apartments, two laundry rooms, a TV room, outdoor seating, a grill and a pool. Each apartment is simple and contains all your basic furnishings, appliances and kitchenware. They each feature ample living space, closets and bathrooms, and are all decorated the same. Apartments are supposed to be kept tidy, with beds always made and all personal items in their respective drawers or put away in the cupboards. Women, who stay for long periods of time, tend to put up pictures of friends and family to make the place feel homier. You’ll typically find loved ones taped to mirrors. If on Saturday you had a few dollars leftover from your grocery run to Publix, you might splurge on some flowers for your place.
The day started promptly at 7am. This was when prescribed medicines were distributed under supervision from a tech that stood on the other side of a glass window, in one of the apartments that had been setup as a small office/ storage space. Meds were handed out daily until 8:30am. If you had packed perfume or hairspray with your belongings, this was kept in a locker and you had to ask for it every morning. The techs supervised the use of these items as well. As the women gathered by the gated entrance, the staff would quickly check each apartment to ensure all maintenance procedures had been followed. More often than not, there was a dirty dish left in a sink or a bed was unmade. This would hold up the entire group and we would all wait patiently as the woman in question returned to her apartment to take care of whatever mess had been left behind. Then we’d all board the bus to head over to the office.
The two facilities are only five minutes apart, but the ride goes through a sketchy neighborhood. Every morning we were greeted by a despondent homeless man standing at the entrance of I-95 asking for change. Promptly at 9am, with all twenty of us sitting in a circle in the main room, we started the day with what was called “Goals and Gratefuls.” This was when all the women would go around the room and share where they were at in their recovery.
“Good morning ladies. My name is Karen and I’m an addict,” I’d say.
“Hi, Karen,” they said in unison.
“My drug of choice is cocaine and today I’m 12 days clean.”
Round of applause.
“Today, my goal is to not obsess over what time it is but to be here now, so that I can fully take in all the tools that are being provided. I am grateful for my family, friends and all of you ladies for helping me feel worthy of recovery. My defense mechanisms are rationalization, isolation and avoidance. Yesterday, I reached my goal of writing my life story, which I will be sharing later today.”
Once we’d all had our turn, we’d move on to participating in a group activity. We had a number of activities we engaged in. There was therapy, yoga, educational movies and classes on nutrition. At Noon we would get a lunch break. All twenty of us would return to the apartment complex in the white vans. An hour later, we were back at the office for our afternoon activities and sessions. At 5pm, we returned to the apartments for the evening and were allowed to relax and use the phone for two hours. If for some reason you broke a rule, your phone privileges were the first thing to be revoked. The day ended at 8pm with another round of “Goals and Gratefuls.”
“Hi, I’m Karen and I’m an addict.”
“My drug of choice is cocaine and today I’m 12 days clean.
Round of applause.
“Today, I did not reach my goal since instead of looking at the clock I just went around asking everyone for the time.”
The room erupts in laughter.
“I’m grateful for Orchid, the techs who bought me cigarettes and my clean time. My goal for tomorrow is to stop judging everyone and focus on myself.”
On my first day, I was assigned a big sister. Your big sister is a fellow female addict who takes you under their wing to show you the ropes. My big sister happened to also be the matriarch of the group. She was known among the women as Mother Mary. She was very dedicated to the program and had a laser focus on winning back her family’s love and respect by completing a 30-day program. Every Sunday, my big sister took care of coordinating family potluck dinners with the girls and was a natural at policing the gossip that unsurprisingly took place among the women. Mother Mary was a former 911 operator and a current badass with short red hair, that had purple streaks in it, tasteful tattoos sprinkled all over and numerous piercings. Her DOC (drug of choice) was alcohol.
My roommate was the only other Hispanic-American in the program. She was an older professional from South America who had enjoyed a successful career in the field of psychology for 30+ years. Her accent was thick and she had long and curly blonde hair that she carried around like a crown. Every morning she would take special care to wash her hair and condition it and always wore it down. It was her pride and joy. My roommate and I connected like mother and daughter. We both shared an addiction to sugary treats and on our trips to Publix made sure to stock up on cookies, candy, ice cream and cake. We’d sit on the L-shaped couch in our living room, watching TV and devouring snacks, until it was time to go to bed. When you’re recovering from a drug addiction, you naturally replace drugs with food. She was intelligent and insightful and really believed that I was going to make it. As soon as we met, I let my guard down. It fell off like a chain-link cloak and remained gathered where I left it for the duration of my stay at Orchid. Her DOC was Xanax.
