Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 9: Recovery
Sandwiched in between the weekends in New Orleans and Las Vegas, I began intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), a new experience on my recovery road. An information brochure at the facility told me it uses twelve step and proven clinical treatment methods to help you make positive changes in your life.
The twelve step concept sounded familiar from my time in detox. Aside from scribbled notes, memories of people and a write up of my time, the whole experience - in terms of learning - is hazy. I attended the required classes and contributed my fair share so I was nervous that so little of the learning part resonated.
On my first day I met a counselor to talk about my addiction. Before entering the room, I felt a failure. I was too strong to see a counselor, capable of facing my own problems. Discussing personal issues was for the mental or insanely rich. At detox, counseling is mandatory, but in the outside world, attending was akin to admitting failure. So much for my ego. It was still intact.
The counselor, who introduced herself as Karen, looked like a young, but very wise, Ivy League scholar. Her milk bottle glasses, soft, calming voice, cardigan and stack of books in every corner of her cubby-hole office fitted the profile. I was asked a number of questions and didn’t hold back in my replies from self-esteem to nerves to loneliness and everything in between.
My analysis didn’t feel complimentary but I wasn’t there to garner gold stars. The conclusion wasn’t earth shattering news – dual disorder of alcoholism and psychiatric illness, low self-esteem and danger of self-harm – but seeing it in writing hit home.
This facility felt more like a small educational establishment. The reception area gave way to a medical consultation section to the right and counseling to the left. Behind reception in a separate block, were several annexes and a patient residential block. It felt like a mini version of the college I attended in Aberdeen, which put me at ease.
I attended my first class, part of three, three-hour sessions per week, and introduced myself to the group. Similar to my detox unit, they ranged in age, sex and ethnic background. Their first task was ‘processing’ - a description of personal experiences in response to a set of questions in a workbook. Feedback from group members was rounded off by comment from the professional counselor who led the discussion. Group exercises followed before closing with required urine samples and breathalyzer tests. It was an interesting start and that night I spent time reviewing my workbook. The honesty of my new classmates and professionalism of the staff had left me with plenty to ponder.
That same night I again looked over the twelve steps. Sitting at my kitchen table, I put my workbook down and checked through my rehab folder. The latter included handouts on the steps which I had dismissed as soft facility reading. I read them and linked the content to the sharing of others earlier in the day.
I heard about the steps during the rest of the week and was asked to process work based on step one for our next class.
On compiling that first assignment, my words flowed. I hadn’t written with such enthusiasm since I was a teenager living my sports journalist fantasy. Back then, I sat in front of a television compiling soccer reports based on watching thirty minute highlight reels and filed them to an imaginary editor.
But this wasn’t sport, television or my soccer heroes. It was as depressing and downbeat as it could get, but it was coming out and I just let go.
That first step - ‘We admitted our lives were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable as a result’ - led to an awakening. It wasn’t rain drops of wisdom here and there about my failings in the past but a thunderstorm of honesty and recognition that my life was an ugly, unorganized pile of shit.
My addiction led me here and I was the root of my addiction. One small sentence from those steps in a workbook led me to this conclusion. Albeit with the aid of a question added to describe its appliance to me. I was eager to share this with my classmates, and for the first time in an educational environment, I looked forward - really looked forward - to attending my next class.
Talking this first step through with others provided a sense of empowerment despite admitting to being powerless. Before class we stated our name and addiction but that was introductions. This was leaving it all out there.
My desire to share was matched by a desire to listen to others, and in doing so, I focused as if both of us were alone in a room. I began to know my classmates better than my work colleagues so it was with sadness that a fellow attendee, Tom, prepared to leave in week two after completing three months. Three months, I thought. Super impressive.
Tom was a gentleman who was processing on the first day I arrived. His honesty and fearlessness were inspiring. Just before he left, we were asked to share a short, personal perspective of being in class with him. I looked at Tom and thought with his height, grace and aura; he wouldn’t have been out of place turning up for class in a tuxedo. I kept that to myself, commenting on the impact of his share on me.
His farewell to class was a touching experience so much so that it brought him and his lovely wife, attending his ‘graduation,’ very close to tears.
