December 30th, 1981, I was on my first day in rehab, and still going in and out of blackouts. My alter ego, Jacob Randecker in my novel Saint Mary Blue, comes to once again . . .
Jacob Randecker opened his eyes. He was sitting in a chair in front of a desk. He frowned and looked around, trying to remember where he was and why he was there. How had he gotten to this particular office? It was always possible that he would have to find his way out again. That edge of terror again tugged at his intestines, and he took out his pillbox and put an Ativan into his mouth. He noticed that he still had one of the blue-and-white Libriums left. He put that into his mouth as well, washing down both with the cup of coffee he took from the edge of the desk.
As he waited for the edges to soften, he studied the office. There was a stupid little Nativity scene hanging on the wall. A polystyrene Madonna grinning evilly at an Aryan Jesus. That's right; Christmas was back there someplace.
A woman entered the office and sat down across from Jacob. She was one of those youthful, clean-scrubbed, naturally beautiful, wholesome bitches that Jacob Randecker hated. She probably jogged, too. He looked in his hand and found the check that he was supposed to do something with. It was made out to St. Mary's Rehabilitation Cent---oh, yeah. Minneapolis.
The check was his deposit. "What about my insurance?"
She handed him back his Blue Cross card. "We still require the deposit." She took the check and turned her attention to a form. "Occupation?"
"I'm a writer."
Her eyebrows went up. "Really?"
"Yes, really." Jacob felt very threatened.
"What have you written?"
"I don't know. What have you read?"
She smiled and returned to the form. "Wife's name?"
As the questions were asked and answered, Jacob wanted to take back his wisecrack and prove to her that he was a writer. He was somebody.
---I am a writer. There are the books, the stories, the awards; all of those things that seem to impress everyone in the world but me.
---Everybody but me.
The Ativan and Librium began, at last, to work on the edges.
He frowned as he felt the weight pulling on his arms.
He wasn't sitting; he was standing.
He looked down and saw the armload of books he was carrying. Up went his head. A brightly lit hallway---doors, railings, and light fixtures running down the walls. Posters and pitiful holiday decorations everywhere. The office was gone.
---Why is reality all in bits and pieces? Who tore this day into a thousand scraps and threw them into the wind?
"You'll need those materials for your work here." There was a woman standing in front of him. She was a pleasant-faced smiler with dark blond hair, sweater and slacks.
"Work?" He looked at the books in his arms. "I thought this was supposed to be a hospital."
She kept smiling. "It is." She pointed toward a door. He carried in the books and dropped them on a small desk. His bags and coat were already on the bed.
---So, I must have been in here before. Yes?
Harsh fluorescent light from fixtures above the beds filled the room. He stood at the foot of one of the two beds as the woman began searching through his belongings.
"Lady, are you just nosy, or what?"
"We have to search for medications. Any medications you need will be prescribed for you."
Jacob took a deep breath and shook his head. "I don't do any drugs. My problem is drinking and I haven't had anything to drink since the seventeenth of December."
She began stuffing things into her pockets. His Alka-Seltzer Cold Plus, his aspirin, his vitamin C.
"What---Hey, what are you doing? Swipe that stuff and my sinuses will curl up and die."
"Anything you need will be prescribed for you." She held up a small brown plastic container. "What's this?"
"Ativan. It's a prescription for anxiety." She opened the bottle and poured the pills into the palm of her hand. Among the little white Ativan oblongs were several blue-and-whites.
"Those blue and white capsules are Librium. My doctor prescribed them when I stopped drinking."
Into her pocket they went, along with Jacob Randecker's heart, followed by his Alka-Seltzer regular.
"What if I get heartburn?"
"Any medications you need---"
"I know, I know." Jacob sighed as she topped off her bulging pockets with his Preparation H.
"Not that, too."
"Yes, that too."
Jacob rubbed his eyes, thinking. ---"Hey, man, what're you in for?"
---"I was doin' H."
---"You wuz shootin' smack?"
---"No. Ah duz Preparation H, straight up the old kazoo---with a dirty finger!"
"Did you say something?"
Jacob smirked and shook his head.
"Remain in your room. Someone will be by in a little while to brief you and give you your schedule. And until you detox, you'll be getting your vitals taken four times a day, every day. Morning vitals are taken in the lounge at the end of the wing. Go to the nurse's station for the other three. The times are on your schedule." Out the door she went, looking for more poor Alka-Seltzer junkies to rip off.
