Each one of my addictions provides its own unique high. Shoplifting gives me a real sense of accomplishment. For days afterwards, I marvel at my collection of stolen goods and I’m filled with pride. I feel smart and slick and vindicated for having taken something that this world owes me. Binge-eating suppresses my anxiety. When I sit down and stuff an entire bag of Cheese Doodles down my throat, I’m focused on a specific task, with a straightforward end in sight, blocking out all the other noise. There is but one thing on my mind and that is to pick up the next doodle, and then the next, and then the next—until I’m staring at the bottom of an empty bag that is covered in orange cheese flakes. This act refocuses my attention away from the thing that is causing me to panic. Cocaine makes me confident. One bump and I’m the smartest, hottest and funniest person in that room. Another bump and my ideas are the fucking best. Sex is about control. I hold the dial between my legs and I get to choose how much pleasure you’ll enjoy. And when they beg for it, my ego floats high above our heads. I can only cum when I’m looking down at a puny man that moans for more.
From an intellectual standpoint, I understand that these are unhealthy coping mechanisms that I need to quit. These are dangerous and harmful ways to avoid life on life’s terms. But there is one addiction I have yet to share with you that I refuse to stop giving into. It is an obsession that infinitely outweighs the overwhelming need to binge-drink, shoplift, snort an eight ball of coke or eat a whole box of Swiss Cake Rolls in one sitting. It was eighteen years ago when I had my first taste. And since then, I’ve found myself time and time again leaping beyond my perverse limits for just a second of the most irresistible indulgence I’ve ever experienced. For a long time, I was confused about my desire and what it achieved for me. But now that I’ve begun my journey of recovery, I have a better sense of what it is and why I seek it out with such fervor. The one drug I won’t give up is Him.
We met late in high school. It wasn’t until the 11th grade that our paths crossed. I had gone to another school nearby, but due to a falling out with friends—after an unfortunate event at a party, I decided to transfer. I had gone from the popular preppy girl to an emotionally disturbed punk rock teen in the span of one summer, and was now looking forward to reintroducing this new poetic and misunderstood version of myself to the world. It was my first day at my new school, when a practice fire drill during fourth period Journalism thrust all the students out into the sweltering August heat. I was wearing the required uniform of the time: wide-legged Jnco jeans, a washed-out thrift store baseball tee, black combat boots, a Claire’s beaded choker and Manic Panic cotton candy pink streaks in my jet-black curly hair. A tall brunette approached me excitedly.
“Hey, aren’t you that girl from the Montel Williams show?” she asked.
“Uhh, no… I think you have the wrong person,” I said.
She laughed it off and suddenly I found myself being pulled through the crowd towards The Tree, a shaded corner across the street from the school where all the rocker kids lounged under an old pepper tree—before, during and after school. She quickly introduced me to her misfit friends as the girl she just confused for the one on the Montel Williams show and I thought: well, it could be worse. The group that had gathered was debating what to do for the weekend when someone mentioned there was going to be a show.
At the time, the music scene in our town was tiny. Indie rock bands played to small overexcited crowds, in whatever space they could find. Most weekends, kids stood around listening to live music in old-timey wood-paneled and carpeted pool halls, makeshift indoor skate parks and warehouses that housed ice cream trucks by night and future rock stars by day. You knew there was a show coming up only by the cheap black-and-white flyers that were passed out at the event you were currently attending. They were simple ads—usually listed band names like, a time, a place and a rough hand-drawn sketch of a nun bent over while a priest takes her from behind.
The first time I interacted with Him was at a hole-in-the-wall bar that was command central for the local rockers. At the time, the neighborhood was very sketchy. You had to tip the homeless guy on the corner to “keep an eye” on your car, which was parked on the side of the street. If you didn’t throw the guy a couple of bucks, he would look the other way if someone tried to break into it. The place was grungy, but the bartenders never carded and they called you “sweetheart” and “darling” when asking: “What’ll you be havin’?”
The boy was tall, skinny, pale and shy. He stood around cracking stupid jokes with his friends, but didn’t really say much else. He called me “rosy cheeks,” handed me a demo of his band and asked if I wanted a beer. He was cute and his smile was genuine. It might have been the way he threw a glance in my direction every so often, as though he was trying to make a decision, which caught my initial attention. But it was his emotional intelligence that ultimately did me in. I crushed hard for years and then he became just another addiction.