A few nights in, after dinner with my roommate, I made my way down to the poolside tables for a cigarette. I sat there thinking about the revelations I had made that day during therapy. I had learned that most addicts believed themselves to be unique, but we were not. We might be special, but were no different than one another. For the first time in my life, I could be Karen not just one side or aspect of her, because these women knew how I felt. They were like me. It was liberating. And when the women accepted me with open arms, it felt like home. Regardless of socio-economic background, educational level or race, we were all the same: individuals looking for love who at some point turned to drugs when we didn’t find it. I connected with each and every one of those women on a spiritual level that I could never fully put into words. Each one of us was a candle whose flame was slowly withering into defeated embers. Coming together turned the gas on high and reignited our value in the world.
While I sat there, I was joined by Jessica; she was in her early 20’s and from New Jersey, the heroin capital of the country. Jessica introduced herself and told me all about her passion for music and the influence it had in helping her through her brother’s recent death. She had dark blue eyes, olive skin and the goofiest laugh. She had been through rehab before and had ended up in a flop house in South Florida. A flop house is a halfway house that has been neglected. There is typically very little supervision taking place and a lot of drug abuse. A halfway house or sober living house that is well-managed is where recovering addicts transition into life after rehab, by learning the skills necessary to integrate back into society. Halfway houses usually have rules and curfews, with 24-hour staff coverage. According to Jessica, there was a flop house epidemic in Florida and she and her brother had been victims of this horrible growing trend.
A few months earlier, while both of them were trying to get their lives on track, her brother gave in to the disease and started using heroin again. One night, he overdosed and no one was there to help him. When the medics finally arrived, they didn’t bother to give him Naloxone (a drug that can reverse the effects of opioids) and he unfortunately passed away. He was in his early 20’s. This triggered a downward spiral for Jessica, which led her back into treatment at Orchid. She was lost, lonely and upset. While sharing her story, I was deeply humbled by her experience. My heart caved under the weight of her tragic story. I reflected on the fact that while I’ve had my fair share of traumatic events, I was still lucky enough to have my sisters in my life. In that very moment, I looked up at the dark sky to gaze at the stars and thank the universe for this gift, when suddenly a shooting star broke through the atmosphere. It was the first shooting star I had ever seen.
When I began my search for a recovery treatment center, I had only one criterion: that it be a women-only facility. By then, I had learned that my disease had metastasized from drugs and alcohol to sex and shopping. I thought that if I admitted myself to a co-ed rehab center, I was most certainly not going to stand a chance. I found a women-only center that specialized in dual-diagnosis in West Palm Beach, Florida. After my 24-hour stint in detox, this is where I would spend the next two weeks. But before I could check-in with my sisters at Orchid, I had to survive the next night with a co-ed population. Survival meant not engaging with any of the male patients.
After a 3-hour nap, I tech knocks on my door. During detox, the techs are continuously monitoring your vitals to ensure a safe detox process. This entails taking your blood pressure every 2-3 hours during your entire stay. I woke up hungry and could tell by the chatter coming from the dining area that lunch was still out. I grabbed my grey hooded-sweatshirt, took a cue from the others, and slipped on socks and a pair of flip flops.
The dining hall is an open space that separates the men and women’s dormitories. The walls and furniture are all dressed in the same drab peach. On the right-hand side there is a glass partition that allows the techs to observe the common area from their station. I’m wondering if the glass is bullet-proof when a girl interrupts my thought by walking past the window. She’s tall, lean and tan with deep green eyes and beautiful straight auburn hair that reaches her waist and curls at the ends. She’s wearing leopard-print tights and a dark purple sweater. She’s seductively licking a vanilla soft-serve ice cream inside a small waffle cone. We exchange friendly smiles.
On the left-hand side is the buffet station, which is reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria. A messy stack of plastic orange and blue trays greet you at the start of the line. As you make your way down the metal counter a fellow recovering addict serves you food. Tonight, we have a choice of Salisbury steak, chicken pot pie and Caesar salad. My stomach does a tiny flip.
“We have leftover baked goods and fruit from this morning if you want something lighter. Or there’s the cereal station,” says the server, as he points to a large dispenser in the corner filled with all the sugary cereals of my childhood dreams. There’s Frosted Flakes, Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Raisin Bran.
“I’ll take a raspberry Danish and a banana. Thanks.” I wait while he disappears to the back of the kitchen and scan the room, noticing that everyone is huddled around, either with new friends they’ve just made or sitting alone, curled up within themselves. It’s like a walk-in freezer in this facility and most patients are shivering, including me. A skinny guy with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and a neatly trimmed beard jumps up from his lunch and rushes over to the large garbage bin next to the coffee station. He vomits violently and it echoes across the room as everyone has gone silent. I’m suddenly reminded that some of us may not be shivering from the cold.
