Getting into a residential rehab program is not like booking a hotel. I wanted him to pack up and go immediately but first space needs to be available and insurance coverage confirmed. But Neil approached finding a program as if he were planning a holiday, even suggesting a Florida location touting resort-like grounds and delicious food. While putting distance between us appealed to me, my insurance covered only treatment, not airfare. Nearly two weeks passed before we managed to find an opening at a place in a neighboring town that was suitably posh for Neil’s taste – he refused the state-run option in the a severely depressed city less than 10 miles away. On check-in day, I arranged for Molly to go to a friend’s house after school and left the store early to drive him.
Wearing a blazer, silk cravat tucked into the neck of a blue pin-stripe shirt still crisp from the cleaners, he looked like an English gentleman off for the weekend instead of a penniless, strung-out cokehead. After sliding a small duffel bag onto the back seat, Neil got into the car, his lips sealed in a grim line. I’d watched him pack the small suitcase until it bulged with clothing, a collection of Brit-comedy videos, framed photos of Molly and me and a leather-bound copy of the collected works of Shakespeare. I never saw him crack the massive tome, although he knew Hamlet’s famous soliloquy and other snippets of plays by heart from his days of working in film. The book like his costume, were purely for effect.
Within 20 minutes we arrived at a campus-like setting with New England-y buildings and lush lawns. Neil lit up a cigarette as we walked towards the registration office, the flame quivering in his shaking hand. Watching his back, I half thought he might bolt and take off into the woodsy streets we just drove on, away from this place. In the office we were instructed to wait. We sat for what seemed hours in a formal reception room with thick carpeting, overstuffed furniture and a loudly ticking grandfather clock. A mother and father sat poker faced with a complaining teenage daughter who seemed to have been there before. In the corner, a woman who looked about fifty, sat by herself. We all spoke in hushed tones as if the registration area were a library. I opened my book and read the same sentence over and over. Following any story but ours was impossible. Neil kept stepping outside for a cigarette and I stared at the door until he returned, sure he wouldn’t. Finally his name was called and he disappeared into an office. His admittance interview took about 30 minutes. He came out agitated.
“I don’t know if I can go through with this. I hate these places! I can’t even have my videos – like a bloody prison. I never told you about when I was a kid and they put me away for a few weeks, did I? They kept me locked up in a room. I just can’t be locked up,” he said, chewing his fingers.
“No, you never told me any of this. Why were you sent away?” Why had he never told me about such a traumatic childhood event? I felt sick at the thought of another secret.
“They said they wanted to do tests. I don’t know. I was only a kid.” He shook his head, irritated. “Anyway, it was fucking horrible. I am warning you, I really can’t be locked up.”
That was all he would tell me. What trauma caused this terrified child in my hulking husband to self-medicate? Over the years, Neil had shared only bits and pieces of his past – mostly the amusing anecdotes that were easy for him to deliver. Less often, he shared sobering stories. His father left when Neil was an infant, running back to Scotland, abandoning Neil’s mother and 4 boys. Overwhelmed, she placed her children in what Neil referred to as ‘a home’, essentially an orphanage where they remained until she married a sweet man who Neil loved dearly because he insisted the boys should be with them. But this snippet of history, of him being sent off to an institution as an older boy, I’d never heard before. I only half believed him. Besides, this was not time to be swayed by conjured images of him as a little boy.
“Oh, Neil, I’m sure it will be fine. Please, you just have to do this. Hey, and maybe you’ll have a chance to read some of that Shakespeare!” At the same time I was trying to muster sympathy and pleading with him, I couldn’t resist throwing in a barb. I’d become such a bitch.
He grunted. He had failed to impress the unsmiling young woman in-take Doctor with his usual charm and suave demeanor. I could see him floundering and sensed he was starting to panic. So was I: he had to go through with this! Nothing was stopping him from walking out of there. I willed him to stay put and I begged him, “Neil, please try and do this. Think of Molly, of us. Please! Remember, this is our last chance to make this work. I can’t do anything more.”