It wasn’t long after the 11th grade started that a close-knit group of us all became very good friends. We shared a common love of music and an open optimism for life beyond what we knew. We felt bigger than our town. We lived for each other and the weekends, when we would steal away and enjoy the life of a rebellious teenager's dream. We skipped school to watch scary movies that I borrowed from my part-time job at Blockbuster. We hung out on the beach. We drank beers in empty parking lots, while listening to Sunny Day Real Estate. On Sundays, we snuck into clubs, where we danced to Depeche Mode and made fun of the Goth kids. When the weather was nice, we’d pack into my two-door Toyota Tercel and drive out to my parent's beach place to get high on weed and roll on ecstasy. When any one of our parents went away on vacation, we’d take over that friend’s empty house and throw bacchanalia-style get-togethers. We were friends, lovers and family. Young and free, surrounded by my new friends, I felt safe, understood and loved. Life had yet to burden me with the death of my parents, debt and true heartache. I was so lucky then and didn’t know it.
When I look back at the happiest point in my life, I’m transported to the summer of 1998. I’m seventeen and six of us have all drifted off to sleep, laid out across the couches and beds in my 3-bedroom house. My parents are in Cuba for the next two weeks and I have the whole place to myself. Earlier that night we had killed two bottles of tequila, a 24-pack of beer and smoked tons of pot. We danced like idiots, took silly pictures and cracked jokes at each other’s expense. The sun was beginning to rise and there was Nagchampa incense from the local Hare Krishna temple wafting through the air. Somewhere in the background, The Cure’s “Lovesong” is playing.
It’s just us two. We’re lying on my parents’ king-sized bed, which is covered in a bright sunflower-patterned duvet. The blinds are halfway open. The cool morning sun is creeping in. We’re spooning and fully clothed when he asks me to give him cosquillita to help him fall asleep. This is the first time that we are alone together. My fingers tremble as they make small circles on his back, under his shirt. I tune into his breathing and wonder if he could tell how nervous and excited I am to be lying next to him. Then, I slowly slide my arm around to his front—to lightly caress his flat stomach. His breathing remains steady, while mine becomes labored, as my fingers trace the trail between his belly button and the elastic band of his boxers. Then my pinky grazes the head of his cock...
When a junkie indulges in addictive behavior, they are always chasing that first high. There is nothing like your first. Over time, it just doesn’t feel the same and you eventually require inordinate amounts of the substance to barely gratify the intense urges that beg for relief. But every hit after your first, no matter how big, will never compare. Chasing that dream is how you find yourself hitting rock bottom. And from that place is where you can begin to recover. The problem with my addiction to Him, is that it's bottomless.
When I lived in New York, he came into town a handful of times. Beforehand, we’d make plans to see each other—texting feverishly about all the dirty things we were going to do to one another when we were finally face-to-face and alone, in my apartment. But, I never did keep my promise and left my phone unanswered for days. His presence was too much for me to handle. The two worlds did not fit on one island. I had left Miami to escape my ghosts and he was a haunting reminder of life before cancer. But on my yearly trips back to Miami for the holidays, I sought Him out anxiously. Having Him took away the stress of being back home and made visits with my extended family bearable.
Over the years, our physical connection evolved. The sex got better, hotter, more intense and extremely depraved. While the ability to reach orgasm has always been exciting in and of itself, for me it has always been more than just sex. Fucking Him is a journey back in time—to a moment in history when I was inexperienced, full of dreams and could never imagine the battle that would wage inside and torment me for years to come. When his lips touch mine and I’m full of him, I’m transported to the summer of 1998.
Over the years, we’ve tested the limits of degeneracy by outdoing our last encounter. We’ve stayed in dirty cheap motel rooms on, driven to dangerous neighborhoods for drugs and have been careless in many other ways. When we saw each other last year, I did $200 worth of coke and Molly in one night and then we fucked for 12 hours. It was exhilarating, filled my deviant soul and took me where I wanted to go: away. At the time, I needed to be transported to that moment and place. I had just moved back to Miami and the demons I thought I had left behind were patiently waiting for my return. I wanted to run so badly, but I got high off Him instead. Then, like when I’m coming off a coke high, when I couldn’t have more of Him I lost my shit. I spiraled out of control and found myself trapped in that place all addicts succumb to when the drugs have run out and you have no more money.
