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Pen Pals

Drug Court Addiction 12-Step Blues

I went to rehab ten years ago in an effort to avoid going to prison (it didn't work). I met some of the craziest people I've ever encountered, but I sure as hell didn't get any cleaner.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I went to my first A.A./N.A. meeting in 2004, after I was first arrested with a decent head-stash of various intoxicants. At that time there was legitimate confusion as to whether I was a drug addict. I had kept my abuse strictly confined to the weekends, and even though I had a ton of coke, weed, E, and assorted other goodies on hand thanks to my dealing business, I wasn’t getting loaded 24/7—that, to me, meant I wasn't an addict.


However, in an attempt to beat the drug beef against me, my lawyer said that if I went to rehab and showed that I was willing to go that route and stay outta trouble, there was a slim chance I’d get 18 months of drug-court hell and avoid prison. Long story short, I was all about that rehab shit. I had no problem stopping using, but I still wanted that money, and I figured, What’s the harm as long as I don’t get caught? so my arrogant ass continued selling the stuff. I was open for business, but I went six or seven months without even a drink after my arrest—it was alright, but I was bored as fuck and felt really weird staying in the house and rarely going out.

At my rehab intake interview, I was honest about my drug abuse over the years, and the counselor said I was no doubt an addict. His main reasons were that I started in my young teens and abused hallucinogens throughout high school. Truthfully, though, anyone who said they smoked weed a couple times a week, or even drank to get drunk on the weekends (a.k.a. BINGE DRINKING!), was an addict according to the standard assessment test.

It’s amazing how much the rehab world has changed in the past ten years. Back then, it was strictly a 12-step program, whereas the last spot I was at, in 2013, was on some client-based shit where they listen to you, let you relapse, and don’t pressure you. They no longer push God either, unless you decide to go with Alcoholics Anonymous, which still adheres to the notion that your Higher Power will save you. With the new method, they won’t punish you as much, but they'll keep you in rehab forever while they get compensated with taxpayer Medicaid money—“It’s OK, relapse is part of the recovery process,” they’ll tell you. You might reasonably conclude it’s all about the money for them. With drug court programs expanding all over the country, there are fewer people incarcerated, but a helluva lot more locked up in rehab, and since this is America, you know someone is finding a way to profit off that.


Anyway, when I got into the 12-step program, there was a lot of things that bugged me. The religious aspect rubbed me the wrong way, and the group’s doctrine goes back to 1939, which made it seem seriously dated. Basically, you’re supposed to relinquish your will and give yourself fully to Him. I can’t tell you how many meetings were completely hijacked by some chick who was pissed off about being sober and sat in the circle for an hour yelling about how it’s sexist that she had to succumb to Him. “Who says God is a man? You misogynist-spoke-in-the-wheel-of-patriarchy motherfucker!” Then some smarmy douche-lick (me, for instance) would say, “Hold up. How do we even know there’s a God, and why would He care if we’re doing drugs or not?” Then the counselor would say, “Fine, fine. Things have changed. It doesn’t actually have to be the Christian God. It can be anything. You just need to give yourself over to something that you think is greater than yourself. You are not God. Your higher power can be that chair over there if you want.” Great. So lots of us ran with that one. Eventually, I settled on Johnny Law as my higher power, which was hard to argue with. No doubt the police and the prisons were more in control of my life than I was.

As far as the meetings go, A.A. is mostly for whites, and N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous) is for the more urban crowd, if you get my drift. A.A. is run by grumpy old men who are addicted to preaching sobriety and telling stories about how they used to get fucked up. They don’t like newcomers, ‘cause most of them are there because of a judge's orders, are looking for sex, and might even be high at the meeting. If you talk about drugs, some old-timer might bark at you and yell, “THIS IS ABOUT ALCOHOL, NOT HARD DRUGS, YOU SCUMBAG JUNKY!” Lots of people are cross-addicted to drugs and alcohol, so they get shunned and end up at N.A. The N.A. groups I attended were a fashion show where everyone was trying to get their fuck on. I witnessed some amazing theater, awe-inspiring performances, and magnetic speakers at N.A. At one of the first meetings I attended, a toothless black guy dressed up like a pimp screamed at us about his drug use and how he sucked dick for crack back in the day. This 19-year-old Jewish white chick—who had got drunk, blacked out, and fucked a lot at SUNY New Paltz—started bawling hysterically and ran out. I think he scared her away by yelling that we'd all suck dick for crack if we didn't get clean. I was captivated. There is one aspect of A.A. and N.A. that I think can definitely be beneficial, and that is the way you bond with the people at meetings, but you gotta be careful—you might bond with the wrong person and follow them to Get-High City.

I spent a lot of time complaining about 12-step programs and arguing with counselors, who made me out to be a nut, but today there are loads of doctors and scientists questioning the A.A. orthodoxy. For 50 years, if you relapsed and/or didn’t follow the 12 steps verbatim, you were considered a failure, which seems to be a very religious take on recovery: Sin by using drugs, and you'll go back to the hell of intoxication and misery.

A more scientific approach would dictate that if A.A. doesn’t work for you, you should try a new method, instead of blaming yourself for being too immoral or lazy to follow through on the steps. A.A. often accuses those who relapse of being dishonest with themselves, not accepting their powerlessness, and not giving themselves completely to their Higher Power. Lots of people just aren’t ready to get clean, so they fight it. With all that said, the brainwashing techniques and camaraderie actually work for a bunch of people, so I can’t knock A.A. too hard—two of my close friends got sober thanks to the 12-step method. I just think there are alternatives that will probably achieve a higher success rate. Most of all, the addict needs to want sobriety. I know I didn’t want to get with the program when I first went to rehab—I just wanted to stay the fuck out of prison, and that didn’t even work.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.