Author’s note: this piece has been modified since its original publication on February 16, 2019, to improve its accuracy and preserve events exactly as they happened.
The weird thing about rehab is that your first day in rehab is also somebody’s last.
I’ll never forget my first inpatient stay, at Lakeside-Milam in Kirkland in 1999. I was escorted there by my parents, under the guise that we were just going to “check things out.” But, when you’re a raging drug addict with track marks covering your arms, there is no such thing as stopping by rehab to “check things out.” Once you set foot inside rehab, rehab swallows you whole.
I didn’t even bring any clothes. My parents had to pack my things and drop them off for me later.
It was early in the day, and I went outside to the smoking area to clear my head and attempt to comprehend what was happening to me. A crowd of patients had gathered out there to say goodbye to a guy who was getting ready to leave. I don’t remember what kind of car he drove, but it was a sporty little thing, low to the ground, and I think it was white.
He jumped in the driver’s seat and pressed down hard on the gas pedal.
His window was open as he sped off, and all I could hear were those jagged guitar riffs that mark the beginning of that Korn song. He raced away leaving behind echoes of “Are you readyyyyyyyyyyyyyy……”
I’ll never forget it.
I don’t think I’ve ever wished to be someone else as profoundly as I did right then. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be done with whatever was going to happen to me for the next 28 days.
My most recent rehab experience was at Sundown Ranch in the summer of 2012. At Sundown, you get to ring a bell right before you leave – it’s tradition. It’s an old iron farm bell, situated outside in a tiny pavilion. I don’t know of its origins. I didn’t arrive early enough to hear it on my first day, but that distinctive clanging rang out clear and loud on day two.
I felt the same intense longing as I’d felt in 1999 – I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be done. I wanted to fast-forward through the next three weeks and be done.
Somebody’s first day is also somebody’s last. It’s disconcerting as hell, but it’s the rehab way.
Sundown was different than any other rehab I’d ever been to. First of all, it’s in Eastern Washington, near Selah, the furthest from home I’d ever ventured for rehab. Its distance from home was one of the main reasons I chose it. I did not want the ability to walk off the grounds and be in familiar territory, and I didn’t want to be close to any of my sources. I know myself too well.
Recruiting my sources to serve as drug-mules is one of my favorite rehab pastimes.
I deliberately had my boyfriend drop me off so that my car wouldn’t be in the parking lot. I sensed pretty strongly that I needed to be stranded there or I might not stay.
It was the most affordable, and it was the only rehab facility I’d ever heard of that offered a 21-day program. Inpatient rehabilitation programs are typically 28 days, and sometimes even longer. One of my prior attempts at rehab was at a place called Pioneer Center North, and I stayed there for a total of 60 days. This time, I didn’t want to go for one day, much less 28, so 21 days seemed like a workable compromise.
There were other differences too.
First of all, nobody searched my purse when I got there, and, even weirder, they didn’t take it away from me. I’d never been allowed to keep my purse in rehab before. It was a great feeling – especially because I had nicotine gum in there, which I technically wasn’t supposed to have. They told me I could bring patches, but no gum. I’d assumed my purse would be placed in storage for the duration of my stay, so I didn’t even worry about what was in it.
It meant that right away I was breaking a rule, which was oddly comforting.
They took my phone, which is standard, but I was able to keep my iPod, also standard. My room had a small safe in it, so that any items of value I was permitted to keep with me could be safely stowed away.
The rooms were another difference.
I didn’t exactly have a “roommate” the way I’d had in other rehabs. My room was connected to another room, with a shared bathroom in between. Granted, there was minimal privacy – my “roommate” and I both entered the room from the same main doorway, and that part was very open.
But we weren’t really “roomies.”
She had her side and I had my side, and each side had its very own sliding glass door. Outside each sliding glass door was a porch. My porch. I didn’t have to share my porch with anyone; it was my sliding glass door, and it opened onto my porch. Beyond the porch there was a shared expanse of green grass, and beyond that was another building with more rooms, sliding glass doors and porches.
It was dry and hot at Sundown. I arrived on Sunday, July 1, in the midst of what felt like the summer’s fiercest heat. The heat was relentless. It was almost always sunny and dry, except on the odd occasions when crazy rain storms would kick up, which were unlike the normal rain storms we have here in Seattle. At Sundown, these sudden, violent little storms brought a deluge of water that hopped up and down frantically, as bolts of lightning shot from the sky like missiles.
The storms came out of nowhere, usually at night, galvanizing the air and the earth. They’d douse you in a cloak of water if you happened to be outside when one struck. And then they were over – typically within about 30 minutes or so.
Our patch of grass would become a lake. In the morning you had to watch where you stepped, or risk soaking your shoes straight through to your socks.
