July 25, 2011
I suppose this issue is on my mind because I hear some people scoffing at how rehab failed Amy Winehouse—and fails all these other celebrities who are in and out of them as if the places have a swinging door. And then yesterday I was reading a post on another recovery blog in which the writer, an AA old-timer, was criticizing people who’d used rehab as a way to get sober. She claimed that people who go to rehab spend $40,000 to get temporarily sober because they inevitably go back out. They don’t adhere, she said, to the steps and traditions of AA. She concluded that people who go to rehab miss the boat: you can be successful in AA for free!
(Another problem she had with rehab is that they tend to treat all addictions as the same: whether you’re an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or a sex addict, or whatever, her assertion is that Alcoholism is different. I disagree with this, but that’s a post for another day.)
So, since she ruffled my alcoholic feathers, and criticized the thing that had actually saved my life, I started wondering why AA hadn’t worked for me initially. I tried AA, and some alternatives, three times before I finally tried rehab. My first try was over twelve years ago when I lived in OhiO; I managed to stay sober for 7 months before I went back out. What was the problem that first try? Well, I couldn’t relate. AA meetings were chock-full of old guys chain-smoking and drinking coffee as if all coffee plantations on the planet had been suddenly hit with a deadly pox; I didn’t fit in. Nobody ever said, “Hello” to me, and I was too afraid to go up and introduce myself. After six meetings or so of sitting there alone and terrified, I finally chucked it and tried to get sober on my own. After seven months, I forgot what it was that had made me want to stop drinking in the first place. It couldn’t have been that bad if I’d forgotten what the big deal was. So, back out I went.
Time number two was about five years later, here in California. This time I found a non-smoking women’s meeting, and I even mustered the guts to reach out and ask somebody to sponsor me. She started me on the Steps. One night we met over dinner, and she started telling me all about her own past drunk life, including that she’d been forced to admit she had a problem when she was arrested driving drunk down the 101 the wrong way. And her friends were sick of her stealing from them all the time. I looked at her, then looked at myself, and I thought, “Dude, I’ve never even gotten a DUI. I’ve never stolen. I have a job; I have two freaking master’s degrees. The most I ever do is get drunk and pass out sometimes.”
So, that First Step was a problem for me. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit alcohol had me in its grips and that I couldn’t control my binges. My sponsor didn’t have the tools to help me look deeper, to help me look at myself more honestly. Instead, I persuaded myself that I could switch to beer only, and that wouldn’t get me in trouble. Besides, I was just getting ready to go on vacation to Puerto Vallarta, and who wants to go on vacation and not be able to drink and enjoy themselves? Mexico: land of margaritas and Corona (with a wedge of lime, please). And if it turned out I had a problem keeping it under control in Mexico, then I’d try quitting again when I got back.
I was determined; I had to white-knuckle it in Mexico at times, but I did okay. When I got back from vacation, I tossed AA into the trash again and recommenced my experiment in “moderate drinking.”
A few years later found me in the Emergency Room with an IV in my arm, having passed out and fallen off my bar stool in a bar and puking up my guts all over the place. That was scary enough to keep me sober for three months. But by then, I’d developed a real attitude about AA. The AA people I’d met were religious freaks. AA was a cult of simple-minded people with self-esteem problems who’d replaced one addiction with a new addiction to a recovery program. How could anyone admit to things like character defects or powerlessness? The feminist in me bristled. I am not inherently flawed. We can overcome weaknesses and lack of control by trying harder. I don’t need God to “fix” me. That’s irrational. And don’t even call alcoholism a disease. Cancer is a disease. THAT, you can’t control. I choose whether or not to drink; I clearly just hadn’t really tried. So, I tried some AA alternatives: Moderation Management, Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery.
All of these things worked only temporarily. I’d control my drinking for awhile, but inevitably I’d tumble back down the well again.
This is what happens when a person is running on ego.
