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.
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.
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