Recovery from Addiction, The Way Doctors Do It
Chapter One Getting There
“The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
I was sick, scared, and lost
I stood alone in the Atlanta airport, arms full of baggage, looking for the someone who was supposed to meet me, when suddenly I dropped the bags, collapsed into an empty seat, and began to cry. I never felt more alone, more vulnerable, nor more frightened. It seemed that everything I had worked for my entire adult life was being swept away. There was no one or no thing I could turn to for help.
It seemed impossible that only five days before, my nurses had intervened on me. My alcohol and drug use had gotten completely out of control and it was obvious that I was impaired. I was sure the Medical Board would show up and take away my medical license. Instead, they sent me to detox. However, they issued a stern warning: failure to complete an approved rehabilitation course at a center approved for physicians would result in the permanent loss of my medical license. Complete the course, usually some three or four months, and I would be welcomed back into the medical fold with open arms.
I was at the absolute low point of my life. I had no idea what had happened to me, how a drink with dinner had become two bottles of wine every night, or how an occasional party drug had become an addiction I couldn’t control. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quit. My life was a drunken drugged-out downward spiral. I was dying and I knew it. Some days I wanted desperately to quit. Other days I just didn’t care.
Almost imperceptibly, a man about my age filled the seat beside me, caught my attention, and began to speak.
“You must be Dr. Linville Meadows,” he said kindly. “What do your friends call you?”
“Lin. People only call me Linville if they’re mad at me.”
He put his hand out. “Name’s Mike. I’m your ride to rehab. C’mon. And I promise not to call you Linville, okay?”
Mike was slightly balding and stocky; his handshake was strong, and his smile was genuine. He had a good bedside manner.
“Deal. What did you say your name was?” I asked, blowing my nose.
“Mike. From New Jersey. Obstetrician. Drug of choice: more.”
“More of whatever you got,” he said.
I managed a small laugh.
He didn’t look like a drug addict and I couldn’t believe he was actually telling me about his addiction. There was no one back home who I could talk to about my problems. In fact, my days were spent terrified that someone would discover my drug use, and yet, here he was, talking openly about his. In a few minutes, we were in his little green convertible with the top down, wheeling out of the airport. The fresh breeze felt good on my face.
“Married?” asked Mike.
“Do you like riddles?” Mike asked.
“Sure, riddle me, Joker,” I said.
“What creature is one part wild ravaging beast, one part angel with a heart of gold, and one part suicidal maniac?”
“At the same time?”
“Could be. Could be different times, too.”
“Sounds like a Greek myth.”
“Nope,” he said. “Try again.”
“Let me think.”
“Don’t,” he said. “You might hurt yourself.
I was completely at a loss as to the meaning of Mike’s words. But at least I wasn’t crying.
The back story
Mike dropped me off at the front office and shortly I found myself sitting in front of Cameron, one of the family counselors. She would conduct my intake interview.
“Tell me what brought you here,” she said gently.
So, I related the last few days of the disorder that was called my life. My nurses had finally discovered my addiction and sent me home.
I knew my life as a physician was surely over, that the Medical Police would be waiting at my office the next morning to take me away in handcuffs. My medical license was gone forever. I went home and smoked all the pot and drank all the wine I could, but nothing could wipe out the horror that filled my brain. With nothing left to live for, I took down my shotgun, loaded it, and went outside to do myself in. Fortunately, I didn’t have the courage.
The next morning when I arrived at my office, I was met by Paul, a man with a strange, quixotic grin on his face. Paul was not from the Medical Board but rather from the Physicians Recovery Network, a group that worked with the Medical Board to rehabilitate doctors who had become impaired.
He asked me if I had a problem. In a moment of clarity, I simply said, Yes. Do you want to do something about it? he asked. With no idea what something might be, I swallowed and said, Yes.
Within minutes, I was on my way to Richmond. Within an hour, I heard the steel doors of the Pleasant Green Mental Health Center slam and lock shut behind me. I was in detox.
“Am I talking too fast?” I asked Cameron. I could feel the pressure of speech upon me.
“No,” she said, “you’re doing just fine.”
I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and began again.
My first few days in detox in Richmond were frightening. I felt terribly out of place. I was locked up with drunks dragged out from under a bush, junkies from off the streets, prostitutes in short skirts, and one little old lady dressed in white doilies, who liked to tipple sweet wine in the dark. My craving for cocaine was always at the front of my mind. All I wanted to do was go home and get wasted.
In my first group session, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves.
“My name’s Joe,” said the first. “I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m Elsie,” said the second. “A junkie. Crystal meth.”
It was my turn. I swallowed my pride and admitted to the world what I had become.
“I…I’m an addict,” I said softly.