A couple years later, I was in one of those periods of successful controlled drinking when I met someone I fell hard for. The third time I tried AA was right after I broke up with her. She flat out told me I was an alcoholic. (It’s not the reason we broke up.) But I think a part of me wanted to prove her wrong; maybe some part of me believed that if I got sober, she’d be impressed and want to stop seeing other people and get back together with me. It’s a dumb reason to get sober, to do it for someone else. The moment I accepted she truly was in another committed relationship (and heaven help me I couldn’t stand the new woman she was with!), this little dance with AA didn’t last. I think I went to all of three meetings that time. AA just wasn’t connecting with me.
Fast forward five years later, after I’d graduated from occasional nightly binges to three-day weekend benders and then drinking every other night during the week. I was making all kinds of mistakes and on the verge of trying a geographical cure. I was out of ideas. Rehab seemed to be the only option. (And it didn’t cost $40K. It cost $9K, out of pocket. My insurance didn’t cover it). And it worked. Or I should say, so far it’s working. I’ve been sober now for almost two years.
What worked for me is that I was in a controlled environment for 28 days, surrounded by other people 24/7 who were fighting the same fight. I got to see firsthand the horrible effects of addiction (you see this somewhat in AA in meetings, but you really haven’t experienced the full impact until you’ve witnessed, or roomed with, somebody who is detoxing.) There was my own detox. It hadn’t even occurred to me that my morning sweats weren’t hormonal. Neither was the racing heartbeat. And since the nurses monitored my blood pressure for the first week, I saw for myself how it went down and returned to normal as my body adjusted to functioning without booze. My detox was an easy one, probably because I hadn’t been a daily drinker. Not so for other patients. There was one guy who shook so badly he had to use both hands to bring his fork to his mouth at dinner. He used to drink a quart of vodka a day, when heroin wasn’t available. There was my Christian roommate, as sweet a person as could be, who had been in AA for years but just couldn’t kick her addiction to booze. She had liver damage and had already had surgery for esophageal varices. She left rehab and within 7 days had gone on a bender that landed her back in the hospital. There was another guy–a brilliant man, an MD, a cardiac surgeon, who had lost everything to crack cocaine.
And seeing all this, and suddenly feeling lucky I wasn’t worse than I was, and then going through a checklist with my counselor that asked me to examine how alcohol operated in my life, I had to admit that I had about as much control over booze as I have over a politician saying something comprehensible. It was a moment of clarity and surrender. My ego finally had to admit it wasn’t all-powerful. No amount of self-control would keep me sober. Damn, it was a relief to finally see that. I finally understood the First Step. And what I’d always thought would make me feel embarrassed, stupid, or humiliated actually made me feel grateful.
I’m grateful that my bottom didn’t have to go any lower than it did. And, it took rehab to humble me that way, not 90 meetings in 90 days. Actually, rehab is kind of like 90 meetings in 28 days. It is daily meetings from 8am to 8pm, group work, counseling, and work on Steps 1-3. It isn’t a spa. We had AA or NA meetings every night. Days were highly structured. Even if you didn’t eat, you had to show up for meals. We had only one hour a day of free time. Even on Sundays, Family Day, we were still expected to attend group workshops and an AA meeting while family members went to an Al-Anon meeting. This idea that going to rehab is like going on a vacation is a total falsehood. Neither is it “forced sobriety”—you can walk off the property at any time. Like anything on earth, you will get out of it exactly what you put into it.
So, you know, the Old-Timers can make fun of rehab. People who aren’t in recovery at all can parody the stereotypical drunk at AA meetings who stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” We can poke fun of the self-help movement and how everybody is working the Twelve Steps nowadays. We can laugh at Al Franken doing his Stuart Smiley impression. We can watch 28 Days and laugh at the chanting and all the New Age stuff. But I’m all for rehab. For some of us, it is a good solution. For some of us, it got us somewhere that meetings alone couldn’t take us. And it got me into AA. Who is anybody to judge someone else’s program if it can indeed work?