- Friends & Family
I didn’t have an easy time in treatment. I was very ill when I got there, and if I’d known that first night at the men’s house how much illness was to come I would have left. I have done the very worst things to my body, to my mind. My using did not include caution because I had no real plans to survive. I’m only talking about physical illness here. The emotional desolation was so entrenched that I really never imagined being any other way again.
The men’s house is a shock to the newcomer. It seems a brutish hive, teeming with testosterone and decibels. There were fifty nine other men. They swarmed into the meeting hall on my first, stunned night and my thought was only, “Loud.” Then, “Mistake.” It seemed like most of them were shrieking and laughing at nothing in particular, and I didn’t understand the laughing because I thought we were all suffering. They maybe didn’t understand where we were, but I did. Somehow everyone was half my age and from Tennessee (I’d never even met anyone from Tennessee before). I didn’t know who these leering thugs were, but clearly they were all together and their lives had nothing to do with mine. I wouldn’t have it any other way. In the huge, buzzing space I sat stone still, in illness and dread, trying to radiate menace. The group was called to order, not by someone in charge, a grown-up maybe, but by one of these little apes, in baseball cap and baggy shorts. “Jesus,” my next thought, “This is Lord of the Flies.”
I can’t remember much of that first gathering except the loudness. I tried to wish myself away. Whatever we were supposed to be listening to, a Charlie Brown teacher I think, just lulled me into further dread for hours. I snapped awake when, abruptly, there was a visible shift in the room; a make-shift ceremony unfolded for a few lucky souls who were leaving the next day. I sat dumbly as it played out; a ritual of unfathomable glee and bro-affection and more relentless, grating laughter. I didn’t know what was so special about these three goons, sitting at the front, facing the crowd, except they got to leave, and I certainly would make it clear to the authorities that under no circumstances would I sit through any such ordeal upon my release in twenty-six days. Then, all of a sudden, another shift in the room, this one mind-bending: the speeches were over and the horde erupted. In an instant everyone was out of their chairs and rushing the front of the room—the mass moving as one. I was pulled along, helpless. They grabbed each other, almost choreographed…practiced. Arms over shoulders, there suddenly were two huge circles of men, a large ring encircling a smaller one. The three who were leaving were standing in the center of the inner ring. I am a small man; the huge arms of these apes on either side buried me. I couldn’t see. Then, in another instant everyone was completely silent, like a wizard spell, not a single breath released. Very softly, someone counted out, “One…two…three…” And the room exploded.
“I LOOOVE MYSELF!” The inner circle screamed, in perfect, bellowing unison.
“I LOOOVE MYSELF!” The outer circle answered, deafening. It was a call and response.
“I LOOOVE MYSELF!” Again from the inner ring.
“I LOOOVE MYSELF!” Again from the outer ring.
Then, in the same pitch, the windows rattling, “GOD, GRANT ME THE SERENITY…” I’d heard the Serenity Prayer before, but I’d not heard it bellowed. It’s hard to describe the sound of all of this. It shook the walls; it was a battle cry, a prayer, a challenge. It was raucous, fearsome, and earnest; sixty men in pitch-perfect unison and unity. It was and is one of the most haunting, electrifying things I have ever heard.
It shook me. I wriggled out of the sweaty throng and bolted from the room. I rushed away, shedding these people. That sound had knocked something loose in me, something bad. I had never been this lonely even in a dark room with a gram of heroin. I was suffocating in rage and desperate for isolation. I thought to myself, “I will do what is asked of me, I will put my head down and do the work here. But leave me alone, and “I LOOOVE MYSELF” is not part of the deal.”
I had good roommates, there was Grant and Rich. We were close in age, adverse to drama, respectful of one another. They spoke quietly and were calm. They were popular, one was elected a Peer Leader and both were often at the center of a small group. They had a feeling of gravity about them. They understood why we were there, and they had intention. Each, I learned, had a family at home, a spouse and children, I did not. They were there not just for themselves—there striving to be better because they were depended on, I was not. And they wore the sadness of what they missed, those they yearned for, on their faces all the time. They made my physical agony seem petty. Grant had an infant at home, hundreds of miles away. We gave each other space.