I followed him outside as he went to smoke again.
“Look! It’s nice here,” I motioned toward the lush grounds. “It looks like a college campus. I’m sure it will be fine. You’ll be fine.”
He sucked hard on his cigarette. His forehead pressed into his left hand, his eyes closed. We went back into the waiting room. A heavy woman with stringy hair stood in the middle of the room with a clipboard. She glared at us, apparently irritated at having to repeat her self.
“Everyone who has finished checking in will now be taken by mini-bus to the other side of the campus. You need to say goodbye here,” she barked.
Tears welled up in Neil’s eyes and as we walked out of the building towards the waiting mini-bus, he began weeping. I managed to choke back a sob swelling up from my chest but I could not hold back my tears. Even as I couldn’t wait to be free of him, I felt something inside of me tearing.
“I love you!” Neil said to me.
“I love you too!”
He had to duck his head as he climbed into the bus. He turned and looked back at me and I saw a petrified little boy. I felt a pang, as if I was doing something unforgivable – like leaving my child at the orphanage when I really could take care of him. But I could not take care of him. And he was not my child. This man was my husband and our life had become impossible. There was no other way. All I could do was hope this worked. We waved to each other as the bus pulled off. Back in my car, I lay my head against the steering wheel and sobbed.
“Please let him get better,” I prayed to a god I wasn’t sure I believed in, that I spoke to only in the darkest of times – like now. There was nothing left; every last corner of my being had been spent trying to fix Neil. Finally, I knew what it meant to admit I was powerless.
At Al-Anon meetings, I was never comfortable with the group’s shared prayer, and would remain silent or slip out of the room rather than participate in the recitation of ‘Our Father’. Too loaded with conflicted memories of childhood hours chanting on my knees in the pews of church. But I felt differently about the short little Serenity prayer and repeated it to myself throughout the day: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”. I said it now, over and over invoking all of the glimpses of god I ever found in nature, in the remaining remnants of my childhood religion, the spirit of my dead mother and grandfather: I needed all their help.
I drove back carefully navigating the twisting, narrow roads. The leaves were just starting to change, colors lit by the dramatic slants of the setting sun. A new chill in the air made it clear that summer was over. It was time for me to pick Molly up from her friend’s house.
A few hours later Molly sat at the table doing her homework while I cooked dinner by emptying a jar of tomato sauce into a pot and boiling pasta. An unfamiliar sense of peace permeated the house. I knew where Neil was, I knew he was safe and couldn’t be doing drugs. When had I last been sure of that? I put two plates on the table and the phone rang. I let the machine pick up.
“If you don’t come get me from here right now, I swear to God, I am going to break out! I’ll destroy this place! They have me locked up with bars on the windows and I’m in a room with a drunk who keeps throwing up. The smell is disgusting. Please!”
I put my fork down and rushed to the phone before Molly could hear any more. “Neil!” Molly watched me, still eating her spaghetti. Neil continued his rant.
“They went through all of my things, took all of the glass out of my photographs of you and Molly – like I was a fucking prisoner. I’m telling you, I am not going to stay here. I’ll go straight to England, I’ll go anywhere, I just can’t stay here and I swear to you, I’ll break out if I have to.”
I held the phone arm’s length from my head and still heard every word.
“You have to stay! What are you talking about! You know what we agreed.” I said, my voice rising to match his.
How fleeting those moments of serenity had been. Molly now stood beside me and piped in, “Daddy! Just stay there! Otherwise how are you going to get better?”
“Do you hear that? Neil, listen to your eight year old! We need you to do this for us. For you!”
“I can’t. Not in this place. I’m dead serious. You need to come and get me from here tonight. I am leaving, no matter what. I can’t be locked in. I can’t do it. I’ll destroy the place!”
“What do you expect me to do? It’s almost Molly’s bedtime – I’m not bringing her there. Please, this is just insane.”
“No – you haven’t seen insane yet! I’m warning you. You need to come get me out of here. I beg you.”
