Tag Archives: Rehab

Me, the Message?

Tonight, I’m beginning a new hospital volunteer gig as co-facilitator of a meeting at a detox unit once a month. I’ve been a patient on the unit (twice) and I’m glad of be of a little help, but I’m sure going up there will bring back memories. I’ve been on the hospital campus many times for meetings and events, but the detox is a secure area and you need a reason to be there.

Recovery types talk about carrying the message to the addict who still suffers. Some people also point out “We don’t just carry the message, we ARE the message.” Meaning that our existence, our beating hearts, our feet walking the earth free for one more day, are a testimonial as powerful as anything that comes out of our mouths.

I am the message when I go to a place like this, whether I feel “up to” being it or not. At times like this, when I’ve been struggling with my symptoms and with compulsive behavior, I feel self-conscious about any hint of holding myself up as an example of recovery. But, no matter how humble I am feeling, my physical presence in that room makes me part of the message. My face, the way I carry myself, my tone of voice…in a place like this, many people are feeling too sick or drugged to care yet, but there are some who want to know whether there might be hope this time.

No matter how messed up I am, I do have hope to offer the person who is convinced life without their drugs of choice is either impossible or unbearable. That hope is transmitted by the space of time and experience between tonight and when the patient trying to stay awake and calm through the nightly meeting was me.

Because it was, and I must not forget that, no matter how frustrated or depressed I become. I sat in the chair where the nurses took our vital signs every four hours. I lined up at the window to get medications. I ate from plastic trays brought up to the unit, until I was strong enough to go down to the cafeteria with the more senior patients. Then I climbed the two short flights of stairs back up to the unit one step at a time, gripping the handrail tightly–and still had to stop and rest, dizzy and weak.

In the lounge, I attempted games of cards with fellow patients, only to strew the cards over the table and floor with an ill-timed twitch of my shaking hands. I haunted the nurses’ station at night, unable to sleep but not wanting to be alone. I talked with my daughter on the phone, hearing about her math test–and breaking, inside, when I heard that she wouldn’t let anyone but me read her Harry Potter at night.

I will never stop being grateful to the people who work at this place, and others like it. Their job is often thankless, to say the least, and the repeat business they get has to be depressing. But, unlike many, they try to treat the patients with respect and a matter-of-fact attitude. They don’t project an aura of “you deserve your suffering,” but they don’t give in to manipulation either. The most experienced and wise ones can best be described as a force of nature; an attitude of “it is what it is.”

Yes, I am grateful. But I never want to go back. I may need to go to psych treatment again at some points in my life, but detox is different because I have the ability to make a choice that will keep me from being a patient here. Recovery gives me that choice, and I’m the message when I display evidence of having made that choice today.

I’m looking forward to climbing briskly up those steps and walking through those doors, wearing jeans and a denim jacket (so different from hospital gowns or the loose clothing of the first days.) Nobody will take my blood pressure or inquire after my bodily functions, and when the meeting is over I’ll go home. That’s the message; that’s what I am. A screwed-up human in recovery, who can visit a detox ward and not need to stay.

Calla Lilies

My daughter brought me calla lilies on Mother’s Day.

It was three years ago, and instead of carrying them into my room or proudly displaying them on the breakfast table she held onto them tightly during a long car ride.

She and her father signed in and had the bouquet inspected, then waited while I was notified that my visitors were there. Only then did she get to give them to me. Only then did she get to be hugged, and hear how beautiful they were, and see me read the little poem she wrote on the homemade card shaped like a butterfly.

That is Mother’s Day in rehab, and I can never see calla lilies without thinking about that day. I wasn’t the only one getting cards and flowers, and I wasn’t the only one to gaze at them with a mixture of emotions too tangled to articulate.

Mother’s Day is hailed by therapists as one of the most stressful days of the year for a reason–none of us is without feelings on the subject of the mother we had and/or the mother we are. Told by commercials and companies how we should feel about our mothers and children, we writhe in discomfort with our more complicated internal landscape.

Complicated it may be, but it’s a pretty fair bet that being institutionalized isn’t in any of our personal “what kind of mother I want to be” manifestos. It kind of kicks things up a notch in terms of regret.

After that day’s visit was over, I looked at the smooth whiteness of the lilies on my nightstand with a kind of doubled vision, seeming to see bouquets like it in many other places. I knew that many children wouldn’t get to deliver one at all due to the rules of the rehab, or hospital, or prison their mother was currently inhabiting.

I’m happy to be at home on Mother’s Day this year. Didn’t get any lilies. Don’t want any. But she can give me flowers, or a hug, or a thorough trouncing in Mario Kart, any time she wants to, because I am here.

Mothers who can’t be at home today, I remember you. I know better than to judge your love for your children based solely on where you are. Don’t give up.

Children, fathers, grandparents and all who visit, I remember you. Thank you for your love and effort.

Happy Mother’s Day.

No Ray of Light

There are few things as simultaneously exalting and humbling as visiting my old rehab. Last week, I spent two nights there on a retreat, attending classes and groups just as I did when I was a patient. It’s exalting because I get to be aware how much my life has changed since that time. It’s humbling because I get to see how easily I could be back there, counting my clean time in days instead of years. To remember not only with my mind but with every sense, from the murmur of night conversation to the array of dishes for drying to the knots in my lower back after each class (but oh, such a weak echo of the pain I had then!)

