Rehab for the Holidays

By Nic Sheff 12/27/11
What happens when you bottom out during the “most joyful” time of year and end up in rehab over Christmas and New Year's? Let someone who’s been there tell you.
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It’s no big revelation to say that the holidays can fucking suck—and that being around family can be stressful as hell.

When I was a kid, I always had to come down to LA to have Christmas with my mom and step-dad. They made such a big deal out of all the presents and everything. I mean, they would buy me so much crap and they’d buy each other so much crap. And it was way beyond what they could afford. They were constantly worrying and arguing about money, but at Christmas time all that went out the window. They spent everything they had buying each other shoes and handbags and sports memorabilia. And for me it was toys, toys, toys I didn’t need.

It was as though those gifts were somehow supposed to erase the fact that I only saw my mom like three times a year. Or that when I did see her, she and my step-dad would have such brutal fights that once, when we were driving, she literally grabbed the steering wheel and tried to turn us around on the freeway. 

So you might think that when I found myself being checked into rehab at the end of November back in 2005, I would’ve been relieved as hell to be spending the holidays in treatment—you know, away from all the family drama and expectations and everything. 

They didn’t have a tree or decorations. None of us had any presents. We hadn’t bought any. No one had bought any for us.

But, actually, I felt kind of the opposite. 

I felt panicked. 

Because, even though being around my mom and step-dad for the holidays had always been kind of a nightmare, at least I’d had family to be around. As much as family can suck, suddenly it felt like any family was better than no family at all. With no family at all, what was I? 

Unwanted—that’s for one thing.

Unwanted, untrusted, alone, isolated, cast off—a fucking pariah.

And that was the truth.

I’d destroyed my relationships with all of them.

To make matters worse, at the rehab, pretty much everyone else was going home. I’d forgotten about that phenomenon from when I worked at Promises Treatment Center in Malibu maybe two or three years earlier, but people clear out of rehab around the beginning of December and then they don’t start checking in again until after the first of January. ‘Cause, I guess the thing is, most people do want to spend the holidays with their families. And, if someone is out using, they’ll usually put off going into treatment until after the New Year.

So there I was, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, freezing my ass off ‘cause I’d barely brought any clothes with me to the detox in the Valley—and I’d been shipped out from there right before Thanksgiving without being able to go back to my drug den of an apartment. Only six other clients were still there with me as December 24th came around. We played Pictionary for hours every night. It was amazing to see these hardened ex-cons and junkies getting so into yelling and making all these silly noises trying to guess the word, “oink” or something. We’d play these games and watch a bunch of movies—these random old VHS tapes they had in the cabinet—in the group room with the big fireplace. The chef on duty that night made us a special dinner of steak and potatoes gratin and, although we weren’t allowed to have any kind of sugar there ‘cause of all the clients with eating disorders, he snuck me in a box of Captain Crunch with Crunch Berries. 

They didn’t have a tree or decorations. None of us had any presents. We hadn’t bought any. No one had bought any for us.

The only staff member they could get to work was this Austrian lady who looked like an ogre but she was nice enough.

My roommate let me borrow his big army coat and we went on a hike in the snow. 

We talked about our families—what we would’ve normally been doing. This kid, Charles I’ll call him—had a way more fucked up childhood than I had. He was a victim of abuse—from his older brother, actually. He was grateful not to have to be at home.

And I suddenly realized I was, too. I was really fucking grateful. For once during the holidays, I was able to focus on what this season is supposed to be about: helping others. Because that’s always been the great thing for me about rehab and outpatient and group therapy: I’ll go in there thinking I’m all messed up and everything. But then someone else will share and I’ll just spend my time trying to help and support them. And then, as if by magic, I’ll suddenly feel better.

I guess it’s what they were trying to teach me in 12-step meetings but somehow it took me until that moment, on that Christmas, to finally get it.

The next day, we had groups and a meeting and it was just like every other day at that rehab. I knew it was Christmas, but that really didn’t mean that much. What meant something was that there were six of us in rehab fighting to save our lives. Of course, I did think about my family—especially my little brother and sister, who I always wanted to spend Christmas with. But being with this group of my friends there at the treatment center actually felt even more important. And, ultimately, even more rewarding. We were supporting each other. That was what mattered. All the bullshit materialism and family petty drama wasn’t there at all. It was a huge relief.

But I was still fairly apprehensive about spending New Years’ Eve there at the rehab. Honestly, I’d always grown up with this strange idea that if I didn’t have a good New Year’s Eve, it would mean the whole next year was gonna suck for me. I would put a ton of pressure on myself to have this great time. Of course, what that usually meant was going partying and, inevitably, I’d end up getting in a huge fight with my girlfriend, or I’d get sick and puke everywhere or something. Basically, I’d build it up in my head and then, on the actual night, I’d self-destruct.

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but whatever year followed would always be a disaster, too. Then again, at that point, my whole life was kind of a disaster.

There at the rehab, though, New Year’s Eve didn’t turn out to be about some dumb superstition. Instead, we had group sessions all day, where we were encouraged to think deeply about what we truly wanted for ourselves for the coming year. I began to realize that being in treatment over New Year’s was an incredible opportunity to start the year sober and clear headed and ready to learn and heal all the shit that was wrong with me. And, of course, I was with my friends again, so we supported each other through it. That night, we watched the David Bowie movie Labyrinth. The troll lady was the only one on duty again and she passed out little New Year’s party hats and kazoos that we didn’t use. We ate kettle corn and drank hot chocolate and, of course—like always—smoked a ton of cigarettes. But we got through it.

And the following year was actually pretty good. It was the year I finally finished my first book. And by the time the next holiday season came along, even though I had relapsed in the interim, I found myself sober again—and not in rehab.

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.