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[ Personal Narratives ]

What Happens in Rehab… Might Not Stay in Rehab

“Winnie the Pooh?” I inquired, forehead crumpled up as I lay down on the couch.

“Actually,” Carlos retorted while refusing to make eye contact, “It’s not Winnie the Pooh. It’s The Tigger Movie.”

There are certain rules in rehab that must be followed to preserve order and prevent chaos. Rule #1: The first person in the room controls the remote for the TV.

No matter what.

You can bitch, whine, complain, leave, whatever.

But you cannot change the channel.

“Dude, come on. There’s gotta be something else on,” I begged. “Something better than Winnie the Pooh.”

“It’s not Winnie the Pooh!” he said, raising his voice. “It’s The Tigger Movie, motherfucker!”

I wondered if those words had ever been uttered in that order before.

“AND NO. There’s nothing else on.”

I loved Carlos but I hated him but I loved him, ya know? I mean, how can you not hate someone you’re forced to live with in a facility you don’t really want to be at? While kicking drugs? Talking about “feelings” in tight quarters, fresh from an excursion to rock-bottom? Shit, it really is a miracle that there aren’t more homicides at these places.

But I also loved Carlos. In rehab you learn to give a shit about strangers. You get into some deep-seated issues with your group, trying to exorcise whatever demons you used to tranquilize with your drug of choice. You hear stories people aren’t supposed to share, memories they’d have been better off forgetting, things that one person just isn’t supposed to do to another human being. Trauma is extracted, and witnessing the extraction process allows you to grow close in a way that’s hard to really understand unless you’ve been through it.

Rehab’s the only place you can cuss out, wish harm upon, and threaten the life of someone for eating your last pepperoni Hot Pocket, and then ten minutes later be in deep discussion and planning mode, writing a business plan for the venture the two of you will undoubtedly be embarking upon once you complete “the program.”

I lived with Carlos and two other adults who, like me, crawled to the first place they could find from a Google search for “Cheap — Drug — Rehab.” Fate brought each of us here, to Modesto, California.

Rehab isn’t exactly a choice destination for the Christmas holiday, meaning the four of us had the entire place to ourselves. I’ve been to jail in Mexico, awoken in a French hospital after an OxyContin/Xanax overdose, and been kicked off a plane in China for being too high, and I will tell you right now — NOTHING that I’ve experienced felt more defeating than waking up Christmas morning in rehab.

Ain’t nothing more sad than watching Christmas movies at Christmas time surrounded by Christmas lights while institutionalized.

More than anything I missed my little boy. I loved my son more than anything in the world, a beautiful, perfect, one-and-a-half year old little miracle. An angel.

Yet, I couldn’t stop doing drugs. Not even for him.

This scared the hell out of me. I needed help, and I knew it. On Dec. 1, 2012. I checked myself into rehab. Christmas holiday be damned.

“Winnie the Pooh?” asked Casey, a late-20s pill addict like me, as he walked in the door carrying a bag of groceries. He was returning from a voluntary church outing, and on the way home, the counselors let them stop by the store. “The two of you are sitting in the dark watching Winnie the Pooh?”

“It’s The Tigger Movie,” I snapped. “Motherfucker.”

“What the fuck?” yelled Carlos upon seeing Casey’s groceries. “You guys stopped at the store?”

Carlos was the worst grocery shopper I’d ever met. I never saw him buy an actual grocery. Every family night his mom would leave him $50 to buy snacks for the week. Carlos would spend it on candy, batteries, and Mountain Dew. I’m not sure what the batteries were for, but I suspect old tweaker habits simply die hard.

The closest Carlos ever came to buying a grocery was the time he purchased some mouthwash and tried to sneak it into the facility. Every two days or so, a counselor would drive us to the store to buy snacks, soda, cigarettes, magazines. On the way home from one of these Rite Aid outings, Carlos downed half a bottle of mouthwash before being popped by a counselor after filling the entire house with a mysterious aroma of ethanol, wintergreen, and slurred speech.

“You’re not even allowed to go to the store,” I said. “They’re concerned about your Listerine habit.”

