As my husband winds the car around the beautiful, craggy cliffs off the coast of Malibu, I am without words. I can’t believe where I am going, can’t accept that this will now be a part of my history, my identity. “I am not an addict, I was a straight A student, I am a good girl,” I plead to myself as the road ahead of us curves, each turn offering an ever-more spectacular view of the Pacific. But it is only a backdrop, and I am headed, not to a cocktail party or playdate with Malibu friends, but to a place where I will be monitored and supervised, a place where I will be confined for 30 days.
Just a week before, Drew had come home from work and approached me as I lay in my refuge, our bed. He’d had a glint in his eye. Did I see hope there, or determination, or both? Drew had researched recovery houses, places where patients live-in to recover from addictions -and, we thought, their concomitant mental health issues. The price tag was outrageous, tantamount to the Mercedes Benz we had never indulged in, but Drew felt it was our ticket out of the dark lonely place we inhabited: alone, together.
“Look at this view,” Drew enthused, showing me the website. I was skeptical of this place and its braggadocio claims, candy-coated as they were by a resort-like feel and the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific. Drew was sure this was our way back to the life we had had before, the one that now seemed like nirvana in comparison. What is that saying? Happiness is having everything taken away, and then getting it all back. My loving husband, a hardworking and successful insurance executive, would never dream of going out of network or, horrors, pay cash for an uncovered medical service. But he was willing to do so now, which communicated to me that our present circumstances were, indeed, desperate. Balancing the laptop on one knee, he reached out to squeeze my shoulder and, brushing greasy bangs out of my eyes, he peered in, letting his own eyes ask the question.
I hesitated. Did I want to leave my family, my home, this bed, and all that was safe and familiar to live with gawd-knows-who in a double room in a Recovery House atop a precarious cliff? I did not. In fact, I was lethally afraid to, my already-anxious self even more strung out at the thought.
“I’ll sleep on it,” I said, hedging.
It was guilt that woke me the next morning, along with my ever-palpitating heart. How could I not go, not try? Certainly, my kids deserved better. I had once been a connected and engaged mother. I’d listened, advised and made them laugh; taken them places and brought their friends along; baked homemade treats and hosted fun playdates; read them books, took them to movies, and made birthdays and holidays extra-special. With Justin, now 16 and learning to drive, and Dayna, 9 and still in the single digits, there was plenty of hands-on parenting left to do. And I simply wasn’t as capable as I had been.
The question begged: if I didn’t try something, would I ever be again?
So, I’d said yes.
The sun beat down on the thatched roof of the charming guesthouse that was check-in, according to the rustic, wooden sign stuck in the property’s well-manicured front lawn. Branches of vibrant magenta flowers swayed in cheery welcome. Looking through the windshield down the bougainvillea lane, I spied a dark-haired, heavily tatted 20-something smoking a cigarette on her cottage’s front porch. She just oozed attitude. I’d never had that kind of edginess, even in my 20s, let alone now in middle age. I tried to remember, earlier in the week, when Drew and I had done a tour, if our guide had mentioned an age range. As we drove by, I could see two queen beds, one crisply made and one mussed-up and empty, through the open sliding glass door.
Shit, will she be my roommate? My racing heart dropped like a busted elevator in a high-rise apartment building. I felt myself beginning to sweat. Paralyzed with fear and seemingly glued to the seat, I considered not getting out. As if reading my AWOL thoughts, Drew jumped out and came over to my side. “C’mon, it’s showtime,” my Lakers fan husband encouraged as he opened the door, as if he could teleport me out of the vehicle through sheer enthusiasm.
I knew him; he was just trying to keep it light and keep me moving, which contrasted nicely, I thought, with my very deep foreboding.
Turns out, my spider sense was spot on. The bright-eyed, suntanned, lifeguard-type behind the check-in counter had explained that I’d be staying in the bungalow Drew and I had just passed on our way in. Ingrid’s current roommate had moved out, opting for a higher-priced single that had become available. Lucky me to have such perfect timing.