Some days, I wish that my desire would have remained as innocent as it once was; a simple high school crush. Unfortunately, it became another one of my sick afflictions and probably the most dangerous, because I've never had a bad trip. Each time I’m with Him, I reach new levels of high. Quitting Him is just not an option. Living clean would mean erasing a memory that I never want to let go. It means losing that place that once existed, where my parents will be back from Cuba in two weeks and I am safe and loved.
It must have been no later than 8am on a Saturday, because the light was breaking behind the warehouses on the east side of the Palmetto. The air was cool and crisp; it was winter in Miami. That morning, Mami woke me and Annette up early, made us café con leche and told us we were going to see you. I don’t recall how she explained why this meeting was taking place in the Mall of The America’s parking lot, but there we were waiting for your white 1989 Bronco to pull in. It had been a few months since we had last seen you, since you had left on your business trip. The visit lasted just a few minutes. You hugged Mami and told us that you missed us and would be home soon. And just like that, we were on the highway on our way back to Hialeah without you. Mami cried all the way home.
This wasn’t unusual growing up. Throughout the years, you popped in-and-out—always living between two places. But you always made sure your time with us was the most memorable. The three of us, Mami, Annette and me, had grown accustomed to being a family of our own, with you as recurring guest. And while you may have missed unimportant events, like: science projects, trips to the doctor, Saturday morning pancakes and volleyball games, you always tried to make it up to us on our birthdays, during the holidays and on family day. Sundays were our day to pile into Mami’s blue Cadillac and eat lunch at a fancy restaurant as a family. Then you’d spend the rest of the afternoon showering us with gifts as we went shopping around town.
Do you remember that one Sunday when I was eight years old when we went to an upscale seafood restaurant downtown? As we walked up the steps toward the entrance, Annette and Mami leading the way with you and me trailing behind, a man jumped out from the bushes. He snatched Mami’s brown handbag and pushed her down the steps. It was an expensive purse that you had bought her on a recent business trip, which she wore with so much pride. As both she and Annette tumbled down the front steps, you ran after the thief. He dove in head first through the back seat window of a getaway car and sped away, as you ran to our car to get your 9mm Berretta from the glove compartment. I followed you, scared.
You saw me trailing you and yelled at me to go back and help Mami. You stopped in the middle of the street and pointed your gun in the direction of the car that was quickly speeding away. It was too late. They had made a left at the light and were no longer within range. The restaurant hostess had seen everything and called the police. We were escorted inside and statements were taken. After we had all regrouped and credit cards were cancelled, you proudly recounted how fearlessly I had run after the bad guys. But, I wasn’t running after the bad guys, I was running after you.
I was your quintessential daddy’s girl – a Jewish-Cuban princess who got everything and anything she ever wanted. My closet and dressers were filled with the clothes and accessories of a teenage girl’s dream. On my seventh birthday, you came home with Minnie, a Shih-Tzu puppy who would later round out our family and always stand guard when you weren’t around. On my ninth birthday, you lied and told me that you hadn’t bought me anything. I was so hurt. I thought you didn’t love me. I ran crying to my bedroom and crawled into the bottom bunk of the bed I shared with my sister. You followed me into the room and told me that if I was going to be a spoiled brat that the least I could do was cry from the top bunk, which is where I slept. I yelled at you to go away, but you insisted that I move. When finally I climbed the stairs to my bunk, I found a bright pink boom box with a bow on it. You laughed and hugged me and told me that you would never forget my birthday. You were always playing pranks like that. For my 12th birthday, you bought me my first set of pearls. When I turned thirteen, we took a trip to Spain to celebrate. For my quinces, you and Mami threw me a quinceañera party, which you told me cost $30,000. As soon as I was of driving age, you gave me my first new car. And on my 18th birthday, you came home with a platinum Montblanc pen. You said you hoped it would inspire me to write the greatest words ever written.
Most of my memories of you come attached to the things you bought me. You were the new Bongo Jeans, the Motorola cell phone, the brand new white and pink bedroom set. I was surrounded by you, but you were never there.
