We both smoked Marlboro Lights. We chain smoked them, too, talking in between drags, the cherries on the end of our cigarettes glowing like tiny meteors in the darkness.
John inhaled deeply, blew the smoke out slowly. “I have to figure it out this time,” he said, leaning his stocky Italian frame back against the picnic table. He stared out over the frozen ground from the patio just outside our housing unit. In the distance, one of Minnesota’s ten thousand ice-covered lakes was just visible in the moonlight. “I can’t do this shit no more.”
I nodded, pondered my cigarette from my seat next to him on the wooden picnic bench, bundled up in the winter jacket I’d brought with me from Chicago. Names had been carved into the table’s weathered planks—Bob L. 2001. Rich S. 2004. Adam P. 2003. I put my index finger over one of the carvings and traced it, wondered how many men had sat where I’d sat. How many of them had made it.
John and I were both patients in a rehabilitation facility about an hour outside of the Twin Cities—a sprawling campus laid out like a college and situated at the end of a rural artery known as Country Road 8. I’d been there for a few days. John, for a few more.
I took another drag and spoke while I exhaled. “I hear you, man. They say shit gets better after this, right? All that talk about some miracle happening if you stay sober long enough?”
John laughed. “Yeah, I don’t know about all that, man. This is my third time in rehab.”
“Come on, man. Seriously?” I was having a hard time picturing myself making it through one month-long stint. “You’ve done this three times?”
He shrugged. Got up, walked over to the ashtray and stubbed out his cigarette.
“Yeah.” He paused, seemed to be searching for the right words. “It’s pretty easy right up until you leave here. Once you get home your whole life is waiting for you right where you left it.” He turned to face me. “And most of the time it doesn’t give a fuck whether you’ve tried to change or not.”
Change is a tricky thing, I’ve learned, a complicated idea that’s easy to talk about, easy to imagine, but so much harder to actually implement. It occurs in different ways for different people, in different quantities, at different times—but paradoxically, in rehab, where sixteen of us men had varying degrees of the same problem, sleeping in twin beds and taking turns scrubbing toilets, we were all expected to change together, to find a common avenue to sustained sobriety in relatively the same amount of time.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that John wanted to change. Or that I did, too. We all did, I think, at least in some way. Some of us wanted to change ourselves. Some of us wanted to change our consequences. But we all dreamed of change. Of transformation. Of becoming something other than what we were before we arrived.
And before I arrived, I was a twenty-six-year-old felon with a GED whose weekend cocaine and ecstasy use had started regularly flowing into the weekdays, and John was a twenty-four-year old from Brooklyn with scars on his knuckles he’d earned from fighting. Of course, we were so much more than that, too. We had positive traits we were told by our counselors would make us just as successful in sobriety as we were in addiction. Rehab would strip us down, they said. Show us exactly what we needed to work on. For most of us what we needed to work on boiled down to simple honesty—being honest with ourselves; being honest with our families; being honest with each other.
The word rehab is short for rehabilitate, which means to restore to a former capacity. Like houses, I remember thinking. Demo the kitchen. Tear down the walls. Get on your knees and sand down the floors.
We heard stories in rehab, stories of AA founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, stories of Pat Cronin, the 1940s-era alcoholic credited with founding the first AA group in Minnesota, stories of actors like Owen Wilson who had come through the same treatment center and successfully kicked his cocaine and heroin habits. But the stories we heard from each other were the ones we remembered most, the ones that stuck with us and either inspired us or scared us. Sometimes both.
A few days into my stay, with the temperature flatlined somewhere in the mid-twenties, John and I stood on the concrete patio just outside our housing unit smoking cigarettes and shivering. The sun burned cold and yellow in the sky, and the snow that quilted the field and lake and the entire treatment center campus was on fire with brilliance. It was strange, I thought, how beautiful and serene this place was. How dissimilar it was from my life back in Chicago.
John kicked at a piece of ice frozen to the concrete. “I’m supposed to tell my story tomorrow night,” he said, his New York accent thick and sloppy. “I fucking hate that part.”
I walked to the edge of the patio and took a step into an area of untouched snow. Made a footprint with my sneaker. “What do you mean ‘tell your story’?”
John looked up at me. “You don’t know this? It’s textbook rehab shit, man. They put you in a chair in the front of the room and everyone else stares at you while you talk about how you got to be all fucked up.”
John seemed to be waiting for a reaction from me so I nodded. Tried to think about how it was that I got to be all fucked up. I’d gotten in some trouble when I was younger—a DUI, misdemeanor assault, felony eluding, drug possession—and a lot of it involved substances. I never really thought substances were the problem, though. They seemed more like a solution. A release. The way twentysomethings passed the weekend. But then I’d ruined an engagement, more or less, because I was always fucked up. My fiancé had called me on my cell phone when I was driving her car to a friend’s house. “I can’t do this anymore,” she’d said. “Do what?” I’d asked. “This. You. Us. Just leave my car at Tommy’s. I’ll pick it up at some point.” Right after that I’d walked into my friend Tommy’s and grabbed a bottle of vodka, spent the night chasing the bottom of it, thinking of all the times she’d asked me to quit drinking, to stop spending nearly every dollar I made at the bar. It didn’t seem weird either—that I would drink in that moment. It seemed normal. Like the appropriate response to the ending of an engagement. But the vodka almost always led to the pills and the cocaine and the overdrawn bank account and the pissing of the bed and the fighting in the parking lot and, eventually, to the losing of my job—a white collar job in the corporate world that a convicted felon who hadn’t finished high school was lucky to have. So lucky, in fact, that it was my boss who finally gave me the option to go to rehab. It was go to rehab or get fired. I didn’t want to get fired.