---"Hey, man. I'm sick."
---Plop,, plop. Fizz, fizz.
---No relief in sight.
"I don't need to detox," he said to the empty doorway. "Hell, I haven't had anything to drink since the seventeenth."
Jacob sat on the edge of his bed, his fists thrust into his coat pockets, and stared out the window at his first night in Minneapolis. Dark, cold, and everything covered with ice and snow. The streets and walks were deserted, a frozen confetti of flakes curling around in the cones of lonely brightness cast by the widely spaced street lights. "How did I ever wind up here? God, what a hole."
Jacob turned around. There was another bed in the room. His stomach knotted as his imagination took over and assigned him a succession of socially undesirable roommates. It's a rehab center. Drunks and Junkies.
"I'll probably be bunkies with the guy who taught Charlie Manson the ropes." He thought of the television junkies shaking it out on the block, slitting throats for enough bread to score another fix.
"I'm sure glad I was too smart to get into drugs." He felt a headache beginning, and he began reaching for his pills, stopping himself when he remembered the shakedown. He reached into his sweater-vest pocket for his pillbox. Even before he opened it, he knew that it was empty. He tossed it into the wastebasket, not relishing the prospect of trying to get a few aspirin from the goons at the nurse's station.
He lit his pipe and comforted himself with the thought that he had a round-trip ticket and plenty of money in his wallet. Anytime he wanted to, he could split. That time was getting close. Ann would be disappointed. So would the friends who had pushed him in this direction. Don the shrink, too. But they didn't know; they didn't understand. A terrible mistake had been made.
"I don't belong here."
He said it, and it sounded friendly. Reasonable. Rational. Sane.
He glanced at the pile of books. I'll Quit Tomorrow. He remembered reading that one before, but couldn't remember anything about it. Ann had given it to him. Some coincidence. The Recovery of Reality. Hmm. A big blue book: Alcoholics Anonymous---
He bolted upright, his eyes widening. "They told me that Saint Mary's has nothing to do with A.A.!"
There was a skinny light blue book titled Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: A Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Tells How---
"Damn!" Living Sober: Some Methods A.A. Members Have Used---
And every rock Jacob turned over exposed another snake. A Day at a Time, a tiny tome filled with daily doses of religious claptrap; and Twenty-Four Hours a Day, more daily doses of more religious claptrap. Even a handy wallet-sized item containing the selfsame twelve steps and twelve traditions on the inside, and a little prayer on the outside: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change---
"Well, goddammit, I can certainly change this!" Jacob shredded the little white card.
"There's no smoking in patient rooms."
Jacob tossed the pieces of the card on the floor, pulled the pipe from his mouth, turned and saw another female clad in slacks, but this time the woman was wearing black curly hair instead of blond. "What do you mean, no smoking?"
"Smoking is allowed only in the lounges designated as smoking areas." She smiled. "It's the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act."
Jacob shook his head as anger reduced his despair and confusion to righteous certainty. "That tears it."
"What do you mean?"
He pointed at the mountain of treatment texts. "What is this shit?"
"This." He slammed his hand down on top of the texts. "I was told Saint Mary's didn't have anything to do with the A.A. program!"
"The program here is based on the A.A. pro---"
"I sort of figured that out for myself!" Jacob turned abruptly, his eyes narrowed, the tip of his beard an inch from the woman's nose.
"Honeybuns, do I have a news flash for you. I'm no spook-sucking religionist. This halfwit bible society doesn't have a godfuckingdamned thing to teach me."
He stormed around her and marched down the corridor past the nurse's station. He needed a cup of coffee, a smoke, and to go home. "I am in the wrong place," he muttered. A blond woman in a lavender jogging suit came out of a room. Jacob said to her, "Why is everybody around here so stupid?"
Her expression didn't change. "Don't worry about it. If you stick around long enough, they'll smarten up."
At the sound of his own scream, Jacob opened his eyes, the rapidly fading horror of his nightmare still making him breath hard.
The room was strange. The hospital. St. Mary's.
He saw that he was sitting up in his bed, the lights above his back were on. The other bed was still empty. Reaching to his nightstand, he picked up his watch. It was one-thirty in the morning. The last time he had checked his watch it had been a couple of minutes after one.
With his hands he wiped the sweat from his face as he tried to ease the tightness in the back of his neck. "Christ, the heat in here."