When my snacks arrive, I make my way to an empty four-top table in the center. I pull a chair out and the red-headed girl approaches.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” she asks.
“No, not at all. Hi, I’m Karen,” I say.
“What’s your DOC?”
“Your DOC? It means drug-of-choice. Mine used to be coke and then after my last trip to rehab, I went back out and tried heroine for the first time and now I’m here for both. So, what’s your DOC?” she asks.
“I guess my DOC is coke. How old are you?” I ask.
“I’m nineteen,” she says.
“And how many times have you been to rehab?”
“This is my fourth time. I started coming when I was sixteen,”
“I take that back. My DOC is whatever I can get my hands on at the moment. Sometimes it’s not even a drug. It’s sex.”
Back in New York, a therapist once posed a question that has haunted me ever since: why do you think you fuck like a gay man? When I first moved to Manhattan, I hit the dating scene like a category five hurricane. Every man I encountered was a potential object to destroy and therefore subject to being swept up by my destructive wrath. I had just left an emotionally abusive relationship with my fiancé of two years and thought men in general were now indebted to me. I would collect my dues by jumping from one anonymous dick to the other, under the guise that I was dating like one of the fabulous ladies from Sex and the City.
Most nights, I would walk into a bar with one goal: to get the guy. I’d scan the room, as I sipped my cocktail and half-heartedly listened to the conversation going on between friends. Then I’d spot him: the one I was going to conquer and take home that night. It was a competition; a game I played with no one but me. If I could get the guy to buy me a drink and take me home that night, I had won. I racked up quite a few points during my ten years in New York. And I thought I was fully enjoying my new-found sexuality after almost committing to a very sick man.
But according to my therapist, I was promiscuous because I was trying to recreate the night of my first trauma. At fifteen, I was sexually assaulted during a night in which I had no control of the situation. And according to him, seeking sexual encounters with men was my way of regaining the control I had lost that night. This somewhat explained why once I was in bed with these men I lost complete interest in the whole thing. The formula made sense on paper, but it really disturbed me.
I thought of myself as a free-spirited woman with a unique sexual libido, which was unmatched by most of my female peers. In my mind, I was a woman with a modern point-of-view on relationships. However, if I was to believe what my therapist was suggesting, then I was nothing but a sad little hamster running on its wheel, trying diligently to attain something that would eventually get me nowhere. This was the first indication that my addictive behavior extended beyond drugs and alcohol. It also included men.
Back at the detox center, I’m fighting every desire in me – to interact with the male patients. For me, the longing is like a sick deep yearning that starts in the caverns of my gut. The disease starts talking to me. It poses an innocent question and responds with a staunch exclamation. And then, because it is a fact, I must set out to make it happen. It goes from thought to action in a split second. I think I need this: to survive, to feel better, to get something I must have. He was shuffling around the halls and common area anxiously, after throwing up back in the dining hall. Wearing the detox uniform: pajamas; a pair of red flannel bottoms, a long-sleeved white shirt, black socks and flip flops, he opens the door to the patio. Ten of us addicts were sitting out there enjoying a smoke, when he spots an empty chair and sits next to me.
He introduces himself and tells me his DOC is meth. He had been in detox for three days and was going to be released to Palm Partners soon, the co-ed treatment center down the street. He had a nice smile, even though he looked tired.
“You don’t look like you belong here. Is this your first time in treatment?” he asks.
“Yeah. Is it that obvious?” I say. And then, I turn on the charm. I smirk and bite my lower lip. I’ve been told that you can see it in my eyes, exactly what I’m thinking. I want to have sex with this guy.
“Don’t worry. You’ll do okay. You should get my number,” he says.
He writes his number on a napkin, after borrowing a pen from the tech that was supervising the smoke break. Since we’re not allowed to have lighters on us, the techs have to stand guard and light our cigarettes for us. When my new friend hands his number over, our fingers lightly graze each other and I feel a hot heat rising between my legs and slowly reach my face. Suddenly my mind is racing and I’m in planning mode.
How can I get this guy back in my room and on top of me? The TV room is across the hall so I could suggest we go watch TV together. We could steal suggestive glances and if we find ourselves alone I could give him a hand job under the blankets. How funny if we got in trouble for breaking the rules posted above the couch: No blankets allowed. Men and women are to sit on opposite sides of the room. A giddy tingling starts brewing. I imagine myself pulling him into my room, closing the door behind us and guiding his hand down the front of my pants, if only to kill the pain and sadness for just a few delicious moments. I’d hate myself afterwards and probably cry myself to sleep, but I never think that far ahead.
