I wrote She’s Always There in July of 2018 after checking myself into a behavioral health facility in Lewiston, Maine. I’ve found that most writers have their demons, though the manner in which they visit their hosts tends to vary. In my case, 2018 was one of the worst years of my life. I struggled to maintain a relationship that just wasn’t going to work no matter what either of us did, I began to lose all faith in myself as a writer, and I had a baby girl on the way that fall. All of this pressure, stress, and self-hatred culminated in a week-long bender (not my first during this period) where I don’t remember seeing the light of day with the exception of trips to the liquor store. When I sobered up I immediately checked myself into the hospital and was admitted to their substance abuse unit.
I wish I could say that my struggles with alcohol ended when I was released from the BHU in early July, but they did not. My life was still largely a shambles. It wasn’t until October when my baby girl Evy was born and I had started writing novels again that I realized my life needed some upending. My ex and I reconciled and moved back in together, hoping we could make it work for the baby’s sake, but that story is old and tired and always ends the same. I moved in with my grandmother just after Thanksgiving and began to hit the bottle again hard. I was self-medicating as so many tend to call it. My word for it is hiding.
On January 3rd, 2019 I put the bottle down for good. At the time of this writing I am exactly 110 days sober. I have found my love for myself again, and I have started writing like my life depends upon it. In a way I suppose it does, as time and again the only thing that has kept me from going to the darkest of dark places is my creative work. Today I enjoy a healthy relationship with both my daughter and my ex, something I owe largely to myself since very few people were urging me to correct my behavior. In the end I was simply so disgusted with myself that I finally realized that I am simply better without booze.
She’s Always There is a three part story broken into two timelines, “Now” and “Then.” “Now” depicts the experiences of main protagonist, Aaron, locked inside a behavioral health unit, while “Then” runs through his experience detoxing and waiting outside the unit to be admitted. Trust me, the jumping back and forth makes sense in the end. Though this is a work of fiction, the best writers will tell you to write what you know, and this is nothing short of that. I’ve been in Aaron’s shoes three times. I don’t plan to ever be in them again.
She’s Always There
The first day is always the hardest. For me, historically speaking, it involves a lot of sleep and as much hiding as possible. Hiding in the less-frequented common rooms, hiding in the bathroom I share with a stranger I’ve just met, and my personal go-to: hiding in bed under as many blankets as I can scrounge up from carts parked within red boxes painted upon the hallway floors.
Yes, I hide, but that’s why I’m here isn’t it? I’m hiding from my life. I’m hiding from people who love and care about me. And I’m hiding from the bottle.
Admissions is always frustrating to say the very least. Waiting in the transfer room, sobering up and trying not to engage with any of the others there. It’s always the same: a sterile room with couches and recliners and at least two or three other people. Most of them are sleeping off their poison. They keep to themselves, passed out or pretending to be passed out. But there is always, without fail, another person. It’s always a woman, and to those who are here for the first time, she is the single greatest hurdle that they must overcome on their way to helping themselves.
This is my third time. This time I gave it all up in a days-long binge of rum straight from the bottle and double IPAs to chase. Sitting in the admissions room, I try to sleep, but no matter how tightly I curl up against the world in my recliner, I’m unable to keep my brain from plowing through my numerous recent mistakes like a drunk driver through a crowd of people.
How appropriate an analogy.
I lay there with my legs pulled so tightly to my chest that my breathing is made shallow and difficult. My ever-present anxiety is like a fissure tearing through my chest, and it doesn’t help. A curtain in my mind is drawn on the muddled reproduction of the last few days. I see myself waking on the floor of the hotel room where I’d been staying since Kay kicked me out, searching for my cell and snatching it up from a semi-circle of beer bottles which have stood sentinel over me as I slept.
I’ve texted my mother again, blaming her for my problems. I’ve texted Kay again, accusing her of not loving me enough. I’m alone. I’ve alienated everyone who loves me because I can’t control myself—
“Hellllp!” A woman’s frantic, muffled voice chases an almost ethereal silence from the room.