I was out on the balcony off the main lodge with five of my fellow participants, taking a drag off Ingrid’s cigarette. It was an easy way to bond; there was the ongoing amusement with my ineptitude, and I didn’t mind laughing at myself. In fact, the laughter eased my anxiety. It’s funny how life works. If you don’t rebel and smoke cigarettes in your youth, opportunities will arise later to allow you to check that box. As a publicist, I was familiar with the inner workings of the entertainment industry, and knew it was often maligned as being “so high school.” My experience at The Program, thus far, told me recovery houses in Malibu might merit the same moniker. I was surrounded by 20- and 30-something, life-of-the-party types, who had most certainly been voted “Easiest on the Eyes” or “Class Flirt” during their formative high school years. In fact, one of the participants was the son of a highly sought after, A-list Hollywood actor. (Of course, we weren’t supposed to know this, but he’d actually chosen to tell our smoker’s circle.) It seems it can quite define you, being the child of a household name. Conversations on the patio were often centered on recalling high-rolling, glory days of week-long, cocaine-laced benders and Cristal-soaked nights out, clubbing behind the velvet rope. Feeling my age and inadequacy, I listened, rapt, and laughed often, all the while sifting through various stories in my head, trying to decide which one might measure up.
“Tonight, I’m going to tell you how I barely escaped being sold into a female sexual slavery in the Moulin Rouge district of Paris,” was my lead-in the next evening, when we gathered outside after dinner for a smoke. My story elicited both gasps and laughter -and perhaps even grudging respect. There’s more than one way to live life on the wild side.
Meanwhile, living life with Ingrid was like a wild roller coaster ride; her mood swings were epic. I never knew who I would find when I opened the cottage door.
The next afternoon, I walked into our room to see Ingrid sitting on the edge of her bed, yanking on a pair of Doc Martens. Her bed, and the surrounding floor, was strewn with jewel-toned cashmere sweaters, colorful scarves, blazers and leather jackets, and an assortment of leggings and stonewashed jeans.
“You going to the movie?” I asked. There was a whole group going, but I had opted out, hoping to get some time alone.
“What’s it to ya?” Ingrid said, jerking her head up and glaring at me. I held my tongue, reminding myself that Ingrid was probably experiencing an increase in withdrawal symptoms. She’d told me the day before that her psychiatrist had decided to lower the dosage on the med used to help patients wean off narcotics, and she had not been pleased with that decision. “Fuuuuuuuck these are too tight,” she hissed, pulling off the boots, and grabbing a black suede over-the-knee pair lying next to her on the bed.
Boots on, Ingrid stood and struck a pose in front of the mirror, then smiled approvingly. Heading toward the door, she paused to look back at me. “Have a good night, old roomie mine.” The words dripped with sarcasm, and the addition of “old” hit its intended target. Like I said, Mr. Hyde had nothing on her.
Sitting on my bed, I waited for the tension in the room -and the lingering scent of Ingrid’s perfume- to dissipate. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, but it was Ingrid who was on my mind. I felt sorry for this young woman. In one of her saner moments, she’d confided in me about her life. How she’d had a dysfunctional relationship with an angry, emotionally-unavailable mother who divorced her dad, then tried to drive a wedge in their father/daughter relationship. Ingrid had been both anorexic and bulimic growing up on the Upper East Side of New York, and admitted she was initially attracted to drugs to avoid the calories of alcohol. (She’d proudly shared pictures on her iPad of her nude and emaciated self at the height of her heroin addiction, marveling appreciatively at the way her bones jutted out, just so.) Her childhood made my formative years look like the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Halfway through my stay, I started to feel a bit stir-crazy. Every morning was like Groundhog Day. After cups of steaming black coffee and shared cigarettes -the diet regimen of both razor-thin models and rehabbers alike- we would bring our addictive substance-free selves to morning meeting, where we would join hands and recite the Serenity Prayer. God Grant me the serenity to accept the things . . . I was, of course, quite familiar with it, as it was a favorite of my poetry, proverb, and quotation-loving mother. I was seeing and experiencing it anew, however, as the founding credo of the Twelve Steps, upon which The Program was based.
