Continued from She's Always There, Pt. 3...
Groups are hit or miss. They’re designed to encourage that groupthink mentality that makes programs like Alcoholics Anonymous so successful. The idea, as far as I perceive it, is that we aren’t often capable of making lasting lifestyle changes on our own, and through groups we are able to lean on others for strength.
Of course, that only works when you want to be helped, and 90% of people in here didn’t surrender themselves voluntarily.
“It takes four months, people. Four months for us to start seeing and feeling the same endorphin release that we get with drugs and alcohol in other, more healthy things like food and hobbies.” Rebecca, one of the social workers here in the BHU presides over a group of thirteen manic-depressives, alcoholics, and addicts occupying various chairs around the edges of the room. She’s maddeningly chipper for 2:00 in the afternoon, bouncing up and down excitedly at the white board on the far wall, her curly red hair rising and falling with her. She taps enthusiastically at the pea-green grid she’d drawn on the board chronicling the various milestones we could expect to hit.
“Four months is the magic number. That’s when you’ll start feeling the most… normal. For a lot of us this is the end of our recovery phase, which makes it particularly dangerous because we start feeling so good that we forget why we made this lifestyle change in the first place. Many people return to their old ways at this point, thinking that they can manage it this time around. You need to do everything you can to avoid this impulse. You need to stick to your guns…”
Her voice fades out in a drawl as I find my mind rolling elsewhere. My doctor was at this very moment deciding when I’d be permitted to leave. All signs point to tomorrow. I can feel it at my core through an intuition I’d refined over three trips to the BHU. I just need confirmation now.
Movement in my peripherals draws my gaze. Turning to my left where my old friend Chinstrap is pushing the maximum occupancy on his chair, my eyes meet with his just as he leans in toward me.
“What kinds of meds they got you on?”
There it is. That’s what he wanted from the other day.
He doesn’t wait for me to answer, instead seeking out exactly what he’s looking for. “Ativan? Librium? Valium?” His inflection with this last one is a telltale sign of what he’s hoping for.
“They aren’t treating me for withdrawal,” I say, expecting him to simply sigh and leave me alone, but he doesn’t stop there.
“That sucks,” he whispers. With a glance up at Rebecca, still jabbering away obliviously, he leans in closer to me with a grunt. “I’m somethin’ of a Benzo conifer—” I think he means connoisseur “—I’ve been on them all. They got me on Ativan this time, caught me trying to hide it in my mouth so I could bring it back to my room and snort it.”
Another great aspect of places like this: constant reminders that there are always people worse off than me.
“My girl, she likes to crush up Adderall and snort it. You ever tried that?”
I shake my head, turning back to Rebecca in a not-so-subtle attempt to end this conversation.
“Makes everything you do, like, the best shit you ever done,” Chinstrap continues, undeterred. “I mean, like, vacuuming your apartment, man. On Adderall it’s the best thing ever!” His voice elevates just enough to draw Rebecca’s attention.
“Everything okay over there?” she asks, eying both of us.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chinstrap insists, “just fine.”
“Can I go to the bathroom?” I ask, pointblank.
She nods. “You don’t need to ask.”
Without a second thought I move to my feet, yanking my green scrub pants (two sizes too large) up on my waist. I walk out the door without looking back at Chinstrap and march purposefully toward the nurse’s station, suddenly aware of a loose end I’d neglected to pursue over the last day and a half. As I reach the station, I’m left frustrated and a bit angry at the sight of four nurses grouped together in an adjacent office, clearly visible through wall-spanning plexiglass. My eyes narrow at them as they project laughter down at a cell phone – a sight more common in this place than patients suffering withdrawals – completely oblivious to my presence here. I feel my fingers curl, nails biting into the flesh of my palms. How the fuck can they be allowed to flaunt their use of devices that we, ourselves, are forbidden to use behind these walls?