I shudder in my recliner, eyes darting to one of the closed isolation rooms as ringed fingers knock at first gently upon the door window. That delicate sound of metal on glass doesn’t last long. Her hands ball up quickly and she begins to pound, shouting maniacally for someone to let her out. She isn’t pleading. These are demands. She doesn’t belong her.
I wonder if she even comprehends the situation, a mystery to the rest of us, that delivered her here.
Sighing loudly, I rub at my throbbing head. My blurred vision comes into focus on a girl seated alone across the glossy tiled floor. Her gaze is fixed on the isolation room and the faceless woman inside who is nothing more than a creature hailing from some walk of life outside of our understanding. To fully comprehend such naked madness would involve going down the rabbit hole herself, and I have no doubt that this girl, like me, sees this screeching woman as more of a cautionary tale than anything else, a testament to the very real truth that most of us fail to consider when struggling to find footing in the muck of rock bottom: things could be worse.
The girl across from me is a first-timer, I can tell. Her face is white as the skin of a waterlogged corpse, just as mine had no doubt been the first time I’d landed in a place like this. She looks barely twenty, dark hair down to her abdomen, straight and perfect. She’s thin. Her limbs look like twigs wrapped in a thin layer of purple-splotched flesh. I’ll probably get to know her on the inside. I’m always quite the social butterfly. That is, after the first day.
The first day is always the hardest.
My girlfriend Kay always says that no matter how bad things are, they will always get better. Tell that to anyone on their first day inside a behavioral health unit. Tell that to anyone suddenly dead to rights and locked up for their own safety, forbidden to leave until daily evaluations yield the results that tending doctors are looking to see. Still, I try to find some solace in her words even though it’s difficult to heed the advice of someone who actively hates you.
I made sure this time to bring books with me, some solid forward thinking on my part though I won’t volunteer the information that I’d been hammered drunk when I bought them. I’d driven drunk as well, both to the bookstore and then to Babylon Hospital in Twisted Oak, Maine where I’d blown a .22 before they led me into the waiting area. That feels like ages ago as I sit in the so-called “Tranquility Room” of the BHU, reading Stephen King as my body is blissfully devoured by one of the surprisingly comfortable easy chairs. I try not to consider decisions about my life that are at this very moment being made for me by others outside these walls. My mother and siblings have no doubt been very busy texting between themselves. I’m a paranoid man, so I can’t avoid the anger that comes with feeling so helpless.
A man my age with a thin, chinstrap beard and toasted almost skin saunters slowly through the door and into the room, his blue pajama pants swishing. Through my peripherals I can see him eying me like a crow sizing up a mess of roadkill from a power line.
I know his type. He’s a chatter. I don’t need chatters right now. As far as I’m currently concerned, I won’t ever need a chatter, but a part of me knows that this could change as early as tomorrow. For now I need to hide from my demons.
Like a coward.
My attention doesn’t linger long on the girl with the straight hair, and eventually the woman in isolation has calmed down and presumably passed out. But, as I know from previous stays at the Headshrink Hotel, she won’t stay quiet for long.
This part of the admissions process is the worst. It’s tedious. Like Limbo or Purgatory, we’re all just sitting here waiting for someone to decide when we can move on. The drone of the television is like white nose for the demented. Above me the light of day slowly diminishes, succumbing to darkness in the window of a skylight. That darkness has fallen upon a world that is, at least temporarily, no longer my own. It is where the woman I love struggles to rationalize my behavior and my siblings scramble to find a place for me to live once I’m out. It is a world that I have voluntarily left behind while the woman locked in the isolation room has no doubt been forcibly removed. Things could be worse for me, but there is no rationale to be mined from the depth of such thoughts right now. That may or may not come later.
I doze for a moment before snapping awake at the sight of a scraggly man standing looking at me. His beard is long and unkempt. His hair is matted and nested to his scalp. Age lines on his face show how filthy he is, like zebra stripes marking the homeless.