I flashed on a memory of when Drew and I had been walking around the Malibu campus for the first time, listening intently to our guide, and trying to decide if this place was the right fit. What had struck both of us was that The Program seemed to be tailor made for addicts, which had not been our complaint. Indeed, overcoming the depression and anxiety that had me in its grip was our primary and singular concern. However, when we’d expressed that to our guide, he had assured us that underneath each person’s addiction lies a host of unresolved mental health problems. And wasn’t I -referring to the paperwork on his clipboard- taking Klonopin, an addictive benzodiazepine? I had nodded, as my inner voice screeched prescription drug addict. Furtively checking the front of my shirt for a scarlet “A,” I allowed myself to consider that Klonopin was to blame for my abysmal mental health. Could it be that simple?
The truth is, doctors regularly prescribe benzos for anxiety, even though drugs like Klonopin, Restoril and Xanax can be physically and mentally addictive. Early on, my doctor had prescribed Klonopin -which he referred to only in its generic form, clonazepam. (I believe he avoided using the brand name to steer clear of the increasingly bad rap Klonopin was receiving in the media.) He directed me to take Klonopin for anxiety during the day as well, but I only took it at night because I found it made me a walking, daylight zombie.
While I’m sure doctors intend to monitor their patients’ usage, my anecdotal survey in chat rooms worldwide tells me differently. Doctors most often do not pay attention to the length of time their patients remain on benzos. Perhaps they view them as a step up from barbiturates, their predecessor. For my part, the benefit of not having to empty my head of swirling, anxious thoughts and being able to almost instantly fall asleep was one of the few perks of my beleaguered existence, and I’d not offered to give it up.
But did that make me a prescription drug addict?
Each day at The Program, I was asked kindly, and then more urgently, to attend an AA or NA meeting out in the community. I appreciated the staff’s tenacity and fervor, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I’d been stripped of my Klonopin bottle upon check-in, and, fortunately, had suffered few withdrawal symptoms. I’d been prescribed Trazodone, a non-addictive antidepressant that has the side-effect of causing drowsiness, to help ease my transition and I was also taking nightly Valerian, an herbal supplement. I felt fortunate, as I knew my compatriots had struggled far more in their efforts to achieve sobriety. However, they all seemed to be hitting a new and improved stride midway through The Program, while I remained crippled with the depression and anxiety I’d come in with. I couldn’t abide the thought that the small fortune we were paying for The Program would not bring us the cure we sought.
I was sitting in a cushy, burnt-orange leather chair across from a massive, burnished oak desk, waiting. Dr. Donaldson, the psychiatrist assigned to me during rehab, was running late, stuck in traffic on PCH. It was a welcome moment of solitude, and I closed my eyes to focus on my breathing to slow my racing heart. When I opened them again, my gaze fell on a miniature model airplane on the doctor’s desk. How I used to love to fly, to travel, to live. A lovely memory floated up, of when I was living abroad in Madrid, buscandome la vida. Looking for life, indeed.
And oh, how I had found it!
