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.
Originally published as “How To Get Sober and Not Live in Mediocrity” by AfterPartyMagazine June 19, 2014