All the Ways I Failed at Rehab, and What Finally Worked
Relapse is a part of recovery, and did I ever learn that the hard way.
Photos via The Canadian Press
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.I don’t think I had any sincere intention of quitting junk the first time I went to rehab. Mostly I wanted to appease my mom’s wishes, without considering the false hope I’d burdened her with.
It was an outpatient rehab, the kind where you show up each morning and leave later in the day, which most hardcore drug users will agree are completely useless. If I’m not coming and going in a straight jacket, I’m using just before and as soon as I walk out the door, not even bothering to drive out of the parking lot first. On my first day, I arrived bright and early with synthetic urine strapped to my body for warmth underneath my clothes. This particular treatment facility didn’t have someone watching during the drug tests, so I passed each test, my trusty fake pee working like a charm. Monday through Friday I faked my way through my first stint in rehab and on the weekends I went back to work at The Rainbow Bar and Grill, and back home to my Hollywood Boulevard studio apartment. I wasted everyone’s time and hope and quit rehab after just a couple short weeks.
After only barely dipping a toe into what recovery might look like and mostly just witnessing other people’s attempts at rehabilitation—shit got real. I figured, well I tried and it didn’t work, I might as well accept this lifestyle as a permanent one. I quit smoking heroin and graduated to shooting it up, which made me feel like a real junkie. In a twisted but romantic way, it felt like a good way of solidifying the identity I was resigning myself to. From there, every aspect of my life began to fade deeper into darkness. I was sadly and severely lacking the natural human instinct for self-preservation. I started adding other drugs into my intravenous cocktails, in an attempt to make things more interesting, and it did. I’d go through days long episodes of drug-induced psychosis that inspired me to scale two-story chain link fences, hide in bushes for hours, and run away from non-existent men chasing me through Hollywood. My highs were higher and my lows were lower. I started thinking more and more each night when I’d fall asleep, or every three nights if we’re being honest, that I may or may not wake up the next morning, and that I didn’t care either way.
A turning point in my subconscious suicide mission happened shortly after the holidays. I discovered several long-lost emails from my mother, that I couldn’t shake the thought of. One night, after my ex left for work like he usually did, with no reason to suspect he’d be coming home to much different scenery, a tsunami-sized wave of dread washed over me. I didn’t want to go to the downtown dealer at night, I didn’t want to do the Sid and Nancy routine anymore, I didn’t want to voluntarily morph into a paranoid schizophrenic, ever again. I called my mom, as soon as she said “hello,” I said, “please come get me.” I hung up and went through my sacred ritual, hitting the underside of a spoon with a flame and watching my brew boil and melt. I found a vein and did my best to savor what I knew would be my one last time. Within the hour my folks, my sister, brother-in-law, and two close family friends arrived with a U-haul and helped frantically pack up everything I still owned. We moved with a sense of urgency because if I didn’t get out then, while my ex was at work, I don’t know that I would have ever. I left the dope money, a note, and an empty studio for him to discover later that night. We stayed in a hotel so I wouldn’t be found and I fell asleep relieved to be with my mom and relieved something different lay ahead. I was naive.
When I awoke the panic of withdrawal hit me like a freight train. My mom and step-dad rushed me to Glendale Adventist Medical Center Emergency Department. It was an hour drive and my mom had to hold my legs down, fearing I might kick out a window from the amount of seizing and flailing the detox had brought on. The doctors gave me sedatives and anti-seizure medication, but it didn’t keep me from violently tossing and turning for hours on the rough hospital bed sheets. When I came to, I had rubbed the skin raw on my back and shoulders, scabs replacing skin. I stayed there for a week, with not one ounce of sleep, feeling as though I were enduring a brutal exorcism. When the doctors were confident the demon had moved on, they released me for treatment.
When we arrived at Glendale Adventist Alcohol and Drug Services, or GAADS as everyone called it, I was terrified. This time was different, I wanted this for myself, I was the one who volunteered to go. Deciding you need rehab is much different than doing it to placate a loved one or to get out of a drug charge sentence. Turning yourself over to treatment willingly is like having an epiphany that the way you want to live and are comfortable living is harder than living the way you don’t want to, and that’s a rough thing to swallow.
My mother and I clutched each other sobbing over my suitcases, while the other in-patients sat nearby eating lunch. A friendly fellow-patient reassured my mom, “She’s in the right place,” and we both believed him. Taking that as her cue, she left. I felt raw and exposed, emaciated and drowning in my own clothes, embarrassed and uncomfortable. When I entered my first group therapy session, it had already begun. I scanned the room and marveled at how attractive and normal everyone looked. They took turns reading assigned homework, tailored to their own individual “issues.” Everyone cried. Afterward, the nightly twelve-step meeting commenced, with nearly 100 outside attendees coming in. Everyone appeared to be articulate, well-dressed, successful in their education or employment endeavors—not at all the image of recovering addicts and alcoholics I had cooked up in my head. It gave me hope.