“They don’t got ice cream inside no more,” he laments, his words slurred and running together. “Someone – the fuck – had to go and ruin it for alla us—”
“Sir, you need to stop bothering other patients,” a man’s deep voice rises over the sounds of battling robots on the television. Both me and the wino glance over at the nurse’s station at the center of the room (where they can see every chair, every cot, every person), there a particularly lean but still imposing male nurse stands up from his chair, hands upon his hips.
The wino before me offers an apologetic wave to the nurse’s station before leaving me with an odd wink. He nearly trips over his own feet as he makes his way back to wherever it was he’d from from.
As if on cue the pounding resumes on the isolation room door.
“Let me out! I don’t belong here! I got rights!”
Not in here, my dear. We’re balls deep in the system now.
“Your first time in here?” The chinstrapped Hispanic man asks. He pulls up a padded pleather chair, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I’m trying to read, and falls into it with a grunt. He takes stock of the Tranquility Room’s offerings: board games, coloring books, and shelves packed with novels and bibles and copies of the AA Big Book.
“Second time here,” I answer, for anything just to be polite. “Third time in a place like this.”
“My third time, too,” he says. “My girl told me that if I don’t quit hitting the bottle she’s gonna leave me. Like she don’t do it herself, you know?” He reaches forward and taps me on the arm as if this somehow reinforces his vague but decipherable point. “She goes out with her girls and comes back stumbling, but I got a problem because I toss a few back while watching the baby.” He sighs before wrapping up with the inevitable: “Women crazy, man.”
“That they are,” I agree, trying to make it as apparent as possible that I want to be left alone with my book. Lifting it up to cover my face, I acknowledge that subtlety and tact aren’t exactly tools in my own box, but I’m really in no mood to finesse this dude up and out of my personal space.
“You got a girlfriend?” he asks, scooting his chair to my right so that he can see my face around the book. He’s either not picking up what I’m putting down (blatant as I’m being), or he’s just beyond caring. Either way, I’m not getting out of this conversation until he’s ready to bail.
“I do,” I answer, though with a tinge of fear and a spike of anxiety. Do I really still have a girlfriend?
“Nice, nice. My girl is 24. I’m 37. How old are you?”
“Ever hit the needle?”
People in these places never want for lack of shame. “No,” I answer. “I missed that calling. I just can’t seem to crawl out of the bottle.”
“My girl,” he says, his voice lacking the kind of cadence that suggests he really cares about her, “she hits it. Should be her in here, not me. But I’m the responsible one and take care of her. Gotta get myself better so I can get out.”
Suddenly my situation doesn’t seem so bad, but it isn’t enough to alleviate the anxiety and hopelessness still plaguing me. “That’s very noble of you,” I say, realizing a bit slower than usual that this man is one of countless others I’d met in places like this, looking for the same thing: validation. There’s nothing quite like the impartial word of a stranger reassuring you that you’re doing the right thing. A part of me thinks that this is the most useful form of therapy that people extract from places like this. Myself included.
The man nods to himself then seems to hesitate for a moment, his face slack, gaze fixed upon the tiled floor. I’ve learned over my time in places like this that the part where he is going to ask me for something is coming, but he surprises me by shrugging and heaving himself to his feet.
“Good talk,” he says, his voice a businesslike monotone. Without another word he strides out of the room, off on other business.
I think little of it at first, instead returning to my book, but it isn’t long before he pops back into my head again, another thread in an already fragmented jumble of thoughts.
This isn’t the last I’ll see of Mr. Chinstrap.
I’m eased awake to a nurse standing over me with a blanket and pillow. Her face looks taught, every muscle engaged as if her tightly-bound ponytail is meant to smooth out wrinkles in her flesh that hadn’t been there ten years ago. Beyond a friendly smile and straw-colored hair, I don’t really pay much attention to her, instead glancing over her shoulder a clock on the wall.
It was now 11PM. I’d been here waiting to be admitted to the BHU for seven hours.
