Rehab Redemption: Faking It in the Fishbowl

By Jason Korneliussen 11/07/19

As I shared my experience with the group, I knew that I should be expressing some kind of emotion, but the tears simply refused to come.

Woman cries during group therapy "fishbowl" excercise
I felt like they were starving for my trauma © Milkos |

There was a group activity - an exercise - they made us do at the inpatient treatment facility where I ended up because I couldn’t stop drinking. It was called “Fishbowl,” and it required an individual to sit in the center of a large circle of folding chairs and describe something horrible that had happened to them, or some shameful act they’d committed against somebody else. The other addicts and alcoholics would sit in these chairs -- the “bowl” -- and listen as the “Fish” shared this traumatic event from their past. Without fail, by the time the tale was over, the storyteller and most of the people in the room would be sobbing uncontrollably. 

Often, the Fish would reach a point mid-story when their emotional response would render them incapable of carrying on. The audience would sit there uncomfortably, waiting to hear how the narrative played out, watching in disappointment as a counselor wrapped the Fish in a tight, one-armed hug while holding a box of tissues up to their tear-streaked and quivering face. And yet, regardless of the tears, and despite the very real prospect of either witnessing or suffering a complete mental breakdown, everyone in the facility -- staff and patients alike -- absolutely loved doing Fishbowl.

Get That Shit Out of Your System

It was a 30-day treatment program, and Fishbowl was conducted on a four-week rotation, meaning that with a little luck, you were able to participate twice during your visit. I had essentially won the lottery by walking into the beginning of an intense Fishbowl session on my very first day at the facility. My peer advisor -- a skinny 20-year-old in khakis who was trying to quit heroin -- told me as much as he led me away from the reception area and down a hallway that ended at pair of steel double doors. “Fishbowl fucking rules,” he told me. “It feels so good to just get all the shit out of your system!” 

He cautioned me to be quiet as we entered the lecture hall. The doors opened to reveal a ring of people seated in a circle and segregated by gender along a diametric divide. A few people turned to look as he directed me to an open seat between a middle-aged man with a Wyatt Earp mustache and a teen with a shaved head wearing a tattered blue hoodie. The chairs were pointed inwards towards a young woman who was, to my horror, sobbing and convulsing as she gulped down air and twisted a plastic water bottle in her hands as if wringing a towel. 

The Fishbowl was my first experience in treatment. Before I’d even been shown to my room, I witnessed a stranger scream through tears about how she’d barely escaped a house fire she’d caused by passing out with a lit cigarette in her hand. Her cat, she bellowed, had died in the blaze.

The young woman finished her story and the audience members thanked her for sharing while providing a light round of applause. As she walked back to her seat, a stocky man with a buzzcut and the general demeanor of a high school gym coach stood up and asked who would like to be next in the bowl. Instantly, 50 synchronized hands shot into the air and a raucous chorus of “Me! I will! Me! Bryan, pick me!” resounded from the perimeter of the folding chair circle. My peer advisor - Mr. Khaki - was the lucky one chosen, and he clapped in excitement as he trotted to his place in the center of the room. 

Once seated, he placed his hands in his lap, took a breath, and launched into a story about showing up to a trap house to score drugs and being robbed by a pair of dealers who beat him severely and then forced him into the trunk of their car. They drove around for hours, stopping intermittently to exit the vehicle for brief periods of time before returning and driving off to their next location. Mr. Khaki recounted through barely decipherable sobs how every time the car stopped, he assumed they were about to pop open the trunk lid and kill him. That feeling of powerlessness, he explained, combined with his ever-worsening heroin withdrawals, created a hellish experience of total vulnerability that ultimately set him on his current course to recovery. 

Eventually they stopped and the trunk opened an inch, as if someone had pulled the release handle inside the cab of the car. He heard the dealers exit the vehicle and assumed the worse, feeling around for anything he could use as a weapon to defend himself. But the men simply walked away, the sound of their voices and footsteps quickly fading into silence. He climbed out of the trunk and took off running. After a few blocks he slowed down and then walked several miles to the house where he lived with his mother. He cleaned himself up, and never reported the incident to the police. When his mom asked about his black eye and the cuts on his face, all he would say is that he wanted to stop using, and that’s what led him to the inpatient treatment center where he was now sharing his story. 

Mr. Khaki’s traumatic experience clearly resonated with the other members of the group. There was an explosion of thunderous applause, along with shouts of appreciation and encouragement as he accepted a tissue from Bryan and stood up from the chair. He was replaced by a girl who told a story about being abused by an ex-boyfriend -- a man who, she told us, was currently undergoing treatment at a different facility. Then the gentleman with the mustache fell to pieces as he recalled missing his daughter’s birthday party because he was passed out drunk behind the wheel of his pickup truck in the woods where he’d go to drink in secret. Bawling and quivering, he choked back sobs as he recounted how he’d regained consciousness in the dead of night, unsure of how to get back to the highway. 

My Turn in The Fishbowl

Eventually, Bryan, the linebacker of a counselor who was running the Fishbowl session, turned to me and asked if I’d like to give it a try. “How about it… Jason K.?” He squinted at my adhesive name tag. “Why don’t you tell us something about yourself?”

“Uh… I’m okay. I’m still getting the hang of things,” I replied, wondering if anyone would try to stop me if I made a run for the exit.

“What’s your D.O.C.?” Mr. Khaki interjected. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I knew that most of the other people at this facility were here by court order. Was he talking about the Department of Corrections? 

“Um, I’m actually here voluntarily,” I said. “I checked myself in.”

“No, your drug of choice,” said Mr. Khaki. 

“Oh, um, alcohol mainly, but once I get started with that, anything is fair game.” There were murmurs of understanding and acceptance from the other members of the group. 

