Lessons From Rehab

I went to rehab when I was 19 in December of 1995. It was at a center in the Catskills, somewhere between Liberty and Monticello. I was highly motivated to get clean; one of the many reasons was that I felt like I hadn’t accomplished shit in about 18 months and wanted to hit my twenties with a full head of steam.

There was a young black man from the Bronx that was in group with me. “Frank, I’m 29. I don’t have shit to show for my twenties. Nothing man. No education, no job, no money. I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anything. But I want to have a good thirties. You are way ahead of me. Lucky as hell.” He and that little speech stuck with me.

Christmas in rehab sucked. Not really for me (my Dad was a real champ and drove up), but it was brutal to see other people there without families all sad and shit. A lot of people were pretty down for the next few days. Then it got better. And then people started moaning about New Year’s.

There was one group counselor/tech that really stuck out. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jerry. He split his time with the adolescents and the adults, so we only got to see him in small doses. Jerry was a white male in his late 60s. Totally bald. Thin. Cursed a ton. He was sober a few years. He had abused all kinds of substances, but he bottomed out on “doggy cough syrup.” People laughed when he told them. “Fuck you, it’s the best. It’s loaded with alcohol and sedatives and painkillers. I used to get it by the fucking case from this crooked veterinarian.” His groups were fantastically funny and informative. For whatever reason (choice, short straw, punishment), Jerry was on duty with us New Year’s Eve.

8 pm: Some people had dressed up. They were smiling and trying to spread a little cheer. Others sat there in sweats, unbathed, arms crossed, with sour puss faces. I was somewhere in the middle, a relaxed observer.

8:30 pm: Jerry came downstairs and called everyone to order. “Listen up people. We have a new resident coming in tonight. She’s had an awful time of it this holiday season and is ready to get sober. She’s a celebrity (people started looking around at each other), and I want you to leave her the fuck alone. (He looked around the room with a series of hard stares) I’m deadly serious, she’s an addict just like everyone else. So I don’t want anyone to fucking bother her. She doesn’t need your bullshit.” (Then he paused and just glared around some more. We could tell that he meant business)

After twenty seconds or so, he turned and started up a spiral staircase that went to the second floor. He was about halfway up when someone asked, “Who is it?”

Jerry raced back down the stairs and yelled, “It doesn’t matter who she is. Don’t fucking ask me. Leave her alone.” The veins in his neck bulged out.

9:15 pm: Three middle aged women (they were probably in their 30s, but they seemed pretty old to me at the time) ran into the room and said that they had cornered Jerry by the coffee machine in the cafeteria and that they hounded him until he gave up the identity of the celebrity. He had sworn them to secrecy and then returned to his office, at which point they literally sprinted into the big room where we all congregated.

“It’s Madonna! Madonna is coming here tonight!”

The energy in the room changed. A couple people over by the door started singing “Material Girl” and dancing. Others nudged each other. Most everyone was smiling.

I was sitting on a well worn couch that reeked of cigarettes and sweat (people could only smoke outside, but the furniture still smelled) as I took this all in. I looked at the women dancing by the door. The rehab couples whispering to each other. The barely detoxed heroin users who were nodding out and the hyped up forty year olds who had all kinds of energy with the booze freshly out of their system. I made a point to take a quick inventory of all the men.

“I’m the best looking guy here,” I thought to myself. A huge grin exploded across my face, “I’m going to fuck Madonna!”

I ran upstairs and took a shower and put on the best clothes that I had.

9:30 pm: I came back downstairs and sat on the couch that was opposite the door. I couldn’t see the TV from that vantage point, but it was an easy sacrifice, because I wanted Madonna to lock eyes with me when she walked into the treatment center (I knew that Elizabeth Taylor had met her seventh or eighth husband in rehab).

9:45 pm: Jerry came downstairs. I didn’t want to look at him because I was afraid that he’d see me and immediately know what I was up to. To my horror, he took out a pack of cigarettes and headed for the door. I tried to slink down, to hide myself, but to no avail. He saw me. “Frankie, you got all cleaned up. Why?”

Fuck. I had to think fast. “Um…I figured that I’m a new sober man and this is a new year, so I should try to start it off in a new way.”

He stared at me. I figured he knew. I was waiting for the explosion. He smiled, “Good idea.”

10:30 pm: People kept talking about Madonna. Many were singing and dancing. I was tense, looking at the door like a hunting dog. I just knew that we’d hit it off. She’d appreciate my hair, my muscles, my knowledge of music and the sensitivity that I had hidden from so many people with my substance abuse and youthful arrogance. I expected we’d have crazy rehab sex and then she’d take me to warm places after we both had 28 days clean. I was in a daze.

10:45 pm: Jerry came back down for another cigarette. “Jesus, you are still sitting there? What are you doing?”

Fuck. “Just thinking about my life.”

“Good boy.”

11:15 pm: No Madonna. About 25% of the residents had already gone to bed.

11:30 pm: No Madonna. My emotions would rise and fall every time I saw headlights.

11:45 pm: No Madonna.

12:00 am: “Happy New Year!” screamed half the people left in the room. I didn’t move from the couch, nor did I acknowledge the moment. I had laser focus.

12:15 am: Still no Madonna. Only about five people still remained. They were all talking and laughing. It didn’t matter. I was waiting for Madonna and for that moment for our eyes to meet. What the fuck was taking so long?

12:45 am: I was the last resident that hadn’t gone to bed.

1:00 am: Jerry came down for another cigarette. He saw me, “Why are you still awake? Is something the matter?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Frank, what is going on?”

I gulped. The moment of truth. I didn’t want to tell him and deal with his rage. But I also couldn’t think of anything else to say (I was 14 days clean, my head still foggy). I sighed. “I was waiting for Madonna.”

Jerry grinned and let out a big laugh. This was unexpected. “Oh that?” He bent over, laughing. “That was a lie. I was just bored and decided to fuck with everyone for a bit. Teach a lesson. I see one was learned.”

“God dammit,” I muttered.

Jerry was laughing and sat down next to me. “Look, kid, if Madonna came here, you, probably more than anyone else, would have the best shot with her. But, Jesus man, you think she’s coming to a place like this? You’re smarter than that. I didn’t think you would have fallen for it. And you really shouldn’t mess around or date anyone in the first year anyway. (He stared at me). You know that, right? (I slightly nodded). Good. Well, you made my night son. Made my fucking night.” And he smiled and walked away.


About ten years later, I told that story at the last drug and alcohol class I ever took before I got my license. The room was 90% female and almost all of them were 20 to 40 years older than me. I told it because the teacher had asked us to tell some stories about celebrity encounters. As I wove my tale, I could tell the audience was rapt. When I got to the punchline and the fact that Madonna was never going to come (and thus, we weren’t going to have fantastic rehab sex), there was a chorus of painful sighs. I swear to you, they were more upset that I was that I didn’t get to fuck Madonna.

  • I posted this on Facebook on November 20, 2020. It is part of a series of pieces on the end of my addiction and beginning of my recovery.