One great privilege of being there is the opportunity to talk with the current residents and answer any questions they have about what it’s like trying to work a program of recovery after leaving treatment. People want to know what I did to stay clean this long, and I try to answer them truthfully. I feel self-conscious about this aspect of being there sometimes, worrying that I will come across as being full of myself or bragging. But if by sharing my experience I can help someone be less hesitant about sponsors or steps or other things that will help them, I want to do that.

In the classes and groups, I get to hear how others are resisting recovery or placing conditions on it, just as I used to do. They are there to keep their spouse, or get their job back. They don’t think alcohol should be off the table because their problem is with other drugs, or their problem is only alcohol and they don’t want to hang out with those drug addicts.

In a discussion about relapse prevention, the counselor asked “What is the greatest threat to your sobriety?” All of the answers had to do with external circumstances or other people. My partner, parents, boss, living situation. It’s what the counselor was fishing for, because the class is about looking at the need to set up a support system for recovery and be aware of potential pitfalls. But I thought it was interesting that my silent responses to the question were all about things inside my head, not outside.

What is the biggest threat to my recovery? I am. No one and nothing else. My character defects are the threat. Resentment, self-pity, despair, unwillingness, dishonesty, enviousness…these and my other internal demons are the only thing that can take me out. No ray of light will stream from heaven and command me to use again; no one will pry my mouth open and pour something in.

What a gift it is to believe this about myself. And what a great opportunity for me to look at my addictive behavior with food and ask myself: why I am having trouble applying the same principle? Why am I letting inconvenience, logistical issues, illness, raging hormones or stress convince me to be half-assed? None of those things has power over me if my attitude is right. No ray of light comes through the clouds and lifts the pen out of my hand to keep me from writing down my food. No imps from the underworld sneak into my kitchen and install space warps into my measuring cups. Yes, it’s hard sometimes. It’s really hard. And?

I would never–ever–judge a fellow compulsive eater for slipping, nor is it my intention to judge myself harshly. Love and respect for myself is my goal, not punishment. Love strong enough to push outside the comfort zone and let my Self speak with fierce conviction: Tertia, you sweet, mad, gloriously flawed child, I love you so much that I’ll never stop calling your name. Now quit fucking around and come back to me.


Yesterday I went up to my former rehab; the place where I was a patient during my first month clean. They have this aftercare group that welcomes all alumni, and I try to get up there at regular intervals. But it’s two hours each way, and sometimes I get home with an attitude problem because of being tired, overstimulated, or feeling that the hour-and-a-half meeting didn’t live up to the four hours of driving.



However, I am never sorry that I went, because it’s a pilgrimage to me; a journey that has spiritual significance. If anyone had told me, when I was a patient there, that I would miss the place later and be willing to inconvenience myself for the privilege of coming back, I would have thought they were crazy. But it’s absolutely true.

Every step of the journey and every detail of the place helps me remember what I need to remember. It starts with the trip there, when I get to revisit the day I drove north to visit the place. It’s located in the Napa valley, the beautiful wine country of northern California. Alcohol and drug treatment centers, in a geographical irony, lie scattered here and there among the famous wineries.

Oops, wrong driveway.

Now, when I make the drive, I remember the emptiness and confusion I felt the first time I drove that road. How achingly irrelevant the beauty of the mountains and green fields seemed that day, and the way I wondered if it would be the last time I drove myself anywhere.

I get to turn into the driveway and remember the first impression I had of the buildings. I get to check in at the desk and remember how it felt to stand there with my suitcase. I get to talk with current patients, those almost ready to leave and those who just got in. The staff are happy to see me and ask me how I’m doing. The meeting I’ve come for contains alumni of varying “ages.” Some are still dealing with the transition to life outside treatment, so I get to remember what that stage was like as well. Every room I go into evokes memories.



Why is it so important that I remember in such detail? Some people say it’s better to move past bad times, and that dwelling on them just keeps you tied to the past. Folks who talk about positive thinking or the Law of Attraction might say I’m keeping bad things in my life by devoting thought to their existence. My life is focused on change and growth now, so why spend energy on this kind of thing?

For me, it’s necessary because my staying clean depends on remaining willing to do a variety of things I don’t always want to do. Willing to refrain from doing things I might very much want to do. (If you’re addicted, you know how ridiculously inadequate that phrase is. If not, I pray you never know it.) That willingness requires constant fuel, both in spiritual energy and in the maintenance of perspective.

And dilithium crystals.

And dilithium crystals.

Perspective is what journeys like this give me. When I feel overwhelmed by my current life, when finances or home teaching or relationships have me feeling inadequate and wanting to run, I need to remember the deadly simplicity of how it was before. What it was like to have all of that stuff be other people’s responsibility because I was not present for it; to have my world be about nothing but staying there for one more day in the vague hope that there was a point to it. I need to acknowledge the part of myself that sometimes wants to draw me back to that kind of life because I’m afraid of failing at the life I have now.

After yesterday’s meeting was over I had the privilege of driving away, in my own car, without needing anyone’s permission. I got to admire the scenery on my way home and feel confident that this won’t be the last beautiful drive I take. It was worth getting home tired and cranky; those states are temporary anyway.


One might argue that the benefits I’m talking about are all available at regular twelve-step meetings, and they are. It’s a matter of degree; taking the longer journey demonstrates intention and reassures me that I am still committed to my path. There are longer pilgrimages I’d like to make in the future; journeys to places that have come to mean something to me even though I have never been there yet. And even if the place or the trip or the meeting should disappoint, I don’t think an act of conscious intention is ever wasted.