Discovering Real Love in Rehab

By Anna James 03/09/16

Some partners share a bank account or a Labrador. We share a caseworker, a doctor and a therapist.

Rehab Guy

He told me he loved me before we'd kissed. Before an audience of fellow alcoholics, he turned to me with tear-filled eyes and said, "I love you." 

Granted, he was under instruction from the most terrifying Swiss-German Buddhist that ever graced the earth: our caseworker. "You really love her." He nodded his head in approval.

“Yeah,” he paused, twisting his leg awkwardly, turning his gaze away from mine. “I do.”

We did everything backwards, he and I, following the natural order of a rehab relationship. We moved in together, said our I love yous, then finally started dating.

It’s summer in Australia, and we are in a rehabilitation center in a sleepy coastal town of nine-thousand. Arriving brittle and bruised, I’m here to treat my alcoholism in a therapeutic community, where residents are encouraged to counsel each other. I’m 27 years old and I know everything.

He, too, is from the big city, a fact confirmed by his stained Tom Waits T-shirt. We are assigned to the same house, living together before our first hello. We share a brief journey back in our minds to the smelly "old man" pubs from our neighborhood. I guess his beer straight off the bat.

He’s my kind of guy. I evaluate him. At the front end of an eight-month program, I have the emotional capacity of a toothbrush. Sober for the first time in 15 years, I’m a chicken without my feathers, feeling everything at once. It renders me numb, and I feel nothing.


In rehab, you talk for a disproportionate amount of time about your shit. Your shit is an emotional wasteland, the soil from which your addiction is birthed. Within one week of knowing him, he knows all of my shit, and I know his. He suffers from depression, among other things. I am codependent, angry and acutely self-absorbed. We laugh at the hideousness of the archetypes we are encouraged to use to describe ourselves: the love-avoidant, the hero, the wounded child.

Despite this sea of shit that flows between us, my affection for him grows. The moments when I see him curl into himself with anxiety, hands shaking as he speaks out loud, are when I like him most. Vulnerability, seldom seen in the beer-chugging boyfriends that preceded him, is one of his better qualities and becomes a non-negotiable partner trait of mine. At times, he is so raw and hopeless and unapologetic about it that it’s nearing sexy. 

His honesty inspires mine. I do worse than peel my underwear for him—I share my mind. Daily, I tell him I want to leave. I openly fantasize about drinking again, and how that would look and what it would taste like. I confess to him that despite my brash exterior, I don’t like myself very much.

Once in art class, I drew a smiley face on my thigh, cellulite dimples for the eyes. He laughed along as my cellulite man launched into a monologue about the quality of rehab cake. To say that I could be myself around him would not be correct, because I didn’t (and still don’t) have a defined clue of who I am. He was, however, present when I awkwardly attempted to figure it out, which proved a more intimate experience than I had ever shared with any man.

He makes no advances towards me that I understand, and we develop a strong friendship.

Although we are bound by the golden rule—no sexual activity—I never feel the urge to be intimate with anyone, including him, at the rehab. Shudder-inducing memories of beer-soaked hotel sex still fresh in my mind, my body shuts off. This journey is about me, I remind myself, not some guy.


I’ve met men in bars, on airplanes and on subways. Before I am sure of them, they exist in my dialogue under a pseudonym, usually decided by a girlfriend: “Oh, how’s Canada Guy going?”

I tell a girlfriend about him, and when I’ve finished the program, she inquires, “What happened to Rehab Guy?” I cringe; our auspicious start would hardly look so promising to those on the outside.

Perhaps “we met in rehab” is not something to tell the grandkids. However, this relationship is one of the biggest successes in my life. With him, I finally learned how to stay in a relationship.

Prior to rehab—or as I refer to it, “BR”—men came and went. My interest would wane with the smallest of infractions: a broken plan, an unreturned call, a permanent backwards cap. For a couple of years BR, I shouldn’t have been on the market—or at the very least, I should have been fitted with a warning: “emotionally unstable alcoholic in training; enter at own risk.”

It’s hard to say whether I chose the wrong guys, or attracted them with my craziness. Probably both. I’m certain one guy, Army Guy, who kept a roll of polished watches on his dresser, kept me around because of the chaos I brought to his well-structured life.

I didn’t know what I wanted in a guy, but I ran from nice guys. I wasn’t a nice girl, what on earth would I do with a nice guy? In my definition, nice was sappy, tedious and bad in bed.

The moment I perceived I wasn’t getting something I wanted from a guy, I was out. In rehab, there was only one out: onto the street. With this reality in the back of my mind, I learned to go through my relationships rather than throw them behind me, like I’d done with many, many before.

Rehab Guy would get so sad at times, sometimes about me, that he couldn’t speak. “Are you okay?” I’d ask him. “No. I am not,” he’d reply. “Do you want to talk about it?” “Not yet,” he’d reply.

I’d let him alone with his feelings, and would return an hour later to see if he was ready to talk. In the past, this kind of pausing would throw me into tailspin of anger and questions: “Why don’t you want to talk to me? Is it something I’ve done? You can’t just shut down on me!”

I’d take any distance from my partner as a personal affront, and with that, I’d be gone. “He’s not my kind of guy,” I’d tell my girlfriends over a wine. “So shut-down, totally unstable.” 


Some partners share a bank account, a Netflix password and a Labrador. We share a caseworker, a doctor and a therapist.

When we left rehab, him a month before me, we shared a halfway house with another friend. Under the restriction of the rehab golden rule, we progressed to hand-holding and long body-to-body hugs. We often joked that we were like two virgins at Bible camp.

As friends, we navigated the awkward path that is "early recovery"—moving house on bike, dodging AA fanatics, skirting beer bottles around from our "normie" roommates.

He buys books, five at a time from the thrift store, and often I look at him and wonder how it is possible that so many words can fit into one’s head. When we talk, I feel myself wading through his mind. He shares his name with a prolific serial killer and wears dime-store Christmas socks year-round. His strangeness hears mine. “You’re mad but magic,” he says, quoting Bukowski.

He rides to my house with a handful of olives. Slowly, this Rehab Guy becomes My Guy.

Three months after rehab and we have progressed to a full-fledged relationship. Swimming in each other’s shit for almost a year, I feel like I’ve known him a decade, as if bonding time in rehab equates to dog years in real life. Cushioned by the excitement of each other, we camp on his twin mattress on the floor, watching dusty documentaries borrowed from the library.


It has been nice, not a word I’d often used to describe anything I was fond of. Nice, as in functional, reliable, nurturing. It’s safe, but not all rainbows.

Sometimes he is drowning, and I can’t do anything but watch. When he is turned inward with sadness, I hop around like a demented photographer jiggling a teddy bear trying to get the baby to smile. I threaten to leave; the wounded child that my caseworker warned us of rears its head. It’s a sad dance we do—his shit brings up my shit and, for a time, our relationship is shit.

Then I want to drink, and he wants to drink, but miraculously neither of us does.

We cry, and spend time apart, each flicking through the knowledge from the summer in rehab. Then, he texts: “For months I’ve thought that I’d like to be able to look at you in five years, both of us doing what makes us happy and think to myself—we made it.”

Eventually we float back to the top, our heads peeking just above water, holding hands.

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