The hot, noontime sun was baking my suntanned, tank-topped shoulders. I stole a sideways glance at Andres, drinking in his classic Iberian profile. This dark, handsome, strapping Spaniard had whisked me away from Madrid to see the World’s Fair in Seville after I’d mentioned, in an aside over dinner, that I’d love to see it. Poof! and he had made it happen. Much could be said for this Latin lover thing, I thought. How had I, until now in my late-20s, somehow missed the ambrosia of being appreciated, pursued, and adored by un caballero, a Spanish gentleman. Andres made me feel as wanted and as lovely as Dulcinea, the golden-haired beauty Don Quixote imagined as his lady, and in whose name he vowed to perform heroic deeds of valor and chivalry. I lightly touched Andres’ forearm, steering him toward the Swedish exhibition where there was an enormous, red Dala horse in front of the pabellon. It reminded me of home, as the Dala horse, a symbol of Sweden, had adorned my family mantel growing up. “Me puedes sacar una foto? I asked. He looked puzzled as to why I would want to take a picture, and I gently reminded him of my Scandi roots. Leaning against the Swedish steed, I smiled hard into the camera, staring at this man I so desired, and grateful to have this picture, this memory. Back home, I’d been a feminist, clinging fiercely to my idyll of what an equal relationship should look like. I’d often find boyfriends falling short. While I didn’t “love’em and leave’em,” I’d been accused of figuring out what the future issues would be in a relationship in record time, leaving boyfriends in months, rather than years. One of my exes had said, “Diana presents as an open prairie, but just beyond that, she’s a steel door.” Honestly, I did struggle in letting my guard down, using feminism as a smokescreen to hide my own fear of commitment. However, here in Spain, the land of Cervantes and Lorca, of damas y caballeros, I was allowing that steel door, and the heart it protected, to fully open. My love affair with Andres would end up being a pivotal one, because it taught me that a man could respect me as an equal, while still sweeping me off my feet.
“Diana, I am sorry I’m late,” Dr. Donaldson said rushing in, interrupting my remembrances of passions past. I could hear she was short of breath, as she stood in the open doorway, and then teetered into the room in a shiny pair of black patent leather Jimmy Choos. How much was she pulling in as a visiting psychiatrist, I wondered, ever aware of The Program’s exorbitant price tag. Tall and slender in a crème linen dress, she sank into the seat behind the enormous desk, which seemed to me a fortress. Keep the crazy people away, said the desk. l smiled wryly at my own little joke, and locked eyes with Dr. Donaldson over its wide expanse. To be her, I thought: working, successful. And she’s wearing high heels. Why did it seem so long ago that I’d been a high- and well-heeled public relations executive, heading up my own boutique agency in the golden triangle area of Beverly Hills? These days I was seemingly unable to wear anything but athletic gear. I looked down at my faded black tee and noticed a small hole beginning to form at the tip of one of my frayed cross-trainers.
“How are you feeling on the new med?” Dr. Donaldson asked, too brightly.
Antidepressants were a cruel joke. I felt nothing -no better- no matter what class or which type the doctors gave me. The only discernible difference was the change in the side effects. Would it be dry mouth, shakiness, weight gain, or flatulence this time, or some combination thereof? Of all these, the terror of passing unwanted gas was by far the most humiliating. How is the human body, here the anus, able to create such freakishly loud sounds, and why must said sound, so distinctive in nature, be accompanied by such a rank and odiferous smell? There is, at first, the concern that someone in your vicinity has heard your indiscretion. Then, if you have somehow been able to mask the gas, thus escaping the auditory shame, the emission is followed up by an unmistakable odor that cannot be denied.
“Any better?” Dr. Donaldson prodded, her head tilted, pen poised to mark in my chart any measurable improvement. I hesitated. There was still the childlike desire not to disappoint. “No difference…yet,” I said, shifting my weight in the chair. How much longer would this take? I couldn’t wait to get back to the cottage. Ingrid was going to the AA meeting after dinner, so I’d have the room to myself.
I heard the blare of the television before I even walked in. Ingrid was sprawled on her bed, absorbed in a binge-watch of the reality show The Bachelor. “Hey,” she greeted. I waved and plopped down on my bed.
“You seen my Apple watch?” I didn’t like her tone, which felt more like an accusation. She said she’d worn it to our morning group, taking it off during music therapy -in which we were supposed to somehow rock ourselves into a place of peace and sobriety. It was kind of fun, but kind of not.
“Haven’t seen it,” I said. She looked at me, raised one eyebrow, and rolled her eyes.