“Would you like a blanket?” The nurse asks, shuffling a stack of linens around in her arms.
I nod and thank her in a crackly voice. The pillow and blanket she gives me are a monumental boost to my morale. I roll onto my side, burying my face in the pillow and pulling the blanket over me. It’s like my own cocoon of safety. It almost takes my mind off of self-deprecating thoughts that have flitted about like falling leaves in my mind for the brief periods of consciousness I’ve endured these last seven hours.
My gaze is drawn to movement at the windowed door of a certain isolation room. There a shadow can be seen blotting out the light like some erratic form of Morse Code as the woman within paces back and forth, troubled. Though I can’t make out much, she seems hunched forward, moving with a purpose like a wraith on the prowl.
It could be worse, I think to myself as I close my eyes and attempt to invoke sleep.
It’s 5:00, and dinner is being served right on schedule. Schedules and routines are very important in places like this. Structure is the greatest weapon a recovering alcoholic or addict can have in their arsenal. At this point I’m flying low on Hydroxizine after a late afternoon meeting with my clinical team. The first day, that hardest of days, is winding down. Tomorrow I tell myself that I’ll feel better, that I’ll be more social, that the food cart being wheeled toward the cafeteria where people are already lined up like livestock waiting to be fed would be instantly more appealing to me.
The concept of putting food in my body lost its appeal some four days ago when I set off on my latest, and hopefully final, bender. Now I’m nearing 24 hours sober and the DTs have taken over. I couldn’t be less interested in the Salisbury steak I’ve been awarded for my troubles or the rehydrated mashed potatoes that hold its copious flood of accompanying dark gravy at bay. The twenty or so others who managed to make it out of their rooms for dinner seem ravenous and eager, pressing right up against one another as if that will somehow hasten the line’s progression. I take one step into the cafeteria, pause to consider the processed food plated in my hands, and all at once decide to ditch it in the trash.
The first day is always the hardest.
Others watch me with interest, though none with as much as the orderlies and nurses, as I turn to exit the room. I slowly replace my unused silverware in a slotted tray as a woman in scrubs with a clip-board catalogs the whole thing. Seems I’ll not be slicing my wrists with a spoon today. Without a word I step out.
The unit I’m on is divided into two hallways which diverge at right angles. Most doors give way to patient rooms, two bodies per, segregated by gender. Common areas lay at the end of both hallways while the cafeteria and nurse’s station are positioned side-by-side at the V where the two corridors converge. I walk past the nurse’s station almost casually save for my shaking hands and the heavy patter of my stockinged feet.
We aren’t permitted shoes on the unit. Rubber-treaded socks are a staple.
The nurses pay me no mind as I quicken my pace toward my room, intent on sticking a fork in this day and seeing how its leftovers taste tomorrow. I’ve found this odd and subjective detachment between the staff and the patients to be common in the hospitals to which I’ve been confined. Three times in the last two years if my journal is to be believed. The intervening time between stays tends to follow the same trajectory: sober for a few months, the revelation that I am actually in control and can limit my intake, no more sobriety, shots with breakfast, angry text exchanges, blow up fights with the people I love, a couple of solid, liver-squeezing benders, and finally a trip back to the hospital.
My room is no larger than a college dorm room with two twin beds separated by a shared nightstand. Since my roommate was here before I arrived in the small hours of the morning, his things have had time to encroach upon my side of the stand. I don’t care though. All I have to call my own in here is a bucket of toiletries, of which I have yet to even take inventory.
I crawl into bed and fall asleep quickly, without much time to ponder my life’s mistakes. I don’t find the courage to haul myself back up and out of the room for another 15 hours. This period is broken only by nurses coming in intermittently to draw my blood and encourage me to join the others for breakfast. When I finally acquiesce, it is with the same feeling of optimism and delusion of self-control that had so far delivered me out of two BHUs: time to start getting my life under control. Would the third time be the charm?
It would have to be. I don’t have many pieces of my life left to pick up.