“Guys, smoke break is over so take your last drag,” says the tech.
I snap out of my racy daydream, put out my cigarette and smile at the guy as he hands over the napkin. On my way back to my room, I toss his number into the same garbage can where he had puked in earlier. I crawl back into bed and stay there until morning.
He slowly removes the first item from my tan leather Cole Hann shoulder bag; the handbag that I had purchased as a gift to myself two years prior, when I landed that six-figure Account Director job in Chicago. He sets it gently on the desk; it’s a pair of Coach Aviator sunglasses.
“One pair of go-lasses,” he says, as he writes it down on the form in front of him. We’re sitting in a small 5 x 5 drab and grey room, off to the left side of the lobby. There’s one metal desk, one dusty old black computer, two plastic chairs and right below the cobweb-covered drop-down ceiling, a security camera points directly at me. He pulls out my iPhone, which is protected by a fuchsia Kate Spade case.
“One cell phone wit cova,” he says to no one in particular. He writes this down too.
“One wallet,” he says of my light pink Rebecca Minkoff leather wristlet from the Spring Collection. Sensing my anxiety in the quiet that hovered between us, he looks up and makes eye contact for the first time.
“Don worry. Ju don’t need tees tings inside and ju will get dem back when you are dischawged.”
How did I end up here? I’m not a drug addict. I have a successful advertising career, where I get to travel all over the world with my clients—to production shoots in Mexico, off-site meetings in Aruba and private concerts in New York. I have a brand new car that is current on its payments. I live in an updated 3-bedroom condo with marble counter-tops and stainless steel appliances. I get my hair and nails done every weekend. I have an Amazon Prime account. I have tons of friends and family… Where and how did it all go wrong? Do I even belong here, at a detox facility? It suddenly occurs to me that I may have made a huge mistake.
A blonde woman cautiously shuffles past the door of my new tiny hell. Her roots are darker than the night. Her eyes are dull and sunken and her frail body is hidden beneath an over-sized Miami Heat t-shirt and grey sweatpants. She’s wearing black socks with flip flops. Cigarette in hand, she reaches for the front door. A guard quickly catches her hand before it touches the door handle. I notice the track marks.
“You don’t have permission to go outside,” he says.
“Come on man, I just wanna drag of ma fucking cigarette,” she says.
I look back at the tech rummaging through my belongings. I wonder if I will have access to the outside world or am I just like her? After my purse has been emptied of all its things, a short mousy woman escorts me to the nurse’s station. As I follow her out of the room, I look back one last time to see all my stuff being dumped into Ziploc bags.
The nurse’s station is cheery by comparison. The walls are sky blue and there’s a healthy 4-ft palm tree standing tall in the corner. Along the right wall is a row of brown leather chairs. To the left is the registration area, an L-shaped counter with a sign-in sheet, one pen and a bell to alert someone that you are there. Three young blonde women and one man are waiting to be seen. Everyone is wearing pajamas and barely awake.
The mousy nurse motions for me to follow her through the doors directly ahead, which lead to a long sterile hallway that is lit with bright fluorescent overhead lighting. The floor is beige linoleum and the walls are painted a dull peach. We are in the women’s dormitory wing. We walk past several open doors that provide a sneak preview of what my home will be for the next few days.
The rooms are simple: one twin-sized bed with taupe bedding and a cherry wood headboard, one small matching nightstand and one brown leather chair (like the ones in the nurses’ station). Each room has a tiny 1 x 1 ft window at the very top corner of the back wall, reminiscent of windows found in most basements up north. Each room has a small flat screen TV. The occupied rooms we walk past are all empty. Scattered clothes on the floor and unmade beds give away that the rooms currently belong to someone. Everyone is eating breakfast in the mess hall. The small talk and laughter that travels back to the dorm rooms are barely audible over the sound of someone’s television, which is playing Cops.
We turn the corner, pass the closed medicine window and enter a handicap stall in the women’s bathroom.
“We need a urine sample. Use this,” the nurse says, as she hands me a plastic cup. I nod and stare at her. She says, “I’m not going anywhere. I need to be with you when you pee into that cup.” What the fuck? I’m not a criminal! I let out a defeated sigh and proceed to follow instructions.