“Now I want each of you to share your plans for when you leave detox,” said the counselor.
“I’m Billy,” said a young pale man who was almost blind. “I don’t know how I’m gonna stay clean. There’ll be at least two dope dealers sitting on my front porch when I get home.”
Ethel, a large black woman, spoke next. “I’m going to a halfway house, so I don’t have to turn tricks no more.”
After the session, the counselor, Ralph, pulled me aside.
“You probably have no idea what’s going on here, do you?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“Usually,” he said, “a client stays here three or four days to let the poisons drain out of their body, then they head out to a halfway house or something like that.”
“In your case, you being a doctor and all, they got something special planned for you. Only a few places in the country know how to treat guys like you—doctors on the skids. The nearest is in Atlanta and I just made your reservation. You’ll be on the plane tomorrow morning. Told them I’m sending them a bat-shit crazy oncologist.”
I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
“You’re dying and you know it,” said Ralph. “If you don’t go to Atlanta, not only will you lose your license, but you’ll be dead in no time. And you know I’m right.”
I paused for breath, but before Cameron could speak, I plunged ahead.
My last night in detox, my brain was still swimming in a sea of drugs and booze, so my thinking was not at its very best. The next morning, I was supposed to fly to Atlanta, but the craving for cocaine was still raging inside me. My mind kept telling me that if I went to rehab for three or four months, I would have no practice left to come home to. Just saying to hell with it and going home and getting stoned sounded really good. My heart, on the other hand, knew that my only hope for survival was getting on that plane.
I knelt in front of my bed like when I was four years old, folded my hands, and said simply, God help me. The next morning, I packed my bag, took a taxi to the airport, and got on the plane. When we were in the sky, I remembered my prayer from the night before, but in the light of day I couldn’t believe the prayer had worked for me.
“So that’s it,” I said. The words were flying out of my mouth. “What about me? Will I ever stop craving cocaine? What’s going to happen now? How long will I have to be here? I can’t possibly stay more than a few weeks. My practice will be ruined. Why are you laughing at me?”
They had what I wanted
After my meeting with Cameron, I wandered around the intake area like a lost puppy dog until Mike showed up again.
“You need to know that boys and girls are strictly segregated here,” said Mike. “The women’s apartments are at the other end of the complex from the men. He-ing and She-ing is simply not allowed.”
“Sounds pretty severe,” I said.
“Here,” he said, handing me a loose-leaf notebook, “this is the rule book. Read it first thing. If you break the rules, they come down on you pretty hard. You have to travel in threes, to the grocery store, to get a haircut, whatever. You must attend one meeting a day, you must be in before curfew, and you can’t have your car the first month you’re here.”
I nodded, not quite sure what I was agreeing to.
“This is the rehab center,” he said, “classrooms, offices, stuff like that.” He pointed to an adjacent building. “That’s Building Two, where they send you when you’re been a very bad boy. It’s also the center’s detox wing. And where the cafeteria is.”
He pointed to a path leading into the woods behind the buildings. “That trail leads to an apartment complex where we live. We stay two to a bedroom, four to an apartment. There are usually between a hundred and a hundred and fifty of us drunks and junkies here at one time.” He grinned. “Welcome to country club rehab.”
Mike helped me carry my stuff up to the apartment, then introduced me to my new roommates.
“Guys!” he yelled out. “Hey, guys, the new fish is here. Everybody come say hello to Lin.”
An athletic man in a jogging outfit came from one of the bedrooms carrying a tennis racket.
“This is John,” said Mike, “a man who loves his beer and has the raunchiest sense of humor you’ve ever heard.” He was a general surgeon from Detroit.
“Go Blue!” John said, tipping his Big Blue baseball cap and twirling a tennis racket in his hand.
“Robert here,” said the portly man on the couch, raising his hand in greeting. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops and eating a doughnut. Robert was a jolly, round practitioner who never seemed to take anything too seriously. “I sleep next door but I hang out here. Family Practice. Drug of choice, crack cocaine.”
The last man in the room resembled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “This is Reggie,” said Mike. “Our preacher from Memphis. Reggie has a fondness for bourbon and the ladies in the front row. But he’s a good soul, in spite of himself.”
“Stow your stuff fast,” said Reggie. “We’re leaving for a meeting in ten minutes. Unfortunately, John’s driving.”
A meeting?” I asked. “What kind of meeting?” They all laughed at me.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” said Mike to my new roommates. “He’s still toxic.” He turned to me. “You’re required to attend at least one A. A. meeting every day.”
“A.A.?” I asked.
“You know,” said Robert, “A. A. Alcoholics Anonymous.” They laughed again.
“I wouldn’t try thinking too much for a while,” said Robert, finishing his donut and licking his fingers. “Right now, you couldn’t think your way out of a wet paper bag, and you’d probably hurt yourself if you tried.”