Ugh. I wasn’t in the mood for drama.
My mind started to race, and I felt panic coming on. Would Ingrid blame me for the loss of her watch? Would she report me as a suspect to the staff? I worried I might have my visitor’s privilege taken away and miss seeing my family on Sunday. My throat started to constrict, and I jumped off the bed to try and deflect an attack. I started pacing the room, looping my arms in big circles, and flailing my wrists like a crazy woman.
“You all right?” Ingrid asked, dragging her eyes away from the show. It was then that I had the idea to get out the journal that was inside the drawer of the nightstand we shared. I had pictures tucked inside, and I knew that looking into my kids’ eyes often calmed me when nothing else would. The drawer was stuck, so I pulled harder until it came crashing down, its contents strewn across the terra cotta tile floor below. There, in the center, was the watch.
“Oh, man, I forgot I put it in there,” Ingrid said, picking up a small, yellow happy face emoji bag on her bed, and pulling out a tiny white pill. “For you, it’s Xanax,” she said, an apparent peace offering.
As a benzo, Xanax was strictly prohibited at The Program.
“Take it,” she urged, pressing it into my hand.
I recoiled. Did Ingrid think I’d be stupid enough to take a benzo when it had been noted in my chart as my drug of choice? The stakes were far too high, as I desperately wanted to be healed, or at least be returned to my family as an improved version of myself.
I marveled, briefly, how Ingrid had snuck in the pill. We had all been body-searched prior to being checked-in, and our luggage had been carefully, even aggressively, inspected. Plus, I’d heard Ingrid had come in on a bad trip, sick and vomiting, and had been stripped down in the shower before being put to bed. How could she possibly have had the presence of mind to sneak in this contraband? And in what orifice could she have possibly hidden it?
“No, you keep it,” I said, placing it next to her on the white eyelet comforter.
A staccato rapping at the cottage door startled both of us, and we heard the voice of Jamie, the handsome, lifeguard-type who had checked me in. “May I?”
I waited until Ingrid had stashed the Xanax, then moved to open the door. A former addict like most everyone who worked at The Program, easy to talk to, and the first friend I’d made, Jaime didn’t just work at the front desk. He was also a group coordinator. As he walked in, I saw he had insurance paperwork for Ingrid to fill out.
Ingrid grabbed a pen from the nightstand as Jamie walked out. She squinted down at the form in full concentration mode, playing with the necklace she always wore around her neck. It was one of those Tiffany-types that spell the person’s name in cursive, and I had observed her fingering it frequently. I’d thought it was just a nervous habit, until she’d told me her mother had given it to her the last time she’d been in rehab, when she’d gotten clean and sworn to stay that way. “She said she was proud of me,” Ingrid had said, her voice soft – incongruous with the metallic glint of the silver stud piercing the side of her aquiline nose.
“Fuuuuuck, I can’t concentrate.” Ingrid’s voice cut into my thoughts. She hurled the pen at the opposite wall. “Ya know, my mom said she’d throw me off her insurance if-,” Ingrid stopped, her voice cracking. I knew what she was talking about. Her mother’s insurance was paying the lion’s share of the cost of Ingrid’s current stay in rehab, necessary because she’d gone back to her drug-dealing boyfriend, and back to using. “Why am I such a fucking loser?” It came out as a croak, and I saw tears welling up, the first ones spilling down her cheeks.
I sat down next to her and took her in my arms. To my surprise, Ingrid folded into me, her slight frame now shaking with sobs. I rocked her back and forth, shushing her, and smoothing her hair. I was back on familiar ground now, comforting Ingrid as I would one of my own kids.
This I could do.
Diana Daniele is a literary and lifestyle publicist living in Los Angeles. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Communication Studies from UCLA and received her M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. She has also studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge in England and Philology at the University of Madrid, Complutense in Spain. She is currently at work on her memoir Out of the Dark: A Memoir of Migraine and Madness.