All the tests come back negative. It’s been six months since I did molly, three months since I snorted coke, a month since I smoked pot and a week since I’ve had any alcohol. I hadn’t intentionally stopped doing drugs in anticipation of rehab. I was just going through one of my usual funks; a steady and progressive depression that spikes in intensity every few months, completely draining me and forcing me to check out from my personal life. After a few months, when my body has grown accustomed to this new level of hopelessness, I’m able to engage again.
The onsite psychiatrist meets me in her tiny office, next to the nurse’s station. She informs me that since I tested negative for drugs and alcohol, that I will be moved immediately into the treatment center. However, because it’s after 10am, I’ll need to spend one night in detox. It’s standard procedure. She asks a series of medical history questions and we discuss my dual diagnosis. I ask if it’s possible for them to give me something for anxiety. I’ve been short of breath since I walked through the front doors of the facility and I can’t stop fidgeting with my hands and shifting in my seat.
She logs in a request for a suppressant, which she assures will help me relax. On my way to my room, I pick up the two yellow pills at the medicine window and throw them back with icy cold water from the cooler, which is placed directly under a notice. It reads: Only over-the-counter, mood stabilizers, SSRIs, and anti-depressant medication are approved. A tall black male tech observes my every move. A few minutes later, I close the door to my room, crawl into bed and fall asleep to Cops.
I’ve carried the weight of depression around with me my whole life. When I was five years old, I would bring on anxiety attacks just thinking about existential topics my little mind couldn’t wrap itself around. Things like: What if my parents die tomorrow? What will happen to my soul when I die? Where does the universe end and what’s on the other side of that? Is there a God? These might seem like average questions for a philosophy major, but I was in Kindergarten.
I’d let these questions and ensuing dreadful thoughts race through my mind as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep on a school night. I’d get so worked up that I’d race to my parents’ room to kneel down by their bed and beg God (or whoever) not to take them from me or let anything bad happen. Sometimes my mother would find me curled up on their suede chaise lounge chair the next morning and innocently assumed that like most children; I was scared to sleep on my own. But really I was afraid of much more.
When I think back to my childhood, I see myself all alone. I grew up in a home with two parents and a sibling, but we were all pretty absent from each others’ lives. My mother and father were typical immigrant parents, in that they had degrees and careers in Cuba, but were relegated to minimum-wage jobs when they first arrived in this country. My mother, an architect, quickly picked up the English language and began managing an insurance agency. She would be the stable bread winner until her last breath. My father, an engineer, was obsessed with getting rich quick and took all kinds of odd jobs and illegal side gigs. He was always away on business.
Because of this, my mother was typically consumed with thoughts of her husband’s whereabouts. Add to that: managing the household, helping family abroad and keeping it together for the sake of the children, and you can’t blame her for not being fully there for us kids. Sure she’d ask about our report cards and drive us to Michael’s to buy supplies for our science projects, but she only covered the basics. When I was repeatedly bullied in school, I never turned to her for help. I simply tried my best to ignore my tormenters and eventually learned to stand up for myself. When I was sexually assaulted by friends at a party, and later ostracized by everyone at school, I took matters into my own hands and transferred to another school. My mother never probed as to why I would leave all my childhood friends behind, nor did I provide that information.
My mother was ignorant to the life that was unfolding inside of me and the experiences that were shaping my character. Some say it’s a cultural gap that forces second generations to raise themselves, because the traditions and practices of this new world elude our parents. However, there was a space that existed between our personal orbits that eclipsed our immigrant circumstance. At a very young age, I was forced to navigate life on my own and this created major resentments in me. To survive, I did the only thing I knew how. I pushed past the pain and disappointment and learned to function through the hopelessness.
Over the years, I became skilled at managing my anxiety and depression. I self-medicated with a limited set of tools available to me: food, stealing, drugs, alcohol and sex. When one device alone didn’t do the trick, I started combining them. At 30 years old, I finally lost the ability to keep things under control. I started spiraling and could not find a balance between the demands of a high-stress job and the need to cope with my ongoing despair.
One night, after drinking a bottle of Malbec and smoking a joint, I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. I was standing outside my Gramercy apartment in New York, smoking a cigarette with a friend. I remember talking about work and bouncing some ideas off him when suddenly I was struck with an unequivocal awareness that I was going to die. I was certain I would not survive the sudden impending doom that was fast approaching. My arms and legs started to shake uncontrollably. I started hyperventilating. I grew dizzy and then… black. When I came to, I couldn’t move at all. I stayed there on the ground for what seemed like hours, trying to steady my breath. Later that night when I was safe in my bed, I resolved to finally seek professional help.
