Slipping on my studded leather jacket, I got in the van that was heading to the rehab. I needed help getting off drugs and was finally going in for treatment. This would be my first real attempt at a residential rehab and I had no idea what to expect. And even though my life was a mess, I was still nervous. Years before I had tried a 30-day dry out, but I really wasn’t ready and only lasted a week before I ran out the door. This time around I’d hit about as low a bottom as I could, and it was definitely time to try something different.
Two hours later, after a rather whiney (on my part) intake interview, where the clinical director said I was the worst dope-fiend she’d ever laid eyes on, the program staff decided to let me in—but only if I agreed to commit to a year of treatment. Thinking a year sure sounded like an unbearably long time, I reluctantly said yes.
Although my previous—albeit limited—experience had been in a 12-step rehab, this one was a behavior modification program, and I wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed. During my intake assessment, the counselor told me I’d be attending a lot of process groups, anger management classes, lectures on relapse prevention and weekly one-on-one counseling sessions. Yet all I really wanted was a safe place away from drugs, and time off from getting busted by the police. If this program could at least accomplish those two things, I figured everything would be okay.
When I finally signed all the paperwork and had my personal belongings searched for contraband, I was ready to enter treatment. A senior client, Ted, was assigned to show me around and help me get acclimated. But Ted really didn’t say much—mainly he just smiled—and I was beginning to suspect he’d been brainwashed by this “behavior modification” thing. Yet while touring the facility, it appeared the rest of the clients were just as brainwashed as Ted; they all looked rather too cheerful. I was a hardcore heroin addict out on parole. I didn’t really do cheerful. Maybe this was a big mistake?
The next day at 8am, I was sitting in a circle with my fellow clients for my first session of group therapy. Fearful of everything, I feigned an air of indifference while projecting the best menacing aura I could. Avoiding eye contact, I listened as others talked but said nothing. Then this fat guy with a bulbous nose who looked so much like a homeless drunk I was surprised to discover he was the group facilitator, asked me what I thought I needed to change in order to stay clean. Worried that this was some sort of test I was sure to fail, I stared at the floor and mumbled, “Stop using drugs?”
“No,” he said. “You need to change everything.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
“You needed to avoid your old friends,” he said. “And those places and things you used to do and hang out at? They’re slippery, so they’re off limits too.”
The old friends part wouldn’t be a problem. I associated with very few people and not too many of them were ever that happy to see me. But this slippery places and things I used to do deal? What the hell was that about? Confusing as his statement was, I just let it go. I was stuck in program; I wasn’t going anywhere. So why argue about something that at the moment didn’t really matter? Instead I just listened and kept my mouth shut.
Ten months later, after numerous groups like that first one, I’d become the perfect client. I’d bought into the program’s rhetoric and completed all the required classes. Officially I was declared “cured” by the clinical director. It was now time to move into phase two of the program, aptly titled “re-entry,” and head out into the real world as a productive member of society. This began with a meeting with the life skills counselor, Tamika.
“So Mr. O’Neil,” she said, “what sort of work experience do you have?”
“You mean like armed robbery?”
“Um, you’re going to have to take this a little more seriously.”
Tamika’s specialty was teaching us how to fill out job applications. Her classes had mock interviews where she played the employer and the client was the prospective job applicant. Now she was trying to compile my resume. Only problem was that I’d never held a straight job in my entire life.
“I used to play bass in a band.”
“Oh no, child,” she said. “That won’t do.”
“Well, I went to art school, I’ve got a BFA in film.”
Tamika patiently explained that that was my old life, and today I needed to let it go and start fresh. I was a new person now and I needed to take baby steps in order to succeed. Small victories such as obtaining employment at a minimum wage job would not only be good for me, as it would instill self confidence, but would also help me to accept that I wasn’t unique or special anymore. Things like playing music and making art weren’t real jobs. “Baby, it’s time to grow up,” she said. “And stop wearing all that black. Looks like you’re going to a funeral!”
After an initial interview and then a call back, I obtained an actual job—stocking shelves for a major consumer electronics outlet. The showroom was full of giant televisions and stereos that I’d never be able to afford at my present salary. My manager was this annoying kid half my age that took his position way too seriously. Every day, he’d hover around the time clock, making sure I wasn’t late punching in. This was all new and very strange to me. I wasn’t used to being told what to do. I resented the hell out of having to go to work. The whole thing was depressing.
