Rebab and such like, facilities for the nervously impaired, always looks great in movies with beautiful chicks. Think young Natalie Wood on a rolling lawn, with a starched white nurse, probably drip feeding her narcotics simply for being a teenager. Winona Ryder hanging with Angelina, eating Ice Cream in New England. Beatrice Dalle, heavily sedated before her lover snuffs her out and goes home to eat a life affirming pot of stew in Bette Blue, sweating in his wifebeater, remember all the great shags he had before the amor went fou. Even Cuckoo’s Nest with the hideous Jack Nicholson looked kind of fun, and everyone was sedated. Best of all was Valley of the Dolls, poor little Patty Duke, sitting in some sweating machine to slim down or calm down or something. Patty Duke was girl next door cute, also on piles of real drugs in real life, you know. And in the film bonkers, on shitloads of precious and marketable sedatives. So what I wanted was to be put in a sweating machine, on a rolling lawn, with a Valium drip, and somehow, I would get off drugs by being on more drugs, the same ones I liked. This made perfect sense to me at the time. And at the end I would emerge fresh-faced and dewy and forgiven, and get out, find another dirty doctor, but just HIDE it better this time. Or plan B, which was that I would be so sedated and lifeless, a Native American would come and suffocate me with a pillow. And everyone would be all like, “Oh, we should have just let her take drugs forever, then she would still be alive.”
But here’s the thing about rehab. They don’t give you drugs, they take them off you, and Valium is one mother of a drug to withdraw from, if you’ve been on and off em for most of your life. I was running for the shelter of my mother’s little helper waaay before I was a mother.
The people on heroin were off it in a week, sometimes less. They got sleepers and , I think, Valium, as part of their detox. I was the only Valium queen I think at the time I was there, and my detox took a month, gradually cutting down, but even when it’s gone, it’s not really gone, because it has a very long half life, and lurks about in your piss and blood and saliva for ages after you’ve taken your last one.
I can’t remember much about the train journey to Bournemouth, except my broken ribs poking out at jutting angles. My upper torso looked like a broken toast rack. When I arrived at the centre I was photographed (I still have it, I don’t recognise that woman) given some coffee, watched a bit of a film, and then saw the doctor, who made me spill all my drugs on the table. He let me keep the suppositories to stop throwing up. The rest he took away.
I was then taken to the flat in Boscombe which would be my home for the next three months. There were five bedrooms, dorm style, with wardrobes, a single bed, and a communal kitchen and living area. One lovely woman who had been there for a while was my “buddy” who looked after me for the first few weeks. Apart from her, everyone else in my flat had been on heroin and most had been in jail at some point. She had been on heroin, but not in jail. Every night we had to go to a 12 step meeting, either for Narcotics or Alcohol or Cocaine. I preferred the cocaine ones because the people, even off cocaine, were rather zippy and energetic. I didn’t like the Narcotic ones because the people there seemed from another planet. They would speak in street slang and prison slang and drug slang and talk really fast about sticking pins of brown in their pound coins with me going, what’s a pin, what’s a pound coin, what’s brown, and my translator would say, needles, heroin, testicles, and give me an extra strong mint.
There was one meeting, mostly guys in their 60s who had been young in the 60s, and they would laugh and say, “Back in the 60s man, drugs were really drugs, everyone had everything, and you got the chicks and the drugs and the music, and now here were are in a smelly, cold room drinking coffee and eating Rich Teas, but I love it man, I love this life.” But when they talked about the 60s, it seemed so much better. How on earth could being in this overcrowded room with guys who had like, had their legs amputated cos their veins had collapsed, drinking Costco decaff, how the hell could that be better than being high on drugs and having sex with beautiful women also high on drugs, while listening to, maybe Hendrix or the Byrds or Motown, I dunno, better music than Alan Dull Ray, who was on permaplay on the music channel in my rehab flat share. It was also the year PJ Harvey’s When England Shakes came out, and a friend of mine got me a copy and that CD was my salvation. I still get weepy when I hear it, and used to think , if I had only learned the zither and were multi talented, I could be in a puffy sleeved white frock making an award winning record, instead of stinking of stale rollies ( everyone smoked except me, they told me I was “Isolating” and I said, I hate the smell of rollies in my hair.) And when I used to sit bunched up in a chair, to hold my falling apart body together and my ribs in the place I approximated they should be, they said I was sitting in a defensive posture. I said I was holding my ribs in.