The first time I ever saw a doctor for depression, was right after my mom passed away. I was 21 years old, in an abusive relationship and trying to finish up my bachelors. I woke up every day feeling defeated. It was suggested to me that a therapist might help and so I thought I’d give it a try. That experience was the coldest and most impersonal encounter I’ve ever had with a healthcare professional. I was prescribed drugs within 15 minutes, asked for the copay and told to come back next month. I walked out of that doctor’s office feeling even more lost than when I had walked in. So it was with a lot of hesitation that I approached the idea of giving therapy a second try.
Since my depression and addiction were top secret, I didn’t want to ask around for a recommendation so I decided to use an online counseling tool available through my medical insurance provider. After filling out a brief survey, I received a phone call from a specialist. For 30 minutes, I sat in the break room of a prestigious advertising agency near Union Square and discussed my medical history, my parents’ and my lifestyle choices with a total stranger. He was friendly, calm and his voice was soothing. During that first conversation, I found the courage to be honest with myself and another human being about my problem. What I had rationalized as normal behavior for so many years suddenly became clear to me as unusual behavior.
How often do you consume alcohol in a given week? Well, on average about 4-5 times a week. But you know, I’m young and single and I live in New York City so... How much alcohol do you consume during each occasion? Oh, it really depends on the circumstance. Sometimes I’ll have a bottle of wine with dinner and a few shots of whiskey. Other times, I’ll have 3-4 beers and a few shots of whiskey. Always whiskey. But, like, I have a bottle of whiskey on my dresser and I don’t wake up with the urge to drink. It’s been sitting there for a few weeks. Have you ever consumed any other drug? Umm… yes. I mean, who hasn’t am I right? Which drugs and how often? The sympathetic specialist concluded that I needed to seek treatment. I immediately hung up and met up with friends for happy hour at a hole-in-the-wall bar we used to frequent for bingo and trivia nights.
That tape played three more times, with three different therapists, and each time I lost the ability to argue my point. Little by little, each professional chipped away at a carefully crafted façade that I could no longer hide behind. It was a very slow process for me to come to understand and then accept that I was a drug addict. In fact, it took exactly five years. It wasn’t until I returned to Miami, that I finally faced my demons.
When I left Miami in 2003, I swore I would never return. I thought I was meant for bigger and better things, which Miami could not offer me then. But after 12 years, I was still that lonely anxious girl who ran away from a failed relationship, a broken family and many ghosts. The only thing that had changed during that time was my income tax bracket. Returning to a place I once called home, but no longer recognized was an unexpected culture shock. It stirred the internal 30-year war and thrust me into the deepest gloom I have ever wrestled with.
My bottom was not a palpable outward-facing collapse. Instead I had arrived at a spiritual wasteland. It was a typical week night and I had pulled in a long day at the office. There was still more work to be done once I got home, so I picked up a hundred of coke on my way. I’ll just do a few bumps to get me through this last round of emails, I thought. As soon as that first hit flooded my system, I was trapped. There cease to exist any control. Instead a savage animal intent on staying alive took over and I receded inside myself. She couldn’t stop. She blew through what I had bought and went out and got more. She spent the whole night doing one line after another, with absolutely no regard for what I truly wanted, which was to stop.
That night, my anxious mind was flooded with thoughts about being, just like when I was five years old. What am I doing with my life? Who am I? Why can’t I just die and be done with it? How can I stop? Why is this happening to me? What is wrong with me? Alone at 6am, watching the light break, I finally disintegrated. A few weeks later, when my new therapist suggested rehab, I was finally ready to surrender.
The best day and time to weigh yourself is Saturday morning. It is the official first day of the weekend, so you haven’t cheated yet, and it marks the end of a long grueling and slow-paced week where you feel like you were a ninja for hiyacking every sweet temptation that crossed your path. Morning time is key. You must weigh yourself before breakfast, but after you’ve gone to the bathroom. This is when you’re at your lightest. I weighed myself every Saturday morning, from the age of nine all the way until I was 32 years old. That’s 24 years of experience, so I know what I’m talking about.
To say that I suffer from poor body image issues, is putting it as insignificant as humanly possible. It actually feels more like I am trapped inside someone else’s fat body and I’ve been trying to claw my way out for two decades. I am really a skinny person held prisoner inside a fat suit, which the outside world mistakenly perceives as my own property. I didn’t ask for this; I inherited the curse from my mother.
In a family of three daughters, she was the tallest by a foot. Like a foreign exchange student visiting for the summer, she looks misplaced as her 6-foot frame towers over everyone in family photos, standing off to the side or behind relatives all the way in the back. Her clothes are always pretty tight and her size 12-feet are trying to bust out of their size 9 shoes. She’s curvy to boot. In the way that is super sexy right now. Hips for days with an hour glass shape. She was gorgeous, elegant and exotic against a post-Castro 1960’s black-and-white backdrop. But in her mind, she was fat.
