I lied through my fucking teeth at that first assessment. I went two towns over for it, as at this time I was still concerned with keeping what I considered a good reputation with those I lived close by. It was a very modern facility, built on the outskirts in a nice hilly area, but I found it easily enough that I had time to sit in the waiting room and be frightened by the others waiting for the same service I was. As a way to look busy and avoid conversation, I picked up one of the many brochures spread out on the tables and checked out the services this place provided. Inpatient was put out of my mind easily enough. After only one major setback, and after only taking into consideration sucking dick for my fix rather than actually going through with it, there was no way my insurance would pay for the movie star treatment. That left two options: intensive outpatient, requiring two to three hours multiple days a week, or a once-a-week, hour-long class. My mind shifted into how I’d ensure the latter rather than the former, as the hour-each-way commute for sessions would mean a lot of time invested if I didn’t play my cards right.
I was finally called into a small, bureaucratic office, which was still nicer than my own, to meet my counselor, who soon assured me that she’d be with me until I was better. It was somewhat reassuring, except for the fact that her age made it seem much more likely that she’d retire long before I bought into any of the higher power crap I knew about from my casual reading of the Alcoholics Anonymous book. I told her the preplanned lie about pot being a passing fancy in high school that had been stupidly renewed on only the one occasion at exactly the wrong time. She asked about other drugs, even namedropping cocaine, and I countered that I’d been offered on multiple occasions but had refused, never disclosing that it had become an intense hobby on one of my darker month-long Christmas breaks from college.
Something must have went well, because my grey-haired new friend took me right from her office to the front desk, where I picked which night I’d want to do my ten-week reporting on. They gave me a stack of forms to fill out, a few sheets of preparatory literature and informed me that I’d be expected to remain drug- and alcohol-free during the entire time I was with them. It may seem strange, but I immediately agreed, and really meant it. Thinking, at this time, that I had no problem, I figured a couple of months off would prove this fact as well as getting my tolerance back down to a more reasonable level. I knew it would mean spending the first few nights abusing a bottle of sleeping pills, but I envisioned my time thereafter in quiet study, storing up knowledge and saving money in order to spread both liberally around at the region’s public houses when I had proven my point.
Before I began taking things too seriously, I finished the remainder of the alcohol in my house—mostly the dregs from liquor bottles I’d been eager to begin but loathe to finish—and spent the days hitting the coffee pot ever harder. By the time I dried out and began the class, I was hooked on the Joe. I learned how to go into any gas station and immediately pick out the strongest brew and the biggest container. I sipped it from waking until the last few hours before I went to bed, and the desire to avoid the headaches that would come as I withdrew soon became my biggest motivation for getting out of bed in the morning. Coffee was the last great open addiction—one that could be carried anywhere without anyone batting a lash—but I soon returned to the vice which, until recent years, had occupied a similar place in the American mind. Because I didn’t want to appear too much of a brownnoser by waiting in the classroom until things got started, I braved the cold with the smokers for company. The second week in, the clouds of smoke I had to endure led me to bumming one, which led me to buying a pack for the next week so as to not come off as a scavenger.
After the third week, I had dove into the sobriety game wholeheartedly. I lived during the seconds between sips of coffee and the minutes between cigarettes. I took up chewing gum—a habit I’d always despised. I spent most of my evenings reading silently in bed—purposefully avoiding my living room, kitchen, CD player and the memories of my former life all three brought to mind. In addition to the material I was provided in class, I began building my own small library of self-help books to make myself an expert on recovery. I quickly became the star pupil, as my natural ability in the classroom, coupled with the intensity with which I absorbed the program, caused me to easily outshine the relative dullness of my supporting cast.
We were supposed to be partners in each others’ treatment, but that seemed too much for me. I had gotten into this mess through no fault of any of these people, and knew I’d leave by pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. I at least did all I could to help the others, when they needed it, and none needed it more than the guy I identified with most.