“Not technically, no, Jason, asshole,” he said, looking my direction, “but I could’ve waited in the car and had someone get me food.”

“No, you can’t,” I said, egging him on. “You’re on probation.”

“Whatever, Jason.”

“Who gets drunk on mouthwash, anyway?”

“Man, fuck you, Jason!” he said, sitting up. “That was bullshit and wasn’t what happened. I wasn’t drinking it to get drunk. I needed it for my teeth.”

As everyone cracked up laughing, Katelynn walked in, rounding out the group. Katelynn was the only female in our squad, a single mom who got hooked on Demerol. Katelynn was an ICU nurse who found the temptation of loose pills and new syringes too strong. Luckily, she’d confessed to her union rep that she was using and got into the diversion program before she lost her job.

Carlos crushed on Katelynn, who knew it but paid him little attention. She was late-20s, college-educated, came from a wealthy family. Carlos was early-20s, streets-of-Stockton high school drop out, came from a family that had long-since disowned him because he couldn’t stop smoking meth.

“Do you guys think Eeyore is a heroin addict?” asked Casey, suddenly giving a shit about The Tigger Movie while he sat down.

That’s the thing about rehab. All you do is talk about diseases and symptoms and cravings and triggers. After awhile, you start forcing those square pegs into any round hole you come across.

The group sat in silence, contemplating the question.

“Well,” said Katelynn, sitting on the ground with her back against the couch, “he does seem depressed all the time. But how would he do it?”

At no point did anyone ask, “Are we really having this conversation.”

“I’m sure he could shoot it,” said Carlos. “Horses have veins.”

“First off, Doctor Carlos, he’s not a horse,” I said. Our group loved messing with Carlos in front of Katelynn. “He’s a donkey. And second — how is he going to hold a syringe?”

“With his hands, dip-shit,” Carlos said, throwing his arms my direction.

The entire group looked at Carlos, seconds of silence passing.

“Dude,” said Casey. “He’s a donkey. He has hooves.”

“Hey,” interrupted Katelynn, “what did you guys think about what that presenter said today?”

Earlier that day we had a lady come in from the Department of Health and Human Services, who chose to spend her time telling us how little a chance each of us had at staying clean.

It was like a motivational speech, but the opposite.

“Which part?” I asked.

“The part where she said that statistically, only one of us would stay clean for longer than a year.”

This was followed by an eerie pause. Rehab allows for a complacent lull to creep in because, within the walls of a rehab facility, it’s fairly easy to stay clean. You’re surrounded by others who are trying their best to get their shit together, giving you a strength you wouldn’t otherwise have on the outside surrounded by old friends in old places repeating old behaviors.

Rehab is a chance at a fresh start, only to be followed by a return to whatever shit you went to rehab to escape in the first place.

It can truly be a mind-fuck.

“I think it’s bullshit,” said Casey, breaking the silence. “Who is she to say if we’ll stay clean or not?”

“I think she was going by the statistics,” I said. “I mean —she didn’t just make those numbers up. They exist for a reason.”

“Fuck the numbers,” said Casey, getting upset. “What if we all make it?”

“Then somewhere, there’s a group of four people sitting in rehab right now who are all screwed,” said Katelynn.

“I’m done,” said Casey, shaking his head. “I can’t mess this up. My wife already wants to leave me, my kids hate me. This is my last chance. Fuck that lady and her statistics.”

Casey’s wife had come to a few family nights, the look on her face expressing her attendance was more out of obligation than support. I knew the hell Casey put her through because I’d put girlfriends through the same hell. When you’re using, drugs are your true love. Your soul mate. They’re the last thing you think about before bed, first thing you think about when you wake up. You spend all day thinking about them, spending all of your money on them and all your free time trying to get more. Your girlfriend? Wife? Nothing but a mistress.

It sounds cold, because it is.

Ironically, hurting good, caring women who loved us was the one strand connecting Casey and me, giving us a shot at beating this thing by allowing us to relate to one another.

“I just can’t do this anymore,” Casey said to no one, staring out the window. “I just can’t…” I couldn’t tell if he was trying to convince us, or convince himself.