I know you tried. You taught me that a girl could do anything a boy could. You hammered in me the importance of going to school and never letting anyone take me for a sucker. If I was home sick and you happened to be in town, you’d take me with you as you ran business errands. I was your little assistant. On these days, I got to see first-hand what it was like to get “things” done.
Like that day we went to visit your cousin, to collect some money he owed you after you helped him get his trucking business started. You asked me to wait in the car while you met him inside his office. You expected things to get ugly and you didn’t want me to see the two of you arguing. I remember it was raining. I sat in your black Pontiac Bonneville, listening to Jose Feliciano. I studied the gun in the glove compartment.
After you collected your payment in full, we went to a small cafeteria in Little Havana for coffee and pastelitos. As you sipped your colada and flirted with the waitress, my eyes lit up when they spotted the Butterfinger candy bars in the glass case beneath the coffee window. I didn’t even have to ask. Seconds later, there were two Butterfingers in my hands–one for me and one for Annette.
These days, I think about how if you only knew what would become of me, you might have changed some of the choices you made. Would you have tried your hand at a noble profession that paid little, but set a good example for your daughters?
When Mami was dying of cancer at Mercy Hospital, five years before you lost your own battle, she looked at me the way one looks at a starving child in Africa, in a Save the Children commercial; it pulls at your heartstrings, but you know deep down there is nothing you can really do to change that kid’s future. The last time she spoke to me, she said, “Can you imagine it? A father provides for his family by trafficking the very thing his daughter later becomes addicted to.” That’s when it all came into sharp focus–when the trips to Puerto Rico, the extravagant parties and the lavish jewelry, car and houses all finally made sense. I had just turned 21.
I am comforted by the fact that while you weren’t physically there for us, or a model citizen, you did love us in your own way. You always protected us, especially from the reality of your career. The only one who truly suffered was Mami, who didn’t always know if you would make it home that night, while Annette and I assumed you always would. We didn’t know any better.
You grew up poor, on the streets of Cuba–bouncing from family to family and sometimes even crashing with friends, after your mother handed you over to her mother so that she could start a new family with her second husband. Later, your grandmother would try to commit suicide in front of you when you were nine years old. You grew up with nothing, but always found a way to survive. Once in America, your ambitions found a fertile underground world where your dreams of being wealthy could finally come true. You put yourself in danger in order to give us what we needed, except you.
Later, when it was your turn to lie in a hospital bed dying of cancer, one of my best friends from middle school came to visit. She walked into that cold and sterile room at Coral Gables Hospital and found you buried underneath a pile of blankets. You were weak and skinny–almost unrecognizable, except for your strong hands. Even as the morphine dosage increased, they continued to mimic the act of lighting a cigarette, which you did several times a day, every day, for 40 years. I fondly remembered how I used to wrap my little hand around one of your big fingers, as we walked along side each other. My friend smiled at you and asked: “Hola Viejo, te acuerdas de mi?” (Hey old man, remember me?).
You smiled graciously, but I knew you didn’t recognize her. It was Mami who drove Grisel and me to gymnastics every day after school in the sixth grade. It was Mami who made us s’mores and popcorn when Grisel slept over. Mami was the one who knew that Grisel’s mom, Elena, called her by her nickname “Cookie” and once borrowed her recipe for natilla pudding with vanilla wafers, because I couldn’t stop raving about it.
In that moment, any anger I may have felt towards you for not being around, melted away. I felt sorry for you. You were once my hero and overnight had become an unfit father. But just then, you turned into a poor old man who was never really able to enjoy the true riches that this life had to offer.
Growing up, it was rare when you were around. On those occasions when you missed my birthday, you would send me a bouquet of one dozen pink roses. It always made me feel like the most loved and most special girl in the world. The card would always read: “Feliz cumpleaños a mi bella hija. De tu papa, que te quiere.” (Happy birthday, to my beautiful daughter. From you father, who loves you.) I would go to school and tell everyone about it feeling so important. Today, I wonder if those flowers ever really came from you or if Mami sent them on your behalf. I have so many questions that I know will go unanswered. Your business associates may know more about you than your family did. They called you “El Ingeniero,” (The Engineer), a nickname you carried proudly. But no matter what you did or didn’t do, after all these years, you were and will always be Papi–the only man to ever send me a bouquet of flowers.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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