He was an uninteresting character, on the surface at least, but that’s what had initially led me to believe that there might be something deeper hidden within. He came in scoffing. He was regular small-town folk, and therefore had the knowledge of the ancients whispering in his ear that he didn’t really need to be there. He’d been sent to join us by an underage drinking ticket, and, because age was only an arbitrary number, he figured the law must be wrong, not him. Everyone else in his coterie of friends drank just as much as he did, so bad luck was his only crime. All this was not to say that he didn’t come in with concerns, just that those concerns had nothing to do with his aptitude for rehabilitation. He was concerned mostly that the guy he’d been caught with had signed up for a different night. Now he’d have no one to share in his chuckles over just how stupid the whole process really was. He’d have to wait until he got back to his familiar stomping grounds before mocking the entire system—from the crooked judge to the lying assessor to the counselor leading the class being full of shit. He would, I’m sure, do just that when he returned to the safety of his tight-knit community, and would find agreement everywhere, from barflies to schoolmarms to his own parents. When he’d accepted the fact that he’d be the only one representing his town for this hour, he moved onto his second concern—that no one had informed him there would be homework. Although this caused him a great deal of anxiety at the outset—he had none of the intellectual prowess I’d hoped to be able to relate to under his rough exterior—the solution was simple. He sat next to the closest thing the group had to an apple-polisher—me—and learned to sail through the program.
On the other side of the table, sitting to my right, was a guy who had, I gathered, talked himself out of a much-needed more-intensive program just as I had. I came to this assumption based on two facts. First, he was in for his second charged DUI, which indicated that a class like this had already made its best attempt to reform him and failed. Second, he was very good at manipulating people’s emotions. As a former military man, he was loaded with stories. Some were more sentimental, and tugged at the heartstrings, but these were mostly retellings of others’ tragedies. They were what he had most likely used to convince his assessor to hold him out of higher-end treatment. His own experiences were much more raucous, and dealt with how the military had taken a troubled adolescent under its overbearing wing and taught him how to really drink.
He and the nineteen others closest to him in rank and formation began going to bars shortly after their graduation from basic. While swilling bottomless glasses of beer, they’d go down the line taking turns in buying rounds of shots, setting everyone’s quota for the night at twenty apiece. They’d then stumble out as a group, becoming a scary sight for anyone looking remotely gay or of Arab descent, and hold true to their motto of leaving no man behind in their mission to return to their quarters. As the others began gradually getting hitched, having kids, moving off-base and spending less time in bars, he began getting lost. Getting a car and a place of his own was easy enough, but he never seemed to get a handle on the wife and kids thing. He was relegated to sitting at the end of the bar and watching each new group of recruits go through the wild excitement that characterized the last time he’d felt any camaraderie, and lived vicariously through them. There were others who shared in this area of the bar and loneliness with him, and each racked up the occasional “internal warning” for driving drunk from the military police. By the time he got into trouble with the real law—those outside of the little world that had comforted him for so long, his record was marred enough to warrant a dishonorable discharge. This, along with the fact that he’d never learned to self-motivate and needed constant direction and supervision to be successful, had led to little success in civilian life. He bounced between various forms of wage work while going to lower-class bars for the pity these places always heaped on any sort of military man, and became more and more unhappy as the days passed. He got by with a few close calls before he finally had the second nail pounded into his coffin, and was here to accept the knowledge the judge had ordered him to get. He’d make it out, as long as he was given direct enough instructions, but without a change in attitude he’d be back again.
