IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Best Friend From Rehab Was A Coke-Dealing Bank Robber
"I'll have your back there, kid. I'll be there when you get there, so you make sure to come, OK?" Those were Gerry's last words to me before he left the detox ward of the Montreal hospital where we met. A taxi was waiting for him outside to take him to a government-funded rehab an hour outside of the city.
Gerry, like me, was a patient. We had spent the last four days together hanging out in the hallway of a hospital floor reserved for people who were either coming down hard or recuperating from an overdose. I was in latter group, having ended my night a few days earlier by chasing a handful of Ativan with a bottle of wine while staying the night at my parents' house. I didn’t really know the details of how I passed out, but it had apparently been dramatic enough for my mom to call an ambulance.
Most of the people in the ward had either been picked up off the street or scraped up off the floor of whatever bar or crack den that they had collapsed in, not their parents’ home like me. Gerry, however, had checked in. He confessed that he had thrown back a mickey of Jack Daniels and snorted a couple lines en route to the hospital before signing himself into detox. He was too scared to start sobering up before he had proper access to Valium.
Gerry didn't exactly want to sober up, but it was part of his bargain with the court system. He was a coke dealer by trade, and he was about to be sentenced after being caught with a substantial amount of cocaine and hash in his car. If he cleaned up and went to a government-run rehab first, the judge would likely be lighter on him. He already had a pretty serious criminal record, including having spent five years in federal prison for armed robbery. He had robbed 47 banks in his life, but those were in his glory days, he told me. My story was a bit different.
Six weeks prior, I was holding down a fairly high profile editing job at a well known website. I could remember a time, even a couple years earlier, when I actually thought I had things under control. I had always enjoyed a good party, and even though blackouts weren't exactly uncommon for me, I didn't party any harder than anyone else I knew in the magazine industry. Throw in a couple of bad breakups and a couple of stressful job transitions into the mix and I eventually found myself in a psychiatrist's office asking for something to help me cope.
"Oh no, I don't need anti-depressants," I remember saying. "I just need to sleep and to stop feeling so stressed and nervous all the time." It started with a daily prescription for Ativan, and escalated to a twice-daily prescription for benzos and a heavy-duty nightly sleeping pill.
For a while, it was like I never had to come down. If I felt the shakes setting in from drinking, I grabbed a pill or broke one in half for a light sedation. If I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was about to have a heart attack, there were pills beside my bed. I'd put one under my tongue and wait for a wave of calm to wash over me.
Sure, I was blacking out at dinner parties and never remembering at least the last hour or two of any given day, but at least I could sleep and get to work on time.
Eventually, even the Ativan stopped working and I couldn't go anywhere without a vodka drink concealed in a juice bottle to keep the shakes at bay. I felt like I was running in the middle of a hurricane, desperately trying to keep my body and mind in the eye of the storm but always running a little too fast or a little too slowly.
I don't remember overdosing. I don't know if I was trying to die or just to sleep as usual. When I woke up in the emergency room, a doctor was standing by my bed, explaining to me that if I agreed to go to the detox, I would be fast-tracked to government rehab.
Detox hurt. Even with initial doses of Valium they gave me, my pores seemed like open sores oozing toxins that soaked my hospital gown until it clung wet and cold to my skin. After about 24 hours awake in the ward, I heard a man singing "Hey, Mr. Tamborine Man, play a song for me. I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to..." in the hallway.
With nothing but my physical pain to focus on, I got out of bed.
A frail 5'8" man of about 107 pounds was singing while sauntering down the hall and snapping his fingers to his own melody. His skin was a yellowish-grey, but his eyes had a spark of deviance in them that I was drawn to. I remember joining him in his song for a minute, perhaps because I never expected those lyrics to be the soundtrack to what seemed like it had to be the biggest rock bottom moment of my life. We laughed for a second, and it was an unexpected relief to smile.
There wasn't much to do in detox. It was just one long hallway with bedrooms on either side and a kitchen and a game room at the end of the hall, though the game room was really just a TV that was generally on a local French station. My new friend Gerry and I were two of the four Anglophones in the entire ward. Since we didn't have much sway when it came to the TV, we spent the next few days together just talking.