He swung his feet to the floor, walked to the window, and slid it partly open. As crisp, clean air entered the room, Jacob examined the scene outside. The ugliness of the Minneapolis night had only deepened. Snow and more snow. "I thought Maine had it bad."
He returned to his bed, sat down, and listened to the crackle of the plastic mattress cover. "No wonder I'm hot." He pushed at the two pillows with his left hand and listened to their plastic covers crackle. Together the two pillows were no thicker than the fuzz on Jacob's tongue.
He felt at the pillowcase for his wallet. Money, airline ticket, credit cards.
---Can't have some light-fingered junky swiping and flashing my Masterfraud card. Paranoid is simply the definition of being realistic.
He satisfied himself that the wallet was there.
---Will that be enough, or should I check inside? The cards might have walked away on their own. Or a really skilled junky could have placed the wallet back in the pillowcase while I was asleep.
---Checking inside the wallet would be silly.
He checked. "Hell, no. I'm not paranoid."
Ann's comments on the phone a few hours before about protecting the cards from his new classmates had been pointed.
Everything was in order. He replaced his wallet in the pillowcase. He reached for his pipe, but as he picked it up, he remembered the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act. He lowered the pipe to his lap and looked toward the door leading to the bathroom his room shared with the adjoining room. "Thirty-nine years old, and sneaking smokes in the shithouse. My how the mighty have fallen."
He turned on the light and slid shut the accordion door. He lit his pipe and sat on the toilet. To accommodate the handicapped, the toilet was so high Jacob's toes hardly touched the floor. The toilet paper seemed to be that super-stiff, institutional test of a man's ability to withstand pain: Brillo Cloud. There was a hissing air vent in the ceiling that should suck out the smell of the tobacco smoke.
He stared at the vent.
---What if there's a smoke detector in there? Or a TV camera?
He knew he was being silly, but the anxiety wouldn't leave. The tension in his neck and shoulders was nothing compared to the headache. He finished his pipe and got up to leave. The door to the bathroom would not unlock.
"What the hell?" He shook the door and shook it again. "Open up, dammit." He looked around the bathroom for something to pry open the lock. He saw the emergency pull-cord next to the toilet.
He could call the nurse's station to get the door open, but there he would be, smoking pipe in hand. Even without the pipe, they'd know why he had gone in there. "I don't believe this. How did I wind up in this situation?" His bag of toilet articles was on the counter. He looked through it, thinking that it seemed awfully empty without his various medications. He found his nail file.
Several minutes and a broken nail file later, he escaped to the relative freedom of the bedroom. Again he looked at his watch. 1:58 a.m.
He checked his wallet again, turned off the lights, put his head on his pillow, and tried again to sleep. Time passed. More time passed. He realized that his hand was inside the pillowcase, and that he had a death grip on his wallet. If the cards fell into evil hands, Ann would see to it that he never heard the end of it.
"Rip Van Winkle couldn't sleep like this." He got up and took his wallet into the bathroom. He pulled the small set of scissors out of his kit and cut his cards into tiny pieces. After flushing the pieces down the toilet, he tried to sleep again. After a few moments more, he sat up and turned on the lights.
"I can't sleep." He looked at his pillows. They told him that sleep for the night was a lost cause. His gaze wandered to the pile of texts on his desk. Hot anger immediately flushed his face.
There was a steno pad that was part of the book issue. Jacob picked it up, turned to the first clear page, picked up a tome, and continued preparing his brief tentatively titled, "Why Jacob Randecker Doesn't Belong Here."
At the top of the page he scribbled December 30th.
Another browse through the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and he began writing:
The A.A. program is founded on substituting the religion/philosophy of moral altruism & helplessness for a chemical dependency---substituting religion for alcohol (and not such a great religion, at that).
Jacob was an atheist and believed that he always had been. The book said that's okay. It's not a religious program.
"Like the Inquisition wasn't a religious program," Jacob snorted.
He turned to "The Chapter to the Agnostic."
I get the impression that the only atheists A.A. has ever seen are disillusioned religionists---and that the program will lead to a restoration of faith. Preach it, bro'.
I also get the very loud impression that A.A. holds that my only two options right now are continued destruction through alcohol or "spiritual" salvation.
Which brings us, in turn, to A.A.'s questionable "success record." "One million recovered," if I understand the program, is the same as saying "One million drunks turned into Jesus freaks."
