[This article is excerpted from the author’s new book, The Weight of Air. It recounts his first experience in rehab, in 1995, aged 19.]
Ron’s gold track pants make a swishing sound as he walks toward me, his right hand outstretched. Tall and skinny with the impeccable posture my mother would love, he’s probably in his late twenties. He yawns and apologizes for yawning while leading me through a maze of hallways to a small room with a twin bed, a chair with initials carved into the seat, a tall dresser—and no door.
“Call it a way station,” he says, gesturing from the threshold like he’s revealing a prize on a game show. “As long as there’s no contraband in your bag and no red flags go up in your intake evaluation, you’ll be in general population tomorrow morning.” He follows me into the room and stands at the foot of the bed with his arms folded. I hug my bag and stare at the shiplap wall.
“Okay, so here’s the deal,” he says. “Every morning we’re up at six, except Sundays when you can sleep in. That means seven. Group therapy every day, and AA and NA meetings. Physical fitness, meditation, recreation, lectures on sober living—the whole nine. Unless you have a doctor’s note, everything’s mandatory, so don’t think about trying to ditch. Capisce?”
Does he want me to say “Sir, yes, sir”? I nod and drop my bag on the bed, trying not to laugh at his dorky impression of a drill sergeant.
“This will be your life for the next twenty-eight days. Once you’ve been here a week, you get phone privileges. Forty-five minutes a day. Abuse those privileges and sayonara the phone.”
“Some folks don’t go home for 18 months. Some never do. All depends on how bad your disease is. Questions?”
“I promised my mom I’d call when I—”
“Holy smokes, Dave. Has it been a week already? I could have sworn you just got here.” He grins. “No, all kidding aside. Mom knows you’re here. I just talked to her. Part of my daily routine is a check-in with your folks.”
“My parents are divorced.”
“Will you talk to both of them every day?”
“Mom and Dad have as much to learn about recovery as you do. And fortunately for you and them, Hazelden does a terrific job of educating parents about enabling and tough love, everything they need to know to help you avoid old patterns when you’re back home in six months or—”
“Six months?” He can’t be serious. But it doesn’t matter. Mom won’t make me stay. She’s never forced me to do anything. Seven days until phone privileges. Home in eight, max. This place is for serious drug addicts and hardened criminals.
“Dave. Coming here for a month is a great start, but that’s all it is. A start. Recovery’s a lifelong process. You’ll want to go to aftercare when you leave here—a halfway house—we’ve got options all over the country. Some folks don’t go home for 18 months. Some never do. All depends on how bad your disease is. Questions?”
“Why do you call addiction a disease?”
Ron narrows his eyes. “You being facetious?”
“We call addiction a disease, Dave, because that’s what it is.”
“Er, when I think of disease, I think of cancer. My mom didn’t choose to have it. It could’ve killed her.”
“Bingo. We’re saying the same thing, yeah?”
I smile. “I love the idea of you telling my parents that a disease made me stick needles in my arms, but they know it’s my fault.”
“Sorry, Dave, but that’s baloney. Buh-loney. You have a disease. First step in AA is admitting we’re powerless over the disease.”
“But if I decided to start and I decided to stop—”
Ron winces and exhales hard. “Dave. You might have decided you wanted to stop, but you’re here because your higher power saw you at rock bottom and said, ‘Hey, look. There’s Dave down there. Let me see if I can’t give him a hand.’”
A security guard appears in the doorway, a tall, heavy-breathing dude with a greasy blond mullet. “Keith,” he says, giving me a curt nod. He blows into a surgical glove and stuffs his sausage fingers inside, then opens the zipper on my bag.
While Keith commences the perfunctory “welcome to rehab” inspection, Ron picks up a big blue hardcover from the dresser and opens to “The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.” He reads aloud and follows the words with his finger.
“Number one: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Number two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Number three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care
of God as we understood him…”
Ron drones on about making a moral inventory, admitting our wrongs, asking God to remove our character defects, and making amends to everyone we’ve harmed.
He finally reaches number 12. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” He snaps the book shut with one hand and gives it to me. “What do you think?”
“The only way to keep this disease from being terminal is to put your life and will in God’s hands and you work the steps.”
“Seems awfully religious.” When I talk to Mom, I won’t need to make anything up. After a couple of conversations with Ron, she’ll know this place is completely fucking bonkers.
“Not religious, Dave. Universal. The only way to keep this disease from being terminal is to put your life and will in God’s hands and you work the steps.”
“So, if God is keeping me clean, is it his fault if I relapse?”
Ron stands there, gaping at me in teapot stance, the back of his
hands on his hips.
“Aha,” Keith cries. “Contraband.” He removes a can of Right Guard
deodorant spray and gives it to Ron.
They probably assume it’s one of those decoy cans my nana hides jewelry in, or maybe Hazelden has an environmental policy prohibiting aerosol deodorant?
Ron shakes the can in my face. “Should I get your folks on the horn? Have them book you on the next flight home?”
“Let me guess. It never occurred to you to monkey with the nozzle and get high off the fumes?”
We lock eyes for a beat. He’s not running me out of here—I’ll leave on my own terms.
“All right, Dave. You get the benefit of the doubt, but give me one more reason and so help me God…”
Keith resumes the search and rattles off other banned household items: whipped cream, certain kinds of air conditioner cartridges, Purell. “Hand sanitizer’s the most popular alcoholic beverage in the
US prison system,” he says.
“Hmm,” I say. “I remember something in the news a while back about a politician’s wife drinking nail polish remover. Kitty Dukakis?”
“Whoa, Nelly!” Keith says, elbow-deep in my bag. He slowly tweezes my Discman and CD case out with his fingers.
Ron snickers. “Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave. If I call your folks, what’re the chances they say you knew we don’t allow music to be brought in?”
“We can’t have music?”
“That’s not what I said. Clock radios are allowed, but you wouldn’t know that because, obviously, you didn’t bother reading the list.”
“Golly, Dave. Most folks bring clock radios because most folks read the list, which clearly states that you can listen to any station you can tune on the dial, but you cannot—I repeat—cannot bring Walkmans, Discmans, record players, LPs, CDs, tapes.”
“Because it’s a trigger, Dave. Music is a trigger.”
“It’ll be easier to live without dope than without music.”
“Sorry. Them’s the rules.”
Excerpt from The Weight of Air: A Story of the Lies About Addiction and the Truth About Recovery by David Poses. Copyright © 2021 by David Poses. Reprinted by permission of Sandra Jonas Publishing.