I don’t smoke. But during my four weeks in Primrose Lodge, I spent many hours in the smokers’ hut. It was a small area, overhung by a tired and twisted oak, with some rustic benches and two or three smelly containers for stubbing out fags.
Although I was one of a small minority of non-smoking, non-vaping addicts, “the hut” was (fumes notwithstanding) the best place to enjoy some decent company. It was always the spot where the conversation was most entertaining and where we could debrief after some heavy sessions of varied forms of therapy.
It was in the hut, on my third day in rehab, that I met Helen. She had just arrived and was clearly struggling with the early effects of some pretty bad withdrawals. Apparently, she wasn’t yet on the full program, and she had not been in morning therapy. With attractive dark hair, striking green eyes, and high cheekbones she should have been a beautiful woman. But, at that moment, she wasn’t. Dressed in a drab, grey tracksuit, life hung heavy on her and she looked tired and defeated. She sat, a cigarette between in her fingers, listening vaguely to an animated conversation between old Anna and a pale young man, about Anna’s cats.
Anna, I knew, had been in rehab at least three times. Clearly a rehab groupie, I had found her highly intelligent and surprisingly insightful. The young man I did not know. Opposite them sat a young woman, Nadia, who was in the facility for treatment of some kind of severe personality disorder. She was looking now, with some interest, at Helen.
“Hello,” said Nadia in her usual intense and sporadic fashion, “What’s your name? What are you here for?”
Helen turned to her in surprise. The others stopped speaking and, with friendly curiosity, waited for Helen to answer. This was typical smokers’ hut form, and I was interested to hear her story.
“Umm,” Helen began, the colour rising in her face. “I’m Helen. I’m not sure I want to say anything about why I’m here right now.”
“Come on,” said Nadia, “Of course you can tell us. Everyone here is addicted to something, so you’re not special. And we’ll find out in ‘group therapy’ anyway.”
Taken aback, Helen was silent for a moment. She looked nervously around at the smiling, friendly group.
“I have come for a detox,” she said defiantly. “I had a little too much to drink over the weekend.”
With that, she stubbed out her cigarette, and left.
“She’ll come round in a day or two,” said Nigel, a friendly, middle-aged man with a bright red nose. He’d been in the facility for a couple of weeks already and seemed to have had a kind of spiritual re-awakening.
“They don’t all have the same journey as you, Nigel,” answered Linda, a young woman with very heavy make-up who sat on his left. “But I hope you’re right. It looks like she needs some help.”
And, before long, it appeared that Nigel had been right. It was a day or so later when Helen, like the rest of us, began to declare at the start of our sessions, clearly and forthrightly, “Hello, my name is Helen. I am an alcoholic.”
Maybe, I hoped, she was going to start dealing with her denial.
I began to hear some of her stories. It was clear that drinking a little too much on the weekend was only a small part of the problem. Often drunk, she revealed how she spent most of her life trapped in a kind of emotional cage and behaved accordingly. The addiction, like for all of us, held her in a zombie state, deteriorating all that could have made her great. Helen’s life and marriage were both falling apart. And as far as Helen was concerned, it was because her abusive husband made her life a living hell. I kept wondering what we would hear if he could tell his side of the story.
One morning, the counselor asked Helen to share with the group some of the ‘icons’ from her life in addictive alcoholism; moments that demonstrated the damage she had caused to herself and to others.
“I kinda remember one evening,” Helen began at length, “although not very clearly. Tommy was away on business. He doesn’t give a s*** about me, you know. I was supposed to be home so the babysitter could get somewhere. But I stopped in with some friends for a drink, and had a couple too many.”
“A couple too many?” prompted the counselor.
“Oh I don’t know,” Helen said. She became flustered and impatient.
“I drank too much, anyway. I was late home and the babysitter had to rush out. I went to my room to get changed, but I really needed another drink. I took the bottle from where I always keep some vodka hidden in my drawer and drank what was left in it. I don’t remember much of what happened then, but I think my daughter came in to show me a picture.”
There were tears in Helen’s eyes. But I couldn’t place the look. Hardness. Defiance. Anger. Frustration. But not, I was pretty sure, contrition.
“What happened then?” asked the counselor.
“I think I slapped her. Hard. Because she had bad bruising on her face and a cut from my ring. I told her to f*** off, and to show somebody else. I was totally f**** myself. Why did Tommy leave me to look after the kids?”
We sat in silence, waiting for her to go on. The pain and sadness in the room were palpable.
“What finally brought you to Primrose Lodge?” somebody asked.
Helen looked at the floor. After a long silence, she continued.
“I had a drink before I picked up Chloe from school. I crashed the car on the way home. Hit a traffic light. Chloe broke her arm, and I got some pretty bad bruising. We weren’t strapped in.”
Helen looked around the room, anger in her eyes again.
“It was my husband who made me check in here. But it also him who made me drink that day. He is such a bastard to me. It’s all I can do to cope.”
Days in the rehab became weeks. And finally it was time for me to leave. The day before I went home, Helen was in my last group session.
“Forgiveness is the key to freedom,” shared Lenny, a feisty old man who had come into Primrose kicking and screaming. What a change we had seen in him.
“Resentment is the 'number one' offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else,” he quoted from the AA ‘Big Book’. Several people nodded. We all knew it was true.
And then, in that moment, I noticed the look on Helen’s face. She looked furious. Grim, with a fierce determination. I felt a deep sadness for this woman. Why did she refuse to embrace the obvious and miraculous truth that forgiveness would finally set her free. To cling to her resentments would be the end of her.
It was three weeks later when I was able to join the first of the regular sessions held for those of us addicts released back into the wider world. Outpatient agony clinics, I guess you might call them. It was a lovely reunion between friends, after the intense time we’d had together “inside”.
Anna was there, and I asked her if she knew much about what the others were doing.
Nadia was still in therapy, she said, obnoxious as ever. Nigel was apparently doing well, on a good track, and regularly attending 12-step meetings. She said she hadn’t heard from Linda.
“And Helen?” I asked. “Any news?”
Anna looked at me sadly. “Back on the bottle,” she said.
“Her husband kicked her out and is going for a divorce with full custody of their girls.”
I was new to this journey. But the terrible and confronting words of the AA Big Book came forcefully to my mind: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.”
Was Helen one of these? Did she have the capacity to be honest?
I didn’t know. But this journey was not one I felt I could take in any other way.