I glanced over at John. “You know what you’re going to say?”
He looked at the ground, started kicking at the ice again. “I’ll probably just say what I’ve said every other time I’ve been to rehab.”
“Which is what?”
“The story of all the fucked up things I’ve done and how I just want someone to fix me.”
John and I both told our stories in rehab, but the years since 2005 have faded them in my memory. There are small details that still flicker, though: John sitting in front of the group with his hands buried in his hoodie pocket, his eyes bouncing from his feet to the clock on the wall and back again; the rush I felt being in front of the group and talking about all the times I’d been arrested; the way John talked about his anger, about fighting, about the time he beat a man until he was limp.
John wanted to be fixed, and so did I, but neither of us knew exactly what that meant, or even what was broken. We only knew that we were in that place together, in rehab, in the bitter cold Minnesota winter in January of 2005, trying to look into the mirrors our counselors were holding up for us.
But those mirrors were hard to look in, in part because they made everything real—the fact that I was in rehab; the fact that I’d hurt people I’d loved; the fact that I was at a point where I needed to admit a truth about myself I wasn’t quite ready to admit: I had a life-crushing problem with substances.
In one meeting with my counselor, as snow fell softly outside his office window, he talked about alcoholism, a word I felt came with so much baggage. “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls alcohol ‘cunning, baffling, and powerful,’” he said. “Think of it like this: Your disease waits until you think you’ve got it under control, and then it tries to derail you, to sabotage everything you’ve worked for. Sometimes that sabotage comes in the form of anger. Sometimes that anger takes over and you feel backed into a corner. It tries to get you angry enough that you make the choice to go back to drinking or using. It wants you to fail. Does that make sense?”
It felt strange to think of addiction as something that lived outside me. But maybe that was part of it—seeing it as something that existed in the world rather than something existing entirely inside me. Maybe if I could see it, maybe if I could make it a physical thing, I could capture it—and then lock it away.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess I sort of get it. The anger, I mean. I’ve felt like that before.” I paused. “I sort of feel like that right now.” I glanced at the diploma hanging on the wall behind his desk and imagined shattering it, putting my fist right through its glass.
My counselor’s eyes searched my face and I refused to meet them. “Do you think John belongs here?” he said.
I glanced up. “John?”
“Yeah, John. You heard his story the other night. You heard him talk about his anger. Does he belong here?”
I looked away, glanced at the window. I didn’t want to answer his question. I wanted to open the window and jump out of it. Run until I was in a new place with none of my old problems. A place where I could drink and snort and smoke whatever I wanted without my entire world falling apart.
I looked back over at my counselor, then brought my hands to my face and rubbed my eyes. It felt like no matter what answer I gave it would condemn me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think he belongs here.” My words felt like a betrayal.
My counselor nodded. “So do you belong here?”
I sighed. “Does it really fucking matter what I think?”
Instead of answering he picked up the AA Big Book that was sitting on his desk and flipped through it until he found what he was looking for.
“Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” He closed the book and set it on his lap. “It all starts with the admission, Tim. You need to come to grips with the fact that there can be power in failure. There’s power in knowing what you’re not good at. You, me, the rest of those guys out there—John included— we’re not good at managing our lives when we’re drinking or using. So, yeah, it matters what you think. I’m going to ask you again. Do you belong here?”
I squeezed my hands into tight fists, held them until my knuckles were white. I thought about John using his fists to beat a man unconscious. To hand out his judgment. Words were judgments. An admission would make it real. I looked at the carpeting, then sentenced myself aloud for the very first time.
“Yeah,” I said. “I belong here.”
Although we weren’t roommates, we were nearly inseparable, and the bond between John and I formed quickly, and in a way that I’d only experienced one other time in my life—when I’d been incarcerated. High on Vicodin pills and vodka after yet another fight with my girlfriend, I’d borrowed a car from a friend and drove through the neighborhood with Tupac screaming through the speakers until red and blue lights flashed in the rearview. I pulled over and the officer told me shut the engine off, and so I did, but then I thought about how my driver’s license was already suspended and how fucked up I was and how I didn’t want to deal with what was coming—the consequences and the arrest and the freedom I knew I’d be giving up. So instead of getting out of the car, I stayed in the driver’s seat and started the engine and floored it, left a hyphen of rubber on the pavement. I then tried to take a corner too fast and crashed the car into a concrete pole, ran down the street until I was pinned to the ground with a police officer’s knee digging in my spine.