Like any good Cuban girl, my mother loved to eat. When she moved to the US in her late 20’s, it was not only a step towards a bright future and freedom from oppression, but a key to THE food wonderland. Packaged high-fructose corn syrup goods as far as the eye can see, cuisines from all over the world and all-you-can-eat buffets! Her love of food knew no bounds and I’m lucky to have inherited her adventurous nature in that regard.
But, she was the kind of woman who hated herself for loving food as much as she did and always compared herself to other women. “Ay, yo no soy tan gorda como ella, verdad?” (Oh, I’m not as fat as her, right?), she would ask her ten and twelve-year old daughters during a random day of doing dilijencias (errands). What this taught me was that one must strive to always be better off than others. If you were not as fat as the woman sitting next to you on the bus, then you were the one that was winning. This constant sizing up of other women and comparing myself to them, continued well into my late 20’s and had a huge hand in promoting my drug addiction.
I know my mother didn’t intend to pass down this debilitating insecurity. She herself was a product of a culture where women with curves are usually nicknamed gordita (little fat girl). And if your sister is thinner than you, chances are very high that her nickname is flaca (skinny girl). And the two of you together cover the spectrum of what women in Hispanic communities can be: either fat or skinny. Nothing else matters.
My mother’s hopes for her first daughter were very simple: may she be skinny, marry rich and have a daughter worse than her so she gets a taste of what I had to put with. Growing up, she tried every tactic to help me lose weight. One summer, when I was thirteen, she decided a monetary incentive might just do the trick of motivating me to lose a few pounds. For one month, leading up to a family vacation to the Bahamas, I was given a dollar for every pound I lost. The goal was to get me to go from 125 lbs. to 100 lbs. If at the end of the month I succeeded in losing the 25 lbs. my mother promised to buy me a new wardrobe for the trip. Since I had also inherited my mother’s love for shopping and fashion, I was in! I remember her observing the scale tentatively, every Saturday morning, as I stripped down to absolutely nothing, lest my pajamas add any unnecessary heaviness. She would show her approval or disapproval of the number on the scale with one simple lift of the eyebrows, or a furrowing. I don’t recall if I got to my goal weight that summer. There have been hundreds of diets since then, that it’s hard to recollect that far in the past.
In addition to my mother’s approval, I also had to find acceptance out in the world. I’ve always had a handful of friends, but somehow found myself the target of bullying at school on a daily basis. Sometimes it was as simple as being called “fat fuck” on the bus ride home. Other times, it was as cruel as two teenage girls asking me if I was pregnant, while I waited in line at Little Caesars’ for crazy bread. I must have been all of eleven when that happened. Because of all these negative external cues, internally I wholeheartedly agreed with everyone. I was a fat fuck who looked pregnant and needed to go on a diet and get skinny. And super-fast or no boy was ever going to like me. This might sound like the silly naïve train of thought of a young girl, but it pretty much sums up how I still feel today.
When you’re old enough to start liking boys and have the freedom to socialize, you don’t want the voices in your head to get in the way of a good time. Enter drugs. Not only did coke give me the confidence I needed to go up and talk to the cute guy at the bar, but because it suppressed my appetite for the following 24 hours, it also helped me to lose weight. Cocaine was the one diet I stuck to for the longest amount of time. It, along with any upper I could get my hands on, was my Xenadrine. Remember Xenadrine diet pills? I was addicted to those too, before the FDA pulled them off the shelves back in 2001.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of hearing a fellow recovering addict with 30 years clean speak at a late-night NA meeting. Her message was eloquent, honest and relatable. Her truth was similar to mine: without drugs, she absolutely hated herself and wanted to be anybody else but who she was. This is my Mount Everest. If I can learn to be happy with my body and love myself just the way I am, drugs lose one very big reason for being in my life. The thing is I really don’t know how to achieve self-love. I intellectually understand the steps one must take, but I am up against years of ridicule, disappointment and rejection. I am a walking sponge, engorged by all my past adverse experiences, damaging encounters and bad examples. And the file titled “Reasons I Suck” just keeps getting bigger, as I go about my day every day. Because as much as we want to believe that chubby is in, acceptance of plus size women is coming at a snail’s pace. My biggest worry is that my body won’t be a trend in time for me to kick out the voices currently squatting in my head and learn to live clean before it's too late. I now understand that if I never achieve self-love, I’ll never recover.
