It Happened To Me: I Went To Boot-Camp Rehab

Cleaning toilets and hanging with convicts is the best way to sober up for good.

Feb 1, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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I like to pretend that I chose to go to a boot-camp rehab because they have better success rates than fancy spa-style rehabs. The truth is, I couldn’t afford the types of rehab centers where Hollywood stars go when they have to prove that they’re not a liability to the likes of Harvey Weinstein. 

In fact, I couldn’t afford rehab at all when I needed to go last year for prescription benzo and alcohol dependency. Every glamorous rehab I called with my sob story about being an alcoholic writer with no money still insisted that I would need to pay the entire amount of my rehabilitation upfront, and most of them were asking an average of $1,000 a day. I had clearly put the cart before the horse by getting messed up before becoming famous.

My only option was government-funded rehab. Almost all state-run institutions have a boot-camp-style approach, in part because psychiatrists believe it works, and in part because it saves the government from having to hire janitors when the patients clean the toilets and wash the dishes themselves.

I had to get off benzos and alcohol safely in the hospital at a detox ward before going to rehab, since you’re not allowed to show up to government-funded centers as a hot mess, unlike many fancy places I’ve read about where celebs can check themselves in right after or even during a serious bender. 

I made a friend in detox who was going to the same rehab as me – a 50-year-old cocaine and alcohol-addicted drug dealer who had robbed 47 banks in his lifetime. He confided in me that he was only really going to rehab with the intention of lightening his upcoming court sentencing for having been caught with a ton of cocaine and hash in his car. That, and his liver was on the verge of failing.

As it turned out, my rehab was somewhere in the middle of “prison” and “army.” My parents dropped me off at a converted convent, complete with a nuns’ graveyard, just outside of a town of about 500 people. I could tell from the expressions on their faces when they let me out of the car and were told by a councillor that they couldn’t come inside that they were terrified for me, especially when my bank-robbing, liver-failing, coke-dealing friend, who happened to be outside smoking a cigarette when we pulled up, ran over to give me a hug.

“Don’t worry,” he assured my parents, “The food is good, and the people are nice. I’ll look out for her.”

“Thank you, thank you,” my parents said, polite people that they are. “Vicki has told us so many nice things about you.” That was true, I had. But they seemed less enthusiastic about the idea of me already having a friend in rehab when the image of my federal prison record-holding friend became a frail, 105-pound-man reality. 

I put my best fake smile on as I waved good-bye to them, knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed to call them for the first six days of my stay.

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A counselor showed me to my room, which was about the size of your average single-person prison cell with fake wood walls, a sink with a small mirror above it, two bookshelves protruding from the wall, a single closet, and a single bed, complete with a plastic-covered mattress and plastic-covered pillow (for bedbug prevention. Oh God!). 

“Pretend you’re just at camp,” I told myself, trying to bring a vibe of happiness to the barren room, while the counselor unrolled my socks and smelt my shampoo looking for hidden drugs and alcohol. Not even the cleanest, newest pairs of underwear could have made that moment less uncomfortable, but there I was.

The motley crew of my fellow rehab patients -- six other women and 13 men --  was composed of a handful of other writers, a few white-collar closet alcoholics who had tried and failed at costly rehab centers, a few blue-collar men trying to redeem themselves from their drug and alcohol-related domestic violence charges, and about three people who openly admitted to making a living dealing drugs. Our addictions ranged from alcohol and prescription pills to meth, crack, cocaine, and gambling… even Red Bull.

Any rehab can make you a worse junkie than you already are, if you’re not honestly there to get well. Drug dealers make new connections and methheads hear about new labs from fellow junkies where they can score a better high. Even alcoholics and prescription pill addicts aren’t safe from learning new tricks. One guy told me how he forged his prescriptions, what doctors in the city just give prescriptions away, how he also bought pills online, and how he managed to make his eyes and face look normal after a serious night of drinking. 

Fortunately, I was there with the intent of getting better and -- despite keeping a journal of everyone’s weird tales and tricks -- I had no intention using them to fuck up my life, as well as the lives of those who loved me most, any more than I already had. 

That didn’t mean I didn’t crave alcohol and pills every day. With two years of benzo abuse under my belt and about eight years of serious drinking, I didn’t know what my life as I knew it was going to become when my 28 days in rehab were over. “What do normal people do with their free time?” I couldn’t help but think.

And that’s where boot-camp rehab comes in. So-called normal people have commitments, and by “commitments,” I don’t mean manicure appointments. They have to clean up after themselves and go to jobs they don’t always love, and that’s exactly what they made us do.

A nurse woke us up every morning at 6:45am, when we had to have our rooms perfectly clean (beds made army-style, sinks cleaned, shelves and floors dusted, garbages emptied, etc) before having our heads counted by the councillor on duty in the line for breakfast at 7:30. 

If you were ever late, not only did you receive a thorough talking-to, there was also the threat of getting kicked out of rehab for not following the rules (and they did kick people out), the same way you’d lose most jobs if you came and went as you pleased and didn’t do what was asked of you. Household chores started at 8am, and chore inspection took place at 8:45. 

Sure, cleaning a toilet and a shower that six other women have all used in the last 24 hours isn’t exactly the most fun way to kick-start your day, but there’s something powerfully humbling about taking pride in a perfectly scrubbed toilet bowl, especially when it receives a glowing review, like “excellent” or “great job” from the councillor on duty. 

If your assigned chore didn’t pass the counselor ’s inspection, you were simply asked to redo whatever the councillor deemed wrong with it -- from “hair in the sink” to “needs to be completely redone” -- before group therapy began at 10:30am. A lot of addicts have issues with taking criticism, and part of the inspection process is meant to reinforce the idea that, in life, you have to accept good and bad reviews of your work, no matter how adequate a job you think you’ve done.

For every odd moment where I wished I was detoxing in a massage bed beside Lindsay Lohan under palm trees or hanging out poolside sipping smoothies with Charlie Sheen, group therapy at my boot-camp rehab made me realize that, despite how incredibly entertaining A-list stars tales of overdosing might be, I could actually learn a lot more from so-called “average people.”

We all had reasons we put forth to the group to explain how or why we ended up becoming addicts. Some women told tales of childhood sexual abuse, some men had only ever known a life of crime, and some of us said we broke under the pressures of stressful work environments. Underneath all of our stories, though, was a desire to just shut off, to take our own pain away, no matter how momentary that escape could be.

Even patients like my bank-robbing drug dealer friend who initially came to rehab to lighten his court sentence couldn’t help but tell the tales of his struggles honestly. I knew that when he left rehab, he would still return to a life of crime. But when he talked about how he was bullied in high school before dropping out and robbing his first bank, it was impossible not to love him and have hope for him.

A good rehab center has a 3 out of 20 success rate. For a few months after I finished, I ran into about 8 people from rehab at various AA and CA meetings around the city. Now, almost 9 months later, I barely run into anyone.

I don’t know if that means anything, or who out of the group of people I met will stay dedicated to sobriety. I’m actually happy I don’t. For me, they all exist in a 28-day chapter of my life, where we all did chores together and shared the most intimate details of our lives with one another; where we had no massage parlor to ease the pain, just our own brutal honesty.

Besides, how could I ever pick just two out of that group of people to come with me? If only 3 out of 20 make it, then one of them has to be me. Every night before I go to sleep, I have a passing thought, or maybe it’s a wish, that all of the people I met there feel the exact same way, and that maybe we are an exception to the 3 out of 20 statistic. Then I close my eyes and get ready for a brand new day.