By the time I bottomed out completely from alcoholism in 2009, I had absolutely no place to stay. With no money, no car, no job and no cell phone, the social worker at the psych unit I stayed in for two weeks said I should go to Acton, a public rehab that would take me with no cash.
Acton is a rural town up in the high desert of Southern California. Think Lancaster, think Palmdale, think dry brush for miles and a bunch of rednecks. Unlike Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears, I did not get to “recover” looking out over the shores of Malibu in a swanky $30,000 a month rehab. I got to go up to the rehab where they sent all the criminals who were mandated treatment instead of yearlong stints in the slammer.
I had nothing against the criminals, but I just couldn’t hack it at Acton.
First of all, every AA meeting had this strange Jesus undertone. In some of them, women would bring out the bible and start reading. Thankfully, I didn’t say anything—I didn’t want to be an asshole. But the night they told us there would be a “concert” that we had to attend in the mess hall, and I subsequently learned it would be put on by a church, I opened my mouth.
“I’m not going,” I told one of the counselors. The counselors there weren’t exactly empaths. Really, they were just guards on duty to make sure we attended our groups, went to dinner and didn’t start any fights.
“You have to go,” the counselor said. She was a dumpy woman wearing jean shorts and carrying around a long, heavy black flashlight. I wondered if she used it to hit women over the head if they got out of line. With her mean eyes, locked jaw and dead-stare, I was a bit scared. Instead of bailing on the concert, I walked in and sat in the corner at the back.
A big band of enthusiastic Christian musicians got up at the front of the mess hall and banged out upbeat worship songs to Jesus. All the women started raising their hands, weeping, hugging each other, falling to their knees and repenting for their addiction.
I needed a drink. Bad.
What led me into the psych unit in the first place was yet another goddamn suicide attempt. I’m really on borrowed time at this point. The last attempt was a botched wrist slitting that got blood all over the carpet, but not enough to kill me. I even sat in a hot bath and waited to drift away into an eternal peace. I waited for a long time. Nothing happened. I just floated there, completely trashed, holding wine bottles over my mouth with blood-soaked hands so I could guzzle more alcohol while trying to pass through to the other side. It’s pretty embarrassing to recount it now.
But up there at Acton, I was still very depressed. In fact, at that point I didn’t even want to get sober. I was convinced I was totally destined to lead an alcoholic life and end up dead very shortly. After all, I’d been trying to get sober in AA for two-and-a-half years. I’d get 11 months and drink again. I’d get four months and drink again. I’d get seven months and back to the bottle I went, each time with greater consequences, each time another brush with death, passing out at the wheel on the freeway, chasing a lethal combo of 300 prescription pills with vodka—for some reason I just couldn’t get sober, and, like a German cockroach, I just couldn’t die.
With no hope, what was the point of going to all those ridiculous Jesus-centered AA meetings, groups and one-on-one sessions with bullying counselors?
To make matters worse, I had no cigarettes.
Though we were allowed to smoke up there, which is odd, since it’s a total fire hazard with all the dried-up brush, very few of us were fortunate enough to have cigarettes. Every day started with a hunt to get one. Those who had them didn’t want to part with them. So we’d smoke butts, we’d steal, we’d do whatever we had to do just to get one piddly drag.
But the worst thing about that place was the food. The crappy food they served, stuff like hard boiled eggs that were so overcooked that outsides and insides were grey, stuff like thick slices of bologna and watery grits for breakfast, stuff like tasteless and overcooked meatloaf with slices of Wonder bread for dinner—that food literally took away my will to live. One night, when it was particularly disgusting, I took a look at what the kitchen staff threw on my plate and started sobbing.
Food is very powerful. It can be incredibly healing and incredibly dehumanizing.
“This food is worse than the food in prison,” my bunkmate Carrie said to me once at dinner. “It’s disgusting.” At least I had someone to commiserate with. We ended up stealing extra boxes of cereal from breakfast and stashing it in our cupboards in the cabin so we could eat it for lunch and dinner—it was the only shit we could tolerate.
Just a few days after I arrived at Acton, Carrie started calling me “Trouble,” which was extra ironic since she was the convict and I had recently received a Master’s degree (I’m still not sure how I pulled that off. Of course it was in writing, and it is possible to scribble on and on poetically when you’re drunk or hung over.)
She called me Trouble for good reason. I had started skipping all the mandatory AA meetings and group therapy sessions. Since the counselors walked the grounds checking to make sure each and every alcoholic or drug addict attended the groups, I’d hide inside the eight or so inches of space beneath my bunk bed and sleep. I remember this one time the counselors came into our little cubicle and opened up those cupboards holding all that cereal.
“These girls are a mess,” one of them said. I kept my laughter silent.
So with all this, with the utter boredom of being trapped on those grounds with nothing to do, with my inability to smoke and inability to really eat, I decided I had to get out of there ASAP. And, lucky for me, the social worker from that psych unit had filed disability papers for me since I’d been diagnosed as bipolar. When my mother called and told me I had received a check for $1100, I decided to take off even though I’d only been there two weeks.
Something happened when I got that check. This fire lit up inside me, and I was determined to get my life back together. I decided I’d get out, find a sober living or somewhere else to stay, get back to work, get a car and dig myself up out of that hole.
When I told my counselor I was leaving, she said, “You’re going to drink again if you leave.” Incensed, I replied, “I don’t think so.”
She really pissed me off. In fact, she made me so angry I became determined to stay sober just to prove that bitch wrong. As I left, all the staff members told me I was doing the wrong thing and my bunkmates told me I would drink and use again. I didn’t care.
And to this day, I haven’t had one drink.
That rehab did help me stay sober. Not because it sorted me out psychologically or helped me work through my shit or introduced me to coping skills and Alcoholics Anonymous. That rehab helped me because I vowed I would never get myself back into that bleak situation.
When I got back to town, I went straight to the liquor store…to get smokes. Then I smoked five in a row and dragged my ass to a meeting, found a decent sober living, and, one day at a time, I got my life back.
Thankfully, I haven’t had to eat grey eggs since.