But other than that, it was sunny, hot and dry. It was perfect for porch time.
We had the best porch time there.
Every day after groups, classes, didactics and other sessions, we’d head back to our rooms to capture a few moments for ourselves. One by one we’d open our sliding glass doors, emerge from our rooms and come out to our porches to sit and smoke, or we’d lay in the sunny grass and smoke and listen to music. Normally, that was me – or at least it was for my first week or so – until I quit smoking.
After that, I’d just lay in the grass and listen to music.
Sometimes we’d mingle on each other’s porches; small groups of us soaking in the lazy heat and enjoying the break from therapy. Trying to forget the unending feelings of fear, desperation, uncertainty and doubt that we all shared. Trying to feel a little bit normal, to see if we had any of that left in us.
I was out there one day on a girl named Alison’s porch. There were three of us, and we were all in the same group – a specialty group called the Relapse Prevention Group. At Sundown we were encouraged to spend time with our group-members outside of group sessions, particularly in my group, which was specifically aimed at addicts who had achieved long-term sobriety at one point and then “relapsed.”
That’s what they call it when you are sober for a while and then use again. It’s a “relapse.” I have issues with the disease concept, so I struggle with that word a little bit.
The Relapse Prevention Group was the only co-ed group, and as such, we were the only males and females at Sundown allowed to interact.
That was another difference – the way Sundown handled the whole fraternization issue. Girls and guys simply weren’t allowed to speak. Ever. No matter what. It was a weird, albeit effective, approach to avoiding the ersatz relationships that tend to flounder in rehab.
Alison had small speakers that she could hook to her iPod, so I was at her mercy when it came to the playlist. If it was up to me, we’d have been listening to Witchburn, Ten Miles Wide (which was still the Mothership back then), or Late September Dogs. I listened to those three bands constantly at Sundown.
But it was Alison’s porch and Alison’s speakers, so we listened to a Rihanna song called “Man Down.” I was mesmerized by it. It was smooth and rhythmic with distinctive reggae undertones, and it blended with the heat perfectly. Not my normal kind of music but it was perfect for Sundown.
“Oh mama, mama, mama, I just shot a man down… “
It was long and slow, exactly like rehab.
Rehab is one of the few places on earth where time slows down. And as much as I wanted to race to the end and be done, I loved that porch time. I loved that separation from the real world. As much as it hurt to be away from those I loved, there were many moments that I treasured. The moments when the sick dread I felt every time I imagined my relationship ending faded into the heat and the grass and the dry desert air, and the words from whatever song was playing would drown out the remnants.
Especially that Rihanna song.
“Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum… Man down”
I knew my relationship was doomed. I think I knew it from the very beginning. I hated facing it. I knew once I got out, it was coming. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was inevitable.
I always fail at relationships.
And yet still a part of me still wanted to race to the end and be done. To be done with rehab. To be on to the next thing. Whatever that was going to be.
Back in the early 1990s I worked for an aerospace company in Woodinville, and we had an on-site Boeing buyer named Dick Calkins. I was in my early 20s then, so I literally lived for Fridays. Every week, I started wishing it was Friday even earlier than the week before. Every time he heard my “I can’t wait until Friday” chant, he’d tell me, “Chris, you’re wishing your life away.”
I think about that all the time.
I’ve wished so much of my life away. Each time I’ve gone to rehab, each time I’ve been incarcerated, each time I’ve been on probation, each time I’ve detoxed… I even do it now – as I accumulate sobriety. All I want to do is get there, to the next big landmark. I don’t know what I’m going to do once I get there, I just want to get there. I can’t wait. I want it now.
I do it every time I face a challenge.
I want to be on the other side of it, so I can say, “that’s done. I did that.”
This year, I’ve got two big milestones, and I’m counting the seconds until I get to each. As much as the speed of time terrifies me, I can’t wait. I want to race to the end and be done. The first one is right around the corner – if I can make it through the month of April, I will have surpassed my longest-ever stretch of sobriety, which extended from 2004 to 2011.
Then, on June 26, I’ll have seven years. Seven years of clean time – the most clean time I’ve ever had in my years of addiction. I just want to get there. To be done. I can’t wait. I want it now.
I need to see what happens next because something has to happen next. This can’t be it.
Sobriety is tenuous. It’s kind of like rehab… Any new day of sobriety, whether day one or day 942, is also somebody’s last. As I wake up in the morning, one day closer to seven years, somebody somewhere is sticking a needle in their arm or swallowing a handful of oblivion or sucking on the end of a glass pipe. It’s the nature of addiction. We don’t all make it. Some of us will die.
Photos of Sundown Ranch courtesy of Sundown Ranch website