Women Only, Please

By Karen Collazo  

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?”

“My what?”

“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. 

The Precipice

By Karen Collazo

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.