With today being St. Patrick’s Day and one of the East End’s largest parades taking place last weekend, I got to thinking about my six-month, self-destructive stay in Cambridge – and not because your basketball team is called the Celtics or because of your large Irish-American population, and not even because of the many booze addled adventures I went on during my short stint in your fine city. No, St. Patrick’s Day makes me think of you because it actually marks exactly one year since I moved back to New York.
Boston, it’s not that I don’t love you – I’ve always loved you – but I moved there impulsively for all the wrong reasons. Mostly, the move north was a passive aggressive attempt to break up with a girl who I don’t think I really wanted to be dating in the first place.
Now, mental health has never exactly been my forte, but really, my time in Boston was one of the most disastrous periods of my life. I’ve always been a very social person and a rather heavy drinker, but that was magnified ten-fold – it’s hard to believe that was even possible – once I moved to Massachusetts. My new job was at an e-marketing company, far outside my comfort level – not only is my background in journalism, but my best friend to this day refers to me as a Luddite. Though the job gave me far more financial comfort than writing ever did and likely ever will, I hated it. I’d always had an anxiety disorder, but this job brought it to new levels, mostly because, simply put, I sucked at it. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit. I was terrible at it. And I don’t like doing things I’m not amazing at.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There were some good times. I saw lots of great music on a regular basis. I loved to go to Red Bones, a bbq joint where I couldn’t eat a single thing, during the week when it was quieter and drink cheap PBRs while I wrote in a notepad at a table in the back of the dimly lit room. I could easily take road trips to places like New Hampshire and Maine. There were fun drunken adventures with strangers. I was living near one of my best friends. I met a lot of good people. And I reconnected with a friend from high school. I’d often go to a bar by her house, with her and her boyfriend, where we’d all flirt with the cute waitress and I would try to take over the jukebox with blocks of Bob Dylan songs that people would inevitably override. (Oh, but one time I got them all – I put on “Alice’s Restaurant,” which runs over 18 minutes long. And you can’t override a song while it’s playing.)
On top of drinking at bars, eventually I was going through several bottles of vodka a week. Soon after that, I was constantly drinking, from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, if I went to bed. And if I could fall asleep, I was waking up every half hour or so, often gasping for air and trying to recall the bad dreams I still can’t remember. If I drank too much, it hurt. And if I didn’t drink, it hurt even more.
One day I couldn’t take it anymore. For the first time in my life I set up an appointment with a therapist (who wound up being a children’s psychologist), hoping she could prescribe me some anti-anxiety medication. Off-handedly, as the conversation about my anxiety winded down, I mentioned “wanting to do something about this drinking thing.” When she asked how much I drank and how often, and then heard my answer, her response was immediate and emphatic – detox. Who knew that it’s dangerous to drink constantly for months and then suddenly stop doing it? To be honest, the idea had been in the back of my mind, but I was hesitant when she suggested it for various reasons. Still, I found myself being let down Cambridge Street by this sleight, blonde, affable, Eastern European woman to the Cambridge Hospital, where they had an alcohol and drug detox center.
I thought I was going in to find out how the whole thing worked, but I gave them all my vital information and found myself adorning pages with my signature. I stupidly said to them, “OK, I need to go to work and find out when I can partake in this shindig.” But I signed the papers. I was going immediately, though I had to wait for a bed to open up at the Somerville Hospital in the next town over in about an hour or so. And panic struck.
I was led to room number 4. The walls were padded, reminding me of the walls of my elementary school gymnasium, and there was a panic button near the door. For a brief second I contemplated trying out those padded walls, wondering what exactly they would do for me if I ran head first into them, then realized these people at the hospital didn’t need any more reasons to think I was crazy.
As I waited for a nurse to come to my room, I realized I needed to get in touch with my job. But I didn’t know the number. So I had to sign onto instant messenger on my cell phone. The only person signed on was my first girlfriend, from high school. I messaged her telling her I was in detox for about a week and needed her to look up the number for my job so I could tell them I wouldn’t be coming to work. I also remembered that I had a date that night and texted the girl, saying, “Hey. I’m in detox. Can’t hang out tonight. Call you in five days.” My chest was pounding and my pulse was racing. I could hardly breath.
Eventually the nurse came in. She looked like Margaret Cho. Bonus points for that.
“Do you have any suicidal thoughts?” She asked. “Do you think you might hurt yourself?”
“Who the hell doesn’t ever have suicidal thoughts?” I replied. “Besides, I probably have a panic disorder, which is really a blessing in an ugly disguise. I’m so afraid of death and pain (they top my 200+ list of fears), that I could never actually hurt myself.”
She laughed, then caught herself and stopped. “Do you have any weapons on you?”
“No, they checked my switchblade at the door, about when they took my keys.”
“Are you bleeding from anywhere that we don’t know about?” I must’ve looked puzzled, because she added that people were often brought to the detox center with stab wounds, didn’t tell the doctors, were taken elsewhere for treatment of their addictions and would bleed all over the place.
I guess she didn’t want me to make a mess. “Nah, I’m not that hardcore.”
Eventually, the bed in Somerville became available. They told me I could drive over there myself and handed me my keys back.
