When discussing addiction and recovery, a phrase I commonly hear is that someone went to “detox,” presumably short for “detoxification.” This is not “treatment.” Detox is a short term medical facility set up to help people get through the initial 3-10 day withdrawal from addictive drugs. Withdrawal from certain drugs, including alcohol, can result in death if not handled properly. There are various drugs to help the body “step down” from the heavy dependence without going into seizures, delirium tremens (“DT’s”) or other serious conditions. Locally there are several facilities dedicated specifically to this mission. Curious about what they are like, I was able to go into one with a man from a local 12-step recovery program.
At 65 years old and with four years sober, Todd has been visiting the same detox facility for three years. “I always just figured I was going to die one day with a drink in one hand and a joint in the other” says Todd. “But a little over four years ago I got two DUI’s, and my attorney strongly suggested that I attend an educational outpatient program for people with substance abuse problems. The program was for 8 weeks, so I figured I would give my body a break by taking a short sabbatical away from the drugs and alcohol.”
“My using started early. I was a military brat, moving to a new location every couple of years. I never felt I fit in anywhere, and by age eight I would empty the glasses left behind by the adults when my dad would host parties. I liked the effect of the alcohol- it got “me out of me” for a little while. In my teens Dad was stationed in Panama where all manner of drugs flowed freely. It continued on through adulthood, and I just figured that I was one of those that couldn’t do without it.”
“The outpatient program required that I attend 12-step meetings. I went to the meetings and listened, and to my surprise it didn’t take too long for me to realize that I was an alcoholic. I listened to person after person share things that I thought were unique to me. Once I arrived at that realization, I had to have some way to go about tackling the problem. So I decided to follow all the suggestions of the program.”
“I got a mentor as the 12-step program suggested, and one of the first things he told me was that if I didn’t have a purpose I wouldn’t stay sober long. He started me out making coffee and setting up for meetings. Before long I started going with people who took meetings to a VA facility, and I got so much out of that I started tagging along with others that visited this detox.”
We arrive at the facility, and after signing confidentiality agreements we head to the detox ward and are soon locked in with the patients. Todd gathers up those that will attend the meeting in a room with chairs arranged in a big circle. He starts the meeting with the Serenity Prayer, then tells the dozen or so patients a bit about himself, his addiction and his recovery. He talks about how the disease of addiction controls one mentally, physically and spiritually. Left with no defense, on must have help to stay sober.
After this brief introduction, Todd says: “If nothing changes, nothing changes. If you leave here and go back to doing the same things, you are going to get the same results and worse. What I would like to hear from each of you is what you are going to do differently when you leave here?” He then went around the room for each person to share.
First was Joe, 60 or so years old, who had been committed against his will by the local police. His wife left him a few months ago, and he has been sitting alone at home drinking. He claims he was cleaning his pistol one night and it accidentally went off, putting a hole in his wall. Shortly after his brother called and inquired how he was doing. He told his brother about the accidental firing of the gun and while his brother kept him on the line he also called 911. The police arrived and took Joe to the detox. As far as what he will do different, Joe isn’t planning on calling his brother anymore, but he might try to go to a 12-step meeting at some vague date in the future.
Then there is Marty – a mountain of a man who used to be a premier professional athlete. For the last 15 years he has been in and out of detox and treatment facilities. His pattern has been to get two or three months clean, then after his retirement money builds back up he gets out and goes on another binge. He stopped counting after his 20th detox at this same facility. His daughter died of a heroin overdose last spring, and he is upset he was on a binge when it happened. This time he is going to a rehab in Tennessee that he hopes will work.
Next are a couple of young military guys, who are attentive enough but it seems they just want to figure out what they need to say to get out of trouble with the military. Then Cheryl in her 30’s shares that she went to a recovery meeting but it didn’t work. She says she just needs to get her car, her apartment and her job back and everything will be OK. Karen bursts into tears on cue and says that her husband and daughter died in a car accident 12 years ago and that is why she is doing heroin and drinking vodka. She carries on for a while before Todd gently asks her if this is what she thinks her husband and daughter would have wanted for her. She wails that they wouldn’t want this but she doesn’t know what to do different. Todd makes a suggestion of long-term rehab and promises to leave information at the desk on one that might let her in with no money or insurance.
And so it goes as Todd works his way around the room – each person with their own story and their own level of defiance at “the system.” Todd interacts with each of them, sharing stories of others who overcame similar obstacles and now have years sober, sharing about what his sobriety has meant to him and suggestions for various local meetings, sober living arrangements and treatment centers that might be useful. He wraps up the meeting and we head out, delayed briefly by Joe’s antics. When caught, Joe starts complaining that someone keeps stealing his socks and underwear.
“What keeps you going at this?” I ask. “I stay sober.” Todd replies simply. “I go into the local jail, and soon will be going into the prisons as well. In this environment of detox, in a crowd of 10 or 12 only one or two might pay attention. I just hope that I have said something meaningful to one of them. When I see one of them actually show up at a 12-step meeting I am ecstatic. I do everything I can to help them.”
“But the prisoners and VA people are different. They look forward to regular meetings and are deeply disappointed if one gets missed. They ask questions and are actively engaged. I think the detox environment is tougher for a couple of reasons. Some of the people have been brought there against their will and are upset that their binge was interrupted. Many are on heavy drugs to help them safely detox, so they are somewhat hazy and confused. But whether it seems I helped someone or not, I always leave better than I arrived.”
“All my life I have been self centered and lacked sincerity. I was cunning and manipulative to get what I wanted and truly didn’t care about anything but myself. And the people that bore the brunt of that were those closest to me – my wife, children and grandchildren. Today all of that has changed; all of my relationships are vastly improved. Today I have a life worth living.”
I am told that a similar scene plays out in numerous detoxes in our town, and in every town across this country every day of the year. I am overwhelmed at how deeply the roots of addiction run in our society, but am also grateful for the Todd’s that help those that are willing to do the work necessary to change.