*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you. Head to the author’s profile to continue reading.
My life is passing before my eyes, and the only lifeline left is a 20-year-old alcohol recovery ranch intern whose job it is to roll my bag across the parking lot.
Now I understand how Dorothy must have felt as she watched the world swoop by inside a whirlwind of cows, witches, and loved ones. The rumbling and whirring sounds of the wheels on my suitcase against the pavement is the only sound I hear.
The part-time rehab intern, who I now consider my fearless leader, may or may not be talking about important guidelines and procedures of my 30-day stay. All I can think about is where is my cell phone. I really need my cell phone. Oh yeah, I think they confiscated my cell phone.
Think man, think. Do I smile and wave upon entry or will this self-inflicted spaceship crash and burn as I plummet back down to earth? What have I done? I need an exit. I need a strategy. I need an exit strategy. I yearn for queso and a margarita. Where’s the guy named Tito who usually comes bucking in on an eight-ounce Red Bull to burst through that nurse’s station and whisk me away from this reality? Who’s that lady? Who’s that man? Why are they all staring? Where are the angels now? I hope the angels have called a heavenly emergency meeting with the Big Man Himself. I want to go gracefully in headfirst, but I feel a belly flop coming.
My first introduction is to another patient who I assume serves on the welcoming committee. It is interesting that he only speaks in single noun-based sentences. My recently injected, Ativan-induced mind hears the words, “Closet, cafeteria, nurses, and rooms.” I guess these are just a few of the amenities the facility has to offer. I can’t remember if the brochure mentions a swimming pool and tennis courts or is this a distant memory from Bravo’s “Intervention” Season Eight, Episode Nine.
My two-minute tour concludes with an introduction to Leslie, the Detox Unit Patient Advocate. She smiles, holds onto my shoulder, and finally, my spinning house lands smack dab on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.
Complete silence is a freaky experience. An eerie stillness and ringing in my ears are overtaking me as Leslie helps me unpack for my stay. Her unspoken words and body language mysteriously reassure me. She leaves for a moment to locate a foam egg crate to cover the industry standard vinyl mattress, a softer pillow, and an extra blanket from another room. A nurse stops in to inform me that I will be alone for the first night until my assigned roommate checks in on the following day.
Leslie comes back with the goods in hand to help me make my bed. She promptly begins the process of explaining how my first five days of detoxification work, while leading me to the TV room where she introduces me to another patient, Darren A. Darren and I are the only two who have checked in, and we are waiting for more patients to arrive before the orientation. He looks miserable. I am not sure if that is a smile or a frown that he sent in my general direction, but I am just glad to know he acknowledges me. I wave as I often do which I am sure has come across uncomfortably awkward and weird as usual. His second expression is a confirmed smile. He chuckles and shakes his head.
We watch a local morning show with segments on gardening and the local music scene and Darren begins to speak. He speaks of his children. He is here to get clean for them. He wants to be back in their lives and reintroduce himself as someone they can count on once again. For me, this is a heavy introduction, but also a reality check. I have made this leap and I do not know where I am going to land, but I know it can’t be worse than the hell I have been living.
Somehow, the weight of the world is off my shoulders. Time has stopped, and I feel as though I can no longer hurt others or shun my responsibilities. It is like I am leaving the middle of a West Texas dust storm and the road ahead is still dark, but I think that I see a road sign in the near distance.
Listening to Darren, I am thinking to myself, how can two people from such different walks of life end up in the exact same place. Our journey for the next 30 days is going to be as unique as our struggles, but I find comfort in knowing we will be sharing the same path as I head into the woods in an attempt to find some of the things I have lost.
The following title tracks are from Amy Grants Album, “The Collection,” and parallel many aspects of my time in rehab.
Emmanuel: Track 7
I knew it was coming. The 12 steps that did not work for me. I attended an AA meeting once in my 20s, twice in my 30s, and maybe a meeting or two in my 40s. Most of these meetings, of course, were with a friend for the sole purpose of moral support. The schedule was mundane, but I made the best of all of the mandatory classes that were listed on the daily docket. The long-term effects of different substances, avoiding triggering situations, and classes with scientific proof that our brains were slowly becoming raisins were fine by me, but I dreaded the one-hour mandatory AA meetings.
AA was always the same. Say the Steps, say the Traditions, listen to horror stories, say the Serenity Prayer, pass out a chip or two, and then off to the bar. In early recovery, the meetings were exactly the same, except we did not have the luxury of the bar afterward.
It was a well-known fact that before we left recovery, we were to master steps one through three and start work on step four of the 12 steps. Step one was a given for me, I needed to accept the fact that I was powerless over alcohol. I had proved step one to myself time and time again. My face had the scars to show for it.
It was step two and three that I could not begin to grasp. The need to acknowledge that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity and that I was willing to turn my life over to God as we understood Him was somehow beyond my scope of understanding. Why was this so hard? I was raised in a Christian household and attended church every Sunday. I think I was baptized at least three times, missed gymnastics for Wednesday Night Potluck Suppers, and publicly pronounced my faith at Christian Summer Camp after the big closing picnic and the annual tear-jerking revival that concluded camp.
With all of the downtime in rehab and lack of places to be, my mind began to process my past.