“All right. All right – but calm down. I’ll get there when I can.”
I hung up the phone. God, I hated him! He had me again. I had to go talk to him. But that’s all I would do: talk. These few hours – only moments – of what my life could be like, was enough of a taste. I refused to live in the chaos of Neil’s addiction. Molly deserved to be raised in peace, even if that meant, I’d be doing it alone.
I arranged for Molly to sleep over at a classmate’s house. She could go to school with them the next day. I would not expose her to any more of her father’s theatrics tonight. She packed her little plaid backpack, happy to have the adventure of a weeknight sleepover. I crawled along the dark roads back to the hospital. Why was I even going? Why didn’t I just let that place deal with him, they must have seen worse cases than Neil? But the way he begged me – he sounded so crazed. I imagined him trying to break out, destroying furniture, being jumped by orderlies like a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And as usual, in spite of all the Al-Anon literature I’d been reading, I was trying to fix everything, to head-off disaster before it happened. Or was I heading right towards it, returning on this dark road where hours ago I admired the beauty of the fading light?
The building where Neil was did resemble a prison. It was as if the college campus image we’d been welcomed into was just a front. I peered through a window with glass so thick it appeared smoky. A man with rheumy eyes and deportment of a patient passed by the door. I knocked. Nodding to let me know he saw me, he ducked into a room and returned with a trim, bearded man in his 30s who unlocked the door and stepped outside onto the landing of metal stairs where I stood.
“Hi. Can I help you?” he asked.
“My husband is here and he’s freaking out. He called me hysterically threatening to destroy the place, saying he can’t bear to be locked up.”
Why the hell do they let them make phone calls anyway, I thought.
“Have you ever been to an Al-Anon meeting?” he asked me earnestly. I wanted to hit his handsome bearded face.
Not trying to hide my exasperation, I answered, “Yes, I know, I know! I’ve been going for years. I’m here because he threatened to break out and wreck the place while he was doing it if I didn’t come get him out of here. He’s a big guy and he could probably do it.”
“OK. Come inside and talk to him. But he can’t be released tonight – the offices are closed.”
I was relieved to hear this.
“I’ll call the doctor on duty to see what we can do.”
“Thank you! I appreciate it,” I said, although I felt like I was doing them the favor.
I followed him through the heavy metal door into an institutional hall that reeked of smoke and disinfectant, empty but for a pay phone. The man led me to a room with three shabby vinyl couches and a television. The mud colored carpet had patches that were worn through to the floor. Neil sat on an orange couch looking pale and sick, his face visibly relieved when he saw me. I nodded and sank down into the farthest couch holding my elbows, arms crossed in front of me.
“See what I mean? Look at this place! I can’t take it here, it’s doing my head in!” Neil gestured to the windows with metal gates over them. “This is a bloody prison. And the other people here, they’re drunks and junkies. My room smells like puke from the guy I’m in with – he keeps throwing up and has the shakes. I’m supposed to sit around with them and… I can’t do it! I’m not like them. They searched me when they brought me here and went through all my things. I feel like a fucking prisoner!”
What a snob he was, like somehow he was better than other addicts and his was a classier addiction. Did he think he deserved better accommodations because he didn’t shoot up or smoke crack? No – just snorting for him. And he couldn’t abide alcoholics, their lack of personal hygiene and slovenliness. I couldn’t believe how superior he felt. Getting angrier by the second, I took a deep breath before speaking.
“I don’t know what you expect from me now. I am so exhausted, I feel like just a shell sitting here. I have done everything I can. This is your problem to deal with and I can’t fix it for you. Everything I said still holds. If you leave here, you can’t stay at home with us. I need to protect Molly. And I can’t pay for a hotel for you. I don’t have the money to support you, your habit and accommodation any more. So what are you going to do, live on the streets? Before I will ever consider having you live with us again, you need to figure out how to be a responsible man. I need to see you can take care of yourself – that you can take care of us. Only then can you come home. And you are so, so far away from that right now. You need to end your love affair with this fucking drug once and for all. And at this point, this place seems like your best chance. So please, Neil – you’ve come this far!”
