Rehabs Behaving Badly
My telephone cry for help to AA was diverted to a very insistent rehab. I didn't just get mad—I got sober.
I opened my eyes and looked up through the window of my East Village tenement. The sun was bright and high in the sky, but I was on the floor. The wood floors were hard, but they won out over the urine-soaked sheets on my futon. In a moment, I realized that I’d wet the floor, too. Defeated, I waited for the familiar rush of shame, self-loathing and self-pity. I cycled through those feelings to the wallet-keys-jewelry-panty-check that inevitably ensued. I gave a cursory glance to make sure I was alone in my apartment.
I was a drunk. But self-knowledge did nothing to control my out-of-control drinking. In the stillness between the feelings of self-pity and self-disgust, I heard a small, sad voice from inside my skull. “You are going to die from this.”
Booze had been my best friend ever since I was 12 years old when I popped the top on my first warm Schlitz and drank it as fast as I could. It tasted terrible. I asked for another. In my adult years, in self-styled anti-yuppie poses, some friends and I actually drank Schlitz. It no longer tasted that terrible. With just a few drinks inside me, I was filled with hope, self-confidence, and the giggling kind of joy you only get when you’re a loved kid with no worries, responsibilities, or insecurities. It was a magic elixir. It made me all-powerful and immune to hurt.
“Just going to A.A. meetings is not going to work for you. Is there a credit card you can use?”
I recalled an embarrassing scene in a bar the night before, and then entering a cab. I did not recall exiting it. Instead, I came to in the back of an ambulance. An EMT asked me the name of the president. With the practiced speed of a drunk, I pieced together the events of the night: As was my usual habit, I passed out as soon as I got in the cab—but not before giving the driver my address. The cabbie, saddled with a passed-out drunk, called the paramedics who pulled me from the backseat and put me in the ambulance. They roused me with ammonia inhalants. I answered the president question, then bounded out of the ambulance, calling, “Thank you! I’m fine!” I ran up the stairs, into my apartment, and fell down on the futon. I felt victorious that I had made it home, and then promptly passed back out.
And that brought me to the piss-soaked bed, the piss-soaked floor, and the utter sense of defeat, that I was going to die sooner, rather than later. I knew that I had not lived up to even a 10th of my potential, and I knew that my blackouts hid any number of horrors that would someday be my only way of life before a stupid, messy death.
I was ready for the dreaded AA. I pulled out an old phone book and made my shaking hands find AA, and then called the number. Desperately, I breathed into the phone, “I want to find an AA meeting.” Thank God, the woman on the other end of the line was very understanding!
She said, “Are you having problems drinking, hon?”
“Yes," I whispered.
“Doing things you are ashamed of?” she said kindly.
“Yes,” I whimpered, the tears and snot running down my chin.
“It’s all going to be okay,” she soothed. “Do you still have a job, sweetheart?”
Unbelievably, I did.
“Okay, love, what does it say on your insurance card?”
I thought, 'Well, that’s odd.' But I would have given out any information to feel okay. Besides, what did I know? Nothing. I gave her the information, and asked how I could get to one of the A.A. meetings.
She answered, “Ever try AA, hon?”
‘No’ was nearly out of my mouth until I remembered an incident where, upon coming to, I found a toothless man in my apartment leering happily at me. I went to AA for two months after that, never taking a drink and hating every goddamned second. “Well, yes. I was in AA and I stayed sober for two months,” I said, with a little bit of pride. Two months was forever, after all.
“What makes you think A.A. will work this time if you failed at it before?”
Huh? Dimly, I heard warning bells. “This time is different,” I insisted.
“Look,” she said, “you couldn’t do it then, and you can’t do it now. You need a rehab. Your insurance will pay for 28 days. You really need to come in.”
Panicked, I said, “A rehab? Like the kind you stay in?”
“Yes,” she affirmed. “There is no other way. We can get you on a flight tonight.”
“A flight!? Where?”
“Florida,” she said.
“Wait,” I wailed, “I just want to find a meeting! I can’t afford to buy an airplane ticket and leave my job!”
“Just going to AA meetings is not going to work for you,” she said. “Is there a credit card you can use?”
Now I was in a full-out panic, but, miraculously, I was actually pissed off. Did she just say I couldn’t get sober just by going to meetings? Who the hell did Miss Thing think she was? I could do anything! She had hit on the only phrase that would guarantee a full-out, no-holds-barred, massive effort to prove her wrong. I hung up the phone.
And that’s how I got to AA. Rehabs have since ended the practice of putting a “local” number in the directory and calling it Alcoholics Anonymous. But owing (partly, at least) to that ethically questionable practice, I haven’t had a drink in over 10 years.
Today, I have a happy, healthy, sober and well-balanced life. Most mornings, I wake up and smile into the face of my four-year old son. Before this I thought I was kind, patient, humorous, playful, inventive, creative and dynamic. Parenthood has demanded I take all these qualities and multiply them—I had to grow every positive trait I had. I marvel at my good fortune and the ways I have found to expand my world and live as a spiritual being. Practicing yoga has brought me peace, clarity, and a body that can wrap itself around my man.
If I ever waver, however, and feel myself begin to flag, or if I begin to recall my drinking days with fondness (rare), I simply think of that rehab-employee-woman who told me, in no uncertain terms, that I could not get sober without paying for it. And I again take strength in proving her wrong. It always makes me think of something Thomas Edison said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
Zusane Ankudá is a writer and editor from New Orleans.