Christmas in Rehab

We were all we had—alcoholics and addicts, old and young, from all walks of life—and most of us set out to make the best of it

Six years ago, my loving family and (interfering) friends found it necessary to do an intervention on me and shipped me off to rehab for alcohol abuse. Red, red wine was my friend and my downfall. The intervention turned out to be a good thing, but I have often wondered about the exact timing of the long-planned event. I have always suspected that it had something to do with my leaving a stove burner on and my slip subsequently reported to my family by one of those same concerned friends. In reality, I have never really wanted to know all of the gory details, as I know it was all done in the name of love.

The end result was that, shortly before Thanksgiving, my family delivered me to a rehab facility, now more currently referred to as a "treatment center," far away from my island home in North Carolina. I had landed in the Shenandoah Valley area of my childhood, 60 years old, alone, and all too sober. Not only that, but Christmas, New Year's, and my birthday loomed large in my near future. All three holidays without my two twentysomething daughters, for the first time in their lives. How was I to cope?

When I say I was alone, however, I am not speaking the absolute truth. Alone would have been nice, actually. The establishment was packed with alcoholics and addicts, old and young, men and women, from all walks of life. Apparently, the holidays are prime time for people to seek help or at least for their sorely tried families to do so.

Each and every one of the residents fit the description of "a real character." One of my personal favorites was the middle-aged aspiring groom, who had passed out at the alter. Educated and charming, at least when sober, he did his best to be resilient when his never-to-be bride took their honeymoon tickets and headed to New Orleans.

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There was also the surfer, well-known in local areas, who was soon to be expelled for sneaking in some cough medicine and barking at a dog on the downtown mall during an hour out. My own roommate was a young girl who had been a contestant on "The Voice." There was also a gentleman from Louisiana, a hillbilly from West Virginia with a beard down to his waist and a guy who created great drama by having a paternity test administered during his stay.

I myself developed a crush on a 22-year-old addict, which whom I enjoyed much gratifying eye contact. Most of the residents had been in jail at one time or another and some were headed directly back. As for being with loved ones on Christmas, we were all we had and most of us set out to make the best of it.

The counselors, all recovering alcoholics/addicts themselves, decorated a big tree in the lobby and festooned the old mansion with greenery. It even snowed. On Christmas Eve Day, we awoke to find we were to take part in an interesting tradition on "The Hill," as we called the treatment center. Secret Santa was coming to rehab. We loaded into the rickety bus and drove with the counselors to the local mall. Each of us was given five dollars to spend on our Secret Santa present, and we drew names from a hat to see who would be the recipient of our gifts. It was not a large mall, and I'm sure our eclectic group raised a few eyebrows as we wended our way, always at least three at a time as was the rule, through the crowds of merry Christmas shoppers. No bar detours for us, alas! Most of us made our way directly towards "Everything's a Dollar." I had picked the girl from "The Voice," and, as I liked her, I splurged on a scarf as well as mittens. Candles were also a big item that Christmas.

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In addition, after much scheming and travail, I also somehow managed to obtain Christmas presents for each member of my family. Effecting a group trip to the post office to mail them, however, was another ball of wax. Somehow, at the last possible moment, we accomplished this major feat and I sent my presents off. No matter that I sent most of them off to the wrong people. My intentions were pure and my desire strong. In turn, I received some thoughtful gifts from my loved ones. I'm not sure what kind of thought went into the choice of the book "Hello Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea!" but I guess someone deemed it appropriate because it mentioned alcohol.

When Christmas Day finally dawned, we gathered at 5 a.m. for our morning meeting. We got up all too early in rehab. We clustered around the tree and exchanged our presents. The counselors presented each of us with a stocking, filled with candy, as well as an AA "Big Book." Later in the day, we ate a huge meal and people from the "outside" came by to cheer us up. Then we attended more meetings. We shed tears and argued over the use of the two landline phones (no cells allowed). We were only allowed five minutes a call, and many stretched or broke the time limit. Men, with their poor, lonely and often paranoid hearts, were the worst offenders. Emotions ran high. Life was kind of a blur, but strangely enough, it went on without alcohol, even on Christmas. The day finally came to an end. Actually, it hadn't been as bad as I had anticipated.

My daughters spent Christmas with my sister on the other side of the country. I had always put on a big Christmas for them, complete with a large and festive party, and I had never envisioned being without them on that special day. Little did I know that the previous Christmas had been the last one we'd ever spend together in the little island town where they were born. The girls graduated from college and one moved to Oregon, where she still lives. My other daughter married her high-school love in North Carolina, where they bought a house in our old neck of the woods.

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I myself moved back to the Virginia town where I had found sobriety on a cold Christmas Day six years ago. And each year, as Christmas rolls around, I think of the motley crew I shared that day with so long ago. Some of them made it; some of them didn't. I got through with the love of my daughters, and my family and friends. We get together whenever we can, and we always remember the strange Christmas when I went to rehab. "It's a great life if you don't weaken," as my wise old grandmother used to say.


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