President of What?

When I was twenty-five years old I went to rehab for alcohol addiction.  I actually had to go twice in quick succession, but the story I’m about to tell you is from the first time I went.

This rehab had an interesting way of doing things.  It was, of course, technically run by counselors and other health professionals.  But they had set the day-to-day of the place up so that it at least gave the appearance that the patients, to a degree, were doing some of the running of the place.  The whole thing was, I’m sure, a calculated part of the therapy.

There were four designated officers at any time: the President, the Vice-President, and two positions whose title I forget, but whose function was to match new incoming patients with “buddies” to show them the ropes–one officer in charge of males, one in charge of females.  These officers were not elected, however, but chosen deliberately by the staff; in addition, their terms were not defined. Most often, once put in position they remained there for the duration of their stay, but sometimes if it wasn’t a good fit, changes could be made when the need arose.

I was in rehab a few days before I finally made it out of my room (the reports are true–withdrawal is a bitch) and experienced my first morning roll call.  This particular rehab featured many different rooms, but only one Big Room.  The Big Room could fit all the current patients at the same time and we all gathered there only two or three times each day.  The morning meeting served many purposes (including of course a “roll call” to make sure everyone was there) such as a hope you had for the day, detailing of tasks for the day, et cetera.  These proceedings were all done without the presence of any staff and were carried out by the President, who sat flanked by his three cabinet members in nicer chairs than the rest of us, centered under two enormous (and I mean enormous) banners that listed the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (six steps per banner). That morning, the President I witnessed was a man even younger than me, very charismatic and handsome, friendly and genuine who seemed to have held the position for quite awhile.  Meekly, I watched everything that was happening through a sunken, terrified exterior.  I was underwater.

As my first few weeks passed, I got over some of my initial fear and began to fit in and make friends and even some progress on myself.  The routine and workings of the institution quickly became ingrained in me.  I watched as the male and female “buddy coordinators” set up newcomers with mentors; I wasn’t there very long before I was showing newbies the ropes myself.  The President had a surprising amount of sway; not only was their job to call roll call (in the morning and throughout the day) and run certain meetings, but they seemed to have some say in certain policy.  If a patient had been caught smuggling in drugs, the counselors pulled the President into an office to consult; did they think the offender should be kicked out?  Or was this a good learning opportunity?  Whether the President actually had any real say was debatable, but the show that was put on seemed awfully real.

I was legitimately shocked when, one evening during Movie Night, I was called into the hallway and met with the sight of all the facility’s counselors.  I was to be the next President, starting at next morning’s roll call.  They all had enormous grins on their faces–it was a truly congratulatory moment.  It may not seem like much from afar, but in that moment, in that insular world, it was a startling moment of revelatory self-discovery for me.

Before entering rehab I had been near a human low few people outside of deep addiction can comprehend.  Not to belittle your experience with sorrow and depth–non-addiction sorrow and depth is terrible, too, it’s just nowhere near as acute as addicts can achieve.  A few weeks prior I in no way could have imagined being asked to lead a group of forty to sixty strangers through their every day activities when I myself couldn’t take a shower without bringing my McDonalds plastic Super Size cup full of gin–and then passing out with the water running before I even washed my hair.  Now these health professionals were asking me to be a leader.  That moment, in that hallway, is one of those moments: looking back, over the whole course of your life, there will be moments–maybe three, maybe fourteen, let’s say a “handful” of moments–that you can look back on and recognize, that is where part of my actual self snapped into place.  We go through life becoming many different people, all the time–various versions of ourselves. Occasionally a new aspect clicks into place for you and you know, ah yes, this is me–this is part of who I have been waiting to be.

I’m not trying to say I am some natural born leader; in many ways I am a terrific leader and in many ways I am a deeply flawed leader.  It was the fact that leader was AT ALL attached to me that became a new and permanent (on an admittedly small and primarily retail occupation sense) descriptor for me that stunned.  For creating that moment, the rehab had functioned perfectly–and maybe saved my life.

