Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary Entry, part one)

On Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013,  I will have been sober for ten years.  And what is strange about that, it has only recently started to seem like ten years.  For the longest time, I have divided my life into two distinct periods: the part of my life before I got sober, and the part afterward.  For most of these past ten years, anything that happened “post-sobriety” seemed recent, even if it wasn’t, exactly.  I got sober in

The only picture I am in possesion of of me drinking. Very near the beginning, before real addiction.

The only picture I am in possesion of of me drinking. Very near the beginning, before real addiction.

2003 (for those mathematically challenged), and I would often read about something that happened in, say, 2005, and even if it had been seven years ago, I would say to myself, Well, I was sober, so it can’t have been that long ago!  It has only been recently, as I was looking forward to my tenth anniversary, that the events surrounding my addiction and recovery have begun to seem like they have some age on them.

I’ve done a lot of writing over the years about my addiction and recovery, but most of it focused on the drinking part, and the craziness of that part of my life, or my early “pink cloud” of recovery.  I’ve never recorded the events surrounding the actual date of the beginning of my new life—April 3rd, 2003—and even though such a recording may seem a tad self-important, the years are fading my memory, and if I don’t do it now, I fear I never will.

At my cousin Josh's wedding, about a year before sobriety.  I don't look too bad, but note the alky's nose and rosy cheeks.

At my cousin Josh’s wedding, about a year before sobriety. I don’t look too bad, but note the alky’s nose and rosy cheeks.

I only drank alcoholically for five years, from about the age of 20 until 25.   In the grand scheme of life, this seems a pittance, but what I lacked in longevity I made up for in severity.  I was as physically addicted to alcohol as a person could be by the time I stopped (which is to say, considerably), and had graduated to having pretty severe withdrawals anytime I went an hour or more without alcohol in my system.  Not to brag on my addiction, but the rehab folks were quite astonished to see a 25 year old as far along the continuum as I was.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up.

By late summer of 2002, at the age of 24, it had become apparent to even my most casual friends that something had to change.  I couldn’t do anything sober.  Couldn’t drive, couldn’t shower, couldn’t work, couldn’t have sex sober, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t be awake sober.  I had large plastic cups with liquor in them in the console of my car—my “driving drinks”.  I made sure I fell asleep with liquor beside me so I could start drinking literally the moment I woke up.  I drank at every moment of every day.  I had car accidents—some that people knew about, but plenty that nobody knew about.  I am one of the luckiest people alive.  Even now, I know that.

People started saying things here and there, dropping hints that they were uncomfortable, that my version of partying wasn’t really partying.  I knew something was going to come to a head soon, but I was in denial as long as possible.  Listen, when you get right down to it, it is just plain weird and terrifying not being able to stop drinking.  It happens slowly and silently and by the time you realize what’s going on, you have no idea how to get out.  You didn’t plan for this, but it’s so confusing, you just ignore it as long as you can.  Turns out, my addiction was so quick and severe, I actually couldn’t ignore it for as long as I would have liked.  My

body was doing too many weird things (constantly having alcohol in your system for a few years will affect just about every system you’ve got), so that when, one late summer afternoon when my friend Shelley (the girlfriend, at that time, of my good buddy Paul) suggested, as we sat in their sweltering second-story apartment, that I should just call a rehab and see what they say, I said, OK, I will.  She said, why not now?  And she got a phone book, and we looked up rehabs, and I called one called Roxbury just outside Shippensburg, and they gave me a date a few weeks from then when a bed would be available, and I gave them my information, and they reserved my bed.  Just like that.  It was quite surprising.  I hadn’t begun that day thinking, in the least, about going to rehab.  I remember immediately calling one or both of my parents with the news as though I had just gotten engaged or had a baby.  Mom, Dad, I’ve decided to go to rehab!  I don’t remember their reactions, but I’m sure they were happy but reserved.  I imagine the only thing more terrifying than being an addict is having a child going through an addiction.  How scary!

There is something very surreal about arriving to rehab.  Nobody grows up thinking they’re going to go to rehab, and you’re never really prepared for what it’s going to look like, smell like, feel like.  All of a sudden, you’re there, and in that instant, no matter what came before, you are the type of person who winds up in rehab.