“You best follow Mike around until you get your feet on the ground,” said John. “Otherwise, you might get lost going to the bathroom.”
These guys, like me, were not exactly at the height of their careers, but they seemed happy and full of life. I wanted that so desperately I could scream.
- Deep in my addiction, I was all alone in the darkness. I was without hope.
- No one could possibly understand my problems.
- Intervention only works when a person is ready.
- Detox allows the toxins to drain from my body but doesn’t treat my disease.
- Hitting a bottom: It was either quit or die. This is the turning point.
- A moment of clarity can be life-saving.
- You will give your old lady to the dope man for a bag of dope, and you will kill him for half a bag.
- The disease of addiction affects the mind, the body, and the spirit. Any successful treatment must address all three.
- Enforced sobriety can make the difference between sobriety and relapse.
Chapter Two Where to Begin
“No step is lost upon this path, and no dangers are found,
And even a little progress is freedom from fear.”
—Bhagavad Gita 2:40
Am I an alcoholic? Am I an addict?
On the way to my first AA meeting, my new friends questioned my sincerity.
“Are you a real alcoholic?” asked Robert. “I don’t know, am I?” I asked.
“That’s a trick question,” said Mike, lighting a cigarette. “Only you can decide if you’re an alcoholic. But there are clues.”
“Like, do you need an eye-opener to get the day started,” said John, rolling down his window and waving the smoke away.
“Can you quit for any amount of time without going nuts?” asked Mike. He frowned and tossed his cigarette out the window. “Can you go into a bar and have two drinks and quit for the night? Can you go for six months without taking a single drink?”
I’d never thought about it like that. I was getting confused.
“It doesn’t matter if you only drink after work or only on weekends,” said Robert. “And it doesn’t matter how much you drink. All that matters is whether you’ve crossed the invisible line that leads to the disease of addiction.”
“Huh?” I said. They were going a little too fast for my aching brain.
“When you pass the point where you can’t control your drinking anymore,” said John.
“Are you having negative consequences because of your drinking?” asked Mike.
“Every time I got high, I didn’t get into trouble, but every time I got into trouble, I was high,” said John, looking pleased with himself.
“Are negative consequences of your drinking and drugging starting to pile up?” said Robert, “like DUIs, getting fired, having the wife and kids move out, getting hauled into court. Stuff like that.”
Mike turned and stared hard at me. “Is your life ruled by your using? Will you do anything to get your drug of choice?”
On the way, Robert told this story.
An alcoholic was stumbling down a dark city street one rainy night when he fell into a large construction pit. The sides were muddy and slicked by the rain and he couldn’t get out. He began to shout.
“Help! I’m stuck in a hole and I can’t get out.”
Shortly, a physician walked by and hearing our drunken friend looked down into the pit.
“O my good man,” said the doctor. “I see you’ve fallen into a hole and can’t get out. I’m a Harvard physician, don’t you know, and I have something that might help.” With that, the physician pulled a prescription pad from his coat, dashed off a prescription, and tossed it into the pit. “Take two of these,” he said, “and call me in the morning.” And he was gone.
“Merde,” said the drunk, whose mother was French. He stuffed the prescription into his pocket. Shortly a preacher happened along.
“O my good man,” said the preacher. “I see you’ve fallen in a hole and can’t get out. I’m a Seminary man, don’t you know, Princeton. Here, this may help.” He took out a small Bible, ripped out two pages from the Psalms, and threw them into the pit. “Read two of these and call me in the morning,” he said. And he was gone.
“Sheist,” said the drunk, whose father was German. He now doubted if any help was possible, but just then a strange man with a broad smile peered into the pit.
“Help!” cried our friend. “I had too much to drink and fell into this hole and can’t get out. The doctor gave me a prescription and the preacher gave me a Psalm, but I’m still in the pit.”
“Don’t worry, my friend,” said the man. “I know what to do.”
With that, the stranger leaped into the pit with the drunk.
“Oh, no!’ cried the drunk. “Now we’re both stuck in here. That was a pretty stupid thing to do.
“Not at all,’ said our rescuer. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been here before and I know the way out.”
Poignant and funny approach to addiction
I thought that I'd read everything there was to read on addiction, but this managed to feel fresh, with its humor and the approach of being a doctor. I was gripped.
A new, intriguing perspective on addiction and loved the added humour.
As a doctor, I was intrigued to read this extract. Humour is a powerful tool, and so well handled by this writer.
Your writing makes me feel lucky I reached my age (64) without addictions to drugs or alcohol. That said, you took me into that other-world and made me feel the desperation. Well done on great piece of work and congrats on making the long list.