I poured over my workbooks on evenings and days off. Still suspended from work, my curiosity of this new change in mindset fed a desire to learn more. I started knocking on Karen’s door at the facility, asking for texts to read while checking if it was okay to move on at my current pace with the workbook, or faster if possible. My workbook resembled a mirror. Instead of shying away from it, I was happy to look at myself, warts and all, in its reflection. My new found caffeine addiction had a little competition.
On completion of the workbook, I asked for more assignments and submitted essays based on subjects set by Karen. It stretched my legs even more. I made a pilgrimage to Karen’s room, joking with her that she was ‘Yoda to my Luke Skywalker.’ Karen was a counselor and a confidant, her knowledge and influence had me scribbling notes and scrambling thoughts in the room, and outside of it.
However, my new found enthusiasm was tempered with the realities of addiction as shared around the group, including my own reflections. I heard myself in some of the other stories of destruction, and it was a quick way to keep my feet on the ground. Stories of broken families, self-inflicted injuries and worse, swung the emotional pendulum the opposite way. I experienced a ‘honeymoon’ phase in my recovery. A couple of weeks of sobriety felt like I had the wind behind my back and my life would be normal again soon. This feeling had the potential to derail my early progress and I was aware of it.
I returned from Vegas, quietly content and, three weeks into IOP, mentally stronger. Still taking my meds and off the booze, it was time to make some phone calls I didn’t want to. It was time to tell some friends back home what had happened.
Before calling one of my best mates Alan, I paced the streets outside my apartment thinking what to say and how to say it. It felt like a conversation you have with yourself in the mirror before meeting someone on a first date. You think you have the perfect few lines in your head, then change them, ultimately forgetting them at crunch time. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as my mind flooded with a number of self-centered questions.
What will he think of me? Will he think any less of me? What if he is annoyed at me for not telling him before? What if he tells someone else?
As I walked around outside in the street with my mobile pressed to my ear, the phone rang for what seemed forever. Eventually I heard a familiar voice and said, “Hello mate, I’ve got something to tell you and it’s going to come as a bit of a surprise, so bear with me.”
I repeated this several times with different friends over the next couple of days. One friend suspected I developed a habit and another was convinced I had. Both didn’t know how to broach the subject which I more than understood as I was incapable of admitting it properly to myself for so long.
Another sobbed on the phone, which led me to cry out of shame and disappointment in upsetting someone I’m close to. It was a difficult experience. It didn’t fill me with a sense of bravery or relief. I felt sorry, not for myself, but deeply sorry inside. However it was a necessary part of the healing and recovery process.
But you can trust a good Scot – one called me back a couple of hours later, slightly worse for wear judging by a slur in his voice and asked:
“So Si, aye, I respect what you said earlier, pal. But does this mean we have had our last drink? Aye, like last, proper drink?”
My admissions brought on nerves in the form of butterflies, a contrast to nerves discussed earlier. During my analysis at IOP, I was advised to attend psychiatric treatment to obtain a diagnosis for the nervous bouts I’d been suffering during my addiction. With the exception of a couple in rehab and on the flight to Louisiana, I noted a downturn in visits of my little enemies. I was not spending as much mental capital since rehab. With a clear head, I sensed that the actual fear was worse than the attack itself so it was a good idea to quiet my mind.
I balanced my progress with the thought that it could be the meds playing their part in slowing my attacks so I didn’t get excited. However, I found myself in a number of situations: climbing stairs or riding trains, which normally set off my ticks. I utilized mental tools, such as visualizing my arrival at my destination or recalling nerve-free moments.
During class, I read a handout on coping with dual disorders. I was startled on reading page 13 about an individual who suffered repeated panic attacks. It sounded exactly like me. It was me. I wanted to throw my hand up to get the counselor’s attention like a six year old in class eager to show the teacher they knew the answer. Then I wanted to lift the handout aloft and shout, “I’m not a freak.” Then I wanted to run into Karen’s cubby hole and tell her what I found.
I read more on dual disorders but kept coming back to page 13. The sentences below leapt out the page.
‘I was at a grocery store when suddenly I became very afraid. I felt like I could hardly breathe. It was terrifying. I had a hard time just getting out of the store and going home.