A typical room at Roxbury.  (pic taken off the internet, not taken by me, but it is definitely Roxbury)

A typical room at Roxbury. (pic taken off the internet, not taken by me, but it is definitely Roxbury)

A lot of the details around my first arrival to Roxbury rehab are kind of fuzzy.  I know that my dad drove me there.  I remember I got really, really drunk before I got there.  I remember arriving at this squat, modern building, almost like a Frank Gehry building with glass bubbles and counter-inuitive overhangs.  I remember it being night, but I’m not sure if that’s true.  I remember going into the lobby with my dad, carrying a big suitcase, and it felt, still, like a hospital, or a hotel, or something other than what it was.  Something less desperate, something more normal.  I think now of what it must have been like for him, to arrive with his son and to leave without him.  And why?  Did he feel like he had failed?  Like he had failed me?  Was he ashamed?  Even now these are thoughts I can barely confront.  Now matter how you exorcise it, the guilt of these things won’t leave you, ever.  And rightfully so.

I remember saying goodbye to my father then, after having filled out some paperwork, and being led into the guts of the building, up and around narrow steps, into various nurses offices, answering lots of questions, filling out more forms.  There was a loneliness to these moments beyond any experience I’ve had before or since.  Not in the depths or degree of loneliness, but in that it was a very strange loneliness.  It is a very specific variety.  You are surrounded by people, yet everyone you know and love, is back out there living a “normal” life.  And yet here you are, among strangers and paid professionals, unable to live on your own.  Unable to. 

So, I won’t tell you the whole tale of my rehab.  It is a very long and interesting story (unless you’ve been to rehab, in which case it’s probably pretty boring).  Maybe I’ll tell you that story for year eleven.

But I was in there for, I think, 32 days.  When I came out, I stayed sober for somewhere around 2 weeks.  I have a very blank memory of the time between my first and second rehabs.  It is easy for me to figure out that I was out of rehab about 3 months before entering it for the second, and final, time.

When I started drinking again after my first rehab, it was amazing how quickly the addiction took hold again.  It wasn’t just like I had never stopped, it was actually worse.  One sip, one little drink, and I was in its clutches like never before.  For those of you who’ve never been addicts, try to remember, this isn’t in the least bit fun.  However it happens, it is a fact that I was drinking because I had no choice.  Or at the very least, the part of me that was capable of making a choice was hidden from me.  It is absolutely crippling. It is an insidious, ridiculous affliction.  I couldn’t hide it for long; I knew all my friends and family could see I was drinking again.

In these three months between rehabs, I lived the absolute most horrid version of my life.  Everything hurt, my skin always crawled, I was mean and miserable and sad all the time, any vestige of a moral compass I had left was gone completely and there was no act I wouldn’t commit, no person I wouldn’t do anything to or with, nothing I wouldn’t steal, no drug I wouldn’t take to try and ease the ache, no building I wouldn’t go into, no surface I wouldn’t sleep on, no family member or friend I wouldn’t injure, irrevocably, smearing guilt onto my psyche for eternity.

As far as I know, the last picture taken of me before sobriety (with a friend who shall remain unnamed).  I don't look too nad, but it was a horrid time.

As far as I know, the last picture taken of me before sobriety (with a friend who shall remain unnamed). I don’t look too bad, but it was a horrid time.

I ended up, finally, not going to work, and living for about a week in a squalid motel with a few friends, which I have recounted here. (Really, read this.)  After ten years of reflection, the time at the hotel was clearly my “bottom”, the lowest of the low.  Even now, just thinking about it brings me very close to vomiting.

But from the ashes, we did rise.  From the hotel room, I finally managed to call Roxbury again and got accepted into their program a second time.

The second time at rehab, I did not have a good time.  I was as much of a physical and emotional wreck as I can imagine ever being.  I was only there nine days this time (because of quirks in Pennsylvania’s public funding for rehab, as I did not have health insurance at the time), and by the time I left, my body was still feeling the after-effects of intense physical withdrawal, and I was still a complete basketcase.  My emotional development, having been halted at the age of 20 by being constantly drunk, was now in complete disarray; my life had become unmoored, all directional signals erased, which only added to my mind’s already baffled sense of self.

As it became clear that I would not be able to stay long in rehab this time, I became terrified, because I didn’t know where to go or what to do once I got out, and I had no faith that I would stay sober for even a day.  I requested Roxbury to help me locate a “recovery house”, which is basically a halfway house specifically designed for people in addiction recovery.  Placing patients in Recovery Houses is a service Roxbury provides.  Unfortunately, because my time was so short, it was difficult for them to find me a space in one of the better, more reputable recovery houses in central Pennsylvania.  Just two days before I was to be kicked out on my kiester, I was called into an office (who can remember the offices of places?) and told they had found me a place: there was a bed available at a place called the Bethesda Mission, in Harrisburg.

I’d never heard of the Bethesda Mission before, but Bob (my counselor at Roxbury, I do remember his name) informed me that, yes, it was primarily a homeless shelter, there was a second half to the place that was a recovery house, headed up by one of the most respected recovery experts in the state.  He assuaged my fears that even though it had “mission” in the title, I would in fact be going to a very respected recovery house.