“Really?” I asked.
Really. This didn’t seem right to me, though. How would they know where I went after I left the hospital? I might never even show in Somerville. But they gave me directions.
I was tempted to go home, but figured if I did I would never actually head to the hospital. So I didn’t go back to my place, even though I really wanted to get some clothes and pet my cats. Plus, I wondered, would they send the detox police after me?
So I did what any self-respecting addict would do in such a dilemma: I got a beer and a burrito. I also went to CVS and bought a notebook. Other than that, I was at a loss as far as what else I should do. If I got there too late, the bed would be gone, given to some other person who wanted to try to improve him or herself, or at least was mandated by the court to do so.
When I got there, they took my keys, ID, debit card, phone and money from me. They threw them in a clear plastic bag. They made me change into hospital scrubs and threw my clothes in the same bag. But they let me keep my notebook.
I was given a tour of the detox unit, and then shown my room, after they took my blood pressure, which was high. The whole place was incredibly surreal. Patients in scrubs walking around with a dazed look, shuffling their feet; a med cart a nurse pushed around several times a day as they doled out rations; and a room where the meds were kept that even had a metal shutter. Basically think of every movie you’ve seen about rehab or a psych ward – Girl Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc. – and you have the Somerville Hospital detox unit.
I met my counselor for the week – Bernie, a woman in her 50s, a recovering addict and alcoholic, with a ruddy complexion and a no nonsense attitude. But she was softer than she let on, and always kind to me, telling me, “You’re a writer. Walk away from this and use it to your advantage.”
During one of our daily morning meetings, Bernie caught me eyeing the ceramic fruit bowl full of mass cards on her desk. “Those are for my Charlie boys,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of them come through these doors over the years, but they don’t all make it when they get out.” Softly, almost to herself, she added, “I love my Charlie boys. It breaks my heart to lose any of them.” I was only in Boston for another month after I got out of the hospital, but I thought about that bowl every time I rode the T and it went aboveground, crossing the Charles River.
But my first morning and afternoon there were spent drugged up on whatever the heck it was they gave me. When I first got to my room, I read a fiction issue of “The New Yorker” (which I later stole from the hospital, and then promptly lost during my move back to New York, ironically) for about five minutes until I fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until dinner.
Food was an issue though. Being a vegan, I needed to order special meals. And my meals always arrived about 30 minutes after everyone else’s. I called the kitchen on a daily basis – “Are you sure there isn’t any egg in this?” “Are you sure this wasn’t cooked anywhere near meat?” The workers in the kitchen, if they didn’t hang up on me, probably lied to me when they assured me my food was vegan. So I only ate what I was certain about, and drank a lot of juice. Back in my room after my first meal there, in the margin of the first page of my notebook I scrawled the tentative title for an essay I wanted to write about my stay at the Somerville Hospital – “It’s a Bitch Being a Vegan in Detox.”
As far as prescription drugs go, the most I’d ever taken was antibiotics. Actually, I’d taken codeine once before after I threw out my back only to discover I was allergic to it and never touched anything in the opiate family again. I rarely even ever took aspirin or any other mild pain reliever. I’d never been on so much medication at once, and found it hard to believe they gave those lovely, little red pills to a roomful of addicts. But the med cart came around dutifully three times a day, and if you needed anything else all you had to do was rap on the window of the med room and the nurse who manned it would most likely give you whatever you needed.
And, of course, there was an interesting cast of characters, which kept me busy as I filled the pages of my notebook every night before the sleeping pill kicked in.
There was Lisa, a short, frail woman in her 40s who had been a heroin addict most of her adult life. She was the sweetest woman, though. She spoke fondly of her daughter and granddaughter, who lived in Ohio. If she got clean, she said, she could go live with them, smiling widely every time she spoke of this plan. When she smiled you could see she only had three front teeth, which clung stubbornly to her gums despite her being so malnourished from many years of drug usage. At night, during our downtime, she’d read those trashy magazines you find lining the racks in front of supermarket registers and speak knowledgeably on the lives of random celebrities.
Georgios was a 40-something Greek man with diabetes, resulting in a nearly gangrene foot that, at the time, doctors were contemplating hacking off. He had a thick accent, spoke in broken English and was often groggy because of his medication. People could hardly ever understand him, but once, in a lucid moment, I heard him say, “One time, I buy ounce of coke, I have million friends. Once coke gone, no more friends.” One night his roommate woke up to find his bed empty. The roommate found Georgios, a known sleepwalker, asleep while sitting at a table in the common area with a cup of coffee in his hand and the coffee machine running.
Pushing 50, Tommy, a large, bald, brash Italian man who was originally from New York and had spent much of his life in jail, on the streets or in rehab, had frequent outbursts at the many group meetings held every day. But he was really a nice guy who just didn’t know how to cope with his problems. He’d tell me raunchy and outlandish stories from his time hanging out in New York City during the ‘70s and ‘80s, at places like Studio 54 and The Pyramid Club.
There was also a clique of 20-year-olds who had attended Somerville High School together. They were all there for heroin and Oxycodone, which is apparently a big problem in their school district.
