Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 4: Detox
A new day and an afternoon taxi ride into the unknown wilderness of rehab. Hazy sleep brought some levity as my emotions stopped bouncing like a pinball. I set out hoping my destination would result in improvement on yesterday’s fiasco. I had no alternative. Pity party was not on today’s agenda.
I registered and took a seat in the waiting room. No fights outside, a good sign. Inside, it was spacious, clean, almost too quiet for a medical facility. The pale green walls were adorned with a number of framed wildlife stills, the matching green carpets looked newly vacuumed and the staple reception magazine titles carried the present month’s name. It felt akin to a business reception area. Surely screams of pain and howls of anguish lay behind this façade.
Flicking through a newspaper, flanked by two patients, I glanced up as the doors flew open and a police officer led a shackled, young man in an orange jump suit into the room. A smartly dressed older lady accompanied him. After filling in his initial paperwork at reception, the orange clad youth, eighteen at best, sat opposite me across the table causing two people beside me to leave their seats in a hurry.
Continuing to read, I could feel eyes on me. Those of the young man in orange. I looked up to see him tilting his head at my newspaper to read the scores on the back. I asked the shackled party and officer if they wanted to read the sports section. The officer first looked at his guest and spoke some Spanish and then nodded at me to pass it across.
“Gracias,” the young man responded. He fingered his way to the results. He spoke little English so I asked, through the officer, if his team won.
Talking through the officer, he responded with a sigh and a half-hearted smile, “We lost but that’s nothing new.” He then said something to the policeman.
“He’s asking if your team won,” the officer replied.
I pointed to the New Orleans Saints Fleur de Lis logo on my suitcase, let out a sigh with a similar half-hearted smile to mirror his own team’s current fortunes. The officer chuckled at this exchange.
“Simon,” I waved as an introduction. No English spoken between us but my first conversation in more than a day which wasn’t blighted by tears, shame and guilt.
“Simon Tait,” I heard called from behind me.
I smiled a goodbye to all three before handing my bags over for searching. On signing the release papers granting permission to look through my belongings, I started to shake again and the waiting nurse noticed, asking, “Tremors?”
“I just have nerves. I always have.” I was lying without thinking. It dawned on me that I was talking to a professional in an institution for alcoholism and still hiding behind my schemes. Pinocchio had nothing on me.
I was led into another waiting room. Windowless, it felt like a holding cell for a suspect in a police precinct. A television was mounted on the wall. No standard waiting room reading material. My new surroundings were completely uninspiring. I looked around for a remote control as the program playing started to get under my skin. It centered on this really weird individual. Gee, he looked out of control. Drink never had this effect on me. Eyes wide open, he appeared to buzz on something but came across as intelligible, if a little animated.
His continual antics seriously affected my nerves. Judging by his inability to stay in one spot for any length of time, he was definitely on something. It coincided with my own unraveling. He was wired and akin to my emotional state over the last twenty-four hours. My shakes intermittently returned. Each time I glanced around the room for something else to examine my eyes were drawn back to his skinny frame.
A doctor popped in, breaking the tension. “We’ll be with you shortly for some tests, sir. We’re running behind. You can change the channel if you like. SpongeBob isn’t to everyone’s taste.”
I sat alone in the room watching SpongeBob SquarePants, as I now know him to be, for the first time. Staring into space with a blank expression, I was surrounded by four grey walls and the wee yellow fella high on life in his own little world.
Thankfully, I was joined by an elderly lady using a walking aid and we indulged in a conversation about our addictions. She was a sweetheart and told me a few things about where I was heading, what to expect and how long it took to process our registration. In her mid-sixties, this was not her first time here and she talked freely about her issues which took me out of my motionless mind state.
“Can I ask you something else?” she said in her gentle, Texan twang.
I was thinking, I’d answered everything I could over the last day, so why not? I nodded.
She smiled at me and said, “That’s a lovely accent. Where are you from?”
“Scotland. Scottish accent,” I replied.
She had an ‘I knew it’ look on her face and a little smile of content crept in to confirm.
“That’s in Australia isn’t it? I heard y’all have a beautiful country out there.”
I didn’t have the courage or desire to tell her there were ten thousand miles between the two countries. No geography expert either, I wouldn’t dare. I looked back, as she clung to her stick with one hand and tapped the desk with the other, still smiling at her placing my country of citizenship. To tell the truth, I could have given her a hug.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s gorgeous, very green,” I replied.