Although more socially acceptable, I find religionism as bad or worse than alcoholism.
More reading and still more. A few words made him stumble. He read them again, then wrote.
If A.A. is right---and they've been in the business a long time---I am dead. However, reason would seem to indicate the possibility that one can remain true to what little truth one has nailed down and still be sober---we must all keep open minds.
"Okay, then. Let's just answer a few of these questions."
Why am I here? I am here because ... because I guess I'm an alcoholic, and that St. Mary's was represented to me as a non-religious, non-A.A. treatment program. They've made a religion out of not drinking.
More reading, and the walls seemed to get closer and closer. The writing continued.
This crap is just a bunch of gross generalities.
Bored should be on this list of emotions. One of my big ones for drinking---and I don't make myself bored.
More reading, more writing.
Nitrous oxide is a drug? Now that I think about it, I didn't drink as much before that spate of dental work. After that one three-hour session under gas, I just didn't want to come down. Went straight to the liquor store after leaving and didn't come down until---
He thought very hard.
I didn't come down until my heart attack. That was on my thirty-sixth birthday.
He shook his head. "Well, according to their definition, I'm chemically dependent."
At harmful dependency level---hurting self and others. Still, they want to move the psychological dependency from alcohol to religion.
I have the chemical dependency
The program is still in question.
A few more pages, and he was wide awake.
Chemical dependency ---psychological dependency includes Ativan whether drinking or not! Holy shit!
There was the lecture last evening after that inedible dinner. Jacob hadn't been paying very close attention. He had been sitting on the new fish row, the back. Something the lecturer had said stuck.
"The most prominent symptom is that it's the disease that tells you that you haven't got it."
Someone from the front. "You mean alcoholism?"
"What about drug addiction?"
"Are you one of those curious persons who believes that ethanol isn't a drug?"
"I know it's a drug, but aren't the diseases different? Isn't alcoholism different than drug addiction?"
"The difference between drugs and alcohol: it's like changing seats on the Titanic."
Jacob had laughed. It was a good line.
He shook his head. "Ativan isn't a drug. Technically, I suppose it is. But it's not a real drug, like them neat things the street shooters use." He read some more on the progression of the disease. One-by-one the addict gets rid of his straight friends and replaces them with other addicts. Now here was something that just didn't apply.
I never lost any friends. I never had any friends to lose.
I never had any blackouts.
Alibi system---These people are blaming everything, all problems, on alcohol. There can be problems without alcohol.
Jacob nodded and said "Don't I know it." He looked at the pad one last time and wrote.
I don't know. I just don't know.
He put down the pen and looked at his watch. 3:21 a.m. Jacob tossed the steno pad on the desk, rubbed his eyes and noticed that a backache and sinus inflammation had joined the stiff neck and headache.
"It's only tension. I've got to relax."
He closed his eyes, leaned back upon his plastic pillows, and tried to make sense out of the past twenty-four hours. Sense would not come.
After his first encounter with Honeybuns, the floor counselor with the aversion to smoking, and storming out of his room, he had gone to the tiny kitchen on the fourth floor placed there for the convenience and salvation of the patients. Picking up a tiny foam plastic coffee cup from a stack on a shelf, Jacob had drawn coffee from the automatic dispenser and pushed his way through a swinging door into the adjoining recreation room. Ping pong table, pool table, a piano, record player, and lots of chairs.
Everything had been in use. There were lots of patients. Jacob had paused to reflect on the company he would be keeping for the New Year holiday. Sorry fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, rejected by their families, condemned to spend this moment of renewed family resolution whining it out along with a hundred other rejected souls.
"Christ, is New Year's going to be f-u-n, fun." He made his way to a couch facing the center of the room, sat down, and sipped at his coffee.
The anger at the woman proselytizing the canons of the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act faded to fear. The room was full of patients: teens, twenties, thirties on up to one old guy who sat telling jokes with a Swedish accent. Strangers. The room was full of strangers.
Jacob Randecker was terrified of strangers. The voices around him talked in cheery voices about smack, coke, ope, dust, reds, 'ludes, pot, and the ever popular John Barleycorn. Strange words: chemical dependent, co-dependent, concerned person, family week, enabling, higher power, group, getting staffed.
He listened in amazement about the variety and quantity of substances that can be shot into a vein, ingested, rubbed into an eye, inhaled, snorted. One fellow, doing nostalgia, was an opium smoker.