There were many more, but my best friend in detox was Marc, a 40-year-old alcoholic, who looked more like he was 30. There were so few people there for alcohol compared to drug addicts, so the two of us stuck together.
He was a truck driver who had been to every state but North Dakota and refused to ever visit Long Island, claiming he would get lost, despite my telling him there was only the Long Island Expressway to contend with, for the most part. His hands shook significantly whether he was sitting still or making a motion as simple as lifting a cup to his mouth. We shared our drunken stories (he actually thought I was younger than I was and had been forced into detox by my parents, but was thoroughly impressed when he heard some of my stories) and checked out the younger women in the facility together. Knowing that I was taking notes about everything that happened, whenever something weird happened or someone said something funny, Marc would yell over to me, “There’s chapter 5!”
And we promised we’d keep in touch and go to meetings. (Interestingly enough, when we decided to break our sobriety together a few weeks after we got out, he was mistaken for someone else and arrested before he could even meet up with me. The next day, when I finally heard from him, the story of his arrest the night before somehow led to his telling me that he’s a Nazi, with a large swastika tattooed across his entire abdomen and chest, and that he and his group of friends founded the Aryan Race youth movement in Southern California in the ‘80s, inspiring the movie American History X. Or, you know, so he says.)
Our daily schedule was fairly regimented. Wake up. Get your meds and have your vitals taken. Have breakfast. Then lectures and meetings before lunch, followed by more lectures and meetings. After dinner, there was always a nightly AA or NA meeting, which I hated. It was like a non-stop after school special. But we’d have some down time at night.
The meetings were often uncomfortable, as they wanted everyone to participate and I hate speaking in front of a group, let alone speaking about feelings ever. At the end of every day, they’d ask you to rate your day on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes if people had a decent enough day, they’d arbitrarily give it a 10, when it should maybe have only been given a 7. I refused to ever give my days a very high rating though, because, I rationalized, once I got to a 10, the only place I could go from there is down, there’d be nothing left to work for.
But addicts and alcoholics are generally a depressing bunch, so there weren’t many who rated their days a 10. In fact, many meetings ended in tears, yelling and screaming, sometimes chairs were thrown. And these people had no problem telling uncomfortable and awkward stories to a roomful of strangers.
Vincent, a man in my group, told us about how he kept a jar of 1,000 marbles at home, each marble representing the rough amount of Saturday nights he had left in his life. Every Saturday, before he started drinking, he threw one out. He said people would ask them why he threw them away. Others would tell them it was depressing. But he said he does it because he likes to watch his life slowly fade away.
By Thursday, the people who had started out the week with me slowly left for further inpatient treatment – Craig, a member of the clique of Somerville High grads, had gotten into a center in Pittsburgh; his girlfriend, Crystal, was heading to a six-month program in Western Massachusetts; Marc was looking into a rehab center in New Hampshire. We were like high school students awaiting their college acceptance letters, hoping they got into their first choice school. And when you heard that someone got into the rehab program of their choice, you were happy for them, but anxious to find out where you were going.
But I was headed nowhere. Ironically, because it was my first time in detox I couldn’t go to an inpatient rehab center, only outpatient. Only after several visits to the Somerville Hospital detox center would I qualify for inpatient treatment. Health insurance works in funny ways. So as everyone else walked out the doors, escorted by a nurse, soon I was one of only a handful of those who had been there since Monday left. By then they started bringing in some homeless addicts they had rounded up in Central Square for the weekend, and I was glad I was leaving that day, as several of them looked fairly unsavory. (I swear one of them looked like Charles Manson.)
It was freezing outside when I finally left the hospital. I hadn’t worn my coat in days. It was heavier than I remembered, almost foreign to me, and I felt like a child trying on her parents’ clothing. I drove the familiar streets home, but felt like I didn’t recognize anything.
I was in my apartment for all of 15 minutes when I started to feel anxious and decided to go for a walk. I crossed over Massachusetts Avenue, which separates Cambridge and Somerville, and headed towards Davis Square. It was late afternoon and the sky was overcast. I passed one bar I sometimes drank at, then another, stopping in front of both to look in the front windows and think about how I couldn’t go inside.
Before I left, Bernie told me that ¾ of the people who go to detox or rehab eventually start using again. I didn’t want to be one of those ¾ people, at least not the same afternoon I was released.
When a job in New York worked out quickly and easily, I couldn’t turn it down. Walking around Cambridge and Somerville, passing up the places I would formerly frequent, I felt empty and unlike myself. Sure, I was sober, but I knew my stay in detox and the outpatient program I started would always hang over my head.
So, you see, Boston, this is why I had to leave you. Not because I don’t adore you, but because I would be constantly followed around by my stay at the Somerville Hospital. Hell, it’s even followed me to New York, where I try hard to not be one of those ¾ people and don’t always succeed. But this just goes to show that sometimes there is some validity to the saying, “It’s not you; it’s me.”
Who knows, though? Maybe sometime in the future, perhaps even sooner than later, I’ll hop on the $15 Chinatown bus and come visit you. Then we can act like the old friends we are, have a good time, and forget about those six months.