I allowed myself to drift off, thinking of how green it was before snapping out of it. I was entering someplace alien in an already foreign country. Yes, the U.S. is not some backwater, but it wasn’t my home, I was thousands of miles from that. The thought of no contact with anyone filled my mind with doubt about coping. My internal anguish and anxiety pinged around again.
The lovely lady told me that we could only make calls within the U.S. for a maximum of five minutes. There was no way I was calling my friend Terry again and, if five minutes was the maximum, international calls would not be available. I shifted from not feeling able to call home from my apartment to this new mindset of wanting to call someone back home. Anyone. My disorientation continued as I felt I was coming apart at the seams.
An hour or so later I was naked barring my boxer shorts, discussing the latest Batman graphic novels with a nurse who, like me, was a superhero fan. Holy room changes, Robin. My Batman tattoo was the giveaway. These interactions – seemingly frivolous to you – from the young man in shackles to the nurse via SpongeBob, represented more non-work human contact than I had experienced in months. I was genuinely grateful. Dark Knight admiration completed, I was heading to the ‘unit’.
Now this place didn’t exactly sound like the Ritz Carlton.
On registering yet again at what seemed like a tour of receptions, my toiletries, cell phone and pretty much all personal belongings were removed. I felt like I was a naughty boy in school again.
Should I want to brush my teeth or shower, I needed to report to reception. Towels posed a threat to patient safety so could only be obtained and returned there. My sneaker laces were taken along with my belt, so my jeans sagged badly below my ass. This later turned into a much needed source of humor for fellow guests as I self-deprecatingly dubbed myself a mix between 90s hip-hop artists MC Hammer and Kris Kross Jump! Jump!
In between standing hunched over the reception desk filling in forms, I stole glances over both shoulders at my new surroundings. It resembled a Big Brother TV location minus gimmicks and windows. Directly behind me, a communal living area with television, sofas, desks and board games. Two telephones on the wall beside large, double doors which were locked and, according to the sign, only entered with supervision. A corridor stretched to my right. On seeing people exit and enter rooms on each side, I took a guess this was personal living quarters. Another set of locked double doors signaled the end of the corridor.
My mini reconnaissance pre-empted a general induction to the facility minutes later. I learned that the outside area was through the double doors on my left and restaurant at the end of the corridor to my right. Paths to both areas were highlighted by red paint on the floor meaning access only with a staff member present. Message understood.
I headed to my room to find my roommate seemingly absent, just his clothes stacked in a high drawer-less cabinet. It looked like standard Ikea issue. One I’d seen a million times during visits to the store with an ex-partner. It momentarily took me back to Saturday afternoons plodding through the aisles counting the hours to beer o’clock and the end of boredom.
Then my roomy arrived, all 6’5” of him, stocky, bald, dark skin with a handshake which made my five fingers seems like a toddler’s.
“You can call me ‘The Horse’,” he bellowed.
“I’m Simon,” I replied with far less gusto.
The Horse told me if I needed anything, he was the man who could get it for me. Have I wandered into a Shawshank Redemption remake? Do I ask for a rock hammer and an Audrey Hepburn poster? But he made me feel welcome which was comforting and within five minutes he was introducing me to the rest of ‘300’, our unit’s name, outside in the smoking area.
I met around a dozen people - male and female, ranging from late teens to early 40s from different ethnic backgrounds - who instantly put any silly fears of being an outsider at ease. The first of them was ‘D Roc’ who, much to my amusement, would later refuse to acknowledge his real name during therapy sessions, reminding the presenter to call him by his pseudonym. As the only Brit there, my new friends called me ‘London’. Why not ‘Australia’?
While they retreated from the smoking area to inside for an assortment of card games and Connect Four, I sat watching television, taking it all in. Although I felt an outsider, it was much better than I’d hoped.
The first night’s sleep was difficult. Even though I felt a slight high from the medication, a combination of the heat from The Horse’s fan, alcohol sweats, and my body puzzled by lack of liquor meant I was scarcely able to drop off. This was exacerbated by a 2.00 am intervention to insure we hadn’t attempted suicide and a 5:30 am blood pressure and defibrillator check.
Nights two and part of three were the worst, and even The Horse commented that he heard me shaking. It was horrid. My body played a crazy rhythm on the mattress over which my mind had no control. I just had to go along with the ride.
First it was my arms, then chest, then legs and, turning over on to my other side of my body - a good idea at the time - only shifted the balance there. The sweats became a welcome distraction. When I seemingly dozed off, I saw shapes whizzing by me which forced me to spring out of my attempted slumber. The scene in the Scottish movie Trainspotting where the addict Renton is experiencing a horrific ‘cold turkey’ heroine experience crossed my mind as I clung to my sheets.