One morning at my allotted 15-minute break, I went outside to grab a quick smoke. Lighting up, I caught a reflection of myself in the store’s front window. I was dressed in a blue polyester Izod shirt with the company logo on the chest, and a pair of khaki dress pants. This was not how a punk rocker dressed, ever. I felt like a total sellout. “I stopped shooting dope for this?” I said out loud.
Walking back inside, I told the manager kid to take this job and shove it before ripping up my time card and storming out. Needless to say, Tamika was very disappointed. “Mr. O’Neil, you have an aversion to doing the right thing,” she told me. Apparently my behavior hadn’t been fully modified.
After a few more short stints at different menial labor jobs, I eventually relapsed on pain meds. The idea of relentlessly plugging away at a mind-numbingly boring job just wasn’t working for me. Being told to grow up and not be creative went against everything I’d ever wanted. I knew I hadn’t exactly been living the artistic life the last few years of my using. But why did this program’s version of staying clean have to mean living in mediocrity?
After getting kicked out of treatment, I spent six more months running the streets in misery, using drugs until I finally had a moment of clarity and sought help. This time I found a 12-step-based residential rehab that was decidedly less oppressive and a lot more encouraging. On the first day, my counselor told me not to stress, that everything was going to be all right. At an in-house NA meeting a stranger said, “We’re going to love you until you learn to love yourself.” I thought he was crazy, but again I kept my mouth shut. When another addict said, “You have to change everything in order to stay clean,” I cringed. But somehow this time it felt different. No one was trying to modify my behavior by molding me into something they thought was the only way to stay clean. Hooking up with a group of equally minded ex-addicts in recovery, I came to understand that I didn’t have to stop being a creative person. I just had to live my life drug-free.
After 18 months in treatment, I graduated and got a job working as a counselor at another residential rehab. Helping other addicts felt like a good use of my time, and helped me maintain my own program of recovery. Even though the pay was as bad as all those menial labor jobs, being of service made it less offensive. Gradually I began to tap into my old artistic self and when I wasn’t at work or a meeting, I was at home writing the next great American novel. Eventually I ended up returning to school and getting a Masters in creative writing.
Thirteen years later, I’m a published author and still in recovery. My life is completely fulfilling and in fact has never been better. I’m grateful for my fellowship and the people in it that support me. I still hit a meeting a day and when I talk to newcomers, I encourage them to stay clean, work a program and then do what I did and follow their dreams.
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Originally published as “How To Get Sober and Not Live in Mediocrity” by After Part Chat June 19, 2014
I wake up and for two seconds I’m okay and then there’s this sense of impending doom. I can’t quite explain it other than to say that nothing is outwardly wrong. I’m employed, the rent is paid, my girlfriend loves me, I’m not strung out on drugs and my health is fine. There’s nothing stressful scheduled in my immediate future and yesterday was a pretty good day—in fact I was actually very happy—so I can’t really justify why I feel this way. But then there I am in the bathroom brushing my teeth when a mantra starts chanting in my head: “You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re a loser. Nobody loves you. ”
In the vernacular of therapists, rehabs and 12-step programs, I’m a quadruple winner. Not only do I have addiction issues, an eating disorder and a learning disability but I also suffer from depression and all those combined make for some pretty serious low self-esteem. But that doesn’t necessarily explain the continued one-sided conversation in my head. Admittedly there’s a very opinionated person up in there. But the reality is it’s only me judging myself very harshly. I wouldn’t let anyone else speak to me the way I allow this internal dialogue to, nor would I ever talk to anyone else in this manner.
As a child I picked up all kinds of skewed judgmental values. My mother was constantly dieting and always talked degradingly of those that were overweight. Yet I was a little chunky as a kid and when my parents brought me to Sears to buy clothes I shopped in the “husky” section—which we all knew, no matter how you spelled it, meant fat. This led to eating being somewhat shameful. It was something I had to be civilized about in public, but when I was in the privacy of my own home my emotions prevailed and it was time to shove gross amounts of snack foods down my throat until I was sick. All of my heroes and role models were skinny rock stars who were strung-out junkies and alcoholics and they were the ones I eventually learned to emulate. Being skinny and doing drugs went hand in hand. Puking up food and starving myself were just precursors before (and after) the storm of drug addiction.