My day to leave rolled around and I had decided not to involve any of my family or friends with this phase.  I took Roxbury up on a service they offer, whereby they have a big Roxbury van that will drive you from the rehab to wherever you are going to end up.  I said my goodbyes (much less emotional this time than the first time, as I had been too fucked up this time to make any friends) and walked outside into the beautiful spring air of April 2nd, 2003, and got into a big white van that was to take me from Roxbury (right outside of Shippensburg, where I and my whole family had gone to college) to Harrisburg, to a recovery house.

And my high school Driver’s Ed teacher was driving the van.

He recognized me, and I recognized him, even though we hadn’t had any kind of close relationship in high school. (Mr. Troutman, I think?)  But we struck up an immediate and cordial conversation.  He’d retired from teaching a few years before, and had happened onto this job as a little part-time gig for extra cash.  He didn’t seem for a moment to judge me, although I’m sure I must have blubbered quite a bit in trying to explain myself.

I talked him into stopping in Carlisle (which is about halfway between Shippensburg and Harrisburg) at the restaurant I worked at, where I had a paycheck waiting for me.  I had an inkling that paycheck was going to come in handy, as without it, I had literally zero money.  Not even a penny.

Finally, he pulled up in front of this large stone structure in downtown Harrisburg, and helped me take my two suitcases out of the van.  And then, before I even walked into the building, he drove away.

The Bethesda Mission

The Bethesda Mission

There I stood, on the wide Harrisburg sidewalk, and looked around.  I was a man with free will.  I could walk any direction I wanted, talk to whoever I wanted, do whatever I wanted.  It was exhilarating and terrifying.  Exhilarating because, between rehab and the prison of addiciton, I hadn’t felt free like this in…well, forever.  At this point in my life, being alone in a city even the size of Harrisburg was a new thing for me.  But terrifying because I had no faith in myself to not squander this freedom on drinking.

I turned toward the building, smothered my fear, hiked up my luggage, and walked up the stairs toward the Bethesda Mission.

The plump, bespectacled man behind the desk in the lobby had never heard of me.  They did not have a spot reserved for me in the Recovery House, and in fact, a bed wouldn’t probably be open there for months.  What could they do for me?  Well, I could always sleep on a mattress in the chapel.

What does that mean? I asked him.  He says he’ll show me.  He led me down a short hallway and into a large, open space that had obviously once been used for worship.  It had a high, vaulted cieling, stained glass windows, and an unmistakable altar at the other end.  But now, dozens of filthy-looking, paper-thin mattresses lined each wall, and tinkling, calming recovery music was piped in from unseen speakers.  About a dozen haggard and hungry looking men shuffled about the open space, looking at me, sizing me up.

At night, we put the mattresses on the floor.  You’re welcome to one, once you pass the piss test.

Suddenly, I wondered just how much free will I really had.

Entry to be continued on Thursday, April 4th.

14 Responses to “Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary Entry, part one)”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    See you gotta turn this whole before during and after alcoholic period in your life into a book. You said yourself you’re slowly losing the memories so do it soon! Sure I may not be the best judge of literary gold worth mining, but I’m smart enough to know this is some form of gold. This is gripping writing that I know even someone who doesn’t know you would find interesting. I do know that you don’t respond well to something being strongly suggested at you (if it’s between you writing the book or getting into ‘Arrested Development’ it’s really a push for me) though. What got you into rehab though was the opposite of that, so tap into that part of your brain to get the inspiration to start writing it! Or don’t.

    I have questions but disregard them if they’re answered in the continuation. When you got drunk after your first rehab stint did you tell yourself you’ll just have one, as humans do or did you plan on getting shitfaced? Did you think that since you hadn’t drank in a long while that it wouldn’t take as much to do the trick? How long were you sober before you realized you weren’t craving it anymore? Do you still feel the urge now and again? Why does your nose look pointier in the wedding pic? Did you know you have a typo in the last pic before sobriety?

    • sethdellinger Says:

      haha most of those questions are not answered in the next entry, and they are very good questions, but I just typed too much to answer them now. But I will answer them soon! As well as give you a good reply about the book idea. Alcoholic’s noses get bigger (in various shapes and ways) as a result of popped blood vessels from the constant alcohol in the system. These types of small disfigurations happen to lots of places on our bodies but the noses are most noticeable (Ted Kennedy often was accused of having an alky nose). I saw and fixed the typo in that picture before your comment posted :)

      • sethdellinger Says:

        I think I could probably write a pretty good book about these experiences, but the problem is, there are a TON of people doing the same thing every year, and most of them have had more intense and “interesting” experiences than I did. It’s not a “contest” in real life, but in publishing it is, and I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I am really confident that, no matter how well I wrote it, my story just isn’t interesting enough to compete with the other ones being published every year (it is a lucrative enough sub-genre of the “Memoir” category, that is has a name: the Drunkalog).