Still, no sickness. I yearned for it in the hope that a different physical act would take my body away from the tremors and ever increasing sweats. On my knees, crouched around the bowl, hands and arms shaking as if I were trying to tear the toilet from its mooring, I kept trying to cough myself to vomit. I resorted to two fingers down my throat. All it produced was a ball of mucus and saliva. Every morning when I was drinking, I upchucked with zero effort. Now pleading with my body to do so, it ignored my wishes.
After night three I woke up to the daily checks, exhausted, fragile and woozy. My blood pressure soared. Perhaps it was the thrashing around or my higher med intake from the night before. The thirty yard walk to reception for towels felt like I was ‘on the sauce’ again. Clinging to the rail and slowly placing one foot in front of the other, it seemed like a mile. And I felt as if everyone in eye sight looked at me suspiciously as if I’d ‘snuck some in’. This was paranoia at its worst, and I could barely look up or in front of me.
Back in my room, I sat in darkness on the edge of the bed. My mind crept close to more wallowing in self-pity, but I was well and truly pitied out. Empty. Absolutely nothing left to ‘boo hoo poor me’ about.
Only The Horse’s snoring and a single thought occupied my attention: ‘this addiction was not worth it’ or put bluntly ‘see how f____ up you’ve become’.
I crossed the room, stepping over my roommate’s clothes to the bathroom to take a shower.
The water cleansed my pores and soothed my scalp, washing liters of sweat away. Taking deep breaths I cupped both hands in the water and splashed my hand bowl of H2O against my ruddy, leather-like skin. Then I gave in, just closing my eyes and placing my face under the shower head feeling the miniature jets of water. I took my time and needed to.
I enjoyed better showers but I’d never enjoyed a shower more. As I rinsed, I considered my situation and took stock, real stock. Not ‘I’m going to stop tomorrow’ or ‘I’m drinking too much but one more night won’t kill me’ thoughts. The damage to my body and liver, which was later confirmed by a physician’s tests, and the toll it had taken on my psychological well-being, later confirmed by a psychiatrist, were starting points.
My time here would not be served just drying out, I told myself. If the emotional impact of failing the breathalyzer wasn’t bad enough, then the physical effects of the last couple of days were the final nail in my drinking coffin.
Over the next seven days I listened and learned from my fellow guests. It began when we attended a group therapy session. We were asked to state why we were here. Silent – okay – dumb, during the previous day’s session, a sudden bravery came over me, and I stuck up my hand first and proceeded to tell every detail.
Little did I realize we were only meant to state our name and addiction. I spilled everything from being sent home to the tears to the booze I polished at will which landed me there. On finishing I looked around the classroom at a bunch of faces looking at me in silence.
Immediately after my detailed confession, a young woman offered me advice on my issues and the presence of God in my life. She seemed confident but fragile at the same time. As if this wasn’t her first time in rehab. I was intrigued by this stranger as she told me about her heroin addiction – offering needle ridden arms as evidence – her broken marriage and determination to get clean.
“I want my kids back, what’s your name again?”
“Yeah that’s right. Simon, I just want my kids back,” she repeated. “I’m Claire by the way, you’re not from around here huh?”
“How did you guess?”
“Funny too. How about you? You got kids?”
Ah that question which follows me around. I think I know what’s coming next.
“Married? I don’t see a wedding ring but that doesn’t mean much. Divorced?”
“I’m single without kids and have never been married and as you just heard I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m a dope addict so we’ll get along just fine, me and you,” she winked and off she went.
My sharing with the group produced an unusual feeling. It was like the liar had “fessed up.” I paid close attention to others in the session, feeling an empathy with their experience. Their stories resonated. It felt as if I was spewing out the lies and swallowing a refreshing glass of honesty in return. For the first time in a long time I didn’t resent everything about myself because I saw my shortcomings in others. However, I was still confused and apprehensive that this was a fleeting respite in a path leading to back to pain and self-hate.
As much as I could identify with the shared experiences in an upbeat manner, a darker mood in 300 was never far away. During afternoon spells in between classes, boredom would set in and once it did, the alcohol craving came knocking. Oh, wouldn’t a beer just take the edge off things! Just one beer! It wasn’t as if we hoped the nurse was going to crack open a keg and we could all have one and then get back to rehabilitation. Well, we did. But the thought of alcohol sure took up space in that void.