“Excuse me!” I yell, my voice a bit more powerful than I’d intended. Suddenly I’m struck by a crushing sense of dread. These people hold the keys to my freedom, I don’t want to carve out my own space on their bad side.
Yet this seems to be exactly what I’ve done. All four heads lift, and four sets of eyes fall upon me. Expressions ranging from confusion to abject indignation are shot my way.
I’m an idiot.
One of the nurses detaches from the group and walks casually out to the counter that separates them from the rest of us. She’s young, probably younger than me, with straight, chin-length brown hair bookending her face. “Aaron, is it?” She asks. I’m impressed she actually remembers my name since I don’t recall having any meaningful interactions with her yet.
“Yes,” I answer.
“What can I help you with?”
“A couple nights ago I was waiting in the admitting room with a girl named Robin. I haven’t seen her yet in here. I just wanted to make sure…” I lose my words, reading the helpless look on her face and realizing that she isn’t allowed to tell me anything about other patients. Sighing, I finish, “I just want to make sure that she’s okay.”
The helpless look melts into a frown, “I’m sorry, but we can’t talk to you about other patients. If she’s not here, she’s probably on another unit or she’s been transferred out to long-term care.”
I nod, more to myself than anything, and thank the girl. She offers a half-assed consoling smile and returns to the hilarity in the adjoining office. I consider returning to group, but instead I return to my room and the book I’m reading.
Robin, wherever you are, I hope you’re okay and that you find the strength to keep yourself out of places like this in the future. I know that this will be my last time.
“These are the last ones I got,” Robin said, lifting her arms so that I can see the bruises on her elbows. “Happened when I was carrying my son to his crib…” her face drops a bit, muscles in her cheeks going slack, and she gazes despondently down at the floor. “I was so drunk I tripped over my own feet. I kept him from hitting the floor, but barely. Of course his father saw the whole thing. He said that if I didn’t get help immediately he’d contact the state and take my baby away…” she trailed off, sobbing so hard that her shoulders heave.
For a moment I think I should reach out and place a hand on her shoulder, but the nurses would be certain to see it and separate us now that we’re the only two people left in the room. Well, the only two besides the woman in the isolation room, who has been quiet for some time now.
“Well, you’re here. You’re getting help,” I remind her, glancing at the clock. 4:37am. Turning back to Robin I add, “He can’t fault you for doing what he asked of you.”
“I just miss my baby so much,” she sobs, tears spattering the polished tile. “And I’m scared. What if this place doesn’t help me?”
“It will absolutely help you,” I assure her, wanting more than ever now to reach out and make some kind of contact. “But only if you want help. It doesn’t work for those who just want to get back out there and keep using. For those people this is just a reprieve… a way station on the route to nowhere. You have to go into it with the understanding that you have a problem and that you can never pick that bottle up again, no matter how healthy you may feel down the road and how in control your mind tricks you into feeling, you have to go through this with the understanding that your problem is one you’ll be dealing with for life. If you accept that, it’s easier to banish the impulses that drive you to drink.”
To the floor: “I take it you’ve learned this because you’ve been inside so many times.”
“That’s part of it,” I speak, watching as one of the nurses pushes ass first through the double entry doors at the far end of the room and walks determinedly toward the nurse’s station with a tray of coffee cups. I consider elaborating, but I’m not about to do it unpursued. I remind myself that I’m here to listen to her and let her lead the conversation.
“Did you go to AA?” she asks after a period of silence.
I shake my head. “No. Thought I was above it.” I don’t even consider whether or not I’ll go to AA after this stint in the BHU. At this point I don’t even want to go inside. In this moment I realize that I’m here voluntarily. I could always just back out and go home.
But what would I be going home to? Kay would be livid. I’d hit the bottle in self pity. The whole saga would repeat itself. Right now I have nowhere else to go but here.
“Do they have AA meetings inside?”
“Twice a day.”
“What are they like?”
I shrug, “Mostly just people like us sharing the stories of how we got to where we are and why it’s so important that we stay on the wagon. I look at it as a bunch of people who just like to hear themselves talk, but I think my cynicism works to my detriment.”