“I’m with you,” said Katelynn. “I came so close to throwing my whole life away.”

She paused, thinking.

“My job, my daughter, my parents.”

She sat silently thinking, memories she was keeping to herself.

“I haven’t talked much about this, but my parents took custody of my daughter before I came in here.” She stared out the same window as Casey as her eyes began to tear up. “And when it happened, I didn’t care. In fact, part of me was relieved because it meant I could just get high and not worry about being a mom.”

Tears filled her eyes.

“I mean, how fucking sick is that?” she asked, I hoped, rhetorically.

We sat there, letting the acknowledgement by a parent that her addiction was stronger than the love of her child really sink in.

“Yeah,” I interrupted. “Being a parent can really fuck up your high.” I knew this from experience.

I was sucked up, about 50 pounds underweight. My legs were skinny, my hair was unwashed. I was a wreck. Looking at myself in this picture, to this day, gives me a stomach-ache.

One thing was for certain: I was no father. Sure — I made a baby. But I was no father.

I felt for Katelynn because we were the same. I couldn’t stop for my child, just like she couldn’t stop for hers.

“It scares me,” Katelynn said, placing her head in her hands as she tried to fight the urge to cry. “It’s so fucking scary.”

My reaction was to want to put my arm around her and comfort her, but in rehab you learn to just let them cry it out. Let them feel the emotions they’d numbed out for so long. So we just let her cry.

Casey sat staring out of his window, while I watched both, hoping my focus on them would divert my attention from turning inward.

“My mom caught me jacking off the day I came here,” said Carlos, without warning. “She caught me jacking off and called the cops.”

The entire room looked at each other before focusing on Carlos, wide-eyed, trying to gauge whether or not he was serious. Once we realized he was dead-serious, the entire room erupted in laughter, the kind of laughter you lose when you’re strung out. A laughter from a place so deep that you’d forgotten it was there.

“What the fuck are you laughing at?” said Carlos, truly surprised we found this funny. “That was some real shit!”

Nobody could respond because not a single one of us could catch our breath.

“Wait,” I was finally able to spit out, “she called the cops because she caught you masturbating?”

“Well, technically, it was because I wouldn’t stop, but yeah-”

Once again, the room erupted.

“You didn’t stop when she walked in?” asked Casey. “You just kept going?”

“Dude, I was tweaking, bad. I’d been up for like three days watching porn and playing Call of Duty.”

As we laughed, I looked at Katelynn.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re a pretty incredible mom. It takes a lot of strength to admit you needed help, and you did it.”

She looked up at me, a mixture of tears of pain and tears of laughter running down her cheeks.

“Thank you, Jason. That means a lot. I think your son is lucky to have a dad willing to do the same.”

“Thanks,” I told her, the conversation making me miss my son even more.

“And your wife is going to forgive you,” Katelynn told Casey. “It just takes time. As long as you don’t use, things will get better.”

You put a bunch of drug addicts whose lives are falling apart into a room for 30 days, and you let them heal each other. I don’t know how it works. It just does.

Carlos watched on, letting the process take its course. “And Carlos — dude,” I said, “you taught me how to laugh again. I’ll never forget you for that.”

“Thank you, Jason.”

As the group’s emotions settled, the television caught our attention. Tigger was bouncing through the forest, destroying everything in his path.

“Do you guys think Tigger smokes meth?” asked Carlos.

It didn’t take long for us to come to a consensus.

“Definitely,” we said in unison.

There was a long pause, as four adults watched Tigger bounce across the television screen.

“Hey Carlos,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“You think Tigger’s mom ever walked in on him jacking off?”

“Man, fuck you. I shouldn’t have told you guys about that!”

Once again, laughter.

It felt good to laugh.

I heard conflicting reports. A counselor told me that he hanged himself in his closet, but someone else told me he put a shotgun in his mouth at his grandma’s house in Santa Cruz.

I don’t know for sure, but I do know that Casey was there for me and I’ll never forget that.

Rumor has it he lasted about a month after graduating rehab. Casey was adamant about not needing to do anything for “recovery.” He wanted to put the drugs away and simply move on, as if none of that shit had ever happened.