I spit this speech out. Something deep inside of me felt dead.
“I’ll go to England! I’ll get on the first plane there and get myself straightened out. I just can’t be in here cooped up like I’m in prison.”
A man came into the room and introduced himself as Dr. Abdullah, the doctor on duty for the night. Neil pleaded his case, repeating his childhood ordeal.
“They sent me to a home for evaluation and left me alone in a locked room with bars on the windows for days, just like this,” He motioned to the barred windows behind him. “I just can’t take it.”
“I understand. You have a phobia. I understand. Listen, it’s too late to move you to the ‘big house’ right now but what if I can get you into the medical detox unit? The doors are still locked there but it would only be for the night and you would have your own room. In the morning someone will evaluate you and see if you can be moved to where there are no bars on the windows.”
“I’ll do that. OK. Anything to get out of here,” Neil answered, apparently resigning himself to staying.
“Thank you, Doctor.” I was grateful I’d be going home alone. We shook hands and the doctor left the room.
“I’ve got to get going. I have work tomorrow and need to get to bed.” I picked up my purse, turning as Neil moved to embrace me then quickly brushed his cheek with a kiss and left the room, hurrying to get away from there, from him.
That night I remained scrunched up at the edge of the bed looking for sleep. The next morning, I went about my day at work, jumping every time the phone rang. When Neil did call, it was to tell me everything was fine. In the extreme detox unit where he was moved to, he listened to the moaning and screaming sounds of other patients in withdrawal, something he seemed to have no problem with. But he was thrilled to be in a room by himself and snapped back into his usual flirtatious self, teasing the nurses.
“They check on you regularly, like a few times in an hour. One nurse was quite cute. I had her laughing every time she came into the room. They loved me,” he reported.
He needed to be noticed by strangers, wherever he was. It was never enough for him to know Molly and I loved him.
“In the morning, I was interviewed by two more doctors and a social worker. I told her my Rottweiler joke – that it’s easier to get your kid from a Rottweiler than a social worker. Everyone agreed I could go straight to ‘the big house’. It’s much better there. I have a beautiful room and the food is gorgeous. We spend most of the day in groups talking and I’m learning a lot.”
“So you’re staying, right?”
“Of course I am, darling. I’m going to do this, Tricia – I’m doing it for you and for Molly and for me. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose my family; you’re all I’ve got!”
“Good. Last night you really scared me.”
I could feel it happening already: I began imagining him back with us, no longer chasing after cocaine, contributing to the household, loving us. I pulled myself back. What a mug. I could not let myself believe his bullshit. Not yet.
“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t stay in that other place. You saw it there! I was lucky it was Doctor Abdullah that was on duty last night. He understands my fear of being cooped up – he told me his story – he’s Palestinian and grew up in a refugee camp. We talked about the UN and our time in Bosnia. He’s a great guy. Listen, I’ve got to go to my next group now. I’ll talk to you later. I love you.”
“I love you too.” The words flowed easily now I felt safe.
Everything finally seemed in place. His rehab program was a month-to-six weeks, time for me to think.
I needed my own recovery after living in perpetual anxiety and fear for years. When people asked me how I managed to stay skinny I made a play on the popular diet program of the time telling them it was the ‘stress beach diet’. I had no appetite. Eating became a function. Where had joy gone? Not even sleep provided an escape, especially as I never made it through the night without being woken either by Neil’s jitters, the sound of the television at 3:00 AM or a panic attack over money. Most painful of all was when I obsessed over how Molly had been cheated by my focus on Neil’s behavior. Her dad had so rarely been my partner in life or in parenting. His craziness sucked all of my energy and attention leaving less for Molly. Enough years were wasted. I swore to myself over and over again that Neil could not live with us if he continued to use drugs. Of course, how would I ever know? He had fooled me for years.