        It’s very hard for me to remember what was going through my mind when I started drinking again after that first rehab. The mind of an addict in that situation is working almost outside of itself (like that long passage in part two when I start drinking without knowing it). Also, “denial” is something that has to be experienced to be understood; you’re not just saying “I’m ok” when you know you’re not OK; your unconscious mind is fooling your unconscious mind; it’s a mental state nearly impossible to describe. But I think the short answer is, I knew it was not going to be only one.

        I do remember thinking that since I hadn’t drank in awhile, it wouldn’t take much to do the trick. I was not at all prepared for it being like I had never stopped (even though they teach you that a million times in rehab).

        Honestly, starting the day I arrived at my mom’s, I don’t think I ever “craved” it. Not sure how that happened, but it did. What I did suffer from was the constant fear that I would drink. That abated very slowly, was probably about 9 months or a year until I stopped worrying it would happen without me really knowing.

        I never feel the urge now. Occasionally I will have a fleeting thought, like “I could drink right now if I wanted to. I’m a grown-up, it’s not really against the law for me to drink or anything.” maybe sometimes as I’m passing a bar with outdoor seating in the summer and people seem to be having so much fun, or sitting alone at a restaurant with bottles on the shelves, or whatnot. But they are always just fleeting thoughts, not actual desires. I think more than anything, they are thoughts reminding me that, at core, I’m a regular person and not some dirty animal. But I don’t want to drink. After that first relapse, I somehow was able to “learn”, both intellectually and on a deeper level, that even one more drink quite literally leads to destruction. That’s why once I quit smoking I never too another single puff of a cigarette. I already learned that lesson.

  2. George ann Says:

    Wow I had no idea
    Congratulations on ur ten year sobriety coming up…

  3. Duane Eugene Miller Says:

    You’re a beautiful human being, Seth. I am a firm believer that the quilt can eventually be healed. I do not know the way, but that’s what I choose to believe. I might know a little something about The Bottom. It’s ugly, hateful and sick as fuck all, but it also appears that it is a phantom of memory now, nothing more. A story of change. Birth is ugly too.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Wow. Birth is ugly, too. That is some seriously good stuff there, sir.

      We have very similar but also widely different philosophies. Things do appear to become phantoms of memories, but I have a hard time accepting that. Part of me thinks they’re always here, always happening. But, I hope you’re right.

      And, thank you.

      • Duane Eugene Miller Says:

        Even more important to note than the possibility of the freedom from quilt is the incredible road you’ve traveled, the good you’ve done since, and all that you appreciate now. If you carry the quilt as a reminder of humility, then carry it as such, with kindness. But for what it’s worth, what I see now is a man that has outgrown his past, and that’s all a man really is: A being that through will and knowledge, leaves the immature behind.

  4. wow, seth. so many of your posts fill me with so much to say, that sadly, i usually stuff if for fear of clogging up your blog with extemporaneous essays. That admission is probably not what a blogger wants to hear from a potential commenter.

    But I would second what Kyle said – your words are a gift to the literate, and i hope you will all your files and hard drives to somebody responsible when you’re done on earth. i would also second what duane said – you are a beautiful man, my friend.

    there’s obviously a lot of common ground in the paths we took to survive our 20s and our drinking. after reading this, if i had to limit myself to a single thing to say (and i mean to) i would say that i do not know what i admire more – your capacity for empathy (like for your father), your thoughtful approach to your own emotions and ‘stuff’, or your seemingly effortless ability to put it all into really beautiful (yet somehow still mostly humble) prose. in each of these ways, i hope to someday grow up to be like you, my friend.

    and thank you for the latest post card. i too grow giddy at the coming of spring. but also at the coming of fall. but right now, i’ll take spring until i’m sick of it.

  5. This is damn good writing Noodle! I remember sitting on the bed at my moms house when you told me this story. I’m proud of you.

  6. […] days surrounding April 3rd, 2003—the day I got and stayed sober.  Part one can be read by clicking here, and part two can be read by clicking […]

  7. […] up drinking, then got sober for good the next day.  I wrote detailed posts about it.  Part one is here and part two is here.) Karla and I now live just a few blocks away from the Bethesda Mission, the […]

  8. […] new to the blog and interested, I detailed the days I got sober in a two-part blog, part one here and part two here .   There’s a dandy of an entry on the topic here.  Here is a good one […]

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