Added to these issues was another—that I couldn’t spell and had trouble reading. While it turns out that I had an undiagnosed learning disability, I felt stupid—especially because my dad’s a university professor and even at the age of 10, I’d compare myself to him. Then, just to put a little more icing on the “stupid” cake, one teacher told my parents in front of me, “You know, he just isn’t that smart.” And that’s when I thought, “Okay, finally I have an answer—I’m a dumbass.”
At about this time, my parents split up. My dad just disappeared. My mom fell deep into a depression—a depression that’s hereditary, the same one I inherited—and she was so self-absorbed and miserable that she had no time for her children, least of all me. All of a sudden, I felt like an unwanted stupid fat kid. Bingo, value system complete.
I understand that since this is the story I’ve been telling myself all my life, it’s no wonder that when the seemingly simple solution of drugs arrived, I jumped on it and stayed on it way past that still working. At first drugs stopped the internal negative dialogue—or at least they made it irrelevant. I wasn’t fat anymore. I had the company of heroin so I wasn’t alone and didn’t need love. I was no longer depressed. I had become my heroes.
Of course eventually it all came crashing down. The inevitable consequences couldn’t be outweighed. My life was a disaster and I quit using. And from that day on, I was back at square one dealing with everything I had sought to escape. Yet now I’d added on years of really bad behavior and a ton of resentments: my negative self body image was kicking the shit out of me, I was depressed, my self esteem was pretty much non-existent and I couldn’t even imagine who could love me because I couldn’t love myself. Hell, I was more of a mess then when I started.
At this point most people would probably say, “There are medications for depression—why don’t you try one?” Actually I was on antidepressants for like um, forever. They helped me immeasurably when I first got off drugs—helped with the body dysmorphia, the depression, the anxiety, the…well, you name it. But then I gained a ton of weight, my sex drive screeched to a halt, my feelings were numb and I isolated, not seeming to care if I was in a relationship or had friends. And really none of that was acceptable collateral damage. In the end I made the decision to stop taking them. I told myself that I didn’t get clean just to be on another drug, even if this one was prescribed. But the reality was I couldn’t deal with the weight gain and no sex.
Now by no means am I advocating that everyone should toss out their Prozac so they can join me in being a bundle of nerves. But what I have learned in recovery is that it’s a process. And if I am finally getting it together by working on myself, then I need to keep evolving in my own consciousness. Unfortunately this process takes time; it doesn’t all happen instantly. So here I am 13 years later, not so much still craving drugs but rather dealing with my core issues that were my original problems way back before I ever started using.
Luckily I don’t begin every day like this. Some days are just harder then others. But nothing is as bad as being strung out with no hope. Now instead of suppressing my feelings, I’m forced to live with them and that’s made me a stronger person. I no longer avoid uncomfortable situations. I confront my fears. I strive to not create more damage in my life by not cheating, stealing, or manipulating those around me. I have people that I care about and they care about me. I have a sponsor and a support group and when I don’t have solutions for what I’m going through, I call others seeking help.
Standing at the sink, I put down the toothbrush and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I think: You’re not fat. You’re not ugly. You’re not stupid. You’re not a loser. People love you.
Even though I feel incredibly lame doing this. I repeat it over and over. Suddenly I’m reminded of that old Saturday Night Live skit with Stuart Smalley saying, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!” And I laugh, embarrassed that I may be imitating him. But right now I’d rather try something that might help than stay in my pain and misery. Even though this feels awkward and a little too touchy feely, I put aside my fears and continue because what I’m telling myself today is the truth.
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Originally published as “The Secret Story An Addict In Recovery Tells Himself” by After Part Chat May 15, 2014
Demetri, a shifty little bastard up on multiple murder charges, was my cellie. Many a night I’d feel the bunks shake as he jacked off and made weird noises. It was common agreement that one should do it quickly and quietly. He was on the top bunk so it shouldn’t have been a problem. But Demetri just wasn’t capable of either. He’d stolen bits and pieces of sleazy porn, torn out when borrowing other guy’s magazines, mixed in with ordinary women’s underwear ads, the kind you find in any newspaper. He’d sort of fashioned them all together into his own whack book. Taking a People magazine he adhered the various purloined photos onto the pages with Bob Barker brand toothpaste. When both sides were entirely adorned with the tattered shots of insatiable looking naked women spreading their legs or shoving their tits together jammed on top of a layer of dried toothpaste they became extra thick, almost like papier-mâché or cardboard. And when he leafed through while pulling his pud the pages would creak and he’d make these whiney comments.
