Fifth Time’s a Charm
I’ve been going to rehab for the past 15 years. But this is my last one—at least I hope.
I’m smoking a cigarette on a lawn chair by a beautiful pool up in the sumptuous hills of Laurel Canyon. Sounds like I’m at a resort, right? But I’m actually at rehab…for the fifth fucking time.
My journey to sobriety this time started in a psych ward with people who thought the constellations were controlling their thoughts and penises. Which means that I arrived at The Hills in a green gown and slippers, making, I’m sure, a tremendous first impression on the other clients. I was fresh off another suicide attempt and the first few days are a blur but I must have been a real mess because, despite their strict policy on drugs, I was immediately put on a hefty dose of Valium. My blood pressure was also a limp 80 over 40 for the first four days so I was periodically dragged out of bed to walk laps in the parking lot with tattooed sober techs.
Once I physically stabilized, my days got busy and full: yoga, spiritual solutions, relapse prevention, gardening, emotional recovery, anger management. But I still found time to wallow in my self-pity and to ponder in astonishment the wreckage my last relapse had created: a criminal trial, a shattered marriage, detached friendships, homelessness. I’d really burned my life down this time. I prayed this was my bottom.
I felt like I was falling all the time. But on the inside. And I began looking for something to grab onto but there was nothing and nobody left. It was time to find me.
Over the next few months, I slowly got better. Significantly and noticeably better. I stopped crying and started smiling. I stopped “med seeking.” Because I’ll be honest: I did not want to get off the Valium at first—it made everything seem bearable, smoothed out the rough edges and allowed me to glide through a razor sharp life. And the detox was brutal: anxiety, shaking, sweating. I’d heard benzo withdrawal was one of the worst and I got to learn, first-hand, that the rumors were true: kicking coke and meth was a breeze in comparison. The doctor slowly tapered me off and reality quickly came into crisp focus. And here’s what reality was like: I felt like I was falling all the time. But on the inside. And I began looking for something to grab onto but there was nothing and nobody left. It was time to find me. But how do you do that when you’ve been running from yourself your whole life?
By your fifth stint in rehab, you learn some things—like about the “rehab goggles” that cause you to be attracted to people whom you never normally would. It’s not unlike what I imagine prison to be—or even the rooms of AA: a small limited population so you have to pick from what’s available. In the past, I’ve hooked up with crazy, down-on-their-luck celebrities. This time, I kissed a young singer half my age, which resulted in the rehab owner calling me a predator. “The appropriate term is cougar, sir,” I corrected him.
Every Tuesday afternoon at this rehab, we attend a group called the Beast where the owner, Howard Samuels, takes somebody apart in front of an entire room of people, his speech peppered with words like “motherfucker” and “bro.” He started this group when he was a counselor at another LA rehab 15 years ago and its goal is to uncover the root of your disease. You pray every week you won’t be picked and try to avoid sitting in the front. But you never know where and if you’ll be safe. I imagine this is what it must have been like back in the Roman Colosseum days, where they threw somebody to the lions and all the villagers watched in horror and fascination. The Beast is definitely the blood sport of recovery and, to my dismay, I get picked almost every week. You are “encouraged” to volunteer what you are struggling with but if enough people don’t raise their hands and share, we are all punished, boot-camp style. Last week, the Internet was taken away. The week before it was our cell phones. The Beast starts with Howard pacing back and forth, doing his schpiel about how the “beast” (our addiction) talks to us, sways us, controls us. Then people begin to be sacrificed—usually about three get skewered each time. People either love or hate him for what he’s doing but either way he doesn’t care. And I have to say that during this hour, I see a level of vulnerability and honesty that I don’t remember encountering in previous treatment centers. The majority of people here really want to get better. And those that are just “doing time” get confronted—in front of and by their peers.
We are a motley crew of clients. And it is humbling to come tumbling out of the “druggy buggy” with them at my old meetings. Nobody needs to ask: it’s obvious I’m in treatment again. Just as in AA, we are people “who would not normally mix” but at least in AA, you get to pick who you want to have coffee with. In this intimate boutique rehab, it’s communal living at its finest and we are stuck together all day in multiple groups. We also eat together, are taken to a meeting together and then do a nightly 10th step round up group together. It feels a bit cult-like, not unlike we’re living on a big compound, but everybody’s religion is addiction. Of course, no cults have gourmet chefs and swimming pools and here you are free to leave any time you like. Everybody who works in the facility is sober themselves so you can never use the excuse, “You just don’t understand!”
What really stands out this time is the grittiness of addiction set in these posh settings. Addiction, of course, does not discriminate. So although some client might look like—or actually be—a millionaire, lounging by the pool in an expensive terrycloth robe, lift a sleeve and you will see the track marks and abscesses of any skid row junkie.
After four months of inpatient, I was transferred into the rehab’s Sober Living house: another ridiculously luxurious home in the hills with marble floors and a spiral staircase. I loved the freedom but hated the terror: they give you just enough rope to hang yourself if you’re so inclined. And, like many addicts, I don’t trust myself at all. Why should I? I’ve proven again and again to be completely untrustworthy.
My counselor is a short blonde woman with steely blue eyes and a very frank demeanor. She is like a little pit bull and it’s become obvious over time that she gets the “relapsers” and the “very problematic” clients. I’m terrified of her but not too terrified to talk back and be defensive, which means that plenty of screaming matches ensue. But I trust her. And I need her. And I always concede to whatever she says—after a good dose of defiance, of course. I’m counting on her to walk me through this terrifying transitional period into my new life as a single sober independent woman—something no shrink or parent has been able to do in 42 years. Good luck, lady.
“The universe has a plan for you,” she always says. Yeah, I think. But in my mind, the plan includes drinking, anonymous sex and suicide. Yet day by grueling day, I trudge forward, resisting my impulse to get loaded or fold my hand and cash out my chips. I’ve done this dance for over two decades and I’m tired and out of hope. So is my father. “You’ve drained me financially and emotionally for years,” he told me one afternoon over the phone after I got stripped of all my privileges for sneaking out to meet a guy. “I’m over it. I’m over the rollercoaster. Call me when you have good news or don’t call me.” It was devastating to hear but I understood. Everybody was sick of my shit—myself included.
In my desperation, a few weeks ago, I got a new hardcore AA sponsor—a woman this time. She was a Valley girl; I’d noticed that they were friendlier at the Valley meetings. Did they work a better program than the hip, slick and cool Hollywood meetings or did the Valley just provide me with a clean slate that I would come to dirty? Who cares? It was a new fresh beginning and I took it. She made me come to her home group, a lengthy hour-and-a-half Big Book study with no break. “This meeting will become the meat and potatoes of your sobriety,” she’d say.
“Yeah, but what if I’m vegetarian?” I’d joke. And yet, after two times there, I’ve learned that the meeting is informative—as people with long-term sobriety explain how the Big Book relates to their lives. It’s also a bit tortuous.
This sobriety is different from the other ones because I’ve had to face all the issues I’ve been ducking my whole life—issues like financial and emotional independence, self-esteem and boundaries. I’ve also learned this time about the scientific basis of addiction so I understand the biological underpinnings of relapse and the dopamine system. This sobriety has been about facing my shit, putting my big girl panties on and growing up. The good thing about being older and a retread in rehab, I’ve learned, is that you are out of tricks. And that is a very scary place to be.
Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She also wrote about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.