I certainly went through all of the motions of being a Christian throughout my life, but I came to the realization that I knew much more about hell than I ever did about heaven. I was familiar with the cannots of religion—no dancing on campus, no sex before marriage, no tattoos on God’s Temple, and certainly no drinking, especially in public forums, were the thoughts that had scarred my mind. Some music was okay, some music was satanic, television preachers and politicians were falling out grace from God, and I was a gay sinning cheerleader who was certainly destined for a life of eternity in hell.
I realized in recovery, that I knew Jesus the man, but I did not know Jesus. I also knew that in 30 days that a miracle transformation into a new relationship with God was highly unlikely. The negativity and hate for myself that I had picked up along the way from certain religious doctrine and beliefs far outweighed any of the benefits that I had gained over the past 30 years. I did continue to pray, even though I knew my rotary dial phone to heaven needed a digital upgrade. I kept my prayers short and simple only praying for peace and enlightenment. I found some peace in walking.
My mind was clearer, and I was beginning to recognize my intrusive negative thoughts. Every time a negative thought arose, I stopped and prayed for peace. I walked between my classes, during rest time, after lunch and dinner, and before curfew. The recognition of my negative thoughts became more and more apparent, and my short prayers for peace became more frequent and more of a Pavlov-like conditioned response.
I began to associate peace with objects. I began to take notice of the breeze, a flower, a turtle in the pond, and as cheesy as it may sound, it began to slow down my destructive inner voice. My negativity was slowly subsiding, and my prayers became a little longer. I was not ready to say I had accepted steps two and three in their entirety, but I was becoming cautiously optimistic about the idea and I was beginning to realize the importance of the steps in my life.
Where do you Hide your Heart: Track 8
It had taken three weeks, but I had finally become a little more relaxed, less paranoid, and trusting of the other patients and staff. Perhaps this was the peace that I had been praying for all along. The morning classes, afternoon activities, and even the AA meetings were becoming routine and comfortable. I felt safe, but I was still in a state of confusion.
I wanted to know how my life went from the old saying “You go boy!” to being the gone boy. Questions of wrong turns, mental snapshots of horror stories, and poor life choices were flooding my mind. The reality and guilt from my wrongs had erased my memories of everything I had done right. I was ashamed that I was born gay, I was embarrassed of who I had become, and my spirit was broken for the people I had left in my dust storm.
Hiding my heart from myself and from others was the only way I could cope. The pain of simply coming out of my house to face another day had become too great. The physical dependency on the substances that wreaked havoc on my daily life had become essential to make a simple public appearance and come out from behind the mental shadows I had created.
Healing my own heart began through lists of the others I had hurt. My list quickly became a novel, but remembering the others I had damaged, the ways in which I had hurt them, and how I was going to try to make amends was somehow resonating in my heart that I had buried so deeply. Putting these things down on worksheets made the task a little more manageable. I was slowly learning that the healing of my heart would be through trying to heal the relationships I had damaged along the way.
I knew that my own issues would take years of self-discovery but knowing that I could begin trying to ask for forgiveness from others would begin to bring some peace in my heart that I was desperately seeking.
Sing Your Praise: Track 9
During my stay, I watched unbelievable transformations. Darren A., my buddy from detox, become the king of our group. I found such amazing qualities in his heart and in his actions. He had learned a couple of things along his life’s journey like how to give a tattoo with a ballpoint pen and a sharpened paper clip, but he chose to use his talents by helping others during his stay. He set up a free barbershop with his trusty electric clippers, provided a cigarette to anyone who asked, became the president-elect of our group, and leader of our morning meditation and prayer sessions. He even negotiated several patients off the ledge from leaving the program before their time.
His kindness and actions of goodwill toward others reminded me of another Man I had read about throughout my life. His transformation over 30 days was truly an inspiration for us all.
Each night, Darren led what we called a “Rock-Out” for the patients who would be leaving the next morning. The patient would find a rock on the ranch and we would pass it around in a group circle. Each of us would give them a word of encouragement or a small prayer while we rubbed and squeezed the rock and then passed it on to the next person. The graduating patient would then take this rock with them on their new journey. I will never forget the fear in the eyes of those getting ready to head back out into the world.
The demons that had brought us into recovery were still out there and they haunted our memories and challenged our hopes for success, but we knew the time at the ranch had come to an end. We had to make our reentry into society.
Our last assignment upon disembarkation from the cruise ship of recovery was to write a final excerpt in our journal which we would share in our small group therapy session. I did not know what to write, but I did know that the shakes that had physically impaired my ability to write had become manageable.
My last and final words were about the peace that had been revealed to me over the past 30 days. This new peace was a feeling of relief and a confidence that I could face the challenges that I would encounter when I went “back out.” The fears of reentering the atmosphere of life were not as dark and menacing as I thought they would be. My simple prayer for peace had been answered.
Leaving was twofold. I wanted to hug Brad, see my family, cuddle my dogs, and sleep in my own bed. The thought that I may never see any of my newfound friends again who had made the journey alongside me was a harsh realization. The idea of trying to build something new and maybe not quite as complicated this time around was a beautiful thing. It was time for me to write my new story, tell it in my own words, and sing the praises of God who showed me and is willing to show others that there is another way.
Rest in Peace Darren A. December 2, 1982-April 7, 2020. Darren passed away in his sleep from the complications of substance abuse disorder.