“Ohhh, look her pussy, look at her pussy, oh her pussy.”
It’d be about then that I’d say, “Demetri? Demetri. Demetri! Shut the fuck up.”
Demetri and his gypsy girlfriend had allegedly poisoned several old men to steal their money and property. His girlfriend would make as if she was the old guy’s squeeze, and then Demetri playing the role of her caretaker brother would put toxic plant extracts in the old dude’s food. When the fourth old guy turned up dead and Demetri and the girlfriend were found living in his house, driving his car, and depleting his bank account, the county of San Francisco decided they had a case and charged the both of them. He was constantly in the newspapers, headline front page material for months. Which I liked because it pushed my measly armed robberies to the back pages, below the fold, soon they’d be gone and I’d be forgotten. What my lawyer described as the “wait for the next worse thing to come along” defense – there’s always a more heinous crime waiting to be committed – and then I’d no longer be the DA’s flavor of the month.
Still, it would freak Demetri out when he’d see me reading an article about him.
“All lies,” he’d say. “All lies. Hey Pat, how ’bout a snack?”
And I’d be like, “Demetri, you poison people, ain’t eating shit of yours.”
We were both max-security. Our combined bail in the several millions. In reality we shouldn’t have been in the minimum-security pods, and so the sheriff’s department had made it mandatory we be kept together in one of the lockdown two-man cells. Up on the top tier with the rest of the three strikers fighting for our lives.
“Pat? Think ya ever gettin’ out?”
“How many times I gotta tell you, name’s Patrick. Not Pat. Pat’s what you do to a dog.”
“Don’t know, Pat. Your case is bad.”
“Like yours is a fuckin’ walk in the park.”
Demetri was a Christian Palestinian. He told me I didn’t know persecution until I’d experienced life as a Christian Arab. I said I didn’t even know there were any. Demetri said that was okay, he’d never met a junkie bank robber either.
But it annoyed the piss out of me when he’d jack off late at night. The only time the cellblock was even vaguely quiet was 1 to 4am. And I’d take that time to read. Lying on my bunk, my head hanging off staring up at the book I’d be holding in the shaft of light coming into the cell from the main overheads above the tier, I’d read all night with plans to sleep all day. Only people I’d see were guards as they passed by the cell every hour and shined a light in our faces, making sure we were still there – as if we could somehow escape all that steel and concrete.
“Pat, how much you pay lawyer?”
“Go to sleep Demetri.”
“Mine want ‘nother forty thou. Bloodsucker.”
“Go to sleep Demetri.”
I sat in county jail for eighteen months fighting my case. A year of which I spent locked down with Demetri. When the DA finally offered me a deal that wasn’t twenty-five years to life I took it and got transferred to finish out my time. Periodically I’d read of Demetri. The prosecution was having trouble proving he’d actually committed murder. When it looked like their case was going to completely unravel they opted to go with multiple convictions of elder abuse – Demetri was going to do five years, a little over a year for each murder. With time served he’d be out a year or two after me.
When I got out on parole it was a whole different world for me. I tried to get my shit somewhat together, clean up, not shoot dope, and stay out of jail. So, I checked myself into a residential rehab. Actually, I had nowhere else to go. And with parole breathing down my neck, and the DA’s promise of a life behind bars if I fucked up again, it wasn’t really that hard a decision. After three and half years I was off parole, out on my own, had a job and life wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the hell it had been.
One day, feeling cooped up in my county subsidized single occupancy sober living environment, I decide to go out. Walking along Third Street out of my soon to be gentrified SoMa neighborhood in the general direction of downtown I passed the W Hotel and there was Demetri leaning against the hood of a cab.
“Hey man,” I said to him. “When’d you get out?”
“Hey Pat. Get out of what?”
“Get out of prison, dude.”
Demetri leaned in close to my ear and said, “Pat, don’t know what you’re talking ’bout. Never been to prison. Please don’t speak of such things again.”
I gave him the once over. He looked bad. He had aged a lot in there.
“Okay, buddy.” I said, and walked away.
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Originally published in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 19, 2013