OP-ED: One day at a time—my battle with addiction

Grant Savage, Contributing Writer

The room was diminutive, cold and lifeless. All I could smell was the nurse’s perfume. It resembled the smell of a funeral parlor. The nurse told me she needed to collect vials of my blood for testing. I hated getting my blood drawn.

“We need your blood to test for other drugs that might still be in your system, and we need to run a full STD panel,” she said.

“Oh, I’m not sexually active,” I replied. “I’m only 15.”

“You don’t need to have sex to contract STIs sweetheart,” she remarked.

Sweat began to trickle down my spine. Next, I had to strip down bare.

“Even the underwear?” I asked.

The nurse nodded her head, so I did as she instructed me to do. As I stood there naked, she began her intrusive exam.

“Put your arms out for me like this,” she instructed.

My fingers began to shake. The nurse noticed this and logged a note on her computer.

“Okay, you can put your clothes back on,” she said.

As I got dressed, the nurse told me a therapist would meet with me next for a psych evaluation. I had no idea that rehab intake would be this intense.

Two weeks earlier, my mom found me unconscious on the floor of our house. My lips were blue, and my clothes were covered in vomit. It was a combination of Benzodiazepines: Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan. As I lay there, I remember hearing my mom crying and screaming trying to wake me up, but I was unable to move my body. Since that incident, I had no choice but to get help. A friend of my mom’s referred me to a wonderful facility, Cumberland Heights, in Nashville, Tennessee. Within two weeks, I was packed and on my way to rehab.

The entrance of Cumberland Heights in Nashville, Tennessee. (Cumberland Heights)

Time was ticking slowly as I waited for the therapist to conduct my psych evaluation. It was ticking so slowly that I had enough time to pop the last Xanax that I had with me. I needed to get high one last time. After all of my tests were completed, a muscular man with a shiny bald head picked me up in a golf cart and took me to the youth building. His name was Levon. He was the head of the youth department.

Before entering the youth building, Levon had to search me. He patted me down, turned my socks and shoes inside out and had me lift my shirt to show my waistband. Luckily, I had already consumed the Xanax so there was nothing for him to find. Once I was allowed in, Levon introduced me to all the other boys. There were 13 others in the unit, all there for different but similar reasons. We all had a drug problem, but just with a different DOC (drug of choice).

“Has anyone seen my luggage?” I asked one of the clinical associates.

“We’re going through it right now to make sure you don’t have any drugs, weapons, things of that nature,” she said. “We’ll have it back to you by dinner.”

The group lead of the unit, Jackson, gave me a tour of the place and showed me to my room. A group lead was whichever boy had been there the longest. Some people were there for 30 days, and others were there for 60 or 90. It depended on the severity of your situation. I was in extended care, so I was a 60-day person. Jackson stood tall and lanky like Slender Man. His shaggy brown hair got in the way of his eyes, so whenever you were talking to him you would only get a peep at what his eyes looked like.

The unit had five bedrooms, containing three beds in each. The walls were painted a miserable yellow and it smelled like an office building. Fresh, but also moldy. There were brown leather couches with scratches all over them located in the general area. The general area was the best part of the unit. There was a ping pong table, pool table, tv and a kitchen. The hardest part about the unit was the boys. The majority of them were forced by their parents or court ordered to attend, so they acted out all the time. I was the only one who was there by my own volition.

I began working the 12-step program with my sponsor who I’d met at an NA (narcotics anonymous) meeting after only one day at Cumberland Heights. What I found so incredibly intimidating about being sober was the longevity of it. I was 15. I had my entire life ahead of me. Surely this was just a phase, and I would get over it.

When I expressed these concerns to my sponsor, he told me, “You don’t have to think about the future. Just for today. Accept what is, let go of what was and have faith in what will be.”

I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but maybe he was onto something.

I lay in my bed, staring up at the ceiling as I shivered. Loud voices of family and friends echoed from the bathroom: “Once an Addict, Always an Addict,” “Going Cold Turkey is the Only Answer,” “It’s Your Parents’ Fault,” “You Just Need to Pull Yourself Together!” This was a dream I had every night during the beginning of my stay at Cumberland Heights. This night I woke up in a puddle of sweat shivering, not from the snow, but from the withdrawals.

As a central nervous system depressant, Xanax slows down your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature in the body in addition to minimizing anxiety and depression. When the brain becomes used to this cycle, these functions may ricochet if it is suddenly removed.

Moments after waking up, I heard a commotion in the bathroom. I wrapped my blanket around my body and mustered the strength to walk toward the noise. Both of my roommates were in the shower part of the bathroom crushing up Xanax.