If it were only that simple.

I guess his wife left him after he relapsed 30 days into sobriety. She couldn’t take it, but Casey knew that. “I can’t mess this up. This is my last chance.” Those were his words, and he knew that his choices had consequences. Instead of facing those consequences, he chose to check out.

Sad, very. But he wasn’t the first.

Nor will he be the last. That’s the sad truth of it.

That first month is a motherfucker. It’s overwhelming and trying, a lesson in humility. Twelve rounds of those consecutively make up your first year of recovery, and it’s not easy. Casey threw in the towel during round one.

People think drugs are the problem. Drugs were never the problem — WE were the problem. Drugs simply numb shit — the degree of which depends on the addict. I’ve met people who were sexually and physically abused as children, and growing up, drugs were the one thing that made the hurt stop. The anguish, the pain, the confusion, the torment. Drugs numbed that shit, so you can’t really blame them for choosing to use.

But there comes a point when the drugs stop working and begin destroying your life. It’s at that point you are faced with the choice to stop. Yet once you stop — all that hurt, pain, anguish, and torment: it’s still there. And now there are no more drugs to numb it out. So what do you do?

Choosing to just live with that pain, drug free — will lead some people to put a shotgun in their mouth.

As for Katelynn — she didn’t fare much better. Three days before Katelynn was set to graduate the program, she hooked up with some wealthy son-of-an-almond-farmer who checked in with a multi-gram-per-day black tar heroin habit. The day before she was set to graduate, she left with the guy. The facility forgot to inform her parents, who showed up for her graduation ceremony unaware that their daughter had disappeared. Katelynn’s daughter stood, anxious to see her mom, wearing a light blue floral dress, looking up at the counselors, asking where her mother was.

Last I heard, Katelynn eventually left the farmer, but only after he turned her out on heroin. Carlos said he heard she was still living on the streets.

That’s the thing about drug addiction. You “hear” a lot of shit, but you never really dig too far to confirm it because whatever you find is going to be covered with layers of bullshit, manipulation, and half-truths.

Or maybe you’re just afraid of what truth you’ll find.

I still talk to Carlos. He gets his shit together, and then falls off. Gets back on, falls off. About a year ago I stopped by and saw him at his house in Stockton. At that time he wasn’t smoking meth, but was smoking quite a bit of weed mixed with alcohol. Since then, I’ve seen him fall off and get back on a half-dozen times. At some point, I just had to walk away. I love him, but I hate him, but I love him. I’ll be here for him when he’s ready.

The lady from Health & Human Services was right. Only one of us made it.

That’s the thing about statistics — they don’t really give a shit if you believe in them or not.

They just are.

Why did I make it, and they did not? Why does that fucking statistic hold true, despite every addict in every rehab’s attempt to will themselves around it?

I don’t know. I battle ‘survivor’s guilt’ at times, which seems silly — but it’s true. There are a lot of people who did a lot less drugs than I did, who are no longer here. Why do some of us make it, while others do not?

There’s one thing I know to be true — when I got out of rehab, I got plugged in, and that may have saved my life. I surrounded myself with people in recovery, who understood, who had stories of their own to share, who listened to my stories, answered my questions — who were there for me, and more importantly, allowed me to be there for them.

I talked to a lot of parents who’d watched their child go through what I went through, and listened to what they had to say, hearing addiction from their perspective. This helped me mend relationships with my own family, which also aided me along this journey.

Today? I get to have an amazing life. It’s been a long process, but it’s been a beautiful journey. I get to be a father today, a husband, a son, a brother. A friend. And I owe much of this to the fact that there were people there to share their own stories from their own experiences with me, to help me make it through.

That’s the idea behind The Real Edition, an online publication I’ve partnered in. The Real Edition serves to fill the online void of a true, addiction-based community. A network. A place where addicts, and recovering addicts, and families of addicts, and writers on addiction — a place for them to come together and share their hope. Share their experiences. To tell their stories, because somewhere there is someone who needs to hear what they have to say.

There is great power in telling a story. Now, there is a place for people affected by addiction to tell theirs.

Who knows — it might just save someone’s life. It saved mine.