What I Learned at Rehab
I went to five rehabs, one halfway house and a psychiatric hospital before I got sober. This is what that taught me.
A few months into what would turn out to be one of two sophomore years in college I found myself standing outside a barn in upstate New York. I was later told that barn once housed P.T. Barnum’s elephants, as it sat on a sprawling estate where the circus magnate used to live. It had subsequently been transformed into an acute psychiatric facility. That’s why I was there. I had been persuaded, after weeks of vehement white knuckle resistance, to go “check it out.” After a few minutes of standing there and talking to the Clinical Director I was carried off by two men in white coats. Literally. They scooted up beside me, grabbed my skinny drug-addled arms, and lifted me off my feet. It was terrifying.
I was coming off a five-month cocaine binge and apparently two doctors at the facility had determined I was suicidal (probably because I had said I was suicidal). After being carted off everything was taken from me, including my clothes, and I was given pajamas and a pair of slippers. I wasn’t allowed to go outside without a nurse because I was labeled a flight risk. And they were right, I was.
My first night I slept down the hall from a padded room. An actual padded fucking room. The first thing my roommate did when I walked in was remove a rugby shirt from the dresser (apparently he had gotten his clothing privileges back) and point to some chalky white substance caked into the fabric. He grinned and began licking the sleeve. “It’s coke,” he said as he extended the shirt directly under my mouth, offering me a taste. I demurred and he went back to licking. His name was Rory and he was thoroughly scary. I was worried he was going to cut me open in the middle of the night and scrape out my veins in the hopes of finding some resin. He very well may have found some.
I learned that it’s probably best not to have someone mail you tabs of LSD while you’re at rehab.
Such was my introduction to institutional life. I stayed in that god-forsaken place for three weeks. Over the course of the next thirteen years I would find myself at rehabs in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey (for just shy of 11 months), Maryland again, and California. I lived in a halfway house on a frontage road in Minnesota that was once a pay-by-the-hour whorehouse. I saw the inside of an underground Mexican jail cell. Somehow during that time I also managed to graduate from college and get a law degree. Alcoholics, it turns out, have a phenomenal capacity.
I learned a lot in those rehabs. Like how to make nicotine tea out of used nicoderm patches, or which guys had gotten their hands on copies of Penthouse or Hustler and therefore were worth befriending. I learned how to inject drugs into your foot. And how to smoke crystal meth out of a light bulb. And that you should try to make sure you never ever walk in on a beaten down sixty-year-old drunk having sex with the seventeen year old boy who has scars all over his body from cutting himself. It’s very traumatic.
I learned that you shouldn’t worry too much about cheating while playing spades in the common room because chances are the other guys are cheating too. And to avoid sitting with people at dinner who are detoxing from benzos. Even more so, try not to be one of them.
I learned to be nice to the nurses. Especially if you’re on meds, which I always was. But even if you’re not, the nurses run the joint. I remember the second time I was at my Maryland rehab I found myself in the only single room at the facility, usually reserved for celebrities or those with sleep apnea who have to use those loud machines while they sleep. It had a queen size bed, its own private bathroom, and a small porch. I later found out that the nurses were responsible for assigning rooms. And I was really nice to them. Coincidence? Doubtful. One of them also made me a great mix tape, notwithstanding the fact that such a thing was strictly prohibited.
I learned that it’s probably best not to have someone mail you tabs of LSD while you’re at rehab. The staff is probably going to find it. And even if they don’t, can you imagine a worse place to be tripping on acid? (This happened to a guy who later matriculated to a top ten law school and now works at a very fancy law firm. We’re friends on Facebook. Go figure.)
I learned that you will see some serious shit. Literally. About five months into my stay at that New Jersey rehab someone was going around rubbing his feces all over the bathroom walls. We all suspected it was this guy who none of us could stand. And we were right.
You will also witness some heartbreaking shit. Two months later that guy walked off the grounds in the middle of the night (a bold move being that we were in the middle of the woods and had only a few days earlier seen a black bear nuzzle up to the window of the lecture hall). A few weeks later he was found dead in an apartment on the Upper East Side. He had killed himself. We read about it in the newspaper. I wish I had been nicer to him.