Molly appeared to be handling the knowledge of her father’s drug problem well. Like me, she was relieved to know the reason for his bouts of strange behavior, even as the ‘why’ remained elusive to both of us. While she found it frightening to think of him using drugs, she told me it felt better knowing the cause for his madness. Like it wasn’t really his fault. Or at least that it wasn’t hers. Molly figured if it was something he was doing to himself, he must be able to stop. That if he loved her, he would and as much as I tried to understand that he was sick and addiction was formidable, I thought the same thing.
Neil called every day happily reporting his progress, telling us he loved and missed us. He swore he was working hard and promised he’d be back to his good self soon. Barely a week had passed since his first night there when an administrator from the hospital called to inform me that Neil would be moved to a halfway house ‘off-campus’. There, ‘the clients’ would have more, but limited, freedom, still attending meetings and appointments at the hospital. The cost for was $400 a week, not covered by my insurance.
“Are you sure? How could that be?” I asked.
“Call your insurance company and double-check, but according to what we have on record, your plan will not pay room and board for the half-way house.”
“Then can’t you just keep him in the ‘big house’ longer? He seems to be doing well there.” No way I could afford to pay $400 a week. Every last dime I generated went to covering the barebones of house and living expenses.
“No, I’m afraid the room is needed for other clients,” she apologized.
Clients. That gave it all away – this was business and they needed to move the customers through in a timely fashion. He wasn’t even gone a full week. None of us was ready for him to be home. He can’t come home – not yet. My heart raced just thinking about it. I braced myself to tell him.
“I can’t afford to shell out $400 a week for that place and I just can’t have you back yet. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.”
“I know, I know. I understand. I’ve already decided: I’ll go to England. The insurance in this country is awful. Every day someone comes into meetings after being told they are not covered anymore so they have to leave – even though they aren’t ready – even the doctors agree. You wouldn’t believe how much group time we spend talking about fucking insurance. It’s so fucked up in this country. At home at least, National Health Care will pay for everything.”
“Can you get into a rehab program there?” My beating heart began to slow. Neil really sounded so committed to doing this. Maybe he had finally hit his bottom and was on the way up – and back to us.
“Yeah, I’m sure I can. I’ve got to. I want to be the man you married again. I want to get that back. I hear all of these stories all day from people and how they lost everything. I don’t want that to be me. I swear on Molly’s life, I will do it.”
These pronouncements and oaths were so familiar, I knew not too get too excited. His words no longer held any sway. Would he ever become a partner? At this point, I could not count on him to be a reliable parent for Molly. Who would take care of her if I died? It was more than just being drug free now – if I was ever going to live with him again, he needed to grow up and be dependable.
“Neil, remember what I said your first night here: I need to see that you know how to take care of yourself, be responsible – at least for yourself. You become that man and I will even consider moving to England. I’m open to that. But just be clear, I’m not talking about you going over there and just hanging out and coming back after six weeks. You need to get your act together, to get a job, pay your bills. Really.”
“I know,” he sounded calm. “After this week, I understand like I never have before. I know what I have put you through – and Tricia: I am so sorry. I’ve been a lying bastard for too long. I’ve been a miserable git and you don’t deserve that and neither does Molly.”
I felt some satisfaction in finally hearing him admit that his behavior had hurt us.
“Ok,” he said, “I’ll figure it out from here and call you back later.”
The next step happened quickly. Within a few hours he called to say his flight was booked and ready for me to call with my credit card information. If I picked him up tomorrow afternoon, he would fly out the following day. The hospital was releasing him against Doctor’s orders and wanted him to leave for the airport directly from there so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out and get drugs – but he insisted he wanted to see us first to say goodbye properly. I agreed. In England he would stay with one of his daughters until he could be admitted into a rehab program. This was the plan.
I felt like a zombie, moving through the day, but I could handle less than 24 hours with him if I knew he was really going to England. This is our best hope, I thought. With time and distance away from him, I might feel sane again and hopefully, Neil would get his act together. And so would I.