When I hit the “post” button a few days ago, I knew that I was turning my back on a lucrative and successful career in advertising and exposing the false but very well-fabricated story of who Karen was. I even assumed that I would lose some friends in the process, because for many the disease of addiction is still viewed as a moral failing that can be controlled by will alone. What I did not expect was to receive all the love, support and personal stories of struggle that have been pouring in since Friday. I know I am on the right path, based on your reactions to my first blog post. And while I cannot represent the addict community as a whole, I’m honored to be able to tell my story and carry the message of recovery to those in need.
The heartbreaking truth about addiction is that it does not discriminate. Who is an addict? The blue book tells us that an addict is a man or a woman whose life is controlled by drugs; the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. A person who lives to use and uses to live looks like everyone else: your sister who abuses Xanax, your colleague who binge drinks every day, your son who smokes pot regularly. And while they might not look like the stereotypical junkie, they are in the grips of a continuing and progressive illness. They are in pain and believe they cannot survive without drugs.
My story begins at the age of eight. Feeling less than, I began to seek comfort in food. As I got older, food was replaced with stealing, then drugs, then shopping and finally sex. To be viewed as a functioning member of society, I created rules for myself. These rules would allow me to hide my addiction for 15+ years. On the outside, I had everything going for me: a good job with a decent disposable income, a nice place in a good neighborhood, a new car, family and friends who loved me. But inside I felt insignificant, depressed and always alone. Rules like: only drink in social settings, only do hard drugs on the weekend, only binge eat on special occasions, were both a blessing and a curse. To the world, I was functioning. To me, I was enduring until the next high.
It took three therapists, some rule-breaking and a few panic attacks for me to admit that I had a problem. I had all the telltale signs of an addict. I couldn’t handle life without numbing my feelings. I couldn’t feel pleasure in everyday things. I constantly replaced one addiction for the other. I even tried a number of geographic changes, hoping that a new city would give me the backdrop for a brand new start. However, when I really examined my life with a magnifying glass, I saw that I had lost a lot of things to my addiction: the house I grew up in went into foreclosure because I snorted the mortgage payments up my nose, a very dear friend pushed me away for years, because she couldn’t stand by as I destroyed myself with alcohol, I even lost the chance to say goodbye to my mother, as she lay on her deathbed losing the battle against cancer, because I was fighting the demons in my own head. I wasn’t there for my sisters when they needed me the most. I lost a $100k inheritance to frivolousness. And countless other scenarios that played out over the years, I see now as obvious products of my disease.
While this sickness has been there all along, my turning point was being sexually assaulted at 15 years old. One night, I was invited to a party at an acquaintance’s house whose parents were away. At the time, I was desperate for love and acceptance. After years of being bullied, I had finally found approval from a group of friends who were acting out like most teenagers do. We’d skip school; buy alcohol with fake ids and experiment with drugs together. That night, I snuck out of my house while my parents slept soundly. What I didn’t know, was that when I walked into that house full of boys, I was walking into my first traumatic experience. I was encouraged to drink massive amounts of alcohol and coerced to have sex with one of the boys at the party, while everyone stood by and watched. Feeling like I deserved it, like I had it coming to me, I never told anyone what really happened that night. I was a slut who should have never gone to that party to begin with. At school the next day, the boys spread rumors around. They told everyone that I had given blow jobs at the party and my girlfriends turned against me. I was devastated. Back in my bedroom, I drowned my tears in a bottle of vodka that my dad kept in the liquor cabinet. It killed the hurt and alleviated my sorrow. Vodka was there for me when I couldn’t reach out for help.
In my 20’s, when I lost both parents to cancer, I turned again to the only tool I had for dealing with pain. Feeling like life had robbed me, I moved to New York, where for the next ten years I lived each day like it was going to be my last. I rationalized my behavior behind the pretense that this lifestyle was part of the fast-paced culture of the big city. But, when you took the glamour of New York away, there I was; just me and my inability to feel negative feelings. When my current therapist suggested I go to rehab, she positioned it as a spiritual vacation for my soul. It finally clicked for me. I had been struggling with anxiety and depression for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to feel happy and hopeful. In February 2016, I finally surrendered to the fact that I was a drug addict. And what I went on to experience in rehab will stay with me forever.
Writing Class Radio
Writing Class Radio is a podcast of a writing class. It is for people who love stories and who get inspired by hearing other people tell their stories and who want to learn a little bit about how to write their own stories.
There's no better way to understand ourselves and each other than by writing and telling our stories.
Everyone has a story. What's yours?
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