I made friends with the other in-patients quickly. It’s easy to develop close bonds with people who are mutually afflicted, vulnerable, and in a state of crisis. Some of the bonds formed were healthy and supportive, some were indulgent, an attempt to seek out any endorphins I could sense the potential for, my pleasure sensors bereft and desperate. But regardless of the company I kept, I was really trying. I threw myself into my assignments and therapy, I held on to every word of every speaker at the nightly meetings and I trusted and confided in my counselors. I was convinced that if I did everything that was required of me, and that if I did it with heart, I’d be cured.
After being discharged from my in-patient treatment because my counselors believed I was ready and I felt arrogantly stable, I went back home to my mom’s and reclaimed my old bedroom. Each morning I drove an hour to the outpatient treatment that was recommended to me and I voluntarily attended the twelve-step meetings each night. I announced my sobriety on Facebook and reached out to old friends telling them the happy news. I was driving to meetings with my rehab buddies and working the steps, and then one day on the way to a meeting, I drove past my freeway exit.
Rather than get off and turn around like a sane person would do, I let Dr. Jekyll slip away and gave Mr. Hyde the wheel. There was no internal push or pull, it was the strangest thing—one moment I’m on my way to a meeting and in an instant I’m on autopilot. Before I knew it, I was leaning against that familiar gate in Downtown LA, hoping my old dealer would spot me since his phone number had been lost when, in the spirit of sobriety, my cell phone was demolished with a hammer. It only took a few minutes before he came out, gave me what I was there for and I was on my way. Everything I’d worked for up in smoke.
“Relapse is part of recovery,” they say. I’ve come to the conclusion that they say this so when an addict does relapse in the midst of a recovery attempt, they won’t be derailed and devastated by their own failure but prepared for it, understanding of it’s normalcy. Maybe that works for some people, but it didn’t for me. My recovery ego wouldn’t allow me to have a healthy and necessary fear of my own addiction. I was deeply disappointed in myself and ashamed that I had led everybody on. This particular relapse was a jolting wake up call, illuminating the insanity and loss of control that exemplifies the disease of addiction. For a while I went to the meetings high, surely fooling all my peers, and then I stopped going at all.
Immense failure and disappointment can turn any optimist into a cynic. The pink cloud of sobriety, a feeling of euphoria that occurs when you feel you’ve escaped hell and have only heaven to look forward to, was no more. A gloomy, black, volatile cloud took its place and followed me everywhere I went. It followed me on my bender, and on to the next rehab. It stayed with me through another short and unsuccessful stint. Jails, rehabs, and institutions. AA rhetoric that I had interpreted as a warning but was in reality a dark foreshadowing of what this disease had in store for me. As I twitched and fidgeted from withdrawal in a lonely jail cell, I gave my list its final check.
I opened my eyes the next morning to a suitcase being shoved in my direction. Destination rehab, once again. Rehab is considerably more comfortable than jail, so I’ll take what I can get. Laguna Beach, California, where everybody is beautiful, the ocean runs along statuesque cliffs, and even the rehabs have a bar across the street. This rehab was an inpatient facility but allowed patients to go to the beach in between therapy groups. The beach is vast, so trying to spot the addict in the sand or waves is much like playing a game of Where’s Waldo. Naturally, I slipped away to the bars, had heroin and paraphernalia delivered to me, and walked to the smoke shop to buy more of that handy fake pee. Ultimately, I was kicked out for buying underage teenagers alcohol, all five of them who gave my name when they got caught. Amateurs.
Rather than go home, I went straight from the Laguna Beach facility to ol’ faithful, GAADS in Glendale. They were about as thrilled to see me as I was them. During the brief five days I stayed, I had Xanax delivered and snorted it off my Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, just to really stick it to the man. Needless to say, this is not the way to find success in rehab.
The final rehab I stayed with several months later required patients to get injected with Vivitrol before being officially discharged. Now I don’t want to scare anyone away from trying whatever treatment will help them, but this was horrific. Several nurses had to hold me down while the doctor came at my right butt cheek with a giant syringe, with a giant needle filled with a weird spongy substance. It took three minutes to inject and got clogged halfway through. It did however, successfully hinder any effects of opiates for the month it promised, and trust me, I tried. There are other drugs out there though, so I did those for thirty days and then switched back to dope.
So how on Earth could someone this hopeless be cured you ask? Well, I think it was a combination of many factors, some that I have no control over and some that were my own doing. To start with the ones I have no control over, I have a fantastic family that I did not deserve at the time. I had health insurance thanks to Obamacare allowing me to use my parents' insurance until 26. I had some killer health professionals who actually seemed to care if I lived or died. Things I can take credit for include, the sincerely introspective work I did while participating in rehab. The years of addiction-specialized therapy I attended with my saint-like therapist. Using long-term medication-assisted-therapy, suboxone particularly, until I was ready to taper down and detox from it completely. Building my confidence and new identity by investing in myself via working toward a degree in journalism, and most importantly, finding a beautiful purpose in mothering my twin daughters. Would any single one of these produce the desired result? Doubtful. Combined though, I live a life so far removed from my time as an addict I feel like it was another lifetime completely and for that I am eternally grateful.
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