On one of the earlier days there, we had a “fun” afternoon out, bowling. There was a guy there with so many morphine patches on him, he was permanently on the nod. And therefore could not grasp the concept of bowling and for the short bursts of wakefulness, would try to participate, once, by being the ball and rolling himself down the aisle to knock the pins down. He ran, rather staggered, away a few days later. There was F, in and out of prison all his life, and now an all singing feel the love of recovery sort of guy. He chastised me for bringing a negative vibe into the house. I said I was on downers, and coming off them, and yeah, it sucked, and if I couldn’t say it sucked here, where could I say it. Then there was the chancer, the wrongun in a high achieving family. His best story was about bringing different girls home and his bed was in a tight spot, so that your feet hit the wall. He was caught cheating when his regular girlfriend noticed footprints on the wall that did not match hers. She said, “Those are not my feet,” and left.
Those are not my feet. I love that line.
There were days when it didn’t feel like rehab at all, but some strange awayday trip. Once day, during a glorious Indian summer, we all went to the beach, and I realised perhaps some normal family, like I was once part of, were on a budget break, and looking at all of us pale, thin, ghostlike apparitions standing at the sea front in dazed wonder.
We attempted a game of football, those of us who could stand and run. I sat on the side, feeling the sea breeze on my face, starting to think , maybe I will come out of this, and come to the sea, and the sea will be enough.
And a dog came and joined in the football game, and scored a goal. The woman who owned the dog came up to my new friend N, and myself. She was trying to work out the nature of our gathering. And trying ever so hard to find the right, English stiff upper lip way to ask what a bunch of half dead junkies and alkies were doing on the beach, playing football with her dog. “What is the nature of your gathering, what brings you all together?” And N piped up , “Drink,” and I added, “Oh, and drugs as well.”
“Freddie, woo hoo, Freddie, ” she shouted in a voice that was a bit too shrill to disguise her panic, to call her dog.” Then we’d head back to the clinic in the van, gather in the common room and get our post and notices and for those of us still on them, our pills. I was the last in my flat to get my detox certificate. It was laminated. I got a round of applause. It was better than graduation.
But then I had to write a Dear John letter to my drugs. My immediate response was “but they will never write back” and my key worker said, “Well, they probably have nothing new to say anyway.”
I have never written a letter where I have to break up with a guy. I usually just tell them, or leave, or both. But drugs, I’d been with them almost all my life. The letter went right back to my Lower East Side days, remembering how I loved to stick my thumbnail in the carved out V in the blue pills. I remembered all the doctors I had seen, the cute French one who gave me piles of em, the dirty one in East London who always looked cagey and miserable, the words typed ( as it was in those days) on the label on the bottle, “Take as needed” or something to that effect, or “as prescribed,” which amounted to the same thing, which was pretty much always. The nice one who I lied to about all my other supplies. The Turkish one I told I needed for flying, and that I flew a lot. The near investigation from the DEA over the forged script. The ones the junkies would lower down in little pails on Delancey. You put your money in, they would reel it up, and they would send the pills down in the little pail.
I found it hard to write to the pills themselves, so I wrote to the people who gave them to me. I said thank you for getting me this far, but now I have to figure out how to do it, life, without you. To the pills I couldn’t say, we had some great times, because we didn’t. I just wrote, and I still mean this, you were always there for me. But I really friggin hate that expression, often uttered in soap operas or in talks about good friends, “You were there for me.” I never knew what that meant. I still don’t. I thought it would be funnier to write to Crystal Meth, so I could say, “You were my rock” but I never liked Crystal Meth, after finding some in a paint box and staying up for three days, during one of the hottest NYC summers on record, fanless, air conditionless, and up. After various attempts, I just wrote, oh, why don’t you just fuck off and leave me alone. But as soon as I wrote it, I wanted to ring it and say, “I take it all back. All is forgiven! Can we still be friends?” And maybe I put it in the letter, I can’t remember, I just remember the pills never wrote me back. And that kind of says it all, really. TBC