She looks up from the floor, a puzzled look twisted upon her face. “What does that… I’m sorry… big words.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I mean that I’m probably misunderstanding the purpose of AA and in the process made it something that doesn’t work for me.”
“Will you go to meetings with me inside?”
I don’t respond at first, mostly because I’m conflicted. When I first arrived here my purpose was clear: I was going to get help. But the more I find myself sobering up, the less faith I have in me. Is this the crutch that alcohol has become for me? That I’m only brave enough to face the unmentionable and undesirable sides of myself when I’m drunk?
Taking a deep breath, I open my mouth to answer her, but as I do the double doors at the far end of the room open and in come the duo who wheeled Paul the Wino out of the waiting room. Both Robin and I watch as they push the wheelchair toward us, then we gaze back to each other.
“Robin?” says the orderly.
She gazes up at the man, unsure of what to do, then looks back to me. Her eyes are red and swollen from the crying, and behind the gloss is fresh anxiety. She looks back to the orderly and nods, “I’m Robin.”
“Are you ready?” he asks, offering her a smile.
“I—I am,” she stammers. Heaving herself up and out of the easy chair she’s been sitting in for the better part of two hours, she gazes back to me before settling daintily into the wheelchair. “Thank you, Aaron. I’ll see you inside, right?”
I smile up at her, trying to project every ounce of good will I can conjure. “Save me a plate when they serve breakfast.”
This brings a smile to her face as well. “Thank you so much for talking to me.”
“You got it.”
They turn her about in the chair and wheel her off. As the double doors close behind Robin, the nurse, and the orderly, the faceless woman in isolation begins pounding once more on her door.
“We’re gonna get you through this, sweetie. You’re a good boy,” Gram says over the phone, no doubt sitting in her recliner at home with two dogs and a cat on her lap. I can hear Wheel of Fortune in the background, some idiot chanting big money as loud clicks punctuate the rotation of the wheel.
I say, “I’m an alcoholic, Gram,” gazing momentarily down at my discharge papers, displaying tomorrow’s date. My attention lifts and settles at a group of my fellow admitted milling about at the far end of the corridor outside the cafeteria. Dinner was two hours ago, and I discovered rather quickly that my appetite had returned with a vengeance. I put away two servings of beef stroganoff and three cups of tapioca pudding, which I maintain always tastes better in the hospital. Glancing up at one of the many clocks positioned throughout the wing (we are creatures of routine here), I note that it’s a little past 7:00. Snack time comes at 7:30.
“No, no,” she sighs, grunting. I picture her shifting a gaggle of animals around on her lap. “You’re just mixed up. We all go through this kind of stuff. Your grandfather, rest his soul, always said that alcohol was the only drug that didn’t need a doctor’s prescription. Sometimes life is just bad and we drink to get away from our misery.”
Typical grandmother, making excuses for me so that I don’t have to do it myself. “Well, regardless of what I am, I have to be done with booze forever, Gram. I just have to be.”
“You know I’ll help you with anything you need, sweetie."
“I know, Gram.”
“What time are they letting you out tomorrow?”
“All signs point to noon.”
“Okay. I’ll be there.”
“We’re gonna get you through this, kid. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I drop the receiver onto its cradle and turn back around. Once more my gaze falls upon the cluster of regimented drunks and addicts in various stages of recovery, all of them waiting outside the cafeteria for potato chips, ice cream, and grape juice. I’d already that afternoon walked the corridors of the unit, peeking carefully into room after room in search of Robin. She definitely wasn’t on this unit. I’m left hoping that she’s found someone else to help her through life in recovery, or better yet that she’s found the strength in herself to push forward. All around me are the walking stages of recovery. Those still dealing with DTs mostly keep to their rooms. The ones who’ve been here longest and have found the right cocktail of meds walk the halls proudly, understanding that the future is theirs and that their lives are, at least at the moment, in their control.
