Moments of Clarity in an Alcohol Treatment Center: Rehab II
I have previously been posting some about my struggle with alcoholism. Please see the left margin under Links for previous posts if you are interested. I am now writing a series of what it was like in rehab, and my early days in sobriety. My purpose in writing is to get the story out of my head (it’s time), and possibly to help another who may be struggling with alcoholism/addiction issues. I mention AA as it is a significant part of my story. I do not represent AA nor speak for it in any manner. I do not promote it. There are many ways to achieve sobriety, and I respect them all. This is just my experience, strength and hope story. I am the beneficiary of grace. I am truly grateful to be alive today. This is Part II of several posts coming up.
REHAB (Part II)
I have been in this rehab center for ten days, and today was my birthday. I went to a nearby outlet center with a couple of the guys and bought myself some clothes. I had never liked shopping but this felt good. My wife and kids called while I was out and left a “Happy Birthday” message on the machine. That felt good too. At our evening check-in I was aware of feeling better physically (sober for 20+ days now) and also of being tired a lot. I would later learn that alcohol invades every cell in the body, and that the physical withdrawal symptoms can last from six months to two years. The 24 Hour A Day reading was on AA’s first step: “I am powerless over alcohol, and my life has become unmanageable.” My journal notes indicate that I spent a lot of time that day talking about this topic, but it’s hard to remember.
Our rehab community was all aggravated today about Melinda, one of the residents. She was constantly seeking special privileges, and always seemed to be missing meetings because she had to do something at home for her kids. That, and a well-liked group member named Walker had relapsed the day before. This relapse stuff was already getting scary. I was pretty clear at this point that if I drank again, I was going to die, and yet I really didn’t know what that meant. The next day the residential counselor reviewed the apartment rules with us. I was really irritated with him and his controlling and condescending ways. I later learned that it was I who was controlling and condescending.
After a good group session that day I called home and spoke to my wife and kids. She seemed hesitant to talk (that “pending doom thing”), and said the “kids are suffering but won’t express it.” I felt very irritated with the hesitancy and negativity; however, I actually did realize that she had a right to her feelings, and I couldn’t control them. “I wish I could” is scribbled in my journal margin. Later I would learn how much personal time and energy I put into “trying to make things right” all the time. This emanated from a deep-seated fear of conflict, and a strong hyper-vigilance about my environment. The plain fact is that I did not like feeling anxious (it made feel like something horrible was about to happen, and, that it was my fault). These new feelings of mine were strangers. The alcohol had subdued these foreign invaders for years, but now, they were popping up in full force.
Note: Today (2009) I am clear about a number of things about myself and my alcoholism. One is that nobody or no particular situation caused it. Period! I started drinking at age 16 and never really stopped. Whenever I had a drink I simply felt better about the world, and myself. During my teenage years it all seemed natural, and besides, “everybody was doing it.” During my 20’s and 30’s it was a lifestyle thing; but I did have that frequent thought that I was a heavy drinker. When I was into my 40’s I knew beyond a doubt that I was drinking like an alcoholic; but, I could not bring myself to face it. I felt increasingly guilty and shameful, and began a very slow withdrawal from my friends and my outside world. Whenever one of those television ads came on that asked “Are you experiencing the following signs of alcohol abuse?” I would quickly switch the channel. I actually thought that if I didn’t hear it, it wasn’t true. If my wife was in the room I was certain that the commercial would prompt a comment to me about my drinking, so I changed the channel at lightning speed. I was now hyper-vigilant about TV commercials and began to live in fear of them. To a non-alcoholic the solution here is easy: quit drinking. To an alcoholic like me the solution is to hide it and continue to live in DENIAL. Denial and lying are an alcoholic’s two closest friends. Shame and guilt are blood cousins. In early sobriety I would learn that shame’s primary goal is to stay hidden, and that it cannot survive in the light of truth. This active denial and fear and lying increased and went on for almost ten years. Another thing that I am clear about today is that I am no different from anyone else. Period again! I hear so many people say “If you had the (insert here – life, wife, job, problems, parents) I have, you’d drink too.” I used to believe that. Really, I used to believe that crap. I could work up a really good “feeling sorry for George” thing, and the drinking made it go away. And in a perverse way, it felt good to feel sorry for myself. My truth is that I was an alcoholic plain and simple, and I had reached a point of living to drink, and drinking to live. Trust me, it’s not any fun, but the alcohol had so depressed me, and numbed my thinking that I could see no alternative.