I learned that rehab is boring. Sure, there are classes about your disease and group therapy and one-on-ones with your counselor. And sometimes they’ll take you to an outside AA meeting where you can binge on cookies and down as much caffeinated coffee as possible. And if you’re lucky they’ll show you some PG movie on a Friday night. But it’s super boring. You’ll probably smoke a lot (even if you don’t smoke). It passes the time, and you’ll hear some great stories in that butt hut. Just try to remember that you’re there for a reason. And that it’s not permanent. And like I mentioned earlier, find the guys with the porn.
I also learned that rehab is really hard. Especially the second time around. And the fifth? Forget about it. Brutal. But I’m constantly reminded of a placard that was attached to the front of the podium in the dining room at one of them. It read, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” And it’s true. It’s the hard stuff that’s worth it. It's certainly the case in rehab, but more importantly afterward. AA meetings, therapy, new friends, the twelve steps, coffee with strangers. Whatever it is. None of that comes easy. Not for me at least. But when I was desperate enough to endure that discomfort my life started to improve. And I stayed sober. Besides, that stuff gets easier – if you let it.
Many people, of course, get and stay sober without going to rehab. God bless them. That just happens not to be my experience. For me, I absolutely have to be physically separated from drugs and alcohol if I’m going to stop. It’s that simple. Once I’m hooked there is no way I’m stopping if it’s available. And it’s always available. (Even apparently in rehab if you can get the acid past the staff.)
So why did I keep ending up in rehab? It turns out I’m really good at stopping drinking and even better at starting again. As my friend likes to describe it, alcoholism IS relapse. Whether it’s five minutes, an hour, a few months or many years. The disease is always there, waiting for the opportunity to pull us back.
And it took me six facilities to learn this relatively simple lesson: don’t put all your eggs in the rehab basket. It may keep you sober for twenty eight days – or eleven or so months if you find yourself at the one I was at in the Northwest woods of New Jersey (don’t ever find yourself there if you can help it) – but once you get out it’s a whole new ballgame. And as horrific as some of those places are, not even a paralyzing fear of ever having to go through rehab again will keep you from drinking. At least it didn’t for me. I hate rehab with a passion. Every one I’ve ever been to. Even the nice ones. And yet I kept finding myself sitting and shaking as I lied to yet another intake nurse about what drugs I was on. They of course find out when they test your blood and urine, but that’s beside the point.
Rehab is a beginning, not an end. It’s a running start, but that’s all it is. It’s not a cure. And all the counselors in the world telling you to go to AA when you get out, and stay away from people, places and things, and find a sponsor, etc. isn’t going to make you do those things. You’ve got to be desperate. You’ve got to be willing. And you’ve got to want it bad, because it’s going to put up a fight. For me it took all those rehabs to finally give me the desperation and willingness necessary to really try and put my life into recovery instead of putting recovery into my life. It’s made a huge difference.
Be nice to the counselors. Or at least be nice to your counselor. I’m always surprised how many people refuse to do anything. Alcoholics are defiant by nature, sure, but unless you want an aftercare plan that puts you in a halfway house on a frontage road in Minnesota (and trust me, you don’t), be agreeable. Follow the rules. Do the assignments. Do your chores. And definitely do not have someone mail you acid.
I learned that everyone there is crazier than you are. Not necessarily, of course, but it’s certainly worth believing. Be helpful. Let them cry on your shoulder. And definitely, under no circumstance, make out with them. Aside from being against the rules (at least it was everywhere I’ve been), it’s bad idea. Remember, they’re crazier than you are. And besides, alcoholics and addicts typically don’t have a good track record of safe sex – it’s not entirely impossible that they’re riddled with STDs. (I’m not, of course, but then again I probably should be. Call me lucky.)
Stay away from the women. They’re crazier than the men. And if you happen to be a woman, watch your back. I’ve seen some women do some crazy shit to each other. I’m not saying that women are crazier than men generally. I’m saying that at all the institutions I’ve been at the women are, on average, crazier than the men. Or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself. Who knows.
Share openly and honestly. In groups, with your counselor, with the doctors and therapists – with everyone. People respond to honesty, even if they are detoxing and drooling on themselves. And you’re not going to stay sober if you keep lying. They say the drink is the last thing that happens in a relapse. I would argue that the first thing is a lie. Big. Small. Meaningful or trivial. It’s the first push of the boulder down the mountain.
Lastly, I learned that if you can get sober without having to go to rehab, do it. Rehab sucks.
Simeon Stone is a pseudonym for a writer based in New York who has been sober for fifteen months.