Gerry was 50 years old, lived in a hotel and made about $1,000 a day dealing cocaine. When he was a kid, he made his money robbing banks at gunpoint and used to pay a cab driver $5,000 to be the get-away car.
“Nobody suspected a cab!” Gerry laughed hysterically. “Imagine that! $5,000 just to drive away -- but there’s no money in banks now.”
Gerry eventually got caught for robbing a grocery store and ended up in federal. He quickly figured out the internal prison structure and worked his way into “the committee,” which was made up of the inmates who ran things from the inside. Gerry was one of the guys in charge of making moonshine in the vents with the fruit the other prisoners saved from lunch. Even though his tales were dark, I loved the way he laughed and got excited remembering details. It was like nothing could kill his spirit. Even though he was about to get locked up again, he didn’t seem overwhelmed, maybe just a little annoyed.
Though his detour to detox and rehab was supposed to lighten his sentence, he had just found out from the doctors that he was suffering from serious liver problems. It was a life sentence he didn’t expect. His trip to rehab might save his life, even though he’d be spending the next year or so locked up.
We had nothing but time to kill as we waited for our respective green lights to go to rehab, and Gerry’s stories kept me from totally breaking down.
Gerry had convinced me to stop taking Valium after a few days in detox.
“You’ll get to go as soon as they know you don’t need it anymore,” he insisted. He had already stopped taking it, and so I did, too, on my third day in the ward. My nerves were on edge, but the idea of being in rehab seemed better than the purgatory we were in.
Every few hours a new patient would arrive. A prostitute who had to be deloused. An alcoholic frantically scratched at his bleeding, bald scalp because he drank so much that his head was covered in scabs. One afternoon, when Gerry and I were sitting in the hall, a man made his way to the kitchen wearing a hospital gown and just one slipper on his right foot. His left leg gave way to a fully exposed stump that he hobbled on like a pirate who had seen better days.
“Do you think he lost his foot in a lawnmower accident?” I asked Gerry.
“Are you serious, kid?” he asked me. I nodded. “Heroin addicts also get their feet amputated when they get frostbite on the streets in winter,” he said. My street smarts were clearly cultivated in a different neighborhood.
I tried to turn a blind eye whenever Gerry exchanged phone numbers with other patients in the detox ward. I knew what he was doing. It was easy in a place like that where almost all of the patients were heavy drug users, and some also traffickers, to make new connections. It wasn’t the atmosphere I was used to because my dealers were psychiatrists and bartenders.
When Gerry finally left for rehab, I got the green light a day later that I too was going on the following Monday. My parents drove me there, and I sat in the backseat of the car as my dad drove and my mom sat in the passenger seat.
I had flashbacks to my first day of school, and felt sick to my stomach about the shy and genuinely good kid I remembered being and all the hope that all parents must have for their kids before they’ve made mistakes. My mom tried to lighten the mood by saying, “We’re so proud of you,” and “It’s going to be life-changing,” but I knew a huge part of her was heartbroken.
When we pulled up front of an old convent in the Quebec countryside, I knew I was at my temporary new home, if only because Gerry was outside smoking a cigarette. When he saw my face through the car window, he waved ecstatically.
My mom exclaimed, “That’s Gerry? Wow, he’s so thin.”
No matter how well you try to describe a friend who’s robbed 47 banks, deals coke professionally and is currently suffering from liver ailments, the physical reality of that person is still shocking. In our time becoming friends in the hallway at detox, I stopped noticing how yellow his skin was, how frail his bones were and how old he looked for 50.
After my bags were searched and after I attended my first group therapy session, it was finally lunch break, which meant I could catch up with Gerry. He gave me the Cole’s Notes on the other patients. There were a few other writers, a couple white collar cases, two college students, and a few men who had drug and alcohol-related domestic violence charges, and a couple drug dealers like Gerry.
“We get assigned a chore every week. You’ll get one tomorrow, and you have to clean your room army-style in the morning, but it’s not that bad. There are a few people here who think they’re too good for it, though.” said Gerry smirking, while pointing his eyes and chin in the direction of a table of men we’d later refer to as “the suburban bros.”
When everyone was stripped of their neighborhoods, job titles, money and social scenes, it was fascinating to see who gravitated toward whom. There, in the bubble of getting well, I had the most in common with Gerry, if only because we found the same things funny.