I was really missing the kids, but less than in the beginning. Everyone said they would be okay and that without my sobriety it didn’t matter. I heard this but didn’t really get it. I was reminded of a Saturday morning about two months earlier. It was about 11:00am and I was in my garage, straightening up something (always seemed to be straightening up something). My nine year old son appeared from nowhere and out-of-the-blue said “Dad, you need to go back to Friendship Hall again.” I was devastated. Here it was on a beautiful Saturday morning in the summer, and I was so hammered that a nine year old could see it (but not a drunken 50 year old), and I was devastated. I assured him that I was alright. I was in a day treatment program at the time, had been in residential treatment just two months earlier, and couldn’t stop drinking.
Today I am clear that the one thing that defined me as an alcoholic is simply that I couldn’t stop drinking once I started. This means several things. I simply could not have one beer and then stop. It also meant that I could last for several weeks or months without a drink and fool myself into “you’re not an alcoholic cause you just quit for 30 days.” Soon I would be right back to it, and with a vengeance. I laugh today at my drinking behaviors and lies, but I actually believed them. First I WAS different, and secondly “I could quit whenever I wanted to – I just didn’t want to now.” Besides, I had quit many periods of time before. What I didn’t share with anyone then was how absolutely obsessed I had become with alcohol. I thought about it all the time. I thought about not drinking…I thought about drinking…I plotted ways to drink without getting caught…I hid bottles for later…I boasted to people that I had “quit” drinking…I was totally agitated and miserable. I was living the lie, and I was the only one that didn’t see it.
Several days passed and I called home again and spoke with my wife. This was not a pleasant call. My son had placed the cordless phone on the rear bumper of the car (he had been playing basketball in the driveway and wanted to be able to hear it ring) and she backed over it. “This is not a good day George – the toilet doesn’t work, your probation officer dropped by unannounced last night, and Kyle answered the door to find a strange man with a gun on his waist asking for you. I’m overdrawn at the bank and now I have to buy a new fucking phone.” I immediately switched into high anxiety mode where I felt it was my responsibility to fix everything wrong, and do it right then. The call ended. I felt “bad about everything” even though I knew there was nothing I could do at the moment. I shared the phone conversation in my morning group, and just sharing it seemed to help. I always kept everything to myself – didn’t really know why – I guess it just seemed so “weak” to talk about stuff like feelings.
The next day I reviewed my treatment plan with my counselor. I was aware of how my personal finances were in disarray and I began to think about the future and all the stuff I needed to fix. The plan called for me to stay at least ten more weeks in this facility. That seemed like a terribly long time. At our Sunday evening check-in I learn that two more of the guys are AWOL. There was a lot of tension in the community the next morning. I learned that David, who had been discharged Friday, had been arrested that same evening for drunk driving about two hours from the center. He had befriended me when I first arrived there and we learned that we had both gone to the same undergraduate school so there was a sort of bond between the two of us. He was an attorney. So his three months in treatment had given him about five hours of sobriety. This relapse stuff was looking pretty scary at this point.
That weekend I got to participate in two new friends’ family weekends. These “conjoint family weekends” were part of the treatment model. My Las Vegas friend’s father cried all weekend and I later learned that he had never cried in front of his son before. Another resident was demoted to Phase I because of a “dirty urine.”
I was there only about three weeks when I was aware that I could actually feel good for a few moments at a time. I had my first strong thought that I really did not want to go home at this point. I was also aware that something had happened to me on that last day of drinking. I had never planned to make it my last day, in fact, if I had I known it was my last day I probably would have gotten drunk first. But it just happened. Our community meeting was somewhat contentious and I was the chief “contender.” I confronted one of the residents whom I didn’t particularly care for about her hostile and mean comments about the guy who got drunk five hours after discharge. Some sharp words were exchanged. It was decided that we would have a total community meeting that afternoon involving all residents and staff. Some air needed clearing. At that meeting we discussed safety from drinking and relapse, reviewed the rules of the program about recovery and honesty, relapses, and recent events with some of the guys who have left AMA or went AWOL. I complained that the group was joking around during the Serenity Prayer closing, and the group was swaying and chanting “it sucks” under their collective breaths. I also complained loudly to the group that the new resident “code of silence” was adolescent and people needed to “grow up and take this shit seriously.” I’m sure a lot of them thought I was a total prick. Maybe I was, but the truth is I felt good for speaking up, and, the behaviors ceased. Nobody ever said anything to me, but I berated myself many times over for my little rant.
My journal notes from the next day read: “…gratitude for being alive, aware, serene…hopeful that good will come from all of this….anxious and fearful about asking my wife to participate in family weekend…scared that this treatment won’t work…too many people are relapsing and it doesn’t feel controlled.” In group Barry was sharing about his getting beaten unconscious in a bar fight just a month earlier and how he had 150+ stitches in his head (got to admit he didn’t look to good). My notes read “…this really is a life and death struggle…I get that it’s real…will I make it?”
Part III to follow shortly…