Jacob put his fear aside long enough to satisfy his curiosity. "No kidding? You smoke opium?"
The man nodded. He was young, narrow faced, with large, deep-set brown eyes. The smile came easily to his lips. "I once read something about Edgar Allen Poe."
"Isn't smoking ope a little old fashioned?"
There was a bitter glitter to his eyes as he looked away. "I guess I'm just an old fashioned sort of a guy."
And he heard it isn't what you use, or when you use, or how you use, or even how much you use. It's what it does to you.
After running out of coffee for the fifth time, Jacob remembered the brown plastic cup he had been issued. The one with the little prayer upon it. Almost everyone in the room was carrying a similar one, and the reason was obvious: the brown cup held about three times as much as one of those white foam cups. Those folks certainly could put away the coffee. If everyone used those little foam cups, the asphalt floor tile wouldn't last a week.
Jacob had returned to his room, found that the counselor had gone, and picked up the brown cup. On one side there was a curious coat of arms crowned by the enigmatic interrogative: "How does that make you feel?" On the other side that clever little prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Jacob was grinding his teeth so hard, they ached.
He took the pressure sensitive name strip they had given him to identify his cup, removed the backing, and attached the strip diagonally across the prayer.
Before returning to the kitchen, he scanned the room to see if the counselor had left a copy of the schedule. Jacob found it and read that they were on a special holiday schedule. The next two days would be taken up with New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, followed by the weekend. Except for an odd-lecture or movie, there wouldn't be anything to do except smoke, drink coffee, and grind teeth. His plans for returning to Maine were already in the works.
He had two hundred dollars and the remaining half of his round trip plane ticket in his pocket. But it was late, he was tired, and it was cold outside. Tomorrow would be soon enough to plow his way to the airport.
A little white card fluttered to the floor. Jacob frowned and picked it up. The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of A.A. "Where in the hell did this come from?"
Back in the recreation room, Jacob telephoned Ann. Ann's voice had sounded weary and very, very frightened.
"Hey, I'm sorry I was so silent driving to the airport. I was pretty tired. And I guess I was waiting for you to ask me not to go."
Her voice, very small. "You'll never know how much I wanted to."
"Yeah, well, I just wanted to let you know that I showed up in one piece. By the way, the program here is based on the A.A. program. I might not stay."
"Jacob, I didn't know anything about the place---"
"Yeah, well, good night. I'll let you know when my plane will get in."
Silence from the other end of the line, and Jacob had hung up.
That night he had read all of the books at light speed, looking for things to fight about, finding plenty, and making notes, preparing his brief for when he stepped off the plane in Portland a month early.
Afterward, he had gone to bed and tried to get some sleep. Both the pillows and the mattress crackled with every movement. They were all encased in heavy plastic. And he began to sweat. For a moment he slept, then came the nightmare.
That one guy in the lounge had called them St. Mary's Revenge. About St. Mary's ball-busting dreams, another one had asked, "You ever hear of paying the piper?"
"That's the collection agency." Another fellow in the lounge had called the dreams Saint Mary blue.
Jacob opened his eyes and looked again at his watch. 3:59 a.m. "How long can a night be?"
He looked again at his collection of patient schedules. The facility festivities would begin at 7:15 a.m.. Vitals in the wing lounge. He figured that he may as well spend the rest of the night some place where he could smoke and drink coffee. He got out of bed, grabbed his brown plastic coffee cup and headed for the door.
Thus concludes my first day in rehab and the date from which I figure my clean time. The remainder of the yarn is in the book.
The prospect of a future without drugs to an active addict is frightening. In addition, addiction is the disease that tells you that you haven't got it. It gets really insistent on that point. The argument is, there is no problem so there is nothing to fix.
If you're an addict actively using drugs or trying to white-knuckle it without drugs, there is a better way. You've already gone through most of the initiation to become part of the human race. All that's left is to reach out for help. Over on the right are the links that can put you in touch with Narcotics Anonymous or other useful Twelve Step programs.
None of it works, however, without you being on your own team. On that first day in rehab I hadn't yet become a member of my own recovery team. It eventually happened, though.
Happy New Year, I'm rooting for Team You, and be careful out there.
None of it works, however, without you being on your own team. On that first day in rehab I hadn't yet become a member of my own recovery team. It eventually happened, though.
Happy New Year, I'm rooting for Team You, and be careful out there.