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.
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.
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