I went on to have, by my account, a successful and lovely term as President for about two and a half weeks, up until the day I was released.  One of the more memorable aspects of the position was that, if I was speaking (in a public forum, like at a meeting, etc) and others started talking over me or having side conversations, the majority of the other patients would begin yelling “RESPECT!” until everyone was quiet for me.  This was a practice only done for the President. Its effect upon my self-worth cannot be overstated.

I happened to be President over Christmas, too. A hell of a time to be in rehab, and challenging for all of us.  I remember the counselors pulling me into many offices, asking my opinions about things like parties, gifts, things like that, and I offered ideas.  It felt as though we were peers, me and the counselors.  I felt adult and competent.  On Christmas Day, the cafeteria staff made us a very special and delicious meal.  As we were all sitting and chatting following the meal, I had the idea for all of us to applaud the staff for the meal.  I stood to address all sixty or so patients.  I stood on my chair and bellowed Excuse me! and as some folks kept talking, they were met with a barrage of RESPECT! I then gave a little speech about how hard it was for all of us to be in here for Christmas, and how we should not take it for granted that all the staff here was working on Christmas, too, and what a great meal they had made us.  I then called for a round of applause, which was thunderous, and very genuine.  People didn’t stop thanking me for that for the rest of my stay.  I amazed myself.  It was a small decision, but a decision I had made for sixty people, all by myself, without consulting anyone–mere weeks after being a hopeless, adrift, nearly insane drunkard.

Looking back at that time now, I see the seed of who I’ve become, but it’s almost more astonishing to think about how much more I’ve evolved and changed since then.  That was fourteen years ago, and although some of it still seems like yesterday, I’ve been through four or five complete new versions of myself since then.  I can’t imagine a life within which I was not constantly evolving.  Many people seem to reach a place in life–usually somewhere between ages 25-35–where they decide they have become the final version of themselves.  Sadly many seem to do this because our culture values this; to continue to evolve for your whole life seems, to some, unsavory, perhaps even immature.  The adult thing to do is to find your sweet spot and stay there.

The unfortunate side effect of becoming sedentary is that you will stop finding those moments where your true self snaps into place for you.  Core, true parts of yourself will remain unknown to you. Just like with our planet and the universe, if you stop exploring yourself, well, there’s things you’ll never find.  But they are there all along.  They are waiting for you to find them.


10 Responses to “President of What?”

  1. What a fabulous story! I don’t recall reading about this before. I am proud of you for telling it. Proud of the folks who elected you President. And proud of you every day for the person you have become.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Thank you so much Dad! It is so terrific to hear things like that from your parents. I have never written or even told many people about the “President” thing before; it was one of those things that kind of slid into obscurity in my past, a memory I only rarely visited. Something happened a few nights ago that had me telling Karla the story and I realized how significant it was, as well as how it tied into what I’ve been wanting to communicate about continual personal evolution. Thanks again!

      • sethdellinger Says:

        Also I’ve been thinking, despite having written so extensively on my addiction/rehab/recovery, if there’s anything interesting I haven’t touched on yet, I should do so soon, as the details are finally starting to leave me…

  2. Kiwi Warch-ch-chia Says:

    This is insanely well written. I’m freaking out, Dellinger. You are so damn cool I almost can’t stand you.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Thank you Cory!!! You know you are one of the most important readers for me, so I’m always pumped when you like something!!!

  3. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    That’s pretty ballsy to command an entire room at a time when it wasn’t customary to do so. Even if those people just made you toast they’re pretty great to do it on Christmas.

    I think your Presidency would rank somewhere between Taylor and Arthur. You were no Van Buren boy though.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      It really was! Even at the time I was like, damn that was ballsy! It wasn’t AS ballsy as it sounds, in the context of that environment, but it was still ballsy. I have often thought about starting a real Van Buren Boys club!

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