A few chairs further down sat the peer-addled bowler. Through most of his life, drinking had never been an issue. If fact, nothing could have been further from his mind. Bowling was his life, and he’d been on the city leagues since graduating from high school. Others would spend nights partying while he worked hard keeping his dream intact. Like most with hopes to be professional athletes, he had failed to attract enough attention during his years on the high school team to get put on the fast track to superstardom. Unlike most, as a bowler he had plenty of years to develop before he aged out. He kept his tight focus and teetotalism until his twenty-first birthday, when the peer pressure became just too much. He succumbed to a few beers. As it was during the annual tournament, he was worried about how much the bit of alcohol he took would alter his performance. When he did above-average, if not spectacular, as so often happens during early experiences with alcohol, his attitude towards drinking began to lax. He repeated this experiment only on weekends at first, either practicing by himself or bringing the occasional date, and attained results comparable to the first time. He never drank more than two or three, so the mild sedation merely eased his nerves, both with the pins and with the girls. Eventually, as he spent most of his free time in what was essentially a bar, it became an everynight thing. He never drank enough to affect his game or, he thought, his driving. Unfortunately, the magical machine carried by the local police officers that determined this fitness to drive disagreed. On a night just like any other, he was pulled over for having a brake light out. When he noticed the ball and shoes riding shotgun, the officer jumped into profiling mode and feigned an odor of booze coming out of the car, which gave him probable cause to order a breathalyzer. The bowler, who had pushed it to a fifth drink that night after a lousy first few games, blew just over the legal limit, marking him with a stigma he’d have for the rest of his life. Although most in the group, including myself, did little to hide the feeling of superiority they felt over the rest, this guy was probably the only one with a valid reason to have a chip on his shoulder.
Two seats to the bowler’s right was the Christian who provided the only true entertainment, for me at least, and who at the very least made things not quite as boring for everyone else. As she’d been born again into sobriety after her second week, she didn’t really need the class and was putting in time for the white man by regaling us each class with tales of the wild times that had led her here. Her involvement in the system began with a simple possession charge, which would have remained simple had she not taken it up as a cause. In her crusade against the white people running the probation department, she’d fought mainly through apathy. She went into her piss tests reeking of the blunt she’d just finished, hoping in some way that this would forge a crack in the foundation of the system that would grow until the whole thing came crumbling down. Several failures later, she’d ended up here, with the system as strong as ever. Once she accepted that her previous efforts had been a failure, she’d shifted to a backup plan: use the power the black churches have always had to fight the devils within and without. While she still gave us a take here and there of some of the party stories that occurred before her conversion—the most interesting, to me, being of her creation of “boilermakers” by dropping shot of vodka into glasses of Olde English—they were always cut short by the details of how she’d been able to conquer her vices on that fateful Sunday.
Next to her was the instructor, and next to her my favorite, which I saved for last. Because he didn’t speak English that well, I was forced to judge him on his appearance—which was that of a walking stereotype with no self-consciousness about this fact. He smiled a lot, which may have been just because our English sounded as funny to him as Telemundo seems to me some times, but I like to think it was because he simply enjoyed his life as a Hispanic landscaper immensely. The life story he gave us was the shortest of them all. After a long, hot day in the sun, he’d decided to enjoy a tall boy of Bud Light on the way home. Since he was only half-done when pulled over, all they could get him for was an open container charge. Combined with a probably confusing day in court, however, it was enough to land him in an evaluation, where I’m sure his assessor battled with a translator trying to get the truth from his broken English. As he swore up and down, all through the time we spent together, that he’d never drank more than two beers in one day, she had placed him here in hopes of pushing him through the facility and out of her life.
Other than these five and myself, there was the obviously-green counselor leading us. I’m not sure whether she earned her position with us because it was the easiest to learn or because it was so dull that no one else wanted it, but it was clear that she would offer little advice not already printed on the constant worksheets she handed out. The only other people I saw in my time there were impatient inpatients who always looked pissed that we were using their room. I’m not sure whether they felt superior to us because they had been unafraid to dive headfirst into their addictions, or if they were offended because they felt we acted superior, but there was never any kindness between our two camps.
When it came time for me to share the history of my use, I had no qualms about going all the way in-depth. Although there was always an inkling in the back of my head that perhaps revealing all of my deepest, darkest secrets about how much and how often I drank, as well as the system I had in place to keep it under wraps, would make the rookie group leader think that perhaps I needed more help than she could offer, it never bridged the gap into the territory of a real concern. I mostly assumed that my honesty on and insight into the situation would be praised, and I would merely add to the already-ample laurels I had built up to rest on. Although it was only a rough sketch compared to what it would become, some of the facts contained in this first document would be directly responsible for the clarity of the account I’d later be able to give.