Several times I counted the hours until the meds were distributed, anxious to feel a slight numbing of the senses. Some days it passed agonizingly slow, and as expected, not every patient was likeable. Craving attention, particular guests bragged openly about their outside exploits which set off a competition. Some of us sat in silence, while others who attempted to do so couldn’t curtail their tolerance. Arguments ensued thick and fast. These only made the cravings worse.
Once the morning meds kicked in, most individuals felt calm. We would go full cycle by the end of the night following our final meds. After heading out into the smoking area to puff down two or three cigarettes in ten minutes, we trudged back light headed and zombie like. I once caught sight of the group ahead of me after such a break, and knowing I was one of them, felt it was a sorry state to be in.
It was saddening to witness the sheer depression of my friends. Slumped over chairs, eyes glazed as the drugs kicked in will live with me forever. An individual would project happiness then an hour later could be seen staring at the floor, wishing for a beer or their particular poison.
On one occasion I watched D Roc suffer extreme withdrawal symptoms, rocking on his seat, lips white, arms crossed, shaking all over. I took him to one side and dabbed his sweat-laden head with a wet towel. He was always the strong type so it was tough to see someone you cared about in such a way.
Some confessed a wish to commit suicide. Despite my own willingness to self-destruct through alcohol, I could not entertain such a thought. One very nearly took her own life, while several admitted that their time here was a stop gap before they turned back to their habit. For one guest, his stay represented the twelfth time he had been in and out of recovery. “All part of the tour,” he joked. I fumed at his arrogance and subsequent lack of respect for the investment of time by the facility and its staff.
I’ve always been one of the quiet types in a group and this trait served me well. You never knew what world you entered in someone’s mind. Sometimes it was best to wait until you were spoken to.
Several attendees approached me after my first share to offer support and thank me for my honesty. I felt humbled. One such person was a sweet girl in her early twenties who had lovely large brown eyes, a radiant smile and a penchant for tying her bobbed hair back only to untie it minutes later. I learned from her that she suffered from depression and had spells where she intensely disliked herself to the point of danger. This depression had led and fed an addiction to crystal meth and benzodiazepines. Carrying out her hair tying habit, she asked me if I could list twenty-five things I liked about myself.
I found her to be a joy and was surprised she couldn’t find one likeable trait. We indulged each other with a self-deprecating catalogue of likes, knowing too many truths about our behavior and lack of self-respect could fill an alternative dislike inventory. Twenty-four hours after our conversation, she sat weeping at the table and no big hug or ‘it’ll be fine’ advice would stop the downpour. The mood swings were like a pendulum. Personally, I felt as if I had well and truly spent my allocation on the crazy day at work and the apartment then unloaded my winnings entering the rehab clinic. I felt swung out.
A classically beautiful 1950’s era looking accountant was there because of her addiction to pills and burn out and she sat alone motionless, her stunning features frozen as she gazed listlessly into thin air. I recognized that look from my brush with SpongeBob. She had a natural poise and grace, but those attributes deserted her body on several occasions, and you were left with a tragically sad shell in front of you.
After supper one evening, we sat at a table and she told me about her experiences, almost murmuring them to me. She felt empty, and I tried to describe the stripping which I felt I’d just undergone. It’s not too difficult to remember how she looked at me, and I could see my own pain looking back. Holding hands and touching was forbidden so we clasped pinky fingers under the table for a couple of minutes.
But when the darkness gave way to light it usually did so with style. One day I returned to the living quarters and found The Horse and D Roc looking each other square in the eyes at a table. I was worried it was a negative confrontation, so sidled close enough to listen. D Roc was a student of God having undertaken evangelical studies for eight years. The Horse was asking him to pray for his mom who suffered terribly on the eve of Thanksgiving Week. They clasped hands and bowed heads as D Roc prayed.
Four hours later I’d never seen someone so happy outside a graduation, marriage or sporting success. The Horse didn’t need his meds now. He was bouncing off the walls with the news that his mom was out of bed and in the process of cooking three pies for her boys for Thanksgiving. He was due for release the next day.
Overall, the ‘chalk and talk’ style classes were positive and well-structured if blurry in terms of taking away lessons to learn. I guess that was a reflection of my mind state. I found the introduction of a step guide to assist in recovery a little puzzling. It sounded too simplistic, and the accompanying worksheets too school-themed. Twelve steps to recovery felt like a distant cousin of ‘just say no’. I’d learn more about those twelve steps very soon.
