Alcoholism Pt. 3: Moving Down South

It was like summer camp in a lot of ways.

There I was, living in a house just minutes from the beach, surrounded by a bunch of young people who felt charged with a frenetic energy that can only come from rehab.

Rehab can be a lot of fun. It really can. You sit around garages and smoke and talk about life. Some guy’s always got a guitar to play so you can sing your favorite Beatles songs. You start reading again. You eat candy and go to movies and start sleeping a little better because you’re clean. You go to the beach on the weekends and remember what it feels like to jump through waves. You get crushes. You make out. You (think you) fall in love.

It can also be a big pain in the ass. You have to get some shit job. Do chores. Wake up at the crack of dawn to go to meetings. Go to “group” and listen to people bitch and complain. Cook and clean. Sleep in bunk beds. Plot how to kill your snoring roommate.

But mostly, it’s great, and mostly, it’s a gift. If you want it. But the real recovery isn’t in rehab. Rehab is just a gateway. The recovery is in Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and any other program that introduces you to the 12 steps. And the 12 steps are magic.

My first hours in rehab were terrifying. My mom took me there, and as she’s helping me unpack my clothes into the little bureau next to my bunk bed, I meet my first roommate.

“I’m Sam,” she says, biting on the huge ring in her tongue. “What’s your drug of choice?” I scan her up and down. She’s tall and thin and tan, covered in tattoos, and wearing the shortest cutoffs I have ever seen.

I’m standing there thinking, you do know that’s my mom right? “Alcohol and pills,” I mutter.

“Cool. Me, I like speedballs. Cocaine and heroin. Perfect combination.” My poor mother. 

Then I meet my next roommate. She’s a lot like Sam, only she’s shorter and has black and red hair and a lip ring instead of a tongue, and her drug of choice is crystal-meth.

Shit. Maybe I really should have shot heroin into my eyeballs before coming here…

My amazing mother continues to help me unpack and says nothing judgmental or unkind. We hug, we cry, she leaves. I lay on my bed for hours reading this binder they gave me on the process of recovery. I am too terrified to leave my room and face everyone. I feel immensely shy and self-conscious. But after a few hours I am dying for a cigarette, and I know I’ll have to come out at some point.

I finally do, and it takes all that courage and bravery in me to walk down that hall and into the living room and out to the patio where everyone is smoking.

“Your eyes look sad,” one of the house managers says to me.

“Eyes tell the truth,” I tell him.  

It’s a Friday night, and it just so happens that the regular meeting they take us to is at the beach by a huge campfire. It’s a great meeting, full of hope and laughter and food and music, and everyone in the rehab is suddenly my friend. For the first time since I dropped out of college, I feel hopeful.

Orange County did my well. I have mostly very fond memories of the three years that I lived there. I didn’t stay sober the whole time, and I got into chaotic relationships, and I still struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety and eating disorders and pain. But it catapulted me out that clogged glue-like numbed darkness I was stuck in when I returned from Boulder. I started going back to school at the local community college and took it seriously. I got an apartment with a girl who became my best friend for a period of time. I spent a lot of time at great AA meetings and running around with young people and playing at the beach and going to sober dances.

I also still struggled with bulimia. Depression. Low self-esteem. Crippling fear. Toxic relationships. Dishonest behavior. Cutting. Relapse. Anger. Denial. I was scratching at the surface of recovery, but i wasn’t in yet. And I was young. I was still so very young.

I was in a relationship with Mark for the majority of time in Orange County. Our relationship was the central focus of my life. He was my real Higher Power. I didn’t yet know how to leave him or to be alone. I didn’t really have a relationship with God, so I certainly couldn’t trust God, and my days were edged with a cloying fear I could never shake. I tried to chase it away with smoking and sex and food and caffeine. I did my best with the tools I had. Took a lot of naps. Had sex all the time. Ate sugar. Focused on school. Listened to music. Watched tons of TV. (LOST and Friends were a saving grace.) I worked the steps in AA to be a good girl. I did the best I could, but I didn’t have the psychic change and the spiritual awakening that is necessary if one is to maintain any sort of long term quality sobriety. Again, I was young. I didn’t think my past could haunt me anymore. I didn’t think I had so many feelings and so much trauma to face. I thought I just had to go to meetings and do well in school. I was so relieved to be free from how I’d felt when I was eighteen, that I wasn’t all that concerned with connecting to God and healing old wounds. I just wanted to have fun.

The longest I stayed sober during that time was 20 months. I was proud of that time. There were moments of happiness and joy. But something returned. It always does, if we don’t fully recover. An insanity. A belief that maybe, just maybe, I could drink now and experiment with drugs, and it wouldn’t be so bad…

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