Later, locked up in a county jail, I became friends with two inmates who were serving much more time than me, and it seemed impossible that we’d only known each other for a few days, that the conversations we’d had were limited to the time we were in jail together. It seemed as if we’d always been friends, that we’d be friends long after I left.
Perhaps it was the intensity of both of those situations, rehab and jail, the way it felt like the whole world hinged on what was happening inside those isolated, controlled environments. And perhaps that intensity amplified what I felt, somehow branded those friendships with a significance that wasn’t really there.
In the short time I’d known John, however, I think it’s truthful to say that we’d become as close as brothers. We’d mined so much emotional territory by the second week of rehab that I felt fiercely loyal to him, and every single day in rehab I’d thought to myself: at least we’re in this thing together.
On most nights inside the walls of the place that was supposed to fix us, after all the meetings and therapy sessions and crying and apologizing were done for the day, we’d meet in John’s room to play cards. I’d wet a bathroom towel, roll it up, and jam it underneath the door to keep the smoke from leaking out into the hallway, and then we’d light one cigarette from another until the room was filled with a smoky haze that reminded me of the bars I’d hung out in back in Chicago. The small clock radio that sat on the bedside table would be tuned to a Minneapolis hip hop station and we’d nod our heads with the beat, taking comfort in the fact that in these moments, far from our homes and our families and our mistakes, we were the safest we might ever be.
One night I sat on the edge of John’s twin bed and ashed into a plastic cup filled with water.
“What’s it like?”
John was standing by the sliding glass door, looking out into the cold Midwestern landscape. “What’s what like?”
“Sobriety. Being back in the real world.”
“Hard,” he said, his gaze never leaving darkness.
John completed his third stint in rehab a few days before I finished my first one, heading back to his life in New York, nervous but excited to re-enter the world. Soon, it would be time for me to head back to Chicago. John had written his number on the inside over of my Big Book. “If you ever want a real slice of pizza,” it read, “give me a call.”
When I got back to Chicago, I had to find a way to exist on the periphery of my old life while trying to wrap my mind around my new one. I saw the world in an unfamiliar way—with clarity at first, but also with confusion, with trepidation. I also felt a new level of fear that I wasn’t accustomed to. There was so much to lose now it seemed.
I had been taught in rehab to measure my sobriety in days, or even minutes when life felt overwhelming, and so I’d done that, and the thought of losing the days and minutes that I’d accumulated and having to start over felt ominous. Toward the end of my stay in rehab I had realized, at least in part, that I might actually want to be sober. That maybe sobriety would be an okay thing for me. I wasn’t yet convinced, of course—that convincing took many months—but I was willing to entertain the option of sobriety. Willing, at least, to give it a real effort.
John and I spoke on the phone in the months immediately after we left Minnesota and it was good to have a connection back to the rooms inside rehab, good to know that somewhere in New York City there was a man I felt a connection to going through the same thing I was. We were hundreds of miles apart but we were still in it together, still walking the path we had started down in rehab.
About ninety days into sobriety, I was sitting in a coffee shop off Michigan Avenue, just across the street from Millennium Park, and I thought about John, about the time we spent together. The sidewalk was crowed and it was early May and Chicago was finally waking up for spring. Although it had only been three months since I’d left, the Minnesota snow seemed so far away, so long ago.
I dialed John’s number and he answered the phone quickly.
“Hey, brother,” I said.
“I relapsed,” he said.
And I think I spoke—I must have said something. But the moment came and went so quickly. It felt big, though. Massive. Or perhaps significant is a truer word. Or perhaps what I really mean to say is that I felt betrayed and sad and jealous and angry and fearful, and maybe what I felt even more than all of those things, was a loneliness that settled down on me like a sunset.
So much of the rhetoric surrounding recovery revolves around being with people, around finding your tribe and not going it alone, around connection. And while I know there’s value in that, what I absolutely know now—more than eleven years into sobriety—is that it was that loneliness that saved me, that feeling of being companionless, of having to embrace this new, scary, incredibly important thing on my own.
I know now that there’s a difference between loneliness and isolation, that one leads to recovery and one leads to relapse, and I know now that there’s a difference between retreating from something uncomfortable and choosing to accept just how uncomfortable that something is. But in that moment as I stood there in that coffee shop off Michigan Avenue, alone in a city filled with people, I knew only the pain that I felt, the way John’s admission pierced me like the barbed end of a fishing lure.
John and I finished our conversation that day and when I hung up the phone, I knew the bond between us had been permanently altered—what felt then like far too steep a price to pay for sobriety, but what feels now like a necessary sacrifice. In the years that would come I would learn that recovery, that sobriety, was only possible through sacrifice, and that the sacrifices that gave me the most in return were the ones that I never stopped feeling.
“The only thing that has to change is everything,” my rehab counselor told me once, a sentence that I first heard as a colloquialism, but now see was an instruction. Because if everything doesn’t change, then maybe nothing does. And maybe none of it would matter then, not the cigarettes we smoked or the bond we formed, the stories we told or the tears we cried, the way the ice cracked beneath our feet as we stood on that concrete patio, the Minnesota sun burning in a corner of a cloudless sky.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.