My Year In Rehab

By Philip Carver 11/21/14

I needed all the help I could get. And I got it.


On a cool February night, about a month after my twenty-third birthday, I drove my truck into oncoming traffic. I had lost my job that day for getting loaded at work, and proceeded to spend my evening seeking oblivion. I was on my way home from a gas station, eating an ice cream sandwich when I veered into a car head on. I will always be grateful that the only casualty was my ice cream sandwich, which ended up plastered to my face after the airbag deployed. I was subsequently offered one year of rehab in lieu of jail time.

The first thing I realized was that for my life to improve, it would require complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. 

My family was eager to get me back into rehab, still holding false hope that another expensive treatment center would be the one to finally “fix” me. I was anything but excited. It was my fifth time in rehab, and I didn’t know what was more depressing: the fact that I was going to rehab again, or the fact that I knew exactly what to expect when I got there. “Normal young adults aren’t so familiar with treatment centers,” I thought to myself, but I knew I wasn’t normal. I could have written a book on surviving rehab without having to change. I knew how to talk to the counselors so they would be confident in my recovery, but not make me the center of attention. I was good at doing my time and staying out of the spotlight. I would enter slightly depressed, leave slightly optimistic, and though everyone I met was confident in my progress, I relapsed every time. 

This trip to treatment was no different. I went in to the program somber, disparaging, and hopeless as I usually did when I got to a rehab or detox. I was already used to articulating canned responses like: “Yes, I am in rehab again.” “Yes, I’m taking it seriously this time.” “No, I don’t feel like killing myself. Thank you for your concern,” and “I’m working very hard on myself.”

I had seen people in my position finally get sober after similarly discouraging experiences and copious trips to rehab with no avail, but I couldn’t fathom myself “getting it.” Still, I had to believe something. I dug for any last vestige of hope I could muster. One thing was clear, I would be in rehab for a year, and if there was ever an opportunity to take a break from my routine of self-destructive narcissism and focus on trying to clean up my act, now was that time. I decided rather early in my residency that I would make a sincere effort to attain long-term sobriety.

The first thing I realized was that for my life to improve, it would require complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. There would be no exceptions. I felt very certain that each and every time I took just one pill, had just one drink, or took just one hit, it ended with inevitable despair. I also knew that the best chance I had at attaining sobriety would be through participating in a 12-step program with a certain level of fidelity. These were not difficult conclusions to arrive at, I had seen it work many times; applying these principles in my daily life, however, was where I struggled and failed so many times before. I was well aware of what I needed to do in order to get sober long before I began doing it. Taking action was a concept that evaded me for years. Likewise, for me to be completely certain at 23-years-old that I had a psychological disease from which there was no cure, but that I could put into remission by practicing spiritual principles was easily the most vexing task I’ve ever been faced with.  

Watching me struggle so much despite all the treatment I had received was nothing less than puzzling to my family. I felt guilty that they had spent so much money trying to help me, but who am I to tell my family how to spend their money? After all, I am their legacy, and if they thought they could save my life by sending me to pricey treatment centers, I couldn’t tell them they were wrong. I began viewing rehab centers in a similar fashion to the way I viewed colleges. Rehabs don’t get you sober just like college doesn’t get you a career. If you apply yourself while you’re there, then you should be able to attain tools that will be useful for the rest of your life. If you stay persistent after you graduate, you have the best chance at success. It’s not the rehab or the college that changes you, it’s what you do while you’re there that determines whether or not any change will occur. Most rehabs function as segues into a 12-step program just as a college functions to assure a student’s potential to be employed. For this reason, a “career” of sobriety attained in sequence to completion of a treatment program typically relies on participation in 12-step meetings.

During the year I spent in treatment, many people came and went prematurely. Most of them seemed like good people, they didn’t want to cause any problems or keep hurting their families, but for one reason or another they weren’t able to grasp the concepts necessary to maintain sobriety. Some of them came back to treatment, some stayed wherever they ended up, and a few unfortunate souls died before they had the chance to do either.

Two people, who were both under forty, died within 24 hours of “graduating” from the program. The first was 19 years old. He died at his friend’s apartment the day he got out. He injected a fatal dose of heroin, ostensibly unaware of how much his tolerance to junk had depleted. I went to his funeral. His family showed a slideshow of pictures they had taken of him through the years. The last few pictures were of his high school graduation ceremony.  He didn’t get to live much after that. He didn’t get to live much at all. The second person to perish upon leaving was one of my roommates while I was there. He was a young engineer with a serious heroin problem. He had a wife, and two kids below the age of 10. Upon leaving the program, he checked into a motel room where he would take his last breath. I attended his service, as well. I talked to his family, I paid my respects, and I cried for days.  

“What makes me any different from them?” I wondered. What’s going to prevent me from ending up face down in a dingy room all by myself? The fear of death had never stopped me before, what was going to make my current circumstances any different? These questions aggravated me for a while, but soon my life began to change and I worried less about my fate. I eventually got accepted to UC Riverside, and got a job near the campus at a sheet metal company. The day I finished my year in treatment, I moved to a sober living place in Riverside and began to fill my time with working and studying. I kept myself very busy with positive things, and I wish I could say that everything continued to get better from there, but that’s not the case.

My life got really big, and my program got really small. I didn’t want to drink or use drugs right away, but eventually I relapsed after I had let myself become vulnerable. I hadn’t been doing the things that had kept me sober, and I lost my time. This time there was no rehab. There was no detox. There was no codependent family swooping in to save the day. They had gone to Al-Anon and become keen to my games. Therefore, there was no comfy hospital bed and no hourly servings of Valium and muscle relaxers. I was left to detox on a bed at my girlfriend’s house, wondering how it had come to this again. By now, however, I knew the answer to that question. I had put things before my recovery, and for that reason I had lost it. I hadn’t been going to meetings, and I wasn’t working steps. I’ve met addicts and alcoholics through the years who can abstain from drugs and alcohol without meetings, but I think it was safe to say at this point that I’m not one of those people. I felt like I had thrown all those important lessons I learned right out the window.  After all, it wasn’t any of my trips to rehab that would have kept me sober, it was how I directed my efforts now that I was out that would make a difference. 

I desperately tried to climb out of the hole I had gotten myself into, salvage my grades, keep my job, and uphold my shared room in the sober living home. I knew I couldn’t possibly do all this in my deplorable state, but I persisted. I went to as many meetings as possible, I congregated with other sober people, and somewhere along the way my behavior and thoughts began to change. But why? What made me so willing all of the sudden? Why did I begin to invest in my recovery and focus on helping others?  What made this time any different?    

The most honest answer I can muster is this: I don’t know. I don’t know what made me finally change and devote my energy to a program of rigorous action. Much like many other people I know who have stayed sober, I just decided to start putting some effort into my recovery. I began to do what I knew I had needed to do for so long. I became a regular at lots of AA meetings, I worked the 12 steps with a sponsor, and I committed myself to helping others and being of service as often as possible. To this day, I don’t even know why these things work. I’m not sure why giving newly-sober people rides to meetings assures my sobriety. I couldn’t tell you why brewing a pot of coffee for attendees of my home-group makes me want to stick around. But it does.

I’ve tried to focus less on why I drank and used, why it got so bad, and even why my routine keeps me sober. The fact is that it does. I was a precarious and desperate alcoholic who finally decided to take advice from people who stay sober. I don’t think AA or the 12 steps are the only routes to long-term sobriety, but they are widely available, and I am a living testament to the fact that they can work. 

Jeff Walker is a student and writer living in Riverside, California. You can follow him on Twitter @jeffwalkersdead

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