“How much clean time do you have?” asked Bryan.

“I’m two weeks sober today,” I replied. “A week in the detox center, then six days waiting for a bed to open up here.” At this admission, a roar of applause even bigger than the one elicited by Mr. Khaki’s story erupted from the circle.

“I know you just walked into this, and it probably seems overwhelming, but it’s a great way to start your time here. Get something off your chest.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Khaki chimed in. “You’re gonna have to do it eventually. Might as well get it out of the way.” Other members of the group were urging me on as well, offering words of encouragement to motivate me into that chair at the center of the room. I felt like they were starving for my trauma. Like everyone was eager to get a taste of the new guy’s emotional pain. 

“Alright,” I said, to a round of anticipatory cheers. “Fuck it. I’ll go.” 

The seat was still warm from the cumulative body heat of the last dozen people to sit here and make their confessions. I began rooting around in my brain for something to share, wanting nothing more than to escape through a window and suck down ten cigarettes in rapid succession. I’d chain smoked nearly that many on the sidewalk outside the treatment center just one hour earlier while mustering the courage to propel myself inside. It took everything I had left, courage-wise, to flip through the smoke-damaged photo album of my mind in search of a suitable story to share. 

The Tears Refused to Come

Should I tell them about the time I got caught breaking into a bar where I worked? How I was fired, couldn’t pay my rent, and subsequently ended up being evicted? Or the time I was kicked out of a rock show for being too drunk, and when the bouncer led me out the door at the back of the club, I fell down the stairs and landed on my face in the alley below? How a police officer sat me on the curb and held napkins to my nose and mouth until an ex-girlfriend of mine just happened to walk by, and how she took me to her brother’s apartment and cleaned my wounds while sobbing and begging me to go to treatment? And even then, how I refused to stop drinking after one of my teeth became abscessed and my jaw swelled up to the size of a grapefruit, and the doctor told me I might die? Or maybe I could share about the time I stole an acquaintance's wallet out of his coat pocket as we walked through a crowded bar, then pulled out the cash and threw the rest down a storm drain. About how, when he noticed it was missing, I convinced him he’d left it at the last bar we were at, and even helped him look for it. I had hundreds of stories like these to share, each one a reminder of who I’d become and why I now sat there, frightened and confused in the Fishbowl, hating myself. 

In the end, I decided to share the story of how my mother deserted my family when I was eight years old. Better to throw her under the bus, I thought, than to expose myself as the world’s biggest piece of human garbage. I began by talking about how she simply disappeared one night while we were sleeping. She’d written a note, explaining that she was too young to be married with kids, and she needed a chance to go live her life. I told the group how my sisters and I went to live with my aunt and uncle until my dad was able to figure out how to proceed in the aftermath of being abandoned by his partner. We ended up moving into my grandmother’s house, where we began the laborious process of rebuilding our lives. We didn’t see mom again for several months, by which point she was drinking pretty heavily.

As I shared my experience with the group, I knew that I should be expressing some kind of emotion -- that I should be bawling my eyes out like everyone else -- but the tears simply refused to come. I tried forcing myself to cry by thinking about how I’d ended up here -- an emotional phone call to my dad at a time when suicide was starting to look like the most sensible option -- but it soon became obvious that my emotional moment wasn’t going to happen. I’d already cried so many tears for her over the course of my life that I now seemed to be tapped out at a moment when they actually might have done me some good. I wanted to fit in, to exhibit the vulnerability that my peers had so fearlessly demonstrated before me, but the best I could do was to put on a show, burying my face in my hands and pseudo-wailing while doubled over in my chair, a pale imitation of the genuine anguish I’d so recently witnessed. 

My performance was a hard sell to this group of master-level bullshit artists. No applause followed, and no thanks were given. Instead, we all sat there blinking at each other for what felt like a decade before someone finally spoke up. 

“Okay, that’s enough for today,” Bryan said. “Let’s finish with the serenity prayer.” 

I stood up and made my way back to the circle, joining hands with Mr. Khaki and the blue hoodie kid. I’d learned the words to the prayer a few years earlier, when a previous landlord -- herself a recovering alcoholic -- convinced me to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, the implication being that it was the only way to save myself from eviction. I went to a few meetings and learned just enough to convince her I was working the program, but I never actually stopped drinking. She eventually caught on to my scam and kicked me out, but still, the words of the prayer had stayed with me.

“God,” Bryan began.

“God,” we echoed, linked by our tobacco-stained fingers around the now-empty folding chair. 

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” we continued in unison, our words echoing across the high ceiling of the lecture hall. 

“The courage to change what I can,” we went on, most heads bowed and eyes closed, but not mine… not yet. “And the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Free time for 30 minutes, then small groups,” said Bryan, prompting the crowd to disperse. Most people went outside to smoke while Mr. Khaki showed me to my room. I expected him to give me shit about my performance, but we walked down the hall in silence until we reached the door marked D402. He showed me around and then left me alone to unpack. I opened the suitcase I’d borrowed from my dad and started taking out the clothes he’d purchased for me just before dropping me off at the bus station. I placed a pair of flannel pajama pants in a drawer with the price tag still attached to the waistband. Then a package of white t-shirts, and socks, and toiletries that we’d shopped for with the enthusiasm of preparing for the first day of school. Rehab and kindergarten were similar for me in that way; the excitement of a new beginning, combined with a sense of absolute, bowel-clenching terror. And finally, at the bottom of the bag was a carton of cigarettes -- Camel Lights -- with a note taped to the front: 

You got this, boy
Love, Dad.

That’s when I started to cry. 

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Jason Korneliussen is a freelance writer, recovering alcoholic, and program manager working with homeless youth in the Seattle area. He recently celebrated five years of sobriety. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.