West Chester, Pennsylvania, United States (Spring 2016)
The entire unit is singing happy birthday to me and rather off key if I may say so. All I can do is smile through it and say thank you, but this birthday is anything but happy. Spending my twenty-first birthday here instead of crawling from bar to bar is less than ideal. And to top it all off I have to meet with my a–h–e of a doctor, my mother, and case worker today. This phone meeting is going to determine practically the rest of my life. Just thinking about it makes me very aware of the uncomfortable knot sitting in my chest. Probably the same knot that brought me here in the first place.
The tech asks each person what their goal for the day is, and everyone answers with, “stay positive and have a good day.” We’ve gotten this down to a science; if we all say that then we get through this group so much faster. It gets really old when you do it every day, twice a day. At the end of the day when they ask us if we met our goal and what a positive for the day was, we all answer “yes, I had a fantastic day.” This gets us to smoke break and gym time that much quicker. The two most interesting points of every day. I’m hoping that today my favorite tech will gather a big crowd to go down and play volleyball and I hope he’s on my team because then we are sure to win.
I am so relieved when the tech tells us that we can line up for smoke break. It is still warm out and inhaling the nicotine relieves the awful black knot in my chest. The smell of my organic American Spirits (the most pretentious I can make smoking a cigarette) is the only comforting thing about this sterile, fluorescent lighted hellhole. Sitting next to the big heavy doors, the only way out of this place, people keep telling me happy birthday. They tell me that it sucks I am here for my twenty-first, which is annoying because I already know that.
It is a gorgeous day outside, sunny and warm, so of course we won’t be going outside for gym time today. As everyone hangs around smoking, my roommate is sitting in a patch of grass singing “Soak Up the Sun”, but she doesn’t know the words. Just as I finish my cigarette the tech barks at us to get back inside and head to our first groups of the day.
When I first got here I was offended that they put me in the drug and alcohol groups, but now that I have been here a week, I am relieved. The D&A groups are much more interesting and the crowd is a lot funnier too. This heroin addict who has been looking out for me, saving me from the creepy old men, always makes sure our music group leaders play good songs. It is so nice to listen to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” with a group of people who actually appreciate it. When our group finally settles in to the uncomfortable plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle, my favorite group leader comes in. This guy actually tells it how it is and he doesn’t take any bullshit answers from anyone. The main topic of his groups are always addiction and I listen, but I take it with a grain of salt because that isn’t why I’m here anyway.
In the middle of one of this guy’s funniest stories, the one where he realizes he is an alcoholic, my doctor pulls me out. My heart drops and the big black knot in my chest grows and my face flushes a bright red color. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this for days, but now I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.
I walk in to the bright office and sit across from my doctor and next to my case worker. I didn’t even know this woman was my case worker until now. My mother is already on speaker phone and she greets me with a tone that is way too cheery for my taste. My doctor with his big stupid glasses tells me that we’ll make this quick because he knows I like doctor so and so’s group. Bullshit. Like this guy knows anything about me. My case worker, talking to everyone, says that she is looking for a partial therapy program for me to go to when I get out of here. She says that it’s going to be hard with our insurance, nothing new there. When I finally get the chance to get a word in, I ask if I will be able to go to this program while still attending classes. I’m met with blank stares and the big black knot in my chest explodes. My throat tightens up and my eyes start to water. I’m barely listening, but I know my mother is telling me that I will be heading home when I get out of here. She is telling me to be realistic, think about how she feels. She is telling me that there is no way I can stay down at school, living in my apartment alone. She is telling me that she is bringing the withdrawal papers to sign today when she visits. She’s telling me to think about the consequences of what I did. She is telling me that this is it, exactly what I didn’t want to happen. Stuck at home with my parents under a twenty-four hour surveillance. Perfect. What a fantastic twenty-first birthday.
I just want to leave the office. I just want to scream at these people. You would think that when you turn twenty-one you would have some say in what happens in your life. They are all still chatting about god knows what and I’m watching a spider crawl on the window trying to choke back the tears. Then I get the sense it is time to say goodbye and I do, I think. When I come out of the office I see that the staff’s shifts have changed. I am greeted by my favorite tech, and he tells me happy birthday. I sigh and say some f—-g birthday and head back to group.
ELLEN O’CONNOR is currently studying geosciences with a focus in geology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She has been pursuing creative avenues as a result of a fairly recent onset of major depression and anxiety.