During my stay I recorded a number of adjectives in the small notebook we were given on registration. Writing long sentences was pointless as the small pencils on hand lasted all of five minutes and no tools were on hand to sharpen their tips.
Fearing, Hating, Suffering, Tiring, Saddening and Sharing were now joined by Connecting.
The Horse left as scheduled and I moved to a new room with a new roommate. J turned into a great friend too, but I missed the larger-than-life presence of The Horse and felt indebted to him for helping me settle. I didn’t miss his snoring. But still, the thought that I missed a relative stranger was not lost on me. Connection indeed.
Seeing guests welcome visitors on a Saturday evening was bitter sweet. It was lovely being able to see the joy in the room that immediately ensued people greeting each other, but, my mind wandered to my family back in the UK. With that I picked up a magazine and headed to my room to let those emotions and thoughts pass without the need to linger any further. It was easier that way.
But still there was this presence I was growing closer to, Claire, or Trouble Maker, as she soon became known courtesy of a comment from a staff nurse who observed us enjoying banter. I immediately concurred with her observation and the name stuck. Her pendulum mood swings were a constant concern though as I felt uncertain of her mood or when and how to approach her. In between the jokes she shared a lot of personal pain and regret, the extent to which I’d never been privy to before in my life. All from a stranger.
We were always eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together or playing cards at night. Our cat and mouse antics soon had the gossips’ tongues wagging. I found this out from Claire one morning at breakfast. Just as I placed my first spoon on Cheerios into my mouth, she sat down beside me at the table and in her brazen style pronounced,
“Morning Simon, so y’all should know people think we are screwing.”
Those sweet honey rings barely navigated my throat when they were fighting my closed mouth to re-enter earth’s surface. Battling the crimson tide of embarrassment spreading across my face I looked up at Trouble Maker who was grinning.
“I’m flattered,” I barely managed to eek out.
Trouble Maker looked around the restaurant. I thought she was checking on the gossips.
Shrugging her shoulders while scanning the room she exclaimed,
“I mean, we’re not allowed to hold hands so how are we gonna even get away with that shit in here?”
“You’ve never done it without holding hands,” I shot back, quite proud of my witty response.
“In here.” My witty response seemingly lost.
“So would you like to stay in touch when we get outside?”
“I’d really like that. I got word this morning from the doctor I’m due to leave tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” she snapped and promptly picked up her tray and left the table. For fear of creating a scene I finished my breakfast. Later that day we crossed paths in the corridor and after an awkward eyeballing exchanged a big hug. We made a commitment to keep in touch.
She was great company and a welcome friend. I once again had that feeling of connection and solace in another. Having been away from close friends for a long time and having driven myself to loneliness with a bottle in hand, the strength of companionship kept showing up. On one evening after the dawn of the dead walk back to my room, I opened my notebook and wrote ‘hope’.
When I was told I was being released, I felt a relief. I was going home. But the emotions of saying goodbye to people I trusted was overwhelming. I gave D Roc my soccer team’s jersey from the UK and he immediately put it on. I struggled packing my release forms into my suitcase and my accountant friend rushed over to help me zip up, to hug me and to say she enjoyed getting to know me. It was difficult to digest such a sweet moment and I froze for a second just looking at her green eyes, dark hair and high cheekbones suspending that beautiful smile across her face. Girl twenty-five clasped me close wishing me all the best. I waved to Trouble Maker, whose meds were kicking in, but she still managed a smile through her glaze. It was time to leave.
I opened the door on my apartment, unpacked and sat on my sofa, unsuccessfully trying to process my period in rehab. Everything happened so fast but at a pace where it felt I’d been in a dream sequence. No emails, texts, internet or calls meant each day didn’t arrive with its name. It was just a day and you got on with living in that bubble. I had accepted my fears and tried to live on those terms for a few days or at least I think I did. Confusion remained king. Perhaps I could begin to piece something back together from the broken body and mind I’d created for myself. I hoped.
It was coming up on 9:30 p.m. and, although happy to be home, I missed my new friends back in 300. They would be outside puffing on some smokes just now. I headed out to my porch wishing I was sitting next to Trouble Maker and D Roc.
I took my new and reduced dosage of meds called Naltrexon. A small carry-over dose was given to me before leaving the facility to keep me good until I received the full prescription. I read about the drug, its aim (reduce relapse rates after abstinence), side effects and ingredients and once again thought of how far I’d slumped. Enough, time for bed.
The mattress felt comfortable but my mind felt uncertain and slightly apprehensive that only three hundred yards away Jose was behind his counter. I slowly drifted off.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.