“Where did you guys get that?” I said.

“Snuck it in,” he replied. “Don’t ask how.”

The other boy chuckled.

“You want some?” he said. “It’s really good shit.”

I stood there staring at the white powdery substance. It reminded me of hazy thoughts and numb feelings. It reminded me of better days when I could just forget everything. Most importantly, it reminded me of my mother, and how loud she cried over my body when she thought that her son was dead.

“I think I’ll pass,” I said as I closed the door behind me. “You guys be safe.”

The next morning all I could think about was getting high. The start of every day was a walk to medical, who provided us with our medication. Since I was still withdrawing, medical gave me Buprenorphine. Brand name: Subutex. It treats pain as well as addiction to narcotic pain relievers. This wasn’t a permanent medication, only temporary to help me through my withdrawals, but man was it amazing. The rest of the day was spent in a daydream, a foggy euphoria, a feeling of safety and warmth.

The first week of rehab had gone and passed, and with it, so had the Subutex. I was cleared to come off of it, and that’s when reality sank in. I was in a unit with 13 others like me. Frightened thoughts of who these boys were and what they had done to lead them here stained my mind. Living with boys my age taught me a lot about myself. I was dealing with a newly established drug addiction, along with tackling lustful and confusing thoughts that entered my head.

The second week at Cumberland Heights proved to be the most difficult. It was Family Week, one component of their Family Program. This four-day workshop became the most eye-opening and educational experience of my life.

On the first day of family week, I entered the group room nervously. All of the seats were placed in a large circle with two seats in the middle of the circle facing each other. I sat in a seat next to two other boys from the unit. Across from us were our family members. In my case, my mom was the only one to show up.

Hillary was the leading counselor for this exercise, and she explained to us that this would be very difficult. An hour before entering the group room, Hillary handed me and the two other boys a worksheet to fill out. Filling it out entailed us describing every single drug we had used, how we used it (smoke, snort, intravenous), and how much we used. Once your name was called you were asked to sit in one of the middle chairs directly facing your family. One by one we had to list the drug, how we used it and how much of it we used. They were not allowed to respond.

“Grant, you’re up,” Hillary said.

I watched as my mom cautiously took her seat. Feelings of solemnness and anxiety boiled in my throat. I sat down directly in front of my mom and began the list.

“Cigarettes, smoked them, a pack a week for a year. Marijuana, smoked, a gram a day for two years. Alcohol, orally consumed, once every three months for the last year. Topamax, snorted it and orally consumed four pills a week for the last year. Klonopin, snorted it and orally consumed five pills a day for the last year. Xanax, snorted it and orally consumed six pills a day for the last year. Ativan, snorted it and orally consumed one pill a day for the last year. Cocaine, snorted it, once every four months for the last year.”

My mother sat there in silence with tears flooding down her face. She had known about Xanax and weed but didn’t know the extent of everything else. Remaining silent, my mother stood up and walked back to her original chair. After each boy had gone, we were sent out of the room to allow time for our parents to process this information with Hillary. We weren’t allowed to speak with our family members until the next day.

During this time, my mother and I learned a lot about our relationship. Not only was I abusing drugs, but I was also stealing and lying to her. Shortly before Cumberland Heights, she figured out that I withdrew $2,000 from her account. Law enforcement suggested filing charges against me, which she seriously considered. No charges were brought upon me but a 60-day stint in jail, courtesy of my mother, proved her point. These were topics talked about out loud during family week amongst all of the other participants. Learning about everyone else’s struggles with addiction helped shape my thinking for the rest of my stay at Cumberland Heights.

After Family Week, the days began to move by quickly and my desire to do drugs lessened. I was speaking at NA meetings and sharing my story with strangers. For once in my life, I wasn’t ashamed of who I was or what had happened to me. On my last day at Cumberland Heights, the adolescent team signed one of my shirts, each individually, with the most beautiful messages.

The check-in/out building started as a cold and scary place where I was confused and nervous about what was to come. On my last day, it felt warm and sacred, a place I could go to talk about my day and my recovery. A transcendence had taken place, and I felt like the better version of myself. As I pushed open those double doors and rolled my luggage behind me, all I could hear was clapping and cheering. I knew I felt better about myself, but something deep inside me still wanted to get high.

After eight months of being sober, I relapsed and overdosed again, this time damaging my organs. I wish it were easier to stay clean. You never expect to deal with it for the rest of your life, but addiction is a disease; if you don’t work to stay clean, you will end up in jail, institutions or dead.

Today, I’m more than five years clean.

Relapse is a part of my story–a story that has just begun.