I kept my eyes on the ground on the long walk back and forth from my room to the meeting space and the dining room. I stayed unaware of whoever passed. I sat obediently in my small group, I offered as little as possible, without letting on that I was offering as little as possible. At meals I tried to sit alone, and when invariably an intruder sat himself down I was as polite as I needed to be, and I left as soon as I could. I got sicker every hour. I could not make it through the evening meetings, shaking and vomiting in my room. Too ill to attend another graduation ceremony, I did not have to hear that sound again.
On the third morning I signed up for the morning hike into the desert. I used to vacation in this place. I had been sober for many years, happy. I came to Palm Springs often and took inspiration and awe from the natural beauty, and I had been a fitness fanatic. I thought the morning walk would offer some distraction, if not comfort. At seven we somberly piled out of the white van, a dozen of us. The walk, led by councilors, was maybe a quarter mile up a mild switchback, a breezy dog-walk I’d done several times in my other life. This day, when we finally reached the top I was seeing stars. I was bent over, coughing, the breath not coming, dizzy and in a cold sweat. Repulsive. I imagined everyone’s disgust. We were spread out and given time to “meditate” in the early morning sun. I sat and regarded myself, hard. Hollowed-out, brittle, I had nothing. I didn’t even have the strength to breathe. I was repellent to myself. This vacation place looked sinister and barren; I couldn’t find beauty in anything. There was nothing left of me and no comfort anywhere except a needle in my arm. We finally turned and made our way down the hill. This, actually, was the first day after my medical “taper” ended, my first day without the synthetic opiate that I had been dependent on. As we stepped down the hill my mangled body began to turn itself inside out.
The great fact of withdrawal is that there is no concept of afterward, of getting through it. You simply are stuck in the moment of suffering; the moment lasts for eternity and the moment is impossible. I stormed into the nurse’s office, my terror transfigured into rage. I demanded to see the doctor.
“This is too much!” I shrieked at him. “There must be something you can do!”
He looked at me calmly from across the desk. I was shaking with sickness and anger. “I could give you a valium.” he said. I exhaled deeply, closed my eyes. Yes, please. Thank god. I saw myself kissing his ring. “But I’m not going to, because you’re an addict.” I saw myself lunging over the desk, my hands around his neck. But I didn’t have the strength.
“In fourteen days you will begin to feel human again.” He said. I stopped breathing. “Fourteen days?” I howled. “No, no, no, that’s not possible. No, that’s too much, I can’t do that!” I stared at the doorknob, I began to cry.
He was calm. He said, “In fourteen days you will begin to feel human again. I’m sorry that your body is doing this. I’m sorry that you were so addicted to those drugs.” Then, he said, “I wouldn’t blame you if you left.” My jaw dropped. I turned and, for a moment, looked him in the eye. “I wouldn’t blame you if you left,” he repeated. “But I hope you stay.” I stared again at the doorknob, I thought of my choices, where my life was. I said, slowly, “Well, I guess no hard feelings, Doc. I tried, I really did.”
I walked through the empty patio and corridors to my room. Everyone was in the meeting hall as I strode right past it, eyes straight ahead. I felt the desert heating up like a sauté pan. “They will understand,” I thought to myself. My mother and father, my sisters…They will understand that this is just too much, that I tried. There was an unlocked gate thirty feet from my room. I only had to step out. At Walgreens there were refills waiting for me: Suboxone and Klonopin. All the suffering would be over in an hour. I reached my empty room and tore my suitcase open onto the floor. I began to throw my clothes in, still on their hangars. Then I stopped suddenly, not sure what was making me stop. I collapsed onto the bed. Tears flowing down my face, I stared across the room at the two empty beds with their awful yellow covers neatly tucked. I sent a silent, urgent plea to Grant and Rich: Please come back into this room, please come back now. You don’t have to do anything; I don’t want anything from you. Just please be here. Because you are not cowards, and I cannot be a coward when I am around you.