And where was I? At what stage have I landed in this moment?
I’m in the Gram Stage. Tomorrow I’ll go home with my grandmother just as I had when my mother moved two states over in the middle of my senior year of high school. I’ll return to the home where I’d once sorted out a similar existential dilemma: whether or not to drop out of high school. I graduated in 2001 thanks in no small part to my grandparents, but it was mostly Gram, pushing me forward with a firm but just hand.
We tend to deify our parents, when the true wisdom is and ever shall be in the minds of our grandparents. Gram has always been there for me. I’ve no doubt that a stripped down and simple life with her is the final stage in my own evolution that I’ve been searching for these last three visits to the BHU.
I can’t stop a smile spreading across my face as my anxiety is tempered and my nerves cooled. I even whistle as I walk toward the cafeteria and join my fellow alcoholics, addicts, and emotionally abused in waiting for chocolate ice cream.
I’m yanked from sleep by the cries of the faceless woman in isolation, though this time her piercing cries are louder and more urgent. Nearly shuddering out of my chair, I grab handfuls of fake leather on either side of me and turn to see what’s happening.
The isolation room door is ajar, and standing outside of it, peering in, are all of the nurses I’d seen throughout the night. From within the isolation room come cries of no and fuck off and the ever-indulged and overused I have rights! Without warning the woman is carried out of the room, every appendage in use as she flails about violently. Escorting her are two uniformed police officers, observed by men in street clothes who are very much out of place here.
“It’s okay, Molly. Molly, we’re taking you to Portland for help—” the officer speaking winces and recoils away from biting teeth. The woman is so thin that she seems skeletal, her brown hair is shot with veins of gray sticking out in all directions. She kicks wildly for some time before the men in street clothes move in to take hold of her ankles. As they carry her out through the same double doors Robin had vanished through hours earlier, her shouting transforms into a piercing caterwaul, devoid of any recognizable words.
The doors close. Her shrieking is muffled. It fades to an echo. It is gone.
The nurses make their way back over to their station and resume talk of their lives outside this place. I’m left in a crushing silence, the only person left waiting to be treated.
I doze, the real world around me blending hazily with my dreams. For a moment I’m back in my hotel room, bottles strewn across the floor, puddles of vomit untended in the spaces between the bed and the bathroom. I’m back in that dark place I’ve been delivered to so many times by my sorrow and inability to cope with things in my life outside of my control. When I wake again I’m actually relieved to be in the admissions waiting room, and I’m surprised to find a new arrival sitting across the tiled floor. A man in a blue dress shirt and khaki slacks, face buried in his hands. He can’t be any older than me.
My attention doesn’t stay with him for long as a screaming voice begins to build in volume somewhere off behind closed doors. At first I think it’s the woman from isolation being dragged back in, but as the voice grows louder I’m able to source it out as coming from the entry doors off of the nurse’s station. The doors I’d stumbled through drunk nearly twelve hours ago.
The man across from me glances up with swollen eyes as the nurses scramble to the doors just as they’re kicked open by a girl of no more than thirty in ripped jeans and a torn black tank top. “This is bullshit!” she screams, her wild eyes darting indiscriminately between the police officers hauling her into the room. “Fuck you! You can’t keep me here! I’m a free woman! Let me go!”
Had it even been an hour since the other woman was taken out? I watch, incredulous, as this new crazy is delivered thrashing into the isolation room next to the one previously occupied. The screaming and insults and cries of good ole fashioned American Freedom continue even as the police officers edge their way out of the cracked door and pull it closed with the help of a nurse. Fists pound on the door as the woman’s situation is discussed quietly just outside.