“You’ve gotta sign up for activities, so I’m in a cribbage tournament right now,” said Gerry. “I’m gonna destroy it,” he laughed while pointing at his baseball cap, which said “Poker Championship” on it.
Our rehab was known as “Beaver House,” based on the idea that beavers rebuild their homes when they’re left with nothing. Even though rehab at times felt like a strange summer camp for grownups, we still shared our darkest moments and biggest fears with each other, in and outside of group therapy.
Counselors warned us about staying friends after treatment because only about 3 out of 20 of us would stay sober. It was hard not to want to stay in touch after we had shared so much and so much hope for each other’s futures. When Gerry finally won the cribbage tournament, he gave me his prize, a tiny beaver figurine.
“This is for you, kid,” he said, “Because you are going to get through this. You’re going to be all right.”
A few days before Gerry was supposed to graduate from rehab, he went out for a weekend, which we were allowed to do after our first two weeks there. He came back smelling of booze. He told me that he confessed to the counselors that he had thrown back two gin and tonics at a bar, but that he had actually had eight.
A patient who was a college student did a similar thing a few weeks earlier and she was allowed to stay in rehab, but she had to add an extra week on to her 28 days. With Gerry, it was different. The counselors would just let him leave on schedule. Nobody kicked him out, and nobody made him make an extra show of commitment to getting well either. They’d let him graduate for the sake of his prison sentencing. I felt like they had given up on him, or maybe they never believed in him to begin with.
I was mad at Gerry for throwing his sobriety out the window the weekend before graduating. When I first met him in detox, I knew he didn’t want to change his life, but he seemed like had come around to the idea in rehab, if only for the sake of his liver.
I told him it was like he didn’t want to succeed so he sabotaged it so he wouldn’t have to live up to anything. Gerry then said that he had stayed positive for me, but that he couldn’t change his life. He never finished high school, and all he had was a mechanics license from his first time in federal prison, and he didn’t want to make $12 an hour. He said didn’t have the same reasons to get sober that I did.
When my time at rehab was up, I didn’t feel fixed or cured, like I had hoped. I felt raw, unraveled and totally unprepared to step back into my old life. In some ways, that made sense. I wasn’t supposed to go back to my old life, but I had no idea what my new life was supposed to be like either.
At first, when I started going to AA meetings around the city, I looked around the rooms and felt envious of the people sitting near me who seemed to be so clearly dedicated to being sober, whereas I didn’t know if it was honestly what I wanted it. It took about a year before I really came around to the idea that my new lifestyle was actually something I liked better than my old one.
I started accepting the fact that I had used drugs and alcohol to kill bad feelings, but in exterminating my sorrows, I had been killing all my emotions because you can’t selectively numb. I stopped seeing drugs as an escape and more as a compromise, as an emotional pesticide: If you want to get rid of the termites, you’re going to have to kill the butterflies too. I started wanting to keep those butterflies in my life.
That was around the time I tried to call Gerry, thinking he’d be out of prison, but his phone was disconnected. I didn’t really know what we’d talk about or what we would have in common outside of the walls of detox and rehab. I just wanted him to know that I cared, and that meeting him had helped me get through the darkest part of my life, and that I hoped his liver was doing better.
One afternoon last spring, I stopped by a corner store to pick up some milk on my way home. When I made my way to the exit to leave, a man on the other side of the door opened it abruptly to enter. He stepped back, holding the door, to let me out. It was Gerry.
“Hi, hi!” I stuttered, in shock. He was even thinner than I remembered. He looked me in the eyes, but nothing registered.
“After you,” he said, and gestured for me to walk out of the store. I did, and stood there on the sidewalk expecting for him to do a double take, but he made his way into the store without hesitating. He didn’t recognize me.
I knew I looked different. My face had thinned out and had lost its puffiness. The whites of my eyes were bright. I was fit. I had dyed my hair a new color. I wasn’t in my old rehab sweat suit. I looked healthy, happy even.
For a few seconds, I waited outside. He would remember me if I just said, “It’s Vicki, from rehab.” Through the glass, I couldn’t see exactly where he had gone in the store, but I knew it was in the back where the beer fridge was. I didn’t want to know, and maybe it was better if I didn’t know, for both him and me.
I started walking home, and I didn’t look back.