I was not at all surprised at the sound of the door opening, and of Grant and Rich talking quietly to each other. I lay there, my aviator sunglasses over my dripping face. They stopped talking. They looked at me, they looked at the violently half-filled suitcase, then back at me. Wordlessly they stretched out on their beds. Rich opened a book. Grant folded his arms behind his head, closed his eyes.
That’s how I stayed on the property. That’s how they saved my life.
People may think that treatment, recovery, is about introspection, self-flagellation, confession, maybe doctors and therapists and yoga. Maybe it is a little. Mostly it’s about one addict helping another. We have been through a shipwreck and this is the only lifeboat. We hold on to each other.
I really don’t remember much of the fourteen days after that, except it was worse than I had imagined it would be. I couldn’t leave the room very much, or for very long. I was in the bed most of the time, the bed suddenly covered in upended nails, the dark-painted walls closing in and the small window a searing laser beam of sunny hurt. This is what I do remember: shaking in my drenched sheets I crack my eye open at five a.m., Grant silently leaning over with a bagel on a plate, resting it on my bedside table. Behind him, Rich does the same with a banana and a cup of tea, and they creep away. One day I am too wrecked to change my bedding for the week; I come out of the bathroom and it’s been neatly done. Every single night I wake up screaming, around 3 a.m., my terror shocking my roommates out of their sound sleep. I am mortified. Every single night, and they never mention it—not once. And there’s this: when they think I am asleep I hear them talking about me, but not with justifiable disgust or irritation. They talk of me with concern, encouragement, and care. I keep my eyes screwed shut as I listen to them—I don’t really know what to do with how it feels to hear that.
Fourteen days. One night I sleep all the way through to the early morning. I wake up gently, without shaking, my sheets are dry. I’m hungry. My skin doesn’t hurt and my eyes aren’t sore. It is the fourteenth day, exactly. Not one hundred percent by any means, but of course I don’t remember what that should feel like anyway. I go through the morning with that extraordinary lightness that fills the gap when great pain is lifted. I am suddenly through to the other side after years. I cannot get my mind around it. I then notice something, only then on the fourteenth day. I walk back and forth from my room to the dining room, about a hundred steps. As I pass the other men, about thirty of them, usually, one at a time in each direction, I notice that they are saying my name. My eyes on the ground, I hear:
“How’s it going, Billy?”
“What’s up, Billy?”
The thing is that I didn’t really know these monkeys even knew my name. But it is relentless on that fourteenth day, and cautiously I begin to lift my eyes as I walk. When I pass someone, when he says my name, I look back at him, into his eyes. What I see that day was this: compassion, cheer, encouragement, acceptance, concern, respect, kindness. Brotherhood. I suddenly see that these thuggy baboons who I had wanted nothing to do with—they had my back. They’d had it all along.
And that’s when I start to change.
I have a sudden aversion to the dark room and yellow bedspreads where I had flailed and huddled for weeks. I want to be in the middle of the meeting room, with the group, all day. I want to be there when Corey and Tony lecture us with their special mixture of terror and love, because they are looking right into me and it feels gentle. I put my hand up, because I’ve found a voice that I thought was gone. I want to be outside, and I jump into the middle of a pool volleyball game (terrible idea, actually, but whatever). Most bewilderingly, I am suddenly concerned for the men around me. I watch a few of them intently, those who are behind me in this process. I see them at the edges of the group, wilting into the floor in the slow-motion horror throes of dope sickness. The standard look of shocked agony is frozen on their faces. I bend over and tap them on the shoulder, I tell them to go to their room, go to bed. Then I bring them things: “Eat this bagel, the carbs will help you rest. This banana for potassium, it will ease the body ache. This popsicle for hydration, I know you can’t drink water right now.” I frankly have no idea if these things help. I don’t really think that anything does. But it gives me the opportunity to sit at the foot of the bed, to tell them that I understand, I know how it feels. I offer them the kindness that was offered me.