I gaze back to the man, watching as his body shudders in fear, his eyes glued to the door separating this new creature from us. With a sigh I rise to my feet, not willing to let another innocent first-timer go through the same tribulations as Robin. I start toward him, ready to tell him that there’s always one like her in places like this, in the waiting rooms just outside the corridors where he’ll find help and hone the skills needed to purge himself of his demons, but I halt in my tracks as the sound of double doors thudding open reaches my ears. Turning around, I watch as the orderly and nurse who’d escorted Paul the Wino and Robin out of the room shuffle toward me with a wheelchair.
“Aaron?” the man asks, looking right at me.
“Yes,” I sigh, relief pouring over me like water dousing flames. I walk toward them, forgetting about the man behind me, even forgetting about the new woman in isolation as I settle down into the wheelchair and am turned toward the doors that will deliver me to the BHU.
“Let’s get you upstairs,” the orderly says as he pushes me out of the room. I turn as the double doors close behind us, watching fist-shaped shadows pound upon the viewing window of the isolation room. Outside, the police and nurses continue their conversation as if the woman doesn’t even exist. But she can only be ignored for so long. If I’ve learned anything from places like this, it’s that this woman or someone like her… she’s always there.
The clock above the nurse's station reads 12:30pm. I’m back in the street clothes I’d worn onto the BHU. I’m wearing shoes again. The items I’d had on me upon my admission, cell phone, pocket change, wallet, and a few beer bottle caps, are now all back in my possession.
My paperwork is signed. I have scripts for my new meds in my pocket. The door to freedom stands open before me. I’m looked upon with envious eyes by my former fellow admitted as I leave the nurse's station.
Walking down the corridor, my nurse from the other day – the one with the hijab – stands waiting for me at the elevator. She smiles, “Good luck, Aaron. You try to stay out of here. Remember to take care of yourself.” She punches a code into a keypad and the elevator begins to rise.
I return her smile and nod, “I will,” even though my mind even now gravitates to the idea of having Gram stop on the way home at a convenience store so that I can run in for a soda and sneak a couple nips in the bathroom. But I force the thought away and banish it as far as it will go into the darker parts of my mind.
Never again. Third time’s the charm, right?
The elevator dings and the doors part. The nurse gestures me in, holding out her right hand. “Take care.”
“Thanks,” I say, pausing for one look back down the corridor where several people in pajamas and scrubs watch me with the same degree of awe I might watch a lottery winner accepting his oversized check on the local news. With a nod, I step into the elevator and watch as the doors close against my nurse’s smiling face. As the elevator sinks toward the ground floor, that sense of freedom with which I’m always joined after stays in the BHU washes over me. Soon I’ll be able to drive a car again – Rich already saw to moving my car down to Gram’s. Soon I’ll be able to pop into 7/11 for an energy drink. Soon I’ll have reclaimed all the freedoms of will that had upended my life and delivered me to this place. It is up to me to manage this freedom and to make sure that I love myself enough to stop poisoning my body and my life.
The elevator dings and the doors trundle open. I’m left gazing down a long corridor bustling with the comings and goings of nurses, doctors, and orderlies. Starting forward, I pause briefly before the locked doors leading to the admissions waiting room, wondering with little speculation as to whether or not the girl is still there. This leads me to thoughts of Robin. I hope she’s okay.
Turning back to the din of medical jargon and talk of what to grab for lunch, I walk down the corridor for what feels like a mile before reaching the motion-sensitive exit doors. Through the glass I can see Gram’s old Ford Escort wagon, still running after 25 years of patch jobs. Our eyes meet, and her face creases with a beaming smile.
As I walk out of the hospital and toward the car, I can’t help thinking back at everything Gram has done for me over the course of my life. I owe her so much. I will continue to owe her as she opens her home to me and my recovery. With her I can beat this, as I’ve beaten every other form of adversity she’s helped me overcome. To say that Gram has made a meaningful impact on me is selling her place in my life short. With Gram it’s simply that she’s always available for anything I need whether that be the nudge I needed to graduate high school, the money I’d borrowed to escape nights of Ramen Noodles in college, or opening her home to me so that I can learn to love myself again, Gram has never turned her back on me.
She’s always there.