It was a panic attack and they happened over and over again. I lived in fear that I’d have another. Sometimes I think the worry about an attack was worse than the attack itself. I grew fearful of being trapped in places where I had no control. I was even afraid of being in a car on the highway. I avoided bridges, tunnels and elevators. I stayed away from places that might be crowded and stopped going to church and my card club. I made up excuses. I became a prisoner in my own home. I was too afraid to leave. I became depressed and thought I was going crazy. Sometimes I thought the only thing holding me together was the booze. I began to hit the bottle really hard and got hooked pretty bad.’
I learned what I knew. Alcohol had possessed my mind and body and corrupted by it, I could not properly perceive its vice-like grip on me. I felt it in the panic attacks but told myself that booze helped alleviate them when they were actually making them worse. My addiction was likely the cause behind loose wires fusing in my nerve boxes. I needed fixing in more ways than one. But being armed with this was a step in the right direction.
I noticed my tolerance levels of others rose as a result of finding a higher level of peace in the first month of sobriety. Previously I felt agitated at the slightest reason but could feel myself approaching situations with a greater authority of calm, another upside of my receding nervous attacks.
Still I continued to learn out of class and share in it. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel had a powerful impact on my thinking. From the text, and supported by mornings free of work and filled with clarity, I considered the dark days of my addiction and its small progress. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful tool to possess. But an even better weapon in your mental arsenal is a clear head, free of constant alcohol abuse.
During sharing at IOP, classmates observed I was not afraid of projecting vulnerability, as if I had surrendered to my plight as a newly recovering addict. Although I didn’t feel this, I came to realize they were correct. I had been through enough pain, self-pity and self-loathing. I reached a point where admitting I felt exposed was nothing to be ashamed of and was a positive mindset to maintain. Before I was happy to lock myself in a room with a bottle, but I felt sociable and confident in my own skin.
After three full weeks of afternoon IOP sessions, my employer informed me that I was eligible to return to work. Happiness and fear swept my mind and body. It felt like another milestone in my road to recovery. Then fear struck, punctuated by the return of self-centered questions.
Who knew I had been to rehab?
Who had they told?
Would they whisper about me on my return?
But it was great knowing that a routine I was familiar with was in touching distance. I felt ready to return, still raw by my experience but ready.
I transferred to evening IOP sessions to continue rehabilitation. Feeling sad, I left the afternoon group, grateful to my classmates and the day care staff for my development. I looked around the room at people I knew for only three weeks over three hour sessions. During that time I heard them sharing their innermost feelings about episodes in their lives they were facing up to in order to turn the page and open new chapters.
By walking into a liquor store, opening the fridge and pulling a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the shelf, I would not only have wasted their time, but more importantly, I would have disrespected their friendship and openness. It felt they were, in a strange way, helping me stay sober through my early weeks. Could other people do this when the problem was me? Not for the first time in my still infant sobriety, I felt confused.
Those feelings of pre-work jitters lingered as my return date edged closer. My walk of shame from the office to the taxi that day after failing the breathalyzer was still fresh. Everything was as clear as if it had happened hours earlier, and I replayed my meltdown over and over again. I had my swimming shorts of sorrow on, standing on the diving board of despondency, ready to leap into my pool of pity. Nah. Not today and not anymore. I’d beat myself up enough already, writhed around in my sweat drenched detox bed, detailed the intricacies of my anxieties to strangers and a lot more. I wasn’t going back there with my head down.
My first day back at work was just like any other day. Business as usual. The awkward first conversation with my boss was not as awkward as I anticipated. Facing the company representative didn’t bring the grueling interview which I played out in my mind. A few people remarked that ‘it was good to see me back’ evidently under the impression I returned to Scotland to attend other affairs.
I resumed work with a healthy ‘to do’ list. The building was generally quiet as people wound down for the festive period with Christmas a mere week away. My office was just as I left it on that emotional rollercoaster of a Monday five weeks ago. But I did pause on that thought for a few seconds and checked that my boss was not in eyesight to catch me taking a wee moment of quiet introspection.
If you noticed, I failed to mention cravings for booze during that three week period because they were few and far between. But it wasn’t a walk in the park. The pangs were substituted by pain. Reading diagnoses on your mental condition is more difficult to deal with than avoiding alcohol aisles in the supermarket. Telling friends you’ve been hiding something from them tougher than opting for water over wine. On my travels to Louisiana and Nevada I survived challenges yet the obstacle course remained. I knew a relapse lurked at any given time.
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.