It is the very first night that I am able to make it through to the graduation ceremony, and the ceremony is for Grant and Rich. I’m still more than a little sick, but I get shakily up in front of the room, I face everyone, and I tell them about Grant and Rich. I tell them everything. I look down at the end and the two of them are staring at me—unblinking, slack-jawed. It is more words than they had heard from me in three weeks combined.
There is a hike for those in their last week here. We see a lucky dozen of them returning every Wednesday, red from the sun, saturated with sweat, dumb grins on their faces—they are thrilled, each of them, always, and we are always jealous. I dread the thought of it now as my turn comes, because I want that look, I want to feel that way, but I can think only of the internal wreckage of that quarter mile walk up the switchback three weeks before. I can’t handle another defeat like that, not now. So I resolve not to go…but then I do. We are marching up the hill, we the lucky dozen. In front of me is Sam, who has gently pried open Douglass’s backpack, into which, every few steps, he delicately deposits a fist sized rock. Douglass has not yet noticed, but he is breaking a sweat. Then we are at a peak, shouting down into a thousand foot canyon (there is always a lot of shouting). We have been two miles straight up—I want to go higher, I don’t want to stop. I haven’t stopped since.
Then somehow it’s my last night. I’m perched at the front of the room facing fifty-seven goons. Beside me are Bryce and Dennis—two young men from Tennessee who I will probably never see again and who I love intensely. We are leaving tomorrow. There’s a horrid hour where, one by one, our peers come up and say nice things about us. It’s hard to listen to; drug addicts are not accustomed to hearing nice things said about them. Then we are each to give a little speech. I say this to my fellows, “Don’t count the days until you leave here, we are the lucky ones. Be here, now, in every way. Most of all grab the men next to you and don’t let go. When you leave here, look for others like us, it is how we will survive. Nobody will ever understand this part of you, the part that will destroy you, better than these in this room. We will keep each other alive.”
Then we’re done and they’re coming straight at us, a sweaty tsunami. It happens in seconds: we three are encircled, a ring of arms on shoulders around us, and a larger ring around that. I still can’t see. And in an instant it’s completely silent, and someone softly counts down, “One, two, three…” Then…they blow the roof off.
I love myself.
I stayed in Palm Springs for six months after that, moving into sober living with a small squadron of young misfits. I looked after them when I could; I cooked for them, I listened to them, I scolded them. To my unceasing joy they know me as “Uncle Billy.” I helped them as I was able, they helped me immeasurably. Over time, a couple of them relapsed and died instantly—I will never get used to that. Others will struggle some more, a longer uphill road. But many are living in peace and freedom and I see their lives blossoming like mine. I’m going to know them for a long time.
Every other day during those six months I would drive to a trail head and take off into the desert, usually about thirty miles per week. I have hiked above and around the Coachella valley; from Tramway to La Quinta, then Joshua Tree and the Mecca Hills to the Salton Sea. I have walked through the Colorado Desert from the corners of the Mohave and Sonoran. Those walks are part of my sober history, my story now. They started on that quarter mile switchback where I stood, wheezing, at the turning point.
Finally, in February 2015 I was in Palm Springs on a visit. I go there often. In a parking lot I ran into that doctor, the one who watched me and told me that he wouldn’t blame me if I left. I hugged him, hard. I told him I would never forget him and I won’t. I think he does understand what that crucial conversation meant, me staring at the doorknob: it’s my choice. Not to have the disease of addiction, I never had that choice and I never will, but the choice to take that first harrowing, impossible, step was mine, as was the choice to stay inside the gate. He made it so clear that in this one thing, surrender is the opposite of giving up. It will be my choice, and mine alone, to keep getting better and to stay better. Once I make that choice, though, after that I will be carried.
San Francisco, CA